Archive for Laurel & Hardy

Alonso and Michel’s Lowlife Reunion

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2022 by dcairns

The last day of Hippfest began, for us anyway, with a Laurel & Hardy triple bill — restorations of DUCK SOUP, TWO TARS and LIBERTY, all of which brought the house down, or would’ve if the Hippodrome had been less solidly constructed 110 years ago.

This was followed by A STRING OF PEARLS (YICHUAN ZHENZHU, 1926), one of the few surviving Chinese silents, a loose adaptation of Maupassant’s The Necklace, complete with happy ending. Though the whole point of the story, if it has one, would seem to be the utterly miserable ending Maupassant provided, the plot’s reworking was done with some skill and logic, and might have succeeded had not the screenplay, by Hou Yao, resorted to every possible means to pad the story from the original few pages to feature length. This became tiresome, but then hilarious, especially when we discover that one character, a wealthy businessman who looks oddly like a twelve-year-old girl in drag, is being blackmailed.

Little girl man looks thoughtfully at the blackmail note which demands a thousand pounds, “or I will reveal your secret.” Flashback: little girl man receives his first-ever blackmail note, demanding a mere one hundred pounds. Carefully he removes the money from his safe. Goes to meet the blackmailer. Pays him. We come out of this flashback. Little girl man wistfully remembers his second blackmail note. We see him receive it. It is identically worded, but demands two hundred pounds, “or I will reveal your secret.” He takes the money…

John Sweeney on piano accompanied this insane, ritualistic repetition with a straight face, somehow bringing out the comedy without spoofing. It was cheering to learn that the screenwriter published a book on the art of writing for films.

The intertitles were also a joy: decorative and bilingual, the English parts obviously penned by someone just as skilled at bluffing as Hou Yao. Maybe Hou did it himself. When little girl man (back in the present tense at last) refuses to pay the thousand pounds, the blackmailer sets about him with a dagger. Mrs. Little Girl Man visits her injured husband in hospital and asks, “Tell me. What’s the trouble between you and your murderer.”

The titles also featured some nifty animation (including pearls rearranging themselves into the Chinese character for “misfortune” and some random drawings of camels. This was probably the worst Chinese silent yet (I don’t even like the classic, THE GODDESS, that much — too much propaganda) and my favourite.

Then we had two films for which I wrote the notes — THE UNKNOWN and L’HOMME DU LARGE. Since the notes for the latter were written back in 2020 the programme has changed, and it was John Sweeney who accompanied that one with Frank Bockius, and very glorious it was. Johnny Best, who threw himself into a rambunctious accompaniment to the L&H trio (with Frank ram-Bockius on percussion), played solo for the Browning-Chaney film, where Alonso the armless knife-thrower finds that the course of tearing one’s rival apart with wild horses never does run smooth. Best, in this case, opted for a restrained, even muted approach, since what was going on up there on the screen was more than demented enough. In the L’Herbier, Charles Boyer somehow gets top-billing for a fairly tiny supporting role (well, he’s electrifying to watch even if Nosferatu-gaunt) and L’Herbier’s partner Jaque Catelain plays Michel, the no-good son of a sea-worshipping fisherman. Paul McGann narrated, since it would be a crime to stick subtitles on those beautiful art intertitles. Impossible to believe this film was made in 1920. The music, sonorous voice-over, and conducive setting all worked their magic…

The full array of Hippodrome programme notes is available here. I seem to have written quite a few over the years.

The Circus is Leaving Town

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

So, Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS has been turned into an exciting serial, but last time I neglected to give you the cliffhanger: when Rex the high-wire guy unaccountably disappears (is there ever a reason given?), Charlie, who has been practising on a rope one foot above sawdust, is suddenly enlisted to hopefully break his neck. Hurriedly getting ready, he accidentally unleashes a platoon of capuchin monkeys belonging to Bosco the magician (no reason why either monkeys or a magician would be present in a circus, but I guess it’s possible, barely).

Not being a complete clown, except by profession, Charlie enlists a props man — the wonderful John Rand — to harness him up on a wire so he can perform feats of derring-do and derring-don’t in complete safety without the aid of a safety net. We anticipate disaster, and we are right to do so.

Rand has been one of the more delightful discoveries of my Chaplin deep dive — an incredibly effective clown, without a hugely strong individual personality but with a lot of style. He seems to specialise in frantic characters, often particularly dedicated kops in pursuit of Charlie, as in POLICE. Here, his perpetually flustered manner is usefully deployed as he’s entrusted with another man’s very life.

