Edna Purviance in “A Woman of Paris”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on October 1, 2014 by travsd

A Woman Of Paris

Today is the anniversary of the Hollywood premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s 1923 melodrama masterpiece A Woman of Paris.

A Woman of Paris was Chaplin’s first film for United Artists, the studio he’d founded with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith back in 1919. The film would dazzle the critics and the industry but disappoint millions of fans as well as his partners at the studio, who had been counting on a hit.

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Ever determined not only to grow but also shock and amaze, Chaplin made A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate, a 100% serious melodrama in which he did not even appear (except in a very small cameo role). The film stars Edna Purviance as Marie St. Claire, a country lass who runs away from home and becomes a kept woman in Paris, leaving her artist beau (Carl Miller) behind.  The two meet again years later and consider marrying, but his mother’s objections prevent him, and so he shoots himself instead.

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Releasing a mirthless melodrama sounds self-destructive, but Chaplin had several real reasons for wanting to go this route. For one thing, it seems to have been a kind of test, to see if his skills as a director could make the grade without the candy-colored fog of his star power. With this film he sought the respect of the critics and of the industry, and he got it. A Woman of Paris remains much admired for setting a new standard for naturalistic, understated acting, and for devising subtle ways of conveying crucial plot information (the most frequently praised detail was Adolphe Menjou’s reaching into Purviance’s dresser for a collar, an immediate indication that she is his kept woman.) Secondly, Chaplin (rather generously) sought to launch Edna Purviance on her own solo career as an actress. The feeling was that, at age 28, she was becoming too matronly to be Chaplin’s leading lady any more. This sounds harsh, as does his insistence on hiring teenagers to play that role for him even as he himself passed deeper and deeper into middle age. But a quick screening of The Pilgrim does reveal that Purviance was waxing stout by 1923, not much, but apparently just enough to make a difference to Chaplin. Having been the man who brought her into a business she never even sought to be in, he felt a responsibility to ensure her continued happiness. He couldn’t in all conscience, as Henry Higgins seems prepared to do in act four of Pygmalion, drop his Eliza Doolittle and leave her to fend for herself as though nothing had happened. So he created this role for her.

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The serious theme of the film is not the anomaly it superficially seems. Purviance had been Chaplin’s leading lady since 1915. Most of his movies could be thought of not just as Chaplin pictures but as Charlie-and-Edna pictures. He had spent a lot of his time and energy creating situations wherein the audience would see Edna from the Little Fellow’s (and Chaplin’s) adoring point of view. In A Woman of Paris, he has simply taken a step back to let us see his romantic interest entirely from his own perspective without intruding himself upon the picture. Unfortunately, Edna didn’t have the goods, at least sufficiently to make a hit picture. The second Mabel Normand she was not. Purviance was always pleasant to look at, but somewhat reserved upon the screen. The film’s “Woman of Paris” really ought to have been a Black Swan; Edna was most definitely a White One. Indeed, the story had been suggested to Chaplin by one of the Jazz Age’s most notorious sexpots (and Chaplin’s former lover) Peggy Hopkins Joyce. If someone of her vivaciousness had played the role, the picture might have clicked. Instead the biggest star to emerge from the film ended up being Adolphe Menjou, who was already every bit the Adolphe Menjou we know from the talkies. Chaplin might have done himself a favor and added himself to the cast. He could easily even written a Max Linder type for himself (his “rich” character from The Idle Class shows us what that may have looked like.) Or he could even have played his own version of Menjou’s rué. He had essayed a similar villain in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, after all. But then he wouldn’t have learned what he wanted to know.

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Another unfortunate by-product of seeing Chaplin’s mind at work without the firewall of comedy is that it shines a light on his intellectual limitations. When all is said and done, Chaplin’s was a rather conventional sensibility. When he is working in comedy, we are happy to accept many of his broad character and narrative strokes as “type”, grist for the mill in comedy. In drama we are apt to be more demanding. We want nuance and shading and three-dimensionality. Chaplin is justly praised for giving us that as far as the acting goes in A Woman of Paris. But it’s hard not to regard the story itself as a somewhat kitschy amalgam of warmed over clichés, a version of Camille in which it is the beau and not the courtesan who must die to satisfy the public’s demand for “compensating moral values”. As he would show us again in Monsieur Verdoux, (and despite the fact that he even spent some time in the French capital), Chaplin’s idea of Paris is that of a vaudevillian: he can’t help seeing it as a place where beret- bedecked painters pursue glamorous courtesans only to be thwarted in following their passions by scheming bourgeoisie in silk top hats who formulate their insidious designs in cabarets over champagne and rich sauces. On the other hand, no one (including Chaplin) ever went broke in Hollywood by pursuing visions of reality roughly that shallow, though the successful movies that have resulted generally boast more electricity on the screen. At any rate, audiences were uninterested in seeing a Chaplin picture without Chaplin. The public’s rejection of the film saddened him. Following its initial 1923 run, A Woman of Paris was placed in a vault and not seen again publicly until 1976, when Chaplin re-released it with a brand new original score. Its influence immediately made itself felt on younger film-makers. Martin Scorsese, for example, has spoken on TCM about the impact the film made on him. I also can’t help noting that two years after A Woman of Paris re-emerged, America’s then reigning comedy director Woody Allen, whose debt to Chaplin in earlier pictures had often been acknowledged, released Interiors, a straight drama in which he, for the first time, did not star. Compared with his previous comedy features, it fared poorly at the box office. But time has been very kind to it. Highly recommended viewing!

