Archive for Richard Lester

The Sunday Intertitle: Unrest

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2022 by dcairns

Having introduced the Gamin, her unemployed father, and her little sisters, Chaplin now ruthlessly expunges all the relatives: dad is slain in a riot (more heavy-handed police tactics) and the siblings are taken away by social workers, a la THE KID. The G escapes pluckily.

As pathos goes, this is all somewhat formulaic. We haven’t known these supporting players long enough to get broken up about them, and I think Chaplin is counting on that because of course we never see the sisters again. They were basically there to give the G a sympathetic reason for stealing, and their extraction from the narrative puts her in a parlous situation when she eventually meets Charlie.

The two little girls were both called Gloria — Gloria Delson, who went on to be a vocalist in a ’40s big band, and Glora DeHaven, daughter of Chaplin’s friend Carter DeHaven, a vaudeville star, movie actor, and the film’s assistant director — also the guy seemingly responsible for the short CHARACTER STUDIES, with its remarkable all-star cast —

Anyway, these two cute kids are treated as disposable by Chaplin’s picaresque narrative, like Madame Verdoux later. In this case, one could even find a certain ruthlessness in the Gamin’s decision to abandon them to their fate.

Charlie, meanwhile, is just getting comfortable in prison when they go and release him, a nice irony. We learn of this through one of the film’s regular TALKING MACHINES, in this case a wireless giving a news announcement. It seems fitting — the talking machines always bring trouble for Charlie.

Immediately we get human dialogue reported by intertitle: Chaplin is quite unashamed of mixing up talking picture and silent technique. Interesting to learn that, like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner or Malcolm McDowall in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Charlie is known by a numeral. Of course, Number Seven is a convenient thing to call him, since Chaplin is generally unwilling to settle on a name for the Little Fellow.

Stomach-gurgling scene with the minister’s wife. Really first-rate intestinal embarrassment. Chaplin apparently insisted on doing the sound effects himself, blowing a straw into water, but everyone warned him the results would be too exaggerated, and they were. So I don’t know for sure who executed the final effects, or how they were achieved, but they sound amazingly lifelike. They might even be the real thing.

The Breen Office apparently objected to the noises, but Chaplin won that round. He did remove a number of mildly risque references, and Simon Louvish’s biography tells us that by cutting the word “dope” from the nose-powder scene (as well as some effeminacy from Charlie’s needlepoint cell-mate Prince Barin), Chaplin was able to smuggle the drugs into his picture.

This is one of the scenes that was originally prepared with dialogue, which I guess makes sense since it’s a scene dependent on sound. The decision that MODERN TIMES would be essentially a lip-synch free production was made, it seems, on the day of shooting this. And we can be grateful.

Good yapping dog action. The dog is the only one crass enough to draw attention to the characters’ inner orchestrations. So Charlie and the minister’s wife have to not only ignore their own and each other’s noises, but the dog’s alert-cries.

When Charlie turns on the wireless to try to drown out the ruckus, the ad man who comes on MIGHT be Chaplin himself, but I’m unconvinced. Not quite high enough and too American? If it were him, it would give the lie to the notion that Chaplin does not speak any “real” words in the film.

Launched into the workplace with a helpful letter from the governor, Charlie in turn launches a half-built ship, a hopelessly expensive gag made possible by rear projection and a model shot. Chaplin is always supposed to have been behind the times, astonished by a camera crane in 1939, but here he’s picked up on effects technology that had only become widespread a few years earlier.

It’s a grand gag, though it’s lessened by being a trick. What mainly undermines the illusion is the blurry scaffolding in the model’s foreground: impossible for a real shot to have a sharp-focussed foreground character, a sharp distant boat, but a soft midground.

Richard Lester planned a variation on this gag in RED STAR, the never-produced visual comedy that was to have starred Robin Williams as a Stalin impersonator. The boat would have been a movie set, only existing on one side, like Cameron’s TITANIC. I keep wondering where Lester would have put the camera for the reveal. A good visual gag happens in one shot. But I guess you could cut to a view from off the stern like Chaplin’s, getting one laugh, while the actual gag would happen when the ship is launched to the bottom.

And now for the meet cute…

Curioser

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2022 by dcairns
Some of these insert shots have an Argentoesque intensity

TV director William Sterling’s one feature film, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972) assembles lots of great people and looks nice. It’s not my idea of wonderland, though.

As you can see, the copy I scraped up isn’t very good, so I may not be doing the film justice. It’s a lot better than most adaptations — fairly true to the text. It doesn’t become an incoherent mishmash of Wonderland and Looking Glass, as so many do. But being true to the story and characters isn’t the same as capturing the spirit. On the other hand, you can legitimately aim to capture a DIFFERENT spirit. I’m not sure if that’s what happens here.

