Archive for A Woman of Paris

The Sunday Intertitle: Fame

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2021 by dcairns

Amidst the general critical appreciation of Chaplin introducing and integrating sentiment SUCCESSFULLY for the first time, everyone tends to forget his other mode, which appears here absolutely for the first time, with barely a hint of its coming before: the sophisticated side. Chaplin obviously thought this was an important mode to master, and would make an entire feature film, A WOMAN OF PARIS, to showcase it. I’m looking forward to seeing that one again to see what I think of it. What I think right now is that it appealed to CC’s vanity to be seen as sophisticated, and I’m not too keen on this kind of showing off. I don’t think he was as sophisticated as he wanted to appear, I’m more in sympathy with his attempts to be DEEP, with THE GREAT DICTATOR and MONSIEUR VERDOUX (the latter being also a sophisticated comedy in parts). I think Chaplin was deep in the sense of feeling things deeply, and his work shows that from THE KID onwards, and he can sometimes transmute his intense emotion into intellectual ideas without tripping over his flap shoes, and when he does it’s worth the occasional stumble.

Anyhow, The man re-enters the picture, to no particular effect. This scene was one of Chaplin’s key deletions when he rereleased the movie. Consequently, Carl Miller, who plays The man, gets a ridiculously prominent credit for doing practically nothing, while actors who contribute invaluable comic bits go completely uncredited and the IMDb still doesn’t know who a bunch of them are.

Since Chaplin is no fool, he isn’t remotely interested in reuniting the former lovers, and he cuts Mr. Miller off in mid-intertitle, in order to get to the more important business of PANCAKES:

Jackie is preparing A GREAT QUANTITY OF FOOD.

Chaplin may be on e of the few filmmakers who can do more good work the less plot he has to work with. This scene has very little to do with the story, it’s just behaviour. Of course the more we see Charlie & Jackie interact in a sweet, quirky way, the more we care, but the trick is in making all this stuff entertaining. Jackie preparing pancakes is fascinating because it’s midway between acting and being. Impossible to tell how much of it Chaplin has acted out first, and how much is Jackie responding in the moment to the pancake mix and frying pan and the taste.

Charlie is in bed, smoking and reading the Police Gazette (looking for tips). Called to breakfast, he sticks his head through a tear in his blanket to turn it into a kind of djellaba or poncho.

Those pancakes look good. I probably can’t have pancakes on my low-carb diet because of the flour quotient, and the syrup might be an issue too.

We note that Jackie still has the toy dog Edna gave him, and getting Charlie to kiss it is an important family ritual.

Enter Raymond Lee, a bully. Lee was a busy actor into the twenties, and also appears in THE PILGRIM for Chaplin, and LONG LIVE THE KING opposite Coogan. He steals Jackie’s dog AND his ball and throws them away.

FIGHT! An audience immediately gathers. Henry Bergman puts on some stubble just to appear at a window. Nobody attempts to separate the lads, it’s all just a great spectator sport. I’m pleased that Charlie steps in — and then it’s funny when he steps back out as soon as he sees Jackie winning. I never understood the rules of this kind of thing, growing up. Boys are/aren’t supposed to fight? I was an OK shin-kicker, was OK at catching the opponent’s foot when they tried to kick me, but still lost every single fight (none of which I started) until I learned to pick on the smallest, dumbest kids. And then I got a pang of conscience and stopped that. So I went back to losing. It’s strange to me that we were basically allowed to spend playtime punching each other. Does that still happen?

Charlie starts to treat this as a boxing match, with himself as trainer, and right on cue a washing line serves as rope for Jackie to lean on in “his corner.” Charlie instructs Jackie in nose-punching, stomach-punching, and his signature move, the kick up the arse.

Enter Charles Reisner, curiously padded, as the bully’s big brother. Reisner had been a boxer, and has the face for it, though I suspect he’s using putty to push his ears forward in the approved movie “pug” manner. Actual cauliflower ears, which you don’t see much these days, tend to be flat. Reisner had been assistant direct for Chaplin since A DOG’S LIFE, and would go on to “direct” STEAMBOAT BILL JR (really Keaton’s work, chiefly), a couple of Sydney Chaplin features including THE BETTER ‘OLE, and, um, THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929. His son Dean Riesner (note the vowel swap in the surname) would act for Chaplin as a boy, and go on to co-write DIRTY HARRY and marry Vampira, AKA Maila Nurmi. So there’s that.

Once again, Chaplin turns Jackie into a threat, and manages to make Charlie’s ignoble behaviour sympathetic. Reisner insists on his kid brother continuing the fight, but warns Charlie —

This is enough to make Charlie look straight at the camera, enlisting our support in an Oliver Hardy manner.

