Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Joy of Research

Sometimes the joy of research for my book has overtaken the writing process.  I can't stop reading about Chaplin, Kelly and Jobs.  There are over 600 book on Chaplin with most being regurgitations of previous works.  I'd estimate that there are only two dozen really good works.  There are 85 movies to watch also and each must be watched two or three times to really see the many nuances in his work.

Gene Kelly has far fewer books about his life and there are only 6 or so that are noteworthy.  He has 45 movies and, again, each must be watched numerous times.  I say, must be watched, but for Kelly and Chaplin, it's a joy and I'm amazed with each viewing as I see different aspects of their genius.

Steve Jobs is almost the outlier in this group, because he was not an entertainer, but with the premise of the book being perfectionism, he fits.  All three men were brutal to work for, demanding, mean in some cases and egotistical, but all were only interested in providing the best product and getting the best from their people.

Chaplin and Kelly forced actors to work through dozens of takes on a single scene until it was right. Chaplin often went into hundreds of takes for one scene.  Steve Jobs would force workers to go back to the drawing board over and over again to got to the perfection he envisioned for a product of feature.  He would study hundreds of prototypes until he was satisfied.

Two or three books come out each year on Chaplin.  Only a book every two or three year or so on Kelly is published.  Steve Jobs is the subject of many books from basic biographical accounts to studies of his management and presentations styles.

I could be totally happy just doing research, but the book calls and I need to finish.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review of Peter Ackroyd's "Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life"

Over 600 books have been written about Charlie Chaplin.  Most are simple regurgitations of other books.  As one author put it, "People will read five books and publish a sixth".  Peter Ackroyd's book is pretty much a compilation of many other books.  I have read over 30 books on Chaplin so far, picking and choosing from the the best out there, as well as hundreds of journal articles on him and seeing every movie at least twice.  Ackroyd's book has a few small details I had not seen before and a few minor mistakes of fact.

It is so hard to separate fact from fiction on Chaplin due to the quantity of books published, but when only one book states something, it is immediately suspect.  When I see something in book after book, I begin to take it as fact.  Ackroyd's book does offer some juicy tidbits on Chaplin's personal life when it comes to his female conquests as well as the controversies therin, but not much new about his work life or movies.  This is not meant as a criticism as there is little out there new to find unless one of his children decides to write a book or one of the few people left alive who worked with him. Sophia Loren or Claire Bloom might decide to talk on the record about their time with Chaplin, but there are a precious few others, and those would be distant spectators rather than principal players.

The book is pleasant reading overall and well written.  Ackroyd's style of writing makes it comfortable to just sit and read.  Many other books on Chaplin are not.  His son Sydney wrote a book that was hard to read and Georgia Hale's book was a pain due to her lack of time references.  I could not always tell from the context when things were happening even though I consider myself well read on the subject.

Details like Chaplin painting his private parts with Iodine are not relevant to the genius that he was. Bedroom details never make for a good book unless an author is writing a book about what goes on in the bedroom.  These details don't help us to understand his genius or his talent, but are meant to be salacious tidbits for shock value.

That being said, I enjoyed the book.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Remake An American in Paris? Are they nuts?

