The Sunday Intertitle: Monkey on Man on Wire

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Fiona definitely prefers Keaton to Chaplin, which is fine, except I don’t see the need to compare them at all. Do we need to decide that Fred Astaire is better than Gene Kelly? In certain respects, no doubt he is, but the comparison is of little help, obscuring rather than revealing the individual merits of each, or making Kelly’s merits seem somehow trivial.

Anyway, I was hoping to get Fiona to watch THE CIRCUS this week so I could write about it here, but we didn’t get to it. But we saw the opening when Paul Merton did his silent movie show in Edinburgh with Neil Brand on piano, and I subsequently showed her the bit with the lion and the bit with the monkeys, which are highlights in a feature usually considered less than totally successful. Read Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns for a cogent analysis of the story’s conceptual flaws.

The point is, Fiona laughed harder at the bit with the monkeys than she’s ever laughed at Keaton, I suspect. She likes monkeys. And also, everything about the scene is really brilliant. The cute monkeys become a deadly threat, since Chaplin is on a high wire. The trivial, degrading things they do to him — pulling his trousers down, biting his nose, climbing all over him and sticking a tail in his mouth — are all potentially fatal in this scenario.

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(Exactly the same dynamic is at play when Chaplin finds himself trapped in a cage with a sleeping lion. A small dog outside starts yapping at him — apparently outraged that he should be in the cage where he doesn’t belong — and all his/our anxiety becomes focussed on the wee dog, which might waken the slumbering lion. Something small and cute becomes deadly — that’s always funny, like the Beast of Aargh in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, a cute bunny that can bite your head off, or like Mr. Stay-Puft in GHOSTBUSTERS if you want to lower the tone.)

Anyhow, the monkey-tightrope scene got Fiona genuinely hysterical, which I always enjoy seeing. Losing control of her faculties, she started narrating the action like a Benshi on nitrous oxide — “It’s biting his nose! Its tail is in his mouth!” She couldn’t breathe for laughing, and so couldn’t speak for not being able to breath, and for laughing at the same time, but couldn’t stop herself doing it. It was as if she could stop the scene being so life-threateningly funny if she could just describe it accurately. The critical impulse at work!

All this and the best banana-peel joke ever.

I guess hardcore Chaplin-haters MIGHT be able to sit through this scene without laughing, which I think would be proof of rigor mortis, or they might argue that it’s only funny because monkeys are funny. But it’s not just cute funny animal time — the USE of monkeys in a scenario with an underlying threat of death is extremely clever, the work of a master of comedy. And Chaplin’s convincing terror in the scene enhances it greatly — he knows when it’s funniest to play it serious.

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“Comedy is a man in trouble.” Yeah. With a monkey in his mouth.

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13 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Monkey on Man on Wire”

  1. So The Circus is my favourite Chaplin feature. Oops – I’ll have to research its conceptual flaws. I have never known anyone sit stony-faced through the monkey tightrope sequence. It’s intoxicatingly funny.

  2. Kerr, as I recall, says that Chaplin can’t get much actual comedy out of the premise that his character can only be funny by accident — it’s a bogus idea and CC must have known this and that’s why the film was so tough to make (apart from little things like the set burning down). It’s one of those ideas that looks good on paper, but the film’s best sequences are not illustrations of this concept. Still, the best bits are utterly amazing.

    I’d like to run this scene for a really hardcore “He’s not funny” type — like my friend Nicola.

  3. Milt Gross, Chaplin’s gag man on “The Circus” (and a Chaplin doppleganger, complained that he came up with endless hysterical sight gags and bits that had Chaplin howling with laughter, and then Chaplin cut or rewrote all of them except for “9 seconds involving a monkey on a tight rope.”

  4. I confess I find it A HREF=plausible.

  5. Woops. Can’t edit these things, can you? that was supposed to be this.

  6. henryholland666 Says:

    Thank you for an early Sunday morning chortle. I too laughed at the monkey biting his nose and putting the tail in his mouth. It’s also apparent that doing those stunts was potentially dangerous stuff, even if Chaplin is attached to a safety wire.

  7. henryholland666 Says:

    Let’s try this, it might not work:

    My favorite monkey-related song:

    https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=peter+gabriel+shock+the+monkey

  8. henryholland666 Says:

  9. Jeff, the Milt Gross link is fascinating. In that Jaglom book, Welles tells HJ that Chaplin used gag men and Jaglom can’t believe it. There’s no Santa Claus. CC was probably right to go with not the gags that made him laugh, but the ones he felt were right for the project. But kudos to Gross if he came up with that stuff!

  10. “Unknown Chaplin” reconstructs a cut sequence from this film: To impress the girl, Chaplin hires a thug to offend him in a cafe and take a dive when Chaplin manfully fights him. The audience is tipped that the thug is one of a pair of twin brothers, and the humorless sibling is the one Chaplin picks a fight with.

  11. Nice idea — but then you’re into random plots to get the girl, unrelated to the circus or clowning.

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