Archive for Pierre Chenal

Alternative Universe Viewing Schedule

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2016 by dcairns


Instead of writing about what I saw on Monday at Il Cinema Ritrovato, I *could* write about what I failed to see — Edward L. Cahn’s searing pre-code LAUGHTER IN HELL has been wowing them in the aisles, and I hope to catch it later in the fest — missed Arthur Penn’s THE CHASE, just as I have missed all the Brando so far — a program of Italian shorts from 1896 — a clip-show of classic Technicolor material including scenes from ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, RIO BRAVO and Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN — Mario Soldati’s MALOMBRA — Pierre Chenal’s film of Native Son, SANGRE NEGRA (American book filmed in Argentina by a Frenchman) — LA MORTE DE CYGNE, a film about ballet school by the great Marie Epstein and Jean Benoit-Levy — Jacques Becker’s RENDEZ-VOUS DE JUILLET and TOUCHEZ-PAS AU GRISBI (the latter is on again later, so maybe…) — Pola Negri in A WOMAN OF THE WORLD, which also screens a second time soon — the restored MCCABE AND MRS MILLER, apparently looking quite different — VALMONT, Milos Forman’s film of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, made shortly after the Stephen Frears version. Someone asked the producer if the film’s commercial failure imparted a lesson,. and he said, “Yes. Never make a film someone else has just made.” It’s a good movie though, now restored by Pathe.

Still, what I did see is a nice list, even if shorter — another episode of THE CLUTCHING FOOT and the last episode of Abel Gance’s daffy serial LES GAZ MORTELS (hero rides on horseback to save town from poison gas. He wears a gas mask and his horse wears what seems to be some kind of hygienic nosebag. Saving the town, he kisses his horse with passion) — KING OF JAZZ, the grotesque, bloated musical revue in two-strip Technicolor produced at Laemmle’s Universal in 1930, appalling yet wonderful — A JAZZ GIRL IS BORN, a 1957 teen musical from Japan, shot in a three-strip process called Konicolor, blindingly vivid (includes renditions of Blue Moon, Jambalaya and Come-On-a My House — really — I’m not making this up!) — and Carné and Prevert’s LES PORTES DE LA NUIT, which is a comparatively obscure masterpiece, another film I discovered via the Lindsay Anderson Archive.


Wish Upon a Starewicz

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 12, 2013 by dcairns

Researching NATAN in the Gaumont-Pathe Archive, I learned that any late 1920s or early 30s documentary footage that was more stunningly framed than absolutely necessary was likely to be the work of Pierre Chenal. He made lots of little documentary subjects that the IMDb doesn’t know about yet. PARIS CINEMA is one, and it’s notable for a ton of invaluable making-of footage and behind-the-scenes tomfoolery in the major studios and labs of Paris, circa 1929.

Most exciting of all for auteurists and overgrown, morbid schoolboys, is the visit to the workshop of Ladislas Starewicz, master animator, who was based in the City of Light at that time. As with Jan Svankmajer, his place of business is a cross between Aladdin’s Cave, Lilliput and a Natural History Museum for toys. Or a flea market and an alchemist’s laboratory. Wallow in it!

Incidentally, I can’t locate the Starewicz productions mentioned here on his list of IMDb credits either — lost films, neglected ones, or abandoned projects?


Starewicz with his daughter and star, Nina Star.

The Mad Bunk

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 3, 2012 by dcairns

As long as Mother Russia is in the hands of men with the word “putin” in their name, things well never go smoothly.

Pierre Chenal’s THE NIGHT THEY KILLED RASPUTIN is a late work and a bit of a Euro-pudding, so one should be merciful. I’m not going to be, but I will admit that one should. Actually the original title of this Franco-Italian co-concoction translates as NIGHTS OF RASPUTIN, which gives you a better sense of the intent — the movie wants to make Rasputin sexy, and I’m morally certain there’s a European print out there studded all over with nipples like barnacles on a hull.

But I only had the English dub, so I could enjoy John Drew Barrymore, usurping his father’s role as Prince Youssoupoff from RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. Chenal and his co-scribes have rewritten Prince Y as a weakling, which explains why he’s so ineffectual through most of the story, and is certainly within JDB’s range as actor (was anything else?). But Y is only a small part in the film, where even the Tsarina (Gianna Maria Canale, either brilliantly dubbed or possessed of a convincing cut-glass accent) is almost a walk-on.

Chenal has had one great idea, and it’s to make Rasputin the hero. He is the story’s most interesting, amusing and competent character, so it actually works. The fact that he’s a terrible bastard makes him complicated and fun to be with. That single decision would make this a terrific movie, were it not for the casting of…

Can you imagine how bad Gregory Peck would be as Gregory Rasputin? All stiff and uncomfortable and trying to hard, glowering unconvincingly, putting on some kind of voice, waving his arms about? Now imagine…

Edmund Purdom.

Yes, Edmund “The Englishman has a hard-on!” Purdom. If you don’t know his work, I can’t explain, just picture Gregory Peck in a big beard and smock and then take away the… the… anything you can think of that might help him. I can’t actually think of a worse casting idea. A one-legged Dudley Moore as Tarzan would at least convince while he was swinging from a vine, sort of.

I asked a friend to suggest a terrible Rasputin, and he named Rod Steiger. But Rod, wherever you place him in your personal hamtheon, would have given it his all. And he would have had enough “all” to give, probably too much. You’d have felt discomfort, sure, but it wouldn’t all have been based on embarrassment and pity. Really, everybody would be better than Edmund Purdom. Jay Robinson? Hugely preferable. Wendy Craig? Interesting call. Joe Pesci? That could work. Mickey Rooney? Only if he played it Japanese.

Purdom tries to rise to the occasion, but he can’t lower himself. He rasps his voice trying to evoke something, and just comes off like he’s been dubbed. In fact, Purdom trying to act sounds exactly like those awful put-on voices you hear straining to do fifteen different voices in a badly-translated martial arts film, spaghetti western or porno.

The challenge of making Rasputin work as protagonist has still to be met, but Chenal at least demonstrates that the goal is a worthy one.

The movie has its moments, but most of them involve baroque print damage.