Archive for Lubitsch

Use the cuspidor, that’s what it’s for

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2021 by dcairns

There’s evidence that Chaplin was experiencing a bit of a creative crisis in his last days at Essanay. He started a film, LIFE, which was to be his most realistic depiction of poverty yet, but abandoned it. He adapted the Karno sketch Mummingbirds as A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, and then he did an elaborate parody of someone else’s film. He would never really work with direct parody again.

A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN — the parody of the film of the opera of the story — is not precisely a lost Chaplin film, but it’s one that was recut by Essanay after Chaplin’s departure at the end of 1915 (leading to various lawsuits, and to Chaplin ensuring he had total creative control on future projects). There doesn’t seem to be a director’s cut in existence. Essanay didn’t truncate the film, however, they extended it — former Chaplin second banana Leo White pulled in all the outtakes, shot a bunch of padding, and changed it from two reels to four.

All the versions that have circulated since seem to be at some distance from Chaplin’s intentions.

Short version (above). Long version (below).

On YouTube, Dave Glass has attempted to pull together every scrap of footage from four existing prints, to make a supercut which gives us the best version of what Chaplin and White SHOT, but leaves us with little idea of what Chaplin CUT — but that’s the best version we have. The more “official” versions are terribly jumpy, with Chaplin splinking all over the set. And the intertitles are drawn from Cecil B. DeMille’s feature film of CARMEN, word for word.

CARMEN was big — Raoul Walsh filmed it with Theda Bara, and DeMille with Geraldine Farrar. In just a few years, Lubitsch would do it again with Pola Negri, and so on. It’s POSSIBLE Chaplin would jot down the DeMille title cards and reuse them, as he had used the poem The Face on the Barroom Floor for bathetic, parodic purposes in his Keystone film of the same name. He has, after all, done his best to reproduce the set-ups, shot for shot, like Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO only with more pratfalls and a pantomime donkey. Chaplin’s main joke seems to be to present his film as a shoddy knock-off of DeMille’s. I wonder what old C.B. thought of it.

First off I’m going to watch the short version…

Chaplin is Don José, here called Darn Hosiery. Edna Purviance is “Carmen, the gypsy,” though ironically it may be Chaplin himself who had some Romany ancestry. Anyway, she’s pretty sexy in this, having escaped the horror of 1915 American fashions. Well, sexy in the way Margaret Dumont is sexy once you turn fifty. Edna has just turned twenty.

Darn Hosiery tries flirting with Edna, but May White takes her place while he’s not looking. Or at least, the person IMDb says is May White. Or one of them. This woman IS in Chaplin’s previous short as IMDb claims, but not playing the role cited, and she’s not in his Mutual shorts THE COUNT and THE ADVENTURER, so far as I can see — I think perhaps the snake charmer from A NIGHT IN THE SHOW is in those. This is the belly dancer. I still don’t discount the possibility that this is outsize comic Dee Lampton, regular Lonesome Luke co-star, in drag. I also think, given the name Dee is more usually female, Dee could have been a woman who played men. He certainly has the tits for it. Those who consider themselves experts in telling men from women are welcome to weigh in on this. (Note: Dee Lampton, unless he’s padded, seems to be fatter than this lady. He had a sister, but there’s no talk of her being in movies.)

Anyway, discovering he’s been wasting his affections on a fat chick, or possibly bloke, Darn Hosiery propels her/him/them from the frame with a sideways butt-nudge. That’s the level we’re at. Then Edna starts flirting with Leo White — the film’s future inheritor — and so Hosiery burns her with his cigarette end. Which isn’t too funny. She retaliates under cover of jump cut, cramming the rose that was, one frame before, clasped in her teeth, into the Darn’s mouth, choking him. Leo laughs long and hard at this, and so of course gets the rose, damp with Chaplin spittle, shoved into his own mirthful features. From single rose to superspreader event.

Lots more close and medium shots here, which I guess is Chaplin aping DeMille. “DeMille started with great promise,” wrote Chaplin in My Autobiography, “with The Whispering Chorus and a version of Carmen, but after Male and Female his work never went beyond the chemise and the boudoir.” So this movie was born out of respect. Maybe the last time a DeMille spoof was inspired by that. Incidentally, Chaplin is fairly unbearable when he tries to be a high-flown critic.

