Archive for Chaplin

Big Bertha

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2022 by dcairns

The trenches of Woodland Hills.

Chaplin opens with a surprising tracking shot — a pre-Kubrickian vision of WWI. Lewis Milestone and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT might be the influence. Dissolves link different bits of tracking shot, as if Chaplin wouldn’t quite get the oner he was after, or as if he wanted to make this a series of glimpses implying a much bigger conflict.

The hills in the background are recognizable as the view from the back of my friend Randy Cook’s house in Woodland Hills.

As in MODERN TIMES, we have two cinematographers, but this time it’s Rollie Totheroh (as usual) and Karl Struss — as contrasting a pair of Hollywood artists as youcould choose. Struss had shot things like Griffith’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN and Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE. It’s tempting to associate him with the mobile camera and any mood lighting, and Totheroh with more straightforward head-to-toe prosccenium framing.

David Robinson’s Chaplin confirms this — Chaplin was for unknown reasons growing dissatisfied with Totheroh’s work — perhaps an obscure feeling that it was old-fashioned, which was true. But Struss “wasn’t giving him enough light. He was getting in tree branches and things to achieve ‘mood’. It might have been ‘mood’, but it wasn’t what Chaplin wanted,” AD Dan James is quoted as saying.

It’s a real problem — the most important quality for photography in a visual comedy is CLARITY — the figures need to READ. Everything central to the gag needs to be absolutely clear. The slightest ambiguity squashes the laugh. There are no effective slapstick noirs, no slapsticks with impressionistic visuals, and quite possibly what doomed Spielberg’s 1941 is the very attractive, diffuse, backlit cinematography and the Louma crane movement.

Big Bertha — the first character we meet with a name. The Jewish Barber remains anonymous. There was a real BB howitzer in WWI, the 42 cm kurze Marinekanone 14 L/12, but it was much shorter and less dramatic than the one constructed by J. Russell Spencer and Chaplin’s art department. (A shame Charles D. Hall had just stopped his collaboration with Chaplin — their first film together was SHOULDER ARMS and it would have been nice symmetry if this were the last. There’s one account from the set of ALL QUIET — which CDH also designed — suggesting that the designer served in WWI, but no family tradition confirms this).

VO! Who is this narrator? The IMDb is silent on the matter. His voice is deeper than Chaplin’s, but has similar clipped diction. Could CC be lowering his timbre, or just drilling someone else to deliver the lines as he would?

Horribly, Bertha’s target is Notre Dame, which would survive the war, and then survive the next war (IS PARIS BURNING? showcases the cathedral standing proud at the end) and then get gutted by fire due to human error, bad luck, poor contingency planning.

But, with Charlie the Jewish Barber pulling the trigger, Bertha merely explodes a nearby outhouse. The film’s first visual joke is a very Burt Reynolds type gag.

I was thinking I’d cover the whole WWI sequence in this post, but NO — we need to stop and ask WHO IS THE JEWISH BARBER? In what ways is he or is he not the Tramp/The Little Fellow/Mr. Wow-Wow?

NEXT

The Sunday Intertitle: The Idiot Stick

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2022 by dcairns

Afternoon, everybody.

Before Charlie meets the blind flower girl in CITY LIGHTS he was at one point going to spend five solid minutes struggling with a stick stuck in a grating outside a department store.

An entire sequence without a single intertitle, pure pantomime, and with no discernible connection otherwise to the film’s plot. Since the statue unveiling sequence is also non-plot-related, this would, I think, have delayed the start of the film’s real story by a dangerous amount, so cutting it was the right decision.

Still, I think it’s a great sequence — depending on the company you watch it with, it’s either progressively more hilarious or more frustrating. If you’re into it, the frustration is part of the hilarity.

Great supporting performances. I remember being astonished at who was playing the idiot messenger boy, then forgetting, then finding out again and being astonished all over again. It’s Charles Lederer, future screenwriter for Howard Hawks among others — he was Marion Davies’ favourite nephew, and Chaplin may have met him at San Simeon, where he was a regular guest, or through Marion, with whom he seems to have been intimate, or maybe through socialite-AD Harry Crocker.

Crocker himself plays the window dresser who gets so infuriated with Charlie, and he’s excellent. Though short, and ultimately deleted, it’s a much more challenging role than Rex, the King of the Air in THE CIRCUS. Long takes, lots of business and expressive pantomime. The actors have to sustain it and communicate it without the aid of title cards or cutaways.

The scene depends for its effect on a hierarchy of stupidity. The mouth-breathing Lederer, barely conscious or alive, is at the lowest end of the idiot spectrum, regarded with horror by Charlie. In an earlier film, at Keystone or Essanay, Charlie might have bullied the dolt, but here the only cruelty is in the simple observation. It’s still a bit cruel. We can call him an idiot, maybe, because he’s just a comic type, not a specific syndrome, though David Robinson goes further and calls him “a haunting figure whose malevolent, wooden-faced idiocy gives him the look of a distant and mentally-retarded cousin of Buster Keaton,” a beautiful turn of phrase except for the slur (if you look up the origins of the phrase “mental retardation” you discover it’s actually racist).