Charlie now watches in horror as Jackie successfully enacts the tactics he’s schooled him in. With no chance of a confidential “Let the wookiee win” to Jackie, he’s reduced to helpless spectatorship until, on an inspiration, he steps on Jackie when he’s down and quickly counts him out. But Jackie isn’t in on the gag, and proceeds to beat up his foe some more even as Charlie is trying to declare the fight over. Reisner’s uncomprehending glower during all this is a great bit of dumb dumbshow.

The situation having deteriorated as far as it can, a kop shows up to intervene but is punched out by Reisner (a show of actual strength, rather than just a menacing appearance, is always best for an antagonist). Charlie is next in line. He dodges a bit, then mimes a weak heart (Withnail-fashion: “If you hit me, it’ll be murder.”) A missed punch takes a chunk out of one of designer Charles D. Hall’s brick walls, quite convincingly. The next one bends a lamppost, in tribute to the shade of Eric Campbell.

Enter Edna, to do what the kop kouldn’t. And there I’m going to leave it as I have editing to do, a class to prepare, a walk to take. But watch this space because I might post some more this evening.

Full of IT

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2021 by dcairns
Thomas Meighan

David Robinson reported that when he came to research his biography of Chaplin, he found Chaplin’s memoirs to be substantially accurate, his memory of events fairly reliable. But here’s a peculiar bit.

Chaplin talks, in My Autobiography, of the prominent figures who were around during his start in movies, including Elinor Glyn, the noted lady novelist. He cites a film called Her Moment (after wittily remarking that there was “a time-diminishing nature” to the trilogy of Three Weeks, His Hour and Her Moment) and describes a sensational scene:

The plot concerns a distinguished lady, played by Gloria Swanson, who is to marry a man she does not love. They are stationed in a tropical jungle. One day she goes horse-back riding alone, and, being interested in botany, gets off her horse to inspect a rare flower. As she bends over it, a deadly viper strikes and bites her right on the bosom. Gloria clutches her breast and screams, and is heard by the man she really loves, who happens, opportunely, to be passing close by. It is handsome Tommy Meighan. Quickly he appears through the bush.

“What has happened?”

She points to the poisonous reptile. “I have been bitten!”

“Where?”

She points to her bosom.

“That’s the deadliest viper of all!” says Tommy, meaning of course the snake. “Quick, something must be done! There is not a moment to spare!”

They are miles from a doctor, and the usual remedy of a tournequet — twisting a handkerchief around the affected part to stop blood circulating — is unthinkable. Suddenly he picks her up, tears at her shirt-waist, and bares her gleaming white shoulder, then turns her from the vulgar glare of the camera, bends over her and with his mouth extracts the poison, spitting it out as he does so. As a result of this suctorial operation she marries him.

Chaplin seems to be recounting this scene to show us how movies were in the old days. Corny and melodramatic. He seems to find it salaciously enjoyable as well as ridiculous, though.

Interestingly, Elinor Glyn never wrote a movie called HER MOMENT. There is a 1918 film of that name but the action is laid in Romania. Thomas Meighan never acted in an Elinor Glyn adaptation, but Gloria Swanson did, and the film was called THE GREAT MOMENT. It’s set in Nevada, but the hero, played by Milton Sills, does save Gloria from snakebite, though the IMDb is silent as to whether she is afflicted in the same spot the asp got Cleopatra.

So, as Robinson essentially predicted, Chaplin turns to be more accurate than at first appears.

The substitution of Thomas Meighan as leading man is suggestive, however. The next time this largely-forgotten strong, silent leading man is mentioned in My Autobiography is when Chaplin discovers his leading lady and girlfriend Edna Purviance almost in Meighan’s arms at a Hollywood party. They broke up more or less as a result of the resulting suspicion, though Chaplin kept Edna as co-star until 1923, tried to make her an independent star with A WOMAN OF PARIS and A WOMAN OF THE SEA, and kept her on salary for decades. I’ll try to spot her short appearances in MONSIEUR VERDOUX and LIMELIGHT.

The IMDb also has her playing a small role in a Bernard Natan production in France in 1927, which doesn’t seem very likely. And yet: photographic evidence ~

So the placement of Meighan in a role he never played, where he steals the heroine away from a man she doesn’t love, is open to a Freudian reading if you’re that way inclined. And Chaplin comes out of this whole thing looking pretty classy, if odd.

Dipso Facto

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 12, 2020 by dcairns

This, like many of my Chaplin pieces, was written in bursts WHILE I WATCHED. I’m adding this bit in later. You can see me, in this one, realizing gradually with surprise that the film, THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR, is genuinely hilarious — a first for Keystone.

