Archive for Kevin Brownlow

The Sunday Intertitle: The China/Vinegar Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 14, 2023 by dcairns

It’s a fraught business, speculating on the authenticity of intertitles, as we saw last week. I feel I’m on safer ground this time, but we’ll see.

Lobster pulled off the impossible when they restored the ending of HARD LUCK, a short Buster Keaton referred to as possessing the biggest laugh-getter of his career. Buster dives from a high board, misses the pool, and crashes through the earth, emerging years later with a Chinese family.

Accounts exist of how the stunt was performed, with Buster plunging into a carefully prepared hole, filled with sawdust and covered over with cardboard to simulate the poolside.

But sometimes between the twenties and the forties, the sequence went missing, evidently one of the few shorts not located in the safe James Mason found in the house he’d bought from Natalie Talmadge, Buster’s divorced wife (unless the house had an in-between owner, but I don’t think it did — by the thirties, the house was a white elephant, because nobody could afford it).

The gag was brought back to my attention at HippFest this year, when somebody remembered it as a rare example of Buster using animation (cf the elevator crashing through the roof in THE GOAT and the dinosaur in THREE AGES). This struck me as odd — Buster wouldn’t use special effects for anything he could possibly do physically, and anyway, we had the account in Rudi Blesh’s book.

Ace editor Stephen C. Horne and I pored over the shot, and he concluded that the figure of Buster which leaves the edge of the diving board is real… on its way down, however, it loses much of its form and flexibility. He becomes a sort of rigid brushstroke, arcing through the air. Yet the dusty impact looks detailed and real, if a little blurred.

Our conclusion was that the shot has been rather aggressively restored, to the extent of carving Buster’s outline from a vortex of nitrate decomposition. The immobile figures at poolside seem to have been cut and pasted from the start of the shot: they don’t follow Buster’s descent, which is what they’re supposed to be interested in. If we look at the following shots, showing Buster in Chinese attire, the damage is extreme, with the film warping and weaving like a belly dancer’s torso, so it seems plausible that extensive repairs were done on the dive itself.

I emailed Serge Bromberg at Lobster to ask about this, and he replied promptly, in the sense that he emailed me back without delay, but in another sense he didn’t reply — he didn’t answer my question about the extent of the restoration.

Regardless of how much creative reconstruction was done — and I can agree that making the shot readable had to be a priority — there’s something else that was done that I think was a mistake: the sequence has two rather suspect intertitles:

Since Buster prided himself on using as few titles as he possibly could, it seems inconceivable to me that he would have accepted these clunky and redundant statements. It SEEMS obvious to me that these were written when the film’s ending was lost, in order to make the film feel vaguely complete. Of course, as we’ve seen, judging the authenticity of title cards based on the style of writing is a dicey business. If these titles were also found on the ending Lobster recovered, that would be strong evidence for their authenticity. If they weren’t, why would Serge’s team have included them? Well, assuming the recovered ending came from a foreign print, it might not have had accurate intertitles to use as a basis.

But these lame bits of commentary smack of later authorship to me. One is a self-spoiling announcement preceding the jump, a lumbering kind of approach to screen narration that went out of fashion shortly after the Edison FRANKENSTEIN. You won’t find another example of that elsewhere in Keaton’s oeuvre. And the other, though slightly more credible, is unnecessary and weird, filling in for something visual that Keaton could have shown if he’d wanted. Again, there are no examples of Keaton using title card as a substitute for something too difficult to represent. One can imagine a title used instead of action for humorous purposes, but this one isn’t even trying to be funny.

The “He’s gone so far…” title seems less obnoxious, but I still think it’s doing more harm than good. The phrasing is awkward (a bad translation?) but also it forestalls the obvious inference that Buster is dead. The film starts with Buster trying to commit suicide so raising the possibility of his demise here is structurally useful. And Keaton, who ends COPS with his character’s gravestone, wasn’t someone to shy away from darkness. The transition from “He’s dead” to “He fell through the earth to China” is much funnier — because more sudden — than what we get when a title informs us that “He’s gone so far we can barely see him.” (Also: “we”? That’s rotten dialogue. Why would one member oif the group inform the others of what they can see?)

Couple of bits of info gathered online:

“HARD LUCK has been restored by Lobster Films in collaboration with Film Preservation Associates, from a 35mm safety dupe negative and a 24mm ozaphane Cinelux print in the Lobster films collection. Some short fragments were added from a nitrate print from the Cineteca Italiana, a 35mm safety fine grain from the Cinémathèque Française and a 9.5mm print from a private collector. Intertitles are reconstructed according to the font of the time, based on translation of original French cards.”

Well, “the font of the time” is likely a bit of a porky pie, according to Shadowplayer Alex Kirstukas’ analysis of MOONSHINE’s titles. Lobster seem to use approximately period-looking fonts rather than the real thing. And it seems ALL the source prints were foreign, so we’re not going to get the exact wording.

“First reconstructed in 1987 by Kevin Brownlow & David Gill.”

The 1987 cut.

