Archive for Pola Negri

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: 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.

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.