Archive for Tod Browning

Alonso and Michel’s Lowlife Reunion

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2022 by dcairns

The last day of Hippfest began, for us anyway, with a Laurel & Hardy triple bill — restorations of DUCK SOUP, TWO TARS and LIBERTY, all of which brought the house down, or would’ve if the Hippodrome had been less solidly constructed 110 years ago.

This was followed by A STRING OF PEARLS (YICHUAN ZHENZHU, 1926), one of the few surviving Chinese silents, a loose adaptation of Maupassant’s The Necklace, complete with happy ending. Though the whole point of the story, if it has one, would seem to be the utterly miserable ending Maupassant provided, the plot’s reworking was done with some skill and logic, and might have succeeded had not the screenplay, by Hou Yao, resorted to every possible means to pad the story from the original few pages to feature length. This became tiresome, but then hilarious, especially when we discover that one character, a wealthy businessman who looks oddly like a twelve-year-old girl in drag, is being blackmailed.

Little girl man looks thoughtfully at the blackmail note which demands a thousand pounds, “or I will reveal your secret.” Flashback: little girl man receives his first-ever blackmail note, demanding a mere one hundred pounds. Carefully he removes the money from his safe. Goes to meet the blackmailer. Pays him. We come out of this flashback. Little girl man wistfully remembers his second blackmail note. We see him receive it. It is identically worded, but demands two hundred pounds, “or I will reveal your secret.” He takes the money…

John Sweeney on piano accompanied this insane, ritualistic repetition with a straight face, somehow bringing out the comedy without spoofing. It was cheering to learn that the screenwriter published a book on the art of writing for films.

The intertitles were also a joy: decorative and bilingual, the English parts obviously penned by someone just as skilled at bluffing as Hou Yao. Maybe Hou did it himself. When little girl man (back in the present tense at last) refuses to pay the thousand pounds, the blackmailer sets about him with a dagger. Mrs. Little Girl Man visits her injured husband in hospital and asks, “Tell me. What’s the trouble between you and your murderer.”

The titles also featured some nifty animation (including pearls rearranging themselves into the Chinese character for “misfortune” and some random drawings of camels. This was probably the worst Chinese silent yet (I don’t even like the classic, THE GODDESS, that much — too much propaganda) and my favourite.

Then we had two films for which I wrote the notes — THE UNKNOWN and L’HOMME DU LARGE. Since the notes for the latter were written back in 2020 the programme has changed, and it was John Sweeney who accompanied that one with Frank Bockius, and very glorious it was. Johnny Best, who threw himself into a rambunctious accompaniment to the L&H trio (with Frank ram-Bockius on percussion), played solo for the Browning-Chaney film, where Alonso the armless knife-thrower finds that the course of tearing one’s rival apart with wild horses never does run smooth. Best, in this case, opted for a restrained, even muted approach, since what was going on up there on the screen was more than demented enough. In the L’Herbier, Charles Boyer somehow gets top-billing for a fairly tiny supporting role (well, he’s electrifying to watch even if Nosferatu-gaunt) and L’Herbier’s partner Jaque Catelain plays Michel, the no-good son of a sea-worshipping fisherman. Paul McGann narrated, since it would be a crime to stick subtitles on those beautiful art intertitles. Impossible to believe this film was made in 1920. The music, sonorous voice-over, and conducive setting all worked their magic…

The full array of Hippodrome programme notes is available here. I seem to have written quite a few over the years.

Hippomancy

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

I’ve been remiss in not yet mentioning this year’s Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness, which I will be attending extensively next weekend. Expect posts.

I’ve also written a record four lots of programme notes, for Fred Niblo and Doug Fairbanks’ THE MARK OF ZORRO and Marcel L’Herbier’s L’HOMME DU LARGE, which were written back in 2020 for the festival that never happened, and new ones for Tod Browning’s THE UNKNOWN (pictured) and Jean Epstein’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. Very excited also about CITY GIRL and NOT FOR SALE starring that promising young chap Ian Hunter. It promises to be a splendid set of events and it would be awesome if you could come, but then, many things would be awesome, wouldn’t they?

“Poe has been adapted for cinema promiscuously since the days of D.W. Griffith, but filmmakers have often struggled to match a filmic style to his irrational, quasi-surreal stores (superfan Dario Argento calls them “non-Cartesian,” if that’s any help).”

“And there’s always a tension: between Browning the come-on artist, exploiting physical oddity for profit, and Browning the man, with a sympathy for the different, the disabled and the outcast.”

“L’Herbier always liked to work with artists, designers, sculptors, men and women who could decorate his films with striking objects. In this film, largely deprived of such opportunities, he raises his game to make the very world itself into a dazzling objet d’art…”

I was going to offer short extracts from all four sets of notes, but I can’t find my ZORRO. Oh well, Hippfest have apparently taken better care of it, so I shall get a copy on the night…

Link to programme.

Gutter Blossom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2021 by dcairns

THE WICKED DARLING (1919) is Tod Browning and Lon Chaney and so it’s of interest, but that interest mainly plays out in the trainspotting exercise of spotting the Browning motifs when they appear, as they do intermittently. And so we have —

GROTESQUERIE

The toothless pedlar, embedded in his wares, is a pure Browning touch, and entirely gratuitous. Chaney plays without any makeup gimmicks but manages to be terrifying and freakish with what nature gave him. And there’s a big role for Kalla Pasha, not so much an actor as a super-dense physical object, an asteroid of gristle with a head shaped like a rotary phone (a grid of metallic teeth in place of the dial).

VIOLENCE

Two big brawls and a shooting. The wonderfully named Wellington Playter (there’s also a Spottiswode Aitken in the cast) grapples with Chaney and also receives the bullet. The fights are dynamic and scary, which isn’t usually the case in that period. Actors hadn’t learned how to throw a punch and miss, while positioned so that the camera can’t see whether the impact is real. The “recipient” of the fake blow sells it by his reaction. But it really helps if you dub on a SMACK sound, which the silents were not in a position to do. Instead, silent film fighters had to pull their punches, which always looked weak. Supposedly it was John Wayne who invented the three-quarters-view punch, drawing back his fist slowly to pre-sell the haymaker (a practice mocked in Hawks’ THE BIG SKY, where the guy raising his fist slowly gets punched out before he can swing).

To get around this yet-unsolved problem, Chaney uses vigorous wrestling moves, contorting his body in a rapidly shifting set of holds, creating an impression of tremendous murderous aggression without relying on phony wallops.

Leading lady Priscilla Dean, discovered here behind Wellington’s couch, is lively and pert. She’s very good in the wicked scenes, playing a jewel thief in thrall to Chaney and his accomplices, but rather overdoes the sweetness once she;s redeemed by the love of a good Wellington. By 1927 her star had dimmed and she was acting at Hal Roach in an early Laurel & Hardy.

Chaney is introduced as a pair of shiny shoes. How did he do such amazing makeups with such tiny feet?

I had actually seen this film before, a fact I only discovered when preparing to write about it. So it’s not the most memorable entry in the Browning and Chaney oevres.