Books 4: Keep Your Sunnyside Up

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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.

vlcsnap-104554

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.

35 Responses to “Books 4: Keep Your Sunnyside Up”

  1. Speaking of dog’s lives, another film I am fond of is Lasse Hallström’s Mitt liv som hund (My Life as a Dog). It’s a warm-hearted evocation of childhood set in fifties Sweden.

  2. Yeah, I remember enjoying that. Hallstrom seems to have become very tedious in recent years, but actually I haven’t seen many of his films. They just look like they would be tedious.

  3. kittypackard Says:

    Thanks for the post!! I too am in the middle of reading Sunnyside, just started this week, and just happened to finish the passage you quoted in your post. Carter is also one of my personal favorite books and, as a massive fan of the silent cinema, I was enraptured to discover that one of my favorite authors had penned a novel centering around one of my favorite actors, Chaplin.

    A Dog’s Life (forerunner of Chaplin’s The Kid) is indeed an endearingly charming short and Gold writes about it flawlessly in the book– his history is unfailingly accurate.

    Anyway, I hope you update on your progress in the book!!!

  4. kittypackard Says:

    Sorry, me again, just wanted to say also that I QUITE agree in your comment “it’s basically pointless to knock one at the expense of the other. … Why compare them at all?”

    It is so common for fans and critics to compare the two, as though one must take sides on the issue. I do not believe there are “sides” to be taken, nor do I believe there is even an issue. Keaton is a genius. A god of inspired technique, logic, skill, style and soul. Chaplin too is a god–his holy trinity of pathos, comedy and social comment is indisputable.

    But Cinema is not Monothiestic. It is very, very polythiestic and one is indeed permitted to worship at the altar of many. Whether it be the altar of Keaton or the altar of Chaplin or Lloyd or Laurel or Langdon or Marx. Each bestows its own particular gift Cinema.

    It would be unthinkable for a Greek to have prayed fervently to Aphrodite but to ignore Apollo. Each was unique and, while you might favor one over the other, both are altogether necessary.

    OK, sorry. Climbing down off the soap box. :D

  5. I recall that Roman prayers often ended with “…and any other Gods I might have forgotten.”

    Sometimes comparisons are useful to express a particular attribute: Kerr relates that Lloyd had to make his character struggle against incredible dangers to be interesting because, unlike Keaton and Chaplin, he carried no inner darkness. *That* I like.

    I guess praising Keaton against Chaplin seemed innovative when Chaplin was by far the more celebrated, but that hasn’t been true for decades now. Time to embrace both.

  6. Oh, you have some good stuff with a top female screenwriter to look forward to in Sunnyside. I will say no more.

  7. kittypackard Says:

    well said! :)

    If that top female screenwriter bears the name Frances Marion, I am going to be VERY pleased.

  8. I will say no more.

  9. But I think you’ll be pleased.

  10. Christopher Says:

    Chaplin and Keaton aside,nobody generates in me more honest gut laughter than Laurel and Hardy(paritcularly the talkie shorts)and I’m never quite sure what it is other than they’re just plain funny..They just DO..theres no technique noticable…I recently enjoyed Keaton’s short “One Week”…and Our Hospitality which I absolutely adore!
    I’m a bigger fan of Chaplin’s features like City Lights and Modern Times..

  11. Pretty much nobody’s funnier than Laurel and Hardy. There’s plenty of acting technique, but as you say, the filmmaking is harder to pin down. But the camera does sometimes contribute something special, in its pedantic, plodding delivery of moment after moment — this adds something special to the tit-for-tat routines. Kerr is great at how L&H created a particular comic world. High time I wrote something about the boys.

    City Lights, Modern Times and The Gold Rush are probably the most perfect Chaplins, but A Dog’s Life is also flawless, and I’ve been meaning to revisit The Circus.

  12. David, are we on some Edinburgh/Melbourne psychogeocinematic line or something? I’m on page 57 of Sunnyside and adoring it so far. Reading this post and the lovely comments (Kittypackard, I LOVE your polytheism metaphor and would definitely add Laurel & Hardy to the pantheon – boiled eggs and nuts, Hmm!) is a joy. Watching him at work in Brownlow and Gill’s Unknown Chaplin just makes me love him even more.

    Speaking of fictional uses of Chaplin, there’s a slightly creepy moment in Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem where he makes an appearance.