Maybe Charlie’s trousers are so baggy because he’s always legless?

OK, so the subject is drink and drinking again — Chaplin the alcoholic’s son finding rough, unsentimental comedy in the pursuit of booze by raddled addicts — but he’s certainly trying something different by incorporating a famous poem. I can’t think of any other examples of Keystone doing anything remotely like that.

Since the poem is sincere, this might count as Chaplinesque pathos, except that he’s burlesquing the verse rather than merely illustrating it. Or is he?

Flashback — the first in a Chaplin film? Not something he’d go in for later, either. Chaplin as celebrated artist, painting in bow tie and dinner jacket rather than a more practical smock because this is CLASS, damnit. They’re going for elegance with the draped lady and the sculptures and whatnot. How very un-Keystone.

We actually see Chaplin do a bit of painting. Somebody with modest skills has started the canvas, but he adds to it. He’s not terribly good. But I slightly prefer this to all those movies where you see an actor daub away with extreme delicacy, desperate not to actually leave a mark on the work.

It’s a really godawful poem, isn’t it? Of course this is a Keystone-mandated bowdlerization of the text by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy, but most of the worst bits are straight out of the original.

Charlie, who still has voluminous pants despite being all classy and everything, steps on his palette. He’s not finding a lot of comedy in this — it’s no FATAL GLASS OF BEER — nor is it as hilariously bathetic as Griffith’s WHAT DRINK DID — but it’s very interesting to see him playing in a different register. This desire to appear sophisticated reached its apogee in A WOMAN OF PARIS, but we’re a ways from there yet.

Ah yes, trip over the bearskin, that’s what its there for. Never let a bearskin or a swing door go to waste. Well, what we have here is comic declension — he’s playing heartbreak in a mock-serious way but with no real comedy, and then he drops down the scale of effects all the way to slapstick. Another classic element of the Chaplinesque is born. His genius lies not in playing pathos and knockabout at the same time, but leaping between them so nimbly that there’s no sense of a gear change. But at present, he’s just discovering that pretending to be serious makes a great set-up for a surprise joke.

Pensively, he sucks on his paintbrush, then BLURGH! Paint doesn’t taste good. Again, the comedy benefits greatly from the mock-serious build-up.

Back to the framing story. Charlie is falling-down drunk on a single shot of whisky so his thoughtful cronies buy him another.

The first full-on laugh created out of actually contrasting the text with the action, rather than merely illustrating it and getting some comic business in at the sides, comes when our friend and humble narrator describes painting “a fair-haired boy” and we fade up on him painting a really fat bald man with jet-black wings of oiled hair adorning his nude scalp, plus a curly moustache. It’s just very funny. It doesn’t score a satiric point off the painting by way of ironic contrast (example: someone is described as handsome but we see them and they’re actually not, and we infer somebody’s lying). It’s just a bit of joyful silliness. Wonderfully stupid.

The painting, and Charlie’s somewhat nauseated reaction to it, are funny too.

Charlie, pensive again, unknowingly disfigures his shirtfront. The paintbrush may be the most productive prop Chaplin’s got his hands on in his entire movie career to date.

The dame runs off with the fat bloke, pinning a note to the painting’s face, something I like particularly since the actress (Cecile Arnold, a new one) doesn’t seem to know there’s anything funny about this.

I don’t know if it really works, having Charlie open the envelope then throw away the letter, then try to read the envelope, then realise it’s the letter he needs, and picking it up again. But I’m glad he tried it.

I was just thinking, funny he hasn’t sat on that paint palette yet, and then, right on cue… Good mock-melodrama destroying his rival’s accursed image.

Actual irony, or an honest attempt at it. The intertitle proclaims that the beloved Madeleine was tarnished and dead in a year, but we see her (in the park, naturally) alive and well and surrounded with her many children, some of whom look substantially older than a year.

Nice to finally get a third camera set-up in this thing.

Now we come to the poem’s climax. The drunk is supposed to sketch the vanished fair one’s face on the floor. You know, I’m not sure I ever knew this phrase came from a poem, and I certainly didn’t know the face was a chalk drawing. I always assumed it was the face of a person who had fallen down drunk. I’ve been missing reams of subtext here.

Anyway, Charlie tries to do the drawing but keeps falling down because he’s so swallied. When he managed to make a few marks, what he’s rendered is an un-smiley face. His fellow boozers throw him out. Outside, unable to process the change of scenery, he continues trying to execute his sketch, with the same ludicrous results. Comic abjection. A passing kop propels him back into the bar. Big fight. Charlie eventually passes out.

Not only the best “falls unconscious” ending to date, but the funniest film Chaplin has made (following two rather nasty ones), a really respectable piece of knockabout, and an early clue to the new direction.