Archive for Pola Negri

The Sunday Intertitle: Catherine Was Great

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 7, 2019 by dcairns

This is the little essay I penned for HippFest to accompany the screening of FORBIDDEN PARADISE: introducing a general audience to the filmmaker and stars, that sort of thing. Hope you enjoy.

Ernst Lubitsch came to Hollywood as part of the first European exodus, what Billy Wilder called “the exodus of the talented ones.” In other words, Lubitsch didn’t leave Germany because he was Jewish, but because Hollywood offered him a lot of money and a set of fresh challenges. Later, he would become Wilder’s mentor, teaching the director of Some Like it Hot much about the art of comedy.

In his native land, Lubitsch had begun as a rather broad clown, before becoming a sensitive director of historical epics which uncovered the private lives of kings and queens from Ann Boleyn to Marie Antoinette. His ability to probe these boudoir activities without ever upsetting the censor made him ideally suited to the movies’ golden age: the famous “Lubitsch touch” referred to this ability to be discretely suggestive, titillating without vulgarity. He became famous for his use of closed doors (much on display here, along with the attendant keyholes), which could imply offscreen antics far filthier than anything that could be shown at the time.

In Hollywood, Lubitsch embarked on a series of more modern stories with The Marriage Circle, where he found star Adolphe Menjou an ideal interpreter of his sly wit. And Menjou, as the fixer to a lusty queen, is very much the star attraction in Forbidden Paradise, despite the presence of the stellar glamour icon Pola Negri, with whom Lubitsch had made several German films.

Negri had always wanted to play Catherine the Great, and that’s more or less what she’s doing here, though the story is updated and the location changed to one of those little Ruritanian films so beloved of this director. The idea of the royal lady who uses her personal guard as a male harem certainly derives from gossip about the tsarina. Here, hilariously named leading man Rod La Rocq is on hand to be seduced – something of a stiff in early talkies, his wooden demeanour is perfectly exploited by Lubitsch as he plays an upright plank of a man, astonished to find he’s as corruptible as anyone else. Among Lubitsch’s many gifts was an ability to find comedy gold in unlikely places, often transforming unpromising stars into effective comedians by exploiting their weaknesses (comedy is all about weakness).

Pola is tempestuous and lusty as her fans expected, but also poking fun at her own persona. Having taken royalty slightly seriously in Europe, he was waking up to the comic possibilities, which he would go on to exploit in a whole series of operetta-films and Ruritanian romances. In Lubitsch’s world, power is always in the hands of people as basically ignoble and petty as the rest of us, so the contrast between the dignity of office and the indignity of basic human life is sharply expressed. “At least twice a day, the most dignified man in the world is ridiculous,” he was fond of saying.

But it’s the silk-hatted, mustachioed Menjou, exuding the satisfaction of a cat who’s just cornered the world market in cream, who captures the attention, his smallest gesture registering as a comic tour de force. Always on top of the situation even when it seems he’s sure to be flummoxed, never at a loss for words (no mean trick in a silent film), and somehow just slightly aware of our admiration (or maybe it’s his own?), Menjou holds the film together, adding dry wit even to scenes he’s not in.

One of Lubitsch’s advantages in Hollywood was his background in European theatre: he knew of seemingly thousands of obscure but well-designed plays that could be adapted to the screen. Rivals suspected him of employing a secret roomful of Hungarians, penning all these plays especially for him to turn into films.

Lubitsch must have liked this story: he adapted it again as A Royal Scandal in 1945, with Tallulah Bankhead as a formidable Queen Catherine. But Pola got there first.

