Archive for The Sea Wolf

Thoroughly Unmodern Tillie

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2021 by dcairns

TILLIE’s PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914) isn’t highly rated — but we should give Sennett some credit for jumping into the feature film racket with both flapshod feet, even when he could have had little idea of what a feature comedy would be like (nobody had made one).

There’s also something poetically apt about Sennett co-directing with Charles Bennett (not the writer of THE 39 STEPS, no — but the guy who sings “Oh, Mr. Kane” in CITIZEN KANE, yes). I want more rhyming co-directors. Christopher Nolan & Xavier Dolan? Michael Mann & Ahn Hung Tran? Susanne Bier & Lars Von Trier? Suggest more!

I’m devoting three posts to this as it’s a six-reeler I guess and certainly thrice the length of any previous Chaplin.

And it starts very nicely, with imported star Marie Dressler emerging from stage curtains to smile shyly at the (imagined) audience, then dissolving into her movie character — and then another dissolve transports that character into her natural habitat. This seems to me better than anything in De Mille’s THE SQUAW MAN, sometimes considered the first feature film, but in reality only the first extant one.

Enter Mack Swain in a big rustic beard, to give Tillie/Marie the traditional Keystone kick up the arse. Welcome to the studio. Sennett tried to cover his costs by shoehorning every comedian in his stable into this movie, which is how Chaplin comes to make his inauspicious feature debut.

And is that Teddy the Keystone Dog ambling through lower frame? Apparently not, though he does seem to have been around pictures at the time. I tell you what, let’s start an unfounded rumour that it’s him.

Enter Chaplin, as “the stranger,” a kind of man with no name I guess, in a straw hat. Always interesting to see him as a villain, and he does it very well. This is his last baddie until Hynkel and Verdoux, I guess. He enters, back to camera, and we stay on that back a loooong time. Keystone has finally discovered preparation and suspense — well, they had to, a feature film made at the pace of a typical Sennett one-reeler would have required a huge budget.

Okay, it’s definitely not Teddy. we could christen him Freddy the Keystone Other Dog

Tillie is playing “catch-the-brick” with Not-Teddy, and accidentally hits the stranger in the nose with her lobbed bit of masonry. Very good pratfall from CC, and it all makes for a very Keystone meet cute. Less than three minutes in and two of their signature moves have been displayed. How long until a pastry is flung?

Charlie aggressively woos Tillie. Wonderful to see Dressler moving about so nimbly in head-to-toe wide shot. And the physical contrast is lovely, with Chaplin like a mosquito thinking of alighting on a tempting jelly.

Charlie and Swain have a drink and everything goes out of focus (nitrate decomposition).

People seem to communicate not by intertitles, but by kicking one another up the arse. I wonder how much nuance they can put into it / get out of it? Dressler’s facial expressions seem to suggest quite a bit. Without the use of her fantastic voice, though, she’s reduced to mainly being a gurner. And the fact that everyone tends to pitch their performances at the camera instead of at one another is a bit tiring. Chaplin was right to limit that to himself as actor, and to use it for audience rapport, not to telegraph things we might have missed. Expositional camera-directed pantomime is the worst.

Charlie’s “look” is yet another fascinating variation. He has a tiny moustache, but a DIFFERENT tiny moustache. Not a toothbrush. There doesn’t seem to be a name for this style or breed. It’s a bit like Max Linder’s chevron-style , but it’s in two pieces. Which is weird. Did it influence Cantinflas and his repulsive face-fungus? But the Spaniard’s two segments have grown further estranged, leaving his philtrum and most of his upper lip area bare, a gaping no-man’s land, while the hairs cluster together like herd animals at the corners of the mouth as if drawing sustenance from stray saliva.

The baggy pants and cane are still there. Chaplin has worked out that his brand definition is beneficial to him, but he needs to delineate between the Little Fellow and this little creep.

Speaking as we were of whiskering, I like that Mack Swain has a portrait of Lincoln on his wall, evidently the inspiration for his unsightly “Irish” beard.

