The Birthday Intertitle: 54

It’s the anniversary of me, whereas PAY DAY, Chaplin’s penultimate short, won’t be 100 until April next. It’s a film I’ve seen, but not recently, and my memories are dim. But I recall that Charlie, fully immersed in a settled lifestyle — marriage, employment, alcoholism — is a less attractive, less revolutionary figure in this one. It’s the last time, in fact, he’d appear in Tramp guise but as a character fundamentally with a job — MODERN TIMES being about what happens when he loses that job; the Jewish tailor in THE GREAT DICTATOR being not 100% the Tramp. I’m sure we’ll get into that later, but while he doesn’t have a name, which makes him like the Tramp, he has a job and an ethnic identity and culture, and he talks…

Throughout his fictional existence, the Little Fellow has held down jobs, some of them seeming quite settled. Often with a sense that the film would terminate in the place of business actually or metaphorically exploding (DOUGH AND DYNAMITE, WORK), setting him at presumable liberty again. Here, there seems no way out, and rather than the striking Marxist view of capital exploiting labour we get in WORK or HIS MUSICAL CAREER, where however labour fights back via ineptitude, here the ineptitude is still in play but rebellion is not, save for the socially-somewhat-sanctioned release of getting plastered.

Charlie is late for work. Mack Swain is the foreman, looking naked without his Groucho moustache.

Charlie enters the building site, simpers at Swain, then immediately strikes John Rand with his pick — by accident, of course. Nice to see Rand again.

Flawless continuity between closer and wider shots as Charlie shovels up tiny spoonfuls of dirt indicates that he was shooting the scene with (at least) two cameras. 1972 intertitle is less flawless, with a typo on YOUR’RE.

Enter Edna, the foreman’s daughter, through the same gap in the fence Charlie came in by. She skips nimbly over the slit trench/grave Charlie’s digging, and his head pops up a second later. Don’t want to imply that he saw up her skirt. Might want to imply that he could’ve.

Charlie, at once all courtliness, conducts Edna by elevator to the scaffolding: she’s brought dad’s lunch. Another quick punch-in points up his look of romantic yearning when, having descended again, he momentarily reascends purely to deliver said look. The habit of shooting with two cameras to create a second negative for European distribution was still extant, I believe, but Chaplin seems to be using his two cameras to get seamless coverage, meaning he’d also have to get two good takes. But multiple takes wasn’t generally a problem for him.

Oh, and there’s the inevitable smelly cheese gag.

Reverse motion! Rand chucks bricks to Charlie who catches them with his back turned, unerringly, and stacks them at dazzling speed. Chaplin did this kind of effects gag rarely, maybe once per studio? The one in BEHIND THE SCREEN, in which a genuine axe-blade seems to just miss him, was deleted before use. Brother Sydney is throwing the bricks, joined by a second, stout workman, Henry Bergman.

Dazzling bit with the elevator — it goes up and down behind Charlie as he sits and stands. He’s sitting on a barrel positioned on the elevator. It’s always magically there when he needs it, but inbetweentimes there’s nothing but your basic yawning abyss. Constant suspense and hair-trigger timing. Chaplin would slow the pace down for a very similar gag in CITY LIGHTS, where he’s admiring a nude statue in a store window, as one of those street elevators drops away behind him. The slowness was better for suspense, the rapidity here is better for dazzle — I can’t pick a winner.

The elevator is made further use of during lunch — having come without comestibles, Charlie gets a bit of everybody’s food as they unthinkingly place items on the elevator and said items are delivered to Charlie’s waiting hands and mouth. The gag with the frankfurter sandwich is great too — Charlie drills a hole in Syd’s stale loaf and inserts a sausage. Removing the sausage by corkscrew is good too, but kind of nullifies the whole procedure — maybe sawing it up into slices would have been more productive? But less amusing.

ABRUPT FONT CHANGE

I incline to the view that the earlier, stark brutalist sans-serif typeface was added in 1972, and this one may be the authentic original. At any rate, I don’t see any reason for the change unless one is a more modern addition, the other a survival of the twenties. With the early Keystones and Essanays, there are often multiple versions on the YouTubes, allowing you to see the films in various conditions with various attempts at titling, but these later ones are more monolithic. A case could be made for re-restoring them so we could have Chaplin’s 1972 revisions AND the 1922 originals.

Still, I hear the whistle blowing for lunch, so I will continue this later.

10 Responses to “The Birthday Intertitle: 54”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    There are may things to be said about “The Great Dictator.” First and Foremost is Chaplin’s decision to make his first full sound film when he had something of enormous import to say to the world. He wasn’t just getting his mustache back from the house painter (a Very Charlie Job) who stole it. Chaplin as derided as “a Jew” by his many enemies. He wasn’t Jewish. Moreover he didn’t regard being called “a Jew” to be derisive So he decided to play a Jew — along with “Adenoid Hynkel” the dictator. His climatic speech at the film’s conclusion is incredibly moving. Chaplin is not simple a comedian and filmmaker. He is one of the great heroes of he 20th Century.

  2. Happy birthday, David!

  3. Thanks for the birthday wishes!

    Yes, I will have a lot to say about The Great Dictator when the time comes. One of the genuinely brave films.

  4. Yes, David, happy Birthday! Enjoy it and have many more.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Natal day salutations.

    “Official” cuts was and is an issue. The Criterion “Gold Rush” features Chaplin’s 1942 edited-and-narrated version, firmly presented by the Chaplin family (and Chaplin himself, when it was released) as definitive. The restored 1925 version is thankfully there as an extra. Does anybody really prefer the ’42, with Chaplin’s slightly affected voiceover? My personal suspicion is that Chaplin simply wanted late, copyrightable editions to supersede all the public domain versions.

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

  7. The original ending of The God Rush is MUCH neater. I don’t hate Chaplin’s VO, it was the first version I encountered, but the movie is better without it. Love his music, which is much more romantic than the bumptious work he did here with Eric Rogers.

  8. Happy Birthday! I hope you celebrated by making a gigantic papier-mache head!

  9. Thanks! Have vague plans for a Halloween mask but still in planning stage…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: