From Chaplin’s THE FIREMAN (1916) — I had to pick a short to watch since I was way behind on my silent-movie viewing and wanted something I could see quickly and write about. And then it turned out that this movie had no intertitles whatsoever for practically the first half. Which worked fine, except Chaplin was limited to basic kicking-up-the-arse slapstick by the lack of any verbal content.
Chief enemy in the film is fire chief Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s semi-permanent antagonist in all the Mutual shorts. A colossal, hard-drinking Scotsman from Dunoon, Campbell eventually wiped himself out with his persistent drunk driving. Fellow Scot Kevin MacDonald made a nice little documentary about the big fellow, hampered by the fact that no interviews or real documentary footage exists (just a few home movies on Chaplin’s set, and some deleted scenes and outtakes) and absolutely nobody is alive who met Campbell. Nevertheless, MacDonald tells a decent story, although he erroneously claims Campbell as the first Scottish movie star: several others have been nominated for this position, although Campbell is the best-remembered.
A spectacular miniature, complete with mini-firemen, in THE BELLS GO DOWN.
By what seemed at the time like a coincidence, but probably wasn’t, I also found myself running THE BELLS GO DOWN, directed by Basil Dearden from a screenplay by Roger MacDougall, made at Ealing in 1943. It’s sort of the multi-strand network narrative comedy-drama version of the more celebrated quasi-documentary FIRES WERE STARTED, which disgracefully I still haven’t seen. Both are about volunteer firemen in Blitz-torn London, and have the urgency that comes from being made at the time. And while the contemporaneous war could easily have resulted in propagandistic and dishonest filmmaking, my feeling is that it doesn’t, here. Any jingoistic qualities are mitigated by the fact that the movie deals with civilians trying to survive, not soldiers trying to win, and in common with a lot of British wartime filmmaking, the emphasis is on celebrating the struggle of the little fellow, and the values of British society at the time.
Our Scottish fire chief in this movie is Finlay Currie, and further interest is provided by Mervyn John’s professional thief who uses the fire service as a sort of cover, and by William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who, much later), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who gets all the words of wisdom MacDougall’s literate script has to offer. When air raids on London seem unlikely, the firemen are laughed at for being useless:
“Our cities are still behind the lines. When someone starts to pin medals on us, it’ll mean they’ve moved right up to the front. It’ll mean… another Rotterdam, another Warsaw. Right here in England. They’ll call us heroes if it comes to that. I’d rather they went on laughing.”
There’s also James Mason, with a not-totally comfortable cockney accent, but a fine, emotive face, especially handsome when smeared with soot and sweat, and cheeky chappie funnyman Tommy Trinder, a very strange piece of casting, since he’s inescapably music-hall in everything he does, a floating slice of theatre adrift amid the spectacular miniature dioramas of flame-engulfed London. Essentially a sort of elongated Ray Davies figure, only with the good cheer turned up to eleven, he nevertheless injects some surprise and pleasure into the movie, even while threatening to punch a hole in it below the credibility waterline. Caught making unauthorized use of fire station phones, he’s told, “You can’t do that!”
“No, I can. Most people can’t. I’m different!”
It’s a given that stirring dramas like this will show its disparate crew of selfish civilians putting their own needs and differences aside for the national good (that aspect IS straight propaganda), but Tommy’s transition from clown to hero is effected with surprising grace and narrative ruthlessness. Impressive stuff, and not just for the model shots.