Archive for Albert Austin

The Sunday Intertitle: The Drop

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2021 by dcairns

Time to get on with THE KID. I’m running the full-length version with the scenes Chaplin deleted for re-release put back in, because I want to see what audiences saw a hundred years ago. But I’m watching it with Chaplin’s score, which they wouldn’t have been able to do.

IMDb offers no ID for the charity hospital nurse, but she looks a bit like Phyllis Allen, from the Keystone days.

As Walter Kerr points out, the only parts of the film which are really sentimental in the true sense are those involving Edna Purviance as the mother. And it’s these that he cut back on later. Fading in an image of Christ on the way to Calgary as Edna is released from the charity hospital with her illegitimate baby is a very Victorian, very Griffith idea.

This being a Chaplin film, though, she immediately heads for the park.

Now we meet “the man” — obviously the baby’s father. Chaplin does some stuff that’s unusual for him here — he’s working in an usual mode, though it’s close to what we’ve later come to regard as “chaplinesque.” When the Man looks at Edna’s photo, Chaplin dissolves to it, quite gradually, rather than just cutting to a POV. The dissolve as language of solemnity. And he’s not wrong to lard on the seriousness, because he has to cue his audience, who have come expecting laughs, to get into the dramatic situation first, and not look for titters. Command of tone is one of the most important skills there is.

Edna, meanwhile, passes a church where a wedding is taking place. Artsy vignette effects — also not typical of CC’s style. For whatever reason, the bride looks miserable, which may be a case of larding on misery where it doesn’t belong. The true trick to this kind of scene ought to be to show everyone being happy except Edna. Having a flower drop on the ground and get trodden on may also be belabouring the point too much. Still, for artful, religiose sentiment, lighting up a stained glass window behind Edna’s head so that she grows a halo is a neat bit of stagecraft. And subtle enough that egginess is avoided, mostly — you could easily miss it.

The business of giving up the baby is echoed in Alan Rudolph’s TROUBLE IN MIND, which everyone should see. It’s a bit of dramatic contrivance of the kind you might get in Dickens, or Wilkie Collins, only with an automobile. Edna stows the child in the back seat of a fortuitously unlocked limo. This being LA and sunny, one might expect the poor mite to broil, but thieves in cloth caps (including regular Albert Austin) steal the car (lock up your autos!) and the baby (Silas Hathaway) is whisked off, dumped in a slum neighbourhood, and the lovely new environment Edna had dreamed of for him is dashed away and replaced with…

Charlie! A jaunty tune switches genres on us and Chaplin again capitalizes on his inconceivable fame by entering in extreme long shot, his tiny figure instantly recognisable, the most successful costume design in film history. Barely dodging a rain of garbage from an upper window, Charlie parades, a figure of natural dignity and poise, dressed in rags.

The location is Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley — in 1922, Buster Keaton would run through it and catch a passing car with one hand and be yanked offscreen in COPS, and in 1926 Harold Lloyd would sneak into work the back way using the same sidestreet. There’s a campaign to name the anonymous alley in honour of the three great silent clowns.

— and a second avalanche of debris strikes Charlie, shattering his mood and his air of superiority. The intertitle “Awkward ass” illustrates Chaplin’s love of language, I guess, but isn’t funny and doesn’t seem to fit the situation very well. But I guess Charlie’s attempts at snootiness are being stressed.

Charlie takes a fragment of cigarette from a tin box full of butts — the facts of poverty dressed up in the style of a gentleman — cargo cult richness. An elaborate play is made of tapping the tiny fag end on the tin as if to break the filter. Another bit of comedy when Charlie finds that binning his decrepit gloves is easier than putting them in his pocket.

Baby Silas is discovered, bawling. This is a delicate situation and Chaplin handles it brilliantly, refusing all sentiment. First, he does a classic Charlie trope, looking up to see if the sprog, like the garbage, has been tossed down from a window. Chaplin knew he could rely on a laugh by looking straight up whenever encountering anything unexpected.

