Archive for Raymond Burr

Things I Read Off the Screen in UNKNOWN WORLD

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2023 by dcairns

There were two excellent reasons to watch UNKNOWN WORLD, the 1951 sci-fi movie directed by Terry O. Morse (here credited as Terrell, to give the thing gravitas. There were probably a thousand excellent reasons NOT to watch it, but these need not detain us since I ran the bloody thing.

  1. This is the only other movie to feature MONSIEUR VERDOUX’s ingenue, Marilyn Nash. Nash had planned to become a doctor and here she plays one. Married to screenwriter Philip Yordan, she had met Chaplin through tennis activities, as did so many people it seems.
  2. I’ve just published a novel about journeying to the centre of the earth in a drilling machine (parodying Verne and Burroughs) and here’s a movie that does the same thing with a painfully straight face.

This is an earth’s core movie for the atomic age, with its intrepid team of spelunkers motivated by the urge to preserve a nucleus of humanity underground, safe from atomic war.

We begin with a newsreel, and the comparisons with CITIZEN KANE, unflattering to this movie though they are on every level, seem to be conscious, as the newsreel turns out to be produced by a man named Thompson. He has a son, a rich playboy type (Bruce Kellogg) who agrees to fund the core mission, if you’ll excuse the term (that’s one pun I failed to get into my book, you can have it for free) for kicks.

Director Morse was an editor more often than a director, and he was responsible for interpolating Raymond Burr into GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. His solutions to special effects and narrative questions tend to be editorial, which is why this film has so much text in it. Cutting to a bit of writing is so much cheaper than showing actual lava or caverns or interior seas.

It’s the contention of this film’s Lindenbrook/Challenger figure that the earth is actually cooler on the inside, which makes the volcanos which feature so prominently in the plot a mite inexplicable. Still, I’m pleased to see the team of subterranauts decamp to a deserted island to start their descent, just as mine do. We’re at the world’s largest fictitious extinct volcano, Mount Neleh, which the Prof (former Hawks team player Victor Kilian, wisely going uncredited) pronounces as “Mount Nelly,” because why should he impart any more dignity to this tripe than he has to spare?

The “cyclotram” used as conveyance — described as a crossed between a submarine and a tractor — doesn’t have to do to much digging, as the earth’s frigid interior is supposedly riddled with conduits. Burrowing from one to another is child’s play if your tractor has a drill bit mounted on the front.

The cave locations — not JUST Bronson Caves but Carlsbad Caverns also — are atmospheric and would be perhaps even more impressive if the print were better and you could see an actor’s hand in front of his inexpensive face.

Recklessly ripping off his gas mask, Kilian declares “The air is fresh and clear!” with such wonderment that you have to ask why, if he were expecting sulphurous asphyxiation, he chose to unmask. It’s not as good a piece of scripted idiocy as “Good old H2O!” in AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON but the line reading makes up for it.

Actual filmmaking — as the scientists embark on an unnecessary explanation of the formation of stalactites and stalagmites, Morse cuts rapidly between shots of drips forming and falling and splashing down. As usual, it’s an editor’s mind we see working, but it’s rather poetic for a film of this kind. “About an inch every thousand years.” The How and Why Wonder Book of Science might put it better, but the visual accompaniment here has the advantage of motion.

That’s what we do at Shadowplay — find beauty in ugliness, down dank holes and in dank films.

The question now confronting us is, will we encounter a lost civilisation, or some enlarged iguanas, or something equally photogenic at the earth’s core? Of it this film going to be entirely composed of murky caves, plus close shots of actors in Davey lamps in an underground tram, with occasional insert shots of the instrument binnacles?

Instead, the film pursues a psychological angle, with the crew bickering under the pressure of isolation miles underground. This is honourable, but with the D-list actors and duff psychology, it’s not a route the movie is well-equipped to explore. The inexperienced Marilyn Nash does at least as well as her co-stars, but the writing isn’t there to support them.

Screenwriter Millard Kaufman has some interesting credits, though: GUN CRAZY, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and, uh, THE KLANSMAN (messing up Sam Fuller’s draft, reportedly — the film is appalling — the bits that feel Fullerish aren;t any good either).

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is one of the few sci-fi films of this period with much humanity in it — actual human behaviour or an acceptable movie-ish analog of the same. I’ve read defenses of the stodgy characters in sci-fi prose, where it was alleged that the IDEAS were so wild the characters just HAD to be wooden or else the readers’ heads might explode. I think Kingsley Amis, a genre fan, actually accepted that canard. It reminds me of the creators of The Simpsons deciding to make it the most boring nuclear family based set-up conceivable, so that they could then run amuck with the style and the humour.

Maybe the problem here is that the characters are largely defined by attitudes and outward appearance, without much else going for them. Writer Kaufman may be struggling with a genre he doesn’t understand, although the concern for the nuclear threat seems sincere.

Mild peril is produced in super-cheap ways — toxic gas, a polluted water supply. These do have the benefit of being credible, but they’re not too exciting. Morse never modulates the pace for tension, despite all the cutaways of knobs and dials he’s got hanging in his trim bin, waiting to be spliced into the action like so many shiny Raymond Burrs.

“Haven’t you ever been romanced before?”

“Not nine hundred miles below sea level.”

Occasionally the troupe take a stroll outside in the caverns and Morse substitutes his dials and switches for inserts of crampons and suspensefully fraying rope.

Finally, a giant, mysteriously illuminated cave with an underground sea is happened upon — Pismo Beach, and all the clams we can eat! According to the IMDb, this really IS Pismo Beach, which is perfect — the destination Bugs Bunny was forever tunneling towards, forever diverted by his failure to make a left turn at Albuquerque. We do get a nice multiplane animation painted landscape, too, though.

“Let’s face facts, Morley: this is a desert! The very word means ‘deserted by life.’ And you talk of ‘crops!'”

It gets worse — the little bunny rabbits Nash has been tending give birth to corpses (baby rabbit ones — I saw you looked nervous). “We can’t bury ourselves in the earth and expect to live.”

Finally, some lava! Along with a deluge of stock shots, animated lightning bolts, miniature volcanos — an internal apocalypse sends the cyclotram sinking towards the MAXIMUM POSSIBLE READING.

Fortunately, for no reason, the cyclotram reverses its descent and bobs up towards the surface — an extended Kuleshove experiment follows with shots of turtles viewed through the windscreen and the smiling faces of the three surviving cyclotramists.

Fade out on them all beaming from a porthole at a tropical island. The fact that the film would OBVIOUSLY have been improved by the eruption of a mushroom cloud at this juncture sadly did not occur to anyone with the clout to make it happen.

Department of the Interior is RIGHT!

UNKNOWN WORLD stars The Girl; Deerslayer; Tiny Davis; Dr. Heinrich Von Loeb; Red Ryder; Leatherstocking; and Official (uncredited).

While you’re waiting for this to get the 4K Criterion treatment, buy my book! Is Your Journey to the Centre of the Earth Really Necessary? is available from Amazon UK, US, and everywhere else.

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.

Sailors from Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , on August 19, 2019 by dcairns