An American in Paris Without Gene Kelly? by Patricia Ward Kelly

When I learned recently that so many of my good friends were cast in the upcoming "reimagining" of An American in Paris, I eagerly went to the website to read about the new production scheduled to premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on December 10, 2014, and to open in New York City next spring. Because the movie was such an important part of Gene's career -- and meant so much to him personally -- I was surprised not to see him even mentioned on the page.
When Gene first brought me to California to write his memoir back in 1986, he was, for me, essentially a blank slate. I had to get up to speed on everything. Because I would eventually wear the dual hat of wife and biographer, I felt it incumbent upon me to double- and triple-check my primary source -- my husband. As a result, I spent hours at the University of Southern California library exploring the expansive Arthur Freed collection. Most of Hollywood had little or no regard for its history (film scores were tossed in a landfill, and film cans were often of more value to executives than the film in them). Fortunately, Freed donated the records and production notes of many of my husband's greatest and best-known films, including An American in Paris andSingin' in the Rain. These minute-by-minute accounts provide a remarkably detailed -- and accurate -- record of the preparation, rehearsals and shooting schedules of the movies. In the notes regarding An American in Paris, Gene is frequently listed as "Director," with Minnelli's name following in parentheses.
While Freed was producer of the MGM musical and Minnelli the credited director, Gene was the choreographer of the picture and also the director of several important segments of the film, including "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," and the ground-breaking, seventeen-and-one-half-minute "An American in Paris Ballet." When I asked Gene about his involvement, he said, "I discussed the shooting with Vincente Minnelli and the cameraman. But I had final control of the camera. If it ever came to a question, I would have the last word. The director usually has final say. ... But it was my baby, mainly, even though it was a collaborative effort." As Leslie Caron confirmed when asked to comment about Minnelli's role shooting the picture, "Oh, no, it was Gene Kelly behind the camera!"
On the website for the new stage version, Arthur Freed is described as the "one who put together a set of existing songs on which he created a story." According to Gene, it was he and Minnelli who chose the songs and the writer Alan Jay Lerner who crafted the script on a typewriter as he sat in his bed at the famed Bel Air Hotel. "We had a choice of every song the Gershwins ever wrote," Gene said, explaining the selection of numbers. "You might say, 'Oh, boy, what riches.' But we didn't know what to select -- we spent more time trying to fit the songs in. ... I don't think we could have ever doneAn American in Paris if we hadn't had someone like Alan Jay Lerner, who could adapt every time Minnelli and I changed a song and put it in a different place."
Though Gene did not receive any of the film's eight Academy Award nominations, he was presented with a special honorary Oscar "in appreciation for his extreme versatility as an actor, singer, director, and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film." That the history of the film is so badly bungled in the presentation of the new production -- and that Gene is omitted entirely -- is both sad and careless.

I have been told that the new stage production diverges significantly from the original; that the story, the music and the dance are changed. If this is the case -- if everything is indeed altered so considerably -- why is it then called An American in Paris?
Gene never relished seeing his own films. He watched them with me, begrudgingly, because of our work together. But he always saw things he could have done better. One exception was An American in Paris. Though he disliked the opening number, "By Strauss," which he felt "never came off," he thought the rest held up. As we ran the film together, nearly 40 years after its inception, he said frankly, "Take those first 10 minutes out, which are embarrassing, and it's a great picture, and, in 1951, way ahead of its time." When we eventually reached the end, he turned to me and said, "I'm glad I saw it. There are some things in there that are sensational -- that nobody else could have done -- and I'm proud of them." It was an important confession for a man who found it difficult to say, "I did that."
The last project Gene was engaged to do before his massive stroke in July 1994 was a recreation of the "American in Paris Ballet" for the Three Tenors Concert at Dodger Stadium. He was excited about the work -- it would be his "swan song," he said -- and each night he sat in his chair with a yellow legal pad drafting ideas well into the wee hours of the morning. He was very proud to be joining a team of friends and esteemed professionals: Zubin Mehta, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, José Carerras. Determined to make the ballet something special and unique, he enlisted the award-winning production designer Rene Lagler to design the set and contacted Helgi Tómasson, the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, about the possibility of using several dancers from the company. Instead of just one pair, as in the movie, Gene wanted multiple pairs to convey the emotion of each section of the ballet. Sadly, this beautifully-conceived project never came to pass.
Gene would be the last person to want new generations to mimic his work. He always encouraged young people to take what he did and go beyond. Similarly, he would never wish for those following in his footsteps to forget the important role he and others played in both the creation and execution of the masterpiece that begat this new production.
At the very least, the producers should rightfully acknowledge the very broad shoulders upon which they stand.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

City Light; Perhaps Chaplin's Greatest Film

Shakkyo: How Charlie Chaplin's City Lights crossed boundaries

An unlikely double bill at Tokyo International Film Festival proved one of the best ideas a film festival has ever had, says Robbie Collin

