Archive for Jerry Lewis

Bedtime for Tantalus

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2021 by dcairns

ONE A.M. is a wild experiment. Chaplin resuscitates his drunk act — he hasn’t been this hilariously incapable since the face on the barroom floor — and is the only one on screen for nine-tenths of the action. Poor Albert Austin is frozen like a wax dummy — I always found him uncanny and a bit disturbing as a kid — so he barely counts as co-star.

I invoke the mythical Tantalus because Chaplin plays a man tormented by his environment and its objects. All he wants is to go home and get into bed, but he’s so inebriated his home has become strange to him (he’s horrified by all his stuffed animals) and the furniture and architecture conspire to prevent him doing anything he tries. Even the matches in his pockets are useless to him since he can’t remember the simple sequence of actions that results in a smoke. Which may be for the best — his mishaps get more and more violent and he could easily set the whole hideous joint ablaze. And you can’t rely on the fire brigade in Chaplin World, as we’ve seen.

The struggle with the taxi door, which is milked for longer than you would think possible, a foretaste of tortures to come, is astounding. The bit that really got me hysterical was the attempt to put away his handkerchief in a pocket, but with his arm through the taxi door’s window, so that the door panel intervenes between hanky and trouser. Charlie — definitely not a hobo, he has usurped Leo White’s topper — finds himself vigorously wiping the door rather than pocketing his kerchief.

I watched my old DVD, then the restoration, which looks much, much better but lacks tinting, which I think we need for the opening exterior. It’s never going to look like night, it’s all too glaringly a bright Los Angeles day, but a hint of blue would at least suggest that’s what we should be imagining.

This is another film that seems to have entered Stan Laurel’s DNA, to emerge when needed. Charlie has lost his door key so goes in by the window. Then he finds his key, so he goes out the window again and comes in by the door. Echoed in THE MUSIC BOX’s broken logic when the boys discover the easy way up to Professor von Schwarzenhoffen’s house, and then redundantly use it. Just as the endless, repetitive journey up the stairs made by Chaplin, calculated to make the audience scream with frustration as well as laughter, is echoed by the struggles with the crated player piano.

The slippery floor, upon which the many little rugs glide like magic carpets, frequently sending Charlie tumbling, occasionally transmitting him to just where he wants to be, like Star Trek transporters, sets up another comparison, with Jerry Lewis’ insanely slidey psychiatrist’s office in CRACKING UP. Lewis was more of a Stan Laurel man, I guess, but he clearly absorbed a lot from Chaplin (including the pathos, which comes out funny when Jer tries it). I’d be fascinated to know what Chaplin thought of Lewis, but we already know he’s a better clown and filmmaker than he is a critic. He liked Benny Hill, if that helps.

The best bit of sliding may be the first, because Charlie is trying to steady himself on the door knob, which is attached to a door which is of course hinged, and swinging wildly, a very unsuitable object to steady yourself with, but all he’s got. A good metaphor for drunken stupor. Attempting to combat treachery from the floor leads you to struggle with treachery from the wall.

Every now and then it’s good to remember that Chaplin’s father died from the effects of alcoholism. It’s getting less and less acceptable to laugh at drunk routines, isn’t it? Back in the day, we weren’t supposed to regard drunks as tragic — the falling-down incompetent kind were funny in a way that disabled people weren’t, because it was a temporary, Tom & Jerry kind of physical handicap, and it was self-inflicted. The vicious treatment of the gouty in Chaplin’s films is similarly “justified” by the sufferer being responsible, it would seem, for his own condition.

Personally I’m very happy I wasn’t “protected” from this film as a child. And I have no problem with laughing at Chaplin’s skill (or Arthur Housman’s, or Foster Brooks‘) rather than laughing at alcoholics or alcoholism. But see also Nietzsche’s “A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion.” Chaplin is attempting to kill with laughter his most painful memories, and who has a better right?

Onwards, then, to the parade of stuffed animals. It is admittedly implausible, in literal terms, that our hero, who keeps a set of climbing gear and is therefore a traveler and presumably the man who bagged all these big cats, bear, ostrich etc, has forgotten all about this and is thus horrified at finding what he presumes to be his home occupied by wild animals. But there IS a metaphorical truth about the way familiar things can come alive and be uncanny at night. And so, though Chaplin is playing a drunk magnificently, maybe he’s also playing a child, as usual. Drunks don’t SEEM that much like children, but they have regressed to that stage where they don’t have control of their bodies of their emotions, so there’s a confluence.

One can sympathise with Charlie’s dismay at discovering this wretched undead Stouffer lurking at the foot of the stair. This film also features numerous examples of Charlie’s intimacy with the camera. A fresh taxidermic outrage… a wary glance to his chums in the audience — “Can you see it? Is it as bad as it feels?” Yes, Charlie. Yes, it is.