 

To learn more about early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Buster Keaton in “The Electric House”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , on October 1, 2014 by travsd

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In October 1922, Buster Keaton released his silent comedy short The Electric House.

Hired accidentally by the dean of a college to wire his house for electricity, Buster (a botanist by training) decides to get more fanciful and fills the house from top to bottom with labor saving devices: a bathtub that conveniently comes to you in your bedroom; a bookcase that hands you your book; a toy train that delivers dinner. These machines will of course all go berzerk. By the end of the story, an escalator has tossed him out of the house into the swimming pool, which in turn empties him out into a drainage ditch many miles away. Keaton broke his ankle during the filming of the moving staircase sequence and had to stop production, causing him to release The High Sign, the first short he had made, but which he had been holding back because he was not pleased with the outcome.

 

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Harry Langdon in “Heart Trouble”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , on October 1, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Harry Langdon comedy feature Heart Trouble (1928).

Heart Trouble is one of the great lost silent films — no surviving copy of it is known to exist. This is particularly a shame because contemporary reviews indicate that with Heart Trouble Langdon was rebounding after a two-movie slump at the box office, and might have continued to do so had not the advent of talkies further discouraged First National from renewing his contract. The film revolved around his rejection from service in WWI and subsequent heroism in foiling a ring of spies.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Douglas Fairbanks in “Manhattan Madness”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , on October 1, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Douglas Fairbanks feature Manhattan Madness (1916), directed by Allan Dwan.

Doug plays a wealthy young man who returns to New York from time spent out in Nevada. He goes and visit friends at his club and whoops it up. Over lunch, they get into a friendly dispute: East vs. West. In several illustrated flashbacks he illustrates the virtues of the wide open country, until his bragging about his exploits gets insufferable. His pals bet him $5,000 he’ll get plenty of thrills in New York before he returns to Nevada. He is of course immediately entangled with crooks and kidnappers (a development which turns out to have been an elaborate prank arranged by his friends).

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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A Short History of Evil Ventriloquism

Posted in EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Indie Theatre, LEGIT, ME, Movies, My Shows, Silent Film, Television, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , on September 30, 2014 by travsd

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The lights hadn’t even dimmed on our Fringe production of the Marx Brothers I’ll Say She Is (coming back your way in 2015) when I got the joyous assignment to direct Dick D. Zigun’s Dead End Dummy at Coney Island USA (and La Mama). Much more about this show very shortly. But in the meantime I’ll just say that it’s a funny and dark experimental work that takes its inspiration from vaudeville and other forms of American show biz: melodrama, old time radio, silent movies, etc etc etc. At its center is an emotionally troubled ventriloquist (Scott Baker).

Ah! The emotionally troubled ventriloquist and his scary dummy!

There are enough movies, plays and tv shows about this ancient schizoid character that it constitutes a minor subgenre all its own. It’s not surprising that terror is an offshoot of this ancient discipline. Its roots, like the roots of all theatre, go back to caveman times, and no doubt the supernatural was part of the original dodge. Like clowns, ventriloquists and their dummies are uncanny — they seem to be acting out some dream. If you’ll check out the ventriloquism section of this blog, you will find biographies of all the major vents going back to the mid 19th century . Some of their photos, especially in the early days are quite disturbing indeed. Moreover, there is something about having a little “mini-me” that psychologically encourages the ventriloquist to pour his negative energy into it. The dummy has permission to say all the things that a person would usually censor himself from saying. Even relatively light comedy acts like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had that feature. Charlie says all the wicked, lecherous, rude things — and Edgar’s role is to scold him and apologize to the audience. Meanwhile, it’s been Bergen who’s really been saying those nasty things all along! It’s downright diabolical!

And we are far from the first to notice. So here are some notable evil vent stories of stage and screen from the past century. Just a month out from Halloween.