Charlie himself is in the middle phase of the idiot scale — his obsession with pushing the stick through the grating, even though he’s just passing the time, is one symptom, his inability to understand that pushing one side or the other results in an identical effect, and only pushing the centre can be expected to work, is the other plank upon which his dumbness rests.

But Crocker’s shop man is the third kind of idiot. Like Oliver Hardy, he’s just intelligent enough to think he’s smart, but not smart enough to realise he’s an idiot. He gets obsessed with Charlie’s stick problem, and excited and infuriated about it. Charlie at least is smart enough to know it doesn’t matter one way or another. He’s never agitated about his dumb stick. Although he does get possessive of it when the message boy shows an interest.

Charlie’s incomprehension of Crocker is a subtle joke in its own right: the gag being that Charlie is completely unable to understand a clear and explicit pantomime.

The fourth form of idiocy, I guess, is that of the street gawkers who stop to watch Charlie. They don’t even have any ideas to suggest. Their passivity may tell us something about Chaplin’s attitude to his audience, or that may be a reach. But once again, as in THE CIRCUS, Charlie finds himself an unintentional entertainer.

Chaplin was very pleased with this sequence — “a whole story in itself” — but it had to go, precisely BECAUSE it was so self-contained, so it was left to Kevin Brownlow to issue it as part of Unknown Chaplin, thirty years after it was shot, by which time Chaplin, Lederer, Crocker and probably everyone else in the crowd and behind the camera, were gone.

Stranger from Venice

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2022 by dcairns

I picked up Simon Louvish’s book Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, not sure what I could expect from it. David Robinson’s Chaplin is so very, very good, it didn’t seem as if Louvish could cover the same ground in an illuminating way. At least he had the decency to do it AFTER he’s written about nearly every other comic of the twenties and thirties, I thought.

But the book is EXTREMELY good. Not a replacement for the magisterial Robinson work, but a very useful companion.

It reminded me that THE CIRCUS’s sideshow opening sequence was shot in Venice, California, marking the Tramp’s return to his place of origin (in KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE back at Keystone). Which connects up in a couple of weird ways to the new presence in Hollywood of Robert Florey, Chaplin observer and future collaborator (assistant/whipping boy on MONSIEUR VERDOUX).

Florey wrote of seeing Chaplin on his way to Henry’s, the restaurant run by actor Henry Bergman, one night ~

“There was infinite sadness in the spectacle of Charlie, alone in the night. A man whom the smartest salons in the world would have fought to entertain, was quietly walking, alone in the shadows, his hands in his pockets and the brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes. It is true that the life of artists in Hollywood, especially in the evening, when the day’s work is finished, cannot be compared to existence in Paris or London, but to see Charlie Chaplin, alone on the boulevard, like some little extra without a job or a place to live, wrung my heart.”

It’s also a very dreamlike, and a very Chaplinesque image. It’s hard to not to imagine a bowler hat when Florey mentions Charlie’s hat, but of course it wouldn’t have been.

By coincidence — not even a meaningful coincidence, just a regular coincidence, I recently picked up Charles Beaumont’s The Magic Man, a short story collection which includes the little classic Perchance to Dream ~

“Right away the dream started.I was walking along Venice Pier. It was close to midnight. The place was crowded, people everywhere; you know the kind they used to get there. Sailors, dumpy looking dames, kids in leather jackets. The pitchmen were going through their routines. You could hear the roller coasters thundering along the tracks, the people inside the roller coasters, screaming; you could hear the bells and the guns cracking and the crazy songs they play on calliopes. And, far away, the ocean, moving. Everything was bright and gaudy and cheap.”

Perchance to Dream was adapted by Rod Serling for The Twilight Zone, and directed by Robert Florey. But the filmmaker who captured the exact mood of Beaumont’s dream was Curtis Harrington in NIGHT TIDE. And Harrington met Chaplin at a party, and apparently asked him about, not THE CIRCUS, but his earlier Sternberg production, A WOMAN OF THE SEA ~

“I actually asked Mr. Chaplin about it in person, when I was very, very young. I went to my first Hollywood party and there were a lot of big stars there—Charlie Chaplin and Harlan Pressburger, who produced The Shanghai Gesture, so I spoke to him about working with Von Sternberg. I was very busy at this party, you know, to be in the presence of these people I’d only read about (laughs). Anyway, you can read about The Woman of the Sea. […] Robert Florey, the French film director, he also saw it. He wrote about it in his book but it’s only available in France.”

The full interview is here.