Archive for Buster Keaton

The Sunday Intertitle: He couldn’t get arrested

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2022 by dcairns

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.

Boxing Clever

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2022 by dcairns

Before the big fight, justly celebrated, is the locker room scene, which also deserves celebration.

Charlie has made a deal with a wiry little fighter (Irishman Eddie McAuliffe, in what seems to be his only movie role) — he’ll throw the fight and they’ll split the prize money. This scheme, and the fact that Eddie is forced to flee by the cops leaving Charlie right in it, recalls the deal Harold strikes with his human fly pal in SAFETY LAST!

Once Charlie realises he’s on his own, the scene becomes a brilliant series of interactions. Trying to ingratiate himself with his new opponent (Keystone veteran Hank Mann), he falls into flirting, causing man’s man Mann to experience homosexual panic. There’s a lovely fast pan from one to the other, something Chaplin will do more of in MODERN TIMES. When he wanted to be, he could be a very good storyteller with the camera. It’s incorrect to suggest that all he ever did was plonk it in front of himself for a head-to-toe wide shot. That may be 90% of what he did, but the other 10 counts.

Seeing how a Black fighter clings to his rabbit’s foot, Charlie begs the use of it, but is disillusioned when the fighter comes back from his bout in a coma. Suddenly he has to disassociate himself from the defective rodent appendage as best he can.

(The IMDb has only two credits for “superstitious fighter” Victor Alexander, in 1931 and ’35, but he must have done more movies in between, surely.)

The fight is astonishing. Again, the close sync allowed by sound films allows Chaplin to play with a musical sound effect, the bell — and to use the score to accompany what amounts to a slapstick dance, in which Eddie Baker, another knockabout veteran, as the referee, plays a vital part.

Chaplin had dabbled with boxing matches before, playing a referee who gets KO’d in THE KNOCKOUT and prizefighting himself in THE CHAMPION. But his greater experience pays off here, along with a stronger comic idea: what makes this fight funny is Charlie’s terror at being in the ring, his preference for hiding behind the referee or getting into a clinch rather than playing by the Queensberry rules. The situation is familiar from countless knockabout comedies, but the protagonist’s ATTITUDE is unique.

We see it even before the first punch is thrown: Charlie politely holds the ropes so the seconds can enter the ring; offered the chance to shake hands with Mann, Charlie does so too eagerly, and then tries to shake with everyone else. If he can make friends all round, maybe no one will hit him.

You could make a direct comparison of Chaplin’s boxing match here with Keaton’s in BATTLING BUTLER and Chaplin, I submit, would win. But that would be deceptive, even if it seems fair to compare like with like.

Chaplin uses repetition a lot more than Keaton ever did, and here it adds immensely to the sense of a formal dance. The ref gets in between the opponents. They jump sideways in unison. When the ref is finally extricated, Charlie lands a punch. Then it happens again. The repetition, given a favourable audience, becomes funny in and of itself, but the substitution of fresh routines keeps things unpredictable.

Brain damage works oddly in this film: just as the drunk keeps losing and recovering his memory, Charlie can be punched into a state of wooziness, then an additional punch suddenly wakes him up, turns him into a ball of pugilistic dervish energy. Again, Chaplin has an impressive faith that his comic logic will be comprehensible to his audience: his faith is repaid.

The particular highlight, for Fiona and I, is the succession of falls — both Charlie and Mann are dazed, and keep faceplanting on the canvas, while the ref tries to count each of them out, but can never quite make it because they keep semi-recovering, then falling over again. Fiona wanted that bit to go on even longer, but it’s already pretty extensive.

Also in here is the beautiful hallucination (leading to yet another gay joke — this part of the film is full of them) with the blind girl appearing to Charlie during a time out when he’s been knocked semi-unconscious. It’s like a pieta.

Her blindness is strangely multiplied: she can’t see anyone, but nobody but Charlie can see her.

The sequence unavoidably has to end on a downer — Charlie has to lose. When we’ve been laughing so much at his struggles, this is a bit of a slap in the face, but at least it isn’t a punch. And it propels us into the film’s climactic scenes, which are all about getting the elusive money, and of course reintroducing the drunken millionaire, back from Europe, the ultimate Indian giver.


Red Star Blues

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2022 by dcairns

The central imposture in THE CIRCUS — where the ringmaster makes Charlie the star of the show, but lets him believe he’s a lowly props man (and pays him accordingly) is like an inverted version of RED STAR, a project developed by Richard Lester to star Robin Williams.

