Archive for November 19, 2022

The Fatal Pudding

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve written before about this recurring thing in Chaplin — metal in the mouth, choking.

As a tiny child, Chaplin tried to imitate a trick big brother Syd showed him, apparently swallowing a coin, but little Charlie took the trick literally, popped a penny in his gob and almost choked to death, saved only by mother Hannah’s timely application of the East End Heimlich, which involves lifting the sufferer by the ankles and pounding his back, newborn-style. We can assume the experience formed what the Scientologists call an engram, a compressed diamond of experience, in which the concepts of metal taste, choking, and performance became fused and permanently associated at a subconscious level.

See here for the breakdown. This motif turns up A LOT.

This is the most literal rendition of the idea. A one-scene subplot that goes nowhere — Schultz, hiding in the ghetto, an inverted Anne Frank, persuades his hosts to take part in a gunpowder plot, blowing up Heinkel’s palace. The lucky suicide bomber will be selected by the distribution of puddings, in one of which a coin is to be concealed. Hannah (Paulette Goddard, here named after Ma Chaplin), sabotage’s the plan by hiding a coin in every pudding.

The bomb plot may well derive from Guy Fawkes, and the coin-in-pudding theme is another bit of British culture (I think – does anyone else do this?). The Great British Christmas pudding traditionally conceals a penny — one lucky diner wins the jackpot and possibly a broken tooth. Chaplin always hated Christmas because it reminded him of the workhouse — another engram.

The dinner scene begins mid-track-and-pan, the camera sweeping across the table. When Schultz is revealed, standing at one end, something disc-shaped is swaying behind him — evidently a dinner gong has just been struck, but Chaplin has decided to cut this, rendering the scene’s start a little ragged.

The sequence is scored like a dance. Three of the Jewish barber’s co-conspirators find coins and transfer them to their neighbour’s pudding. The barber ends up with all of them, and his method of subterfuge is to swallow them down with a swig of water. Then the honourable Mr. Jaeckel declares that HE has the coin, and the barber’s all come back on him, hiccuping out of his mouth and chinking onto his plate.

Chaplin simplifies his set-up by arraying all the plotters along one side of the table, like The Last Supper. The camera plays a more significant role than in most of Chaplin’s comedy scenes — panning from one coin-shifter to another, pushing in from three-shot to one-shot, panning off the serious Mr. Jaeckel’s serious announcement to the barber’s comic digestive interruption.

Since Chaplin seems to take Hannah’s part, opposing direct action of this kind, this scene allows Schultz to be even more of an ass than usual. He tells his reluctant terrorist cell that the pudding idea derives from an ancient Aryan custom. He starts to say “Hail Hynkel!” then breaks off with a bathetic “Oh, what am I saying?” He gets very stuff when meek Mr. Agar questions why he isn’t going on the mission himself. (“If it’s a question of my honour, this is most embarrassing…”)

Chaplin liked Reginald Gardner, who plays Schultz and perfectly nails his combination of genuine nobility and stuffed-shirt nationalist psychopathy. He didn’t, apparently, care for Henry Daniell. A shame. HD, being classically trained, slightly awed Chaplin, who didn’t feel comfortable giving him notes. If Garbitsch was meant to be funnier, I think it’s fine that he didn’t turn out that way — he ends up embodying the evil of Nazism, which Heinkel can’t quite do because he has to personify the absurdity and insanity of it. It’s OK to hate Garbitsch — you can’t precisely hate Heinkel because you have to be able to laugh at him. And recognize that he’s crazy in a way that Garbitsch isn’t. Not that you LIKE him — but you welcome his appearances.

Pay-off, topping the topper — once the assassination is called off, the frugal barber carefully pockets all his regurgitated coins. A pocketful of sticky pennies.