    Did I ever mention my Chaplin anecdote involving an East Kilbride neighbour?

  13. kittypackard Says:

    Oh please do regale us with your anecdote, Mike!

  14. I think I’ve told it here before;

    When we were five or six my neighbour Bryce arrived back from a holiday in Nairn, north-east Scotland and told me about the visit he and his parents made to the sea front. There was a big crowd gathered at the sea front with an elderly couple at the epicentre. Bryce pushed himself to the front to have a look then came back to describe the scene (old man in hat entertaining crowd with a funny walk using his cane). Who was the old man I asked. My Mum said it was Charlie Chaplin he answers.

    It turns out that Chaplin and his family often stayed there in the 1960s. The movie (and Shadowplay) connection is maintained by Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton’s Nairn Film Festival.

  15. I do recall you mentioning this before, but thanks for adding more detail. I wonder if Chaplin ever popped over to Dunoon to see his mate Eric Campbell’s birthplace? Or to Larbert, where James Finlayson was born, for that matter. Have been meaning to make a pilgrimage there myself, although I don’t know what I expect to find.

    I like the bit in Sunnyside where Chaplin conceives of this film — https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2007/12/16/aint-war-hell/ — then rejects it.

  16. Christopher Says:

    its a Queenie double feature!..Queenie makes a good war spy too!..”hanging on the old weenie wire..”..Those dogville shorts are hysterical.people are far too critical of them..

  17. I think they’re very funny, but it has more to do with their intrinsic wrongness than with any quality in the writing (or “acting”). That’s why So Quiet on the Canine Front is by some way the best — it’s the most flagrantly inappropriate.

    Although it is tempting to imagine what modern films might benefit from the Dogville treatment. Angels and Dobermanns? Mongrels vs Aliens? Puppy Enemies?

  18. kittypackard Says:

    Ahah, Puppy Enemies. I would wager Hollywood wouldn’t even think twice about acquiring the rights to such a story.

    (by the way, you were right. that was good stuff with Frances Marion. VERY good stuff.)

  19. Just got to some good Pickford business. Gotta switch off computer and read more!

  20. Christopher Says:

    So ..so far can you picture Sunnyside(I like that title)making a better movie than Attenboroughs,CHAPLIN?

  21. Almost anything would! The problem with that film is it tries to cram in the whole damn life, a ridiculous task. Basic decisions about what story they’re telling and who Chaplin IS have just been allowed to slide. Robert Downey Jnr does a very nice job with the non-part they’ve written for him though.

    As with Gold’s previous novel, the difficulty in adapting Sunnyside is the sheer wealth of incident. I’ve just reached the explanation of the title, which is more than just an indifferent Chaplin short…

  22. Christopher Says:

    yeah..it covered many years and many incidences and still manges to feel empty..Things like that ,its better to select one event and build a story around it..I did get a kick out of seeing Marisa Tomei play Mabel Normand,theres someone I would have liked to see more of..Mabel was the Rock star of her day! ;o)….and Chaplin’s own daughter playing his Ma..great stuff..

  23. Dan Aykroyd as Mack Sennett is a nice idea too. Diane Lane is pretty good casting for Paulette Goddard, and Kevin Kline absolutely right for Fairbanks. But most of these people have almost nothing to do. The wives come and go so quickly you can’t keep them straight. A real shame because the making of a single great Chaplin film could provide all the drama you’d want.

    I always suspected William Goldman took the job of script doctor so he could get his revenge on original writer Bryan Forbes for re-writing Goldman’s script of The Stepford Wives. No love lost between those two.

  24. Christopher Says:

    Kline was so good that you can forget that Fairbanks wasn’t a drinker at all..It Was Pickford(the half pint bitch) and her family that he abhored their drinking!

  25. kittypackard Says:

    Absolutely, you guys, I couldn’t agree more. Downey did wonders with the material he had, mainly because he happens to intimately understand the deeply complex man Chaplin was. The cast is sparkling, but sometimes I guess *can’t* make lemonade out of lemons.

    The script for Attenborough’s Chaplin is woefully ill-concieved and laboriously executed by Attenborough. As a result, the life of a man with so many difficult layers (read Sunnyside) is presented in a way that feels shockingly … blank.

    But my biggest qualm with Attenborough’s Chaplin, is that hardly any time is spent exploring Chaplin’s films aside from the token restrospective at the film’s end. I mean, aren’t his movies the whole reason we give a damn about Chaplin in the first place???

