Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Monsieur Verdoux" (1947)

Few films seem to draw as sharply divided a reaction from viewers as black comedies, and this offering into the genre from Charlie Chaplin in 1947 is no exception. Watching it again, I was reminded just what a profoundly depressing film it is in many ways. Most black comedies "cop out" at the last minute by suggesting that it's only a movie, or some other device to provide an upbeat ending.

Not so with "Monsieur Verdoux".

Subtitled "a comedy of murders" and based on an idea by Orson Welles, who had suggested to Chaplin the possibility of doing a black comedy about Landru, the bluebeard serial killer, "Verdoux" was an extension of the ideas that Chaplin had explored in "The Great Dictator". The difference is that his 1940 satire on fascism was still recognizably a comedy, for all intents and purposes, despite some serious moments and a heavy-handed speech at the end. To make the subject more palatable, Chaplin wisely kept out the most gruesome aspects of the events he was dealing with (and to be fair, Chaplin later admitted to not being fully aware of the horrors taking place in concentration camps at the time).

With "Monsieur Verdoux", he explores everything from the Depression, to the rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe, and-as if this wasn't enough-hints at future Cold War conflicts! The film is Chaplin's most biting social indictment, and especially in its second half, is a relentlessly depressing and harrowing look at a man who has lost everything, including perhaps his sanity.

The film was attacked mercilessly by critics when it was released in 1947, but in the coming years came to be seen as something of a masterpiece. I would argue that it remains the one true masterpiece of Chaplin's sound period. (Bosley Crowther famously flip-flopped on his opinion of the film, dismissing it out of hand in 1947 but hailing it as one of the finest films ever made by the time it was re-released in 1964, and it included it in his book of the fifty great films in 1967).

Interestingly, despite its subject matter, the film is quite Chaplinesque. He gets to engage in playing many different identities, the kind of charade he engaged in since the Keystone days in films like "Caught in a Cabaret". The many moments of social critique can be traced to threads running throughout Chaplin's work at least going back to the comedy of class difference in "His Musical Career", and more explicitly in his 1917 Mutual comedy "The Immigrant", with its famous shot of immigrants being roped off like cattle.

One of the most brilliant aspects of the film is in the casting, especially Martha Raye as the blissfully ignorant Annabella Bonheur. At this stage of his filmmaking career, Chaplin had a knack for taking popular comics and giving them roles they could really sink their teeth into. In "The Great Dictator", for instance, Chaplin notably shared the screen with Jack Oakie, who had the role of his career as dictator Benzino Napaloni. In "Verdoux", Martha Raye is given the role she was born to play, and does so to perfection. There are those who claim that Chaplin was so concerned with his own image as a performer that he preferred to play opposite less experienced players who wouldn't upstage him. In this case, Raye proves a marvelous comic foil, and remains one of the most memorable aspects of the film.

Coming in 1947, "Monsieur Verdoux" must have seemed an absolutely terrifying film to audiences. After more than 15 years of Depression and war, audiences surely wanted to hope that it was all over, but Chaplin ends the film by almost implying that "you ain't seen nothing yet". It's no wonder the film was poorly received on initial release, especially considering the additional baggage of the Joan Barry scandal that Chaplin had just come out of. Such a bleak and cynical film would hardly be a big box office draw in any case, especially in 1940s Hollywood, but that just makes one appreciate all the more what a bold and masterful film it is.

It is one of Chaplin's most perfectly timed comedies, though, and some of the sequences are still hilarious despite their dark context. The wedding party scene, for instance, is an expertly timed piece of comedy, and all the players work in perfect rhythm with Chaplin's performance. As mentioned above, the scenes with Martha Raye are absolutely brilliant, particularly the one in which Chaplin attempts to murder her while out fishing on a boat. Watching Chaplin play Verdoux and his various aliases so perfectly, one realizes he truly was the most versatile of the "big three" silent clowns.

It is interesting to note that, this time around, Chaplin avoided using any of his old, "familiar" stock company-guys like Chester Conklin, or Hank Mann, or Henry Bergman (whom Chaplin had considered casting, but decided against because of the actor's poor health. Bergman died before the film was completed, but reportedly predicted it would be a failure). Chaplin's half-brother Wheeler Dryden turns up as a salesman, trying to sell Raye on the idea of investing in an apparatus that turns salt water into gasoline. And supposedly, among the wedding guests, is Tom Wilson, whose career with Chaplin went back to 1918, but I've never been able to spot him. (There is also a persistent rumor that Edna Purviance appears in the wedding scene as an extra, having been turned down for the role of Madame Grosnay which ended up going to Isabel Elsom, but there is no concrete evidence as to whether or not she appears in the scene).

