Jeffrey Vance, who has written books about Chaplin and his Limelight costar Buster Keaton, dispelled rumors (started, he said, by Keaton’s latter-day partner Raymond Rohauer) that Buster’s best scenes were trimmed or discarded by his “rival.” No such footage exists. He also clarified something that has always troubled me about the film: why the climactic performance by these two comic masters plays out in silence. Vance explained that Chaplin didn’t want to provide a laugh track, as it were, but counted on the audience watching the scene in movie theaters to supply its own laughter—as the Academy audience did that night. Chaplin couldn’t have foreseen that his movie would someday be screened in homes (on TV or DVD) and the scene would seem somewhat eerie without any audible response from the crowd.
Revisiting the film after many years, I was struck by how much talking Chaplin does in it. His exhortations to the fragile Bloom, recuperating in his flat, ring with the filmmaker’s philosophy of life. And his music-hall sequences are a virtual textbook of rapid-patter routines, especially the act he performs with Bloom. It’s quite a turnaround for the greatest screen pantomime artist of the 20th century.
Flick turned out to be a charming guest, as well, as Burlingame chatted with him, lyricist Don Black, and composer Bill Conti about their unexpectedly colorful experiences working on Bond movies over the years. The entire evening was a delight. I don’t want to spoil the fun of reading some of these stories in Jon’s brand-new book, The Music of James Bond (officially published November 1 by Oxford University Press) but I can’t resist telling you that after a handful of takes, when Shirley Bassey was asked to try to “nail” the last note of Goldfinger one more time, an unexpected object flew up to the recording booth: her bra. That seems to have done the trick.
Finally, I was pleased to attend a screening of the ultra-rare 1933 Universal picture Laughter in Hell at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre last Wednesday as part of the Jim Tully celebration Tullyfest. It’s a very strange movie but not without its rewards. At first, it plays like a turgid Victorian-style drama about a small-town, working-class Irish-American lad (Pat O’Brien) who falls in love but is fated to run afoul of his lifelong enemies, a pair of no-good brothers who drive him to commit murder. This sends him to a chain gang supervised by one of those snarling siblings, played with relish by Douglass Dumbrille.
At several points during the incident-filled 70-minute movie, director Edward L. Cahn jolts us out of our complacency with startling moments. The first, depicting O’Brien’s hatred for the two brothers while he operates a railroad train, is a clumsy attempt at Russian-style montage. But a later example of that cinematic device is striking and effective. A nighttime scene in which the chain gang workers (including Clarence Muse) dig graves while their supervisors push them beyond endurance is as moody and effective as some of the moments in Universal horror films of the period.
Strangest of all—almost unexplainable—is the scene in which O’Brien murders his wife and her lover in their cramped little home. The action unfolds as the camera zooms wildly in and out, with quick fades to black in between each dizzying zoom! I promise you’ve never seen anything like it, certainly not in a 1933 production.
Unfortunately, the film wraps up its story—with the late arrival of Gloria Stuart—much too abruptly. The film doesn’t so much conclude as screech to a sudden halt.
That screen at the Egyptian is one of my favorites in the world, by the way, and this coming Thursday the theatre is celebrating its 90th birthday with a showing of Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 silent film Robin Hood. For more information, click HERE.
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