Then he sees a woman with a pram. Obviously, she must have dropped the contents by mistake. He tries to cuckoo her, planting Silas in the pram along with her young one, and when she remonstrates, he nearly takes the wrong one. The plot could have gotten twice as complicated just then.

Events conspire to saddle Charlie with the unwanted stray. He tries to leave it where he found it, but a kop is hovering at hand. He tries to fob it off on an old wreck of a guy — “I need to tie my shoelace” — hands it to him — legs it. The guy, no more scrupulous than Charlie, dumps Silas back in the pram, and Charlie is blamed for this when he innocently walks by. Baby Silas is as hard to shake as Droopy or the bottle imp.

This is all so effective precisely because under the comedy there’s something desperate, almost the first time this has occurred in Chaplin’s work. Amid the “seriousness” it’s nice to note that Baby Wilson, the one in the pram, is really enjoying the sight of Charlie being hit with an umbrella.

(The IMDb notes that Baby Wilson was born in 1919, but somehow appeared in THE HEART OF A MAGDALEN in 1914, presumably with the help of that cell-phone woman who traveled back in time to see THE CIRCUS.)

Charlie now gives some thought to murdering the infant by dropping it down an open drain. Well, it’s not quite as harsh as that. Chaplin knows how to present things. It’s simply a man looking for a solution to his problem. He COULD drop it down the drain. That would work. But no, he can’t very well do that. A micro-glance in our direction confirms him in this view. It just isn’t the done thing.

He finds a note left by Edna: Please love and care for this orphan child. Well, that does seem to be the only remaining option, doesn’t it?

TO BE CONTINUED

Sun damage

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2021 by dcairns

I recall feeling slightly unconvinced by those sections of the (excellent) novel Sunnyside where author Glen David Gold tries to get inside Chaplin’s creative process, but I think I was probably being unfair. Gold talks us through Chaplin’s rejected ideas, and they all sound pretty terrible. Shouldn’t even the non-starters of a genius be somewhat impressive? But looking at SUNNYSIDE the movie, no, perhaps they shouldn’t. Bits of it are very good but bits of it are worse than the ideas Gold has Chaplin throw out.

The L’Apres-Midi d’un Faun dream-ballet isn’t the worst thing in there. It’s inoffensive. But it has no narrative reason for being there. Other Chaplin dreams happen when he’s heartbroken and so they have at least a claim on poignancy. Here, he’s merely downtrodden — a dream of the easy life would make sense, but not this capering around with Grecian nymphets.

Anyway, the wake-up is decently staged. Charlie falls off the same bridge in dream he fell off in reality, whereupon the woodland sylphs toss him a creeper or something and attempt to pull him back up. Upon awakening, he finds himself jolted back to reality and the bridge by a crowd of Sunnysiders, and then sent packing with multiple boots up the arse by the Boss.

“And now, the ‘romance’.” says an intertitle, throwing off a palpable sense of exhaustion and formulaic will-this-do? Rushing up to a house, dodging Henry Bergman, who he just passed on the road as a different character (beard), Charlie plucks some flowers and goes in to see Edna. Also present is “His brother, Willie,” for some reason. Willie is characterised as a village idiot type in overalls, staring into space and smiling while Charlie raps on his forehead. It would seem more logical for him to be Edna’s sibling since he’s in her house, but I think Charlie wants the license to mistreat him… that’s the best reason I can think of for what follows.

Since the boy is being a gooseberry, Charlie invites him to play blind man’s bluff — binding his eyes and sending him outside, where he is imperilled by traffic. David Robinson says this as an interesting experiment in black comedy, I just find it obnoxious. It’s further evidence of Chaplin’s creative crisis, since he’s usually careful to seem sympathetic, at least since the Mutual period.

Still, this undercuts the fairly anemic romance stuff. Charlie presents Edna with an engagement ring, and sings mutely as she plays piano. Then he attempts a gag that would work better as a variation in MONSIEUR VERDOUX — finding a flat note, Charlie excites a tiny goat living behind the piano (!) which baahs each time he hits the note, causing him to think the piano is making goat bleats. This is quite funny but, though you don’t need the sounds to understand it, it would be funnier with the sounds.