Charlie sets about wooing the hefty hayseed for her father’s loot. This is good material for him, though hardly the kind of thing he’d get up to in his regular characterisation, partially-formed as it yet was. Dressler gets to have fun acting girlish, and would presumably have appealed to John Waters: “I like fat people who don’t know they’re fat.” She’s very graceful, but can drop it in an instant and stagger with pachyderm ponderousness: one thinks of her breaking stride at the end of DINNER AT EIGHT.

This film is usually dismissed, but I have to say, they’ve correctly worked out that the way to make a Keystone feature is to linger on character interplay in simple scenes, not to pack the screen with the usual busy-busy fussing or frenetic action. Cheaper, as well as less exhausting!

The lovers woo by slinging roses at one another. Tillie can hurl a blossom hard enough to knock Charlie on his ass. Of course, it’s not long before bricks are being tossed: this being the countryside, there are plenty lying about (it’s Keystone country).

Charlie proposes an elopement, and it’s a crystal-clear bit of mime, aided by Marie’s shocked, awestruck, delighted responses. His proposal that they rob her father requires a bit more explicit for-our-benefit gesticulation, but plays OK.

Dressler dresses up to elope, donning an extraordinary hat which seems to have a miniature egret or something posing atop it. I can imagine such a garment appealing to Bjork but few others. Anyway, get used to it, she doesn’t get another costume change for ages.

Enter Mabel Normand, forearms immersed in an almighty muff (elbow-deep in animal as they were, women of the era could have taken to veterinary practice as to the manner born), as THE GIRL HE LEFT BEHIND HIM. We’re in Part Two now, and the plot, a thin gruel thus far, duly thickens. Mabel advances into a gaping, PIG ALLEY close-up. Either Mack Sennett or Charles Bennett, has been looking at Griffith (with whom Sennett used to work). It’s rumoured that Sennett decided to throw everything into TILLIE’S after learning that DWG was at work on what became BIRTH OF A NATION, but Hobart Bosworth’s THE SEA WOLF and Cecil B. DeMille & Oscar Apfel’s THE SQUAW MAN were already out there, making money, so that influence is not needed.

The mini-skirmish with Mabel in the street is just padding, though, since the trio face off again in a restaurant, another of those bustling, hyperactive scenes Sennett had a weakness for. Interesting to see Mabel as a villainess.

Tillie gets drunk (falls down a fair bit), Charlie steals her ill-gotten dowry and absconds with Mabel. A woman walks by in the background grinning right into the lens, but if the stars can do it, why not random Los Angeles citizens?

Tillie is ousted and rousted, into the waiting arms of a kop, while Charlie and Mabel laugh wickedly from a presumably adjoining shot. (Keystone movies are very Kuleshovic, since near everything’s a master shot and when you have two wide shots joined together by glances or shoved characters passing from one frame to the other, you never ever get a wider view that links the two frames explicitly.)

Mercifully, Tillie is having too good a time being drunk for the first time to notice that she’s been robbed, abandoned and arrested. The local kop shop is just a palace of drunken hilarity to her. So they put her in solitary confinement with five men and two other women.

Charlie and Mabel go shopping — he is floored by the department store’s swing door. Hinges! There’s just no combatting them.

In the jail cell, Tillie is assailed by varied print formats — things keep blazing into high-contrast glare, with curved corners flashing momentarily onto the frame, a bit of Lynchian strangeness that prepares us for the possibility of Marie Dressler inexplicably mutating in her cell into Balthasar Getty. Which wouldn’t be that much weirder than what’s gone before.

Further developments introduce Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s own Marie Dressler type, as a prison matron (though Tillie isn’t in prison yet, just in the hoosegow’s lock-up) and co-director Charles Bennett himself as Tillie’s rich uncle. Also Edgar Kennedy as his butler. Having a rich uncle duly gets Tillie released, and a good thing too as she’s now entered the lachrymose phase of inebriation, weeping and kissing the desk sergeant’s bald head. “You th’ bess pal in th’world, thass wha’ you are…”

Mabel and Charlie emerge from the clothing store, all gussied up. Mabel is now the full Theda Bara. Charlie no longer had the baggy pants, his divorce from the Little Fellow is complete. (But we can’t see his feet!) This movie is like his entire progress at Keystone played in reverse. Mabel and Charlie have a ton of fun just standing in the street interacting. Makes me wish we could have seen them actually clothes shopping.

