Archive for Sunrise

The Sunday Intertitle: What follows is history

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2023 by dcairns

To my delight, MONSIEUR VERDOUX has an intertitle. It’s very near the start, but it’s not at the VERY start, so it is decently INTER one sequence and another.

Here’s what happens:

TITLES. The movie’s true title would seem to be MONSIEUR VERDOUX A COMEDY OF MURDERS, but according to the convention that SUNRISE is not SUNRISE A SONG OF TWO HUMANS and NOSFERATU is not NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, except to distinguish it from Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE, which is not NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE except to distinguish it from NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, the subtitle is generally omitted.

The heavily-lawyered writer’s credit tells us, pedantically, that it’s “an original story written by” Charles Chaplin, but “based on an idea by” Orson Welles. So how original is it, if it’s based off of something else? I seem to recall CC needed some arm-bending to give OW a name-check at all, and he wants to be very clear that all Welles provided was one idea, and he had to come up with the story.

But even if Welles contributed only the one-liner “Chaplin as Bluebeard,” those three words contain most of the story, since the life story of for-profit serial killer Henri Désiré Landru (that “Désiré” is a hilarious bit of black comedy in itself), known popularly as “Bluebeard,” provides most of the story beats here.

On the other hand, Chaplin didn’t NEED to give Martha Raye a credit in advance of the main cast list, but he did it because he really liked her (she seems to have brought out his human side) and was impressed with what she brought to the movie. She’s this film’s Jack Oakie.

The titles proceed in a series of surprising cuts, only settling down to dissolves when we bring in the cast. They’re also unusually BLACK. And simple. Little drawings of floral tributes frame the text. Reminiscent of silent movies, in all three of these features.

We learn that good old Rollie (here the more formal “Roland” Totheroh) is back on solo camera duty, and yet again there’s an added name, Curt (here “Curtis”) Courant, credited with “Artistic Supervision”. So poor RT has another German looking over his shoulder, after Karl Struss on THE GREAT DICTATOR.

One Wallace Chewning is credited as “operative cameraman,” a hilariously fancy way of saying “camera operator.” You can really sense Chaplin’s less attractive qualities in that choice.

Chaplin’s music, this time arranged by Rudolph Schrager, is straight gaslight noir stuff, a surprising flavour from CC. Schrager, another emigre, alternated between film scoring and musical direction, stock music, all that stuff, and seems to have been equally at home in thrillers and musical comedies. And nothing in between, except this one.

Associated Director Wheeler Dryden — Chaplin’s OTHER half-brother; Assistant Director Robert Florey — already an established feature director, Florey was smart enough to take a demotion to learn at Chaplin’s side. It’s possible he was also on hand as an advisor on French customs. Then Chaplin’s Directed By credit. His name appears a mere four times in the titles, although he does credit himself with playing four roles, even though three of them are just aliases and he plays them all the same way.

Then we fade up on Verdoux’s grave and Chaplin’s in-character VO begins, reminding me that, three years before SUNSET BLVD, this movie is narrated by a dead man. Ironic, given Billy Wilder’s dismissive attitude to Chaplin’s talkies — and, given that SB is about silent pictures, the connection is unlikely to be accidental.

The music has warned us that there will be serious stuff, the subtitle has subverted it, and now Chaplin’s VOICE, of all things, defines the tone. “Good evening!” Verdoux will invite our sympathy, admit but sugar-coat his criminality, will be elegant and tasteful when discussing distasteful matters. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS will adopt a similar approach and make much more of the contrast between spoken VO and depicted action, with an overt tonal clash averted by the avoidance of looking too closely at the grim details.

The tracking shot across the graveyard is very beautiful, in part because of the dark waving shadows produced by the trees. I’m inclined to credit Herr Courant. It’s actually a rather NEW idea — graveyards in horror movies are typically nocturnal studio sets. In other dramas, they might be locations in broad California sunlight. Sun but with strong shadows that don’t keep still is a lovely way of doing it, and might sum up the tone of the coming movie quite nicely.

“Only a person with undaunted optimism would embark on such a venture.”

What Chaplin does with his narration is a direct analog of what he did as a silent tramp: he transforms the conventionally sordid into something that makes an attempt at gentlemanly elegance. The attempt cannot succeed: you can still see the reality through the mask of delicacy, but the attempt matters, is everything. It embodies the spirit of UNDAUNTED OPTIMISM. Only a person animated by such optimism would attempt to convince a 1940s audience that his career of serial uxoricide should be considered purely as a commercial venture.