The gag develops smartly: a much larger goat appears, and Charlie is even more confused. The goat can also eat the sheet music which isn’t as clever but it’s logical.

Moderately funny business back at the hotel with Charlie cleaning up: picking up tiny invisible specks of dirt and carrying them to a single place.

Enter Tom Terriss as a young man in spats — “the city chap.” SUNNYSIDE as distaff version of SUNRISE. He enters the movie crashing his car into Sunnyside. He’s carried into the hotel by the fat boy, who is, it seems, Tom Wood and not J. Park Jones as previously reported. And Charlie innocently tries to get the comatose city chap to sign the register.

The village doctor arrives, a fake beard in pince-nez and a derby, his gladstone bag bulging with booze and, disturbingly, handcuffs. I think the normally clear line between first aid kit and rape kit is getting blurrier than desirable. As he takes City Chap’s pulse on screen right, Charlie mimics him screen left, using the victim’s own fob watch. Best bit of mime: having briefly held the watch in his mouth, Charlie gives it a theatrical shake in an exact reproduction of classic thermometer business. The doctor then presents his bill, after merely taking the pulse and kneading the patient’s shoulder in a vaguely sympathetic manner. (Like the village idiot actor, the doctor is unidentified on IMDb but I’d say it’s Albert Austin under the whiskers.)

Very routine bit with Charlie mopping the lobby while three random guys are sitting in it. Yes, he turns with the mop and wetly knocks hats off. That kind of business. “City chap fully recovered,” reports an intertitle, unnecessarily. These cards have the dutiful tone of a child’s book report. City chap (who has the same initials as Chaplin) has a lighter built into his cane. Which is kind of cool. Charlie is impressed.

In a cutaway shot, Edna gets her fingers stuck in some fly paper — a rare (unique?) example of her getting a solo gag, though it develops in such a conventional way it scarcely qualifies. Similarly, the business of her forgetting what she came to the hotel to buy (it’s also a general store) and Charlie offering suggestions from his shelves unfolds without kicking loose any real comedy at all. OK, him wrapping the final item — enormous woolly socks — in a huge paper cone as if it were a bouquet of flowers, is sort of amusing. All this is just to effect a meet uncute with the city chap, who watches with more interest than I could muster. Edna is dressed like an old lady again, further stressing the resemblance of this movie to a much earlier period of Chaplin’s career.

Charlie gets Edna’s paper money stuck to the fly paper, which is quite a good gag, but it’s cut short — I think we want to see him picking the banknote to little shreds to bring home the hopelessness of the situation.

Seeing Edna strolling amiably with the chap, Charlie performs a head-clutching gesture of operatic despair, I think the biggest and lamest reaction I’ve seen from him. No doubt he’s thinking of how he felt when he caught her with Thomas Meighan. But it’s too much for the film, the situation and the genre. Sitting down and resting his head, Charlie prepares the ground for a second dream sequence. [Iris in.]

Now Charlie prances up to Edna’s house to bring her flowers and sing with her, but finds the city chap already installed at the pianoforte. A musical cuckold, Charlie gazes through the window (the overheard music perhaps recalls Charlie’s experience in childhood of being passionately transfixed by a rendition of “You are the honeysuckle, I am the bee” caught as he passed by a window). Edna gazes blankly at the lighter-cane as if it held some mesmeric power. The lovers smile coyly over a photo album. Much of the comedy in this film is rote, but absolutely all the romance is, a likely result of Chaplin’s loveless marriage following fairly quickly on the break-up with Edna.

Charlie attempts to copy the c. chap’s elegant ways, fashioning crude spats from a pair of the woolly socks (a loose thread spoils the effect) and installing a candlestick on his cane (it blazes with the same inextinguishable fervour as the one Harpo produces from his mackintosh in HORSE FEATHERS, burning at both ends — that would impress me if I were Edna).

