The Sunday Intertitle: Fame

Amidst the general critical appreciation of Chaplin introducing and integrating sentiment SUCCESSFULLY for the first time, everyone tends to forget his other mode, which appears here absolutely for the first time, with barely a hint of its coming before: the sophisticated side. Chaplin obviously thought this was an important mode to master, and would make an entire feature film, A WOMAN OF PARIS, to showcase it. I’m looking forward to seeing that one again to see what I think of it. What I think right now is that it appealed to CC’s vanity to be seen as sophisticated, and I’m not too keen on this kind of showing off. I don’t think he was as sophisticated as he wanted to appear, I’m more in sympathy with his attempts to be DEEP, with THE GREAT DICTATOR and MONSIEUR VERDOUX (the latter being also a sophisticated comedy in parts). I think Chaplin was deep in the sense of feeling things deeply, and his work shows that from THE KID onwards, and he can sometimes transmute his intense emotion into intellectual ideas without tripping over his flap shoes, and when he does it’s worth the occasional stumble.

Anyhow, The man re-enters the picture, to no particular effect. This scene was one of Chaplin’s key deletions when he rereleased the movie. Consequently, Carl Miller, who plays The man, gets a ridiculously prominent credit for doing practically nothing, while actors who contribute invaluable comic bits go completely uncredited and the IMDb still doesn’t know who a bunch of them are.

Since Chaplin is no fool, he isn’t remotely interested in reuniting the former lovers, and he cuts Mr. Miller off in mid-intertitle, in order to get to the more important business of PANCAKES:

Jackie is preparing A GREAT QUANTITY OF FOOD.

Chaplin may be on e of the few filmmakers who can do more good work the less plot he has to work with. This scene has very little to do with the story, it’s just behaviour. Of course the more we see Charlie & Jackie interact in a sweet, quirky way, the more we care, but the trick is in making all this stuff entertaining. Jackie preparing pancakes is fascinating because it’s midway between acting and being. Impossible to tell how much of it Chaplin has acted out first, and how much is Jackie responding in the moment to the pancake mix and frying pan and the taste.

Charlie is in bed, smoking and reading the Police Gazette (looking for tips). Called to breakfast, he sticks his head through a tear in his blanket to turn it into a kind of djellaba or poncho.

Those pancakes look good. I probably can’t have pancakes on my low-carb diet because of the flour quotient, and the syrup might be an issue too.

We note that Jackie still has the toy dog Edna gave him, and getting Charlie to kiss it is an important family ritual.

Enter Raymond Lee, a bully. Lee was a busy actor into the twenties, and also appears in THE PILGRIM for Chaplin, and LONG LIVE THE KING opposite Coogan. He steals Jackie’s dog AND his ball and throws them away.

FIGHT! An audience immediately gathers. Henry Bergman puts on some stubble just to appear at a window. Nobody attempts to separate the lads, it’s all just a great spectator sport. I’m pleased that Charlie steps in — and then it’s funny when he steps back out as soon as he sees Jackie winning. I never understood the rules of this kind of thing, growing up. Boys are/aren’t supposed to fight? I was an OK shin-kicker, was OK at catching the opponent’s foot when they tried to kick me, but still lost every single fight (none of which I started) until I learned to pick on the smallest, dumbest kids. And then I got a pang of conscience and stopped that. So I went back to losing. It’s strange to me that we were basically allowed to spend playtime punching each other. Does that still happen?

Charlie starts to treat this as a boxing match, with himself as trainer, and right on cue a washing line serves as rope for Jackie to lean on in “his corner.” Charlie instructs Jackie in nose-punching, stomach-punching, and his signature move, the kick up the arse.

Enter Charles Reisner, curiously padded, as the bully’s big brother. Reisner had been a boxer, and has the face for it, though I suspect he’s using putty to push his ears forward in the approved movie “pug” manner. Actual cauliflower ears, which you don’t see much these days, tend to be flat. Reisner had been assistant direct for Chaplin since A DOG’S LIFE, and would go on to “direct” STEAMBOAT BILL JR (really Keaton’s work, chiefly), a couple of Sydney Chaplin features including THE BETTER ‘OLE, and, um, THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929. His son Dean Riesner (note the vowel swap in the surname) would act for Chaplin as a boy, and go on to co-write DIRTY HARRY and marry Vampira, AKA Maila Nurmi. So there’s that.

Once again, Chaplin turns Jackie into a threat, and manages to make Charlie’s ignoble behaviour sympathetic. Reisner insists on his kid brother continuing the fight, but warns Charlie —

This is enough to make Charlie look straight at the camera, enlisting our support in an Oliver Hardy manner.

Charlie now watches in horror as Jackie successfully enacts the tactics he’s schooled him in. With no chance of a confidential “Let the wookiee win” to Jackie, he’s reduced to helpless spectatorship until, on an inspiration, he steps on Jackie when he’s down and quickly counts him out. But Jackie isn’t in on the gag, and proceeds to beat up his foe some more even as Charlie is trying to declare the fight over. Reisner’s uncomprehending glower during all this is a great bit of dumb dumbshow.

The situation having deteriorated as far as it can, a kop shows up to intervene but is punched out by Reisner (a show of actual strength, rather than just a menacing appearance, is always best for an antagonist). Charlie is next in line. He dodges a bit, then mimes a weak heart (Withnail-fashion: “If you hit me, it’ll be murder.”) A missed punch takes a chunk out of one of designer Charles D. Hall’s brick walls, quite convincingly. The next one bends a lamppost, in tribute to the shade of Eric Campbell.

Enter Edna, to do what the kop kouldn’t. And there I’m going to leave it as I have editing to do, a class to prepare, a walk to take. But watch this space because I might post some more this evening.

4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Fame”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “A Woman of Paris” is Lubitsch avant la letter.

  2. …and it inspired Lubitsch to believe that his style of comedy was worth trying in America.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    re you aware of Lubitsch’s roots in Yiddish vaudeville? He was an extremely broad comedy performer without a trace of the sophistication he later made his signature.

  4. Oh yes, and I’ve seen some of his early films as Solly Pinkus, mugging in the most grotesque way while sticking both thumbs up at the camera. But he had developed a smoother style by the time he got into features, thank God.

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