Archive for Josef Von Sternberg

An Unamerican Untragedy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2023 by dcairns

Is Chaplin spoofing Dreiser when Verdoux takes Annabella Bonheur out for a lonely row? It seems more likely that the reference is to the Paramount film version of AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1931) than to the source novel — a film directed by Chaplin’s old protege Josef Von Sternberg. The only remaining artifact, then, of their brief collaboration (until A WOMAN OF THE SEA turns up).

Annabella’s innocence is clearly stated at the scene’s outset, after the huge establishing shot which establishes not just the scenery but the tininess and isolation of the boat.

“Not a soul anywhere!”

“Perfect,” agrees Verdoux, with his most sinister smile. Dramatic irony/poignancy! Although I’ve swapped the shots around in the above two-panel set, to make it appear that they’re looking at each other. Blogs are no respecters of the 180 rule.

Chaplin, I think, understood that any strong dramatic situation can also be a strong comedic situation, with just a slight tweak.

More ironic exchanges, and Verdoux’s “anchor” is introduced: a rock with a rope around it and a noose on the loose end. Probably pretty effective if tied tightly, although the wearer would no doubt bob to the surface once the intestinal gases had done their work, and they would look very much as if they’d been murdered.

How you’d ever get the rope around Annabella’s big yapping head is a question that need not detain us at this point. Chaplin now goes out of his way to make Annabella once again a character in need of murdering, scolding Verdoux for his failure to promptly hand her a fishing rod. “Oh, don’t be a fool – by the time you bait the hook the fish’ll be gone.” Snippy AND irrational, two negative feminine stereotypes in one persona. Martha Raye’s lightning changes between sweet and vicious certainly keep things interesting.

Hooking Verdoux’s hat is a nice gag, timed so well that it survives uncertain framing (boats DRIFT, even when anchored — I suppose bodies do, too). Verdoux, meaning “sweet worm,” is I suppose interchangeable with the bait, which may be why he snags his trousers on the fishhook too. And that leads me to speculate that his “sweet worm” persona is the bait by which he catches his prey. The guppy-mouthed Martha Raye as Annabella is connected to a fish here, when she mistakes her reflection in the lake for a big one — the one that got away, I guess.

Chaplin’s lightning transition from malign, noose-wielding maniac to simpering idiot when Annabella turns is almost cartoon-fast. Somehow it works, despite there being no real way for him to change pose during the turn of a head, and without undercranking too. The simper was memorably seen in another lightning-change sequence back in 1917, in THE CURE:

Chaplin likes the gag, so he repeats it. In my recent conversation with Ian Lavender, he pointed out Chaplin’s tendency to milk a gag, contrasting this with Buster Keaton’s once-and-we’re-done technique. The Keaton approach is more difficult and challenging, requiring more material — and you could argue that Buster wore out his imagination with it (though other factors were at play). But Chaplin’s repetitions WORK, as you can hear for yourself whenever you see the film with an audience. The childish delight in repetition is a powerful force. Something silly happening repeatedly has a chance of getting even funnier with each cycle.

“Are you sea-sick?”


“Shame on you, a man who’s live at sea all his life. Oh, captain, really!”

Raye seems to struggle with making the above exchange sound natural, and one can hardly blame her. Billy Wilder complained that Chaplin’s dialogue was infantile, and he’s not entirely wrong — at times, it’s rather clumsy, and it never reaches the elegance of a Sturges or a Mankiewiecz or Wilder & Brackett. You could sometimes accuse him of the same ineptitude as George Lucas. “My dialogue isn’t the best but it gets you from A to B,” claims Lucas, which makes me reach for a Sturges line: “By way of Cincinatti with a side-trip through Detroit.” These guys who aren’t strong with dialogue aren’t elegant enough to be simple, they pad it out with irrelevancies and an oppressive weight of unneeded verbiage.

It also feels like a Winsor McCay speech bubble, with words crammed in willy-nilly to fill space. Oh!

But then Verdoux attempts to use, presumably, chloroform, and Annabella’s sudden movement (she somehow thinks she’s caught a fish with her naked hook) causes him to topple backwards and drop the soporific hanky over his own face. This is the film’s best visual gag sequence, is what I’m saying — almost the only one to serve up regular, effective gags of this kind, and I think it’s made possible by the Dreiser set-up. Good situations make for good gags. A strong dramatic problem forces your character to try outrageous solutions, and then more outrageous things can go wrong…

Chaplin looming — as best a 5’5″ man can loom — over Raye, recalls George O’Brien in SUNRISE — another possible influence. (Carl Mayer’s script surely drew inspiration from Dreiser’s 1925 novel, which might be why the murder scheme in the Murnau film makes no sense, has no real motivation — it’s a stray piece of plot imported from elsewhere).

Verdoux now talks Anabella through the art of lassoing fish — and again, she is the fish, but now the worm has turned. But he’s interrupted by an appalling sound: yodeling. This is the part that cracks Fiona up. Yodeling saving a life, rather than merely immiserating it, is pretty funny. And this particularly goofy overdubbed yodeling: it sounds like it’s being done right into the mic. Maybe a case of Tatiesque elimination of aural perspective for comic effect? Maybe not consciously chosen as such though.

