Archive for Kitty

The Sunday Intertitle: A Gorilla in Every Port

Posted in Dance, FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2017 by dcairns

We were led to THE CHIMP by obscure means ~

Fiona got obsessed with Charles Gemora, Hollywood’s top gorilla impersonator, after seeing BLONDE VENUS with me, and discovered the existence of a documemtary, CHARLIE GEMORA: UNCREDITED. We paid to see it on Vimeo, and found it eye-opening indeed — though Gemora made the best gorilla costume in Hollywood, and performed in it with gusto (probably to the detriment of his health) there was much more to him than that.

CHARLIE GEMORA: UNCREDITED from Cloud Tank Creative on Vimeo.

The pint-sized Philippino came to America as an illegal immigrant, I guess you’d say, and his first job in Hollywood was as an extra in Lon Chaney’s HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Seeing him draw sketches of his fellow extras (who must have included future director Tay Garnett, whose experience here led to the title of his autobiography, Light Up Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights — words to live by), the bosses put him to work sculpting gargoyles for the cathedral set, “on the basis that if you can draw, you can sculpt.” Gemora didn’t even have any training drawing, and had never sculpted in his puff.

But soon he’s carving massive figures for movies, as well as getting into the gorilla work and special make-up effects, particularly for those curious jobs where it’s hard to say is it a makeup or is it a costume? Monsters, freaks, aliens. COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, WAR OF THE WORLDS. An interesting early one is Benjamin Christensen’s horror comedy SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, in which Gemora plays ape, but may also have had a hand in the stunning, grotesque and ooky make-ups.

Thelma Todd (a frequent gemora screamer), “Sir Charles” himself, and director/wrangler Benjamin Christensen.

(I’m fascinated by this: Benjamin Christensen made HAXAN/WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES the same year as Chaney’s HUNCHBACK, pulling off the tricky feat of full-body make-up effects far more effectively than Chaney’s ambitious Quasimodo design, which relies on an improbably leonine mane of body hair to disguise the neck-join. No credit is given for the designer of HAXAN’s amazing demons and imps. But it’s possible Christensen, an actor himself — he plays Satan — was responsible. Making him the link to SEVEN FOOTPRINTS, though we can also imagine a Westmore or two being mixed in, with Gemora either helping out or watching and taking notes from inside his Ingagi suit.)

Gemora painted portraits of the stars (Stanwyck, Goddard) and forged Gainsboroughs for Mitchell Leisen’s KITTY. He played many of the monsters he designed, including the Martian in Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS. And he could play his apes straight (the affecting THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL; PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE) but, and this brings us to THE CHIMP, could be hilarious when required.

THE CHIMP is a very minor Laurel & Hardy short, which transforms into a major Charlie Gemora short when viewed through the correct filter. It reprises the previous year’s “smuggle an animal past the landlord” plotline from the superior LAUGHING GRAVY but replaces the lovable pup with Ethel the chimp, played by Gemora in gorilla suit and tutu. Gemora’s very human gestures (shrugs, pointing, ballet dancing) had Fiona in helpless hysterics. This element of pure phantasie is somehow unsuited to Stan & Ollie’s world, I feel, but once you start watching Gemora’s performance for its own sake, it’s a thing of beauty in its own right.

Jason Barnett’s documentary is great for all this background, shining a light on Gemora’s incredibly varied and mainly uncredited contributions to Hollywood cinema. The story is assembled in a somewhat pedestrian way, and the attempts to bring the still images to life with fancy rostrum work are often clumsy: since the many of the photos, drawings and documents have presumably come from Gemora’s archive, I wanted to SEE the archive and make-up kit put in front of a moving picture camera, explored in the round, clues in a detective story. Scans give us a clear look at the contents of the Gemora papers but rob them of their personality as artifacts.

Nevertheless, don’t let me put you off — the film is incredibly well-researched and doesn’t shrink from the mysteries of Gemora’s extensive career — we will not see a better film about this fascinating artist.


Shots of Scots 1: You Naztee Spy

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2009 by dcairns


That’s Alec Craig on the left, a stock Scot-for-hire in Hollywood films of the late ’30s and 40’s. I think I first noticed him in Mitchell Leisen’s KITTY, a film unusually blessed with Celtic types. On the right is sly ladycorpse Eily Malyon, who played various sinister domestics and cadaverous matriarchs during the same period. Here she’s a Scottish nazi, and she seems to have acquired her accent by mimicking Alec’s — she’s very convincing, despite being a native Londoner.

