Archive for John Barrymore

Hoot Spa

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2021 by dcairns

THE CURE is generally admired, and genuinely good, but coming after EASY STREET as we watch in sequence, it seems a far less ambitious work. The narrative is super-slight, there’s no real drama. But you can turn that around and say that the ambition lies in structuring a comedy WITHOUT those things.

There’s much to enjoy. After starting the film with himself in the role of orderly, Chaplin restarted from scratch, taking the role of a rich, straw-hatted dipso. He could almost be the same character from ONE A.M. Which is odd, because that film underperformed and was regarded by CC as a failed experiment. It’s hardly surprising, given his back ground of extreme poverty and his sudden, inexplicable wealth and fame, that Chaplin didn’t feel secure in his success. What’s more surprising is the risks he ran, avoiding settling into one formula with his films — probably his comedy just couldn’t function within a set pattern, which would be why he kept trying to escape the Tramp character. The other reason would be the way the character reminded him painfully of his origins.

In his memoir, Chaplin only discusses THE CURE in relation to Nijinsky’s visit to the set. (He doesn’t mention EASY STREET at all.) The great dancer solemnly watched him perform, never laughing once, but was very flattering: “Your comedy is balletique, you are a dancer.” Anticipating W.C. Fields. For a day or two, Chaplin acted without film in the camera, because he knew he couldn’t use anything he shot in front of this tragic fellow.

Nijinsky’s insanity seems to have impressed Chaplin — he writes more about Nijinsky than about Eric Campbell, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman, none of whom rate a mention — but doesn’t connect it to any worries about his own equilibrium. Despite regularly playing dipsomaniacs, and having an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother, Chaplin doesn’t admit to any concerns on that score. I guess, like most of us, most of the time, he simply felt sane.

His manager and half-brother Syd seems to have said not long after this time that he was only waiting for Charlie to crack up finally so he could sell the studio to a supermarket and retire on the proceeds.

Loyal Underwood is the founder of THE CURE’s health spa, and he’s a physical wreck. This broad satire allows Chaplin to treat the place as a system to be destroyed. It’s a place full of rich people pretending to get healthier. A romance with Edna will provide Charlie with a motivation to change his way of life, but nothing serious will result from this.

Eric Campbell plays a gouty villain. Gout being mainly a disease of the rich, it doesn’t have to be treated sympathetically.

An attendant (John Rand) tries to steer a veering Charlie towards and through the revolving doors into the establishment. Drunk and disoriented, Charlie tends to take off in random directions, stepping over the wellspring of the healing waters, teasing us with the suggestion he’s going to fall in — a set-up whose pay-off is saved for the very end.

Swing doors, with their tendency to keep swinging, have given Charlie’s drunk characters a lot of trouble. The revolving doors don’t bother him at all — he just always seems to find himself outside when he goes in. But this infuriates John Rand only — Charlie doesn’t mind in the least. In Unknown Chaplin we see him accidentally catch his cane (one part of his signature look, along with moustache and baggy trousers, that he’s retained) in the doors, then hurl it away in sudden fury. But then he incorporates the mistake into the routine, beautifully. Charlie is dazedly delighted with the way he’s trapped Campbell and Rand in airtight glass compartments, bellowing silently at him.

The impetus from the doors, when Charlie is finally spat out into the spa interior, sends him all the way upstairs, spinning like a top, while Rand, a servile Hoskins, gently guides him to his room. His steamer trunk arrives: a giant booze cabinet. This is psychologically quite true, of course: anyone seeking to be cured of an addiction takes along a bit of what they’re addicted to, just in case. Thereby defeating the whole point, but what are points for, if not to be defeated? We don’t want to ever let points get the upper hand.

Albert Austin, another attendant, arrives to take Charlie to the waters. Prolonged flirtation with nurse — almost three minutes of this single locked-off setting, and I feel it could have been productively pruned. But there’s a bit of amusing salaciousness, and Charlie’s avoidance of the water. The scene ends when he finally takes a sip and then goes scampering around looking for a place to throw up. Digestion is a favourite Chaplin topic. And then, since Chaplin likes to do vulgar jokes and then de-vulgarize them, we find out he was racing back to his room for a proper drink.