The sawdust atrocity comes into its own when Charlie kicks it and its curving body causes it to banana round and counter-attack. Brilliant comedy physics.

Then the rotating drinks table. A loooooong bit here. Brilliantly extended by having the victim recognise that his snagged cape is the trouble, then having him doff the cape, but tread in it, so his foot drags it along and it’s STILL snagged and so off we go again. I always assumed that Beckett’s Act Without Words and its sequels were primarily Keaton-derived, but a case could be made for Chaplin exerting an influence through this film, or at least mining similar terrain.

Fiona observed that a lot of what happens here would work well for Keaton, and is the kind of thing we associate more with him. Keaton, in fact, rarely played drunk, but in the thirties often was drunk. But he certainly struggled with objects which sometimes seemed imbued with a malign consciousness. The line between alive and inert is blurred, erased. Chaplin is usually more in command of this, can get away with treating people as objects, objects as people. Keaton transforms one thing into another without conscious choice, simply thinking with his body and adapting. Chaplin seems to generate a protean field around himself which allows things and people to swap qualities. A dangerous thing to mess around with — look what happens when he gets drunk.

“Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life.” William S. Burroughs.

And enjoy the sight of Charlie in tight trousers for once. The black-sheened spider legs become more expressive — the baggy pants actually robbed us of many possibilities, but gave us an indelible outline.

Failing to light cigarette after cigarette, or the same cigarette multiple times, leads Charlie to climb atop the spinning table and try to reach the chandelier, a doomed effort. A little later, it will turn out he has another match after all, which is the way of these things, isn’t it?

Incidentally, I don’t much like the intertitles, which try too hard to be “witty.” Replacing them with inarticulate grunts and swearing would emphasise the basic miserable reality of what we’re facing.

Now to the stairs. After throwing his silk hat onto a stuffed ostrich with perfect finesse — the hostile universe will allow Charlie the occasional, purely trivial triumph — our adventurer sets off upstairs. He’d used a wire to allow Eric Campbell to hold him aloft by the throat in THE FLOORWALKER and it’s possible he uses one to let him lean back at the top of the stairs, another to let him slide down feet first on his belly each time he loses his balance. The stairs look to be heavily padded, anyway, which is a kind of relief.

The further up he goes — in Freudian terms, into the higher conscious — the more vicious the house gets. The clock with the Poe-esque pendulum is completely impractical, a literal health and safety nightmare. It guards the bedroom door like Cerberus. Playing it safe, Charlie slides along the wall like Cesare the somnambulist and is biffed on the chin by the clock’s pugilistic upswing, sending him downstairs again.

Many, many attempts later, Charlie tries the other stair, is terrified by a stuffed bear, and eventually makes it — twice — using the coat stand which had proved useless for hanging coats but makes a neat if precarious climbing frame. A tussle with a stuffed bear, and he gains the bedroom, after adding concussion to inebriation via a round with the killer clock.

The Murphy bed is the boss villain of this fever-dream game. Fiona points out that no rich drunken hunter/mountaineer would have a Murphy bed, something Chaplin might have encountered in cheap rooming houses during his Karno tour of the States. Anyway, this bed is possessed. It’s main desire seems to be to prevent Charlie sleeping in it, or perhaps to destroy him. Starting gradually, it displays more and more independent action, and more complex movements, being able to flip like a YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN secret panel, lower like a drawbridge, then pull up from the head, reversing itself. It has the alarming, unnatural flexibility of Linda Blair’s neck.

Fiona, having laughed harder at this than anything in Chaplin apart from THE CIRCUS’ monkey attack, which reduced her to breathless narration, as if by describing what was happening she could lessen its side-splitting agony, began to grow tired of the bed, but then laughed when Charlie leapt onto it as it rose, ripping the bed from the frame.

“Oh well, at least it can’t hurt him now,” she said, and on cue the bedframe viciously tripped its victim.

To the bathroom. The film MUST be ending soon. The attempt to fill a glass of water from the shower drew laughs of anticipation, then bigger laughs when the reaction to a drenching exceeded all anticipation, and when the shower’s exit could not be found, owing to the camera angle concealing it. Charlie performs a full circle of the interior without locating it, and so attempts to climb out…

Finally he beds down, sodden, in the bath, with a wet towel for a blanket, his deep stupor finally coming to his aid by making him oblivious of his miserable, wet, freezing, hard-surface discomfort. The End — of a comedy of frustration beyond even Bunuel.

The Sunday Intertitle: Ripping Yarn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2020 by dcairns

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LEA UND IHR KNAUEL (LEA AND HER BALL OF WOOL, 1913) is a really appealing, colossally destructive short film, anticipating Chantal Akerman’s SAUTE MA VILLE.

Lea (the prolific — 122 films we know of in ten years — Lea Giunchi) is told not to read, but instead work. Her parents hand her a ball of wool and leave her to crochet. But Lea immediately loses the wool (it’s become attached to her back) and proceeds to tear the apartment to pieces looking for it. So the movie is just a rampant young woman smashing things in a frenzy.