If "Monsieur Verdoux" is a masterpiece, it's not always an easy film for viewers to accept. Aside from the difficulty of watching Chaplin play such a dark character, its bitter and depressing tone can be difficult to take. It is, however, a supreme example of black comedy, and one of the few such films that really goes all the way.

Added 1/10/15: This really is Chaplin's most accomplished talkie, even if there is a drastic shift in tone during the final moments. I found myself deeply moved by the scenes between Chaplin and Marilyn Nash, especially when he invites her to his home as a test case for his traceless poison and has a change of heart after hearing about her devotion to her dead husband. There is a quiet tenderness to this scene that ranks among the best moments in any of Chaplin's films.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"So's Your Old Man" (1926)

For many years, "So's Your Old Man" was one of the hardest W.C. Fields films to see (when I inquired about it on an online newsgroup in 2000, I was informed that only a single print of it existed in the Library of Congress). Apparently the film was recently restored by the LOC, and within the last year, it has been making the rounds at a couple venues, including the W.C. Fields exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I was able to catch a screening of it at Film Forum, where it was shown in a pristine 35mm print (looking as good as it must have back in 1926!) and accompanied with a live piano score by Steve Sterner. It was shown as part of the "Hollywood on the Hudson" series, showcasing films made in the New York and New Jersey areas.

What's remarkable is just how closely the film was remade by Fields in 1934, as "You're Telling Me". This silent film suffers in parts, as many late-silents do, by being a film that practically cries out for dialogue. This isn't even necessarily the case with Fields himself, but rather the expository scenes that rely heavily on dialogue to set up key plot points (there are several scenes that seem to go on too long, with the actors even talking to eachother in shot/reverse shot!) This tendency mars a lot of late-silents for me (Milestone's "The Racket" being another key example), and it's interesting to note that the 1934 sound remake might even be a more visual film than this one!

The premise is rather complicated: Sam Bisbee (Fields), a crackpot inventor, has perfected his latest wonder: a shatter-proof windshield. His daughter (Kittens Reichert) is engaged to be married to Robert Murchison (Charles "Buddy" Rogers, a year before his breakthrough performance in "Wings"). Mrs. Murchison (Julia Ralph) comes to call on Mrs. Bisbee (Marcia Harris, in a really funny performance) and is horrified when she meets her bumbling, coarse husband. The engagement is called off, and Bisbee heads off for Washington DC to make good by selling his shatter-proof glass to an auto company.

Once there, he proceeds to create disaster when his car is moved from the no-parking zone without his knowledge, and he proceeds to hurl bricks at the windows of an identical car that has parked nearby. With the police, and two angry auto owners, out to get him, Bisbee takes off and catches the train home. While on the train, he attempts to commit suicide, but fails repeatedly. This is one of the best-played scenes in the picture, with Fields reactions to his fellow traveler shaving with a dangerously sharp razor being some of the funniest moments in the film. On the same train is Princess Lescaboura of Spain, whom Bisbee meets when he believes she, too, is about to commit suicide. After talking her out of it, and explaining his own problems to her, she decides to help him by showing up in his hometown and restoring his standing in the community, saving the day for Fields' business deal as well as securing the happiness of his daughter.

Now comes the film's best scene: the golf tournament. This routine was filmed two other times by Fields, once in 1930 as "The Golf Specialist" (in which Al Wood played the caddy) and again in "You're Telling Me", this time with the great Tammany Young as his stooge. Here, though, Fields plays the scene with William "Shorty" Blanche, who'd appeared with Fields onstage in the sketch from which this scene was taken, and it's a real treat to see the two perform together. The scene works surprisingly well in the silent film format, and in some ways works even better because of the heightened emphasis on the visual nature of the scene, although one does miss Fields' muttering as he struggles with every conceivable obstacle.

The final scene, which was repeated in "You're Telling Me" and was later copied by Rodney Dangerfield in "Easy Money", has Fields bidding farewell to his family, who now look up to him as something of a hero, then sneaking off to the garage for a drink with his buddies. It's a delightfully satisfying conclusion to the film, and neatly wraps up this little comedy of wish-fulfillment very nicely.

This film was directed by the talented comedy director Gregory LaCava, a good personal friend of Fields'. It's tempting to view the film in light of the 1934 remake, because that version is one of Fields' best vehicles from that period, and works very creatively with sound in a number of scenes, including the shaving scene on the train, and the final golf tournament. Interestingly, one of the best scenes from the "You're Telling Me" that is totally absent from "So's Your Old Man" is the opening sequence in which Fields comes home, drunk, and uses one of his inventions to guide his key into the keyhole. This is a purely visual scene that would have worked well in a silent comedy, but it only goes to show the ways in which Fields was continually adapting and maturing his own cinematic style over the years. Even though Fields never took directing credit, he was heavily involved in all aspects of the construction of his films, and it's not an exaggeration to say that Fields' films improved as he had the opportunity to develop and expand on ideas he'd worked with before. A minor difference, too, is that in the remake, Fields' invention becomes puncture-proof tires rather than the shatter-proof windshields of the original. Another difference is in the pet that Fields picks out to bring home to his wife as a peace offering: in this film, it's a pony; in the remake, it's an ostrich. Frankly, the ostrich is much funnier, and the scene where Fields and the ostrich both bury their heads in the ground works much better than the scene in this film in which he and the pony munch on grass. One other delightful bit that is present in the remake, but not the original, is another highly visual scene in which Fields rolls a tire along the sidewalk, followed by a bunch of neighborhood kids. It's a fun, spontaneous kind of scene that adds a real dimension of sympathy to Fields' character.

