Archive for A Dog’s Life

The Sunday Intertitle: Kid Stuff

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2016 by dcairns

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Fiona had never seen THE KID — I have been slowly trying to raise her appreciation of Chaplin, a decades-long project that reached its apogee with A DOG’S LIFE, which she found delightful. She also got quite a bit of pleasure out of MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR. Oh, and the monkeys in THE CIRCUS had her on the floor begging for mercy, tears rolling down her face, sideways (because she was on the floor). She’ll always be a Keaton girl, which is fine, but I think you’re missing out on something if you don’t check out Chaplin.

THE KID seemed like a good bet because Chaplin is bolstered by a strong co-star. Fiona liked the dog in A DOG’S LIFE and Edna Purviance even gets to be funny in that one. And Fiona likes Paulette Goddard on principle. So I was staking everything on Jackie Coogan and on Chaplin’s chemistry with him. It worked!

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Things didn’t start too great, as the intertitle “A picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear,” provoked the response “Oh fuck off,” which Chaplin had neglected to list in his catalogue of responses. If he had written “a smile — and perhaps a tear — or possibly an Oh Fuck Off” he would have been bang on the money.

But once Charlie gets landed with an unwanted baby, her attitude changed. Chaplin can be brutally UNsentimental, which only Walter Kerr in his majestic The Silent Clowns really acknowledges. Here, the comedy comes from the defenseless baby becoming a threat. Like Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, or Tex Avery’s Droopy, you can’t get rid of it. When Chaplin opens a drain and briefly looks thoughtful, Fiona practically screamed in shock and then laughed in relief. “No, I can’t really do THAT,” Chaplin seems to think at us, as he closes the drain again, baby still in his arms.

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The baby then scene-changes into Jackie Coogan, and we’re pretty much home free. The little blighter is adorable and hilarious — Chaplin has schooled him in every move, you think, until you see his astonishing crying scene, which comes straight from the heart and can’t be faked or produced by imitation.

Chaplin (and his gag-writers) manages the action of scenes marvelously, developing situations into crises and finding unexpected ways to solve them. A lot of the comedy follows the baby problem pattern, turning a helpless and appealing infant into a deadly threat. The kid gets in a fight and a bulbous pugilist turns out to be the opponents brother. He’s going to pummel Charlie if his brother loses the fight. Charlie is now trying to sabotage his adopted son’s efforts. Or when Charlie, a door-to-door glazier, feels the watchful eye of a policeman on him — now the kid, suspected of throwing stones, becomes an incriminating item. Charlie must deny the association, gently kicking Jackie away with his foot. A father rejecting his son, writes Kerr, is monstrous. But here, because of the crafting of the situation, it’s hilarious. The kid is oblivious, uncomprehending, so we’re not tempted to emote at the wrong point. The man in trouble is the father.

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Chaplin still wasn’t so good at developing the whole arc of a story, and this remained his biggest difficulty. Starting out with more of a plan might have helped him, but then you look at the talkies… This leads him to the heavenly dream sequence, a heavy slice of whimsy — pointless, unfunny and positioned to paste over the fact that the plot is going to resolve itself happily without the protagonist doing anything. It’s exactly like the massive ballet in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, only that’s entertaining in its own right. Chaplin’s paradise is more boring than Dante’s, and seems longer. “What has this got to do with anything?” asked Fiona.

But sooner than you think, the ending comes, and the film seems sort of perfect again. The good bits are sublime. The one bad bit disappears from memory like… like a dream upon awaking.

Criterion’s Blu-ray makes the film look like it was shot yesterday. Uncanny. My images come from the earlier DVD.