Walter Kerr identifies the pathos here as operating on the same unsuccessful level as that in THE TRAMP, but I think it’s much worse. Charlie’s self-pity isn’t affecting whatsoever, whereas his illiterate note in the Essanay film is genuinely pitiable even if the tonal shift isn’t managed well at all. His everlasting candle a wash-out, Charlie crouches on a country road with fingers in ears, awaiting extirpation by an approaching auto. A sudden jolt — the boss kicking him out of his chair — brings him back to reality. His rejection by Edna was all a jealous dream, brought on by seeing her chatting with chap.

Coda: the chap is checking out. He tips his hat to Edna but she turns her back on him sniffily. What on earth has happened between them during Charlie’s dream? Seeing Edna, Charlie rushes to embrace her in an awkward stranglehold, makes to punch the city chap for offences committed during R.E.M. sleep, then gratefully receives a tip from him for carrying his bags three feet to the waiting car. City chap departs and Charlie and Edna embrace.

Critics and scholars have apparently argued about whether the heartbreak leading up to suicide is a dream, or whether the happy ending is the dream, flashing through Charlie’s mind in a split second as he’s mangled by the onrushing jalopy. While that would be cleverer, more unusual and better, making the film a slapstick version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, it’s absolutely plain that the more prosaic version was Chaplin’s intended reading. The dream is cued up by Charlie resting his head, and he awakens from the same posture. The reason for the confusion is the film’s awkward shape, with TWO longish dream sequences, and the other problem identified by Walter Kerr: while Chaplin often creates poignancy by having his character dream of idyllic happiness (heaven, bread rolls, etc) when he’s miserable in reality, here he dreams of a scenario much worse than his real life situ. But this is perhaps excusable — we DID get the reason Charlie thinks he’s washed up with Edna, right before he went to sleep. So it’s motivated, it’s just not very effective or interesting or amusing or touching.

SUNNYSIDE is pretty fascinating as an example of mature Chaplin operating without inspiration, judgement thrown off, forced to release a film that simply hasn’t gelled. Mysteriously, he called it a favourite film in his 1922 memoir, but dismissed it later. During shooting he toyed with abandoning it in favour of another, equally amorphous and unpromising notion, but he’d invested too much time in it for that option to fly.

The crisis would continue through the next short — I can hardly wait. And you?

The Sunday Intertitle: Over There

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2021 by dcairns

SHOULDER ARMS (1918) was provided free to military hospitals where it was projected on the ceilings, for burns patients who couldn’t be moved. I can imagine watching it being a painful experience if you were severely wounded, because it’s very funny, but I guess it would be worth it.

Of course, everybody had told Chaplin not to make this film, since joking about the war was considered unacceptable, and Chaplin had received a lot of flack for not being at the front (though not as much flack as he might have received AT the front). As a Brit (he never took US citizenship, considering himself “a citizen of the world”) Chaplin could in theory have enlisted earl and skipped a movie career altogether in favour of an early death and we’d never have heard of him. Obviously I think he made the right call.

By contrast, two of Chaplin’s sons served in WWII (along with his movie-adopted-son Jackie Coogan). So, despite the liberty bonds and the rallies Chaplin attended, we might guess that he wasn’t that enthusiastic about the Great War. And SHOULDER ARMS seems to bear that out. Still, it’s not an anti-war film — a pacifist movie simply wouldn’t have been accepted while the war was raging. But it’s an expression of sympathy for the enlisted man — something Chaplin’s instincts must have told him he could pull off, so he would not be accused of mockery. It worked: the movie was one of his biggest moneymakers, and nobody seems to have condemned it.

For some reason this one isn’t on YouTube in its entirety except in a fuzzy Russian version — by rights it should be public domain so I dunno why not. But there are lengthy clips.

Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin doc series triumphantly unearthed the opening sequences Chaplin shot but discarded, and here they are:

The plan was to show Charlie pre-war and post-war as well as in uniform. Midway through the plan changed, the decision was made to keep the movie short, and the postwar material was never filmed. But here’s Charlie with the kids, three mini-Charlies, waiting outside the pub in a ritual very familiar in Charlie’s native East End. I don’t know that his own dad was around long enough for him to have experienced this, but he’d have seen it.

