Archive for Universal

Man’s Beast Friend

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2021 by dcairns

On the subject of A DOG’S LIFE, Chaplin’s first film for First National, Walter Kerr (in The Silent Clowns) sagely notes ~

“The dirt floor of the vacant lot on which Charlie is discovered sleeping is now real dirt, hard, soiling, transparently uncomfortable. He will make nothing of this, or, rather, he will deflect attention from it with a gag without denying its presence. The board fence beside him is rickety, uneven at ground level, obviously no shelter from wind. The wind bothers him, a bit. He studies its cause. There is a small knothole in one board. He stuffs that with a piece of cloth and curls up to sleep again, reassured. The joke has had a double face: it is funny because closing off the least source of wind is preposterous in the circumstances; it also accentuates the circumstances. The comedy and a certain harshness of fact are being welded.

“When he goes to the tavern, The Green Lantern, the paint is peeling from the cement walls that frame its entrance, the sign promising Beer 5¢ is weathered almost to obliteration. The curbstone on which he sits is littered: there is garbage for him to probe in search of possible food. Compare the environment in which all of the spirited gagging takes place with that of the earlier Easy Street and the new texture becomes plain. Easy Street is a slum street, populated by bullies, drug addicts, impoverished women who must steal. But it is as clean as a drawing for a fairy tale. A Dog’s Life is not a picture of a place but a place. The “setting” as a thing closer to documentation is taking its place.”

Kerr’s observations are all the more astute because there’s no evidence he knew that the Chaplin unit had been joined by a new production designer, uncredited, in the person of Charles D. Hall. Hall would design every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES, while running the design department at Universal for the last few of those years. He’s a giant of cinema, giving us not just the clockwork innards Chaplin will reel through, iconically, but Castle Dracula, Frankenstein’s laboratory, the Bauhaus Satanism of THE BLACK CAT.

Hall was a companion from the Fred Karno days, but by the time he starts working with Chaplin he already has absorbed cinema’s need for close-up detail, as described in Kerr’s examples. It’s not clear whether he absorbed this working on earlier films or simply had his own ideas, or followed Chaplin’s orders. But he certainly brings a new reality to the films. If you’re wondering if a designer would really be responsible for the quality of dirt on the set in 1917, you can read my short bio in this month’s Sight & Sound but also read Tom Charity on Richard Sylbert in the same issue: Sylbert dictated that, since CHINATOWN was about a drought, he didn’t want to see a single cloud. He designed the SKY.

We can compare directly Chaplin waking up in EASY STREET and in A DOG’S LIFE:

In addition to the detail, the new film begins with a slow tilt down from ramshackle buildings, a movement that adds depth and solidity.

The new film benefits especially from the realistic textures because its gags are mostly about SURVIVAL. The addition of a dog is sympathetic but also holds a mirror up to Charlie, as Jackie Coogan would. Scraps is introduced as “a thoroughbred mongrel,” a contradictory statement that also applies to Charlie, a natural aristocrat, an indigent lord of the manner.

Scraps is played by Mut. Chaplin had been experimentally buying dogs, then giving them away to good homes when he judged them insufficiently cinematic. A dachshund, a pomeranian and a poodle preceded the final mutt, Mut. Obviously a mongrel was the way to go, but Chaplin liked to find things out by trial and error.

Class warfare: in Chaplin, the underdog is permitted to mistreat the upper crust silk hat fellow, since this qualifies as revenge on the persecutor, but he can also rob the honest salesman: in EASY STREET, Charlie as constable helps a woman load up with purloined groceries from a stall, and there’s no thought to how the poor stall-keeper is to survive. In THE KID, breaking the windows of the honest poor is permissible (windows are expensive).

A kop! No longer with the silly tit helmet, but with a dignified cap and an unblinking stare. Played not by a clown but by a regular actor, Tom Wilson, previously of Griffith and Pickford productions. But he has to get down and slapsticky with the rest of them, as Charlie uses the gap beneath the fence to roll back and forth and play merry hell with the kopper’s ankles.

Charlie now visits the Employment Office. Despite his offscreen British origins, queuing is not a natural activity for him. An ad for a brewery job provokes a near-riot, and despite his greater speed, Charlie suffers the inevitable consequence of being the smallest jobseeker. The fat jobseeker is the inevitable Henry Bergman, in the first of his inevitable two roles.