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The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930): But of COURSE Tod Browning and Lon Chaney inaugurate the genre…except they almost don’t.  Based on a novel by Tod Robbins (the same guy who wrote the story which Freaks is based onThe Unholy Three does indeed cast Chaney as a criminal ventriloquist (whose best job is making pet-shop parrots seem to talk), but he also goes around in drag, and is in cahoots with a midget (Harry Earles) who pretends to be a baby, a strong man (Victor McLaglen) and a sexy vamp (Mae Busch). So the vent stuff gets tamped down a little, it’s not the main focus. Still, it counts! I give two dates above because Browning made both a silent version (1925) and a talkie remake (1930).

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The Great Gabbo (1929): I saw this one for the first time the other night — what sheer unadulterated delight. Based on a short story by Ben Hecht called “The Rival Dummy” and directed by James Cruze (best known for his silent epic The Covered Wagon) , the film stars Erich Von Stroheim as a cruel, fascistic ventriloquist who browbeats his lover and assistant (Betty Compson) and is only able to demonstrate tenderness through his dummy. After she leaves him, he is only able to relate to his dummy…and that’s a little weird. Towards the end, when they meet again, he mistakes the girl’s kindness for a rapprochement. When it proves illusory, he goes completely insane, and that my friends is worth watching. As are the very bizarre comedy routines with Stroheim’s German accent in falsetto telling the jokes, and the eerie silences that follow them (this being one of the earliest sound films). The movie is also a strange hybrid…at least 50% musical comedy, fairly unrelated to the plot.

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Dead of Night (1945): One of the terrifying classics of the horror anthology genre, Dead of Night tells six stories, one of which casts Michael Redgrave as an insane ventriloquist named Maxwell whose dummy Hugo gets him into some very bad trouble. In the end, Max does what must be done. Here’s the famous, chilling climax:

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The Twilight Zone: Episode: “The Dummy” (1962):   Cliff Roberston is a down and out ventriloquist. His fear of his dummy has caused him to develop a drinking problem. Determined to fight, he decides to replace the current dummy with a sillier one. But Willy (the current one) tricks him and torments him. In the end, they have traded places. Willy is now the ventriloquist and Robertson’s character is the dummy….

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The Twilight Zone : Episode: “Caesar and Me” (1964):  Jackie Cooper plays an Irish ventriloquist who is having a tough time making a go of it. His fully sentient dummy convinces him to commit robberies. When he does so and gets caught, and tries to demonstrate that the dummy put him up to it, the dummy falls silent. He is led away in handcuffs.

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Devil Doll (1964)

This may be my favorite in the genre now for many reasons. One is that it takes the ancient idea of the “Uncanny” all the way back to its primitive origins. The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday), a magician, had gone off to the mystic East to study the secrets of the swamis. When he returns he succeeds in imprisoning the soul of one of his partners inside the ventriloquist dummy. His dummy can not only think and talk on its own, but it can walk by itself…and that is a mighty creepy sight indeed. Tod Browning also made a film by this name (originally called The Witch of Timbuktu), which while not a ventriloquist film, plays similarly with this ancient folk terror of the dollikin or manikin…the tiny evil imp who will sneak up on you in your sleep. In the end, Vorelli goes too far and his dummy Hugo (his name no doubt a nod to Dead of Night) turns the table on him. Look for more on star Bryant Haliday here in future. He grew up in a monastery of Rhode Island, did art theatre in the Boston area, and made several British horror films in the 60s. His is a most interesting profile.

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Soap (1977-1981) On this ABC sit-com soap opera parody Jay Johnson played a guy named Chuck who was never without his wooden friend Bob. This was probably the first major, mainstream ear-pulling of the evil ventriloquist genre. Though it was a comedy, Bob WAS evil. He said and did things far wore than your Charlie McCarthys and your Jerry Mahoneys. Bob drew blood, and Chuck couldn’t control him.

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The Ventriloquists Wife (1978) The great comic playwright and actor Charles Ludlam had an off-Broadway hit in 1978 with this play about a murderous ventriloquist dummy and the toll he takes on the life of his hapless partner. This script plays with the evil ventriloquist genre on its own terms (by being dark) but unlike all the classic movies and Twilight Zone episodes up until that time — the comedy routines are actually funny. This makes it unique within the entire genre. The gorgeous Black-Eyed Susan was the titular wife.