Mrs. Charlie is an offscreen domestic tyrant hurling dishes, a cartoon-strip cliché. After the film’s first food joke (peeling onions behind his back to avoid the eye-stinging effect) Charlie accepts his draft notice as an escape route from the projectile crockery. But the enemy will be throwing more than plates.

The medical test scene leads to embarrassment, as a shirtless Charlie tries to hide from nurse Edna. David Robinson finds it strange that she should appear here undisguised, since she turns up later as a Frenchwoman at the front. He wonders if this stuff was being shot in a halfhearted or diffident way, with Chaplin not fully meaning to use it. I suspect rather that he planned to have Edna’s nurse turn up again in the war scenes, which would be easy enough to arrange (see also Clara Bow’s role in WINGS), and simply changed his mind.

The test features one of my favourite of Chaplin’s deleted gags, a variant on a routine played for Karno, and taken up in the AUSTIN POWERS movies with ruder gags: silhouetted through a frosted glass door, Charlie is seen accidentally swallowing Dr. Albert Austin’s twelve-inch long tongue depressor (seemingly a spoon), followed by the pliers he tries to retrieve it with. Maybe this was too grotesque and unrealistic for Chaplin’s taste, or maybe it was simply a casualty of restructuring.

So the film as we have it (in two cuts filmed with adjacent cameras and sometimes with alternate takes) opens (after Chaplin signs the main title in his own hand, a quixotic trick to counteract piracy) with Charlie in camp, undergoing training. His feet keep turning out and his legs get tangled. Generally athletic and startlingly nimble, his body disassembles into a storm of malfunctioning limbs when anyone tries to regiment it.

(If you were seeing the film on rerelease as part of The Chaplin Cavalcade, you’d have the director himself narrating a short intro composed of actuality war footage, showing that he had no qualms about relating his comic fantasia of total war to the real thing).

Chaplin benefits from the fact that American doughboys sported the silliest looking uniforms, complete with baggy pants and goofy hats and boots, so his distinctive outline retains some of its attributes, swapping rifle for cane.

The trenches. Charlie enters frame, back to us, displaying the number 13 on his kit, and Rollie Totheroh’s camera dollies after him down the narrow sunken aisle, irresistibly recalling Kubrick and PATHS OF GLORY (I confess the travelling shot during drill made me think of FULL METAL JACKET, too). Since we’re traversing roughly-laid planks, and we can see the ground, so there are no tracks down there, I’m wondering if the camera’s been hung from above, supported from each side, using two sets of tracks alongside the trench? It’s reported that Charlie hadn’t even heard of camera cranes until THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Syd plays a comrade of Charlie’s, though comradeship is in short supply here, as usual in Chaplin’s work. Syd’s character is alternately a schlemiel to be the victim of Charlie’s fecklessness, and a dashing and heroic figure. Not sure who the other bunkmate is, disguised by extravagant facial hair comprising Irish beard with unconnected Groucho moustache and eyebrows.

Fiona was taken by the grim detail of the mousetrap hung from Charlie’s coat button, though a rat trap the size of one of his huge boots would be more use in reality.

The trenches are detailed, gritty and convincing, which brings us to a mystery. In Andrew Kelly’s All Quiet on the Western Front: The Story of a Film, if I recall correctly, a Universal press release is quoted stating that several of the crew of Lewis Milestone’s landmark war movie were veterans of the Great War, including designer Charles D. Hall, who is also the man in charge of SHOULDER ARMS’ sets. Now, I’m in touch with Hall’s great-nephew, Matthew Hall, who reports that there’s no oral history about a military record for CDC. The family’s oral tradition has him entering the US via Canada after his career in Fred Karno’s company. He could have found time to serve in the British army, but then he’d have had to be invalided out, and you’d expect the family to know about it. It COULD just be Universal ballyhoo. All I’m saying is, from the look of the sets, and the details like trenches being named Broadway and Rotten Row, somebody connected to the production has seen the real thing.

Chaplin makes fun of the enemy, with a tiny martinet strutting up and down, berating his hulking, mismatched Keystone Kops Kombat Unit.

