The Sunday Intertitle: Monologues in front of Burning Cities

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.

Edna Purviance, the most consistently badly-dressed woman in all cinema, with future director Lloyd Bacon, Chaplin, and Big Eric.

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.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 1 [1916] [DVD]

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 2 [DVD]

13 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Monologues in front of Burning Cities”

  1. Edna looked great in A Woman of Paris.

    Perhaps you might consider a Chaplin Year.

  2. Chaplin can never be underrated or overrated enough but he can be misunderstood as an artist. So Chaplin year would be great and it would be interesting for a Keatonian like David C. to do it.

  3. An ardent Keatonian myself, I remain agnostic about Chaplin – a man I find easy to admire and hard to love – but willing to undergo conversion, if you feel inclined to take on the task.

    A propos James Mason, I recently saw The London Nobody Knows, a 1967 documentary in which JM wanders the poorer parts of the city meditating on the changes taking place. Why he was chosen is unclear, given he was a Yorkshireman resident in the US (in Keaton’s former home, incidentally) and not known for his plebeian manner. There’s a hilarious sequence in a doss house where he sits down with a mug of tea and attempts to be matey with the residents.

  4. James Mason discovered prints of Keaton’s movies in Buster’s house and later gave it over to Brownlow to make a movie about Keaton. He also gives the narration for Unknown Chaplin, I believe he was friends with Chaplin, both of them lived in Switzerland after all. In some of his interviews, he is quite erudite and sophisticated about film history, unusually so for an actor who never directed.

    I can never understand the Chaplin-Keaton debate. I guess the world isn’t big enough for two silent clowns. Apparently people felt guilt about the Keaton neglect and the misery of his middle to late years garnered him sympathy as opposed to a man who obsessively maintained his independence(at a level that has never been seen since). It’s important to note that James Agee who stood up for Chaplin for Monsieur Verdoux and in public at a time that it was very unfashionable also wrote a major defense of Keaton in his famous essay on silent comedy(which is also a great piece of prose). Although I must say this is mostly an Anglo-American schism, in Europe Chaplin is still greatly admired and beloved. Chaplin represents some really essential element about cinema and he was as Jean-Marie Straub said, “the greatest editor in film history”.

  5. Christopher Says:

    I just wrapped up my annual holiday viewing of City Lights and Modern Times…and thru in The Gold Rush this time..I still prefer the feature films over the shorts,But I really need to see a few on DVD to make sure its not just from growing up collecting silent comedy shorts on super 8mm film and watching a 20 minute short slog on for what seems like feature film length time…while the projector chatters away..I could always enjoy the same thing better on old TV relics like Charlie Chaplin Theatre,in those reissue prints that were trimmed with music and sometimes narration added..

  6. The Gold Rush is a good one this time of year. Snow is all we need for festive mood!

    My preference for Keaton is slight, and more or less beside the point to me, as I find both artists equally interesting to talk about.

    Chaplin’s early shorts are pretty rough, but most of the Mutuals are masterpieces. You have to be careful what kind of soundtrack you get though, they can ruin it so easily. The BFI set is pretty well scored.

    Reading Sunnyside is potentially a good way to learn to love Chaplin, especially if you run A Dog’s Life during the early chapters and The Kid at the end.

    There’s one shot in The London Nobody Knows where Mason kind of stumbles over his lines, and then he looks pissed off at the end because he can tell the director didn’t notice and isn’t going to give him a retake. Disenchantment sets in.

    Mason may not have directed, but he did produce Bigger than Life.

    I don’t think 2010 will be the year of anything (except maybe The Year We Make Contact) on Shadowplay, but I should redouble my efforts to get a book off the ground.

  7. Well all the luck in the world to that, then!

  8. Robin Wood, with some thoughts on Hitchcock and Antonioni:

  9. I think he’s sharper on Hitchcock than he is on Antonioni. Antonioni’s films are first and foremost anti-resolution. He makes movies where even when there is death, there is no resolution. While that may be defeatist to “socialists” or may not be progressive, it’s also a honest reflection by a middle-class leftist intellectual on the Italian middle-class and considering Italy today, you could say it’s quite accurate.

  10. The trouble with taking a socialist approach to cinema is powerfully illustrated by the Worldwide Socialist Website. It’s fine to assess the socialist credentials of a work, and fine to decide you disagree with its politics. But you can’t learn anything about the artistic success or interest of a film that isn’t trying to be socialist, since you are using criteria irrelevant to the film. That site reminds me of a spoof weight-lifting magazine extract published in The Spitting Image Book (spin-off from British satirical puppet show). The mock mag had movie reviews, in which all films were assessed on their weightlifting content, and Citizen Kane was dismissed as “weedy”.

    Wood’s rejection of Cronenberg was based on a similar prejudice, since Cronenberg’s films didn’t strike him as humanist like Hawks’. That’s a fine perspective to decide if something suits your personal taste, but it doesn’t tell us anything very interesting about the work.

  11. Oddly, I don’t find Hawks movies especially humanist. Neither do I find Hitchcock. Humanism might apply to Ford or a major Wood favourite, Leo McCarey but not to those two. Hawks films are about adventurers and groups of a select happy few. They are about private experiences primarily not a public communal experience, even if as per Wood, Hawks comes out of a tradition and a community which makes him a communal director. I have issues with Cronenberg myself but not necessarily because he has a bleak worldview. The WSWS is mainly useful for their interviews which are quite interesting. In terms of film criticism, well they aren’t film critics, they are ideologues of the Marxist Sunday School variety.

  12. As Robin Woods says in his BFI monograph on Rio Bravo:

    “A final word for those who, like myself, believe that all philosophies grow out of a specific cultural situation, a particular historical moment, and who therefore maintain a healthy scepticism of all essentialisms and absolutisms: you might like to be reminded of the famous graffiti that began, allegedly, in a London washroom and travelled swiftly around the English-speaking world. (Is it still current? It deserves to be.)

    ‘To be is to do’ (Descartes)

    ‘To do is to be’ (Sartre)

    ‘Do-be-do-be-do’ (Sinatra)”

  13. Luc Besson quoted that graffiti in Subway.

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