Intertitle! Behaving exactly like a silent movie one, but also like the program or playscript of a stage play:

Sun damage

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2021 by dcairns

I recall feeling slightly unconvinced by those sections of the (excellent) novel Sunnyside where author Glen David Gold tries to get inside Chaplin’s creative process, but I think I was probably being unfair. Gold talks us through Chaplin’s rejected ideas, and they all sound pretty terrible. Shouldn’t even the non-starters of a genius be somewhat impressive? But looking at SUNNYSIDE the movie, no, perhaps they shouldn’t. Bits of it are very good but bits of it are worse than the ideas Gold has Chaplin throw out.

The L’Apres-Midi d’un Faun dream-ballet isn’t the worst thing in there. It’s inoffensive. But it has no narrative reason for being there. Other Chaplin dreams happen when he’s heartbroken and so they have at least a claim on poignancy. Here, he’s merely downtrodden — a dream of the easy life would make sense, but not this capering around with Grecian nymphets.

Anyway, the wake-up is decently staged. Charlie falls off the same bridge in dream he fell off in reality, whereupon the woodland sylphs toss him a creeper or something and attempt to pull him back up. Upon awakening, he finds himself jolted back to reality and the bridge by a crowd of Sunnysiders, and then sent packing with multiple boots up the arse by the Boss.

“And now, the ‘romance’.” says an intertitle, throwing off a palpable sense of exhaustion and formulaic will-this-do? Rushing up to a house, dodging Henry Bergman, who he just passed on the road as a different character (beard), Charlie plucks some flowers and goes in to see Edna. Also present is “His brother, Willie,” for some reason. Willie is characterised as a village idiot type in overalls, staring into space and smiling while Charlie raps on his forehead. It would seem more logical for him to be Edna’s sibling since he’s in her house, but I think Charlie wants the license to mistreat him… that’s the best reason I can think of for what follows.

Since the boy is being a gooseberry, Charlie invites him to play blind man’s bluff — binding his eyes and sending him outside, where he is imperilled by traffic. David Robinson says this as an interesting experiment in black comedy, I just find it obnoxious. It’s further evidence of Chaplin’s creative crisis, since he’s usually careful to seem sympathetic, at least since the Mutual period.

Still, this undercuts the fairly anemic romance stuff. Charlie presents Edna with an engagement ring, and sings mutely as she plays piano. Then he attempts a gag that would work better as a variation in MONSIEUR VERDOUX — finding a flat note, Charlie excites a tiny goat living behind the piano (!) which baahs each time he hits the note, causing him to think the piano is making goat bleats. This is quite funny but, though you don’t need the sounds to understand it, it would be funnier with the sounds.

The gag develops smartly: a much larger goat appears, and Charlie is even more confused. The goat can also eat the sheet music which isn’t as clever but it’s logical.

Moderately funny business back at the hotel with Charlie cleaning up: picking up tiny invisible specks of dirt and carrying them to a single place.

Enter Tom Terriss as a young man in spats — “the city chap.” SUNNYSIDE as distaff version of SUNRISE. He enters the movie crashing his car into Sunnyside. He’s carried into the hotel by the fat boy, who is, it seems, Tom Wood and not J. Park Jones as previously reported. And Charlie innocently tries to get the comatose city chap to sign the register.

The village doctor arrives, a fake beard in pince-nez and a derby, his gladstone bag bulging with booze and, disturbingly, handcuffs. I think the normally clear line between first aid kit and rape kit is getting blurrier than desirable. As he takes City Chap’s pulse on screen right, Charlie mimics him screen left, using the victim’s own fob watch. Best bit of mime: having briefly held the watch in his mouth, Charlie gives it a theatrical shake in an exact reproduction of classic thermometer business. The doctor then presents his bill, after merely taking the pulse and kneading the patient’s shoulder in a vaguely sympathetic manner. (Like the village idiot actor, the doctor is unidentified on IMDb but I’d say it’s Albert Austin under the whiskers.)

Very routine bit with Charlie mopping the lobby while three random guys are sitting in it. Yes, he turns with the mop and wetly knocks hats off. That kind of business. “City chap fully recovered,” reports an intertitle, unnecessarily. These cards have the dutiful tone of a child’s book report. City chap (who has the same initials as Chaplin) has a lighter built into his cane. Which is kind of cool. Charlie is impressed.

In a cutaway shot, Edna gets her fingers stuck in some fly paper — a rare (unique?) example of her getting a solo gag, though it develops in such a conventional way it scarcely qualifies. Similarly, the business of her forgetting what she came to the hotel to buy (it’s also a general store) and Charlie offering suggestions from his shelves unfolds without kicking loose any real comedy at all. OK, him wrapping the final item — enormous woolly socks — in a huge paper cone as if it were a bouquet of flowers, is sort of amusing. All this is just to effect a meet uncute with the city chap, who watches with more interest than I could muster. Edna is dressed like an old lady again, further stressing the resemblance of this movie to a much earlier period of Chaplin’s career.