That other Henry, Henry Jaglom, was horrified to learn that Chaplin used gag writers. This seems to be true, but unlike with Keaton it seems we’re not allowed to know who they were. Vincent Bryan & Maverick Tyrrel (cool name) are listed by the IMDb as co-screenwriters of the Mutual films, but on what factual basis I don’t know. Bryan was also a songwriter, responsible for”In My Merry Oldsmobile” (?) No co-writers are given for subsequent Chaplins until we get Orson Welles supplying the story for MONSIEUR VERDOUX. But Glen David Gold’s well-researched novel Sunnyside gives Chaplin a gaggle of gagmen. Albert Austin and Henry Bergman are said to have contributed ideas, and so I suspect the stock company could be said to serve as co-authors, like the actors in Mike Leigh films, but the man in charge serves as filter of all suggestions.

After being roundly defeated in the Job Centre — even the tiniest jobseekers somehow arrive at the service window before him — the problem is there are TWO –Charlie rescues Scraps from bigger dogs: the parallel with his own scrappy existence is clear. He at once becomes surrogate bitch to the pup, helping access the dregs of a milk bottle using Scraps’ own tail as a kind of milk-sop. Probably THE KID has a better origin story, with Charlie simply forced into partnership with a baby, much against his wishes. But this is fine, and sweet.

Attention to set detail is complimented by attention to extras once we relocate to the Green Lantern bar, a low dive full of low characters. Chaplin invents bits of business for the local colour. But he’s cutting ahead if the plot here — nothing happens in the bar/dance hall this time round. He just needed a cutaway.

Sydney! Chaplin’s half-brother last shared a screen with him in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, Chaplin’s last Keystone film and Sydney’s first. Since then, Syd had made a number of shorts using his “Gussle” character, sometimes called a Chaplin impersonation but not really. Syd was less handsome than Charlie and his characters usually up the grotesquerie factor.There are at a couple of features where he bares his face and looks natural, but he retreats behind makeup and cookieduster again for THE BETTER ‘OLE, the better to resemble the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon the film takes its title from.

I can only hate Syd as a human being, but he’s another comic who, not surprisingly, has fantastic timing with his brother. Like Conklin and Turpin. This is their probably their best bit together, but I’ll be watching out for his subsequent appearances.

The basis of this routine is Charlie and scraps stealing from Syd’s lunch counter. Scraps cleans up a string of sausages in time-honoured fashion. Charlie eats all the pies. It is incredible to see him cram those things into his skinny face. He’s like Paul Newman with the hardboiled eggs. I think they must have made nearly-empty pies, but then again, his face looks pretty full. Syd tries to catch him at it. This becomes very funny indeed, since by the diminishing number of pies and Charlie’s proximity to the dish, his guilt is transparent. But Syd is determined to catch him in flagrante. Circumstantial evidence is insufficient for this stickler. The variety of ways Charlie gets the better of him is dazzling, and a lot of it is played out in unbroken master shots so you can see the interplay in real time. There are cutaways to the dog and closeups, maybe so Chaplin can run off and be sick. But the bulk of the action is in wides of twenty seconds and a minute ten.

The arrival of that kop, whose sinister gaze Charlie meets just as he’s lifting another pie to his gob, breaks up the skit — Charlie flees and the kop gets hit with the colossal sausage intended for him.

Stuffed with meat, Charlie and Scraps enter the Green Lantern and the first thing that can be called plot occurs (I may be being over-strict, but I think the meeting with Edna is the first thing in the film that leads to something else).

Rejected from the joint for having a dog with him, Charlie stuffs Scraps down his baggy pants, which at last have a use. The dog is somewhat large for this role, which may have looked more realistic on paper. Special effects will be used to basically shrink him: once he’s inside, Charlie looks normal-ish, no longer bulging fantastically, but with a wagging tail protruding from his trousers. The seat was torn earlier, when Charlie rescued Scraps from the bigger dogs, so this is unusually logical.

Various barflies and one drummer are freaked out by Charlie’s tail. Mut seems very contented in those pants, whenever we cut to a medium-shot and we see his face.