    (Anyway, this book is really impressing me … Doug Fairbanks has just bid $50,000 to kiss Mary in front of thousands of people … )

  26. You’re catching up with me! I just reached the first “action sequence” — Gold is an amazing writer of suspense, physical conflict and reversals.

    The best filmmaking bit in Chaplin is the editing of The Kid, with strips of film torn by the teeth: “Give me two foot of the kid!” More of that would really have helped, and The Kid might have been the perfect film to focus on. But a lot of Chaplin films offer a useful conflict between private life and creation, ideal for the biographer or biopictographer. Hey, I think I just invented a word!

  27. kittypackard Says:

    I’d forgotten about The Kid editing scene–and I remember we DO get to see glimpses of The Immigrant and Gold Rush and Modern Times … also too the film was based on his autobiography which, although prettily penned, doesn’t devote many actual pages to his work process.

    I hope that it’s a biopictographer (<–incorporating that into my daily vocabulary pronto) who tackles a Buster Keaton biopic (when/if/ever). I'd settle for Julie Taymor, though. ;) Or maybe Julian Schnabel–I think he could do wonders with Buster …. or James Mangold if you want to play it safe … hmmm ….

  28. kittypackard Says:

    whoa … um … just fininshed the action sequence you were talking about and the pages will not stop flying …

    so for buster’s biopictographer (great word) who do you reckon it should be? (one day, surely, the world WILL be given such a treat.) I’m thinking ….

    julie taymor? julian schnabel? it should be a fiercely creative director …

    there’s always james mangold if you want to play it safe.

  29. I think the ability to create a keatonesque frame would be handy. Since Richard Lester’s retired, not many people can do it. The late Howard Zieff showed some early ability in Slither and Hearts of the West. Maybe a pastiche-artist like Soderbergh or Maddin could fake it.

    Of course there’s already The Buster Keaton Story with Donald O’Connor, which I’ve never seen. DO’C apparently through himself into the physical side, but was let down by a cheesy and dishonest script. I wouldn’t mind watching it someday though.

    Now that Johnny Depp is aging, and aging far better than Keaton, the casting problem is pretty tough.

    The Kevin Brownlow documentary A Hard Act to Follow will remain the best film about Keaton no matter what.

    I’d like to do the story of the Arbuckle scandal, which would feature Keaton…

  30. Christopher Says:

    ….Did you ever see the 1975 film The Wild Party with James Coco as a Fatty Arbuckle type..I haven’t seen it in ages and today got thinking about it and had a hankerin’ to see it again…I still think Depp could do a good Keaton…maybe as a supporting character in something..like a film about Fatty!..hes even got a rather dull speaking voice ala Keaton ..lol….

  31. Somehow keep missing that one. I think maybe someone I know has a copy though.

    Depp could play Keaton in something, maybe, but at the time of the Arbuckle scandal Buster was in his 20s… It would certainly be a fine part for somebody.

  32. Christopher Says:

    Another film I’ve been curious about after not seeing it(or even hearing about it) for many years,is the Carl Reiner-Dick Van Dyke film The Comic,where Van Dyke plays a silent film comedian based on Harry Langdon,Chaplin and Keaton,trying to come to grips with the passing of time..

  33. I saw The Comic ages ago. I’ve heard that Stan Laurel was also in the mix. Although Van Dyke’s an able physical comedian, Reiner can’t give him material to compare with the people he’s caricaturing. Coupling that with a fairly acerbic view of the character’s life, and you have a film typical of its time, rather contemptuous of silent-era artists (although I don’t think that’s what Reiner intended).

    If anyone makes the Keaton life story, I hope it’s me.

  34. Christopher Says:

    yeah..my impression of The Comic was that it looked like a sparse made for tv movie..All I reacall is a poignant moment when the comic Billy Bright ,in old age,sets his alarm clock to wake him up in order to catch one of his old films on TV showing at the wee hours of the morning.
    The time will always be ripe for a Keaton story movie!

  35. That’s a nice, sad idea, the alarm clock. Carl Reiner made a few movies I’m fond of, as has his son, but neither ever had any actual visual skills as a director. So the TV look is unavoidable. When Rob Reiner made films with bigger budgets he could to some extent escape that with sheer gloss, but there’s still no stylistic individuality or originality.

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