The gag with Chaplin getting a fake spider stuck under his helmet seems pretty random — I looked to the original movie for an explanation, but without success. I guess Chaplin just thought it would be a funny way to ruin a love scene.

DeMille does play close to a third of his film in front of a single broken wall. Chaplin goes one better.

John Rand is, apparently, Escamillo the Toreador. Thinking up a comedy name for him seems to have defeated everybody. A shame, because Darn Hosiery is the gift that keeps on giving.

Don Hosiery and Escamillo square off, mortal rivals.

Edna appears atop a landing, gesturing to the boys. Nothing can convince me she’s somewhere off the top left of frame, rather than merely in a different set-up at ground level. The eyelines and architecture are all wrong. The main joke of A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN may be that if Chaplin made his own CARMEN it would be crap, but I don’t believe this is a deliberate mistake.

Edna descends the stairs and continues looking screen screen left, while those looking at her, supposedly, are also looking screen left. I’ll be interested to see if the extended cut solves any of this. Chaplin is usually reliable on screen direction (but see SHANGHAIED for more confusion, some of it maybe not his fault).

Carmen is required to dance on a table, and Chaplin is ungentlemanly enough to make a joke about him not being able to lift Edna up there. John Rand obliges. Edna’s vamp act is vaguely terrifying but at least its more interesting than an insipid romantic part.

From the way Don Hosiery bullies his underling, the Leo White character, it’s tempting to imaging the recutting of this film as Leo’s revenge, but I’m sure it was basically a commercial undertaking. White also recut some Chaplin fragments into something called TRIPLE TROUBLE, which I’ll also be looking at. Warily.

Chaplin finds a lot of uses for the big brush on his hat, but maybe the problem is we’re not sure if this is the familiar Charlie PLAYING Don Hosiery in some kind of road company version of DeMille’s CARMEN, or if Don Hosiery is a new character with his own personality. I may be overthinking it.

Endless byplay with Edna. Some shots Chaplin seems to be not in character, conversing or directing — just for moments. It’s very jumpy and bitty. The notion that Leo White grabbed every stray moment he could find from the trim bins and crammed them in is irresistible. The whole thing is far less professional than we’re used to from Chaplin.

There’s a catfight between Carmen and the big lady, Frasquita, who falls down in a faint. Various bit players tend to the fallen woman — they brush her hair back — and it doesn’t seem like a wig. So probably this is a real lady, and not Dee Lampton. But not May White either. It’s sad we can’t know who this is.

Big fight with Darn Hosiery and Leo White, whoever he’s meant to be. Oh yes, Corporal Morales. And Chaplin tracks back! Very rare move for him, he hasn’t done this since HIS NEW JOB. Again, it seems a little distracting, not helpful or necessary, and probably helped Chaplin decide he wasn’t too interested in camera movement.

This is probably the longest duel anyone had ever shot at this time. It’s up there with SCARAMOUCHE. Again, some of this material could easily be Chaplin just rehearsing on film. It’s not very coherent.

All through this, the guards are trying to break the door in and the gypsies are trying to hold them back, so the two groups just push the door in and out. One of the guards is a little guy, presumably “Dot” from A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, another unidentified thesp.

Darn Hosiery eventually KILLS Corporal Morales, and Chaplin attempts some mock-tragic playing. It’s not a familiar mode for him and it most resembles Adenoid Hynkel in his madder moments. Then he runs off to the gypsy camp. One of my few laughs comes from Chaplin in a poncho pretending to be a dwarf for no reason.

The action relocates to Seville. DeMille has a better intertitle (above). There’s a cart drawn by a horse and a burro, and I can’t see logically why these animals are real when the smugglers had a fake donkey played by actors in a costume. Show some consistency man. I’m hoping at least the bull will be fake.

I don’t believe “saluno” is proper Spanish

Darn Hosiery, now AWOL and a murderer, arrives in Seville disguised as… Charlie Chaplin? He’s acquired the bowler hat. Was Darn Hosiery always the Tramp character (he didn’t really act like him) or has be become him, or is this just dress-up?

As if to baffle everyone to the max, Chaplin and Purviance play the last scene absolutely straight. He kills her and then himself. Then they get up, he demonstrates the trick knife, and they both laugh. Iris in, the end.

