Archive for September 12, 2021

The Sunday Intertitle: The Drop

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2021 by dcairns

Time to get on with THE KID. I’m running the full-length version with the scenes Chaplin deleted for re-release put back in, because I want to see what audiences saw a hundred years ago. But I’m watching it with Chaplin’s score, which they wouldn’t have been able to do.

IMDb offers no ID for the charity hospital nurse, but she looks a bit like Phyllis Allen, from the Keystone days.

As Walter Kerr points out, the only parts of the film which are really sentimental in the true sense are those involving Edna Purviance as the mother. And it’s these that he cut back on later. Fading in an image of Christ on the way to Calgary as Edna is released from the charity hospital with her illegitimate baby is a very Victorian, very Griffith idea.

This being a Chaplin film, though, she immediately heads for the park.

Now we meet “the man” — obviously the baby’s father. Chaplin does some stuff that’s unusual for him here — he’s working in an usual mode, though it’s close to what we’ve later come to regard as “chaplinesque.” When the Man looks at Edna’s photo, Chaplin dissolves to it, quite gradually, rather than just cutting to a POV. The dissolve as language of solemnity. And he’s not wrong to lard on the seriousness, because he has to cue his audience, who have come expecting laughs, to get into the dramatic situation first, and not look for titters. Command of tone is one of the most important skills there is.

Edna, meanwhile, passes a church where a wedding is taking place. Artsy vignette effects — also not typical of CC’s style. For whatever reason, the bride looks miserable, which may be a case of larding on misery where it doesn’t belong. The true trick to this kind of scene ought to be to show everyone being happy except Edna. Having a flower drop on the ground and get trodden on may also be belabouring the point too much. Still, for artful, religiose sentiment, lighting up a stained glass window behind Edna’s head so that she grows a halo is a neat bit of stagecraft. And subtle enough that egginess is avoided, mostly — you could easily miss it.

The business of giving up the baby is echoed in Alan Rudolph’s TROUBLE IN MIND, which everyone should see. It’s a bit of dramatic contrivance of the kind you might get in Dickens, or Wilkie Collins, only with an automobile. Edna stows the child in the back seat of a fortuitously unlocked limo. This being LA and sunny, one might expect the poor mite to broil, but thieves in cloth caps (including regular Albert Austin) steal the car (lock up your autos!) and the baby (Silas Hathaway) is whisked off, dumped in a slum neighbourhood, and the lovely new environment Edna had dreamed of for him is dashed away and replaced with…

Charlie! A jaunty tune switches genres on us and Chaplin again capitalizes on his inconceivable fame by entering in extreme long shot, his tiny figure instantly recognisable, the most successful costume design in film history. Barely dodging a rain of garbage from an upper window, Charlie parades, a figure of natural dignity and poise, dressed in rags.

The location is Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley — in 1922, Buster Keaton would run through it and catch a passing car with one hand and be yanked offscreen in COPS, and in 1926 Harold Lloyd would sneak into work the back way using the same sidestreet. There’s a campaign to name the anonymous alley in honour of the three great silent clowns.

— and a second avalanche of debris strikes Charlie, shattering his mood and his air of superiority. The intertitle “Awkward ass” illustrates Chaplin’s love of language, I guess, but isn’t funny and doesn’t seem to fit the situation very well. But I guess Charlie’s attempts at snootiness are being stressed.

Charlie takes a fragment of cigarette from a tin box full of butts — the facts of poverty dressed up in the style of a gentleman — cargo cult richness. An elaborate play is made of tapping the tiny fag end on the tin as if to break the filter. Another bit of comedy when Charlie finds that binning his decrepit gloves is easier than putting them in his pocket.

Baby Silas is discovered, bawling. This is a delicate situation and Chaplin handles it brilliantly, refusing all sentiment. First, he does a classic Charlie trope, looking up to see if the sprog, like the garbage, has been tossed down from a window. Chaplin knew he could rely on a laugh by looking straight up whenever encountering anything unexpected.

Then he sees a woman with a pram. Obviously, she must have dropped the contents by mistake. He tries to cuckoo her, planting Silas in the pram along with her young one, and when she remonstrates, he nearly takes the wrong one. The plot could have gotten twice as complicated just then.

Events conspire to saddle Charlie with the unwanted stray. He tries to leave it where he found it, but a kop is hovering at hand. He tries to fob it off on an old wreck of a guy — “I need to tie my shoelace” — hands it to him — legs it. The guy, no more scrupulous than Charlie, dumps Silas back in the pram, and Charlie is blamed for this when he innocently walks by. Baby Silas is as hard to shake as Droopy or the bottle imp.

This is all so effective precisely because under the comedy there’s something desperate, almost the first time this has occurred in Chaplin’s work. Amid the “seriousness” it’s nice to note that Baby Wilson, the one in the pram, is really enjoying the sight of Charlie being hit with an umbrella.

(The IMDb notes that Baby Wilson was born in 1919, but somehow appeared in THE HEART OF A MAGDALEN in 1914, presumably with the help of that cell-phone woman who traveled back in time to see THE CIRCUS.)

Charlie now gives some thought to murdering the infant by dropping it down an open drain. Well, it’s not quite as harsh as that. Chaplin knows how to present things. It’s simply a man looking for a solution to his problem. He COULD drop it down the drain. That would work. But no, he can’t very well do that. A micro-glance in our direction confirms him in this view. It just isn’t the done thing.

He finds a note left by Edna: Please love and care for this orphan child. Well, that does seem to be the only remaining option, doesn’t it?

TO BE CONTINUED