Archive for Lubitsch

The Sunday Intertitle: Bathing Beauty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 3, 2022 by dcairns

BADETS DRONNING — aka THE QUEEN OF THE SEASON or, more accurately, THE QUEEN OF BATHING — is a 1912 seaside comedy from Denmark. It’s quite sophisticated. While Sennett’s comics were just beginning to gesticulate and grimace, the actors here keep one foot in naturalism. They’re actors, not clowns. The filmmaker, Eduard Schnedler-Sørensen, offers up the prospect of slapstick — will the fat man fall in a tide pool? — only to refuse it, in favour of small-scale accidents and social embarrassments.

Although my first impulse was to view the film as a more advanced variation on the silent clown film, maybe it’s more accurate to position it as a pre-Lubitsch comedy of manners. After all, this kind of thing wouldn’t SUPERCEDE the slapstick comedy until talkies came in, it would just develop along its own path, merrily, blossoming into the screwball comedy and romcom.

As a group of men hover around an unaccompanied (but married) woman — the bathing beauty stuff anticipates Sennett — one actor stood out. (Well, actually, chubby Oscar Stribolt is fun, too. And the not-too-obscure object of desire is Else Frölich, Paul Gauguin’s sister-in-law).

This fellow, seen above in the centre, seemed a bit more theatrical than the others, and he’s drenched his hair in powder to whiten it. His eyebrows are pure products of the pencil. I thought he looked like a Torben Meyer type — the dialect comedian who essayed a series of prissy bald functionaries for Preston Sturges, for instance Clink the purser in THE LADY EVE and Dr. Kluck in THE PALM BEACH STORY.

It’s him! With hair! Presumably his own, since he’s felt the need to lighten it. He’s only twenty-eight, but has sized up his equipment and set himself down in the Spotlight directory of life as a character man. Incredibly busy up until 1926, he disappears for a year and then reemerges in Hollywood in ’28, a busy character thesp once more. It’s almost a quirk of history that, of the 250 credits the IMDb had tracked down, it’s his eight small roles in Sturges’ rep company that give him a toehold on immortality.

The film is lightly likeable. Schnedler-Sørensen pans confidently about, following the action, and likes having his characters bound past the camera, so that their heads disappear and their bodies become big, jouncing obstructions for a second or two. So that if his actors aren’t able to tumble and spill, things are nevertheless visually lively. The studio shots are convincing, no flat backdrops. He seems to have figured out POV shots, too — a considerable advance on most of his competitors.

He never made a sound film.

May I introduce my husband to you?

Meaningful Beauty

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

Rounding off my WOMAN OF PARIS coverage as it seems important to get to THE GOLD RUSH for the holiday season. It’s a snowy, festive film.

I’ll tell you who’s good in AWOP — Nellie Bly Baker, the secretary at the Chaplin Studio, who plays a masseuse. Chaplin apparently knew she could mimic him well enough to do the role. He just cuts to her nearly impassive face as Edna is getting a rubdown and discussing her love life with friends. Silent condemnation from La Baker, her eyes deliberately unseeing. Marvelously understated — it’s only the regularity of the cutaways that makes her attitude very clear indeed.

So, although I don’t hugely love the movie, I’m massively impressed by the storytelling. Like the way a shirt cuff, dropped from a drawer, reveals to Carl Miller’s character the fact that Edna has a lover. A very Lubitschian conceit.

Again, against the elegance of the narration is the corniness of the story. Edna’s struggle to choose between love and luxury implies a sophistication that is belied by the third act melodrama: Miller at first seems set to murder Menjou, then shoots himself. His mother takes the gun and sets off to kill Edna. At this point, improbabilities have piled up past the point I can take them seriously. And then Edna and mom bury the hatchet and go off to do good works.

Chaplin, according to David Robinson, came to work one day all excited about his solution to the story: the two women would go work in a leper colony. This notion was greeted with revulsion by his team, and Chaplin stormed off, taking several days away from the studio. When he returned, the incident was never mentioned. So instead out heroine and her former foe are running an orphanage, still a sentimental solution but less grotesque. One wonders about entrusting Lydia Knott’s mom character with more kids, she didn’t do so well with her son.

Chaplin also planned a meeting between Menjou and Purviance’s characters, but had a happier inspiration in the end: they pass by, oblivious of one another, she hitching a ride on a cart with a band of musicians, he riding in a limo with a crony. The guys asks, apropos of nothing, “By the way, whatever happened to Marie St. Clair?” Menjou gives an indifferent shrug. And at that moment, illustrating neatly the idea of fate Chaplin hints at in the film’s sub-title, the paths cross.

But there’s more. Chaplin pays particular close attention to the musicians Edna is riding with, just as he had to Nellie Bly Baker earlier. The three distinct cutaways to the singer and accordionist carry some poetic meaning, just out of reach of the rational brain. They have nothing to do with anything that’s happening, and we don’t know what they’re singing. And I think it’s their irrelevance that makes them poetic. They’re life, and they’re going on without regard to the melodrama that has just fizzled out.

