Archive for Kevin Brownlow

Old Gods

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2021 by dcairns

Here’s the statue of Moloch in CABIRIA, big old god to whom human sacrifices are rendered.

Joe May obviously admired Giovanni Pastrone’s film, and also Griffith’s INTOLERANCE which was influenced by its gigantism and its mobile camera. For years, cinematographers referred to “Cabiria shots,” meaning any camera move designed to show off the dimensions of a big set. May copied the sets but didn’t pick up on the tracking shots until years later.

MISTRESS OF THE WORLD is May’s super-epic adventure film. Eight episodes, each something like three hours long, I think. In episode three, the heroes journey to the lost African city of Ophir, as you do, and discover the benighted natives worshipping Baal. Although May built super-colossal sets for his super-epic, his Baal is fairly tiny compared to Moloch.

All I’ve been able to see of the possible day-long saga is a few shots excerpted in Brownlow & Winterbottom’s Cinema Europe documentary. I would like to experience the whole thing, which apparently contains revenge, white slavery, science fiction rays, media satire, exotic travel, and tits.

Fritz Lang worked on MISTRESS as an assistant director.

And here’s Moloch again, for the machine age, in Lang’s METROPOLIS. But the way the workers shuffle robotically into his maw is directly lifted from the May film. Although, since it’s a crowd scene, Lang could have been the one who thought of having the extras move that way, in which case he’s only SELF-plagiarising.

I feel like METROPOLIS, which HG Wells thought a “foolish film,” may have also influenced George Pal’s film of Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE, where the Eloi are hypnotised by a mechanical siren song into walking robotically to their dooms beneath the statue of a sphinx. Tastefully, Pal avoids making his Morlock Moloch a copy of Lang’s. The sphinx DOES appear in Wells book, but Pal and screenwriter David Duncan seem to have developed the really good idea, never spelt out, that the air raid siren that makes everybody go below during WWII and WWIII, seen earlier in the time traveller’s travels, has become a race memory, evoking a Pavlovian response in the poor Eloi. And maybe the whole thing was developed subconsciously from the euphony of the names Moloch and Morlock? And it leads to a really brilliant notion, that of an air raid siren functioning like a mythical one.

I’m a prestidigitator who works in a world of legerdemain

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2021 by dcairns

— those were the words four-year-old Jackie Coogan used to introduce himself to Chaplin. David Robinson notes that, with Chaplin’s love of words (something we might not expect from a silent comedian), this was bound to endear him as well as impress him. It’s also a good job description of Chaplin, and his magic act in the following sequence from THE KID shows him a veritable Cagliostro.

“I must go now, but I’ll return,” says Edna, anticipating Chaplin’s VO in THE GOLD RUSH: “I am going, but when I return, I will come back again.”

Jackie’s illness is too sudden and unmotivated to work as pathos, at least to my eyes, but it gets us where we’re going: a doctor is called (a good bit from one Jules Hanft) and Charlie happens to admit to not being Jackie’s natural father. The doc, being an officious busybody as well as an idiot, reports the case. Charlie has shown him the note that says “Please love and care for this orphan child,” which does not say “Please put this child in an uncaring institution.”

This is raw stuff for Chaplin, of course, who had been in the workhouse as a boy when his mother became too mentally ill to care for her sons. Nestor Almendros filmed an interview with Chaplin late in his life, and when asked if he was happy, CC replied “Yes, of course, I’ve got money.” Almendros was appalled by this shallow and materialistic reply, but think about what’s behind it.

Chaplin now follows the DW Griffith rulebook: charity workers, social workers and the like are baddies, just like kops. (Something I was told at a party by a social worker: if a department has a particularly bad case, like a child who gets murdered by their stepdad while supposedly being monitored by social services, the department gets its budget cut — of course making further tragedies more likely, not less,)

Incidentally, the doctor gets to do something Chaplin’s supporting cast are rarely allowed to do, post-Keystone: he turns and appeals to the audience. I guess he’s that kind of guy. Charlie’s doing it too, so why not?

The doc blusters off, still complaining about everything in sight — he’s sat on the toilet-chair which broke, the place is filthy, the stairs nearly kill him. Look how tiny Charlie’s hands are. Now it’s September!