Now James Kelley as an aged attendant is showing signs of drink — he’s been at Charlie’s steamer trunk, the first sign that our hero’s state of intoxication is going to spread through the population like a virus.

That Bad Man Eric is bothering Edna again. I suppose it’s slightly odd that he’s been mistreated before he’s done anything wrong (just as in THE RINK) but Charlie is depending on the gout being unsympathetic and also on Eric being in melodramatic villain guise, and being known to the audience as his regular antagonist. Edna proves well able to defend herself, stamping on the bandaged hoof then stomping off. Eric, however, simply can’t take “Take that!” for an answer.

Charlie blunders into this situation, sitting between annoyer and annoyee, so that he thinks Eric’s repulsive coochy-cooing is meant for him. Ever-mutable, he flirts back, becoming a winsome coquette for as long as the moment demands. So the next blow to Eric’s inflamed foot is delivered flirtatiously.

Good gag with the wicker chairs. There are two joined together, so when Charlie repositions his, he removes the one Eric was about to sit on. All this guys were great at falling over without getting hurt. Only Jerry Lewis, who didn’t have the training, went on to have terrible back pain. Eric, alas, didn’t live long enough to regret his tumbling.

The manager, or some other important figure, comes to impose order and rebuke Charlie, but Edna springs to his defense — Eric goes into a melodramatic pose, tugging the twin points of his beard which somehow conveys that his perfidy is rumbled, and Charlie, protean as ever, steps forward to his audience, the film having been transformed to a play by the situation and Eric’s posturing. An amazing moment, when you think about it.

Having caused a little more chaos, Charlie is whisked off to have a massage. Henry Bergson is the aggressive masseur.

Meanwhile, two more attendants have gotten bevvied up on Charlie’s stash. The manager orders them to throw out the liquor. Albert Austin, incapably pie-eyed, tosses the bottles out the window into the healthful well…

Charlie’s undressing behind a curtain in the changing room annoys Eric and another patron, as he carelessly flings shoes etc. When the curtain is whisked open, he strikes fey poses. I’ve never been sure what this is a reference to but it always struck me as funny, regardless. Some kind of Windmill Theatre tableau vivant thing is being spoofed, I guess. Or bathing beauties? But it’s a chance for Chaplin to be graceful and effeminate and impudent.

Chaplin had engaged a contortionist for this bit, but initially struggled to find the right role for him (as seen in Unknown Chaplin). The eventual solution is excellent: Bergman twists the guy into impossible shapes while Charlie watches in alarm. It’s a plan he’d re-use in THE IMMIGRANT: visualise, using some hapless subject, the terrible fate awaiting the hero, then see what he can do to escape it.

Charlie the drunk isn’t particularly alarmed, though — he seems the activity as a wrestling match. Charlie is generally devoid of sympathy towards others at this point, except maybe Edna. But he has no intention of taking part in a bout himself. Bergman is astounded when Charlie wrestles back, halfnelsonizing the big guy. All the sliding back and forth on the table to escape Henry’s grip is great. As is Charlie’s aggressive wrestling stance. As with ONE A.M., we get to see the Chaplin legs. Even more so.

Strange bit where Charlie tries to grab Henry by the stomach. He almost succeeds. If the bay window protruded any more — it would have to extrude like a Dali buttock, and probably require a crutch or unicycle to support it — the judo move might have worked.

Meanwhile, Edna is alarmed to find everyone drunk. The spa has acquired a post-apocalyptic quality, like THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS or DAWN OF THE DEAD. Society has broken down. The alcoholics have taken over the asylum. It’s like All Fool’s Day, or St. Patrick’s Day or something. i like the orderly using a lamp as a trumpet. Is it John Rand, in his umpteenth role?

Charlie, having dunked Eric and Henry in the pool, comes upon a scene of pure rambunctiousness. He is now almost the most sober person present, and he doesn’t like it. Things get a bit dark when he has to save Edna from two randy inebriates. I think the beard guy is William Gillespie, a Scot from Aberdeenshire. I wonder what WG thought of Eric’s phony Scotsman act?