OK, now for Dave Glass’ supercut. It begins with Ben Turpin in a rowboat coming ashore and meeting the gypsy smugglers with their pantomime donkey. I suspect everything involving the donkey in any version of the film is probably material shot by Leo White after Chaplin’s departure. I don’t believe the donkey interacts with Chaplin and, though the fake quadruped is a British comedy tradition, it doesn’t seem very Chaplinesque. But then, so little in this film does.

The intertitles Glass has added do feel a lot more organic. The command “Kill that rock!” issued by Darn Hosiery after he repeatedly trips over a protruding stone, is necessary for the gag of the riflemen opening fire on it. The stumble is very Hynkelesque, by the way. There are signs that Chaplin could have fun playing a military leader, but he hasn’t quite decided to do so.

There’s a reason Ben Turpin never meets Chaplin’s character, beyond Turpin disliking Chaplin’s endless retakes — the entirety of the Turpin role was added by Leo White after Chaplin left Essanay. He’s like Raymond Burr in GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS, only thinner and cross-eyed. Nevertheless, Dave Glass’s version of the film, complete with Turpin, feels closer to a film that actually came out, in 1916 if not 1915, than the pared-down version with the White/Turpin interpolations removed.

The pantomime donkey gets lots more to do in the long version. Nothing funny, mind you. Its brief appearance in the two-reel re/deconstruction doesn’t really justify its presence. However, Jack Henderson as Pastia walks out of a shot with Chaplin and into a shot with the donkey, making the fake beast seem more closely related to the diegesis than Ben Turpin has been. So I’m undecided if the donkey was part of Chaplin’s original “vision” of the movie, or just something Leo White stuck in as stupid filler.

I guess the fake spider that gets inside the plumed helmet of Darn Hosiery — or Don José as Glass quaintly calls him — is in keeping with the fake donkey, so maybe these are theatrical touches intended by Chaplin to evoke the burlesque aspect he was going for. As parodists go, he’s no Mel Brooks. On the other hand, he did a better Hitler. The spider seems random but it does allow the use of a sugar glass bottle of cerveza, an Essanay specialty. I’m thinking the reason Essanay were seemingly ahead of Keystone in the glassware department is that they made a lot of WESTERNS.

One notices that Leo White’s material doesn’t add much in the way of gags, and when it does, it heavily recycles Chaplin’s, as when Turpin trips on that same damn rock (or its body double). Henry Jaglom was disenchanted when Orson Welles told him about Chaplin using gag writers, but if he had any at Essanay and left any of them behind, they weren’t up to much without him.

The eyelines when Edna’s on the landing are still all skew-whiff. But the cutaways added by White match perfectly — the most exciting bit is when the Don kicks Escamilo out of frame and he collides with Ben Turpin on another set months later. Comrade Kuleshov take note.

Ben Turpin turns up in a surprisingly close approximation of the “breach in the wall” setting Chaplin uses.

Closer views reveal it to be a substantially different structure when Ben Turpin is in front of it than when Chaplin is. And it’s not just the texture of the film that’s different. Chaplin has a three-dimensional wall two blocks thick, whereas Turpin’s looks like little more than a painted flat. Some critics have claimed that Chaplin didn’t care about sets, or even that he WANTED flat, undetailed and unconvincing settings for his comedy to stand out against. Not so: I think he was always looking to improve things until he reconnected with a Karno pal, Charles D. Hall, in 1918, and that leads to the most solid and well-thought-out sets in comedies of that time.

The guard with elaborate moustaches walks through the background of a Chaplin shot and emerges in a Turpin shot, but although the motion is perfect, his epaulettes have teleported off his shoulders in the splice.

Since there are never enough rabbit holes for a man to go down, I start looking up 1916 productions to see who’s got all the epaulettes that year. Another unsolved mystery. Maybe the solution is that Leo White just couldn’t be bothered. No Stroheim, he.

Chaplin duelling with White takes on an extratextual layer… I now identify part of my problem with the film: earlier, Don José/Hosiery was a dorky character, forever tripping or getting spiders in his helmet. Now he’s a pastiche Fairbanks, brushing his moustache while he fences with Morales/White. He’s a super-suave swashbuckler. So, even before Essanay made mincemeat of the film, it had an in-built incoherence. Chaplin knew WHAT he was spoofing but not HOW.

