Archive for Wallace Chewning

The Sunday Intertitle: What follows is history

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2023 by dcairns

To my delight, MONSIEUR VERDOUX has an intertitle. It’s very near the start, but it’s not at the VERY start, so it is decently INTER one sequence and another.

Here’s what happens:

TITLES. The movie’s true title would seem to be MONSIEUR VERDOUX A COMEDY OF MURDERS, but according to the convention that SUNRISE is not SUNRISE A SONG OF TWO HUMANS and NOSFERATU is not NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, except to distinguish it from Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE, which is not NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE except to distinguish it from NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, the subtitle is generally omitted.

The heavily-lawyered writer’s credit tells us, pedantically, that it’s “an original story written by” Charles Chaplin, but “based on an idea by” Orson Welles. So how original is it, if it’s based off of something else? I seem to recall CC needed some arm-bending to give OW a name-check at all, and he wants to be very clear that all Welles provided was one idea, and he had to come up with the story.

But even if Welles contributed only the one-liner “Chaplin as Bluebeard,” those three words contain most of the story, since the life story of for-profit serial killer Henri Désiré Landru (that “Désiré” is a hilarious bit of black comedy in itself), known popularly as “Bluebeard,” provides most of the story beats here.

On the other hand, Chaplin didn’t NEED to give Martha Raye a credit in advance of the main cast list, but he did it because he really liked her (she seems to have brought out his human side) and was impressed with what she brought to the movie. She’s this film’s Jack Oakie.

The titles proceed in a series of surprising cuts, only settling down to dissolves when we bring in the cast. They’re also unusually BLACK. And simple. Little drawings of floral tributes frame the text. Reminiscent of silent movies, in all three of these features.

We learn that good old Rollie (here the more formal “Roland” Totheroh) is back on solo camera duty, and yet again there’s an added name, Curt (here “Curtis”) Courant, credited with “Artistic Supervision”. So poor RT has another German looking over his shoulder, after Karl Struss on THE GREAT DICTATOR.

One Wallace Chewning is credited as “operative cameraman,” a hilariously fancy way of saying “camera operator.” You can really sense Chaplin’s less attractive qualities in that choice.

Chaplin’s music, this time arranged by Rudolph Schrager, is straight gaslight noir stuff, a surprising flavour from CC. Schrager, another emigre, alternated between film scoring and musical direction, stock music, all that stuff, and seems to have been equally at home in thrillers and musical comedies. And nothing in between, except this one.

Associated Director Wheeler Dryden — Chaplin’s OTHER half-brother; Assistant Director Robert Florey — already an established feature director, Florey was smart enough to take a demotion to learn at Chaplin’s side. It’s possible he was also on hand as an advisor on French customs. Then Chaplin’s Directed By credit. His name appears a mere four times in the titles, although he does credit himself with playing four roles, even though three of them are just aliases and he plays them all the same way.

Then we fade up on Verdoux’s grave and Chaplin’s in-character VO begins, reminding me that, three years before SUNSET BLVD, this movie is narrated by a dead man. Ironic, given Billy Wilder’s dismissive attitude to Chaplin’s talkies — and, given that SB is about silent pictures, the connection is unlikely to be accidental.

The music has warned us that there will be serious stuff, the subtitle has subverted it, and now Chaplin’s VOICE, of all things, defines the tone. “Good evening!” Verdoux will invite our sympathy, admit but sugar-coat his criminality, will be elegant and tasteful when discussing distasteful matters. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS will adopt a similar approach and make much more of the contrast between spoken VO and depicted action, with an overt tonal clash averted by the avoidance of looking too closely at the grim details.

The tracking shot across the graveyard is very beautiful, in part because of the dark waving shadows produced by the trees. I’m inclined to credit Herr Courant. It’s actually a rather NEW idea — graveyards in horror movies are typically nocturnal studio sets. In other dramas, they might be locations in broad California sunlight. Sun but with strong shadows that don’t keep still is a lovely way of doing it, and might sum up the tone of the coming movie quite nicely.

“Only a person with undaunted optimism would embark on such a venture.”

What Chaplin does with his narration is a direct analog of what he did as a silent tramp: he transforms the conventionally sordid into something that makes an attempt at gentlemanly elegance. The attempt cannot succeed: you can still see the reality through the mask of delicacy, but the attempt matters, is everything. It embodies the spirit of UNDAUNTED OPTIMISM. Only a person animated by such optimism would attempt to convince a 1940s audience that his career of serial uxoricide should be considered purely as a commercial venture.

Intertitle! Behaving exactly like a silent movie one, but also like the program or playscript of a stage play: