A King in New York at 60, Part II (Behind the scenes)

In 1957, Charles Chaplin and his family had left the U.S. for good and settled in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. His re-entry permit for the U.S. was revoked in 1952, and he didn’t try to return. His fourth and final wife, Oona, handled his remaining affairs, such as the sale of his studio and their Beverly Hills home.

Chaplin’s final professional ties to the U.S. were severed in 1955, when he sold the last of his United Artists stock. Given the personal and political attacks he’d weathered since at least 1942, and the widespread boycotts of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952), he knew A King in New York wouldn’t be shown in the U.S. at all.

Chaplin no longer had the luxury of his own studio, all the time he wanted for filming and editing, or loyal employees. He now had to rent expensive, unfriendly studios by the minute and work with strangers. AKINY was wrapped in a record twelve weeks.

The rushed production really shows in the frequently improper lighting. Though Chaplin hired legendary cameraman Georges Périnal, there often wasn’t enough time to light the set properly before filming. Many of the shots are dark and shabby instead of crisp, focused, and light.

Chaplin always spent a lot of time editing his work to a high level of perfection, but this wasn’t possible now. As much as I love a good satire, I have to agree the film suffers from taking on way too many targets—plastic surgery, TV commercials, widescreen movies, popular music, celebrities, politics, materialism, the HUAC, social pretension.

Shows like American Dad and Family Guy can wear thin after awhile, since everything is up for lampooning, with not much treated seriously. Even a deliberately over the top satire needs to rein it in to avoid coming across as cartoonish and divorced from any semblance of the real world.

If the film had stuck to a few well-developed targets, instead of stuffing in everything but the kitchen sink, the satire would’ve been even stronger and funnier. The storyline with Rupert is so strong, so relevant both then and now (for different reasons). It would’ve been even better had it been introduced earlier.

A few other things could’ve been worked in as secondary targets, maybe TV commercials, materialism, and social pretension. It’s not that the film isn’t funny or brilliant, just that it’s trying to do way too much at once.

AKINY was filmed in London, in spite of the title. Chaplin didn’t return to the U.S. until 1972, when his reputation finally was rehabilitated. The London scenery and architecture don’t exactly suggest a true New York setting.

The role of 10-year-old Rupert, like that of little Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921), was crucial. At the last minute, Chaplin’s son Michael was chosen. Michael (now 71 years old) is Chaplin’s second child from his fourth and final marriage, and the fifth of his eleven total children.

At first, Charles and Oona wanted to keep Michael’s true identity secret through the pseudonym John Bolton, but Michael insisted upon using his real name. He plays Rupert brilliantly, and inspired debates by his parents in later years as to whether he or Jackie Coogan were the better actor.

Oona always argued in favor of her son’s performance.

AKINY generally got good reviews in Europe, where it did well commercially. Though it’s a social, political, cultural, and comedic study of 1950s America, the jokes and deeper themes are timeless. In some ways, the lack of an editor may have enhanced its appeal.

Sometimes an honest story with rough edges is more compelling than a polished and defanged one.

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A King in New York at 60, Part I (General overview)

Released 12 September 1957, A King in New York was Chaplin’s final starring role, his swan song proper. The film wasn’t released in the U.S. till 8 March 1972, the same year he received an honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”

While the film satirizes too many targets, instead of focusing on one or two things, it’s nonetheless a brilliant comedy. I think it might be my second-favorite of his talkies, after Monsieur Verdoux.

The film opens as a mob storms the palace of King Igor Shahdov of Estrovia (Chaplin), calling for his head. Their attempt at vigilante justice is denied, as he’s already escaped by air and taken everything with him.

After Shahdov lands in New York, he gives a press conference where he reveals he was overthrown because he wanted atomic energy for domestic use instead of bombs. He dreams of creating an atomic utopia.

On his first night out on the town, Shahdov is thrust headfirst into 1950s pop culture and current events. In a scene harkening back to his silent days, he has to mime what he and Ambassador Jaume want for dinner over the impossible noise of the house band behind them.

In the morning, Shahdov discovers Prime Minister Voudel has taken off to South America with all his funds and securities. Jaume wants to expose him as a thief and liar, but Shahdov realizes they have no legal claim without records. All the books and records were left behind in Estrovia when they fled.

Jaume reminds him he still has his atomic plans, but Shahdov says it’ll be difficult to finance blueprints. Shahdov doesn’t want word of this to get around, since he’d rather be thought of as a successful crook than destitute monarch.