Admittedly, Tillie’s weird pyjama-dress-pantsuit thing is pretty impressive too. She’s still having tipsy fun, roughhousing with the Kops, making a great play of jumping off one of those huge kerbs they had in them days. I guess having a massive step like that would actually potentially deflect a cartwheel coming at you sideways, so they probably saved a lot of lives. If you were on the sidewalk you were kind of safe, unlike now. On the other hand, the pedestrians must’ve been walking about on broken ankles alla time.

That’s End of Part 2 —

TO BE CONTINUED

King of the Movies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2019 by dcairns

King of the Movies was the title of an interview show done about Henry King for the BBC when the old master was ninety. I enjoyed King’s work at Il Cinema Ritrovato — they could only show a small sampling of his 108 credits — and two of them, STATE FAIR and OVER THE HILL, would easily make my top ten of films I saw in Bologna.

But I’m not convinced of his greatness, as a whole. At Fox in the early thirties, he channeled the house style, which favoured long tracking shots and misty atmosphere — as well as any other director. But then, like Ford and Borzage, he seemed to lapse into a less showy, more conventional form of coverage.

“Style should be invisible,” was the prevailing idea. To me, if it’s invisible it’s not style. Style has to be perceptible to the senses to qualify. Which is not to discount subtlety. But if you’re alert and you know about film technique, good style can be detected however low-key, though in a very entertaining or engaging film you might forget to look for it. (When Ford and Borzage minimized their style, a distinct artistic identity remained visible. With King, not so much.)

The fact that King could make so much of the visuals while at Fox is significant — someone like Alfred Santell in THE SEA WOLF, gifted with an elaborate dockland set, just sat the camera on sticks and went to sleep. But once King stops gliding, his principle attributes become good dramaturgical taste and an ability to marshall the resources of a big production effectively.

TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, his WWII bomber movie, illustrates King’s abilities and limitations. It’s extremely well-crafted, and the acting, from a fairly un-starry cast (Gregory Peck is supported by Gary Merrill, Hugh Beaumont Marlowe, Millard Mitchell and Dean Jagger) is fine. There’s a moderately interesting flashback transition early on, and then the horrific discussion of the fliers’ injuries starts it off as an unusually frank war movie. The screenwriters were both involved in the air force and Wyler’s MEMPHIS BELLE so they knew their stuff.

Maybe my frustration with King is that he just isn’t as progressive as I’d like. (Yet some right-wing directors are extremely interesting!) Having set up a depiction of air war that’s surprisingly brutal, the movie largely backs away from this. Gregory Peck’s tough methods result in fewer planes being lost, but they also seem to end completely the kind of nasty injuries and fatalities suffered early on (“What do I do with an arm?”)

Some serious ambivalence does enter the movie when Peck suffers his — quite convincingly detailed — mental collapse. Peck plays this pretty well, considering he’s Gregory Peck. (But imagine Robert Ryan, or Jimmy Stewart!) But it proves to be a Tom & Jerry breakdown — he’s all squashed, but then he springs back into his original form in a single scene. Though the movie preserves some doubt — he’s better, but is he ALL better?

In 1949, with Huston’s LET THERE BE LIGHT still banned, no Hollywood picture was going to end with its protagonist catatonic, and the movie impresses with how far it’s willing to go. But whereas in a good Anthony Mann film we would end with some kind of discomfort — maybe even a sense that the film couldn’t quite work because it had ventured so far into darkness that its contradictions couldn’t be resolved within a Hollywood format (and if only Mann had lived through to the seventies, what troubles he’d have seen, and illuminated!), in a King film, the resolution rather discourages us from thinking about the more troubling aspects. (It’s also a Zanuck film, and Zanuck had something of a passion for war — maybe he had the most interesting sensibility of the studio bosses, but he was in some ways the most militaristic.)

