Archive for May 8, 2022

The Sunday Intertitle: Gamin(e)

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2022 by dcairns

The choppy narrative of MODERN TIMES could have worked in Chaplin’s favour when he’s incarcerated for the first time: the story can shift over to introduce our leading lady. Instead, he has himself immediately released, offscreen miracle cure effected — his white-coated shrink (Dr. Kugelschlapp, never to be seen again) whacks him heartily on the back after cautioning him to avoid excitement. Charlie walks out of what looks like a library into a dervish-like montage of Dutch tilts. Finds his way to the docks, and innocently involves himself in a labour protest attacked by police.

This is fascinating for reasons beyond Lumet’s great line — “My God, the execution!” — Chaplin avoids making his character politically aware. He’s just trying to helpfully return a red flag. But the film can be political: a peaceful protest is attacked by cops on horseback. I’m not aware of a great many other films of the thirties which show that kind of action. Even at Warners.

You can argue that Chaplin’s indirect approach — surely a lot of audiences don’t think about the underlying assumptions about cops versus workers here — perhaps robs the commentary of punch. But the fact that it’s even there is remarkable. And doubtless a black mark on Chaplin’s FBI file, though the Feds don’t seem too hot at textual analysis.

This is all just an unusually longterm set-up for a meet cute, since on that same waterfront dwells wild-eyed banana snatcher Paulette Goddard, “the gamin.” The most prominent spelling mistake in cinema.

The whole character is interesting. Edna Purviance may have occasionally played juveniles, but this is the first major Chaplin heroine I can think of explicitly typed as a kid. (Merna, in THE CIRCUS, under her father’s thumb until recued by marriage, is a strong candidate though.) The former Ziegfeld girl was 26, old by Chaplin’s usual standards, but he casts her young to make up for it. The two were dating, but kept their relationship non-specific for the press, since marriage was not in their immediate plans.

Chaplin wrote in his plans for the film that there would be no hint of sex in the screen relationship. Probably wise, given his by now apparent middle-age (a spry forty-seven). But then he introduces his co-star lustily eating a banana, which, given his own must-publicised orality, could be a Freudian signifier or what I’m sure I don’t know.

Paulette, as Chaplin’s first leading lady since Edna to star in more than one movie with him (THE GREAT DICTATOR is next), is a significant figure. She encouraged Chaplin to make re-establish contact with his two sons, Sydney and Charles Jr. Sydney recalled sharing a bed with her until it was noticed the boys were getting a mite too old for that, and the pity of it is their pleas — “Why can’t we sleep with Paulette?” — would, by their very ardency, have made the ban more final.

The gamin has some young siblings — don’t worry, too young even for Chaplin — throwaway sentimentality — they’ll get taken away by the authorities, never to be worried about again. The child welfare people, as in THE KID, are a Dickensian social menace. But the true purpose of these characters, like Monsieur Verdoux’s wife, is to justify the gamin’s criminality. Her father, a listless victim of unemployment, is a micro-nod to the film’s social conscience.

The fact that Charlie is arrested by the docks and bundled into a police wagon suggests to me that Chaplin may have intended the tramp and the gamin to meet up immediately after his initial arrest. But instead we now get a whole prison sequence, leaving Paulette’s introduction lying there, not so much a plot thread as an off-cut, waiting to be picked up later.

So now we’re off to jail…