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The Forgotten: Jacques Feyder's "The Clutching Foot" (1916)

Jacques Feyder spoofs the movie serial in surreal—and prophetic—fashion.
Mariann Lewinsky curates several strands at Bologna's festival of restored or recovered films, Il Cinema Ritrovato: this year, she commemorated the centenary birth of the Dada movement and Krazy Kat with her Krazy Serial, in which surviving episodes of incomplete serials were jammed together with shorts and newsreels. The finest moment was perhaps when one serial ended and another, Abel Gance's The Poison Gases, began, but with it's opening title long lost, so that the caption "A few minutes later" seemed to join to wholly unconnected narratives.
The preceding serial was Jacques Feyder's bizarre spoof, The Clutching Foot (Le pied qui étreint), which I realized from pervious excursions to Bologna was a parody not just of serials in general but of 1914's The Exploits of Elaine in particular, in which Pearl White was regularly menaced by a secret society led by the hooded and spasm-wracked mastermind The Clutching Hand.
Feyder's farrago mocks both American serials and local product like Feuillade's Les vampires, as well as the whole pantheon of sensational literature. Not content with showing up the absurdities of the genre, it piles on surreal nonsense all its own. The hero, Justin Crécelle, is a somewhat unprepossessing, bald and portly scientific detective, assisted by his personal secretary, Walter Jympson, a small boy of perhaps ten.
In Episode One, our hero invents a cordless telephone, with the idea that he can be alerted if there are any attempts on the life of his fiancée, played by an alluring ingénue who rejoices in the porn star name of Kitty Hott. And indeed, the leader of the Clutching Foot, known only as The Man in the Green Scarf, strikes at once. As The Man in the Green Scarf (scarf, clenching bare feet, baby carriage equipped with Harpo Marx horn, pushed around by another small boy) breaks into Kitty's apartment through a vent, Feyder makes a point of having numerous extras stroll by oblivious, including a pair of gendarmes. The fiends lay a diabolical trap, electrifying the phone line. When Kitty's maid tries to grab her, she too is electrified, as is the butler, the cook and the whole household staff, soon laid out on the floor in a vibrating conga line.
Kitty remembers the cordless phone and calls her beau, and in a scene both astonishingly prescient and richly satisfying, the detective's phone goes off while he's in the cinema. It doesn't ring, mind you, it just begins talking to him (Feyder suggests this with a cardboard speech bubble inserted into frame by jump-cut: "Cut the wire!"), but this is enough to get Crécelle and little Jympson thrown out into the street by the other angry patrons.
The two heroes now stroll casually across Paris, amble up to the apartment, and find a sort of high voltage human centipede twitching on the carpet. Pondering the difficulty, the genius eventually gets the idea of cutting the wire, and Kitty embraces him in gratitude at his belated rescue. "Saved!"
Things continue crazy: in the 2nd episode, billed as the 1977th episode, The Black Ray, poor Kitty is subjected to a mysterious ray gun which blacks her up. Crécelle immediately jilts her, even though she's just saved his life: you can see his lips mouthing the word's "C'est finis!" There's a fair bit of racially uncomfortable humor on offer here, excused partly by the period, partly by the fact that it's a parody of racial attitudes in contemporary serials.
So it's no surprise when an evil oriental cult surfaces in the third (or 1978th) episode. Kitty, restored to her former complexion by electricity, must be rescued by Justin in yellowface: approaching the camera with boyish glee, he lowers his Fu Manchu mustache and mouths "C'est mois" at his chums the audience. Little Walter Jympson proves himself a crack shot with a revolver, cold-bloodedly wasting a whole heap of the enemy.
For the final installment, young Feyder, at the very outset of his career, sensed that something special was required. Unmasking The Man in the Green Scarf was easy: he just has another scarf beneath the first, and another beneath that, then a hood, then bandages (a gag reprised, more or less, in the last episode of The Prisoner fifty years later). Justin, near snapping point, is seeing his opponent everywhere. He asks Jympson to look up the address of alienist Dr. Piederson, and the boy finds, to his astonishment and the great furtherance of the plot, Le pied qui étreint (The Clutching Foot) listed in the phone book!
A raid on the secret society's HQ allows the heroes to spy on TMITGS disrobing, and each responds with astonishment. At long last, the audience is allowed to see what they saw: Charlie Chaplin.
Or at least a skilled but rather dissimilar impersonator. But soon, as Kitty falls for the faux-Charlot, leaving Justin to mope over home movies of himself, a raft of other celebrity guest stars invades the film: here's a Theda Bara lookalike, or at least a woman in a strange bra; here's a would-be Max Linder, in streaky makeup; here are a few people who must have been meant to represent famous people of 1916, now perplexingly obscure; here's a young Fernand Ledoux, two years before his first IMDb credit, later a star for Renoir; and here's Musidora herself, in full Irma Vep drag, getting royally sloshed at the wild wedding party of The Man Formerly in the Green Scarf and Kitty Hott.
Fadeout.

The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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