Now the two brutes from the orphan asylum turn up. Fantastic the way the one in charge won’t even talk to Charlie, relaying his questions (“Ask him where the kid is,” while Jackie is in plain view) through his doltish underling.

Things escalate fast — these guys, apart from their lack of human empathy, are incredibly bad at their jobs. Chaplin has learned, possibly from Griffith, how to amplify the emotion of a scene with a well-placed closer shot:

jackie saves the day for now, striking both intruders with a hammer and chasing them away. Appropriately enough, I think it’s a chasing hammer. I’m interested in the balance of comedy and drama in the next sequence, the point where Chaplin’s use of comedy and melodrama together reached the sublime. The hammer thumps are something we’ve seen in Chaplin comedies before — THE FATAL MALLET is almost entirely devoted to blows on the head — and it’s gratifying to see these guys receive them, but they’re not played particularly for laughs here. We’re too concerned with the drama to be ready to laugh, I think.

The orphanarium guys return with the film’s chief kop, Tom Wilson. Wilson’s never hugely funny, but that’s fine here, we want a bit of unleavened menace. The supervisor gets a bowl of flour smashed in his face — good, good — but again, it’s part of a dramatic struggle, not funny. Jackie is successfully abducted.

Coogan, interviewed by Brownlow & Gill, describes how his hysteria in this scene was produced simply by Chaplin talking to him, explaining the meaning of the scene, a kind of hypnosis. No child cruelty was involved, though one suspects Jack Coogan Sr. would have been on board if it had been.

That interview is one of the greatest things ever, though I sadly note that Jackie is NO LONGER CUTE. I’m impressed that the camera operator risks a zoom at a key moment, as an emotional intensifier.

Meanwhile, Charlie is struggling with the two heavies, looking straight at us — a little too much? Never mind. Chaplin’s cinema is inherently proscenium-like, our presence as audience is regularly implied, the fourth wall is not only broken, it’s dissolved, and the effect is whatever the opposite of verfremsdungseffekt might be,

The asylum guy gets two more blows on the head, and this is technically slapstick, in the midst of tragedy, so it plays a little oddly but not so it bothers us. Charlie escapes through a skylight and we now get an exciting rooftop chase as he clambers along the houses, actually preceding the child-catcher’s van down the street, before jumping in the back of it and duffing up the supervisor.

The IMDb lists Frank Campeau as the Welfare Officer (a better title than the ones I’ve been giving him) but Campeau, a character guy for Fairbanks and later in many westerns, seems to be a different man with a different man’s face, so I would like to know who this excellent baddie is.

Again, the W.O. getting kicked from the van and left in the dust is very satisfying, but doesn’t play as comedy, exactly. It’s a slightly amusing incident in a dramatic situation in a comic film.

The eventual embrace with Jackie is unbearably emotional. And then, as Coogan noted years later, Chaplin felt the need to top it off with a bit of humour, so he chases the driver away with a series of feints — now that we know it;s going to be alright, we can laugh freely, and it’s a terrific release. Charlie & Jackie then walk off, victorious.

BUT — in a genuinely clever bit of plotting, the doctor now shows Edna the note which Charlie showed him, and the third act is set in motion IMMEDIATELY.

I will write about this tomorrow.

Mossop

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2021 by dcairns

John Mills’ excellent turn as Willie Mossop in HOBSON’S CHOICE is a terrific bit of physical acting and character design. He has two hairstyles, one of which is spectacularly disfiguring — both of which seem to be real, so they must have shot the later scenes first, before barbering him into grotesquerie.

Mills’ other uglified role is in RYAN’S DAUGHTER, where he’s just hideous. Strange to think he won an Oscar for it — if he’d repeated his Early Mossop performance in that context it would have been too much — instead, he goes even further, beyond Mr. Laughton’s Quasimodo. I guess it’s an interesting choice to make the “village idiot” uncharming and unphotogenic, where such characters are usually sentimentalized, but Mills’ choices plunge him into the unpleasant domain of caricaturing the afflicted, an error of judgement, to put it mildly, that lands him in the same camp as Alec Guinness’ whole look in OLIVER TWIST (a film made three years after the Holocaust, if you need reminding).

