Archive for Vampira

The Sunday Intertitle: Fame

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2021 by dcairns

Amidst the general critical appreciation of Chaplin introducing and integrating sentiment SUCCESSFULLY for the first time, everyone tends to forget his other mode, which appears here absolutely for the first time, with barely a hint of its coming before: the sophisticated side. Chaplin obviously thought this was an important mode to master, and would make an entire feature film, A WOMAN OF PARIS, to showcase it. I’m looking forward to seeing that one again to see what I think of it. What I think right now is that it appealed to CC’s vanity to be seen as sophisticated, and I’m not too keen on this kind of showing off. I don’t think he was as sophisticated as he wanted to appear, I’m more in sympathy with his attempts to be DEEP, with THE GREAT DICTATOR and MONSIEUR VERDOUX (the latter being also a sophisticated comedy in parts). I think Chaplin was deep in the sense of feeling things deeply, and his work shows that from THE KID onwards, and he can sometimes transmute his intense emotion into intellectual ideas without tripping over his flap shoes, and when he does it’s worth the occasional stumble.

Anyhow, The man re-enters the picture, to no particular effect. This scene was one of Chaplin’s key deletions when he rereleased the movie. Consequently, Carl Miller, who plays The man, gets a ridiculously prominent credit for doing practically nothing, while actors who contribute invaluable comic bits go completely uncredited and the IMDb still doesn’t know who a bunch of them are.

Since Chaplin is no fool, he isn’t remotely interested in reuniting the former lovers, and he cuts Mr. Miller off in mid-intertitle, in order to get to the more important business of PANCAKES:

Jackie is preparing A GREAT QUANTITY OF FOOD.

Chaplin may be on e of the few filmmakers who can do more good work the less plot he has to work with. This scene has very little to do with the story, it’s just behaviour. Of course the more we see Charlie & Jackie interact in a sweet, quirky way, the more we care, but the trick is in making all this stuff entertaining. Jackie preparing pancakes is fascinating because it’s midway between acting and being. Impossible to tell how much of it Chaplin has acted out first, and how much is Jackie responding in the moment to the pancake mix and frying pan and the taste.

Charlie is in bed, smoking and reading the Police Gazette (looking for tips). Called to breakfast, he sticks his head through a tear in his blanket to turn it into a kind of djellaba or poncho.

Those pancakes look good. I probably can’t have pancakes on my low-carb diet because of the flour quotient, and the syrup might be an issue too.

We note that Jackie still has the toy dog Edna gave him, and getting Charlie to kiss it is an important family ritual.

Enter Raymond Lee, a bully. Lee was a busy actor into the twenties, and also appears in THE PILGRIM for Chaplin, and LONG LIVE THE KING opposite Coogan. He steals Jackie’s dog AND his ball and throws them away.

FIGHT! An audience immediately gathers. Henry Bergman puts on some stubble just to appear at a window. Nobody attempts to separate the lads, it’s all just a great spectator sport. I’m pleased that Charlie steps in — and then it’s funny when he steps back out as soon as he sees Jackie winning. I never understood the rules of this kind of thing, growing up. Boys are/aren’t supposed to fight? I was an OK shin-kicker, was OK at catching the opponent’s foot when they tried to kick me, but still lost every single fight (none of which I started) until I learned to pick on the smallest, dumbest kids. And then I got a pang of conscience and stopped that. So I went back to losing. It’s strange to me that we were basically allowed to spend playtime punching each other. Does that still happen?

Charlie starts to treat this as a boxing match, with himself as trainer, and right on cue a washing line serves as rope for Jackie to lean on in “his corner.” Charlie instructs Jackie in nose-punching, stomach-punching, and his signature move, the kick up the arse.

Enter Charles Reisner, curiously padded, as the bully’s big brother. Reisner had been a boxer, and has the face for it, though I suspect he’s using putty to push his ears forward in the approved movie “pug” manner. Actual cauliflower ears, which you don’t see much these days, tend to be flat. Reisner had been assistant direct for Chaplin since A DOG’S LIFE, and would go on to “direct” STEAMBOAT BILL JR (really Keaton’s work, chiefly), a couple of Sydney Chaplin features including THE BETTER ‘OLE, and, um, THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929. His son Dean Riesner (note the vowel swap in the surname) would act for Chaplin as a boy, and go on to co-write DIRTY HARRY and marry Vampira, AKA Maila Nurmi. So there’s that.

Once again, Chaplin turns Jackie into a threat, and manages to make Charlie’s ignoble behaviour sympathetic. Reisner insists on his kid brother continuing the fight, but warns Charlie —

This is enough to make Charlie look straight at the camera, enlisting our support in an Oliver Hardy manner.

Charlie now watches in horror as Jackie successfully enacts the tactics he’s schooled him in. With no chance of a confidential “Let the wookiee win” to Jackie, he’s reduced to helpless spectatorship until, on an inspiration, he steps on Jackie when he’s down and quickly counts him out. But Jackie isn’t in on the gag, and proceeds to beat up his foe some more even as Charlie is trying to declare the fight over. Reisner’s uncomprehending glower during all this is a great bit of dumb dumbshow.