Footnote: there’s a B-17 in this called Leper Colony, which is also the name of the B-52 flown by Slim Pickens in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE — the name indicates that the crew is composed entirely of no-hopers not fit to serve with skilled airmen — which illuminates the nature of Major “King” Kong and his crew in the Kubrick film.

The Sunday Intertitle: Wirework

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2018 by dcairns

1910’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (Otis Turner) is a very sound example of those earlies that almost seem to be built around their intertitles. The system is simple: reduce a famous book everyone sort-of knows to about eight sentences. Insert shots illustrating those sentences in between thee titles. Film done!

Dorothy is blown to Oz along with a cow and a donkey and a scarecrow (he’s not an Oz native in this version, so we’ll have no mucking about with dreams at the end). The animals are men in costumes — I’m assuming they’d be men, in which case the cow is also a drag act. The loose-limbed Scarecrow is pure Ray Bolger, a welcome link forward to what we all feel is the authentic OZ film of ’39.

On touchdown, most of the characters are shown already in situ, just sort of ACTING as if they’ve been dropped by a cyclone, but the Scarecrow drops from a great height, falls gently to earth, then rolls over several times before getting his bearings. This worried me, rather. I’ll explain.

When Mark Cousins interviewed Donald Sutherland, the Great Man talked about doing his rope-dangling but in the church in DON’T LOOK NOW by himself because “The stunt-man, at the last minute, didn’t want to do it for some reason.” (If it were me, I’d be very curious about the reason.) Years later, Sutherland was complimented on his bravery by another stuntman. “Oh, it was quite safe, I had a Kirby wire on.” “Yes, but you were going LIKE THAT,” [rotates finger to indicate spinning] “Yes?” “Well, when you go LIKE THAT [rotates finger] on a Kirby wire, the Kirby wire BREAKS.”

So I hope that scarecrow didn’t do too many takes.

Anyway, turns out Dorothy is played by a tiny, nine-year-old Bebe Daniels and the Scarecrow is future director Robert Z. Leonard. He would have been on the MGM lot when they were filming the ’39 version! He could have said, “Remember, play him LOOSE-LIMBED!” I’m fantasising — Ray Bolger never in his life needed THAT bit of advice.

Oh, Momba the Witch (Winifred Greenwood) also enters by wire, and it’s a real coup de cinema, as she soars over the heads of a throng of Ozites, who scatter as she lands, centre-screen and resplendent. Glinda the Good (Olive Cox) pops from the undergrowth on a wire that just elevates her a few inches off the ground for a moment, but gives her rise a fluid, effortless grace. Amazing what you can do with wires. When you consider the actors who have done their most popular work on wires (Chow-Yun Fat, the entire cast of THE MATRIX) it’s surprising we don’t attach all our actors to wires all the time. We might not choose to yank Tom Hanks twenty feet in the air to emphasise a dramatic moment in THE POST, but the facilities would be on hand if we did.

The Lion is a man in a costume, but he wears a great big lion head, so he doesn’t have Bert Lahr’s expressiveness. (You know that W.C. Fields nearly played the Wizard? He went so far as to annotate his script with additional dialogue. The best line read, “Remarkable! He even smells like a lion.” The friend who told me this added, “It would have been a whole. Different. Movie.”)

The Tin Woodsman, looking just like Jack Haley, is surrounded by a bleak landscape of massive deforestation. Leave him rusty! Seeing him referred to as The Woodsman got me thinking about David Lynch, a big fan of the Victor Fleming version. And bang on cue, a winged frog shows up! Coincidence? I think not!

Momba’s house has an evil face. I wondered if, like Baba Yaga’s domicile, it could get up and walk. But it doesn’t bother.

Momba’s fatal dowsing doesn’t make her shrink through the floor, she just fades away, like Graf Orlok in NOSFERATU.

The Great Oz himself is Hobart Bosworth, who would direct what may have been America’s first feature film, THE SEA WOLF, a few years later. It’s lost now, swept away on the great cyclone Time.