My list of cinephile’s literary pleasures, triggered by Movieman’s meme, has been conspicuously short of actual criticism so far, I realise. It’s possible I haven’t read enough of it to really have many favourites, and maybe also because I’m a filmmaker I gravitated more as a youth to how-to guides, biographies and autobiographies, histories and interview books — stuff that felt like it had more obvious practical applications. Which is underrating what criticism can do, I now realise.
To make up for it, the book I’m going to celebrate here is a solid critical piece, although you’ll have to be patient because I’m going to work around to it in a circuitous kind of a way.
Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil is one of my favourite recent novels (love the ’20s, magicians, intrigue) so I was excited that he has a new book out, Sunnyside, and ordered it before I even knew what it’s about.
It’s about Chaplin. I was just starting to read it (I’m still only on the opening chapters), when I thought that I’d like to compliment it by viewing some Chaplin, and remembered that I’d been meaning to show Fiona A DOG’S LIFE. Fiona, like myself, is a great Buster Keaton admirer, but unlike myself she always declares her preference of Keaton over Chaplin in every way. I lean a bit more to Keaton, it’s true, but I think it’s basically pointless to knock one at the expense of the other. Seems as if one could only like Pasolini and not Fellini, or vice versa. Why compare them at all?
And I was thinking that Fiona would probably like A DOG’S LIFE, and if so then she might get over her mild Charlophobia — it has a cute dog; it’s not too sentimental; it’s short and very funny. The experience was very rewarding indeed, and Fiona did enjoy it more than any Chaplin film she’d seen. She was especially impressed with the lunchwagon man here –
I couldn’t recall for sure, but I had a feeling he was Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s brother and a former Chaplin impersonator. I was right, and no wonder they’re so good together. As a kid I basically only noticed Chaplin’s performance, which is kind of the way he wants it, since only his character has a sort of awareness of the audience. I enjoyed the moustache guys in support, especially the unhealthy-looking Albert Austin, and Eric Campbell, the gigantic Scotsman who played the heavy in most of the Mutual shorts, but I wasn’t really conscious of how Chaplin fed off his co-stars, and how his work is based on the split-second timing of these brilliant supporting players.
Intertitle: “I’m flirting.”
Fiona immediately grasped this, and also made me see Edna Purviance in a new light. With her ungainly name and unflattering costumes, she’d never made much of an impression on me, but her inept flirting had Fiona in hysterics: the slow, obvious wink, and then the come-hither head-twitch that looks like the first step of a convulsion — the woman I live with has a particular fondness for scenes of women being goofy and inexplicable.
A DOG’S LIFE is full of great gag sequences, often based around the motivation of hunger that figures so prominently in Chaplin’s comedy. So I was then delighted to discover that Gold’s book actually begins with Chaplin making this particular film. There are also appearances by Douglas Fairbanks and Frances Marion, beautifully rendered. I’m about a third of the way through and I still don’t know what the story is about, but I’m very much enjoying it — taking it slowly to relish every page.
Here’s Gold on Chaplin ~
He gathered his ten postcards up, tucked them in his pocket, and went to the mirror. He drew in a breath and tried to inflate his love of people as if it were a balloon. It worked — he suddenly looked confident, dashing even. Small, but well presented. Dabbed — but not too much — with Mitsouko by Guerlain, from the fluted bottle that smelled like citrus with base notes of money. Black boots with spotless cloth tops, white linen trousers, silk vest, linen jacket, wristwatch, wallet, handkerchief, shirt with collar on — no, collar off — and then the face: freshly shaved, fiercely intelligent, a trove of black curls with the first flecks of premature gray connoting wisdom, and blue eyes that could bore through the most sophisticated chambers of any woman’s heart, and a smile that could make a whole convent choir forget that their knees were friends. Twenty-eight years old, left-handed, the son of Gypsies and Spaniards and generations of clever forebears, an Aries with Scorpio rising and moon in Scorpio, and, according to Madame Zinka downstairs, destined and cursed to illuminate the world with how mysteriously he stood at the centre of all human attention, Chaplin pointed a finger at himself and whispered, ‘You are a dangerously handsome man.’
And here’s Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, on Chaplin’s move towards greater seriousness in A DOG’S LIFE ~
The thirty-minute A Dog’s Life, as delightful a romp as any the comedian had capered through, and still generally regarded as Chaplin’s first “masterpiece,” makes only three unstressed moves to alter the atmosphere. The dust beneath the comedian’s feet is dustier. The dancing that formerly served to express the comedian’s disbelief in the plot is now incorporated into the plot and made to involve other people. And a slight structural frame, something to enclose the fun and games, begins to appear: Chaplin’s relationship with, and even identification with, a dog serves to open, complicate, and conclude the action.
None of this is permitted to interfere with the fun and games. A Dog’s Life is actually composed of six balletically conceived and executed “turns,” incredibly inventive, one following so quickly upon the other’s barely disappeared heels that we are left breathless with the spontaneity and precision of it all.
Kerr is superb. James Agee, a good prose writer but a rather unhelpful critic, redeems himself with some very nice descriptions of Buster Keaton routines, but Kerr is a far greater analyst. His cosmography of Laurel and Hardy’s developing universe of comedy is beautiful, vivid, a history of talents coming together to transform into genius by alchemy, a process which nobody understands but which Kerr, amazingly, can break down into specific stages. He’s also very strong on Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, and lots of lesser artists who are still worthy of his, and our attention.
Some people have trouble with the idea of comedy analysis, perhaps confusing the principle that you can’t make a failed joke work by explaining it (which is true), with the role of the critic in dissecting art: comedy is just as fit a subject for this as drama, and indeed some jokes get funnier, or unlock slow-release waves of additional humour, when explored with the mind. True, the laugh happens all at once, and is a more-or-less instinctive reaction of the mind to some clear absurdity. But deeper exploration brings out the underlying elements of that absurdity, which hit you afterwards like the base note of a perfume.
Walter Kerr’s is the best book I’ve ever read on screen comedy. Thanks to B. Kite for recommending it.