The monkey assault was, it seems, Charlie’s initial idea for the whole film — “I’m in a high place being attacked by monkeys or something,” Henry Bergman reports him saying. It sounds like someone reporting a dream, which seems appropriate. Of course Simon Louvish sees the sequence as a metaphor for Charlie’s divorce difficulties, which forces him to assume Bergman is lying. But one could still take a psychological approach to the scene (particularly appropriate the more like a dream the idea is — a fragmentary notion arising from the subconscious) and say it’s inspired by Chaplin’s exposed position as a celebrity who performs for a public, and is prey to attack by critics or personal enemies. It’s relevance to the divorce story becomes coincidental, or prophetic. The divorce and scandal merely fulfill the pre-existing anxiety, the nightmare comes true.

As well as John Rand, we have Josephine, Hollywood’s go-to monkey, who co-starred with Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN and Lloyd in THE KID BROTHER and even Laurel and Hardy in BABES IN TOYLAND (unrecognisably costumed as Mickey Mouse!) I’m unskilled at reading monkey markings so I don’t know which one she is, but as a skilled performer she could have been trusted with any of the more elaborate bits of business.

The different uses of Josephine by the three great silent clowns tells us a lot about them. For Lloyd, she’s originally a threat, part of the film’s array of bad guys, but with typical resourcefulness Harold turns her into a tool, a useful decoy, dressing her in his shoes to lure the villain away. Keaton focusses on her role as organ grinder’s assistant: an animal that has been trained to turn the crank on an organ may also usefully or hazardously operate a Gatlin gun in a Tong war, or a movie camera. Though Keaton’s universe is the most whimsically hostile, generally, it’s Chaplin who uses Josephine and her simian friends or relatives as an attack force. David Robinson continually describes the monkeys as awful or vicious, but I see them as awful only in effect. They’re not savagely attacking Charlie, they’re just, you know, monkeying around. Even the one biting his nose seems interested only in messing with him. The monkeys will, potentially, kill him, but it doesn’t seem to me that they WANT to. In fact, the comic irony of the scene is that small, basically harmless creatures become a menace to life and limb(s). It’s the same gag as the wee dog barking at Charlie in the lion cage.

The unusual situation allows Charlie to get a fresh laugh out of the tiredest old joke, the banana peel. It becomes a bigger hazard, and an unlikelier one (though the association with monkeys is strong and logical) and the anticipation caused by its being in his path is even stronger because his path is so damned narrow. Totally unnecessary to add any new wrinkles — just have him slip on it. Also, Charlie’s trousers falling down, an old gag that’s suddenly funny and terrifying, and also adds to the sense of public exposure and humiliation underlying all this.

Chaplin COULD have emphasised the association with his own life and career by having the audience laughing at his peril, assuming it to be part of his act, but instead they react in terror. This augments the tension — those cutaways of horrified faces are really powerful — but it seems less pertinent to the film’s plot and themes. Oh well, he made a sensible choice, one can’t deny it works.

Excellent use of the pole, too.

Oh, along with the nose-biting there’s another oral intrustion, the monkey sticking its tail in Charlie’s mouth. Maybe the detail that convulsed Fiona the most. I’ve written about Charlie’s oral fixation in terms of the choking gag, and related it to a childhood trauma in the best dollar book Freud tradition — Charlie choking on a coin he attempted to swallow as part of a magic act — money, performance, choking — three big themes. The number of times in his films Charlie ingests metal is astonishing. And of course food and its absence are absolutely defining concepts for Chaplin. And we could also note that sexually Charlie was extremely oral (I just typed oran by mistake, a Freudian ape-slip) — the salacious aspects of the divorce involved his enthusiasm for receiving fellatio. Let’s agree that sometimes a monkey tail is just a monkey tail. Ptui.

Incidental research: since this sequence converted Fiona from a non-fan to a full-on supporter, I decided to try it on my parents, who both declared that they didn’t like his stuff (and probably had to suffer through a fair bit when I was growing up) and they’re not silent film enthusiasts. My Mum was particularly strong in her statement that she didn’t like him. My Dad does have a fondness for both Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon. Anyway, they both laughed hysterically. But didn’t act like I’d changed their minds. Which must prove something: some distinction between laughing at and appreciating.

Miraculously surviving his aerial ordeal, Charlie interrupts the ringmaster beating Merna, delivering not only a kick up the arse to the villain, but a sock in the eye. This gets him fired, and he’s discovered by Merna camped outside the grounds the following night. I’ve seen a beautiful illustration of this by production designer Charles D. Hall. It’s a rare exterior set, because Chaplin clearly wanted to see the moon in the sky.

