THE DVD SHELF: Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux," Olivier's "Richard III" and Douglas Fairbanks as "The Thief of Bagdad"
By Steven Suskin
This month's column looks at Blu-ray releases of the Chaplin classic, "Monsieur Verdoux"; Laurence Olivier's stunning "Richard III"; and the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, "The Thief of Bagdad."
Charles Chaplin, in his later years and later films, struggled with the old Charlie; both the character, and the style of filmmaking that had made him the most famous actor/director/writer/producer in the world. "City Lights" and "Modern Times"—both made while he was in his forties—were built around variations of his Little Tramp. And brilliantly so, allowing Charlie (the character) to comment on the changing world. "The Great Dictator" (1940), finished when Chaplin was in his fifties, deftly placed the Tramp in Hitler's shoes. Here was the clown dangerously playing with pure and non-fictional evil, and emerging victorious.
After a long stretch, Chaplin returned in 1947—as he neared sixty—as Monsieur Verdoux [Criterion]. Now an old man, there was no Tramp in sight. (As it happens, his next film—"Limelight," in 1952—did incorporate the flavor and the world of the Little Tramp.) "Verdoux" stands out among Chaplin's films for its—what? Strangeness? The idea: Chaplin as a modern-day Bluebeard, inspired by the real-life serial murderer Henri Landru.
This came from Orson Welles, who wanted to direct and write the film. Chaplin seems to have turned down the idea, as he wasn't about to work for another director; forgotten it; and then come up with his own version of Chaplin-as-Bluebeard. Ultimately, Welles was paid for the rights and credited for the original idea. (Welles' mood at the time can be seen in "The Stranger," in which he played a mass murderer living in a small town with his innocent wife. "The Stranger" is in the same moral vein as "Verdoux," but far more gripping.)
Chaplin's Verdoux is a proper French gentleman with an invalid wife and small child secreted away. He supports his family, in desperate times of economic depression, by marrying rich middle-aged women and killing them. Things work out neatly, of course, until Verdoux is inevitably tripped up and sent to the guillotine. A good deal of fun is had along the way. Unfortunately, there is an uncomfortable amount of preaching about how society—in bad times—forces decent folk to find ways to survive.
While any and all Chaplin films are well worth our attention and strongly recommended, "Verdoux" is decidedly uneven. It is at its best at the most unexpected moments. Here we are in small-town France during the 1930s, and who comes into Verdoux's target as likely prey? Martha Raye! That's right, the loud, vulgar, very American and very funny comedienne. Not Verdoux's type, probably, and certainly not Chaplin's. Not all that Continental, either.
Well, it is a match made in heaven. Not matrimonially, of course, but comically. They battle their way through their scenes, stepping on each other's toes and each other's lines with gleeful abandon. It's like watching Crosby and Hope, Martin and Lewis, or W. C. Fields and Mae West. This is all to Chaplin's credit; he cast Raye and directed her, although you can't say he controlled her. But it is in their scenes together that "Verdoux" sparkles. Some of the other parts tend to fizzle.
The cast is otherwise little known, with two exceptions. Veteran character actor William Frawley, who was to achieve small-screen immortality several years later as Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy," seems as out-of-place as Raye but is effective in his scenes with Chaplin (playing the host at Verdoux's wedding to a society lady). Also on hand, as Verdoux's family friend in the gentle scenes with his invalid wife, is Robert Lewis. An original member of the Group Theatre and noted acting teacher, Lewis had a busy year: after filming "Verdoux," he directed the original Broadway production of Brigadoon and co-founded The Actor's Studio.
The new restoration is accompanied by a 2003 documentary on the film; a new documentary, "Charlie Chaplin and the American Press"; and an illustrated audio interview with Marilyn Nash, the twenty-year old who played a Paulette Goddard-like street waif and who tells us that she met Chaplin when tennis pro Jack Kramer took her over to play on Chaplin's court.
Criterion has also brought us a Blu-ray edition of Laurence Olivier's Richard III, improving upon their fine 2004 DVD version. Given that this is a highly colorful movie, filmed in VistaVision and Technicolor, Blu-ray helps the colors explode across your widescreen. Olivier's portrayal of the maligned monarch is chilling, although I never quite get around that stark black wig. (Olivier apparently modeled Richard's appearance after Jed Harris, the tyrannical Broadway producer who was roundly despised—including by Olivier—but who gave us such plays as "The Front Page" and "Our Town.")