I would like to suggest that the strange, medievalesque pilgrim troupe that pass by at the end of Fellini’s IL BIDONE, and the strolling players who join paths with Masina at the end of his NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, derive directly from this moment. We know Fellini took a lot of inspiration from Chaplin.

The peculiar time-warped troupe of IL BIDONE provoked a battle between Fellini and his producer. An assistant was asked his opinion. He said they should keep them in the picture, as the scene had beauty. To his surprise, Fellini rejected this argument. No, he said. It had MEANINGFUL BEAUTY.

Posh Lust

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2021 by dcairns

The curious thing about A WOMAN OF PARIS is the clash of sophisticated comedy and naive melodrama. Maybe “comedy” is wrong, but there’s certainly wit in the way the action unfolds.

My two favourite parts are the restaurant kitchen and the decadent party, both of which have their share of humour. The straight drama stuff is Lubitschian in the sense that BROKEN LULLABY/THE MAN I KILLED is Lubitschian: the ironies and delicate reveals have the form of Lubitsch gags, jokes of indirection, but without being funny. Lubitsch finds an interesting alternative to comedy in bitterness: the QUIET PLEASE sign in the hospital where the war wounded are terrified by the sound of the gun salute celebrating the end of war, for instance. Chaplin faces the strange contradiction of subtle indirection being used to tell a story full of essentially corny contrivance. It doesn’t quite take the curse off it.

The girl on the left makes a distinctively French gesture, so that I at first assumed Chaplin had cast an authentic demoiselle, but then I realised he’s probably just acted the movement out for her to copy.

But in our first Parisian scene (no wide shot with Eiffel Tower, just lots of unmistakeable Frenchness), everything works in his favour, because the only plot in motion is the establishing of Edna’s new life as a rich man’s lover.

And the rich man is Adolphe Menjou, which is more good news. His sly ovine features, a kind of Al Hirschfield caricature brought to life (the line of his nose is clearly the work of a pen-stroke, neither genetics nor rhinoplasty could carve something so nifty), peer out across the decades, and improbable set of shapes on an improbable movie star. Lubitsch would acquire him, and much else, for THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, the film which cemented the American style of Uncle Ernst. Adolphe, that light-footed reactionary swine, reportedly acted by numbers (“I think I’ll do a forty-two followed by a seven”), and is also said to have nimbly copied Chaplin’s direction — CC would act out every role for his cast to mimic. But Menjou’s mimicry emerges as pure Menjou. He’s the only actor here who has Chaplin’s elaborate grace, magnetism, breezy arrogance.

“Don’t sell it!” Chaplin would tell Menjou. “Remember, they’re peeking at you.”

Edna is fine, but just not that interesting. It’s said that Chaplin wanted to set her up as an independent star because she was getting too old to play ingenue roles opposite him. And the plot here skips over the part where she’d have to make the transition from new-in-town virginal innocent to metropolitan sophisto. Here she is, transformed. The movie, by the way, becomes a fantastic fashion show at this point, which is one of its main pleasures. The fashions of the 1920s being SO much more sexy and elegant than the frumpery Edna started off with ten years before.

Henry Bergman!

The actor playing the gigolo is Philip Sleeman, whose subsequent roles include “dance hall Lothario,” “lounge lizard,” “night club lizard,” “masher in night court,” “zeppelin reveler” and “spectator at stoning.” Just one of those faces. It’s caricature by casting: his appearance suggests not the attractive type who would appeal to a rich older lady, but the inner corruption that would lead a man to such a career.

In the kitchen, both the film’s production designer, Arthur Stibolt, and assistant director A. Edward Sutherland (left), appear. In the night club, the two technical advisors on naughty Parisian matters appear: Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast and Jean de Limur. Both would go on to directing careers, the latter, an actual comte, directing Menjou in MON GOSSE DE PERE for Pathé-Natan in 1930 (Menjou’s only French production, I think, though he did one or two French-language versions of his early talkies). Eddie Sutherland went on to direct (and marry Louise Brooks), and another of the A.D.s, Monta Bell, also had a substantial producing-directing career.

Another Chaplin associate, Josef Von Sternberg, would hire Menjou to play basically the same role in MOROCCO.

Fiona pointed out that the business with the gamey game bird in the kitchen is “very Chaplin” — his obsession with food, particularly smelly food.

Chaplin had fairly detailed notes for this one, but still filmed in sequence so he could refine the story as he went along, and the thing did change a fair bit. The whole restaurant sequence is striking because, having established Edna’s new situation, it does nothing else. Chaplin just wants to spend time in this environment, and let the audience soak up the atmosphere. He’d just been to Paris, so he was hot on the subject, but he’d long wanted to do something around the romantic-sounding Latin quarter — THE IMMIGRANT had started out with that setting.

I should also mention — A WOMAN OF PARIS is a Late Film: Chaplin was working on the music when he died. Which may account for some strange bits in the score where the emotional tone seems way off. But it’s always preferable to have a Chaplin film with Chaplin music.

TBC