Shahdov’s estranged wife Irene then comes for a visit. Though they’re divorcing, they have a very cordial relationship. Irene doesn’t even want alimony.

Shahdov eavesdrops on a woman next door (Dawn Addams), Ann Kay, singing in the bathtub, and comes to her rescue when she shouts for help. While he’s massaging Ann’s hurt ankle, he discovers she’s attending a dinner party he begged off. His smittenness makes him change his mind.

Unbeknownst to Shahdov, this dinner party is being televised live. Between Ann’s deodorant and toothpaste commercials, Shahdov is talked into reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy.

The public is quite impressed with Shahdov’s performance, and he’s asked to do TV commercials. Angry and feeling tricked, he turns down all the offers, and even rips up a check.

Shahdov digs through the garbage for the check after realizing what dire straits he’s in. He also accepts an invitation to speak at a progressive school (think Montessori or Waldorf).

By the school, Shahdov meets 10-year-old Rupert Macabee (Chaplin’s son Michael), editor of the school paper. He’s very advanced for his age, and gives Shahdov quite the lecture.

The visit to the school ends in humiliation for Shahdov.

Since he’s so deep in the hole, Shahdov accepts $50,000 to act in a whiskey commercial. The ad is a smash hit, and leads to many more ads with large payouts.

Ann convinces Shahdov to have a facelift to increase his appeal and salary, but no one is happy with the results. To try to cheer him up, Ann takes him to see a slapstick comedy show. This scene too harkens back to Chaplin’s silent roots.

Shahdov’s new face comes undone when he’s laughing, and he has to have his old face restored.

Shahdov runs into Rupert without a coat in the snow, and invites him to his hotel room. Rupert admits he ran away from school because his parents were arrested for being Communists.

Shahdov’s friendship with Rupert lands him in lots of trouble. There are chilling parallels to the real-life activities of the HUAC.

I highly recommend this if you’re interested in Chaplin’s later years. Whatever you might think of his politics or personal life, there’s no denying he was a genius.

Prohibition-era college hijinks

Happy second birthday to my rook piercing!

Released 10 August 1932, Horse Feathers was the Marx Brothers’ penultimate Paramount film, and one of their most popular prior to their switch to MGM. It made the cover of Time. Parts of the film originated with their 1910 stage production Fun in Hi Skule. I particularly like this film because Zeppo gets way more screentime than in most of the other Paramount films!

Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho) has just become president of Huxley College, whose football team is a total trainwreck. After the opening song “I’m Against It,” Wagstaff’s son Frank (Zeppo) suggests he pump up the college’s reputation by buying some professional football players in a speakeasy.

Iceman Baravelli (Chico) is left to guard the speakeasy, whose password is “swordfish.” Being the good-natured dope he is, he gives away the password and lets Wagstaff maneuver his way inside. Soon afterwards, Baravelli’s partner Pinky (Harpo), an iceman and dog-catcher, joins them.

Meanwhile, Frank is wooing college widow Connie Bailey (the ill-fated Thelma Todd). A college widow is a woman who hangs around a college campus long past graduation to date and sleep with male students.

Wagstaff recruits Baravelli and Pinky as football players, though they have absolutely no experience with the sport. As part of this ruse, they have to enroll as students. The scene where they disrupt an anatomy class comes from the stage production.

There are several noticeable jump-cuts during the scene where the four brothers take turns going in and out of Connie’s room. This is both due to damage and the censorship demanded by the Hays Code. Sadly, there are no known surviving prints of the original, full-length version.

Also among the men going in and out of Connie’s room is Jennings, who later tries to get Baravelli to sell him Huxley’s football signals so he can throw the game. Baravelli gives him signals for the rival Darwin College, which Jennings immediately realizes. Having failed in his mission, Jennings enlists Connie to get the signals off of Wagstaff.

After this too fails, Baravelli and Pinky try to kidnap two football players from Darwin. The football players have already been tipped off about what’s supposed to happen, and easily overpower them. This puts the entire football game in jeopardy.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but suffice it to say, there’s lots of typical chaos as the four brothers try to save the day.

The song “Everyone Says I Love You” is prominently featured, and performed by all four brothers. Zeppo gives a straight performance; Groucho gives a sarcastic performance when he and Connie are in a canoe; Harpo whistles it to his horse and plays it on the harp to Connie; and Chico does a comedic version while playing piano.