I remember some piece that discussed the film, and spoke very critically of Michael Jayston’s visible panty line. He plays Charles Dodgson, and the film begins with a boat outing with the Liddell sisters, but does NOT have these characters reappear in Wonderland, disguised, as Lewis Carroll does: he, the stammering Do-do-dodgson, becomes the Dodo. But Jayston doesn’t stutter, he speaks beautifully. Seductively, in fact. He also neglects historical accuracy in his choice of Y-fronts, which show through his white trousers in a way sure to inspire disapproval in a Von Stroheim undie perfectionist.

Fiona Fullerton, a perky Alice, has been told to smile a lot, and does. Her perplexing adventures seem to amuse her greatly. This strikes me as wrong, but given what she’s been asked to do, she does it charmingly, though she’s too old. But if the film is about anything, which isn’t certain, it may be about coming of age — indeed, the soft-focus boat ride looks very much like what I imagine a David Hamilton adolescent smut film must be like (haven’t seen one).

Wonderland is all sets. Quite big ones, but things still get to seem a little airless. The transition occurs when the dream begins, rather than when Alice goes done the rabbit hole, which is a distortion, but an acceptable one. The budget allows for some very interesting visuals. A well decorated rabbithole, a Dali-meets-Geiger sky, an infinite corridor for the key business.

One blunder is carried over directly from the Paramount version: there’s a terrific cast, and most of them are rendered unrecognisable under Stuart Freeborn’s makeups. As usual, the humanoid characters come off best in such circumstances: this may be the only adaptation of the book where the most amusing character is the Duchess’s cook, played in a maelstrom of fury by Patsy Rowlands. Robert Helpmann is a perfect Mad Hatter (though I don’t understand why Kenneth Williams never did it). Peter Bull is a pretty unbeatable Duchess, Flora Robson slightly out of her element as the Queen of Hearts, Dennis Price very much IN his as the King (he does nothing but recite Lewis Carroll in the same year’s PULP). Tiny playing card parts are stuffed with familiar faces like Rodney Bewes, Dennis Waterman, Ray Brooks and Richard Warwick.

Smothered under prosthetics, Peter Sellers still does well as the March Hare, Dudley Moore copes as the Dormouse, Spike Milligan capers and goons as the Griffin, but it’s all schtick and no character. The only bit of Michael Hordern you can see in his Mock Turtle outfit is his lower face, but the rest of the makeup gives him some kind of jowl-lift, so even that part doesn’t look like it’s his. Michael Crawford’s stylish White Rabbit ears and whiskers allow him to do his thing relatively unimpeded (as with Sellers, it’s all in the eyes and voice) but Roy Kinnear has lost most of the Cheshire Cat’s lines AND business, and barely registers, an astonishing fate for such a great scene-stealer. Ralph Richardson has quite wisely refused to don a caterpillar’s head, and can be seen and enjoyed.

There are fewer laughs, I’d say, than in Jonathan Miller’s BBC version, which only had a few. Miller, however, had decided that this was a Victorian child’s dream, and his choices were mainly consistent with that. I’m just not sure what Sterling has decided on. A panto, perhaps. We have songs by John Barry with lyrics by Stanley Black, which edge out many of Carroll’s own superior words. Barry has gone fully into soupy strings mode, with a bit of the pizzicato guff he did in the early sixties. His main theme is almost identical to the one he foist onto ROBIN AND MARIAN.

Not as alienating as TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER, another children’s film from this period (it looks amazing but positively declines to deliver any tales, or any entertainment at all), it still feels like it would have baffled me as a kid. The Disney version made me feel stoned, as I recall, though I didn’t know what that was. I may have made some suggestions in the past for how the books should be treated, but if I did I’ve forgotten, so here goes —

Get good actors, and I don’t know that they have to be comedians. Give them some signifiers — the White Rabbit can have ears, for instance. Otherwise, dress them like the Tenniel illustrations and leave their faces on display and let them act. I hate hate hate the Tim Burton version but the idea of using CG to turn actors into live-action cartoons (giving Bonham-Carter a huge(r) head) was decent.

I would tend to favour locations over sets, even though Michael Stringer’s were very good here.

I think, controversially I know, that Alice should be a child. Get one who can act (which Miller inexplicably failed to do).

I think it should be a bit like Welles’ THE TRIAL, really, just slightly funnier, slightly less sinister. But A BIT sinister. (And the Welles is already pretty funny, funnier than this anyway).

When I read the book I was struck by how funny it was, which the films rarely seemed to be. I wonder if Richard Lester would have wanted to do this: it has eleven of his actors and numerous crew. And there’s the Goons connection. Carroll isn’t as rambunctious as The Goon Show, but he has his moments. It’s a funny thing: the book has almost never been filmed by a comedy specialist.