Incidentally, Hall also illustrated the monkey rampage, indicating it was indeed part of the original plan for the film (this was concept art, not set designs) rather than a direct artistic response to the divorce scandal. Charlie now behaves like he did in THE TRAMP, making way for the better man. By getting Rex married to Merna he assumes the role, in modern parlance, of cuck — but here the role is portrayed as noble and selfless, as indeed it is in the circumstances. The ringmaster can no longer push Merna around as she has a protector with rights, a respected star of the show.

(Ringmasters are usually baddies — they’re bosses, of course, making them natural Chaplin enemies, and they seem to have twirly moustaches as part of the job description. Al Ernest Garcia even does a “Curses!” gesture, a little midriff-level air-punch.)

This stuff is played skillfully played: Charlie maintains the guise of being happy for his friends, no horse in this race, until the circus leaves town and he doesn’t join it.

This is one of his great endings — it hadn’t occurred to me before but the sort of crop circle he’s left in is only an abstract suggestion of the patch of pale grass that’s left when a tent is removed. This is more like someone has scuffed up the dirt in a ring. A big top crop circle. (UFOs and circuses are much alike — they visit and depart, people go in and see inexplicable things and lose track of time.)

Chaplin uses a surprising number of shots, for him. The extreme wide is tragedy, as Welles observed. Then a medium of the pensive ex-clown. His eyes meet ours, a return to the camera intimacy that defined early Charlie, but with the intent melancholy rather than humorous.

Closeup of the tattered star on the ground, also. What’s significantly absent is the standard Chaplin head-to-toe framing. Even when he gets up and leave, we’re much wider than that.

Incidentally, I’d like a restoration of the film’s original cut — this star is supposed to be the film’s opening image, but Chaplin altered that when he added the damn song at the start. Opening on the star and then leaving it in the dust at the end would be so neat. And makes the film more explicitly a film about stardom, something which at this time in his life Chaplin was apparently wishing he could leave behind. But he still had quite a few years left to go…

Charlie walks off, back-kicking the crumpled star, and forcing himself into a jaunty walk. Off to the city lights…

The Sunday Intertitle: The Ineluctibility of Genre

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2021 by dcairns

A break from Chaplin: two silent Italian shorts from the nineteenteens. In both of them, romantic intrigues lead the characters into the dark of a cinema. And in both of them, the films shown comment on the action.

In TRAGEDIA AL CINEMATOGRAFO of 1913, directed by Enrico Guazzoni, a jealous husband follows his wife through the yellow streets — annoyed by a roving band of commedia dell’arte players, like something out of CLOCKWORK ORANGE but with irksome capering replacing the old ultraviolence — finally tracking her to a cinema, where she meets a family friend.

And the film being screened for them is a drama about a jealous husband, who overacts just as badly as the real one.

Meanwhile, a year earlier, in AL CINEMATOGRAFO, GUARDATE… E NON TOCCATE (AT THE CINEMA, LOOK… AND DON’T TOUCH), smarmy comic Enrico Vaser pursues a comely dame to the picture show, and the film showing is a broad farce, much like the one they’re in. Which just goes to show you.

In TRAGEDIA, Guazzoni plays his film within a film as a box inset in the total darkness of a cinema. He even uses a cut to represent the lights going off and the film starting:

Whereas in GUARDATE, director Giovanni Pastrone, soon to be famed for CABIRIA, is more ambitious, superimposing the FWAF into another frame. This causes the occasional silk hat to become translucent as it passes in front of the affected area, but we could just pretend that’s the projector’s beam hitting the hat with a scenic image, couldn’t we? Do try to get into the spirit of the thing.

Surprisingly, TRAGEDIA turns out to be a commedia, and funnier than the more over c. of errors displayed in GUARDATE, which chucks in a pre-Fellini dwarf and lots of mistaken frottage in the dark, growing still more risqué when the girl and her beau swap seats and creepy Enrico, having already rubbed shoes with the maid by mistake, now begins fondling a fellow of the same, or homo, sex.

In TRAGEDIA, the jealous husband is initially frustrated by an early cinema rule: NO ONE TO BE ADMITTED AFTER THE SHOW STARTS. Hmm, must be a Hitchcock or Preminger movie. He presents himself to the manager, who is busy examining small strips of film, which must be what cinema managers do. On the wall is a poster for Guazzoni’s biggest hit.

The husband expresses his fervent wish to assassinate his wife, so the manager makes an announcement, warning the audience that a murderous husband is without, awaiting his faithless partner with a revolver.

And we get a gag about the universality of cheating made famous, in a variant, by Laurel & Hardy and Leo McCarey in WE FAW DOWN (1928). Most of the audience is composed of adulterers, and they sneak out by the side uscita, leaving the auditorium populated by a scattered drib of the lonely and virtuous:

Cinema = sex, preferably illicit.