Archive for Haxan

The Sunday Intertitle: A Series of Tubes

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2018 by dcairns

The skeletal remains of Angelo Rossitto, still sadly on display to this day.

THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND! So mysterious, nobody making it knew quite what they were doing. Jules Verne’s novel casts away its characters on an uncharted island which is inherently a bit mysterious. The island in the 1929 MGM movie is populated, and the story is told from the viewpoint of the people who live there. Who then get in a submarine and go somewhere actually mysterious, one of those undersea kingdoms you hear about.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it’s a mysterious-LOOKING island.

This silent movie was reportedly begun by Maurice Tourneur, who walked off when he saw his first production supervisor, continued by Benjamin Christensen, then turned into a part-talkie by its screenwriter, Lucien Hubbard, who ended up with sole credit. 10% talking! 0% dancing! 100% hokum! Sounds like my kind of movie.

Even with strong directorial personalities like the first two, it’s not easy to tell who did what, though the torture scenes might be more Christensen than Tourneur. The vaguely Russian look connects it to Christensen’s Lon Chaney vehicle MOCKERY, but that wasn’t a particularly personal work either.

The other thing that seems Christensenesque, and certainly has no obvious relationship to Tourneur père’s career, is underwater monster costumery as worn by little Angelo Rossitto and his diminutive cohort, connect the film to the amazing full-body make-ups of the demons in HAXAN (may I remind you that nobody seems to have any clue who was responsible for those, and if you told me Christensen personally raised and had photographed actual demons I should be compelled to believe you).

The production design (credited to Cedric Gibbons and, true, the aquatic Fortress of Solitude has a deco look) is ace: the sub controls have the pleasing chunkiness of Fritz Lang’s rocket gadgetry. Visual effects vary from beautifully unconvincing glass paintings, through tiny models, a crocodile with glued-on fins, an enlarged octopus, and an army of aquafellows, all jigging about behind a rippling “underwater” optical effect. Plus lots of interesting compositing.

The transitions from sound to silent are weird and distracting as usual. Unintentional bathos: Lionel “Always leave them asking for less” Barrymore is tortured, but it’s in the silent part of the movie, so he won’t talk. The action scenes have lots of rhubarbing dubbed over them, and slightly inadequate thumpings to simulate gunfire, explosions, pretty much everything else. But it’s an ambitious and detailed soundscape (of thumping and rhubarbing) for 1929.

I had to see this, not only because I’m a Snitz Edwards completist, but because of my too-long-neglected oath to see every film illustrated in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of the Horror Movie, a quest entitled See Reptilicus and Die.

 

Starring Grigori Rasputin, Ted ‘Rip-roaring’ Riley, the Masterblaster, Lord Marshmorton, Florine Papillon and McTeague.

 

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The Sunday Intertitle: The Mute Todd

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 11, 2018 by dcairns

Delighted to be writing screening notes for this year’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film — this time, I’m covering a horror double feature of Lon Chaney in Wallace Worsley’s crime-shocker THE PENALTY and Thelma Todd in Benjamin Christensen’s surreal nightmare comedy SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, at last visible in a pristine restoration. It’s revealed as a very beautiful piece of work, raising the cinema of sensation to gloriously absurd heights. (The version I’ve quote from here is much sharper than the YouTube source, but it’s not the new cleaned-up print.)

I’m guilty of something of a misstatement in the video essay for Dreyer’s MICHAEL I just completed. I say that Benjamin Christensen’s Hollywood films lack the weirdness of HAXAN. Not true in this case!

I’ll republish my notes here after the show if that’s OK with the Hippodrome.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Gorilla in Every Port

Posted in Dance, FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2017 by dcairns

We were led to THE CHIMP by obscure means ~

Fiona got obsessed with Charles Gemora, Hollywood’s top gorilla impersonator, after seeing BLONDE VENUS with me, and discovered the existence of a documemtary, CHARLIE GEMORA: UNCREDITED. We paid to see it on Vimeo, and found it eye-opening indeed — though Gemora made the best gorilla costume in Hollywood, and performed in it with gusto (probably to the detriment of his health) there was much more to him than that.

CHARLIE GEMORA: UNCREDITED from Cloud Tank Creative on Vimeo.

The pint-sized Philippino came to America as an illegal immigrant, I guess you’d say, and his first job in Hollywood was as an extra in Lon Chaney’s HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Seeing him draw sketches of his fellow extras (who must have included future director Tay Garnett, whose experience here led to the title of his autobiography, Light Up Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights — words to live by), the bosses put him to work sculpting gargoyles for the cathedral set, “on the basis that if you can draw, you can sculpt.” Gemora didn’t even have any training drawing, and had never sculpted in his puff.

But soon he’s carving massive figures for movies, as well as getting into the gorilla work and special make-up effects, particularly for those curious jobs where it’s hard to say is it a makeup or is it a costume? Monsters, freaks, aliens. COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, WAR OF THE WORLDS. An interesting early one is Benjamin Christensen’s horror comedy SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, in which Gemora plays ape, but may also have had a hand in the stunning, grotesque and ooky make-ups.

Thelma Todd (a frequent gemora screamer), “Sir Charles” himself, and director/wrangler Benjamin Christensen.

(I’m fascinated by this: Benjamin Christensen made HAXAN/WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES the same year as Chaney’s HUNCHBACK, pulling off the tricky feat of full-body make-up effects far more effectively than Chaney’s ambitious Quasimodo design, which relies on an improbably leonine mane of body hair to disguise the neck-join. No credit is given for the designer of HAXAN’s amazing demons and imps. But it’s possible Christensen, an actor himself — he plays Satan — was responsible. Making him the link to SEVEN FOOTPRINTS, though we can also imagine a Westmore or two being mixed in, with Gemora either helping out or watching and taking notes from inside his Ingagi suit.)

Gemora painted portraits of the stars (Stanwyck, Goddard) and forged Gainsboroughs for Mitchell Leisen’s KITTY. He played many of the monsters he designed, including the Martian in Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS. And he could play his apes straight (the affecting THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL; PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE) but, and this brings us to THE CHIMP, could be hilarious when required.

THE CHIMP is a very minor Laurel & Hardy short, which transforms into a major Charlie Gemora short when viewed through the correct filter. It reprises the previous year’s “smuggle an animal past the landlord” plotline from the superior LAUGHING GRAVY but replaces the lovable pup with Ethel the chimp, played by Gemora in gorilla suit and tutu. Gemora’s very human gestures (shrugs, pointing, ballet dancing) had Fiona in helpless hysterics. This element of pure phantasie is somehow unsuited to Stan & Ollie’s world, I feel, but once you start watching Gemora’s performance for its own sake, it’s a thing of beauty in its own right.

Jason Barnett’s documentary is great for all this background, shining a light on Gemora’s incredibly varied and mainly uncredited contributions to Hollywood cinema. The story is assembled in a somewhat pedestrian way, and the attempts to bring the still images to life with fancy rostrum work are often clumsy: since the many of the photos, drawings and documents have presumably come from Gemora’s archive, I wanted to SEE the archive and make-up kit put in front of a moving picture camera, explored in the round, clues in a detective story. Scans give us a clear look at the contents of the Gemora papers but rob them of their personality as artifacts.

Nevertheless, don’t let me put you off — the film is incredibly well-researched and doesn’t shrink from the mysteries of Gemora’s extensive career — we will not see a better film about this fascinating artist.