Edna is a singer in this joint. She sings a sad song — cutaways of various plug uglies weeping into their beer. Henry Bergman, in his inevitable second inevitably drag appearance, cries clown tears, but instead of spurting like water pistols his eyes just dribble in cataracts down his big face upon the place beneath, where Charlie happens to be sitting.

You have to see this one with Chaplin’s score — I guess this is the earliest Chaplin film with his own music accompanying it. He couldn’t write music but he would whistle or hum it for a composer to transcribe. I gather sometimes what he whistled wasn”t entirely original, but his films are full of cute tunes, and Nino Rota’s collaboration with Fellini is impossible to imagine without C.C. Here, Edna’s lament is preceded and followed by a very vigorous and zaftig dancer, and the contrast in style and dignity is very funny.

Syd’s then-wife Minnie is credited as “Dance hall dramatic lady” on the IMDb. Does that make her the dancer? It’s a bit strange.

Fiona likes Edna’s incompetent flirting. It’s one of the few Edna roles where she gets to transform pathos — her bully of a boss demands she flirt with customers — with comedy — she’s so innocent she has no idea how to do it. She looks like she’s having a fit. Charlie, the customer she tries it on, is baffled until she provides an explanatory title card. Such visual cues would be useful in real life.

At attempt to dance with a dog in tow looks forward to the improvised dog leash belt in THE GOLD RUSH. It looks pretty uncomfortable. Charlie is just sitting down to a (leftover) half drink with Edna when the bartended unreasonably demands he buy something for her. He gives her the drink. The bartender starts to eject him so he grabs it back and downs it on his way out.

Charlie and Scraps get the bum’s rush. Meanwhile, a rich drunk is rolled for his bulging wallet. This tipsy walk-on clearly would be given to an experienced comic, but the IMDb offers no clue as to who it is and I don’t recognise him. There’s a nice “mercy shot” after he’s dragged offscreen by thugs and relieved of his loot — he staggers back into view, dazed but unperturbed, and staggers off back the way he came.

Kops chase robbers, and the purloined wad is buried where Scraps can easily find it, providing the ensuing complications of Reel #3 and Day #2 (or is it #3?) of this film.

TO BE CONTINUED

Vertigo Views of VistaVision

Posted in Dance, FILM, Painting, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2018 by dcairns

Having been blown away by the new 4K of VERTIGO, I called up Nick Varley of Park Circus, who are releasing it in the UK, for an interview — after all, he’s only over there in Glasgow, that other, darker city. But I learned the hard way that the audio recorder on my phone doesn’t record phone calls, apparently, so I can’t give you any direct quotes. But I learned lots of things of interest…

The first thing I learned is that the restoration is by Universal, not Park Circus. Universal went back to the original Vistavision negative and scanned it at 4K, so what we’re seeing is 100% new. And, since prints formerly would be several stages removed from the negative, via interpositive etc, we’re able to see more than even audiences of the original release could see. Fortunately, in this case, I can attest that this doesn’t show up anything that wasn’t visible before that the filmmakers didn’t mean for us to see. Nick cited the wires suspending the Wicked Witch’s winged monkeys in THE WIZARD OF OZ as a major example of a not-entirely-welcome discovery. The line where Martin Balsam’s makeup ends on his neck in PSYCHO is a less glaring one from Hitchcock’s work.

I asked about the sound — it feels much more authentic than the 1996 job, which threw out the foley tracks and replaced them with modern stereo recordings, so that the gunshots at the opening had a jarringly contemporary quality — the metallic sound of the hammer coming down that you get in DIE HARD, the gratuitous ricochets on bullets being fired into the air. They now just go BLAM! as they should. Nick spoke of the tendency to sometimes want old films to sound and look like new films, a misguided approach I hope is finally going out of fashion.

I asked what Park Circus are up to next, in terms of restorations they’re doing personally. THE APARTMENT just got a 4K restoration, fixing one damaged reel and some problems with the main title. The results played in Cannes, and are different from the Blu-Ray Arrow just released (with a video essay by me). They’re now at work on SOME LIKE IT HOT, which could be very exciting, and next up will be John Huston’s MOULIN ROUGE, for Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.

I mentioned meeting the film’s script supervisor, Angela Allen, in Bologna, and it turns out she’s a good friend of Nick’s. We paused briefly to marvel at the life and career she’s had.