The situation having deteriorated as far as it can, a kop shows up to intervene but is punched out by Reisner (a show of actual strength, rather than just a menacing appearance, is always best for an antagonist). Charlie is next in line. He dodges a bit, then mimes a weak heart (Withnail-fashion: “If you hit me, it’ll be murder.”) A missed punch takes a chunk out of one of designer Charles D. Hall’s brick walls, quite convincingly. The next one bends a lamppost, in tribute to the shade of Eric Campbell.

Enter Edna, to do what the kop kouldn’t. And there I’m going to leave it as I have editing to do, a class to prepare, a walk to take. But watch this space because I might post some more this evening.

Star-Craving Mad

Posted in literature, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2020 by dcairns

I went down a rabbit hole investigating The Jet-Propelled Couch, a chapter of the book The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert Mitchell Lindner, a celebrated collection of psychiatric case histories.

In The Jet-Propelled Couch, Lindner tells of successfully treating a “government scientist” seemingly involved in the atomic bomb project, who had gone partway off his rocker reading sci-fi novels in Polynesia as a child, and was spending increasingly long periods of mental estrangement when he believed himself to be away in the future, battling in distant galaxies. Lindner boldly combatted the obsession by going into it himself, identifying with his patient’s mania until he reckoned himself to be at some risk of getting lost in it. Fortunately, there wasn’t room in this particular constructed universe for two, and Lindner’s elbowing his way in helped “Kirk Allen” escape.

Lindner disguised his patient’s identity so carefully that we still can’t be sure who “Kirk Allen” really was. The best guess to date has been that he was science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, real name Paul Linebarger. If this is so, it kind of suggests that “Allen” wasn’t wholly cured of his obsession, since Smith was to construct an entire future history spanning tens of thousands of years, lovingly piecing together whole civilisations that rose and fell, spawning new species (the underpeople! a very appealing character in A Planet Named Sheol has been assembled from bits of cow) and leading to “the Rediscovery of Mankind.” His stuff is absolutely nuts, and it’s easy to find yourself believing the author had mental issues. But maybe he was just really good?

Harry Harrison, sf scribe, on British TV was asked if you needed a special mind to write sci-fi. “No, just talent.”

Linebarger was remarkable in all kinds of ways. As a China expert, Linebarger’s proudest achievement was aiding in the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops in Korea. Cordwainer Smith expert John J. Pierce writes that the troops were averse to surrendering, considering it shameful. Linebarger had leaflets printed explaining that the men could come forward shouting the Chinese words for “love,” “duty,” “humanity” and “virtue.” Say these words in Chinese in that order, and you have phonetically said “I surrender in English.” Smith’s stories are pun-happy too.

I came across the Linebarger-Lindner story in Brian Aldiss’s critical history of science fiction, The Billion-Year Spree. He got his info from one Leon Stover, who was subsequently very cagey about how he’d supposedly heard it from Lindsay. The Linebarger-Lindner connection is tenuous at best, though we know Lindner knew other sf writers including Theodore Sturgeon, and we know Linebarger spent a lot of time in analysis. In Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch, Alan C. Elms, at work since forever on a Cordwainer Linebarger bio, examines the evidence in detail.

Since Linebarger was a cultural expert on China for the Pentagon, not a nuclear physicist working at Los Alamos, we can see that Lindner must have disguised him pretty thoroughly, but a lot of the biographical facts do add up, or find equivalents in Linebarger’s lonely and dislocated upbringing. (Loneliness has been remarked upon as a recurring theme in his fiction, from the astonishing Scanners Live in Vain — “I need to kranch!” — right through to his final published works at the end of his short life.)

Remarkably enough, Lindner’s chapter was televized as an episode of Playhouse 90 in the fities, under the direction or Burgess Meredith and James B. Clark (the combined talents behind THE YIN AND YANG OF MR. GO and A DOG OF FLANDERS. The show starred David Wayne as “Kirk Allen,” Donald O’Connor as “Dr. Robert Harrison” (so Lindner gets his own pseudonym), and featuring Peter Lorre and Maila Nurmi in her Vampira guise. I’d love to see it. It sounds dreadful and/or wonderful. A live broadcast, it doesn’t seem to have been preserved.

The TV play evidently interested Stephen Sondheim, who planned to make a musical out of it, but this never materialized. I would be interested! One can imagine a more serious WALTER MITTY affair, and it would be best if the sci-fi elements had some real clout and conviction, instead of the more usual Flash Gordon parody stuff. If one had access to Cordwainer Smith’s work and knew of the rumoured connection… it’s not too late! Paging Mr. Sondheim!

Other plausible candidates have been proposed as the real Kirk Allen. “Kiko” Harrison, a scientist who really was at Los Alamos, and who also had similarities in his personal history to the case file recounted by Lindner, could be the man. Nobody had managed to find a series of sci-fi stories starring a character called Paul Linebarger or even just “Paul” which would fit the description Lindner gives of his patient discovering a hero with his own name. Other investigators have looked for a physicist called John Carter, assuming that the most famous sci-fi hero in print at the time was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian adventurer. Aldiss suggests E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series as a likelier fit to K.A.’s intergalactic romps. Which would, with a bit of shoehorning, fit — the Lensman books don’t have heroes with usefully similar names to any of our protagonists, but Linebarger did later adopt the name Smith for his sf writing.

