The Stripey Hole

The prison sequence in MODERN TIMES contributes to the film’s episodic feeling. Nothing that’s planted here is used later. Chaplin could have had himself arrested and placed immediately into a van with Paulette, I think. But, on the other hand, placing our first glimpse of her “Gamin” before the prison term helps tie the different parts of the film together. And the prison sequence is very funny. I wonder if any of the ideas here came from CITY LIGHTS, where the Tramp has a spell inside which we never see (and quite rightly).

Cast into dungeons dark dank and donk — Charlie shares a cell with, of all people, Prince Barin from FLASH GORDON, made this same year. I knew if I kept blogging for a decade and a half things would start to make sense. (Paulette Goddard’s later work with QUIEN SABE?’s Damiano Damiani in LA NOIA is another charming connection, and I’ve already pointed out how FLASH recycles sets from FRANKENSTEIN designed by Charles D. Hall, who is also responsible for the production design in MODERN TIMES) Charlie is perturbed by Barin’s needlepoint. Having this big guy — a more naturalistic Eric Campbell — thread a needle in your direction is, from Charlie’s alarmed reaction, like gazing down the barrel of a gun.

Dissolve when the convicts go to dinner indicates to me that Chaplin has made a trim. I always liked the cheap gag of his meal being ladled into his plate while he’s otherwise occupied, and when he discovers the slop has apported in front of him, he looks upwards as if some passing seagull must be responsible. Silly and low and wonderful.

NOSE-POWDER! This is an excuse to have Charlie turn into a heroic berserker warrior, as he did in EASY STREET. It’s also a surprising post-code drug reference. How was it allowed? It’s true that Charlie doesn’t consciously take the drugs, and the drugs are being smuggled by bad guys. And Charlie uses the illicit substance as a condiment, rather than shooting up as he did (accidentally) in EASY STREET. But the seven-per-cent solution turning him into an unstoppable crimefighter seems like not the message Joe Breen was anxious to get out.

Anyway, I love the dramatic iris-in on the drug connection. A technique audiences of 1936 would not have been accustomed to seeing on their screens for close to a decade. The IMDb doesn’t seem to know who this guy is. I would like that information.

Love the dynamic pan to the salt cellar. Chaplin’s camera is already getting hyper. Now we get to see Charlie deliver a masterclass in what he imagines coke is like. It’s very moreish, apparently. In case we struggle to imagine how eating the stuff would work (oh, it would work, I think), Chaplin has himself wipe the stuff across his lower face so he can also inhale it.

Distracted by Prince Barin — under the influence, does Charlie see the guy abruptly clad in a breast plate and plumed helmet? — Charlie attempts to deliver a forkful of cocaine mush into his right ear. Like William Lee in NAKED LUNCH, reaching for a cigarette on the wrong side of his mouth, he has forgotten where his face is.

The ebullience Charlie now feels — showing Prince Barin where he can get off — does seem like plausible cokehead arrogance. Rotating mechanically on the spot when the convicts are sent back to their cells does not. It’s Harpo zaniness, and another illustration of Henri Bergson’s notion that comedy comes from people behaving like machines.

In a daze, Charlie accidentally escapes, and is panic-stricken when the call of a cuckoo brings him back to reality. An interesting use of sound — the bird does not appear.

JAILBREAK! One of the two gunmen is Frank Moran, with his “wrecked jeep of a face” (Manny Farber), a few years before he became a favourite player of Preston Sturges (“Psycho-lology!”)

Charlie thwarts the breakout with a dashing display of Peruvian courage, reacting to gunfights with flashing fists, as if he could deflect bullets with his cuffs like Wonder Woman (he won’t get magic cuffs until the end of the movie) and defeats his enemies by using an iron door as an offensive weapon. Charlie has been able to play the upright citizen, but only while coked out of his face, which I suppose makes it acceptable.

MODERN TIMES star Adenoid Hynkel; Lucretia Borgia; Fat Whiskered German Soldier / The Kaiser’s General / Bartender; Porthos; Mr. Whoozis; Norwegian Radio Listener (uncredited); The Millionaire’s Butler; Prince Barin; Cardinal Richelieu; Eggs; Frederick F. Trumble (uncredited); Tough Chauffeur;

3 Responses to “The Stripey Hole”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    I submit the cuckoo was not meant as a literal bird but an audio equivalent of the big question mark that appears over a comic strip character’s head when confronted with the unexplained, sometimes accompanied by a balloon with the words “WHAT THE — ?” As far as Charlie knows, he involuntarily teleported from the dinner table to here.

    In 1931 Stan and Ollie went to prison in “Pardon Us”. There was a faintly similar dining hall scene: Weapons are being passed under the table in preparation for a jailbreak, and by mischance a machine gun reaches Stan. A little confused but not that interested, he sets it on the table in plain sight and resumes eating. Ollie notices, and reacts. All hell breaks loose, the jailbreak foiled as the boys spray the premises with bullets while fumbling with the gun.

  2. I think the cuckoo is both literal and figurative, or designed to be read either way. It can be the sound that startles him from his trance, or the sound of him emerging from it. A sophisticated idea for his second film with sound.

  3. “…Distracted by Prince Barin — under the influence, does Charlie see the guy abruptly clad in a breast plate and plumed helmet? — Charlie attempts to deliver a forkful of cocaine mush into his right ear…”

    This is an edit that needs to happen ASAP.

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