Archive for Matthew Sweet

The Sunday Intertitle: Sydney Failure

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2015 by dcairns

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I first realized how gifted a comedian Sydney Chaplin was when I noticed his interplay with his brother in A DOG’S LIFE — he’s the street vendor Charlie robs of cookies. The pair’s timing is exquisitely worked out, and the central conceit, that the number of cookies keeps diminishing and Charlie is the only suspect but Syd doesn’t feel able to make an accusation without catching him at it, is priceless.

I was disappointed, then, to learn that Syd was a rapist and a cannibal — and was caught at it. The story is gone over in Matthew Sweet’s Shepperton Babylon — Syd was preparing for the second of his British films when he assaulted an actress, Molly Wright, and bit her nipple off. He fled the country, leaving unpaid taxes (I know: infamy upon infamy) and the studio paid her a settlement.

It’s hard to imagine any way Wright could have made this story up (and certainly the studio acted like they believed her, in an era when movie studios were quite prepared to cover up sex crimes by their valued associates); it’s equally hard to imagine anyone biting off a body part unintentionally. It’s all horrific and creepy in the extreme, so much so that it’s not only surprising this isn’t better known, it’s slightly surprising that this story about the half-brother isn’t the first thing people think of when they think of Charlie. I guess that’s a measure of how his fame surpassed any scandal that came near him.

Sydney doesn’t seem to have done anything like this again, that we know of.

In THE MAN ON THE BOX (1925), made before the career-ending incident, Sydney is called a back-biter by a jealous husband, and makes the following denial —

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It’s an odd film. A MacGuffin about plans for a new helicopter leads to millionaire’s son Chaplin disguising himself as a coachman (in 20s California?), getting hired as a groom, pressed into service as a butler and then disguising himself as a maid (like his semi-sibling, he’s very convincing in drag — CHARLIE’S AUNT was one of his biggest hits). Syd is able and agile — there’s some ferocious knockabout involving him and the film’s director, Charles Riesner (best known for skippering STEAMBOAT BILL JR) who co-stars as an enemy agent. Another future director, David Butler, also appears, and is just the kind of guffawing hearty you might expect from his later work.

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“That’s right, Barrymore, pull them funny faces. HAW HAW!”

Syd is, as indicated, a skilled comedian, but he’s also an attractive and sympathetic screen presence, and at times his use of his eyes — flashing signals across a room like twin aldous lamps — is startlingly reminiscent of the better-known brother. For some reason, the squarer jaw-line makes his feminine side seem stranger — Charlie could be coquettish and it somehow seemed absolutely in keeping with his other qualities — imp, innocent, ruffian.

I guess if he ended up working in Britain his career was already on the slide, and there’s no reason to assume audiences had enough enthusiasm for him to want to see him move into talkies, so his career was going to be cut short by film history anyway. But it seems it should have been cut short by a prison sentence.

Formby follows Function

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2010 by dcairns

Matthew Sweet, in his chatty history of marginalized British cinema, Shepperton Babylon, amusingly referred to ’30s-’40s musical comedy star George Formby as looking like ” a human being reflected in a spoon,” which is unkind but not unfair. It implies “like a human being but not a human being,” which is also fair enough. There’s something of the Australopithecus about our George, and no mistake.

Of course, we don’t require comedians to be handsome, nor should we. It can even be a disadvantage: Louise Brooks said that one shot of Buster Keaton in THE GENERAL was so beautiful it took her breath away and left her unable to laugh for the rest of the film. But Keaton tethers his soulful beauty to his earnestness as a comic character, and makes it work for him. Chaplin suppresses his faun-like lustiness with felt mustache, out-of-proportion clothing and funny walk, so it only emerges when he wants it to.

Jerry Lewis, with his child-like and vaguely special-needs persona, “the kid,” is much closer to Formby’s character, who has a child’s love of the smutty and fear of the genuinely sexual. But Jer doesn’t look as genuinely warped as George, it’s merely an effect, or series of effects, which he can produce at will. Jerry is the most protean of comics, in fact, having morphed through at least four completely distinct appearances, without yet assuming the mantle of actual old age. Skinny young television Jerry became the fuller-faced Jerry as solo movie star, advanced into graying and bespectacled middle-aged Jerry, where he still seems to reside, with a brief interval as bloated and leonine Jerry,  a side-effect of the meds he was taking for a life-threatening condition, which he now seems happily quite recovered from. During all those periods except perhaps the ill one, he had a promiscuous range of sub-faces, rubber masks he could stretch and distort out of his facial apparatus, suggesting all kinds of deformity, mutation, funhouse distortion and transdimensional interference.

George, by contrast, is just George, stuck with the face a jesting or maleficent creator inflicted upon him. His body is normal, indeed quite muscular and well-developed, but that just seems part of the gag/tragedy, the human shape crowned with a monkey’s confused head, wondering how it got there. And the voice seems to be George’s own, a Jerry-kid nasal whine pitched at an octave anyone can hear but only dogs want to.