Sir Larry is surrounded by the cream of the British acting set, circa 1955. John Gielgud as George, Duke of Clarence. Ralph Richardson as the Duke of Buckingham. Cedric Hardwicke as Edward IV. That's four Sirs, right there. Matching Olivier's Richard is Claire Bloom as Anne; they make quite a couple.
This was Olivier's third Shakespearean film adaptation. First came "Henry IV" in 1944, which won the star/producer/director a special Oscar. This was followed by the even more acclaimed "Hamlet" of 1948, the first non-American film to win the Best Picture Oscar, with Olivier also taking Best Actor (but losing Best Director, to John Huston for "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"). "Richard III" did not do as well with awards or at the box office, but it might be the most striking film of the three.
The Blu-ray uses the 2012 digital restoration by the Film Foundation. Bonus features are mostly repeated from the prior Criterion release, with the exception of a restoration demonstration hosted by Martin Scorsese.
Most striking of this month's movies, and an unexpectedly exhilarating one, is Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 The Thief of Bagdad [Cohen]. This swashbuckling silent followed the star's "Mark of Zorro" and "Robin Hood," all of which showcased the actor's comedic flare and strong athleticism. A chase scene early in "Thief of Bagdad," in which Fairbanks runs and bounces through the marketplace, over drums and barrels, ably demonstrates this. Think "Indiana Jones" with earring, bare chest and bandana.
Fairbanks at the time was one of Hollywood's three top actors. The trio—Fairbanks, his wife Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin—capitalized on this by uniting to form their own studio, United Artists. Fairbanks was the lesser of the three, and he was unable to make the transition from silents to talkies; hence, he is relatively unknown today. "The Thief of Bagdad"—restored in such perfect shape, enhanced by color tints—shows us just how entertaining and likable Fairbanks must have been for his audiences.
As star, author, producer and studio head, Fairbanks had thorough control over all elements. (It is said that he more or less directed the film as well, although then-young Raoul Walsh received credit.) The standout contribution, which makes "Thief of Bagdad" especially thrilling, is the art direction by William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was to become a major name in Hollywood—think "Gone with the Wind"—but this, his first major film, instantly established him and remains astonishing: an art deco, Arabian Nights dream. Ancient Bagdad is filled with what appear to be 50-foot walls, sweeping (and architecturally impossible) stairways, and a panoply of delights —including that castle gate, which opens in four directions with diagonal teeth.
Fairbanks being Fairbanks, he insisted on special effects back in the days when you couldn't just order them up. Most remarkable is the flying carpet, which was accomplished by using a construction crane and plenty of piano wire. (One of the bonus features is a collection of production photos which shows how this was filmed.) There is also a magic rope, a flying horse (which looks laughably simplistic by today's standards), a cloak of invisibility, and all sorts of trick work. It is not all convincing, necessarily, but it offers high entertainment value.
Menzies is the genius that makes "Thief of Bagdad" still viable. Word should be said, too, for the fanciful costumes. Mitchell Leisen went on to become a stylish director, with such comedy favorites as "Midnight" and "Easy Living" among his credits, but he started as a costume designer, and his work here is eyebrow-raising. Also of great help, although not an original part of the film, is the accompanying musical score by Carl Davis. Working from themes by Rimsky-Korsakov, Davis uses an almost steady diet of "Scheherazade" mixed in with a little of the "Russian Easter Overture."
Speaking of raised eyebrows, don't overlook the girl who plays the Mongol slave serving as handmaiden to the Princess. From her first close-up, Anna May Wong comes across as evil as any film character we've ever seen. Let me also say that whoever designed her hair ornament—which looks like a set of bumblebee wings, askew—deserves his or her own special award.
The film comes from the Cohen Film Collection. What is that? you might ask. It's the successor to the Raymond Rohauer Library. Rohauer bought up rights to many early films over the years, and Cohen now has the collection, and appears to be starting to rehabilitate the more important films among their 700-plus titles. If the restoration of "The Thief of Bagdad" is any indication, we can expect great things to come.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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