Meanwhile, the Chaplin brothers eat lunch, unperturbed by the falling shells. A surprising splitscreen shows Charlie nostalgic for the real Broadway, with Henry Bergman (first of three roles) as a jovial bartender. This stuff is great, but fragmented. Chaplin shot lots (including some troubles with hand grenades which he’d take up later in GREAT DICTATOR), and these sequences may have been a bit more fluid before he got to trimming them down. Edna wrote to Chaplin to say how moved she was by the scene where he receives no mail from home. Impossible to imagine this working as well if it followed footage of him being harangued by a dish-hurling termagant. Charlie reading another soldier’s letter over his shoulder, facial reactions synching up exactly, is a great way of turning pathos into a gag (Chaplin imitators rarely master his ability to take the curse off potential saccharine by startling the audience with unexpected humour).

Chemical warfare! Charlie receives a delayed package from home, a pungent limburger disimproved by its Atlantic crossing. Donning gas mask, he lobs it across no-man’s land where it splatters the tiny commandant (the loyal Loyal Underwood). Note that all the early humour levied against the enemy targets the leaders, not the enlisted men.

The flooded barracks is my favourite sequence, because it’s so grim. The frog on Syd’s bare foot! Note that, when Charlie mistakes Syd’s foot for his own — a gag Stan & Ollie would make use of more than once — it’s apparent that the lack of family resemblance extends to the extremities. Charlie’s outsize boots would actually FIT Syd.

Charlie sleeping underwater with a phonograph trumpet to breathe through is a great gag. And plumping his waterlogged pillow is as excruciating an example of “making the best of things” as we would see until the boot-eating scene in THE GOLD RUSH.

Preparations to go “over the top” — Charlie is newly concerned about his unlucky serial number, then breaks his hand mirror for good measure. Still, seven years bad luck might mean you’re not going to get shot dead… The signal to charge is given, and Charlie goes through a magnificent set of changes, attempting to go through the motions of heroism, then having ladder trouble, then having second thoughts, finally doing his duty with no great enthusiasm. Sending his colleagues up ahead of him is probably the worst thing Charlie does in this film, and the most in character — elsewhere in his filmography, Charlie would always land his fellows in difficulty than get in any himself. But in this context, that’s not a point which can be pressed too far.

The enemy trench is taken — a vanishingly rare occurrence in real life — and Charlie singlehandedly captures thirteen Germans. “I surrounded them,” he says via intertitle, with a descriptive mime of a fast-circling finger to make it clear how this was achieved. He gives the tiny leader a spanking, to the delight of the German soldiers. This kind of solidarity with the ordinary men of the other side must have been very rare in American WWI pictures of the day.

More food: Charlie and Syd eat lunch, ignoring the shelling. “Hush, here comes a whizzbang,” as the song goes. Charlie opens a bottle by holding it aloft so a sniper can shoot the neck off, a gag reprised 56 years later in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. (And in the same director’s HOW I WON THE WAR, Michael Crawford’s serial number is 131313.) He also lights a cigarette using the same method. It’s a stirring scene of two men inured to their desperate situation. Jet black comedy as Charlie chalks up his own sniper kills — the kind of thing that does depend of dehumanizing the other side, to the point where a human life is just a stripe on a blackboard. Harry Lime would laugh more heartily than I can.

Charlie makes the mistake of volunteering. He stands, chest out, proud to serve, until the near-suicidal nature of the mission is pointed out, when he executes an extraordinary physical transformation — his ribs turn concave, his shoulders drop, and he’s suggesting Syd might be a better choice after all.

The scenes of Charlie disguised as a dead tree were filmed amid an LA heatwave and appear to have been no fun at all. Chaplin didn’t like shooting on location at the best of times. He immediately faces chopping-down for firewood, a hazard nobody seems to have anticipated. (Immediate detection owing to being the only tree in France with a moustache would seem a likelier threat.) One of his arm-branches terminates in a knotty lump, which proves handy for knocking the would-be wood-gatherers cold.

