The Sunday Intertitle: Chaplin and Comic Suspense

Weird online copy of Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT with subtitles in place of intertitles. The thing is, most of Chaplin is out of copyright — ALL American films made before 1920 are public domain — but the good restorations are all copyright the people who made them. If you have this on DVD, watch that instead.

Synopsis: economic migrant Charlie comes to America in search of a better standard of living. Damn him! How dare he?

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Though the first half of this nakedly two-part movie has some strong stuff, especially Charlie looking twice at the Stature of Liberty, the second section, kicking in at the ten-minute mark, builds to a striking crescendo of comic terror, all based around wannabe Scotsman Eric Campbell’s murderous head waiter. Comedy and fear really go together well, but I don’t see much today that really exploits anxiety on behalf of a sympathetic character in order to get shriller laughs. For instance, just enjoyed the first episode of the lumberingly-titled but fleet-footed Ash Vs Evil Dead, and it’s alternately suspenseful and hilarious, but there’s almost a firewall between the laughs and scares, and character sympathy was never a big part of the first three movies. I’ll definitely be watching more, though, and Ash’s new buddies are likable so who knows?

I vividly remember watching THE IMMIGRANT with my mum, who gets very excited during suspenseful bits (her mother was even more fun to view with — scenes of high tension would cause her arms and legs to rise in the air as if on strings. My dream as filmmaker is to make a packed house of five hundred people all do this at once). Chaplin, struggling into the story by his usual method of rehearsing and filming until things found the right form, devised a clear menace, plausibly put his hero in its path, and then let him squirm. “Comedy is a man in trouble,” as the saying goes. It’s not certain if his companion, Edna Purviance, is also in danger, or if she will merely be a witness to his punitive drubbing, but either way her presence amplifies the menace.

Freud announced, with typical fatuity but unusual accuracy, that Chaplin was “a very simple case” — compelled to relive the humiliation of poverty in his art. Like the traumatic slap endlessly replayed in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, Chaplin’s career was a reenactment of his childhood. No wonder the role of the Tramp came to oppress him.

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