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Limelight, James Bond, And More

Limelight, James Bond, And More

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has offered L.A. movie lovers an abundance of riches over the past few weeks, with more events than I was able to attend—or write about, until now. Celebrating Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight on its 60th anniversary with his leading lady, Claire Bloom, and costar Norman Lloyd was very special indeed. Bloom remarked that she worshipped Chaplin from the moment she met him and still feels that way today. Lloyd, still a formidable raconteur at the age of 97, told about meeting Charlie through their mutual love of tennis, and how he watched the great man write his screenplay in longhand over several years’ time on his sun porch.

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.

Just a few nights later my wife and I returned to the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater to see film music expert Jon Burlingame host a tribute to The Music of James Bond. The evening got off to a smashing start as the introductory scene of 007 from Dr. No appeared on the screen and the first performance of the now-familiar James Bond Theme by John Barry was heard on the soundtrack. Moments later the screen went dark and a spotlight fell on a lively older man onstage: Vic Flick, who played that iconic guitar solo fifty years ago, recreated it “live” for us with a recorded orchestral backing, on the same acoustic guitar he used half-a-century ago!

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.

Cahn was at the peak of his powers as a director at this time. A former film editor who worked on such notable Universal productions as The Man Who Laughs, Broadway, and All Quiet on the Western Front, he made his directorial debut at the studio in 1931 with Homicide Squad, and will always rate special mention for his stark 1932 Western Law and Order, starring Walter Huston and adapted by young John Huston. Within a few years, however, his career took a backward step and he wound up making short subjects at MGM. He is best remembered today, if at all, for his B movies of the 1950s like Dragstrip Girl and It! The Terror from Beyond Space. At this late date we may never learn why he wasn’t able to build a stronger career based on the talent he displayed in his early-1930s work. And while no one would build a case for Laughter in Hell as a rediscovered classic, I’m glad I got to see it, especially on a theater screen.

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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