The standard problem with MOULIN ROUGE as a 3-strip Technicolor film is that often the film shrinks, and as there are three negatives (red, blue and green), if they shrink at different rates, when you combine them you get the colours out of register, like in a cheaply printed old comic book, with characters and objects acquiring luridly coloured halos around their forms. In the digital age, this problem can be 100% solved, so that’ll be one result of the restoration.

The more unique problem comes from the film’s unique look. Huston loved experimenting with colour (MOBY DICK, REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE) and Oswald Morris was doing things with diffusion and the palette to emulate the look of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. And there seem to be no original 35mm prints extant to show what the results were supposed to look like. All we have as an authentic guide is the negative, and a 16mm dye-transfer print in Scorsese’s collection, which will be referred to.

It’s going to be exciting! I think in this case, possible the false noses will look falser, but they already look pretty false. The main result will be that a gorgeous looking film that exists only in tatty dupes, will suddenly look many times more gorgeous. Ossie Morris is the man.

The Sunday Intertitle: Der Mute Tot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2017 by dcairns

BEFORE there was Our Gang/The Little Rascals, it would seem, and before Chaplin’s THE KID, Mack Sennett tried his hand at packaging his own child-based Keystone Komedies. And no, I have no idea why the middle kid above is dressed as a Russian serf.

Three-year-old Paul Jacobs was discovered when a small boy was needed for a short, and he proved so adept that the studio started constructing stories around him. LITTLE BILLY’S TRIUMPH was released in 1914, the first of a few one-reelers centering on “the Keystone kids.” But the whole idea got derailed when Ford Sterling was tempted away by Uncle Carl Laemmle to create his own short comedy unit at Universal, an ill-starred enterprise which ultimately led nowhere as Laemmle slashed the budgets as soon as the first few films proved underwhelming at the B.O. Little Paul/Billy had gone with Sterling (the turncoat!) and so his promising career fizzled before he lost his baby teeth.

Info comes from Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films (A Book) by Kalton C. Lahue & Terry Brewer. If you already have Simon Louvish’s Sennett bio, you need this to complete your Keystone library.

Sennett evidently remembered those bumpkin sketches in which a hayseed goes to the theatre and doesn’t realise it’s make-believe. See also the American tourist in Montmartre witnessing an Apache dance. In this case, the sprog is getting exercised over a PUPPET SHOW. He should know better, at his age.

I saw LITTLE BILLY’S TRIUMPH on one of those DVDs that LOOKS kind of fancy owing to the covers being lovely period posters, but features fuzzy and milky and poorly-encoded transfers. Still, I pronounce the film pretty good for Keystone. The narrative is coherent and it’s not too busy, probably because the kids needed direction and couldn’t be turned loose like Sennett’s usual army of competitive pie-throwers. Since this is a Keystone film, it takes place in a nightmare world of cruelty, exploitation and violence. Since the characters in this case are kids , this seems more realistic than usual. The only token adults are a lone mom, an ice-cream vendor and a stray kop — identified by the IMDb as a svelte Edgar Kennedy in a cookie-duster mustache. I’m not convinced it’s him.

Young Mr. Jacobs is no Jackie Coogan, but who is? He’s still an adept and sympathetic performer (albeit with a slight tendency to glance off-camera for direction). The plot has bigger boys deprive him of the dime he was given to buy ice cream, so they can set up a tent show using puppets they purchase with the swag. Billy/Paul steals the B.O. takings and buys himself all the ice cream in the world. Amusingly, ice cream in 1914 was served in cardboard boxes and you ate it with your hands, apparently. Filthy business.

As is the Punch & Judy show put on by the pint-sized heavies, a wildly inappropriate melodrama featuring a lecherous “pay-the-rent” type villain in a top hat, with some serious consent issues. When the rapey glove puppet has been defeated, hero and heroine embrace and sink out of view, which also seems kind of adult for this audience. Still, they have to learn sometime.

Matt Stone & Trey Parker’s Weinstein documentary.

The emotional audience scenes — quite realistic, since the director no doubt could stand behind the camera and excite genuine reactions — makes this film a doddering ancestor of Herz Frank’s TEN MINUTES OLDER.

A happy ending sees Little Billy in possession of the full box office take and gorging himself to a state of terminal brain-freeze on all the ice-cream in the world.

Dirty Little Billy.