Archive for September 22, 2021

The Little Punk

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2021 by dcairns

I think we can forgive Jack Coogan Sr. for calling his son a little punk, but maybe not for spending all his earnings as a child star, or for taking him to see a lynching. Anyway, dispel those thoughts from your minds because he’s now about to appear as an actor.

But let’s get back to where we left off. Maybe deduct a point from Chaplin for failing to give Edna a closeup when she discovers the note proving Jackie is her long-lost son. The emotion still comes across, so maybe it doesn’t matter. Add a point, but a weird one, for the fact that he has the insert shot of the note wobble about as if the hand holding it is in a state of high emotion. We won’t worry about the naked thumb that sways into view holding the paper — Edna is wearing gloves in the wide shot.

Charlie & Jackie have been forced to abandon their garret, as the law is after them — a rare instance of actual consequences for criminal action being depicted in a Chaplin film. Usually you just run away from the kops and your troubles are over. But now they know where he lives. The ever-versatile Henry Bergman makes his third appearance in this film as the lodging-house proprietor whose premises Charlie resorts to. Bergman is disguised with a long beard, but isn’t doing the full Jewish stereotype Leo White would have treated us to (and did).

Charlie has only a single coin to gain admission, so he has to do a Laughing Gravy with Jackie, smuggling the lad in through a window and keeping him concealed. Good comic suspense.

Jack Coogan Sr.’s face (and character) ideally suits him to the role of pickpocket, his thieving hand straying towards Charlie’s baggy pants even as the rest of him is seemingly asleep. Emerging from behind Charlie, it seems at first that he’s grown an extra arm, an anatomical illusion gag in line with Charlie’s own thieving hands routing in A DOG’S LIFE, or the dance of the bread rolls.

Charlie allows Lightfingered Jack to pillage his pockets, secure in the knowledge that he’s penniless, but when the thief actually discovers a tiny coin, he actively encourages the search, after relieving the cutpurse of his ill-and-all-too-briefly-gotten gains.

Some good hide-and-seek with Bergman leads to Jackie’s discovery, and the last coin must be surrendered.

But now Bergman learns that the law is after Jackie — there’s a nifty iris-in on his newspaper coupled with a dissolve to a big close-up that makes it feel somehow like the magnification has been turned up on a microscope. And we get the first DESCRIPTION of Charlie anywhere in a Chaplin film: “a little man with large flat feet and small moustache.”

The ad looks like it’s been pasted straight onto an existing newspaper but never mind. Add one thousand points for the detail of a housefly strolling casually across the page, mickeymoused by Chaplin’s score.

Bergman reads the ad, and the reward decides him, it seems: he can tell himself he’s rescuing a kidnapped child, I guess. He abducts the slumbering Jackie, leaving Charlie to wake in fright and find his son stolen away in the night. We can see his lips say “John,” the only other time the Kid’s name is mentioned, I think. actually, I’m no good as a lipreader but I think he might be saying “Jack.”

Jackie did in fact go missing during the shoot, falling asleep behind some scenery and then waking up to watch, fascinated, as everyone hunted desperately for him. He got a licking from Jack Sr.

Good realistic night scenes as Jackie is handed over to the police and Charlie runs desperately through the streets. Dawn is less realistic: a backcloth has been added to the T-junction set, representing sunrise. Interesting to see. The sky has been stark white in earlier scenes — I think what we’ve been seeing is a diffusing scrim stretched up above the set walls.

Edna turns up at the stationhouse in furs and feathers to claim her child — evidently she wants to dazzle him with her affluence. The feathered hat allows us to appreciate how infernally draughty it is in that cop shop — an open air set.

Charlie, hatless, still clutching Jackie’s cap, arrives at his own doorstep, evidently tired and footsore. He lies down and dreams — the third Chaplin dream sequence, or is it the fourth? All of HIS PREHISTORIC PAST is a dream, and SUNNYSIDE contains one definite vision, maybe two.

