Archive for The General

The Sunday Intertitle: The Gag Man

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2018 by dcairns

This is, I think, the only funny intertitle in THE GENERAL, the only one that even attempts to be funny. And even then, it’s just alliteration, not some kind of wisecrack.

It’s a shock to see Keystone films after watching mature Keaton or Chaplin, because at Keystone they tried to cram gags into every title. I think the idea was to take what had been filmed and punch it up with another layer of comedy. Whereas Buster and Charlie knew what they’d got was good enough. Harold Lloyd would do funny titles — “When the man with the mansion met the miss with a mission…” — really witty ones. And they seem to be more intimately connected to the story — that one, from FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, was going to supply the movie’s original title.

Keaton does gag titles in his shorts, but again, they’re plot-based, as with the boat’s name in THE BOAT. “Damfino.” “Well I don’t know either.”

Weirdly, the writing credit on THE GENERAL names directors Buster and Clyde Bruckman, but adds, “Adapted by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith.” Smith was an actor, who plays the heroine’s dad in the film. And Boasberg was a joke writer from vaudeville who had helped shape the personae of everyone from Jack Benny to Milton Berle and Burns & Allen. Keaton referred to him as an example of how that kind of verbal humour wasn’t needed on his films, and the credit seems likely to be a compensation to Boasberg for not having any of his work used. The straightforward, purely functional titles of the film could be entrusted to a minor actor with, I suspect, Keaton more or less dictating ~

 

Smith.

Boasberg’s trumped-up credit reminds me of H.M. “Beany” Walker, who got writing credit on all the Laurel & Hardy shorts, despite the fact that the story was already in place when he came on, and so he’d write a dialogue script full of one-liners which the boys basically ignored. Those titles at the start of many L&H talkies would end up being his major contribution.

But it’s nice Boasberg got a credit because his name goes unmentioned on a lot of films he DID contribute to — notably A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, where he seems to have originated the legendary stateroom scene, a scene dependent on his speciality — verbal quips which not only fit the situation, but the speaker’s unique comic personality.

Info from Ben Schwartz’s amazing bio essay, The Gag Man, available in The Film Comedy Reader.

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Gone West

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2016 by dcairns

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Continuing to look at the non-Marxian aspects of the Marx Bros’ films.

The Marx Brothers’ GO WEST is the one where Buster Keaton’s contributions as gag writer really make a difference — the train climax, which manages to be reminiscent of THE GENERAL without recycling any specific gags, is one of the best bits of Hollywood slapstick the 40s produced (see also the hyper-kinetic chases climaxing a couple of W.C. Fields movies, which make up in manic speed what they might lack in finesse).

Buster may have played the brothers at high-stakes bridge, and collaborated successfully with them more than once, but he didn’t care for their casual attitude to movie-making. I guess this led to his otherwise inexplicable preference for Red Skelton, who evidently took his job seriously.

Edward Buzzell directs — he was fresh (or exhausted?) from AT THE CIRCUS, and had a background in pre-codes and would later provide the narrative bread for the Technicolor sandwich which is Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams’ JUPITER’S DARLING NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER. He manages one truly memorable shot, which you can’t quite believe you’re seeing ~

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A love scene occluded by horseflesh. It feels like an accident, left in the film whimsically, but I guess it’s a joke on censorship or privacy or something. If there were any real sexual chemistry imaginable behind the equine barrier, those readings would make sense. I like the gag, but I’m sort of glad there aren’t more like this. You don’t want the boring bits in Marx Bros films (the plot, the romantic interest, the musical numbers) to strive for zaniness. You would prefer they weren’t there. If they have to be there, you would like the girls to be charming, the songs to be tuneful, and nothing to go on too long. I don’t know what I would wish for the Allan Jones type leading men — a quick death, probably.

Here we have John Carroll and Diana Lewis, who is perky. We also have a couple of bland villains, who do that grating angry thing when annoyed by the Bros, which makes them suitable targets. In DUCK SOUP, the only reason Edgar Kennedy is a worthy target for destruction is the grating way he says “WHAT’S THE IDEA FIGHTIN’ IN FRONT OF MY STAND AND DRIVIN’ MY CUSTOMERS AWAY?” He is actually quite justified, but his tone is so obnoxious he must be systematically dismantled. The Marxes don’t put up with anger. Even Groucho’s “So, you refuse to shake my hand?” is transparently trumped up, a pose, a parody of real outrage.