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It’s my character

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , on March 27, 2019 by dcairns
  1. Characters are defined by what they do, first and foremost. And how they do it. So they have to be as different from each other as possible, in what they do and how they do it, and what their goals are, in order to appear distinct.
  2. The audience likes to be surprised by your characters. Whether they are nice is not, ultimately, as important as whether they are surprising.
  3. It’s easier for smart characters to be surprising, but dumb ones can manage it too, with a bit of ingenuity on your part.
  4. You know when a character is surprising, funny, impressive, because you will be surprised, you will laugh, you will be impressed.
  5. Find something to admire in all your characters.
  6. “The really terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons.”
  7. Coincidence and plot convenience are bad mainly because they have nothing to do with character.
  8. “Character is destiny.” What happens to characters is determined by who they are because they are actively struggling with their problems.
  9. Stealing characters is good practice. Putting them in a new context should change them enough. The surface details are the things than an audience will spot (ie Indiana Jones’s bullwhip).
  10. Get the plot moving right away because the character can’t be explored without it.
  11. Passive victims are not sympathetic. They might make us unhappy, but we can’t empathise.
  12. Villains should be extremely good at what they do. Stupid villains kill suspense by making things easy for the hero.
  13. If a character makes a mistake it should be understandable to the audience.
  14. It helps a lot if all the main character’s actions are understandable to the audience. Mysterious characters can be interesting but may not invite identification.
  15. “Audience identification” is much mor complicated than people think. The audience doesn’t need to agree with or approve of the character or resemble them in any particular. They need to understand them and find their struggles interesting. You can identify with a complete villain if you know what they want and understand the problems they face.
  16. Themes should emerge more or less naturally from the interaction of plot and character. Starting off with a theme can make a story sterile and artificial.
  17. “What the character is like” is just gossip. “What the character wants” and “what the character does” is meaningful and revealing.
  18. Force the character to make tough choices.
  19. A funny character is typically one whose personality prevents him/her from adapting to new situations. Inflexibility is key to most comedy. But you can sometimes go the other way and make a character funny and surprising by giving them an exceptional ability to adapt, because surprise is also key to comedy.
  20. If you have a character, put him/her in the worst possible situation for that specific person to be in: if they have a wooden leg, make them climb a ladder.
  21. With every character, give them at least one surprising or distinctive trait. The librarian with a single line of dialogue should still entertain us.
  22. Avoid the typical.
  23. “Likeable” isn’t a strong trait. If we genuinely like somebody, that’s great, but having them be fascinating is the main thing.
  24. “A passport to Hell is not issued on generalities.”
  25. A character needn’t to succeed to impress us, but they need to struggle.
  26. Write with a specific actor in mind. But don’t then try to cast somebody who’s like that actor.
  27. Showing a character’s daily routine is a lousy way to characterise them, almost as bad as panning along their mantelpiece.
  28. Take each character as far as you can dramatically.
  29. Every character has his/her own story.
  30. Conflict is indeed a good way to express character. But as long as you have dramatic tension it should emerge anyway. Conflict is just an interpersonal form of tension.
  31. Perhaps we care about relationships more than we care about individual characters?
  32. What else? Ask the next question.

I found this checklist on my work computer. Apparently I wrote it for a class, used it once and forgot about it. It sounds a bit too Syd Field/Robert Mckee to me now, but if you don’t take it as prescriptive it may be a useful tool for avoiding certain problems in screenwriting.

Thanks to David Wingrove for the Big Head of Pola.

A Miss

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2017 by dcairns

Unable to see everything showing at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival — adding up the price of tickets and the price of transport, I decided to skip last night’s show of TOGETHER, Lorenza Mazzetti’s 1956 film, described by Lindsay Anderson as an early example of Free Cinema, and tonight’s showing of King Vidor’s THE PATSY, starring Marion Davies. This decision was something of a wrench! Maud Nelissen is doing the music for the latter, along with Filmorchestra The Sprockets, and she was behind the greatest musical/cinematic spectacle of my life, Von Stroheim’s THE MERRY WIDOW in Bologna.

But I have to save money somewhere, and schlepping to Bo’ness for one movie would not be economical. Plus I have seen THE PATSY on the big screen before (though I’ve totally forgotten WHERE — I think it must have been Edinburgh Film Fest and it must have been over a decade ago. I know I saw THE SCARLET LETTER).

THE PATSY is a charmer. Maybe less ambitious than SHOW PEOPLE but funnier. Marion gets to freak out wicked stepmother Marie Dressler by pretending to be crazy, and she also performs (on the slenderest excuse) drop-dead accurate parodies of rival movie stars ~

Gloria Swanson. Mae Murray.

Lillian Gish.

Pola Negri.

This was almost a standard bit at the time — doesn’t Colleen Moore do more of less the same thing in ELLA CINDERS? Or maybe Beatrice Lillie in EXIT SMILING? I wonder how those parodied took it?