Archive for Josef Von Sternberg

Limousine Love

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2022 by dcairns

The fact that it took Chaplin a year of filming to figure out a way to make the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) in CITY LIGHTS mistake the Tramp for a millionaire just gets more incredible when you realise that Chaplin had already solved the problem, back in THE IDLE CLASS. He did it with a car door, with the Tramp chortcutting through a limo. That was ten years before — did Charlie eventually remember how he did it, or did he never remember it, and come up with the idea again, as if from scratch?

(In THE IDLE CLASS, Charlie cuts through the back of a limo and, emerging at a costume ball, is naturally mistaken for a toff disguised as a tramp. So it’s not exactly the same gag — he had to get the idea of using the sound of the car door, not a natural notion for a silent filmmaker. And, though I continue to argue that CITY LIGHTS is a sound film but not a talkie, Chaplin tells us he thought of it as a silent. That category error may have got in his way. And, though I’ve said that very many situations in the film depend on sound, this scene is treated silent — the flower girl hears the car door, but we don’t.)

It’s all the more remarkable given that he had gag writers — here credited as assistant directors, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Maybe he’d been resisting the idea of repeating himself, but the use he makes of the misunderstanding here is so different, it hardly makes you think the less of him. I feel if he’d called the idea to mind earlier, he’d have used it without hesitation, since he was going through hell trying to solve the problem — and putting everyone else through hell — “I was a terror to be with” — and spending his own money.

The end result repays the agonies everyone endured. Having seen Georgia Hale’s screen test for the part, and admired it, I can’t say that she’s better than Cherrill, whose lack of experience gives her playing an innocence. It’s what Chaplin wanted — not an actor, a pure medium to transmit his own ideas into performance.

How the girl gets accidentally fooled is clever. How Charlie gets hooked is equally smart, and doesn’t get talked about. Having realised that she’s misunderstood who he is, and that she thinks he’s left without waiting for his change, he can’t bring himself to disappoint and disillusion her. Therefore he gives up his change, which he really needs — the fingers are coming off his gloves — and tiptoes away, like the amphibian removals men of TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. So he’s committed to maintaining the illusion. It must feel good. He’s just been publically shamed at the monument unveiling, humiliated by news boys and intimidated by a typically gigantic antagonist. Now he’s met somebody who admires him.

Chaplin said it was always a challenge to find a way to get a romance going with the Tramp, since women don’t usually list indigence as a trait they look for in a partner. But having her simply ignorant of who he is was an inspiration that arrived quite indirectly.

In My Autobiography, Chaplin describes his initial idea, “a clown who, through an accident at the circus, has lost his sight. He has a little daughter, a sick, nervous child, and when he returns from the hospital the doctor warns him that he must hide his blindness from her until she is well and strong enough to understand, as the shock might be too much for her. His stumbling and bumping into things make the girl laugh joyously. But that was too ‘icky’.”

It certainly was. Though you can feel something of Chaplin’s enthusiasm for the idea lingering, decades later. Sometimes, we’re told, his assistants could talk him out of an overly sentimental idea by expressing open revulsion: I suspect that was the case here.

The idea may have been influenced by another source: Josef Von Sternberg had been taken under Chaplin’s wing after smuggling a print of his no-budget debut feature, THE SALVATION HUNTERS, into CC’s screening room. The film starred Georgia Hale and was, in its way, somewhat Chaplinesque. It was planned that Sternberg would make a film for Chaplin, and he eventually did, the ill-fated A WOMAN OF THE SEA, but another project was envisaged first, a star vehicle for Mary Pickford. “It was called Backwash,” Sternberg tells us in his memoir, “and it concerned a blind girl and a deaf-mute, the subject to be visualized through the eyes of a girl who has never been able to see. […] One of the episodes concerned a visit to a Chaplin comedy by my underprivileged characters, and Mr. Chaplin had agreed to perform some distorted antics.”

So this may have influenced Chaplin — it seems more than likely. You could say he practically swiped Sternberg’s idea the way he later did Welles’ with MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Of course, his treatment of other people’s ideas makes them distinctly his own: we don’t see the blind girl’s distorted imaginings of what Charlie is like, instead we get to see him struggle to maintain her illusion, without the financial means.

At the end of the scene, after the girl thinks Charlie has driven away, he sneaks back to watch her. Voyeurism — and a fantasy — when she stares into space and he’s occupying that space, it looks like she’s looking at him, tenderly. Her lack of sight supplies him with something he lacks — the illusion of love. All this complex stuff is neatly deflated when she throws a plant pot full of water in his face. Chaplin usually knows when things are at risk of getting too serious too soon.