Syd is captured by Henry Bergman in his second role (I’ve given up counting Albert Austin’s appearances and disappearances in this one). Charlie saves him from the firing squad but has to flee, losing his Tabanga costume. The bit of pipe he crawls through was a happy discovery on location, swiftly written into the story.

Edna enters the picture, and Charles D. Hall constructs a wonderful bombed-out dollhouse, exposed to the elements like a cutaway drawing. Charlie flees inside, taking care to lock the door and pull the blinds even though the surrounding wall has gone. This kind of large-scale expenditure horrified the budget-conscious Syd, until at last his wife Minnie forbade him to be involved in production at all, since it just upset him. (Syd also starred in his own WWI vehicle, A BETTER ‘OLE. It’s good!)

Edna, the ruin’s inhabitant, finds Charlie passed out and nurses him. Charlie coyly feigns unconsciousness a bit longer to enjoy her ministrations. When he awakens, she’s nervous until he pantomimes (the lack of a shared language justifies added gestural art) that he’s with the Americans. Not sure if this would necessarily be reassuring to a noncombatant — though the Germans were blamed for a lot of atrocities, gleefully reenacted by Von Stroheim back in Hollywood, in reality no one side ever has the monopoly on war crimes.

The Germans — the same troop of Chaplin troupers — show up, but the house collapses and Charlie escapes. With the remains of her home destroyed, Edna is now arrested for good measure, but the Moebius-strip geography of a Chaplin plot soon has him hiding in enemy HQ so he can rescue her, singeing her attacker (yes, these Krauts are all rapey) with a red-hot poker. The Edward II assault seems justifiable given these characters’ sleaziness.

The arrival of the Kaiser sets things up for a bit of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS style revisionism, though since the war was still on I suppose it’s more like prophecy. This part of the film is more exciting than it is funny. It reminded Fiona of ‘Allo, ‘Allo! a sitcom she likes and I don’t. Syd plays Kaiser Bill in a theatrical makeup that renders him unrecognizable. Henry Gibson is also back in another disguise. Now Charlie has to rescue Edna and Syd while capturing the enemy leaders and also making sure Syd’s two characters don’t bump into one another.

The best part of this is Charlie, impersonating a German chauffeur, brutalizing Syd every time someone’s watching. Syd is relieved to learn it’s all a ruse, but then the strangling begins anew, again and again. Mistreating Syd is definitely the Way Forward.

Edna in drag is TOO CUTE. The whole thing ends triumphally but it’s all a dream, which helps in a number of ways. It alibis the story against claims of implausibility, and it adds a bittersweet note — the reality of war is still ahead of Charlie, and it cannot be averted (unless peace breaks out before he’s shipped over). CHaplin COULD have had himself wake up in the sodden trench, thereby making the story’s grimmer parts real and only its heroic climax a fantasy, but he chose, I guess, a safer route. It worked, since nobody was offended, it seems.

Chaplin, untrained in storytelling save as a performer in theatre and movies, retained a weakness for it-was-all-a-dream endings, but they’re often used in interesting ways. They don’t solve the story problems — as here, they deepen them. He even contemplated finishing THE GREAT DICTATOR this way, with his Jewish barber character awakening in the concentration camp. Which would have been undeniably strong. But sometimes we don’t want strong.

I’d like this film even better if it took more of the right kind of risks, but it’s the art of the possible we’re talking about here. As it was, Chaplin lost confidence and was on the point of scrapping the movie when chum Doug Fairbanks’ hysterical reaction convinced him not to. Thank God for Doug.

Chaplin wasn’t the only one finding comedy in war. Some of the best war poems have a satiric bite. I like Siegfried Sassoon’s The General ~

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

As with SHOULDER ARMS, nothing about this is really funny, except the rhythm and rhyme of it. Unlike the Chaplin, a bitter aftertaste is definitely the goal. With Chaplin’s film, it’s like more a minor note of disquiet amid the hilarity. Milos Forman talked about seeing THE GREAT DICTATOR in Czechoslovakia after WWII, and feeling the massive relief at finally being able to laugh at this bastard. Audiences in 1918 must have experienced something of the same liberating effect.