Archive for Josef Von Sternberg

Dank Satanic Mills #1

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2022 by dcairns

It’s the iron maiden again! Screen right, bottom. The same infernal device Conrad Veidt is consigned to in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (in his first role, as the hero’s father) and which he later admired from the outside in ABOVE SUSPICION. We saw it again later in Corman’s THE RAVEN, the most recent appearance I’ve spotted by the long-serving instrument of torture. One of the most-used props in films. After a turn in it, you could recover by having a lie-down on Gloria Swanson’s swan-boat-bed.

I would like to discover more appearances.

Anyway, I have to say more about THE STRANGE DOOR because Eureka! granted me a review copyof their ace Karloff MANIACAL MADNESS set. Fun movie — future Star Trek director Joseph Pevney is turned loose in a lot of standing sets (a cucalorus in every room) with Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff. Laughton seems like he needs a couple-three more takes of every scene to get the lines down, but, aware of the tight schedule, I guess, he ploughs on until “cut” (rather than breaking the scene whenever he feels himself drying, as he did with Sternberg in all those I, CLAUDIUS outtakes). There’s a lot of mad invention and lipsmacking craziness, but punctuated by uncertain pauses where he has to slow himself down and then ramp up the energy again when he remembers what’s next.

Karloff, very solid, reunited with his OLD DARK HOUSE co-star, did not get on with him, as reported by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones in their lively commentary. The suggestion that Laughton’s style was becoming old-fashioned is one I’d take issue with — I’d say “Have you seen ADVISE AND CONSENT?” Or, indeed, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, which always struck me as a very modern bit of camp villainy. If Laughton seems out of date in THE STRANGE DOOR it’s because the whole film is, the dead end of the Universal Gothic cycle (along with THE BLACK CASTLE the following year). And the man isn’t on top form, though he’s certainly ENGAGED.

The climax, with our heroes trapped in a cell whose walls are inexorably closing in (powered by the water-mill I alluded to in our title), is gripping. Walls closing in always makes for a good, suspenseful scenario — I don’t know why they don’t trot the idea out more often, unless it’s that one so seldom encounters it in daily life.

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.