It's perhaps unfair, though, to criticize any aspect of this film in relation to its sound remake. As a piece of silent comedy, it alternates between good moments of visual and physical humor (and Fields was still quite capable of rough physical comedy at this point in his career) and scenes that go on just a bit too long without the aid of spoken expository dialogue.

In "The Silent Clowns", Walter Kerr discusses Fields under his chapter on "The Demiclowns". He points to a key problem with Fields' work in silent films when he notes that "the comedian could not become whole-or a star of the first magnitude-until the visual and the verbal in him stopped interrupting each other, ceased occupying separate frames" (Kerr, 295). Fields may not have been an inherently silent comedian like Chaplin or Keaton, but his unique style of comedy was visual enough that many of his best sequences work in silence, such as the golf routine here, or the sleeping porch sequence in "It's the Old Army Game" (also 1926).

If Fields' comic persona only became whole with the added dynamic of sound, it could be said that Fields' whole cinematic art only achieved its mature style with sound, too. His silent comedies are delightful films in their own right, however, and "So's Your Old Man" works as a real crowd-pleaser, if tonight's screening at Film Forum is any indication. It was a rare treat to see America's greatest screen humorist in a tailor-made vehicle, in a splendid print with an appreciative audience.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Chaplin, Carl Davis and the Movies

On a warm summer night at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I had the pleasure of watching Carl Davis conduct his scores for three Chaplin Mutual comedies on a giant, outdoor screen at the bandshell, accompanied by the full sounds of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

Hearing Carl Davis' music performed live, and conducted by the maestro himself, was quite possibly the greatest thrill of my life. Added to this was the fact that the performance had a huge turnout, with a large, receptive audience - perfect for the three Chaplin comedies.

The evening began at 6:30 as the gates to the bandshell were opened, and we were fortunate enough to get good seats about two rows from the front. The show itself began at 7:30, with an hour-long performance by the Two Man Gentlemen Band, a novelty act featuring banjo and upright bass. This was a fun prelude to the main attraction to follow.

Following a brief intermission, it was the perfect time of the evening to start the film program. At dusk, the giant screen was rolled down, and the hosts from Celebrate Brooklyn!, the organization who puts on this series, introduced Carl Davis.

Davis introduced each film, and there was an absolute sense of magic in watching this brilliant composer, whose scores were the very first that I ever heard accompany silent films, as he led the Brooklyn Philharmonic in accompanying these brilliant comedies. I first became acquainted with Davis' music through his arrangement of the Rimsky-Korsakov "Scheherazade" for Douglas Fairbanks' "The Thief of Bagdad". Although I was only 8 years when I first heard this score, its impact on my interest in silent film was indescribable. Even more influential was the mammoth "Hollywood" series, for which Davis provided many, many musical cues, including the hauntingly beautiful theme song. It's not an exaggeration to say that Davis was one of the most profoundly influential individuals on my entire life and work.

This brings me to perhaps the best part of the evening. As the third film began, Chaplin's "Behind the Screen", set at a Hollywood movie studio, Davis' score began with that immediately recognizable "Hollywood" theme. Sitting there, watching him conduct that piece live, brought tears to me eyes and reminded me of all the reasons why I love film, why I'm here in New York, why I've pursued this passion so relentlessly for the last 18 years of my life. Hearing it brought everything into a kind of immediate, crystal clear perspective that I'm really grateful for.

The films themselves went over great with the audience, especially "One AM". This copy even included the "mountain climbing" sequence, in which the intoxicated Charlie dons a Swiss mountain climber's get-up and uses a ski and pick-ax to make his way up the staircase. It's always wonderful to see films like that with an audience.

One moment summed up the entire evening perfectly. A friend, whom I had invited to the screening, and who had not yet seen a silent film all the way through, leaned over to me, during the scene in "One AM" in which Charlie is running in place on a rotating table, and whispered in my ear, "this is amazing!"

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"The Circus"

In the vast body of brilliant comic work created by Charlie Chaplin, "The Circus" holds a somewhat uncertain place, coming as it does between two his towering masterworks ("The Gold Rush" and "City Lights"), and being viewed by some as a trifle, lacking the big, epic themes and emotional punch of his best work.