Red Star Blues

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2022 by dcairns

The central imposture in THE CIRCUS — where the ringmaster makes Charlie the star of the show, but lets him believe he’s a lowly props man (and pays him accordingly) is like an inverted version of RED STAR, a project developed by Richard Lester to star Robin Williams.

In Charles Wood’s unfilled screenplay, based on a short story from the collection Red Monarch by Yuri Krotkov, Williams was to have played a bum actor in the Soviet Union with an accidental resemblance to Josef Stalin (it would have been brilliant casting, Williams had a vaguely Stalinesque bone structure). The regime is in need of a lookalike for certain less important public occasions, and so he gets recruited. But he sucks at the job, because he’s treated like a failed actor, so they realise they have to allow him a bit of prestige so he can get into character. They give him his own limo — well, he has to share it with a performing bear… The film was to have been almost a silent comedy. Lester told me that one gag would be when the actor tries to escape (perhaps having realised he’s a target for assassination?) but the boat he launches has been built as a movie set, and it only exists down one side…

In THE CIRCUS, Charlie is only funny when he doesn’t know it, when he’s not performing but being. As it happens, the very next plot development, midway through the picture, is that Merna Kennedy as the girl tells him what’s going on. There follows a fee negotiation scene that feels vaguely authentic — Chaplin was a hard bargained and knew what he was worth. But the scene is tricked out with a pratfall and some incompetent arithmetic so that Charlie’s snootiness is undercut.

Part of the bargain is that the girl’s father has to be nice to her, so Charlie isn’t being purely selfish. But he’s back to treating people as objects, lighting a match on the chief property man’s bum. A minute later, in an excess of glee, he will kick Henry Bergman in the chest. It’s uncomfortably like his bullying behaviour way back in THE PROPERTY MAN.

An intertitle notes that Merna’s character name is Merna. And finally Rex, King of the Air, is introduced. The tightrope-walker, played by Harry Crocker, immediately becomes romantic rival, and we’re back to a scenario first tried out in THE TRAMP: Charlie meekly making way for the more suitable love interest. But here he does try to put up a struggle, launching his own high-wire career to compete with Sexy Rexy.

Charlie keeps his money in his sock — so he’ll always know which bills are his (acknowledgement: Talking Heads). Ralph Fiennes in SPIDER is a sock man, too, but he keeps his sock in his pocket, which seems rather redundant.

Charlie listening in on Merna’s conversations with the fortune teller — a sympathetic Roma character to make up for the nasty gang in THE VAGABOND — reminds me of EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, in which Woody Allen has creepy access to Julia Roberts’ shrink sessions. Here, Charlie’s hopes are raised and almost immediately dashed, leading to a great tragic medium shot reaction, and then a scene where he has to go on and perform, broken-hearted, which again seems like it might be inspired by Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED.

The scene with the splitscreen identical twin boxers may have been deleted, but Rollie Totheroh gets a chance to show off his special effects when Charlie imagines beating up his romantic rival: he astrally projects, leaving his body in a double exposure shot and administering a brutal drubbing to his rival — in fantasy, of course. Whether this was inspired by Buster Keaton’s out-of-body-experience in SHERLOCK JR (1924) or by some more recent movie OOBE, I don’t know. It does satisfactorily deal with THE TRAMP’s weird character inconsistency, where Charlie goes from the violent bully Essanay audiences knew and loved, to a mild-mannered simp, with next to no transition.

Bravura acting sequence where Merna and Charlie watch Rex on the wire, she rapturous, he sneering at the bravado and applauding the mistakes, then getting caught up in it so that his mirror neurons fire up, making his body twist and squirm in mimicry of Rex’s performance. Surprising moment when Rex tears his tuxedo off to reveal acrobat kit underneath. “And all my clothes fall off!” Merna does not respond erotically, but with increased anxiety for his wellbeing. Possibly his mental wellbeing.

Charlie’s jealousy of Rex will lead to the big monkey climax, the scene which singlehandedly converted Fiona from Chaplin scepticism…

Meanwhile, Charlie sneezes into Merna’s face-powder, another Woody Allen gag although he did it with cocaine in ANNIE HALL. Editor Ralph Rosenbaum recalled inserting more and more footage to let the audience recover from their laughter before the next scene started. In the end he added thirty seconds of, essentially, dead air, nothing, just the actors sitting around waiting for “cut” to be spoken. It seemed like an eternity to him, but with an audience it was essential. I haven’t watched that film in decades so I don’t recall how it plays without a cinema-full of laughs…

All this sequence is basically set-up — we see how Rex’s act is supposed to work, so we can enjoy how Charlie’s version will go wrong. In fact, it isn’t essential — the monkey scene works brilliantly as an extract in Schickel’s Chaplin documentary, without even an explanation of how the monkeys come to be there. Some things are just funny.