Mossop, on the other hand, is a wonderful creation. Any discomfort felt about laughing at this ill-educated and ill-dressed man is joyously dissipated as the film shows him blossoming in confidence and erudition, a Galatea sculpted by his partner Maggie (Brenda de Banzie, also wonderful).

Costume designer John Armstrong has collaborated with the actor to subtly deform and distort his trim chorus boy’s body. A little pot belly has been added — I assume it’s prosthetic. The trousers hang in a strange manner, suggesting scrawniness and waste beneath, as well as an ill fit.

Mills enhances the effect by doing a lot of QUALITY ass-work: he sticks out his backside to suggest poor posture rather than pugilistic sauciness, and this seems to do unwelcome things to the clothing. There’s a perfect storm in those trousers — pants and stance in total disharmony.

Kevin Brownlow’s magisterial book David Lean tells us that originally, Robert Donat was cast, and had to shoot a test to convince himself he could do it. He went down the trap door a prematurely aged asthmatic, then came up as Willie Mossop. But he failed the medical, the stress bringing on an attack of wheezing. (Movie medicals, made to satisfy the insurance people, were generally a bit lax. Roy Kinnear said of PIRATES, “A number of us were quite long in the tooth. We all had to do a physical examination. You went in a room and got on a couch, and you could manage that, you were in.”)

Losing his co-lead days before the shoot, Lean had to deal with a rebellious Laughton, who felt betrayed — Korda basically blackmailed him into doing it — “If you go to the scandal sheets, so will I.” Which is… wow. But it certainly helped Lean that his producer was prepared to play the bad guy. Lean and Laughton then enjoyed a good relationship. Lean recalled Mills, on a boat outing, feigning seasickness, and realised what a good physical comic he was. He had imagined Mossop as hulking, but the physical contrast between Mills and Laughton plays brilliantly: Lorre and Greenstreet in Lancashire.

Original author Harold Brighouse wasn’t heavily involved in the film version, but he did advise Lean that he could play the wedding night scene where Mossop tremulously prepares for bed “as long as you like” and it would bring the house down. As with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Omar Sharif’s long approach, Lean lost his nerve, as he put it, and so Mossop’s preparations are truncated by an awkward dissolve. If only he’d test screened it… that kind of thing can give confidence as well as shatter it. He was able to go back and extend Sharif’s approach for the LAWRENCE restoration, but alas HOBSON’S never got that treatment and no doubt the footage was swiftly disposed of.

But still… HOBSON’S is a fascinating case of the duties of a main character being split among three superb players. Laughton brings the lion’s share of the entertainment, a bumptious and sodden Lear, but he never learns anything, he’s simply reduced in power until his mean spirits can’t hurt anyone. De Banzie’s Maggie is the hero who makes things happen — a bit of fancy footwork by Brighouse allows her to triumph due to a complete accident — Hobson falling down a hole — that she could never have anticipated. But she’s unchanging. Mossop is manipulated and coerced every step of the way, a character lacking any form of proactive self-determination, but he’s the one with the arc — more than his circumstances change, he grows in stature and becomes master of the house, albeit one put in that position and kept there by a strong woman who is the real power in the relationship. Mossop knows he’s a mere figurehead, but Maggie gives him confidence at every turn by praising his skill as shoemaker. I’ve seen productions of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW where they’ve tried to make Kate and Petrucchio partners in a role-playing game put on for the benefit of society, but I don’t think you can make that entirely convince as Shakespeare’s intent, but Brighouse was a suffragist and the feminist underpinnings of his play are strikingly modern (see also Stanley Houghton’s oft-filmed HINDLE WAKES) — Maggie and Willie agree to play the roles of strong man and supportive wife, while both know that the reality is more the other way around.

Anyway — we raise our glasses to John Mills and Willie Mossop. He may never have gotten another role like it, but it opened up the range of parts he could be considered for and gave him a new lease of screen life, which he certainly ran with.

Next must-see Millses are ICE-COLD IN ALEX and TUNES OF GLORY.