The song was written by the famous team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, who wrote many other musical compositions for the brothers. These include “Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” from Animal Crackers; the musical score for both the film and stage productions of Animal Crackers; “Hail, Hail Fredonia” from Duck Soup; and “I’m Against It” and “I Always Get My Man” from Horse Feathers.

Besides the segments censored out of the scene in Connie’s apartment, other cut scenes include the brothers playing poker as the college burns down, more scenes showing Pinky doing his dog-catching duties, Harpo bowling bottles with a grapefruit in the speakeasy, and an extended ending to the scene in Connie’s apartment.

A description of the poker-playing scene, and a still, survive in a 1932 press book. (Sorry I couldn’t find a larger image!)

During filming, Chico shattered a knee and broke numerous ribs in a car accident, thus delaying production by over two months. Due to his injuries, Chico had to be sitting down for almost all of his scenes, and needed a body double in higher-intensity scenes.

It’s pretty obvious in the famous horse-drawn garbage wagon scene, since the double is much taller than the real Chico (about 5’4, though still taller than I am!). Chico was about the same height as Harpo, while Groucho was about 5’7 and Zeppo was 5’9.

At this point in my fandom, I think Chico has become my favourite. I still love Harpo’s sweet, childlike character with its adult edge, and have no doubt he was the nicest, most approachable one in real life, but Chico’s warm-hearted, simple-brained character has completely charmed me. And who could resist that great smile?

Monsieur Verdoux at 70, Part II (A comedy of murders)

Monsieur Verdoux opens with a shot of Henri Verdoux’s grave and a voiceover by Chaplin. Verdoux was an honest bank clerk for 30 years, until the world depression of 1930 left him unemployed and forced him to go into a different kind of business—murdering widows to support his home and family.

We then move to the home of the Couvaises, wine merchants in northern France. They quit their bickering when a letter comes, saying Thelma has closed all her accounts. Thelma also hasn’t been heard from since she married three months ago. The family is very worried, and wants to go to the cops.

Verdoux is introduced in the rose garden of his villa in southern France. Two neighbors complain among themselves about how his incinerator has been going for the last three days and making an awful stink. Verdoux’s humanity is shown when he picks up a caterpillar on the ground, talks to it, and puts it on a leaf.

A mailman arrives with a registered letter for Thelma, requiring her signature. Verdoux goes inside to pretend Thelma is signing from the bathtub. The letter contains the 60,000 francs Thelma requested from her bank account, which is now emptied and terminated. The letter also establishes the year as 1932.

Verdoux is visited by a woman named Louise, from an employment agency. He gives her orders for how to clean his villa, and while she’s occupied, he conducts some financial business over the phone.

We then move to the Couvaises in the office of a police judiciary. Though Lena accidentally threw his photo in the fireplace, they all swear they’d know him if they saw him.

After they leave, the police judiciary and his detective discuss how twelve women have mysteriously disappeared over the last three years, all under similar circumstances. Many  were middle-aged, with little or no means of support, and married the same type of man.

While Verdoux is in process of selling Thelma’s estate, along comes prospective buyer Marie Grosnay and her real estate agent. He makes up a story about how his wife passed away from a heart attack, and says he’s selling the house to get away from the memories.

Once Verdoux discovers Marie is a widow who never remarried, he begins pulling out all the stops to try to seduce her. Marie isn’t having any of it, but Verdoux remains undeterred over the ensuing weeks.

Verdoux discovers he needs 50,000 francs unless he wants to go bankrupt. He quickly thinks of one of his wives, Lydia, who knows him as Monsieur Floray. She’s quite annoyed to see him showing up all of a sudden, after months away.

Lydia, who thought he’d died during his pretended business in Indochina, is smart enough to understand he only shows up when he wants something from her. She stands her ground and refuses to believe the fish stories he’s spinning, but he finally manages to convince her all the country’s banks are about to go bankrupt.

After Lydia has withdrawn all her money, Verdoux murders her off-camera.

Verdoux visits his son Peter and his wheelchair-bound real wife, Mona, on their tenth anniversary. He surprises Mona with the deed to their house and garden, which ensures they’ll never be homeless or have to go back to living in a single room. It also means Verdoux will be able to retire in a few years.

During this visit, Verdoux lectures Peter about his habit of pulling the cat’s tail. He tells Peter it shows a cruel streak, and that violence begets violence.

Verdoux’s next stop is another of his wives, Annabella (Martha Raye), who knows him as Monsieur Bonheur, a sea captain. He’s really met his match in her, since every time he visits her, he keeps failing at his attempts to get her money and murder her. Annabella is possibly the best secondary character!

