Archive for Lon Chaney

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.

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Hull-Hound

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2016 by dcairns

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We never get a clear look at Warner Oland’s chubby werewolf, and that has to be a good thing.

It’s taken me this long to watch WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and God knows I’ve tried. As a kid I was no doubt eager to see it, but it never seemed to turn up on UK TV. As an adult, I was excited to finally get my hands on the thing, and then found it impossible to sit through.

This time around — third time’s the charm — it didn’t seem THAT bad — despite several strikes against it, it has a number of appealing images and ideas.

First the bad — Henry Hull is written as a completely unsympathetic boor, and that’s just how he plays it, with an added suggestion of indifference and superiority to the material. In the abstract, it’s kind of interesting the way the character perversely contradicts his own motivations — he’s jealous of his wife but either ignores her or drives her a way, he quickly becomes convinced he is indeed infected with “werewolfery” (or worse, “lycanthrophobia”) but rejects offers of help from the man who infected him. In practice, these traits are frustrating and dramatically self-defeating. “It defeats its own purpose,” as Jake LaMotta would say.

Hull lacks the physical presence and skill to make a convincing transformation, and his werewolf performance consists largely of making a face like he’s going to sneeze.

The comedy relief, zesty and startling in a James Whale film, is lumbering and ugly here. Last time I watched, I got as far as the two drunken landladies (one of them, Ethel Griffies, is the ornithologist from THE BIRDS — not that old, she would live another forty years). The film is full of menopausal women, Fiona pointed out, and they’re all played as clowns. Spring Byington (“So romantic, with the Thames lapping at one’s very threshold”) is the main culprit. Worse is the way the so-called hero’s lunar depredations are followed by jocular scenes at Scotland Yard, with the police chortling away together despite the wave of manglings sweeping the metropolis.

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Good stuff — going all the way to Tibet to get bitten by a werewolf is gloriously excessive.

Gratuitous killer plants! An entirely satisfying horror movie about rival botanists could probably be concocted with no need for werewolfery at all. Although, there’s THE WOMANEATER to prove me wrong.

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Warner Oland in a role maybe planned for Lugosi — now he’s a professor from the University of the Carpathians, with a Japanese name. And he’s a LOVELY werewolf, much nicer than H.H.

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Ah-ah-ah…. CHOO!

But I dig the way Hull remains somewhat compos mentis when wolfing about — he actually turns into a werewolf and then PUTS ON A HAT to go out. And he gets a deathbed speech in werewolf form. Though the principles of Lon Chaney wolfman mythos are being laid down here in an early form, the story is still in large part Jekyll & Hyde.

Also — GREAT first transformation, using foreground columns which occlude the frame, in a relay of shots connected by hidden wipes, so that Hull’s makeup (by Universal monster supremo Jack Pierce) can develop in yak-fur increments.

Things Roddy said during House of Dracula

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on May 3, 2016 by dcairns

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Haven’t done one of these for a while. Fiona’s brother Roddy, who has the chromosomal disorder Williams Syndrome, hasn’t been to visit for ages, because he’s no longer really able to travel without disastrous consequences. There’s really very little information about the effect of aging on Williams people, but as Roddy enters his fifties he’s clearly less self-sufficient, more nervous, and his behaviour is more unpredictable and problematic, necessitating more care and less excitement. He still likes the horror movies he grew up with, though, so we took one round to his place in Dundee to view as he was just released from hospital after having a minor collapse.

As usual, Roddy kept up an attentive non-director’s commentary on Erle Kenton’s HOUSE OF DRACULA, apart from when he briefly fell asleep. Fiona and I also interjected.

The movie begins with John Carradine flapping up to the home of Dr. Edlemann (Carradine is, initially, a bat, which makes his self-introduction as “Baron LaForce” seem questionable).

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Roddy: “What’s he doing ? Is he coming downstairs?”

Fiona: “Has Baron Laugh-horse or whatever his name is put the hypnotic vibes on him?”

We asked Roddy how he would react to John Carradine’s Dracula in real life. He takes a hard line on Romanian immigrants ~

Roddy: “I would say, ‘Get back to your grave where you came from!'”

When Dracula announces he wants to be cured of his vampirism, I took a poll as to whether he should be trusted:

Fiona: “I’d trust him, the way Carradine plays him.” Roddy: “I wouldn’t.”

Roddy: “Two nurses, hmm! There were lots of nurses where I’ve been.” Roddy likes nurses.

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Larry Talbot: “Do you believe that a man can be transformed into an animal?” Roddy: “I do!”

Larry Talbot: “Do you think he can cure me?” Roddy: “Of course he can, Mr. Werewolf Man! He’ll give you a cure for your werewolf impression.”

Dr. Edlemann: “Siegfried! Siegfried!” Fiona: “Chickpea? I’m hearing everyone’s name wrong!”

Roddy: “But where’s the monster? Hiding somewhere?”

Fiona: “So how come he hasn’t become a skeleton?” Roddy: “Don’t ask me, I’m not a doctor!”

Roddy: “Where’s he going?”

Fiona: “He didn’t want to be cured of vampirism, you were right!” Roddy: “YES.”

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Fiona: “He’s transfusing himself with vampire blood? Surely that means he’s going to turn into a vampire?” Me: “Precisely. The one flaw in his plan.”

Me: “And that’s the end if Dracula. HE won’t be back in the next film of the series. We can be quite sure of that.”

Fiona: “Oh, we’re having a weird… thing!”

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Roddy: “What are they doing now?”

Dr. Edlemann’s cat, sensing his new vampiric nature, hisses at him. The doc throws a shoe at it. Roddy: “Missed!”

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Fiona: “Mrs. Overall!”

Roddy: “Was that Frankenstein did something there?”