Archive for Josef Von Sternberg

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

Posh Lust

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2021 by dcairns

The curious thing about A WOMAN OF PARIS is the clash of sophisticated comedy and naive melodrama. Maybe “comedy” is wrong, but there’s certainly wit in the way the action unfolds.

My two favourite parts are the restaurant kitchen and the decadent party, both of which have their share of humour. The straight drama stuff is Lubitschian in the sense that BROKEN LULLABY/THE MAN I KILLED is Lubitschian: the ironies and delicate reveals have the form of Lubitsch gags, jokes of indirection, but without being funny. Lubitsch finds an interesting alternative to comedy in bitterness: the QUIET PLEASE sign in the hospital where the war wounded are terrified by the sound of the gun salute celebrating the end of war, for instance. Chaplin faces the strange contradiction of subtle indirection being used to tell a story full of essentially corny contrivance. It doesn’t quite take the curse off it.

The girl on the left makes a distinctively French gesture, so that I at first assumed Chaplin had cast an authentic demoiselle, but then I realised he’s probably just acted the movement out for her to copy.

But in our first Parisian scene (no wide shot with Eiffel Tower, just lots of unmistakeable Frenchness), everything works in his favour, because the only plot in motion is the establishing of Edna’s new life as a rich man’s lover.

And the rich man is Adolphe Menjou, which is more good news. His sly ovine features, a kind of Al Hirschfield caricature brought to life (the line of his nose is clearly the work of a pen-stroke, neither genetics nor rhinoplasty could carve something so nifty), peer out across the decades, and improbable set of shapes on an improbable movie star. Lubitsch would acquire him, and much else, for THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, the film which cemented the American style of Uncle Ernst. Adolphe, that light-footed reactionary swine, reportedly acted by numbers (“I think I’ll do a forty-two followed by a seven”), and is also said to have nimbly copied Chaplin’s direction — CC would act out every role for his cast to mimic. But Menjou’s mimicry emerges as pure Menjou. He’s the only actor here who has Chaplin’s elaborate grace, magnetism, breezy arrogance.

“Don’t sell it!” Chaplin would tell Menjou. “Remember, they’re peeking at you.”

Edna is fine, but just not that interesting. It’s said that Chaplin wanted to set her up as an independent star because she was getting too old to play ingenue roles opposite him. And the plot here skips over the part where she’d have to make the transition from new-in-town virginal innocent to metropolitan sophisto. Here she is, transformed. The movie, by the way, becomes a fantastic fashion show at this point, which is one of its main pleasures. The fashions of the 1920s being SO much more sexy and elegant than the frumpery Edna started off with ten years before.

Henry Bergman!

The actor playing the gigolo is Philip Sleeman, whose subsequent roles include “dance hall Lothario,” “lounge lizard,” “night club lizard,” “masher in night court,” “zeppelin reveler” and “spectator at stoning.” Just one of those faces. It’s caricature by casting: his appearance suggests not the attractive type who would appeal to a rich older lady, but the inner corruption that would lead a man to such a career.

In the kitchen, both the film’s production designer, Arthur Stibolt, and assistant director A. Edward Sutherland (left), appear. In the night club, the two technical advisors on naughty Parisian matters appear: Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast and Jean de Limur. Both would go on to directing careers, the latter, an actual comte, directing Menjou in MON GOSSE DE PERE for Pathé-Natan in 1930 (Menjou’s only French production, I think, though he did one or two French-language versions of his early talkies). Eddie Sutherland went on to direct (and marry Louise Brooks), and another of the A.D.s, Monta Bell, also had a substantial producing-directing career.

Another Chaplin associate, Josef Von Sternberg, would hire Menjou to play basically the same role in MOROCCO.

Fiona pointed out that the business with the gamey game bird in the kitchen is “very Chaplin” — his obsession with food, particularly smelly food.

Chaplin had fairly detailed notes for this one, but still filmed in sequence so he could refine the story as he went along, and the thing did change a fair bit. The whole restaurant sequence is striking because, having established Edna’s new situation, it does nothing else. Chaplin just wants to spend time in this environment, and let the audience soak up the atmosphere. He’d just been to Paris, so he was hot on the subject, but he’d long wanted to do something around the romantic-sounding Latin quarter — THE IMMIGRANT had started out with that setting.

I should also mention — A WOMAN OF PARIS is a Late Film: Chaplin was working on the music when he died. Which may account for some strange bits in the score where the emotional tone seems way off. But it’s always preferable to have a Chaplin film with Chaplin music.

TBC

On the Tiles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2021 by dcairns

For his second Essanay film, Chaplin upped sticks and left Chicago to Oscar Micheaux, decamping to Niles, California and taking Ben Turpin with him. There, he encountered the uneuphoniously-named Edna Purviance who became a fixture in his films until 1922, and who he would keep under contract for years and years, and who he would attempt to turn into an independent star by having Josef Von Sternberg direct her in A WOMAN OF THE SEA, a film which he subsequently shelved for unknown reasons and then seemingly destroyed for tax purposes.

Edna was characterised by a so-called friend as “a docile creature” and we perhaps see a bit of this in Chaplin’s anecdote about hypnotizing her at a party. Having bragged that he could put anyone under the influence, he leaned in close and whispered to her, “Fake it!” A good sport, she complied, and the bond was forged.

Edna is just one of a couple of girls Charlie flirts with during his drunken debauch here. There are also a lot of men in false beards, some of which disguise the thrifty repurposing of cast members (you pay your actors by the day, not the role, so work them, damnit). The “plot” is just Charlie & Ben on the razzle, but then a farce situation develops when Edna innocently finds herself in a compromising situation (in her pajamas in Charlie’s hotel room) after trying to retrieve her dog. Mabel Normand had played this exact situation the previous year in CAUGHT IN THE RAIN. But this is a better film.

Turpin continues to be an aggressive near-equal in screen time. The knockabout teamwork is at least as good as the taut routines Chaplin had worked out with Chester Conklin, so it’s a shame BT didn’t get a later cameo the way CC did in MODERN TIMES. David Robinson describes him as “one of the best comedy partners Chaplin ever found,” while describing him as resembling a prematurely hatched bird. But a feisty one! Chaplin used faint praise: his “stooge” “seemed to know the ropes.” It’s said the two didn’t get on, with Turpin impatient with Chaplin’s methods. Still, there’s more to Turpin than strabismus: Chaplin rarely gives anyone but the leading lady a close-up, so Turpin has to depend on his considerable physical skills to get the laughs, rather than falling back on his crossed eyes (ouch).

Bud Jamison, who had also come from the Chicago branch, is an effective heavy, playing the first insanely violent headwaiter in the Chaplinverse, anticipating Eric Campbell’s terrifying brute in THE IMMIGRANT. Having him turn up later as a jealous husband is smart plotting.

The bit that actually made me laugh out loud is Charlie trying to get toothpaste on his brush, and then forgetting why he’s doing it, while paralytically drunk. I say it again — Chaplin’s father was killed by his alcoholism — and his early comedy depends disproportionately on wringing comedy from abject inebriation.

I realize this isn’t as in-depth as previous posts. But I think I’ll go back to this film for more — especially as I am shocked — shocked! — to discover that my sepia DVD version has, unlike the more pristine YouTube print, actual intertitles!