TO BE CONTINUED

Stranger from Venice

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2022 by dcairns

I picked up Simon Louvish’s book Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, not sure what I could expect from it. David Robinson’s Chaplin is so very, very good, it didn’t seem as if Louvish could cover the same ground in an illuminating way. At least he had the decency to do it AFTER he’s written about nearly every other comic of the twenties and thirties, I thought.

But the book is EXTREMELY good. Not a replacement for the magisterial Robinson work, but a very useful companion.

It reminded me that THE CIRCUS’s sideshow opening sequence was shot in Venice, California, marking the Tramp’s return to his place of origin (in KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE back at Keystone). Which connects up in a couple of weird ways to the new presence in Hollywood of Robert Florey, Chaplin observer and future collaborator (assistant/whipping boy on MONSIEUR VERDOUX).

Florey wrote of seeing Chaplin on his way to Henry’s, the restaurant run by actor Henry Bergman, one night ~

“There was infinite sadness in the spectacle of Charlie, alone in the night. A man whom the smartest salons in the world would have fought to entertain, was quietly walking, alone in the shadows, his hands in his pockets and the brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes. It is true that the life of artists in Hollywood, especially in the evening, when the day’s work is finished, cannot be compared to existence in Paris or London, but to see Charlie Chaplin, alone on the boulevard, like some little extra without a job or a place to live, wrung my heart.”

It’s also a very dreamlike, and a very Chaplinesque image. It’s hard to not to imagine a bowler hat when Florey mentions Charlie’s hat, but of course it wouldn’t have been.

By coincidence — not even a meaningful coincidence, just a regular coincidence, I recently picked up Charles Beaumont’s The Magic Man, a short story collection which includes the little classic Perchance to Dream ~

“Right away the dream started.I was walking along Venice Pier. It was close to midnight. The place was crowded, people everywhere; you know the kind they used to get there. Sailors, dumpy looking dames, kids in leather jackets. The pitchmen were going through their routines. You could hear the roller coasters thundering along the tracks, the people inside the roller coasters, screaming; you could hear the bells and the guns cracking and the crazy songs they play on calliopes. And, far away, the ocean, moving. Everything was bright and gaudy and cheap.”

Perchance to Dream was adapted by Rod Serling for The Twilight Zone, and directed by Robert Florey. But the filmmaker who captured the exact mood of Beaumont’s dream was Curtis Harrington in NIGHT TIDE. And Harrington met Chaplin at a party, and apparently asked him about, not THE CIRCUS, but his earlier Sternberg production, A WOMAN OF THE SEA ~

“I actually asked Mr. Chaplin about it in person, when I was very, very young. I went to my first Hollywood party and there were a lot of big stars there—Charlie Chaplin and Harlan Pressburger, who produced The Shanghai Gesture, so I spoke to him about working with Von Sternberg. I was very busy at this party, you know, to be in the presence of these people I’d only read about (laughs). Anyway, you can read about The Woman of the Sea. […] Robert Florey, the French film director, he also saw it. He wrote about it in his book but it’s only available in France.”

The full interview is here.

Fever Dream

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2021 by dcairns

THE GOLD RUSH, part two.

The storm ends, and Big Jim and the lone prospector go their separate ways, Jim to get clonked on the head by Black Larsen, transforming him into a glazed amnesiac, and the lone prospector to become properly lone again.

(Red is then disappeared from the story by a conveniently yawning crevasse. His dog has previously disappeared, as Fiona noted with concern.)

The reconstructed silent version (as opposed to Chaplin’s post-war sonorized cut) includes a scene of Charlie pawning his shovel, so he’s given up being a prospector so we can’t call him that anymore. Chaplin’s performance in this one shot seems shaky, uncertain, and it looks to have been shot outdoors, so maybe the cold was affecting his performance or his perfectionist (it’s hard to strive for perfection when you’re freezing to death), leading to his decision to reshoot in the studio. He flashes the camera, is what he does, and it’s not an example of the Little Fellow’s ability to share a joke with his chums in the audience, it’s Chaplin breaking character to shoot a glance at Rollie Totheroh, asking if the move from the pawnshop balls to his face had worked…

We meet Georgia, the “saloon girl” (we know what THAT means), collecting some glossies from the photo shop, and we meet the awful Jack (Malcolm Waite), her steady guy. Jovial Jack is MUCH more hateful than Black Larsen, though he doesn’t actually murder anyone. That we know of. Funny that Chaplin’s films have fairly often opposed his character with more classic leading man types, and he loses the girl to one in THE TRAMP, but they haven’t been portrayed as horrible until now. (Jack will also disappear from the movie, unmourned, and with no explanation whatever.)

Georgia is Georgia Hale, discovered working as an extra by Sternberg, who cast her in THE SALVATION HUNTERS. She’s the first Sternbergian woman, and she puts on her eyebrows with a used matchstick in that film, the way Dietrich did for real later. Chaplin hired both her and Sternberg, but it’s fair to say the Sternberg thing didn’t work out: he walked off his first assignment after aiming the camera at the ceiling, and Chaplin burned his second one, the Edna Purviance vehicle A WOMAN OF THE SEA.

