Archive for The Man Who Laughs

Dank Satanic Mills #1

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2022 by dcairns

It’s the iron maiden again! Screen right, bottom. The same infernal device Conrad Veidt is consigned to in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (in his first role, as the hero’s father) and which he later admired from the outside in ABOVE SUSPICION. We saw it again later in Corman’s THE RAVEN, the most recent appearance I’ve spotted by the long-serving instrument of torture. One of the most-used props in films. After a turn in it, you could recover by having a lie-down on Gloria Swanson’s swan-boat-bed.

I would like to discover more appearances.

Anyway, I have to say more about THE STRANGE DOOR because Eureka! granted me a review copyof their ace Karloff MANIACAL MADNESS set. Fun movie — future Star Trek director Joseph Pevney is turned loose in a lot of standing sets (a cucalorus in every room) with Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff. Laughton seems like he needs a couple-three more takes of every scene to get the lines down, but, aware of the tight schedule, I guess, he ploughs on until “cut” (rather than breaking the scene whenever he feels himself drying, as he did with Sternberg in all those I, CLAUDIUS outtakes). There’s a lot of mad invention and lipsmacking craziness, but punctuated by uncertain pauses where he has to slow himself down and then ramp up the energy again when he remembers what’s next.

Karloff, very solid, reunited with his OLD DARK HOUSE co-star, did not get on with him, as reported by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones in their lively commentary. The suggestion that Laughton’s style was becoming old-fashioned is one I’d take issue with — I’d say “Have you seen ADVISE AND CONSENT?” Or, indeed, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, which always struck me as a very modern bit of camp villainy. If Laughton seems out of date in THE STRANGE DOOR it’s because the whole film is, the dead end of the Universal Gothic cycle (along with THE BLACK CASTLE the following year). And the man isn’t on top form, though he’s certainly ENGAGED.

The climax, with our heroes trapped in a cell whose walls are inexorably closing in (powered by the water-mill I alluded to in our title), is gripping. Walls closing in always makes for a good, suspenseful scenario — I don’t know why they don’t trot the idea out more often, unless it’s that one so seldom encounters it in daily life.

Positively the same maiden

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on June 16, 2022 by dcairns

Already noted here that the iron maiden from THE MAN WHO LAUGHS reappears in ABOVE SUSPICION — in one film, Conrad Veidt is executed in its spiky recess, and in the other he cheerfully lectures on it as a museum piece. In the same blog post I show how Harry Crocker, Chaplin assistant, acquired the prop for his museum, and it was presumably still for hire when MGM made AS in 1943.

But here’s the same prop in 1963 (second from the right), swelling a scene for Roger Corman in his delightful THE RAVEN. Given this 35-year career, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the contraption were still out there, in some props hire house, gathering dust between occasional gigs.

The Sunday Intertitle: Big Top Charlie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2022 by dcairns

Back to THE CIRCUS at last. Or almost.

I gave a talk recently at college about another Josephine the monkey star vehicle, THE CAMERAMAN, where I said the one thing keeping the film of the list of top Keaton movies is the long sequence where Buster goes on a date with the girl. Not that the sequence isn’t good, but it’s unrelated to the central theme of Buster trying to become a successful newsreel photographer. Whereas in, say, THE GENERAL, everything that happens supports several interlaced themes — winning the girl, of course,and also getting into the army, and then, once the train is stolen, getting the train back and foiling the enemy attack. In THE CAMERAMAN the middle sequence does advance the romantic struggle but it ignores the method Buster has identified as the means to that end.

That may be why Chaplin opted not to include a neat, self-contained bit in THE CIRCUS where he tries to impress Merna Kennedy by decking a prizefighter. The prizefighter has been bribed to take a fall, so the whole thing is a set-up. Using fraudulent means to impress the girl is something Charlie is not above, since his tightrope act elsewhere in the film is planned as the same kind of gag. The only trouble with the prizefighter is that he’s not a big top attraction.

The sequence was shot by Chaplin during one of the production’s several shut-downs: a fire at his studio had destroyed the tent. So he invented something that didn’t need a tent, adding a circus intro to it once he’d acquired a sufficiency of canvas.

Charlie calls on Merna. He’s wearing a longer, more flared coat than usual, evidently his Sunday best. Begged or borrowed or bought since he started at the circus, presumably, since tramps don’t typically have a lot of wardrobe changes. He practices tightroping on a rake while waiting for her, with predictable consequences.

An overexposed walk in the Californian sunshine, an uncommon tracking or trucking shot. Annoyingly, Rex, Charlie’s romantic rival turns up, the real high-wire man. These handsome rivals are always rather dull figures in Chaplin, but they don’t need to be anything else. Rex is played by Harry Crocker, nephew of a big baking tycoon, sometime assistant to Chaplin, perhaps a result of his fondness for hobnobbing with the nobs of society — Virginia Cherrill in CITY LIGHTS is another. Crocker had a few roles prior to this, including two bit parts for King Vidor, which suggests he may have been an uncredited assistant for KV also. He also opened a movie props museum on Sunset Blvd. in 1928, about which little is known. I think I saw a reference to it in a twenties movie mag while researching THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.

The trip to the cafe involves an attempt by Charlie to show he can outdo Rex at good deeds. This goes horribly wrong when he tries to help a stroppy woman with a dropped package of fish. The clever touch here is making the woman really obnoxious, so that not only does the small act of kindness turn into a prolonged, Sisyphean and odorous ordeal, the beneficiary isn’t even deserving: she could be Mr. Muckle’s daughter. Charlie can ultimately walk off and leave her with her groceries still smeared on the sidewalk and we’re on his side.

The prizefighter sequence depends on great splitscreen work from Rollie Totheroh, turning actor Doc Stone into pugilist Twin Spud and his brother, who is presumably also called Twin Spud. So it’s another of Chaplin’s doppelganger conceits, like the ones in THE IDLE CLASS and THE GREAT DICTATOR, only this time it’s not Charlie who’s doubled. Spud’s bullying of Charlie is horrible. It seems out of character for him to agree to Charlie’s ruse, and optimistic of Charlie to expect him to keep up his end of it. But the gag goes wrong not because of treachery on Spud’s part, but because of his failure to mention that he has an identical twin.

When Charlie starts fighting with the wrong twin, not only does he fail to score a glorious victory to impress Merna, he gets ignominiously rescued by Rex.

The best part of this is Charlie “taking back” his money from the wrong twin, who’s lying prone having been decked by Rex.

We can’t be certain why this decent, but slightly upsetting sequence wasn’t included in the released version of THE CIRCUS. Nor do we know why Chaplin decided not to follow his original plan of introducing his character as a flea circus proprietor, which would have made us of the gag sequence devised way back at Essanay. I guess that sequence wouldn’t have set up the story, and it was better to have Charlie be a newcomer to circus life. Still, Chaplin had no objection to beginning CITY LIGHTS with a sequence which isn’t essential to the story. He DID take the flea circus proprietor’s name, Professor Bosco, and give it to the put-upon magician in THE CIRCUS.

Waste not, want not.