Saul-Paul Sirag, championing the “Kiko” Harrison hypothesis, does find a sci-fi hero called Harrison, star of two stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum which appeared in Wonder Stories, a 1930s pulp magazine. It’s not a long series of books, but at least there’s a name-match. I don’t know how likely it would be for “Kiko” to find a US pulp mag in England, France or Scotland, where he was living as a kid in 1934 (going by how impossible it was to find Famous Monsters of Filmland in Scotland in the seventies, I’d say not very likely), but per Lindner Kirk Allen discovered his namesake in a crate of imported literature on a Pacific island, so “Kiko” Harrison could have done the same thing when his family moved to the Philippines.

(I’ve read one of Weinbaum’s Captain Harrison stories, The Valley of Dreams, and it’s terrific. Hawksian sf adventure with alien ecology and plenty of mystery.)

It would be an exaggeration to say you could go mad thinking about this. But I’m getting a bit obsessed. I do think Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger makes the most poetically beautiful candidate, because if it’s him, he OBVIOUSLY WASN’T CURED. Which is fine, because the tall tale Dr. Lindner span about “Kirk Allen” is wildly implausible and the techniques he describes would be highly unlikely to “cure” anyone suffering from a psychotic break. Still, schizophrenia, for instance, can come and go for no obvious reason, so maybe “Kirk” (the name suggests another, later space captain) just got better on his own? Or maybe he was never ill? He had a responsible position, but his bosses became concerned about his space fantasy obsession, his doodling on official documents using alien pictograms of his own devising, and sent him to a shrink? Lindner’s account of his therapy ends with K.A. saying that he’s realised for some time that all this futuristic stuff is “just nonsense,” but he didn’t want to admit it and disappoint Lindner, who seemed so into it. How much is Lindner distorting here? Obviously, he was duty bound to disguise his patient’s identity, falsifying details in the process. This of course means that we can’t fact check him.

Alan Elms points out that Linebarger/Smith’s working title for his only novel was Star-Craving Mad, which doesn’t work at all for the book that became Norstrilia (about a planet named after Northern Australia — Linebarger had an Australian friend so he got the vowels right), but would fit perfectly as an alternative title for The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Which ends with Lindner wondering about Kirk Allen and his apparently abandoned universe…

“How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

(Seraneb is Benares backwards. But that doesn’t seem to be a clue to anything.)

The Sunday Intertitle: Crunch Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2012 by dcairns

First, a Vampira limerick. Next ~


Last we saw, Houdini’s neck was in a noose and he was bound hand and foot by thugs dressed as monks. Foolish monks! Love laughs at locksmiths and Houdini honks at headsmen. More seriously, his significant other, Marguerite Marsh, was about to have her face seared off by the laser beam eyes of a graven idol. And that can’t be good.

Now read on…

As a trap door opens ‘neath Houdini’s feet, he frees his hands by expert wriggling and lifts himself up onto the chandelier from which he is hung. Zita, recovering from a recent concussion, rushes forward and brains one monk with a vase, sending him toppling through the trap and into the fiery furnace below. HH now engages in an impressive bout of inverted fisticuffs, hanging upside-down from the light fitting and punching another monk into the flaming pit. Dropping to the floor he incinerates another opponent, and settles for punching the last one into a state of idleness.

Rushing next door, he saves MM from almost certain disintegration, going so far as to shove one of her assailants under the laser just so we can see what that’s like. Zita, HH and MM flee through the big doors before the Automaton, lumbering at top speed, can catch up with them. Then they all go home for a chat.

Zita has finally decided which side she’s on, with the aid of an intertitle showing a bleak landscape whose boulders are engraved with the names of the supporting cast. I wish I had something like that to help me reach decisions.

The goodies decide to use Zita as a double agent, but vamp Deluxe Dora soon rumbles her and sets a trap. The question of whether Zita is in fact MM’s half-sister remains unsettled, even after Harry produces what purports to be a birth certificate. Oh, and the evil Dacoit turns up again in a wicker basket, and Harry belts him one. I think that’s him out of the picture.

By the way, co-scenarist Arthur B Reeve (THE CLUTCHING HAND) also penned THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE, which I am anxious to see, since an enticing image from it appears in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. Let me know if you have a copy.

Balcom disposes of incriminating documents. Yeah, you can get rid of Mitt Romney’s tax returns while you’re at it.

Mr Brent, MM’s dad, the one with the laughing madness, is abducted from his own home via secret passage. HH rigs up a trick camera to locate the entrance, and snaps the weaselly Balcom in the act of egress. At last, he gains access to the secret underground lair, where he embarks on a tussle with his corporate foe.

BOOM! Balcom had rigged the cave to explode, and Harry falls on the detonator with him. Meanwhile, Zita and Marguerite are menaced by thugs outside.

Can Harry escape from under a big heap of boulders? (I know, it seems inconceivable.) Tune in next week!