The Sunday Intertitle: Unrest

Having introduced the Gamin, her unemployed father, and her little sisters, Chaplin now ruthlessly expunges all the relatives: dad is slain in a riot (more heavy-handed police tactics) and the siblings are taken away by social workers, a la THE KID. The G escapes pluckily.

As pathos goes, this is all somewhat formulaic. We haven’t known these supporting players long enough to get broken up about them, and I think Chaplin is counting on that because of course we never see the sisters again. They were basically there to give the G a sympathetic reason for stealing, and their extraction from the narrative puts her in a parlous situation when she eventually meets Charlie.

The two little girls were both called Gloria — Gloria Delson, who went on to be a vocalist in a ’40s big band, and Glora DeHaven, daughter of Chaplin’s friend Carter DeHaven, a vaudeville star, movie actor, and the film’s assistant director — also the guy seemingly responsible for the short CHARACTER STUDIES, with its remarkable all-star cast —

Anyway, these two cute kids are treated as disposable by Chaplin’s picaresque narrative, like Madame Verdoux later. In this case, one could even find a certain ruthlessness in the Gamin’s decision to abandon them to their fate.

Charlie, meanwhile, is just getting comfortable in prison when they go and release him, a nice irony. We learn of this through one of the film’s regular TALKING MACHINES, in this case a wireless giving a news announcement. It seems fitting — the talking machines always bring trouble for Charlie.

Immediately we get human dialogue reported by intertitle: Chaplin is quite unashamed of mixing up talking picture and silent technique. Interesting to learn that, like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner or Malcolm McDowall in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Charlie is known by a numeral. Of course, Number Seven is a convenient thing to call him, since Chaplin is generally unwilling to settle on a name for the Little Fellow.

Stomach-gurgling scene with the minister’s wife. Really first-rate intestinal embarrassment. Chaplin apparently insisted on doing the sound effects himself, blowing a straw into water, but everyone warned him the results would be too exaggerated, and they were. So I don’t know for sure who executed the final effects, or how they were achieved, but they sound amazingly lifelike. They might even be the real thing.

The Breen Office apparently objected to the noises, but Chaplin won that round. He did remove a number of mildly risque references, and Simon Louvish’s biography tells us that by cutting the word “dope” from the nose-powder scene (as well as some effeminacy from Charlie’s needlepoint cell-mate Prince Barin), Chaplin was able to smuggle the drugs into his picture.

This is one of the scenes that was originally prepared with dialogue, which I guess makes sense since it’s a scene dependent on sound. The decision that MODERN TIMES would be essentially a lip-synch free production was made, it seems, on the day of shooting this. And we can be grateful.

Good yapping dog action. The dog is the only one crass enough to draw attention to the characters’ inner orchestrations. So Charlie and the minister’s wife have to not only ignore their own and each other’s noises, but the dog’s alert-cries.

When Charlie turns on the wireless to try to drown out the ruckus, the ad man who comes on MIGHT be Chaplin himself, but I’m unconvinced. Not quite high enough and too American? If it were him, it would give the lie to the notion that Chaplin does not speak any “real” words in the film.

Launched into the workplace with a helpful letter from the governor, Charlie in turn launches a half-built ship, a hopelessly expensive gag made possible by rear projection and a model shot. Chaplin is always supposed to have been behind the times, astonished by a camera crane in 1939, but here he’s picked up on effects technology that had only become widespread a few years earlier.

It’s a grand gag, though it’s lessened by being a trick. What mainly undermines the illusion is the blurry scaffolding in the model’s foreground: impossible for a real shot to have a sharp-focussed foreground character, a sharp distant boat, but a soft midground.

Richard Lester planned a variation on this gag in RED STAR, the never-produced visual comedy that was to have starred Robin Williams as a Stalin impersonator. The boat would have been a movie set, only existing on one side, like Cameron’s TITANIC. I keep wondering where Lester would have put the camera for the reveal. A good visual gag happens in one shot. But I guess you could cut to a view from off the stern like Chaplin’s, getting one laugh, while the actual gag would happen when the ship is launched to the bottom.

And now for the meet cute…

2 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Unrest”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    In Keaton’s THE BOAT, the titular vessel similarly glides smoothly into the deep. Funnier because it’s a real boat, and Keaton takes a beat to grasp he’s gliding with it.

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 )

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: