Saturday, November 22, 2008

Biography Book Corner #2: Luis Bunuel's "My Last Sigh"— Chapter 11: "America"

This is another in a series of ongoing irregularly posted entries highlighting individual chapters of biographies and autobiographies of film personnel. It's meant to be a blog version of grabbing a book off the shelf that catches your eye— at a friend's house or the book store— and reading a chapter of it. The summarising of the chapter below may inspire the reader to take a look at the book for themselves, or at the very least, it will supply some info on a classic film.

The "America" chapter of Bunuel's autobiography, My Last Sigh deals with his 1930 sojourn to Hollywood. It's a very bitter pill! But it's not without a sense of humor. Below a summary.

• Following his completion of L'Age d'Or, Bunuel screened the film for his surrealist friends. Additionally, a representative from M-G-M also saw the film at a private screening and as Bunuel says, "like so many Americans, was delighted to find himself on such good terms with the aristocracy."

• The M-G-M rep [L.L. 'Laudy' Laurence, according to John Baxter's Bunuel biography] met with Bunuel and told him he didn't understand the movie, however he proceeded to offer Bunuel a six-month all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood to learn how American films were made. Bunuel accepted the offer and from December 1930 to April 1931 he lived in the U.S. [Baxter's book is suspect of the terms of the agreement as claimed by Bunuel and suggests that Bunuel was more likely hired to supervise Castilian versions of films and as a possible dubbing talent.]

• When he first arrived in New York, Bunuel instantly fell in love with America, "the styles and customs, the movies, the skyscrapers, even the policemen's uniforms." In L.A., he became part of the expatriate community, reuniting with such figures as writer Eduardo Ugarte.

• Bunuel's actual work at the studio, according to Bunuel, seems to have been limited. He tells a story of being thrown off a set he was observing by Greta Garbo (I've heard this story a million times: either people are "borrowing" it or she threw people off every day-- and therefore not a very interesting story). Bunuel also says he played a bit part as a barman in a Spanish language version of a film. When, after months of being at the studio, he was asked to watch rushes of Lily Damita to gauge her Spanish accent he refuses, and sends a message to Thalberg that he's there as a Frenchman, not a Spaniard, and he's also not interested in listening to a woman who sleeps around [in other interviews he admits to using the word "whore"]. Bunuel decides his time in Hollywood is over and quits the next day (so he says).

• Outside of badmouthing Josef von Sternberg and the whole studio system itself, vis a vis the auteur theory ("In fact, most of the directors I watched seemed little more than lackey's who did the bidding of the studios who hired them."), the most interesting part of the chapter is in regard to Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin had the Spanish contingent over frequently for dinner and was at the time editing City Lights. Bunuel says he felt Chaplin lacked confidence in his editing of the film but I think being in the prescence of the premier film artist of Hollywood might have made Bunuel a wee bit jealous, at least in retrospect. Bunuel does note Chaplin's graciousness and even said that Chaplin gave several screenings of Un Chien Andalou. Bunuel also states that he later heard that when Geraldine Chaplin was a little girl, her father used to frighten her by describing certain scenes from the film.

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