The temperance theme — Chaplin really disapproved of overindulgence, sounding kind of priggish when criticising Barrymore’s excesses in his memoir, as if congenital alcoholism was purely a choice — doesn’t stand a chance of being treated seriously. Edna urges Charlie to try the waters. He’s saved her, and she wants to do the same for him. But the waters are now 20% proof. Initially reluctant, Charlie becomes rather keen on the stuff. Edna may soon need protecting from her protector. He throws his leg over her knees, Harpo-fashion.

Eric, having been in the pool while everyone else was getting plastered, is still sober, but the attendant pushing his bath chair isn’t. Well, somebody was bound to end up submerged in the healthful well. Chaplin’s water features exist for no other purpose. Freeze-framing it just allow us to see that a padded stuntman, in Eric’s elaborate makeup, performs the dive.

Looking for a way to end this sequence, Chaplin falls back on a reliable gambit, and has his character stagger about until he falls into the tiny swimming pool. I’m not much of a swimmer but I reckon I could manage a length of that thing. By stretching.

The next day. Everyone is horribly hungover, except Edna and Eric, who does not appear. I don’t suppose he actually drowned. Actually, he might have a hangover too, depending on how much he swallowed when upside down in the well.

Charlie now learns that the well was full of liquor, but not that it was his. Now Edna is urging him NOT to take the waters, and the temperance pledge can be done semi-sincerely. But having already lampooned it, the film can’t really be seen as particularly moralistic now. The curse has been taken off in advance.

Charlie falls in the well. The End.

Unknown Chaplin supplies us with two fine gags I rather wish had been used. In one elaborate routine, Charlie acts as traffic cop to the drunken attendants pushing wheelchairs and bath chairs. He shot this multiple times, first in his disorderly orderly guise, then again after switching roles and becoming the rich drunk. Everyone says that he discarded this because he realised his character is supposed to create chaos, not order, but that’s just a (plausible) assumption. I think it could have worked, because once everybody’s smashed, Charlie DOES become the adult in the room.

Chaplin also shot a bit more ending, where he bobs up and down in the well like a cork, kissing Edna on each surfacing. Again, this seems like a nice way to develop the gag and make it romantic — after all, we’ve already seen someone fall in there, so a plunge alone is not too surprising. I think it’s even possible the gag WAS included — so many of Chaplin’s films seem to have lost frames from the end, that a missing shot doesn’t seem impossible. But I have no evidence to support this idea, except for the fact that Chaplin shot the gag, and it was good.

Next up: Chaplin takes everything he’s learned and applies it to one film.

Dyspeptic in Elsinore

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

Asides from my making-of Caesar and Cleopatra book, I also have a lovely, if tattered volume entitled The film HAMLET, covering Olivier’s 1948 production. Various heads of department contribute short chapters about their work.

My late friend Lawrie Knight was only a 3rd AD on it, and only for a few days. His story doesn’t feature. Stop me if you’ve heard it before. Olivier, it seems, wanted the sound of a heartbeat to accompany the ghost’s appearance. In the end he used a drumbeat, but perhaps the story of Ruben Mamoulian recording his own heart after running up and down a flight of stairs, for the transformation scene in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, was already well-known? Olivier, saving himself the strain, sent an assistant off to run around the studio, and then they pressed a mic to his ribcage.

“Nothing but indigestion!” reported Lawrie, with a chortle.

The book lacks that kind of engrossing detail. Olivier’s own piece is rather windy, and devotes a lot of time to justifying his choice to shoot in black and white, though he would later admit that he was having “a frightful row with Technicolor” which played a significant part in the decision. Still, it was a great choice.

Really lovely pic of Larry directing in costume and, it seems, in character.

Producer Anthony Bushell’s thoughts on the casting are more interesting. He starts by recounting an anecdote from his youth as an actor: he tried to secure a walk-on/spear-carrying role in John Barrymore’s London production of the play. Barrymore somehow misunderstood and thought he was angling for Laertes.

“Young man, it is your misfortune that the Hamlet in this production will never see fifty again. You cannot possibly play Laertes with me.”