Rather than seeing these as flaws, I would instead place "The Circus" among Chaplin's funniest films, though not necessarily one of his best. Watching the film again, it does have several major flaws that, while hardly detracting from the humor, do keep it from reaching the heights of his best work.

To begin with what works, it should be noted upfront that "The Circus" opens with what is arguably Chaplin's most clever and funny opening scene with the exception of the assembly-line sequence in "Modern Times". We first see the Tramp, "hungry and broke", hanging around the midway. After an altercation with a pickpocket, during which Charlie temporarily ends up with a newfound wallet and pocket-watch, police give chase, and everyone finds themselves in a fun house, with its amazing mirror maze sequence (which clearly inspired the finale of Orson Welles' "The Lady from Shanghai").

This sequence is so much fun that it's almost a disappointment when it ends. Thankfully, the rest of the films maintains the fast pace of the gags.

The film works quite well up until the point where Chaplin introduces a rival for the affection of the girl. Rex, the tightrope walker (Harry Crocker, Chaplin's assistant director) is a bland and lifeless character, which I suppose is part of the point, except that the audience is asked to cheer when he ends up with the girl at the end of the film! What's worse is the way Chaplin milks totally unnecessary sympathy for his character at the end, by turning him, quite pointlessly, into a martyr. It makes for a powerful ending shot (the Tramp wistfully kicks away the tattered remains of the circus hoop and walks off into the dawn sunrise), but it's a rather cheap emotion that feels as forced as any happy ending. For a really thorough discussion of this aspect of the film, see Lloyd Fonvielle's essay on it, "The Circus".

There's also a rather odd plot point-which others have pointed out-that is never satisfactorily resolved in the scene when Rex fails to report for work and Charlie has to take his place on the tightrope-where was his character that evening, and why does it not seem to cause any repercussions for him when he returns the next night? Again, it's a forced incident to move the plot along, but hurts the sense of consistency in the characters and narrative.

I suppose if I seem like I'm dwelling on the film's flaws, it's only because I've been so vocal in my praise for what works in the film in the past. It is a very, very funny comedy, with some wonderful recurring gags (the donkey that chases Charlie hither and yon through the circus grounds, the botched magician's routine, and my personal favorite, the audition scene, in which Charlie is instructed to "go ahead and be funny").

The film can also be seen as Chaplin's exploring some theories of comedy; problem is, they're all so wildly inconsistent that trying to extract some idea as to his actual theories on comedy from the film are impossible. He suggests, on the one hand, that good comedy is "accidental" and can't be worked at, which is total nonsense given his working methods. Then, it's suggested (once he finds himself dejected over the rivalry for the girl's attention), that you can't be funny if you're feeling depressed, which certainly doesn't hold up considering that Chaplin produced this, one of his sheer funniest films, during what was undoubtedly the most stressful and upsetting period of his life. So unfortunately, one can't really take away from the film any of Chaplin's actual thoughts on the art of comedy.

Seeing the film in 35mm (a sparkling new print, thankfully) at Film Forum was a great way to gauge how the film plays with an audience. Unfortunately, the audience I saw the film with didn't quite seem to know how to behave at a silent film, with a quiet chatter running for much of the film's duration, almost as if certain viewers were mistaken in thinking that a silent film needs some kind of running commentary. Chaplin's scores for both films work quite effectively. In fact, I marveled at his ability to write full orchestral scores that manage to stay completely in the "background" and never really call attention to themselves (the vocal title tune of "The Circus" notwithstanding).

This was even more distracting in the short that preceded the film, "The Idle Class". I'm not a big fan of the Chaplin First Nationals, but this film contains some delightful sight gags, especially the moment when Chaplin, as the wealthy idler, walks into the hotel lobby without his pants, and is forced to seek refuge in a phone booth. One of the stronger First Nationals, this one was marred by the stretch-printing that Chaplin employed for the 1971 re-release. Unfortunately, the Film Forum is running the "daddy" versions. For those unfamiliar, those are the versions of the films Chaplin prepared in the 1970s for re-release, and which are viewed by his estate as his "final word" on how these films should be seen. Some of the films suffer worse from others ("The Kid" loses a full reel). "The Circus" is fully intact; the major change being the title song that Chaplin composed and sings himself. It's a pleasant song, but it can be difficult to reconcile some of the decisions that Chaplin made in altering his work to make it more palatable to 1970s audiences.

All in all, "The Circus" demands attention within the body of work created by Chaplin, even if it doesn't necessarily hold up as one of his finest achievements. It's one of his most frustrating works, in some ways, because it is so clever, so funny, that one wishes the narrative elements could have come together stronger to make it one of his masterworks.