Archive for June, 2014

Midnight on TCM: A Woman of Paris

Posted in Charley Chase, Frenchy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on June 29, 2014 by travsd

A Woman Of Paris

Tonight at midnight on TCM, Charlie Chaplin’s 1923 melodrama masterpiece A Woman of Paris. (He wanted us to call him “Charles” at this stage. You’ll never find a greater Chaplin apologist than this author, but calling him “Charles” is simply a Bridge Too Far).

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!

 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss 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 For more on show biz historyconsult 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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Raymond Griffith and Betty Compson in “Paths to Paradise”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on June 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release of the Paramount Raymond GriffithBetty Compson comedy Paths to Paradise (1925)

In this sparkling feature, Griffith and Compson play a pair of con artists who team up for a jewel robbery. The opening set piece is tremendous: a highly elaborate long con of the type we recognize from The Sting: a colorful fake location (a dive bar/ opium den) populated with a large number of con artists in costume, as low lifes and policemen: they frame their marks for a “murder” and then take the “bribe”.

For the main trunk of the film, Griffith and Compson learn of a diamond necklace a rich man intends give his new bride. Each goes in for their own separate con, she as a maid, he as a detective, but they end up combining efforts. Their playful rivalry in this film reminds one of Lubitsch films like Trouble in Paradise (the similar title is just a coincidence).

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The picture really gets cooking in the last few minutes in a car (and train) chase when our roguish heroes are pursued by a ridiculous number of policemen (which always tickles me — it’s funny because it’s true). One of the best gags has them about to run out of gas just as they encounter a gas tanker truck on the highway. They simply refuel without stopping! In the end they make it over the border to Mexico, not exactly a triumph for law and order, but satisfying somehow (I guess because the protagonists are so clever and charming).

There are no clips available online, but the DVD is available to purchase and it’s well worth it for silent comedy buffs. Just go here. 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t 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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For more on show biz historyconsult 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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Laurel and Hardy in “Men O’ War”

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies with tags , , , , , , , on June 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Laurel and Hardy comedy Men O’War (1929).

In this, one of their first sound shorts, the boys are a couple of sailors on shore leave, walking in a park. Some lost gloves create the opportunity for them to start up a conversation with a pair of cute girls and they go on a date to the soda fountain. (The soda jerk is played by James Finlayson in his first talkie, and boy does he ever make a lot of faces during his brief turn). The boys discover they only have 15 cents, enough for three drinks. Hardy’s solution is that Laurel should refuse a drink, but Stan keeps fouling things up, partially because he’s dumb, but also undoubtedly because he would really like a soda.

To Ollie’s shock, the tab turns out to be 30 cents, so he leaves Stan to deal with it. We fear disaster when Stan uses a nickel to play the slot machine, but he saves the day by winning. They can pay their tab, buy the girls several gifts and then take them out on the lake for a rowboat ride. Laurel rows first, botching the job so they keep going around in circles. Then Hardy gets involved and they continue going around in circles despite the fact that they try several rowing configurations. Then the boy set off a rash of capsizings and battles with seat cushions until eventually all is chaos…

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t 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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For more on show biz historyconsult 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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Roscoe Arbuckle in “Fatty’s Plucky Pup”

Posted in Animal Acts, Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on June 28, 2014 by travsd

 

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Roscoe Arbuckle comedy Fatty’s Plucky Pup (1915). This was one in a series of comedies in which Arbuckle co-starred with canine star Luke the Dog. Another was Fatty’s Faithful Fido.

As he often does, in this film Roscoe plays a good-for-nothing layabout who lives with his mother (Phyllis Allen). He smokes in bed and starts a fire. Then he gives a dog a bath in a washtub, ruining the laundry. He is also fond of flirting with Lizzie the girl next door (Josephine Stevens). Later he brings Lizzie to an amusement part, where she will be kidnapped by a gang of shell game operators led by Edgar Kennedy. Luke the Dog alerts Fatty to the situation and the two of them (joined by the Keystone Kops) come to her rescue. The film contains a memorable shot of Mack Sennett’s famous treadmill-scrolling backdrop combo that gave a very cartoonish impression of the subject running (or riding a bike as the case may be) with the background going by behind them.

Here is a truncated version with an original jazz score by Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy: 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t 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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For more on show biz historyconsult 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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New Hilton Sisters Documentary Opens Tonight!

Posted in Conjoined or Parasitic Twins, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2014 by travsd

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Very excited! Bound By FleshLeslie Zemeckis’s new doc about the conjoined Hilton Sisters opens in New York (IFC Center) and in LA today! It’s also available on demand, so I think you know what will be on my agenda this weekend.

For my full article on the Hilton Sisters go here.

For my review of Zemeckis’s previous film Behind the Burley Q go here. 

And for the full scoop on Bound By Flesh, go here. 

Summer Circus Cabaret Tonight!

Posted in BROOKLYN, Circus, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , on June 27, 2014 by travsd

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Hot Jazz on a Tall Ship: Tomorrow

Posted in Contemporary Variety, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Music, PLUGS with tags , , , , on June 27, 2014 by travsd

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