(Barrymore wasn’t actually fifty yet, but maybe he felt it, or maybe he actually said forty.)

We learn that Stanley Holloway got the role of the gravedigger after “F.J. McCormick, the little Irishman who as the bowler-hatted Shell in ‘Odd Man Out’ enchanted thousands only to sadden them by his untimely death, was first to have played the role.’

I like what Bushell says about Osric.

Chromophobia

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2020 by dcairns

Well, I figured Peter Sellers’ only film as director would be of SOME interest. The fact that, after the film flopped, he tried to destroy every copy, made it more intriguing. I’m not sure how he was able to do this — why would Twentieth Century Fox pass up the TV sales money, however little it might be? What about the royalties due the cast? Anyway, the BFI fortunately has preserved a print and made it available.

It’s a role, from Marcel Pagnol’s source play, that Louis Jouvet (in his debut), John Barrymore, Alexandre Arnaudy (don’t know who he is) and Fernandel had previously played on film. Only the geniuses seem to have succeeded in the part, and indeed Sellers, an undisputed genius, fails.

The performances are all good — the colour pallette is exceptional — Don Ashton (KWAI) designed it exquisitely and John Wilcox shot it — he was Freddie Francis’s operator and then shot a lot of FF’s films as director. Sellers’ camera direction is very plain — it befits a man who claimed to have no personality.

Sellers’ role is probably the problem — he has to play a nice, honest, innocent man, which worked for him in THE MILLIONAIRESS but there’s no Loren here to take up the slack. And, of course, THE MILLIONAIRESS was never really that exciting. Bosley Crowther for once in his life got it more or less right when he said that Sellers was boring in the role: he starts off OK, it’s intriguing to see him try this, he’s rather lovable, but as his problems mount, the film loses impetus, which is hard to understand. I may have to see the Jouvet again to find out what makes it so electrifying in the right hands.

The muted colour schemes probably don’t help, gorgeous though they are. Sellers had not yet, it seems, acquired his superstitious dread of green, which is allowed to creep in a couple of times, but mostly the film sticks with shades of brown, with a kind of strong tea hue being the richest shade on offer:

I like brown, when used with sensitivity. This is quite a lot of brown to consume at one sitting, admittedly. Sellers’ chromophobia may be his strongest stylistic quality as filmmaker.

A dialled-down central performance, a subdued colour scheme, a flat directorial style, a tricky play. And I wonder if Sellers’ cast and crew felt the transition from innocence to corruption take place in their director as the shoot went on?

It is nice to see Billie Whitelaw in a sex-bomb role, but Whitelaw is not Loren. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she realizes she can go to town with the little she has: she makes an arresting cartoon character. Also revelatory: John Neville, in the best bit of work I’ve seen from him in his younger days, Michael Gough, having a huge amount of fun. Leo McKern is fun and Herbert Lom always a joy. Nadja Tiller is, I guess, the only surviving cast member and she’s excellent. She deserves more attention from film lovers.

At home with the Loms

The play had a checkered history, and you can see why — Raymond Massey did it and it died like a dog, progressively as it went on (a prog dog). The alternative title, I LIKE MONEY, makes it naked: it’s the story of an idealist who becomes an amoral, mercenary swine, and likes it. Sellers always had a strong sympathy for the theme of THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN — “people will do anything for money.” This movie affirms that, and suggests that dishonesty brings wealth and therefore happiness, but Sellers, exerting his mise-en-scene a bit for the last moments before fade-out, does show himself in extreme long shot, alone, stretching his arms in a show of satisfaction that rings a little hollow… the castle is placed at the side (outside the TV safe zone, though), reminding us of the hero’s material wealth, but this is definitely the last shot of a tragedy.

Hollowness, as well as chromophobia, may be a signature element of the Sellers style.

MR. TOPAZE stars Gustave Flournoy; Nadia Rokovsky, Number 8; Henry Fengriffen; Klang; Miss Havisham; Alfred Pennyworth; Sister Thornhill; Violet Kray; Lady Ruff-Diamond; Hieronymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen; Religious Sandwich Man; and Nevil Shanks.