Edward Gorey’s The Black Doll (repost-ish)

This post was originally on my old blog and now makes a reappearance with considerable revision/addition. It now contains facts!

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The cover of the book edition of The Black Doll

Edward Gorey (1925-2000) made a career out of the melding of mild eccentricity and obvious artistic talent. His eclectic wide-ranging taste in movies and television, his devotion to ballet (when George Balanchine died in 1983 Gorey decided to leave New York City forever), and love of literature created a fine recipe for distinctive and entertaining art. He created many projects over the years, despite being (in his words) “a great one for drift.” Not all of his projects were realized, but those that were carry the hallucinatory realism of the Surrealists with an idiosyncratic humor all Gorey’s own. Tim Burton and Steampunk artists share Gorey’s interest in skewed Victoriana and silent-movie melodrama.

Several of Gorey’s small books were adapted for the stage, some by Gorey himself; who else could entitle a show “Blithering Christmas”? His one original film screenplay, The Black Doll, was published posthumously by Pomegranate Press in 2009 but has never been filmed. The title refers to a Gorey talisman, a simple, armless black doll that a friend made for Gorey back in the 1940s. It became an emblem of sorts, recurring in his books years after Gorey lost the real doll. The black doll became the archetype for all manner of strange Gorey creatures, such as the silent visitor of The Doubtful Guest (1957), or the long-limbed what-is-it that Gorey named Figbash, which appears in The Raging Tide: Or, The Black Doll’s Imbroglio (1987) [in which the Black Doll plays no part], and Figbash Acrobate (1994) among others. The other influence on the screenplay is silent serial films, especially those of French serial master Louis Feuillade. Feuillade’s serials, most of which were made during the period of the First World War, fit in well with Gorey’s natural sense of plot, as well as the Victorian/Edwardian mode of dress and design that is one of Gorey’s hallmarks.

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Figbash, featured on the cover of a Gorey set of faux-Tarot cards

Gorey’s tribute to Feuillade is not limited to direct quotation, but to second-generation quotes as well. George Franju’s 1963 remake of Feuillades Judex (1913), though a feature film instead of a serial, showcased a bal masque scene in which all the attendees were wearing bird masks. In The Black Doll, Gorey makes this masquerade a mysterious assemblage of strange characters including a mummy, an insect, an obelisk, and a monk among others.

The Black Doll is the last chapter of a serial, though no chapter number is given, and there is little indication of what might have gone before. Silent serials vary widely: The Perils of Pauline (1914), one of the most famous serials had 20 chapters; The Diamond from the Sky (1915) had 30 chapters; serials averaged 12 or 15 chapters until the later 1920s, when 10 became standard. The black doll itself contains the PRO (Priceless Ritual Object), around which various groups of people are plotting and maneuvering. A Gorey touch, making things more complicated: the doll is not the PRO, but something inside it, which is never revealed, is. We’ll take the container for the thing contained and let the doll serve as the PRO. Alfred Hitchcock would have called the black doll a “MacGuffin;” Pearl White (one of the top stars of American silent serials) would have called it the “weenie.” The doll is a relic from the ancient religion of the near-forgotten city of Gulb, or Blug – the name is not certain. Cultists and adventurers seek the doll for their own purposes. I won’t go into the details because, in a strange way, neither does Gorey. A lot happens in the film, obvious and not-so obvious, but clarity seems beside the point. The Black Doll reveals shards of plot, too many for a single serial chapter yet not enough for the entire story to make sense. Like the patchy, damaged portions that have survived of many silent serials, we are left having to guess here and there. Time has deepened the mystery.

I’ll clarify a little. Among the characters is the Oriental, a nameless Asian man who is central to the story, even though the other characters do not seem to see him. Mysterious figures are common in silent serials, but their presence is eventually explained; not so in The Black Doll. The cast is deliberately small, with actors doubling and tripling roles under the simplest of disguises; identity seems to be fluid. This is not common in silent serials, made back when they were an important part of the show; after the coming of sound, serials became more juvenile, routine, and lower budget. Stuntmen would often double roles, not only standing in for the stars in fight scenes, but playing anonymous thugs and henchmen at different times throughout the serial. Gorey’s own people have an interchangeable quality about them, their flattish, mannequin-like heads needing only a hat, a beard, or glasses to create a character.