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The Sunday Intertitle: The Black Hole

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on August 2, 2015 by dcairns

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Today’s intertitle ought really to say “Attempting to recover installation,” since I made the mistake of trying to get Windows 10 on my laptop and now I have a black screen with that frustrating sentence superimposed at bottom, possibly forever. Ironically, I had just completed a funding application involving a film where a group of characters get trapped in a black void…

So we all shuffle over to Fiona’s laptop and greet Sydney Chaplin (rapist and cannibal) in THE BETTER ‘OLE, a Warners Vitaphone soundie and one of I imagine very few films to be adapted from a single panel cartoon. The WWI ‘toon by Bruce Bairnsfather, which somehow became a world-famous sensation, is shown here ~

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And here’s the movie’s version ~

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Script is by director Charles (Chuck) Reisner and Darryl Francis Zanuck. Francis, eh?

Syd was versatile, I have to admit. Able to look as handsome as his brother, arguably, he often hid behind a walrus moustache — see his expert turn as the cookie vendor Charlie robs blind in A DOG’S LIFE. Here, he has what seems to be a substantial make-up job to turn him into “Old Bill” (Syd was just 41). Bulbous nose, baggy eyes, dolorous demeanor. I notice that Syd was in his brother’s SHOULDER ARMS too, so he had WWI movie experience, albeit as a German.

Am I missing any well-known examples of movies based on single-panel cartoons?

In other news, I saved a man’s life yesterday. Well, no good deed goes unpunished…

The Sunday Intertitle: Sydney Failure

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2015 by dcairns

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I first realized how gifted a comedian Sydney Chaplin was when I noticed his interplay with his brother in A DOG’S LIFE — he’s the street vendor Charlie robs of cookies. The pair’s timing is exquisitely worked out, and the central conceit, that the number of cookies keeps diminishing and Charlie is the only suspect but Syd doesn’t feel able to make an accusation without catching him at it, is priceless.

I was disappointed, then, to learn that Syd was a rapist and a cannibal — and was caught at it. The story is gone over in Matthew Sweet’s Shepperton Babylon — Syd was preparing for the second of his British films when he assaulted an actress, Molly Wright, and bit her nipple off. He fled the country, leaving unpaid taxes (I know: infamy upon infamy) and the studio paid her a settlement.

It’s hard to imagine any way Wright could have made this story up (and certainly the studio acted like they believed her, in an era when movie studios were quite prepared to cover up sex crimes by their valued associates); it’s equally hard to imagine anyone biting off a body part unintentionally. It’s all horrific and creepy in the extreme, so much so that it’s not only surprising this isn’t better known, it’s slightly surprising that this story about the half-brother isn’t the first thing people think of when they think of Charlie. I guess that’s a measure of how his fame surpassed any scandal that came near him.

Sydney doesn’t seem to have done anything like this again, that we know of.

In THE MAN ON THE BOX (1925), made before the career-ending incident, Sydney is called a back-biter by a jealous husband, and makes the following denial —

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It’s an odd film. A MacGuffin about plans for a new helicopter leads to millionaire’s son Chaplin disguising himself as a coachman (in 20s California?), getting hired as a groom, pressed into service as a butler and then disguising himself as a maid (like his semi-sibling, he’s very convincing in drag — CHARLIE’S AUNT was one of his biggest hits). Syd is able and agile — there’s some ferocious knockabout involving him and the film’s director, Charles Riesner (best known for skippering STEAMBOAT BILL JR) who co-stars as an enemy agent. Another future director, David Butler, also appears, and is just the kind of guffawing hearty you might expect from his later work.

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“That’s right, Barrymore, pull them funny faces. HAW HAW!”

Syd is, as indicated, a skilled comedian, but he’s also an attractive and sympathetic screen presence, and at times his use of his eyes — flashing signals across a room like twin aldous lamps — is startlingly reminiscent of the better-known brother. For some reason, the squarer jaw-line makes his feminine side seem stranger — Charlie could be coquettish and it somehow seemed absolutely in keeping with his other qualities — imp, innocent, ruffian.

I guess if he ended up working in Britain his career was already on the slide, and there’s no reason to assume audiences had enough enthusiasm for him to want to see him move into talkies, so his career was going to be cut short by film history anyway. But it seems it should have been cut short by a prison sentence.