Charlie gets Edna’s paper money stuck to the fly paper, which is quite a good gag, but it’s cut short — I think we want to see him picking the banknote to little shreds to bring home the hopelessness of the situation.

Seeing Edna strolling amiably with the chap, Charlie performs a head-clutching gesture of operatic despair, I think the biggest and lamest reaction I’ve seen from him. No doubt he’s thinking of how he felt when he caught her with Thomas Meighan. But it’s too much for the film, the situation and the genre. Sitting down and resting his head, Charlie prepares the ground for a second dream sequence. [Iris in.]

Now Charlie prances up to Edna’s house to bring her flowers and sing with her, but finds the city chap already installed at the pianoforte. A musical cuckold, Charlie gazes through the window (the overheard music perhaps recalls Charlie’s experience in childhood of being passionately transfixed by a rendition of “You are the honeysuckle, I am the bee” caught as he passed by a window). Edna gazes blankly at the lighter-cane as if it held some mesmeric power. The lovers smile coyly over a photo album. Much of the comedy in this film is rote, but absolutely all the romance is, a likely result of Chaplin’s loveless marriage following fairly quickly on the break-up with Edna.

Charlie attempts to copy the c. chap’s elegant ways, fashioning crude spats from a pair of the woolly socks (a loose thread spoils the effect) and installing a candlestick on his cane (it blazes with the same inextinguishable fervour as the one Harpo produces from his mackintosh in HORSE FEATHERS, burning at both ends — that would impress me if I were Edna).

Walter Kerr identifies the pathos here as operating on the same unsuccessful level as that in THE TRAMP, but I think it’s much worse. Charlie’s self-pity isn’t affecting whatsoever, whereas his illiterate note in the Essanay film is genuinely pitiable even if the tonal shift isn’t managed well at all. His everlasting candle a wash-out, Charlie crouches on a country road with fingers in ears, awaiting extirpation by an approaching auto. A sudden jolt — the boss kicking him out of his chair — brings him back to reality. His rejection by Edna was all a jealous dream, brought on by seeing her chatting with chap.

Coda: the chap is checking out. He tips his hat to Edna but she turns her back on him sniffily. What on earth has happened between them during Charlie’s dream? Seeing Edna, Charlie rushes to embrace her in an awkward stranglehold, makes to punch the city chap for offences committed during R.E.M. sleep, then gratefully receives a tip from him for carrying his bags three feet to the waiting car. City chap departs and Charlie and Edna embrace.

Critics and scholars have apparently argued about whether the heartbreak leading up to suicide is a dream, or whether the happy ending is the dream, flashing through Charlie’s mind in a split second as he’s mangled by the onrushing jalopy. While that would be cleverer, more unusual and better, making the film a slapstick version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, it’s absolutely plain that the more prosaic version was Chaplin’s intended reading. The dream is cued up by Charlie resting his head, and he awakens from the same posture. The reason for the confusion is the film’s awkward shape, with TWO longish dream sequences, and the other problem identified by Walter Kerr: while Chaplin often creates poignancy by having his character dream of idyllic happiness (heaven, bread rolls, etc) when he’s miserable in reality, here he dreams of a scenario much worse than his real life situ. But this is perhaps excusable — we DID get the reason Charlie thinks he’s washed up with Edna, right before he went to sleep. So it’s motivated, it’s just not very effective or interesting or amusing or touching.

SUNNYSIDE is pretty fascinating as an example of mature Chaplin operating without inspiration, judgement thrown off, forced to release a film that simply hasn’t gelled. Mysteriously, he called it a favourite film in his 1922 memoir, but dismissed it later. During shooting he toyed with abandoning it in favour of another, equally amorphous and unpromising notion, but he’d invested too much time in it for that option to fly.

The crisis would continue through the next short — I can hardly wait. And you?

The Sunday Intertitle: Shiver ‘n’ Shake

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on February 10, 2019 by dcairns

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) has many novelty intertitles. The Kino DVD has a great score by Neil Brand. And the film screens at this year’s Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness. (Line-up here.) I’m writing program notes for it so I don’t want to say too much here yet. But I’ll reproduce my notes on Shadowplay after the event.

You never saw one like THIS, did you?

SUNRISE’s famous melting murder-proposal “Couldn’t she get drowned?” comes close, I guess, but this one has the added value of dropping into frame word by word. It puts me in mind of the end credits of KISS ME DEADLY.

Now I better go write those notes.