Charlie Chaplin in the 1931 classic City Lights
Charlie Chaplin in the 1931 classic City Lights Photo: Rex Features
In March 1936, during a tour of Japan, Charlie Chaplin called in on the Kabuki-za theatre in downtown Tokyo. A photograph commemorates the visit: Chaplin, handsome, silver-haired and moustache-less, stands beside the kabuki master Koshiro Matsumoto VII, grinning broadly and pointing at the actor’s elaborate costume, obviously impressed.
Seventy-eight years and seven months later, during the Tokyo International Film Festival, Chaplin returned to the Kabuki-za in one of the best ideas a film festival has ever had: a double-bill of his silent 1931 masterpiece City Lights and a short kabuki play called Shakkyo – The Stone Bridge – about a fantastical lion chasing two pesky humans off his turf.
Kabuki is a highly stylised form of classical Japanese theatre, all ghosts and samurai, swathed in mist and myth – hardly an obvious match for the misadventures of a tragicomic tramp in earthy, clattering interwar America. But seen side by side, they’re such obvious cousins you half-expect the Little Tramp to wander on stage, edge gingerly past the lion and, in turning to flee, fall over the side of the bridge.
Both art-forms were born within spitting distance of the gutter: silent comedy in the music halls where performers like Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy honed their craft, and kabuki in the pleasure quarters of old Tokyo and Kyoto, where acting troupes performed light-hearted, often bawdy plays about the struggles of everyday life.
Each one relies for its impact on its performers’ faces, which were stylised almost to the point of abstraction with thick, white make-up. Each gleans extra dramatic power from a musical score: in kabuki’s case, it’s performed by a 16-piece orchestra of wooden flutes, drums, voices and shamisen (imagine a triangular banjo played with a fish-slice).
The action in both is fast and energetic, but choreographed as meticulously as dance, with ingrained routines that even experts took years to master. Both attracted trouble in their heydays, and the performers’ private lives became fodder for public scandal – stories about storytellers.
But perhaps most crucially, both are able to speak volumes about the experience of being human without recourse to human speech – something that makes both art-forms timeless and borderless, for all their cultural idiosyncrasies. Silent comedies have been enjoyed since the earlier days of cinema, while kabuki has been performed since the 17th century. And that night, its spiritual home shook with laughter at the universal genius of Chaplin.
City Lights may be Chaplin’s greatest film. He started work on it in 1928, when every studio in Hollywood and cinema in Europe and America was gearing up for the age of sound, but it’s defiantly, triumphantly silent. Chaplin’s Little Tramp meets a poor, blind young woman (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers on the roadside, and, in the kind of misunderstanding that only silent comedy can pull off, she mistakes him for a millionaire. Delighted by her error, he plays along – and then, later that same day, he befriends a real millionaire (Harry Myers), who stumbles down to the river in a drunken stupor, with the intention of drowning himself.
These people are the Tramp’s two closest friends, but the friendships are only possible because neither actually sees him for who he is. Whenever he sobers up, the millionaire has him thrown out of his house, while the flower girl feels the cuff of his suit and thinks of a gentleman rather than a drifter. Desperate to live up to this imagined version of himself, the Tramp takes two jobs to help pay the flower girl’s rent: firstly as a street-sweeper, and then as a reluctant boxer in a prize fight.
The 12-minute sequence in which he psyches himself up for the match and then skips frantically around the ring, determined to keep the referee between himself and his huge opponent at all times, is the best and funniest thing Chaplin ever did. The scene is so precise, it isn’t acted so much as danced. It’s as abstracted, and perfected, as kabuki.
In 1931, a kabuki troupe visiting the United States went to see Chaplin’s City Lights in the cinema, and returned home with astonished stories of this man who combined comedy and pathos as brilliantly as the best in their discipline. They went on to adapt their memories of the film into a kabuki play called Yasu the Bat. In place of the boxing scene, there’s a sumo bout.
Somegoro Ichikawa, the great-grandson of Koshiro Matsumoto VII, played the lead role of the lion in Shakkyo that evening, and the ghost of Chaplin was never far from the stage. The humans tumbled head-over-heels as the lion attacked like the Tramp lunging from one side of the boxing ring to the other.
The only immediately obvious difference was the colour: the stage of the Kabuki-za was almost supernaturally bright, with dazzling blue fabric waterfalls rushing past dark rocks and lush, green undergrowth, and, during the climax of the battle, while the lion’s red mane lashed out like a tongue of flame, silver petals fluttered from the ceiling like snow.
It was art and spectacle from another time, and the thousand-strong audience, styled, coiffed and primped to the edge of modernity, leapt to their feet to applaud.