Third act dream sequences are tricky — this one may have inspired the ballet in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, which is similarly predicated: the hero thinks all is lost, but in reality it isn’t. The audience is encouraged to share Charlie/Gene’s misapprehension, but to make this dramatic low point last, a phantasy is concocted. I never feel this really works in dramatic terms, though there’s no denying the brilliance of the invention displayed by Kelly, Minnelli, Alton, Lerner et al, and by Chaplin and his team here.

The idea of staging heaven on the streets Charlie knows is a terrific one. Without that idea, it wouldn’t be worth doing. There’s no particular reason for an afterlife fantasy — Charlie doesn’t think he’s dead, and has no reason to think Jackie’s dead.

J.M. Barrie, “king of whimsy”, according to David Robinson, thought the sequence too whimsical. It’s also hard to find any of it funny given the suspended emotional crisis this stuff is wedged into. Francis Hackett in The New Republic praised the scene, though, for imagining and depicting the limited imagination of Charlie’s character: he only knows these streets, so the Heaven he imagines is set here, and has all the same problems as earth, only with wings on (and lots of flowers and balloons in the street).

An intertitle identifies this as “Dreamland,” which sort of gets around the obvious “Why heaven?” question. A young Esther Ralston and Lita Grey, Chaplin’s second wife of four years’ hence, are among the juvenile throng, but only the winged spaniel really impresses.

Charlie gets himself outfitted with wings and a chorister’s smock — from an obviously Jewish tailor. Shades of Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule. I think, from the bay window, this is Henry Bergman in appearance #4, with a false beard and silly-putty nose.

Sin creeps in: Jack Coogan Sr. in red devil costume creeps past the dozing gatekeeper (Henry Bergman, appearance #5, going for a new record) with a couple of acolytes.

And you were there, and you, and you! Charles Reisner’s street tough is magically transformed into a good citizen, full of sweetness — he’s unable to avoid making himself seem slightly sissy.

At the demonic Coogan Sr.’s suggestion, Lita, in angel form, vamps Charlie, showing a fifteen-year-old ankle. Chaplin’s ephebophilia is most nakedly displayed in this sequence.

Also, this dream is only five minutes long, but I always thought it was twenty, because that’s how it feels. We want to know what happens next, for real.

Trouble in paradise — Lita, who is very cute, but cute like Jackie Coogan, provokes jealousy in Mr. Reisner, and the feathers fly. We could argue that just as Charlie is unable to imagine a Paradise separate from the neighbourhood he knows, he can’t imagine one without fight scenes either. God’s Kop (Tom Wilson again) arrives to break up the war in Heaven, Charlie flees/flies the scene, and something that never happens in Chaplin’s earthly police altercations occurs: Wilson draws a revolver and shoots him out of the sky.

Jackie rushes to the fallen angel, mouthing “Dad!” and DISSOLVES INTO HIM.

At this point, the expiring angel Charlie COULD go into a dream within a dream, a new afterlife nested in the first — it could be like INCEPTION. But, fortunately, he wakes up instead — going from an angelic corpse being manhandled by Wilson, to a live mortal in exactly the same situation.

Hollywood screenwriting #101: you create dramatic peaks and troughs zigzagging between triumph and disaster, and you try to make the chart intensify as it goes on, so the third act looks like a heart attack. You try to make the final switch go from ALL IS LOST TOTAL DISASTER to SAVED HAPPY ENDING in a single beat, which Chaplin more or less accomplishes here by having Wilson take Charlie, not to prison, but to Edna and Jackie.

Tom the kop laughs indulgently as father and son embrace. Yeah, whatever, we still don’t like you, pig.

Walter Kerr appreciates this as being like the end of CITY LIGHTS — it ends exactly where it has to. How will Jackie adapt to his new surroundings? What will Charlie’s position be? These are largely unanswerable questions, but fortunately outside the scope of the story being told, so Chaplin knows exactly what he has to do:

FADE OUT