But we do get a bit of Charlie’s protean powers during the swordfight, as he changes it into a pool game, “sharpening” his sabre tip on the last in a string of hanging onions, and then into a dance. This is one of the things CC is best at… Even when the struggle is not literally a jog, it has choreographic elements, and sometimes Chaplin tries to get laughs purely from rhythm and repetition.

Bizarre cutaways of Edna with livid scratches on her face (presumably from the earlier catfight) exhorting her rival lovers on, and a weird gag where Don/Darn rips hunks of hair from his opponent’s scalp and pelts him with the tufts. One problem with assessing this film is that not only does it have additional sequences not made by Chaplin, but all his bits have been extended as far as they’ll go, and we have no definite knowledge of which stuff he originally cut out for the two-reel version. It seems obvious this sequence would have been a good bit shorter in Chaplin’s original.

There’s no way to connect Ben Turpin to it so they just keep him off to one side.

When the characters depart for Seville, Ben Turpin simply disappears, having never developed anything like his own subplot. I suppose he ends up with Frasquita.

Weird that White didn’t stage a bullfight with a pantomime bull, since that’s something that could be legitimately added to the story and wouldn’t have involved Chaplin’s character. Most of the film’s publicity material features bulls, in fact:

Chaplin poses with dead Leo and dead bull. Comedy tonight!

It’s disconcerting to see Charlie Chaplin straight-up murder somebody, so many years before MONSIEUR VERDOUX. The fact that he’s trying to cram a soft, bendy blade into the prone White almost but not quite takes the curse off it. The chap’s still DEAD. And then the Don murders Carmen and commits suicide, for none of which Chaplin seems to have devised a comedic exit strategy — until the business with the resurrection and the trick dagger. Carmen and Don J are transformed back into Edna and Charlie and have a laugh about the scene they just played. A bit of Pirandellian fancy, rather than burlesque.

There’s yet another version of the film — narrated by Peter Sellers. Not as funny as you might expect, in fact utterly lacking in any comedic qualities whatsoever. The commentary kills every joke in the film, and kills its own additional “jokes” too, and may make you reconsider Sellers’ reputation as a master of accents. He only does one here, and it’s terrible.

As with Chaplin, best look elsewhere for proof of Sellers’ genius.

When Chaplin found out Essanay had inflated his two-reeler to a four-reeler, he went to bed for two days. After watching these edits, I feel like doing the same.

This whole film is a pretty mysterious garden of forking paths. Still, this is only the Essanay Ulysses. TRIPLE TROUBLE, assembled by White from fragments of an uncompleted Chaplin project and various complete ones, together with new footage, will be the Finnegan’s Wake.

The Sunday Intertitle: Nipper!

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

Lupino “Nipper” or “Nip” Lane — Henry William George Lupino — was known to me mainly for his being second cousin to Ida Lupino, and for his vigorous, indeed violent, comic dancing in Lubitsch’s THE LOVE PARADE. But I got lured into helping crowdfund a DVD because the clips were so amazing, and I’m very glad I did.

Nipper, we’re told, wasn’t particularly interested in creating a constant screen persona, he’s a bit chameleonic. The first short we ran was GOOD NIGHT NURSE in which he’s a nervous wreck seeking treatment from Dr. O. Stoppit, played by Nipper’s younger brother Wallace, who looks convincingly decades older but is remarkably spry when the gags require it.

Since gags are what Nipper is interested in, the gags had better be good, right? And they are — there’s a Stan Laurel “freak gag” thing going on, with the double-jointed Lane swelling up like a balloon, having his tongue stretched like elastic, and impersonating a skeleton (a good trick if you can do it). As with Mr. Laurel, this business is at least as disturbing as it is amusing, but there are plenty of other kinds of tricks on display, from the brutal stepping on the gouty foot routine so beloved of Chaplin (and thus probably rooted in the British music hall tradition from which both Charlie and Nipper originated) to the kick up the arse as a surrogate for the handshake or hat tip.

But there’s also REALLY clever stuff. Which makes this disc exciting — we get to see an original comic mind throwing out strange gags and eccentric pay-offs nobody else would think of, and executing them in ways nobody else could physically achieve. Congratulations already to Dave Glass & Dave Wyatt, and I suspect those congrats will only get heartier as I work my way through this collection.

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.