The Sunday Intertitle: He couldn’t get arrested

When a man who wants to go to jail meets a girl who doesn’t want to go to jail, you have a pretty good meet cute on your hands. Paulette Goddard stares in bewilderment at Charlie as he voluntarily takes the rap for her loaf-snatching. (As Elaine May explains in Mike Nichols: A Life, you should only steal flat things. Bread is too bulky. An Elaine May purloined sandwich would consist of a slice of cheese between two steaks. This doesn’t apply if you happen to be Divine, who could shoplift portable televisions, but who among us is Divine?) Charlie appears to her as both hero and lunatic — a fairly accurate impression of him, given what he’s seen.

We can see MODERN TIMES as Charlie’s origin story — fittingly enough, since it’s his last appearance as The Tramp (the Jewish barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR both is and is not the Tramp). It’s like Clint Eastwood acquiring his poncho at the end of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY — Charlie starts as one worker among many, then loses his job and his wits, is put back together by Dr. Ludovico, then finds he can’t settle into any one role, and exchanges his profession for “a life of aimless wandering” as Ulysses Everett McGill might put it.

The Gamin will play a central role — as an underclass wanderer herself, she can show him the ropes.

But for now, Charlie’s noble and opportunistic deceit is thwarted when the “Stop, thief!” busybody puts the finger on the Gamin.

There’s a funny exchange when Charlie extends the appropriated bread product. He shows it to the cop, who shows it to the baker, saying something like “Is this your loaf?” and the baker nods earnestly.

Having failed as criminal samaritan, Charlie decides to eat a hearty meal and refuse to pay, a gratifying and near-victimless way of getting arrested. There’s something very beautiful about the shot of him sliding his mountainous trays along the counter. The scenario puts me in mind of the melancholy death of Clyde Bruckman, Keaton’s old gag man and co-director, who, hard-up since the coming of sound, and sued by Harold Lloyd for recycling gags from THE FRESHMAN for a Three Stooges short, borrowed Keaton’s gun, ate a hearty meal at a swank eatery, and then shot himself dead in the phone kiosk.

There’s no good way to go, but that one has admirable as well as regrettable aspects.

Charlie compounds his initial impudence by smoking a cigar, which he also can’t pay for, while under arrest. Style. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Charlie has learned the secret of not caring about society.

Meet cute 2 — in the black maria or paddy wagon if one can still use that expression. After being nauseated by a dyspeptic “gypsy” (Chaplin traducing the Romany people again — in spite of his own probably heritage), Charlie meets the Gamin now that she’s rearrested. The police wagon is surprisingly similar to a bus, and I guess we’re not in the south as there’s a black lady passenger, who Charlie sits on by accident, thrice. Knowing his humour, he’d probably have preferred to sit on a dignified dowager, but it’s not probable that one would be present. Is it, arguably, a compliment that Chaplin instead chooses to settle his tiny bottom on this dour, thick-set woman? She does have dignity, despite her lowly status.

The van is moving very fast (rear projection), hence Charlie’s unsteadiness. A little too fast, as it now crashes and with one bound our heroes are free. Actually, it’s unclear if it crashes — it does a wheelie, seemingly, leaning over at a 45 degree angle with screeching tyres. The implication is that it’s come to rest leaning against a lamppost or something (maybe the one Eric Campbell urigellered in EASY STREET?). But anyway, Charlie and the G are OUT. The kop who’s fallen out with them can easily be reconcussed so they may make good their escape.

Beautiful shot of Paulette waiting at the corner for him to join her. In the foreground, trash cans — his present. In the background, a billboard showing a car, pointed in the direction of escape — the future!

Her closeup reveals an even more pointed detail: a second billboard, showing some kind of pioneer couple, he gesturing towards the landscape ahead — a role-reversal of our current scene. Kudos to production designer Charles D-for-Danny Hall.

Charlie considers whether to escape or not. A Look To Camera is indicated. I should be able to tell you if this is his first in the film, but I can’t remember. It could be. Which would make it his first ever, if this is his origin story. He at first doesn’t intend to go, but what the hell — he can always get himself rearrested later. The G, who has been visibly upset, obviously needs a friend. The decision to escape = the decision to be a Tramp, but it’s not a FINAL one — he will attempt other professions throughout the film, as the Tramp would throughout Chaplin’s career.

FADE OUT. FADE IN — on the road. We are halfway through the film. TO BE CONTINUED.

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