In Charles Wood’s unfilled screenplay, based on a short story from the collection Red Monarch by Yuri Krotkov, Williams was to have played a bum actor in the Soviet Union with an accidental resemblance to Josef Stalin (it would have been brilliant casting, Williams had a vaguely Stalinesque bone structure). The regime is in need of a lookalike for certain less important public occasions, and so he gets recruited. But he sucks at the job, because he’s treated like a failed actor, so they realise they have to allow him a bit of prestige so he can get into character. They give him his own limo — well, he has to share it with a performing bear… The film was to have been almost a silent comedy. Lester told me that one gag would be when the actor tries to escape (perhaps having realised he’s a target for assassination?) but the boat he launches has been built as a movie set, and it only exists down one side…

In THE CIRCUS, Charlie is only funny when he doesn’t know it, when he’s not performing but being. As it happens, the very next plot development, midway through the picture, is that Merna Kennedy as the girl tells him what’s going on. There follows a fee negotiation scene that feels vaguely authentic — Chaplin was a hard bargained and knew what he was worth. But the scene is tricked out with a pratfall and some incompetent arithmetic so that Charlie’s snootiness is undercut.

Part of the bargain is that the girl’s father has to be nice to her, so Charlie isn’t being purely selfish. But he’s back to treating people as objects, lighting a match on the chief property man’s bum. A minute later, in an excess of glee, he will kick Henry Bergman in the chest. It’s uncomfortably like his bullying behaviour way back in THE PROPERTY MAN.

An intertitle notes that Merna’s character name is Merna. And finally Rex, King of the Air, is introduced. The tightrope-walker, played by Harry Crocker, immediately becomes romantic rival, and we’re back to a scenario first tried out in THE TRAMP: Charlie meekly making way for the more suitable love interest. But here he does try to put up a struggle, launching his own high-wire career to compete with Sexy Rexy.

Charlie keeps his money in his sock — so he’ll always know which bills are his (acknowledgement: Talking Heads). Ralph Fiennes in SPIDER is a sock man, too, but he keeps his sock in his pocket, which seems rather redundant.

Charlie listening in on Merna’s conversations with the fortune teller — a sympathetic Roma character to make up for the nasty gang in THE VAGABOND — reminds me of EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, in which Woody Allen has creepy access to Julia Roberts’ shrink sessions. Here, Charlie’s hopes are raised and almost immediately dashed, leading to a great tragic medium shot reaction, and then a scene where he has to go on and perform, broken-hearted, which again seems like it might be inspired by Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED.

The scene with the splitscreen identical twin boxers may have been deleted, but Rollie Totheroh gets a chance to show off his special effects when Charlie imagines beating up his romantic rival: he astrally projects, leaving his body in a double exposure shot and administering a brutal drubbing to his rival — in fantasy, of course. Whether this was inspired by Buster Keaton’s out-of-body-experience in SHERLOCK JR (1924) or by some more recent movie OOBE, I don’t know. It does satisfactorily deal with THE TRAMP’s weird character inconsistency, where Charlie goes from the violent bully Essanay audiences knew and loved, to a mild-mannered simp, with next to no transition.

Bravura acting sequence where Merna and Charlie watch Rex on the wire, she rapturous, he sneering at the bravado and applauding the mistakes, then getting caught up in it so that his mirror neurons fire up, making his body twist and squirm in mimicry of Rex’s performance. Surprising moment when Rex tears his tuxedo off to reveal acrobat kit underneath. “And all my clothes fall off!” Merna does not respond erotically, but with increased anxiety for his wellbeing. Possibly his mental wellbeing.

Charlie’s jealousy of Rex will lead to the big monkey climax, the scene which singlehandedly converted Fiona from Chaplin scepticism…

Meanwhile, Charlie sneezes into Merna’s face-powder, another Woody Allen gag although he did it with cocaine in ANNIE HALL. Editor Ralph Rosenbaum recalled inserting more and more footage to let the audience recover from their laughter before the next scene started. In the end he added thirty seconds of, essentially, dead air, nothing, just the actors sitting around waiting for “cut” to be spoken. It seemed like an eternity to him, but with an audience it was essential. I haven’t watched that film in decades so I don’t recall how it plays without a cinema-full of laughs…

All this sequence is basically set-up — we see how Rex’s act is supposed to work, so we can enjoy how Charlie’s version will go wrong. In fact, it isn’t essential — the monkey scene works brilliantly as an extract in Schickel’s Chaplin documentary, without even an explanation of how the monkeys come to be there. Some things are just funny.