Archive for Richard Lester

Film directors with their shirts and trousers off: Joseph Losey

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2022 by dcairns

Because YOU demanded it! Joseph Losey in upsetting shorts. A man entirely composed of babies’ bottoms. And other Mystery Science Theater 3000 quips.

From the filming of BOOM! As attested to by the presence of Richard Burton and Noel Coward on the right of frame.

Losey is gesturing downwards, out of shot, possibly towards his broken toe, fractured when he became overexcited during one of his elaborate camera moves and the dolly ran over his foot.

Richard Lester told me that he agreed to supervise the dub of BOOM! because Losey had another film starting immediately (I guess that would be SECRET CEREMONY — both came out in ’68). He thought it would be a few days’ work and it turned into weeks and weeks because of the Burtons’ incessant tardiness. He’s still cross about it. I imagine the decision to throw out Johnny Dakworth’s (doubtless excellent) score and substitute John Barry’s also dragged out the process.

On a somewhat related note: I picked up Richard Condon’s 1967 novel The Ecstasy Business, in which Tynan Bryson, “the sexiest, the most famous, the richest Welsh superstar in the American film industry” embarks on a super-production with his two-times ex-wife, Caterina Largo, “the sexiest, the most famous, the richest screen queen,” and somebody is trying to kill him. It looks fairly amusing, with the Burton substitute also given some of Brando’s more demented attributes, and the obvious roman a clef satirical angle also includes a master of suspense, Albert McCobb. A Scottish master of suspense.

The Sunday Nonsense: Chaplin Sings!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve set myself what may be an impossible task (for me). I thought, Yes, the song in MODERN TIMES deserves a post of its own. But what to say about it?

Popping out to buy some milk, ONE answer occurred to me. Chaplin got quite a few bad reviews for MT, though the public flocked to it. One accusation the critics flung at him was that he was just repeating favourite old gags from his earlier days. I think we can dismiss that as nonsense. But there ARE callbacks to Keystone, Essanay and Mutual, and this may be one of them.

Charlie, having lost his crib sheet — his cuffs, where the lyrics to his song are written — improvises a song in gibberish Esperanto, with expressive gestures that make the saucy meaning abundantly clear. It’s that old staple of Keystone, the expository mime. Remember how I hate it when Mack Swain or Mabel Normand turn to the camera and make a series of rapid gestures attempting to explain their motivation to the audience?

Chaplin is a master of breaking the fourth wall, but typically in his mature work only he is allowed to do it, and not for explicatory purposes, but merely to establish and expose his rapport with the audience.

But here — in the guise of a performance — Charlie really does tell us a story with pantomime. And it’s aimed right at us. “With Chaplin you can always sense the proscenium,” complained Richard Lester, and it’s certainly a conscious choice here. The audience is all around him but Charlie directs his performance straight at the camera, for the most part. One assumes that there are more diners behind the fourth wall, who have the best seats.

Thanks to Donald Benson for pointing out that, while Chaplin takes his tune from Je cherche après Titine, a 1917 hit by Léo Daniderff, the story he tells seems inspired by The Girl was Young and Pretty, a composition by… Charles Chaplin. His father. Lyrics.

So this is a return to his roots in more than one way, while also being a brave step forward (almost a decade after the coming of sound).

It’s also a kind of ending. The Little Fellow has given utterance. “A sacred principle is breached,” as Simon Louvish puts it. It’s going to be even harder for him to stay mute after breaking his silence. He manages one more scene in this movie, then it’s all change.

Chaplin had been considering various solutions to the problem of the Tramp’s voice. He’d thought about mumbles and monosyllables, which would work OK for Tati. But making him capable of poor speech is again a distortion of the character. He’s a somewhat inarticulate figure in THE GOLD RUSH, but mostly he seems to talk quite well. We just don’t hear it. And any form of speech would tend to anchor him to 24fps, and to reality, in a way that Chaplin had always avoided. Chaplin has one big shoe in truth, the other in fantasy, and changing the balance upsets the… balance.

Yesterday I bought a secondhand issue of Sight and Sound from 1972 and by coincidence it has my man David Robinson’s review of MODERN TIMES, then being reissued in Britain for the first time in seventeen years (!). Robinson says of the song, “we see instantly and beautifully resurrected all the vitality and absurdity of the English music hall in which Chaplin was bred, and acquired the skills of comedy.” It’s a terrific piece and I’ll return to it.

The reception of the piece is richly ironic — Charlie makes a success of his nonsense song, but just as he conquers showbiz — having failed in all normal occupations — he’s forced into exile on account of his connection to an underage girl. It’s like a jumbled autobiography and prophecy. Obviously it wouldn’t do for the eternal wanderer to find a home in the theatre, or would it? Of the previous features, only THE GOLD RUSH produces a settled ending for its hero: rendered implausibly wealthy, Charlie can carry on behaving exactly as before, because millionaires are supposed to be eccentric. To allow him a singing career would be to open up a whole new narrative thread at the ninety-minute mark, so it has to be curtailed, and so it’s back to the open road — TBC

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…