The film is —


— from Warner Brothers, and after a riproaring catchpenny title like that it thrilled me to find the first scene taking place in my own fatherland, where Mrs McLaughlin (Malyon) is acting as a postal forwarding address for espionage-related correspondence. Further thrills are supplied by the movie’s place in history: released in 1939, it provoked an international incident with its unabashedly anti-Nazi rhetoric (although it’s not anti-German, being directed by Anatole Litvak and padded with provisos to make it clear that this evil is political rather than national or racial). CONFESSIONS  nearly propelled America into the war two years early, and thus tends to disprove the still-prevalent fallacy that studio bosses chose to ignore the threat of fascism in Europe.

The film is one of those hard-hitting, torn-from-the-headlines Warners dramas, complete with a stentorian narrator, or maybe ANNOUNCER would be a better word, and it exploits the Hollywood convention of hitting you, hard, with the same information in a number of ways, just in case you’re very very stupid ~

Dissolve to a sign reading “Fort Wentworth 2nd Army Corps Base Hospital”, then to a clerk at a phone, beneath a sign reading “Dispensary, sick calls”.

Announcer: “A few days later, the sick-clerk at Fort Wentworth Station Hospital receives a call.”

Sick-clerk: “Hello, Fort Wentworth Station Hospital, sick-clerk speaking.”

Despite such thick-eared, thick-headed moments, there are many pleasures on offer — George Sanders as an arrogant Gestapo creep, his head shaved to a tuft, making him look halfway between a Japanese baby and a deformed novelty potato — Lya Lys from L’AGE D’OR, who’s always welcome in a Hollywood film, just for the bizarre resonance she brings (this was probably her best Ho’wood role) — Eddie G Robinson as a prototype of the Nazi-hunter he plays in Welles’ THE STRANGER — Paul Lukas, sleazy as the philandering Bund demagogue — best of all, handsome Francis Lederer as the main spy, an underachieving, egotistical fantasist motivated only by self-aggrandizement, a brilliant study in narcissism.

Francis went on to be Jodie Foster’s drama coach when she was a kid. Hooray for him!

The title CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY may tempt some of you to picture Robin Askwith in an S.S. uniform.


“He’s sorry.”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2008 by dcairns

Necessary background: in FIRST A GIRL, Jessie Matthews has disguised herself as a young fellow in order to get a break in show-business. This is where the leading man discovers her secret, and… he’s sorry?

It’s either a direct homosexual allusion, a joke on effete British leading men, or both.

Directed by Victor Saville, FIRST A GIRL is a remake of the German VIKTOR, VIKTORIA, which formed the basis for Blake Edwards’ VICTOR, VICTORIA, which is also pretty bold about gender and sexuality themes — only forty years later.

Jessie M deserves a chapter of her own in any Encyclopaedia of British Rumpo — her fondness for seriously diaphanous costumes ran afoul of the American censors, and her dancing impressed Fred Astaire. she had offers from Hollywood but stayed in England to get married (to that chap in Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE) and have a kid. By the time she was disillusioned with that, America was no longer calling. She was a working-class cockney girl who trained herself to talk incredibly posh, and somehow it goes with her cheeky chipmunk smile. Her husband, by contrast, was a posh lad who trained himself to speak cockney, leading to music hall success.

Like Barbara Windsor, Jessie always pissed in the dressing room sink. You don’t want to use the toilet — who knows who’s been in there?

Her leading man is Griffith Jones, best known (to me, anyhow) as the villainous Narcy (Narcissus) in Cavalcanti’s THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE, just about the best British noir ever. According to my friend Lawrie, Jones had a slight bitter streak: “Of course, they don’t want sincere acting nowadays,” he would grumble, when “in his cups”.

Victor Saville, who directed Jessie in a number of successful British musicals, did go to Hollywood, where he directed Rita Hayworth in TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (memorable scene: a young man dances to a Hitler speech on the radio), Errol Flynn and Dean Stockwell in KIM, before tanking spectacularly with THE SILVER CHALICE, which sent him back to England and a long retirement.

NB: though Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL is often listed as Britain’s first talkie, Victor Saville’s KITTY, which is half-silent and half-talking (BLACKMAIL’s first reel is also mute) was apparently first. I wonder what it’s like?