Fred Astaire’s singing voice has been described as “unlikely but effective.” George’s is extremely unlikely indeed, but effective in its perverse way, especially when paired with his banjo ukulele. When it comes to the banjolele I must pronounce myself on the side of Bertie Wooster and against Jeeves, as counter-intuitive as that sounds — I find it a uniquely pleasing instrument, which makes me quite able to enjoy a Formby song despite the shuddersome features gurning at me from the screen. It’s a comedy instrument, I suppose, but it has the edge over the “Jew’s harp” or “swannee whistle” in that it can play a range of actual notes, and at high speed.

What of the films? Here, a fascinating evolution can be seen. BOOTS! BOOTS! from 1934 was George’s first starring part (he was by now well-established as a stage star in his native Lancashire), intended for Northern English audiences and making no effort whatever to reach a wider range of social classes or geographically distributed punters, nor to adapt to the structures and possibilities of the motion-picture medium, except in the minimal sense of allowing lights, camera and microphone to be present while George and co perform their play.

Bert Tracey’s film begins, promisingly, by tracking down a hotel corridor, observing the various items of footwear left out for George the bootblack to work his magic upon. Then the film proper begins, with an almost audible slamming of the door in the face of film language, as Tracey serves up a series of long-shot single-take compositions, where each set seems to come with its own camera set-up, which will never vary no matter how many times we go away and come back.

Long shots like the above go on for minutes at a time, the characters separated from the movie audience by great distances of gray, grainy space, their voices echoing off the four edges of the screen. Whereas great old movies make you wonder at the fact that all the actors in them are now dead, and yet immortally alive and present forever, this one brings home to you just how dead they all are, and makes you say a silent prayer of thanks for the fact.

But George stuck at it, and within a year had made two films, OFF THE DOLE and NO LIMIT, which made great strides forward in terms of cinematic technique. Ie, they allowed it to be present. Soon, George was introduced to dizzying concepts like “the close-up” (not a natural friend to George) and “the edit,” which could be used within scenes and not just as a means of stringing them together. That’s basically about as sophisticated as George’s movies ever got, although the camera might track to introduce a scene or follow movement. Reliable third-tier directors like Monty Banks and Marcel Varnel took charge of the films, and at Ealing the cast might include actual movie talents like Googie Withers, and other credits might include Basil Dearden as writer, Ronald Neame as cinematographer (on LET GEORGE DO IT!) and Robert Hamer as editor (TURNED OUT NICE AGAIN).

Sadly, despite the considerable talents assembled, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone concerned that a Formby vehicle might aspire to, or even benefit from, artistic merit. Everything is crammed in at the minimum standard expected by the average uncritical audience. The exception is the songs, or almost: often they come up with a catchy bit and then just repeat it ad nauseam, but at their best they can be rather pleasing.

There’s much to dislike about George: he made bad film after bad film, he was notoriously mean, although unlike other famously stingy comics he came from a wealthy background and never knew poverty, and he had, it seems, a horrendous wife, Beryl, who was convinced that any woman in proximity to George, especially his co-stars, had designs on her man, seduced by his outlandish allure and powerful miasma of sexual magnetism. Beryl even appears in his first two films, and such was her fame that she is credited solely by one name, “Beryl,” like Arletty, or Pink.

But on the positive side, Formby’s films were unashamedly working class in their appeal and subjects, in an era when British cinema was often tebbly tebby posh. Or else concerned with the antics of unconvincing cock-er-nees. Formby took British cinema north of Watford, and his audiences did not feel patronized by him. (WHISKY GALORE!, an excellent Ealing comedy from 1949, is set on a fictitious Scottish island, but it’s treated very much as foreign turf, which the audience must be carefully introduced to, with an ethnographic flavour, before we can be trusted to feel at home.)

Ealing pictures would look elsewhere to achieve their best successes in the comedy field, films they’re actually remembered for. A new format was assembled, often using an ensemble cast rather than a “leading man,” and seeking to capture some sort of national spirit — and this was effective until the format became more rigid and recognizable. Indeed, the best films from the Ealing school depart either intermittently or completely from the group comedy structure favoured by producer Michael Balcon in PASSPORT TO PIMLICO. In KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, Robert Hamer sought quite consciously to make a film “unlike any attempted before.”

Alfred his cock presents

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 29, 2009 by dcairns

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There’s a story, which I have trouble believing, that to get a shocked reaction from Madeleine Carroll for one particular close-up in THE 39 STEPS, Hitchcock unbuttoned his fly and startled her with the sight of his partial namesake. (The shot above looks to me like the only reasonable contender. The expression on Carroll’s face is hard to read: concern? Pity?)

When asked, by a subsequent interviewer, if this tale were true, Hitch is supposed to have confirmed it (I can believe that much), and said that he had used this technique on a number of actresses.

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For the record, Madeleine Carroll is awesome in THE 39 STEPS, and I don’t believe such a technique would be either necessary or productive, to say nothing of the legal implications. Hitch did claim to have pranked her mercilessly, partly for fun and partly to get her to, er, unstiffen. That’s almost certainly true. But the story of the nob, which Matthew Sweet seizes upon so eagerly in his book Shepperton Babylon, strikes me as a stretch.

Also, it reminds me of Churchill’s comment when told his fly was undone: “Dead birds don’t fall out of nests.”

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