Archive for September 14, 2021

Silas Hathaway peaks early

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 14, 2021 by dcairns


Chuck Jones’ baby brother was an aspiring actor, or anyhow his mother had aspirations for him — when the tot was rejected for a part, Chuck wondered about what it must be like to be a failure as a baby. In the case of Silas Hathaway, cast as the baby version of Jackie Coogan, his biggest success was as a baby. What must it have been like to live an ordinary life after that, unable to even remember your big moment? I guess it must have been… ordinary.

Chaplin’s technique of following pathos with laughter is established early. After the touching moment when Charlie, realising he has no choice but to look after this foundling, smiles happily and carries the little bundle of joy and faeces off, and we cut to Edna, mourning her situation, there’s an excellent gag when Charlie has to pass the infant off as his own. “What’s its name?” asks a slum woman. He disappears briefly into a doorway and emerges a few seconds later, having obviously checked something. “John.”

It’s a wonderfully delicate nob joke. Of course, Jackie Coogan is never, ever referred to as John. He’s The Kid. But he’s not even called that, he has attained the same sort of nameless universal identity as The Little Fellow (I call him Charlie only for convenience).

Let’s dispel the canard that Chaplin was indifferent to his sets. Charlie’s garret is a terrific creation by Charles D. Hall.

He tries to entertain the bawling babby by shaking various meat products at him, but his sausage does not rattle. The baby is upset, as the last baby Chaplin worked with did, back in HIS TRYSTING PLACE in 1914. Maybe he just affects them that way.

I was wondering when this would happen — Edna rushes back to where she left her baby, but it’s gone. A necessary character development, rather than a plot point, since we already know. But Edna is now a woman who CONSIDERED abandoning her baby, but didn’t ultimately choose to, just as Charlie didn’t ultimately choose to drop the little bugger down an open drain. Edna discovers the baby gone just as the chauffeur of the mansion finds the car gone. She swoons, and the last we see if the lady of the house inspecting her prone form through a lorgnette with what one hopes is vaguely kindness…

Back at Chez Charlie, which has been transformed to suit Baby Silas’ specifications. A bed is hammocked from the rafters, with a teapot on a string as baby bottle. Baby Silas was induced to suckle from the spout — I guess if the contents of the pot are tasty, it comes naturally. I don’t know how much time has passed but this is quite an agile and well-developed baby.

Linen is being scissored up to make nappies, suggesting the installation is still a recent event. Shuggling the hammock, Charlie comes away with a wet hand (which he wipes on his bedclothes, the beast) — for once, a urine joke that isn’t immediately alibied as being spilt milk or something. The lavatorial approach continues, as he shears the seat out of a wicker chair. He’s not planning to torture Daniel Craig, so only one other purpose suggests itself, made more explicit still when the disfigured seat is placed over a dented spitoon. That which receives spit will also serve for… other things.

This is about as scatological as a silent comedy is likely to get, though there’s one delirious French short from the early days of the century in which a musical hall bumpkin defecates in a phone booth. Saw it at the Paris Cinematheque museum and laughed myself ill.

FADE-OUT. Time passes. I shall return.