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Magic (1978) This may well be the best known evil ventriloquist movie of all, and it’s a strange one. Anthony Hopkins plays true to type as a very ill-at-ease young man who finally manages to break out of his shell by augmenting his magic act with ventriloquism. The dummy “Fats” is crude and makes a lot of dick jokes, which passes for humor in the film in a way I don’t find creditable. (Hopkins characterization is interesting to me — reminds me a bit of Jay Johnson’s in Soap. Young, longish hair, and that nerd look, sweaters, sneakers, shirt tails hanging out…did he base the character on Jay? Or Chuck, rather?). Anyway, Hopkins’ character proves to be about as stable as Norman Bates. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this film; he’s  just a natural psycho. Oddly he does very little actual killing in the film by horror movie standards, making the film a bit of a head scratcher. What is it? A character portrait of no one who ever existed? But it sticks in the craw.

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Tales from the Crypt: Episode : “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” (1990): SPOILER ALERT!  yes, this one proves not so much to be an evil ventriloquist dummy movie as an evil parasitic twin movie, which is an even better act! Bobcat Goldthwait plays a young ventriloquist; Don Rickles, the older one with a…secret.

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Cradle Will Rock (1999) Bill Murray is a down and out ventriloquist now out of work because of the death of vaudeville. He has a secret which gives him a breakdown. This is a subplot in Tim Robbins’ larger movie about Orson Welles’ rocky attempt to mount the Marc Blitzstein musical of the same name. 

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Dead Silence (2007) I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this film, and how original it is. I was expecting a retread of a story we’ve seen many times. Directed by James Wan, and written by Leigh Whannel, Dead Silence takes place entirely in a fairy tale realm, the ghost story space…the only realistic beats are in the film’s first five minutes. A box containing a ventriloquist dummy shows up unexpectedly at a young couple’s house….leading to a journey to an entire town where the leading citizens are murdered by the ghost of a ventriloquist. It is (so far) the only movie in which there’s not just ONE, but over ONE HUNDRED evil ventriloquist dummies  on the loose! In a haunted old theatre! Boo!

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VentriloquistTwo plays by Rick Mitchell (2012): I wrote the introduction to this book! You can buy it here.  http://www.bookdepository.com/Ventriloquist-Two-Plays-Rick-Mitchell/9780983925590

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The Plight of Cecil Sinclair (2014):  My old pal “rock and roll ventriloquist” Carla Rhodes just launched her exciting and hilarious and creepy new web series. Watch it here.

And now! Dead End Dummy go here for all the dope:

http://www.coneyisland.com/dead-end-dummy-dick-d-zigun

Arbuckle, Keaton and St. John in “Oh Doctor!”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on September 30, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Comique comedy short Oh Doctor! (1917) starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and featuring Buster Keaton and Al St. John. 

In this one Arbuckle plays the titular Doc, who has both a betting and a lady problem. The most rewarding feature of the film however is Buster Keaton as the doctor’s son, a little dandy who bursts into tears at the drop of a hat. The bit has a feeling of polish to it — one wonders if it was something he brought with him from vaudeville. At any rate, it’s a rare chance to see Buster express any emotion on film.

Arbuckle brings the family to a horse race where Al St. John and his vamp accomplice (Alice Mann) are inspired to fleece him. Later St John will pose as a patient and steal a necklace from the doctor’s home. In the end, Roscoe dresses as a policeman to catch the crook (just because) and ends up making a ton of loot.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stan Laurel in “Roughest Africa”

Posted in African American Interest, Blackface & Minstrelsy, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film on September 30, 2014 by travsd

Stan Laurel, Roughest Africa, 1923 [320x200]

Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Stan Laurel solo comedy short Roughest Africa (1923).

Laurel’s best solo comedies tend to be parodies; this one is a send-up of travelogues, already a non-fiction cinematic staple since the earliest days of the movies. The African setting is an excellent one for gags and later teams like Abbott and Costello, and Wheeler and Woolsey, would later follow up on the lines of investigation begun by Laurel and his cohort Jimmy Finlayson here. The elaborate sets and exotic creatures in the film make me speculate that some arrangement was made by Hal Roach to piggyback onto another producer’s production, but that’s just speculation on my part. I’ve found nothing that affirms that.

The most striking aspect of the film to most modern viewers will be the racist portrayals of the explorer’s native African “bearers”. It’s important to keep in mind both that such portrayals were near universal at the time, and that this film is a parody of other existing films. Roach’s Our Gang franchise ought to balance out the karma somewhat.

Because this is a parody of a plotless cinematic form, it’s mostly just a succession of gags. The bulk of the comedy highlights a series of encounters with animals. A porcupine shoots quills at Laurel. A bear lick’s Fin’s face, then they wrestle. An ostrich chases Laurel (beware, Stan! You know what happened to Billy Ritchie!). Then bear chases all of them. Bear falls down trap. Then laurel falls down same one (monkey pulls lever). After much more shenanigans with the bear, they meet up with an elephant, a lion, then more lions, then crocodiles, then a skunk. As comedy fans know, after you have encountered a skunk, there is nowhere ot go but home,

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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