What is the significance of the man in the bear suit? Or the unseen figure who keeps calling Daisy and playing a phonograph record of an orgy to her? This hearkens back one of Gorey’s greatest books, The Object-Lesson (1958), a surreal collection of elements that was purposely designed to make no sense while hinting at a story, or multiple stories. Not all the characters in The Black Doll are involved with the resolution of the plot; we never see the mysterious Mr. Grandours, or learn what part he is playing in all this, or if there even is such a person. I wrote “the resolution of the plot” though even that is in doubt. Multiple decoy black dolls appear, besides the real one – and the audience has no way of knowing if the real doll is the one in the episode’s denouement unless they read the script.
Long stretches of plot exposition are left to pantomime; Gorey’s title cards seem designed to tell as little as possible about what’s going on, although he describes exchanges of dialogue which cannot be heard and are never revealed to the audience. For example, late in the fourth sequence (there are eight in all) several groups of characters have met at the Bedsock house of with the intent of spiriting away the Black Doll. Furtive glances and numerous attempts to grab the doll ensue. There are a few title cards about the history of Gulb/Blug, but what is the last title in the film, after the doll has been taken?

Title: (Seth) The filling is made with chives.

When danger is all around you, that’s when it’s time to talk about the sandwiches!

Gorey’s tight-lipped, often frustrating title cards could be a nod toward the ruined state of much surviving silent serial footage. Title cards didn’t need as much time in the developer as filmed scenes, which made them particularly vulnerable to decay. Is The Black Doll not entirely a screenplay, but the transcript of a lost/damaged film, including the loss of title cards? Perhaps Gorey was paying tribute not only to what silent serials were, but also what is left now.

Though Surrealism is about near-random associations, and can have an air of being in on someone else’s private secret with only a limited grasp of the context, Gorey takes this approach in a way that borders upon passive aggression. Gorey is at heart a writer; his images, evocative though they might be, often depend from the language. His stories are reliant on the narrator’s voice, and (especially in sound film) narration is a hindrance. Dialogue plays little part in Gorey’s books; inner dialogue is essential. Perhaps this is mitigated in the plays he wrote for amateur theatrics, but the one example I have read – “The Admonitory Hippopotamus” included in unfinished book form in Amphigorey Again (2006) – features only one line of dialogue (albeit repeated) by the title character. The rest is thought. Filmmakers, and animators especially, have seen potential in Gorey, and they’re right. The trouble is, the more faithful the adaptation, the less cinematic the result.

Gorey paid further tribute to serials in his book La Malle Saignante (The Bleeding Trunk) (1974), ostensibly the seventh chapter of “The Mysteries of Constantinople.” Its trappings, lavishly Goreyesque costumes, and bilingual French/English titles mark it as a serial of the 1910s, another Louis Feuillade pastiche. Gorey even supplied a robot, Ahududu, perhaps inspired by the Automaton, a rather ludicrous menace featured in The Master Mystery, a 1919 American serial starring Harry Houdini. In true Gorey fashion, Ahududu’s menace is undercut by its having neither elbows nor knees. It looks like a crude marionette; a good breeze would knock it over. Unlike The Black Doll, La Malle Saignante is not the final chapter. We have to assume, in keeping with serial history, that everything worked out in the end, that the Ambassador will escape from Ahududu and the purple parcel will be recovered. The peril is always transitory, the solution assured; it’s how the story resolves that keeps us in suspense. In The Black Doll, there is an apparent resolution, but how unequivocal it is can only be guessed at. Gorey’s cryptic screenwriting leaves us with evocative but uninformative images: a word wiped off a rock, leaves fluttering down an empty corridor, a phonograph record broken. For once, despite the ambiguity, Gorey left a screenplay that is producible. It’s a wonder no one has tried – but I say that about a lot of things. The list of books and screenplays I wish would be filmed is long and probably not worth repeating. It’s a list as random and cryptic as an Edward Gorey book.

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Want a black doll of your own?

Note: you can buy your own black doll courtesy of the gift shop at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Mass., for $30.

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