Hale’s career went nowhere after this, though she acted until 1931, and Chaplin considered using her again in CITY LIGHTS when he was having trouble getting a performance from Virginia Cherrill. Sternberg blamed alcohol for her decline. She appears lucid when interviewed in later years. And if the 1926 GREAT GATSBY had survived, we could see her in another major film.

Georgia is the one obvious anachronism, with her silvery patterned twenties dress, but I’ll overlook that because it’s a great dress.

Dance hall: Charlie’s arrival here, and this whole first sequence of him meeting Georgia, is the greatest evocation of loneliness in a crowd I’ve ever seen. The shots of him entering the joint are among the most beautiful of Chaplin’s career.

This whole sequence is skating on thin eyes, pathos-wise. Chaplin’s previous successful use of pathos in THE KID centres the heartbreaking emotion on Charlie’s relationship with the Kid. Here, we have to feel sorry for Charlie alone, while also being able to laugh at him. Well, feeling sympathy for a comic character is nothing unusual — it’s a trick to pull off, no doubt,, but one that we frequently see done successfully. Keaton thought the sympathy was an essential ingredient. But Charlie comes close to being pathetic here, a stooge rather than a lord of misrule. It’s a delicate operation. I think what helps is our position in the narrative — it’s OK for the laughs to be fewer and quieter in the middle of a film, and Chaplin has another raucous cabin scene lined up for his big finish.

Charlie gets to be naughty here once — stealing a drink — and funny when he has trouser trouble dancing with Georgia. An elaborate Freudian explanation could be concocted for the situation where he ties up his baggy pants — suddenly a problematic fit in proximity to The Girl — only to find himself tethered to a dog which then takes off after the resident dance hall cat…

Fiona got quite impatient with Georgia — she’s genuinely hard-hearted, which is a first for a Chaplin film and a rarity for silent comedy in general. But she will eventually melt. Chaplin has to pull off one of his cleverest narrative tricks to convince us she has a heart at all.

Interestingly, she’s softened slightly in the voiced-over version, since Chaplin is able to report her thoughts.

The eternal triangle drawn up, we follow Charlie to Henry Bergman’s cabin, where he feigns hypothermia (back to his trickster self) and is taken in as help. So that Jack MacGowran could play frozen rigid in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, Polanski had him encased in a chickenwire exoskeleton under his costume. Chaplin does it by musclepower alone. Well, that’s why they pay him the big money.

Then Georgia and her girlfriends happen by, setting up the idea of the Hogmanay dinner party. Here, Charlie’s tongue-tied intertitles feel a little awkward — all that “Yes mam,” stuff doesn’t feel like him. I think a better effect could be achieved with actual wordlessness. But Georgia’s discovery of the tattered photo Charlie’s saved and keeps under his pillow is a lovely moment. What stops us hating Georgia is probably the music.

Charlie’s street-sweeping routine sees him back in character — turning the performance of a social good into a racket, sweeping one doorfront in order to bury the one next-door, then charging five times more to clear that one. It’s as good as a scam as the window-breaking glazier act in THE KID.

Then comes the bleak “party,” and Chaplin’s best dream sequence. It doesn’t matter too much that the bread roll dance is stolen from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle —

— although it always comes as a shock when you find out.

In any event, Chaplin’s version is far more elaborate, far more illusionistically convincing, funnier and greater. He saw the potential in a brief amusing bit and turned it into a whole performance. Johnny Depp, who had to copy this routine in BENNY AND JOON, talked about how difficult it was. “It’s all in the shoulders,” he said. And, I would add, in the eyes. The solemnity and inwardness of Charlie’s performance is what cracks me up, along with the fact that he alone makes you SEE him as a giant Mardi Gras head with fork legs and bread roll feet, dancing.

You’ll notice that “creative” camera angles and cutting don’t help here — they basically wreck it. Chaplin’s simplistic, stagey decoupage was CORRECT.

Then there’s the beautiful Old Lang Syne sequence at the dance hall, which makes Georgia yearn to see her absent friend, but she STILL hasn’t become, in the term of another festive comedy, “a mensch,” she presents the idea of a post-midnight visit to Charlie as a chance to prank him. She can’t admit to the sentiment this film celebrates. Anyway, Charlie and Georgia miss one another in the dark, and she sees into his private lonely world again when she finds the Marie Celeste dinner party.

Then Big Jim arrives, still amnesiac, recognises Charlie — who is understandably terrified by his manner — Mack Swain is the only one doing operatic silent movie acting in this film — and the movie prepares for the big finish…

TO BE CONTINUED