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Piano interlude — a natural for a saloon sequence. This starts out as the most promising Chico solo ever, with Harpo reacting in extreme excitement to the music, until he feels compelled to throttle a bar girl just to show how happy the melody makes him. Rose McGowan would not approve, but this may be the biggest laugh in a Marxian musical interlude ever, discounting the great Groucho comedy songs. Unfortunately, Harpo then calms down and we have to endure twice as much piano. Chico’s numbers are sort of amusing, but when you’ve seen one you’ve kind of seen them all.

What else? Uncomfortable humour with Indians. This is a lengthy bit that doesn’t really contribute to the story, and also contains the inevitable harp interlude (using a loom as improvised harp). Buzzell gets desperate enough to track in a semi-circle around the offending instrument, the most elegant and imaginative move in the film. Makes me wonder how creative the average Hollywood hack would become if forced to shoot a whole movie full of tedium.

Fiona was impressed by the strong hints of miscegenation, with Harpo obviously drawn to the flirtatious Mini-Hahas. But squaws were always kind of fair game, weren’t they? It’s probably good that Harpo’s rapacious sexuality is tamped down here, since a white guy chasing screaming Indian girls would maybe feel unpleasant. Chasing peroxide cuties in a mansion-house in ANIMAL CRACKERS is something Harpo still somehow gets away with in the modern age, I think

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Oh, there’s also an old-timer, the heroine’s grandfather or something, who must be placated so the plot can work out happily (which we don’t care about). This guy disappears from the movie almost completely, despite being the lynchpin of the whole narrative. He’s glimpsed at the happy ending, but more or less subliminally. A shame, perhaps he could have become a kind of male, rustic Margaret Dumont. He’s meant to be a beloved curmudgeon, but he’s also standing in the path of love, so the Marxes new MGM role as anarchic cupids could have them assaulting his dignity.

Actually Margaret Dumont playing the role, in overalls and stubble, would make EVERYTHING better.

 

Sub Sub

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2015 by dcairns

madmax In Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker, there’s a movie entitled SUB SUB, which is presented as the climactic achievement of cinema — a quadrophonic acid-trip caveman movie full of rape and violence with a deafening non-stop rock score. The book’s semi-serious conspiracy theory suggests that cinema is a Cathar conspiracy to prepare us for the end of the world. Cinema as anti-life equation. I do sort of believe this. I think art and religion are both ways of dealing with the consciousness of our own deaths. George Miller’s triumphal return to big-screen carnage, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD feels a lot like SUB SUB. It has a bit more humanity, to be sure, but in its high-octane relentlessness, its constant grotesquerie, its deafening onslaught of mayhem, it is the kind of movie it’s easy to imagine alien archeologists unearthing from the ruins of our civilisation, screening, and saying “Well of course these bastards became extinct: they were making things like this.” It was suggested by someone or other that our ability to imagine post-apocalyptic scenarios does not seem to make us better at avoiding the kind of behaviour that will lead to apocalypses — instead, it just feels like a dress rehearsal for the inevitable. madmaxi If the Tasmanian Devil ram-raided FELLINI SATYRICON, or the characters of THE BED SITTING ROOM discarded their “mustn’t grumble” British inertia, OD’d on bath salts and invaded Namibia, the results would resemble this dirt-caked pile-driver of a film. George Miller doesn’t need 3D to punch his audience in the face. Astonishingly, a film which steamrollers over the action movie competition of beardless youths like Bryan Singer or Matthew Vaughn, is directed and photographed by septuagenarians, and costume designed by a nice lady who used to do all Merchant-Ivory’s films.