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The destruction is not convincingly accidental — it seems utterly willed, like some of Jerry Lewis’s mishaps. Lea just lunges at stuff. She also climbs all over the furniture, up on wardrobes and stuff, knocking them over, which looks like fun. The whole film is the vicarious pleasure of wanton demolition, and at the end Lea is given the ultimate reward craved by those of us who make a bad job of something — she’s told not to do it anymore. She can go back to reading.

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Now that’s what I call a happy ending!

This is from the lovely GIRLS RUN WILD compilation but you can watch it here:

 

Deliberately Buried

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2019 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer Bruce Bennett contributes a piece which ties in neatly with my ongoing exploration of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Many thanks to Mike Clelland for connecting us up, and to Bruce for letting me run this. Any questions can be raised in the comments section. Over to you, Bruce ~

During a visit with Film Comment magazine’s editor Nic Rapold last spring I proposed an article that would document what was, in my opinion, a largely overlooked shadow of influence that a handful of prior films cast on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I offered to put together a proposal outlining some of the films and ideas and connections I wanted to get into and a month or two later I finally got around to whipping up a pdf on the topic(s) and sent it along. We talked about it a bit but I got busy with other stuff, Nic had a dozen other writers to shepherd, and ultimately 2001’s Golden Anniversary year ended with neither me writing nor Film Comment publishing the piece I had in mind. Here, then, is the thing I sent Nic – not an outline nor an article nor, god help us, a listicle – just some frame grabs (and one downloaded image from the WWW) and notes intended to give the reader an idea of what I was onto and cue me in further discussions and woolgathering. If nothing else, I guess, it’s a proven example of how not to pitch Film Comment…? Enjoy.

2001: A Magpie Odyssey

In the not too distant future, a spacecraft shuttles a space agency PHD bearing details of a secret mission to an orbital space station.

  “Conquest of Space” Byron Haskin – 1955

Talking points: The strange case of George Pal’s espoused distaste for 2001 (per Frayling) having nothing to do with his own film having been apparently co-opted in 2001’s creation. A short history of Conquest’s star-crossed production, resulting not-for-the-faint-of-sensibility grotesquerie & a love sonnet to Hal Pereria’s Paramount art dept.

*

Objects liberated from gravity float, fly and couple across a spinning 2.35 frame in a weightless ballet set to Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz.

    “Trapeze” Carol Reed – 1956

Talking points: The long arm of aesthetic influence that Krasker & Reed’s collaboration extended to filmmakers of SK’s generation. Ditto Krasker and Anthony Mann’s films…?

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Onboard an orbiting space station, space travelers exchange somewhat tangled sentiments with loved ones home on Earth via videophone.

“Conquest Of Space”

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Upon arrival, an unctuously bland bureaucratic space agency PHD shocks subordinates with secret mission orders.

  “Conquest Of Space”

Talking points: Compare, contrast the exquisite blandness of William Sylvester’s Dr. Floyd (perhaps, and this is a difficult to value to assign, the single most remarkable performance from 2001’s North American ex-pat cast) vs. William Hopper’s Dr. Fenton. Some further discussion of Conquest’s uniquely off-putting qualities being as challenging, in their way, as 2001’s were…

*

Zero gravity enables a spacecraft crewmember’s wall walk.

  “The Quatermass Xxperiment” Feature version – Val Guest – 1955

Talking points: Why, in all the untold hours of interviews and DVD commentaries he’s done, including a 200+ page published memoir, did Val Guest himself never make this connection?

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Puzzled scientists and officials descend a ramp into an ongoing excavation of an extra-terrestrial artifact that’s been buried for eons.

  “Quatermass and the Pit” BBC TV version – Rudolph Cartier – 1958

“Quatermass and the Pit” Feature version – Roy Ward Baker – 1967

Talking points: The curious case of production of the ’67 Pit taking place more or less at the same time and in the same studio as 2001, with some crew crossover.

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The exposed, now energized extraterrestrial artifact ominously and noisily awakens.

  “Quatermass and the Pit” (1967 feature version)

Talking points: Nigel Kneale’s close proximity to Arthur Clarke original short story, The Sentinel.

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Tasked with repairing his space craft’s antenna mid-flight, an unsuspecting astronaut dies, his lifeless body cast into the void of space.

      “Conquest Of Space”

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The most committed member of an interplanetary space expedition goes insane and threatens the lives of his comrades.

“Conquest of Space”

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A seeker’s journey crosses a threshold into an alien yet abjectly familiar white environment that’s outside time, space and logic.

 

  “The Ladies Man” – Jerry Lewis – 1961

Talking points: Hal Pereira Superstar redux. Jerry’s anecdote about turd polishing…?

Bruce Bennett