This could be when the now-redundant titles crept in, I think, as Brownlow & Gill had the impossible task of reconstructing a film whose ending was missing. Adding these lines would make it appear that the film was over, sort of, and would represent the absent jump.

Ah-hah! YouTube holds the answer!

The title “From the Raymond Rohauer Archive” suggests the origin of the offending titles. Although the second now appears as “He is so far away you can hardly see him,” which at least is better than Lobster’s phrasing. It makes sense that Rohauer, who was famous for swapping titles in order to assert copyright, and not for his comic genius as a writer, would be the man responsible. And that Lobster, who seem to be a little unreliable with intertitles, would make the mistake of porting the Rohauer cards over. There would be no reason to mistrust their authenticity apart from the fact that they’re BAD.

What remains unknown is whether the Brownlow and Gill Photoplay restoration used the same titles.

Another weird thing is that the first version I could find on YouTube doesn’t have the first, particularly wrong title, but my Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema does. Somebody else had become suspicious… And here’s a 2001 version, also from Lobster, with more variant intertitles. You’d think, if authenticity had been achieved, it would be more stable.

The Sunday Intertitle: Behind the Seen

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2022 by dcairns

“You don’t count, I discount you. I give you the great laugh of all time, the laugh of acceptance — which melts you down.” Ray Bradbury in Kevin Brownlow’s doc The Tramp and the Dictator, attempting to summarise what Chaplin does to Hitler in THE GREAT DICTATOR, and perhaps more accurately summarising the end of his own novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. I wonder if he made the connection, and I wonder if he was in any way thinking of Chaplin, or Nazism, when he wrote the book. Dark & Cooger’s Pandemonium Carnival seems wholly a manifestation of supernatural evil, but maybe its cyclical behaviour, returning again and again to plague humanity, could be a gesture towards political madness and badness, which seems set on an eternal return of its own.

I miss Ray B.

The Brownlow documentary is excellent, of course.

When Kenneth Branagh narrates that two mysterious suitcases belonging to Sydney Chaplin were found in the Chaplin villa in Switzerland, I immediately flashed on how alarming it might be to have the job of opening them, knowing what we know about Syd’s proclivities. They might contain anything — the missing bits of the Black Dahlia, for instance. I’m barely even kidding here.

Instead, to our relief and gratification, we get Syd’s home movies, which include behind-the-scenes shots, in colour, of the shooting of THE GREAT DICTATOR. Also holiday film of topless native girls, filmed with a lascivious eye to the viewfinder. But that’s relatively innocent in comparison to Syd’s history of aggravated sexual assault (only one incident, so far as we know, but a singularly horrible one).

In the film of TGD’s ballroom scene, Syd seems to have his eye on an attractive blonde extra. I can only hope she escaped unscathed.

Interesting to see Chaplin and Grace Hayle dancing, from the wrong angle, with camera tremor, and in colour. When you see Keaton performing via a documentary camera in BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN, his stylisation becomes more apparent: he’s acting for THAT camera, not THIS one. Chaplin’s stylisation is nearly always apparent, I think. And Grace H. is always almost completely real, which is why we feel a bit sorry for her Madame Napaloni, even though we probably needn’t.

Later, when we see Billy Gilbert, NOT acting, laughing at something Chaplin has said, he seems as vaudevillian and exaggerated in life as he does when performing (above right, left of frame).

We also get to see Chaplin staging WWI in Woodland Hills, and the ghetto on the back lot, surrounded by Los Angeles with its palm trees, and everything is in too-gaudy colour, both more and less real than the scenes in the finished movie.

In this extra feature, made for the European DVD of TGD, my man Costa-Gavras goes deep on the world’s tolerant approach to Hitler as Chaplin set out to make his denunciation. Chaplin can seem naive and woolly, the self-educated man full of opinions he likes, but the fact is on Hitler he was bang on, and most of the rest of the world was horribly wrong.

He also talks about Napaloni’s arrival by rail, the scene I just discussed yesterday — he finds the clapped-together production values intriguing, and is sure Chaplin meant the cardboard production design to signify the emptiness, the deep falsity of the two dictators. And he sings the praises of Heinkel’s dance with the globe — and one might think of the Dance of the Eurocrats at the end of his most recent film, the criminally neglected ADULTS IN THE ROOM.

Oh yes, it’s Sunday, we need an intertitle. Brownlow’s documentary provides one, untranslated, as the VO notes “audiences did not respond to [Hitler] as a silent actor.” Despite the low angle framing, making the little man in short trousers look big, the vital element of the voice is missing. Hitler needed radio and talking pictures to convey his message beyond his immediate presence. They were invented at just the right time for him, and you might argue the wrong time for Chaplin.

God knows, Hitler’s actual words — “Germany’s freedom will rise again just as people and fatherland will resist, stronger than ever!” — are not particularly meaningful. They have the tone of prophecy rather than political analysis, which presumably worked in their favour, but you would need A.H.’s salesmanship to put them across.