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Production process: for over a decade, the film was waiting to get made, existing, like The Bible, without the benefit of the written word — instead, Miller papered a room with a storyboard by comic book wiz Brendan McCarthy, himself a MAD MAX fan whose punk armageddons of mutation and madness prepared him perfectly for this descent into the maelstrom. It’s in some ways the most comic book movie ever, with character simplified mostly to design and cool names (Imperator Furiosa, Rictus Erectus) and basic, primal motivations. Max hardly speaks. Engine noise and the choral freak-out of Junkie XL’s score are privileged over dialogue (weird that I enjoyed this earsplitting sensory pugilism and then, due to my noise phobia, couldn’t walk into a busy pub to discuss it — movies have SOUND DESIGN but real life can be intolerably garbled). madmaxx Miller insisted that, anamorphic cinematography be damned, the subject of interest in every shot had to be dead centre, so that the eye didn’t have to rove around to catch what was going on. He was going to cut shots into second-long blipverts, and play some of his action as fast as six frames per second, so the tardy eye was never going to have a chance if everything wasn’t always in the same space. You’d think this might lead to visual dullness, but at the manic maximum overdrive sustained almost throughout, such a thing is impossible. Fatigue is certainly conceivable, and will depend on your tolerance for sweaty brutality and desperate urgency, which never flag. You just have to keep up. Logic is present only in the characters’ basic sense of direction — from almost the start, the world of Miller’s films hasn’t made a lick of sense. In a world where petrol has run out, everyone spends all their time driving around. Don’t let it worry you. More problematic was always the use of homosexual and disabled characters as monstrous villains. Here, it’s a little more complex — Miller, a former doctor, still has a love of physical deformity, but this is evenly parcelled out amid good and bad characters. Charlize Theron, the film’s real lead character, has a prosthetic arm, and Nicholas Hoult is extravagantly decorated with scarifications and a couple of bulbous tumours (with smiley faces inked on them). Sexuality has been entirely displaced by the necessity of procreation on a dying globe, and the exercise of violence is the only means the bad guys have for getting their jollies. “no unnecessary killing!” yells one of the babes Max and Imperator are rescuing at one point, but fortunately for the sensation-seeking multiplexers, a very large amount of killing proves to be completely necessary. madmaxresdefault (2) Miller pays hommage to ozploitation films past, borrowing the spiky Volkswagon straight out of THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS and strapping Max to the front of a speedy car like a live hood ornament, just like Cassandra Delaney in FAIR GAME. It’s just one way in which Max, hung in a cage and milked of blood by the bad guys, is treated more like a leading lady than Theron. He’s not as objectified as he might have been, though, and the film also loses homoerotic points by dotting its shirtless “warboys” with hideous goitres. The two groups of women show the extent to which Aussie commercial film has/has not moved on from its blokish origins. First, Max stumbles upon a kind of bikini carwash wet T-shirt competition among the lingerie models, then he meets a commune of leathery Germaine Greers. In this way the movie can have its cheesecake AND eat it AND spit it in your face while laughing maniacally. mad-max-trailer Even if the characters are hinged cardboard, Theron in particular invests some actual humanity in the proceedings. Miller’s long-standing tendency to cast for physiognomy means he’s saddled himself with slightly more lingerie models in lead roles than a proper film should have. The guy with brittle-bone disease or something, who looks like a jester’s bladder, is such an extraordinary human special effect in himself that I wouldn’t mind if he couldn’t act, but Rosie Huntington-Whitely isn’t really artistically excusable. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is as immersive and toxic as the extraordinary HARD TO BE A GOD, and the only thing separating Russian art film from Australian-American action film is the propulsive narrative drive — a straightforward sense of mission grounded in character. Someone said that the film borrows the structure of Keaton’s THE GENERAL, and it’s true enough — a long chase one way, then a long chase back, using the same terrain in new ways. Keaton gains added variety from the fact that in the first chase, he’s after the Northern spies and in the second, they’re after him. Here, it’s basically Max and Furiosa being pursued all the time. I’m slightly bewildered to hear of friends rushing to see it a second and third time. I enjoyed myself, but I’m uncertain as to how repeatable the experience is, and do I want to do that to myself again? I don’t think I’ll discover hidden depths. But I can’t wait to own a copy so I can pick it apart in the comfort of my own home…