Then, after he’s already given up his homicidal plans, Verdoux is topped into the drink by Annabella. Excellent cartoon reactions from Raye: she goes from one “extreme” to another, holding each pose for mere frames:

Annabella eventually saves her beau, but only after yelling for help to the oblivious yodellers, and then she berates him for standing up in a boat, which she was doing also. Infuriating. But not enough to allow Chaplin to contemplate offing her. She’s kind of the sand in the criminal vaseline.

The Paris Exposition

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2023 by dcairns

MONSIEUR VERDOUX finally continued. A couple of Basil Expositions are strolling the boulevards, apparently with the sole purpose of filling in Verdoux’s backstory. This might be the kind of writing Billy Wilder had in mind when he called Chaplin the talker as “an eight-year-old child composing lyrics to Beethoven’s Ninth.” Or it maybe have been a nine-year-old for the Eighth. It IS a wee bit inelegant, and it’s neither dramatic nor comic: it’s just raw intel. We would have to learn this stuff at some point, but it should ideally be uncovered via a proper SCENE.

The prelude to this guff, however, showing Verdoux on the prowl for prey (a metaphorical prowl, he’s sitting down at a cafe) is very good. Light fluffy music, dark undercurrent. Close attention paid to the serving of coffee.

Naturally, Verdoux’s office is on the traditional Chaplin T-junction. He stops to feed a street cat, a play for sympathy which may have been borrowed from his old employee Von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (screenwriter Ben Hecht was appalled by the added cat business, claimed JVS, crediting himself with the populist instinct to make his gangster loveable — decide for yourselves how trustworthy that account is).

Verdoux keeps this sinister warehouse stuffed with his victims’ belongings — odd, since he seems to sell things in a hurry, monetising murder being his whole raison d’etre, and all he really needs is a telephone. It’s also odd that he plays the stock market, having lost his bank job in the crash. This keeps him on the go, however, which is good for the plot. Notified that he needs money fast, he must now embark on another murder, a grim highlight of the film.

First, Verdoux talks to himself a lot, which is unnecessary. Chaplin not only has a weakness for unadorned exposition, he’s anxious that we should understand him. Since he’s patterning himself somewhat on Lubitsch (who patterned himself somewhat on Chaplin), this is an error. See that your audience understands, but seem as if you don’t care either way. “An audience would rather be confused than bored,” says Mr. Schrader, very soundly.

Australian bit player Margaret Hoffman does well with the substantial role of Lydia Floray, Verdoux’s next wife/mark/victim (homophonic with Chaplin’s asst. dir., Robert Florey). So far we’ve had an unseen murderee, represented only by her house and her awful relatives, and therefore not inviting too much sympathy, and a woman who resists Verdoux’s charms and earns our respect. Now we’re getting much closer to actual murder, Chaplin makes the victim a grim scold — but allows a few little humanizing touches. He also allows Verdoux to see frightening. Whatever clumsiness we detect in the use of dialogue, however many dead scenes Chaplin serves up to prod the narrative along, the tonal balancing act is extremely nimble.

The IMDb has eliminated many of the weird conjoined filmographies, such as the credit ut gave Michael Powell for sound recording on a short film made years after his death, but Hoffman has a writer’s credit on a short about Lee Harvey Oswald, made in 2012. She died in 1968. Also, she wasn’t a writer.

The killing, played with moonlight and soft music (and a frisson of horror at the end), is brilliantly shot from the end of a hall NOT facing onto the bedchamber where the crime will be committed. Verdoux lingers at the threshold, working himself up into a romantic fervour before he kills. His silhouette in the wide shot slightly recalls the Tramp.

Of course, the miniature town seen from the window is very flat and unconvincing — the loss of Charles D. Hall as set designer is felt. Still, Costa-Gavras felt there was a purpose behind the cardboard backings of THE GREAT DICTATOR and it may be so here also. The direction is more than assured, otherwise: the discrete distance implies classic Hollywood romance, but of course maintaining a distance, staying outside the room, is also a strategy for dealing with violence (see THE PUBLIC ENEMY). The combination of the two starkly clashing modes is electrifying, and not in the slightest bit funny.

Maintaining the distance, the film calmly dissolves from night to morning — an elegant ellision that hints at ghastliness while showing us nothing but moonlight and sunshine.


Tourneur tournage

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 24, 2023 by dcairns

Wow, A GIRL’S FOLLY is more contemptuous of silent filmmaking than BABYLON, which is going some.

Director Maurice Tourneur and screenwriter Frances Marion have the excuse that they’re demystifying a current situation and so the sneering is a corrective to the lies of the fan mags. But I have an unpleasant suspicion we’re meant to be appalled to learn that the stars’ autographs are forged by a Black studio employee. At least the joke is on the unseen fans, not the onscreen actor.

We get to see a horse opera being filmed, with Robert Warwick as cowboy hero, and title cards give us samples of the direction being offered by the ebullient auteur:

The IMDb says that Tourneur himself plays the role of film director and Josef Von Sternberg appears as cameraman — but I think they’re just doing extra work as A director and A cameraman, rather than these featured roles — the director is too old and too bald and nothing much about the cameraman suggests the flamboyant aesthete of the 1920s. Though it’d be amusing if this scruff were little Jo before he got artistic. The perpetually sullen expression seems like the only trace of resemblance though.

Damien Chazelle please note that this is Fort Lee in 1917 and they’re already filming indoors in a big studio with sets that rotate to follow the sun. BABYLON’s idea of 1926 filmmaking is already ridiculously passé at this point. No doubt somebody was still shooting on exterior sets in 1926, but not in Hollywood.