Verdoux develops an untraceable poison to improve his killing methods. However, he chickens out after he invites his first would-be victim to his flat. He grows to care too much about her as a human being, and is touched by her enduring belief in love. Verdoux sends her off with some money.

Marie Grosnay finally succumbs to Verdoux’s seduction campaign, but things get complicated when Annabella shows up by the wedding.

Verdoux loses everything after the European markets collapse, and the woman he decided not to poison repays Verdoux’s past kindness. But when the Couvaises recognize Verdoux, it’s the beginning of the end.

I think this is my favorite of Chaplin’s talkies. Not only does he excel at both comedic and serious acting, but he also shows his character’s humanity over and over again. Verdoux isn’t a black-hearted monster who enjoys murdering women and stealing their money, which makes his actions all the more disturbing. We can’t dismiss him as one-dimensionally evil.

Monsieur Verdoux at 70, Part I (General overview)

Released 11 April 1947, Monsieur Verdoux was not only Chaplin’s first film without either the Little Tramp or a Tramp-like character, but also his first true all-talking film. While The Great Dictator was his first actual talkie, that film uses sound rather selectively. A number of scenes have no dialogue, letting the pantomime do the talking.

This dark comedy didn’t go over so well in the U.S., due to the radical departure from Chaplin’s usual forte, and all the political controversies and personal scandals he’d weathered in recent years.

The story of bluebeard (serial wife-murderer) Henri Verdoux was inspired by Henri Désiré Landru (12 April 1869–25 February 1922). He served in the French Army from 1887–91, and upon his demobbing, began a relationship with his own cousin.

Though they had a daughter together, Landru married another woman two years later, with whom he had four kids. After a boss swindled him, he turned to the dark side.

Landru was convicted and sent to prison in 1900. He was estranged from his wife by 1914, and became a used furniture dealer. As WWI progressed, he took advantage of the ever-increasing pool of widows to prey upon fresh victims.

When a widow answered his personal ad and came to his villa, Landru would seduce her, gain access to all her assets, murder her, and burn her body in his oven. He murdered ten women from 1914–19, as well as the teen son of one of them. Since Landru used many aliases and left no bodies behind, it was impossible to catch him.

Finally, in 1919, the sister of victim Célestine Buisson convinced the cops to arrest him. Though she didn’t know his real name, she remembered his address and appearance.

Landru was initially only charged with embezzlement, since a thorough search which included digging up the garden yielded no bodies. He also refused to talk to the cops. However, cops eventually put together a trail of evidence proving what he’d done.

In November 1921, the trial began. Landru was convicted on all eleven counts of murder and sentenced to death. Three months later, he was guillotined in Versailles.

Over the years, he’s been referenced or depicted many times in popular culture.

Orson Welles wanted to cast Chaplin as a character based upon Landru. Chaplin claimed he backed out of the idea when Welles admitted the script hadn’t been written yet and that he wanted Chaplin’s help to write it.

Welles claimed the script already existed, and Chaplin bought the script from him and rewrote several important scenes. Because Welles desperately needed money, he signed away all his rights, in spite of feeling he would’ve been a better director.

Chaplin claimed he soon began thinking about what a great idea it would be to use Landru’s story as the basis of a dark comedy. Chaplin phoned Welles and offered $5,000. Welles eventually accepted screen credit for the idea.

The film was a poor match to the prevailing social, political, and cultural milieu in the U.S. in 1947, but it did rather well in Europe, particularly France. In spite of this, it was nominated for the 1947 Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay).

While promoting his film, Chaplin was subject to hostile press treatment. During the brief time it played in the U.S., several boycotts were staged. By one of his promotional press conferences, Chaplin followed his opening remarks by inviting the press to “Proceed with the butchering.”

Chaplin’s speech near the end of the film is brief but powerful. Along with the first season finale of The Boondocks, it almost, almost, almost made me reconsider my support of the death penalty.

The film opens with a shot of Verdoux’s grave and proceeds to a flashback explaining what lead up to that moment. The viewer knows going in what happened to him, but not the how and why.

Originally, the final speech was even more biting, but the Hays Office wasn’t pleased with these lines:

“To be shocked by the nature of my crime is nothing but a pretence… a sham! You wallow in murder… you legalize it… you adorn it with gold braid! You celebrate it and parade it! Killing is the enterprise by which your System prospers, upon which your industry thrives!”