Archive for Karl Struss

Big Bertha

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2022 by dcairns

The trenches of Woodland Hills.

Chaplin opens with a surprising tracking shot — a pre-Kubrickian vision of WWI. Lewis Milestone and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT might be the influence. Dissolves link different bits of tracking shot, as if Chaplin wouldn’t quite get the oner he was after, or as if he wanted to make this a series of glimpses implying a much bigger conflict.

The hills in the background are recognizable as the view from the back of my friend Randy Cook’s house in Woodland Hills.

As in MODERN TIMES, we have two cinematographers, but this time it’s Rollie Totheroh (as usual) and Karl Struss — as contrasting a pair of Hollywood artists as youcould choose. Struss had shot things like Griffith’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN and Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE. It’s tempting to associate him with the mobile camera and any mood lighting, and Totheroh with more straightforward head-to-toe prosccenium framing.

David Robinson’s Chaplin confirms this — Chaplin was for unknown reasons growing dissatisfied with Totheroh’s work — perhaps an obscure feeling that it was old-fashioned, which was true. But Struss “wasn’t giving him enough light. He was getting in tree branches and things to achieve ‘mood’. It might have been ‘mood’, but it wasn’t what Chaplin wanted,” AD Dan James is quoted as saying.

It’s a real problem — the most important quality for photography in a visual comedy is CLARITY — the figures need to READ. Everything central to the gag needs to be absolutely clear. The slightest ambiguity squashes the laugh. There are no effective slapstick noirs, no slapsticks with impressionistic visuals, and quite possibly what doomed Spielberg’s 1941 is the very attractive, diffuse, backlit cinematography and the Louma crane movement.

Big Bertha — the first character we meet with a name. The Jewish Barber remains anonymous. There was a real BB howitzer in WWI, the 42 cm kurze Marinekanone 14 L/12, but it was much shorter and less dramatic than the one constructed by J. Russell Spencer and Chaplin’s art department. (A shame Charles D. Hall had just stopped his collaboration with Chaplin — their first film together was SHOULDER ARMS and it would have been nice symmetry if this were the last. There’s one account from the set of ALL QUIET — which CDH also designed — suggesting that the designer served in WWI, but no family tradition confirms this).

VO! Who is this narrator? The IMDb is silent on the matter. His voice is deeper than Chaplin’s, but has similar clipped diction. Could CC be lowering his timbre, or just drilling someone else to deliver the lines as he would?

Horribly, Bertha’s target is Notre Dame, which would survive the war, and then survive the next war (IS PARIS BURNING? showcases the cathedral standing proud at the end) and then get gutted by fire due to human error, bad luck, poor contingency planning.

But, with Charlie the Jewish Barber pulling the trigger, Bertha merely explodes a nearby outhouse. The film’s first visual joke is a very Burt Reynolds type gag.

I was thinking I’d cover the whole WWI sequence in this post, but NO — we need to stop and ask WHO IS THE JEWISH BARBER? In what ways is he or is he not the Tramp/The Little Fellow/Mr. Wow-Wow?

NEXT

Stage Door Connie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2021 by dcairns

Talentless poet and war veteran Arthur Phelps (Conrad Nagel), blinded by an exploding cigar given him by New Mexico bar girl Poll Patchouli (Dorothy Dalton), is obsessed with French ballerina Rosa Duchene (Mildred Harris) — but Poll tricks him into marrying her by putting on an ‘Allo, ‘Allo accent — I suppose, being blind, he’s more easily fooled by her Franglais intertitles — Poll also leads him to believe that a slender volume of recipes is his poetry, accepted by a publisher at last — but when a miracle eye doctor comes to El Paso, Poll realises she must shatter Senor Phelps’ illusions by giving him his sight back — bitterly disappointed by what his restored sight shows him, Phelps divorces Poll, who sets fire to his shack in revenge, but it’s OK, in a way — he’s just struck oil and is now rich, enabling him to zoom off to Siam where Rosa is enchanting a young Prince (John Davidson) — Phelps rescues a lamb that was going to be thrown into an alligator pit as a sacrifice to buddha (bloodiest of the eastern gods) — Rosa challenges her two suitors to rescue her opera glove from the “sacred reptiles” — the Prince has a go but requires rescuing by Phelps — both Phelps and the Prince realise that Rosa is No Good and Phelps returns to the arms of Rosa, who at that moment gets stabbed by her gaucho paramour John Rodriguez (Theodore Kosloff) but the wound is non-fatal and the recuperating Poll kisses Phelps while their dog, Chum, tries to get in on the final clinch. Fade-out. Painting of a jester for no obvious reason.

That’s a condensed version of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1921 crazed romance FOOL’S PARADISE, shown at/streamed from Pordenone Festival of Silent Film. It’s what I call an epic.

I have made nothing up, distorted nothing. I’m reminded of a line in Gilliam’s BARON MUNCHAUSEN: “This is exactly the sort of thing no-one ever believes.”

“Cecil has a habit of biting off more than he can chew,” said brother William, “and then chewing it.”

This farrago of implausibilities is visually sumptuous, with costumes by Mitchell Leisen, Clare West AND Natasha Rambova — my guess is, Rambova did the ornate ballet, Leisen may have done the exotic stuff, but he could do realism too, so that may have been West. Cinematographers Alvin Wyckoff and Karl Struss, both super-talents, shot it.

Pordenone likes to shine a light on lesser-known talents, and fest director Jay Weissberg made special mention of screenwriters Sada Cowan & Beulah Marie Dix. DeMille had this whole staple of female screenwriters who helped him target his films, very successfully, at the female cinemagoer’s heart. It is hard, at this historical distance, to imagine anyone taking this cascade of nonsense seriously, except Cecil himself. But you can imagine them enjoying it. We enjoyed it. I hadn’t seen a lot of Conrad Nagel. I feel I have now.

The Sunday Intertitle: Lamplight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2018 by dcairns

Incredibly beautiful.

I ought to be binge-watching Borzage for a project. Feels like I’m a bit behind. LUCKY STAR (1929) is one of the masterpieces Frank B. made at Fox as the silent era ended. Most famous is SEVENTH HEAVEN but STREET ANGEL and this one probably deserve to be right up there. Along with THE RIVER, which survives only as a fragment. The original titles of LUCKY STAR are lost also, so we have simple, tasteful reproductions which are probably a good deal less elaborate but at any rate don’t look jarringly anachronistic like all too many attempts to fake up authentic cards. And the film itself is in terrific shape. I’m just over half its age and I don’t look nearly so good.

Now check this out.

As Janet Gaynor hands over a lantern in this shot, you can see an electrical cable trailing from it (through the lower left window pane). But rather than get hyper-critical about the artifice (this whole film is studio artifice at its height), we should be impressed that they’ve figured out how to light a scene with a lantern, even a jerry-rigged electrical one. The great Nestor Almendros once pointed out that, for all the beauty of Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) when a search party roves through the night carrying kerosene lamps, the lamps do nothing but glow faintly, far too weak to actually light the scene. Of course that film’s cinematographers, Rosher & Struss, could hardly have had a half-dozen power cables trailing from those prop lamps, since the search party are on boats. Even the lack Health & Safety culture of Hollywood’s Golden Age had to draw the line somewhere. But for LUCKY STAR, DoPs Chester M. Lyons (praised already here) and William Cooper Smith have worked out a way to have a convincing moving light source.

That lamp is obviously INCREDIBLY bright in order to light the interior: Gaynor has her eyes almost closed, trying not to be blinded, and she seems a little scared of this high voltage death-trap in her hand. Don’t blame her.

As you can probably tell, I’m not very far into this film yet, but I am impressed so far.