Chaplin said Hitler was the greatest actor he’d ever seen.

More fun with Charlie and Adolf next week!

It Couldn’t Happen Here

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2022 by dcairns

I read a ridiculous amount of Michael Moorcock when I was a teenager. With a certain unjustified embarrassment I realize today that I still like him. I can’t see myself rereading the sword and sorcery stuff, except maybe Elric, who always had a lot more character than the iron-hewed knights populating most of the “eternal champion” mythos… it’s Jerry Cornelius, his comic version Jerry Cornell, and the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy that still exert a pull.

So I was glad to pick up England Invaded, which I must have seen listed on some Moorcock bibliography — in his heyday he always occupied an entire man-long shelf at the Science Fiction Bookshop (“only fifty yards from this cinema”) — without knowing what it was. An anthology of early sci-fi dealing with invasions of the UK (generally not just England, but I admit Moorcock’s title sounds better). What got me most interested was the novel by Saki which eats up most of the pages, When William Came.

There’s a whole school of fiction dealing with “What if the Germans won WWII?” — I’ve read Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (I’m a dedicated Dickhead), and even “Sarban’s” The Sound of His Horn, a trashy, pervy alternative history set a thousand years in the future and with the distinction of having been written while the outcome of the war was still in dispute. I haven’t bothered with Robert Harris’s Fatherland, too mainstream for me, but maybe I should. I also haven’t seen Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here (I definitely should) or the TV adaptation of the Dickand Deighton books.

(My brother, a bit of a scholar of military history, convincingly explained to my why a German occupation was never a realistic short-term danger — the Reich were surprised at their success in France and had prepared no scheme to effect mass landings overseas. And Dick’s postulate, of America conquered, was never on the cards.)

Anyway, Saki’s book isn’t one of those. It’s the only example I know of a “What if the Germans won WWI?” novel. But not quite, since Saki doesn’t predict depict conflagration, just a face-off between Germany and Britain in which the superior German airforce sinks our fleet and we’re swiftly blockaded into submission. The other thing about it that’s unusual is that it came out in 1913, so it’s not an alternative history, it’s a wrong prediction. (I like old sci-fi best, the stuff that hasn’t come true — there’s nothing cosier than an apocalypse diverted.)

Jemand für Tennis?

One trouble with this is, Wilhelm’s Imperial Germany isn’t as horrifying a baddie as Hitler’s Third Reich. But that makes the book rather fascinating, as the disaffected hero, who missed the whole thing due to a bout of swamp fever in Norway, wanders around looking at the street signs now printed in both languages, bemoaning the fact that London has become, horror of horrors, “cosmopolitan.”

Another trouble is that “cosmopolitan” is in this context a synonym for Jewish. Though an antisemitic doctor tending to the impotent antihero admits that “some of them have behaved well,” both Saki and his protagonist seem obsessed with their repugnance at Jewish social climbers taking a preeminent place in society. It seems weird at this historical distance for an invading German force to be considered less antisemitic than the British, but it may for all I know not be completely inaccurate. And so you get sentences like, “Men and women there were from Paris, Munich, Rome, Moscow and Vienna, from Sweden and Holland and divers other cities and countries, but in the majority of cases the Jordan Valley had supplied their forefathers with a common cradle-ground.”

Saki also wrote The Unrest-Cure, a short story in which one of his placid young male protagonists, Clovis, I think, overhears a country gent on a train bemoaning the rut his existence has settled into, and so resolves to liven things up a bit, by impersonating an emissary from the new vicar, intent upon enacting a pogrom in the village. “And your house has been selected as the venue!” I always thought of this story as the product of pre-WWII insensitivity, its shocking premise adding a dash of discomfort to the hazy salad days setting, and I found it very funny in an appalling way — but now it seems much more sinister and malign. As it always should have.

There was a sadism to Saki that sets him decisively apart from P.G. Wodehouse, whom he influences and whose characters move in recognizably the same story world. This malice found its healthiest outlet when his stories slipped without warning from drawing room comedy to horror, and sometimes but not always back again (The Open Window).

The horror at a German Britain may well have motivated Saki — in reality a Scotsman called Hector Hugh Munro — to enlist when WWI broke out, even though he was 43 and officially over-age. He was shot dead by a sniper in 1916. Famous last words, supposedly: “Put that bloody cigarette out!”

Saki was also homosexual, which throws the novel’s homophobia, a recurrent sub-theme along with its antisemitism, into a different and more tragic relief. “In what way, he asked himself in such moments, would his life be better than the life of that parody of manhood who upholstered his rooms with art hangings and rosewood furniture and babbled over the effect?” Of course these are the thoughts of the painfully straight, rather sexless hero. It’s notable that the best lines in the book always belong to, or are aimed at, the languid aesthetes his wife hangs around with. “Larry’s father had been a brilliantly clever man who had married a brilliantly handsome woman; the Fates had not had the least intention that Larry should take after both parents.”

Moorcock in his short intro doesn’t address any of this, calling the work “a sophisticated moral fiction.” Um.