Archive for Charlie Chaplin

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: Kid Kaiser

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2021 by dcairns

THE BOND is sometimes not even counted as a proper Chaplin film and I’d only ever seen a few seconds of it. I didn’t realise it was such a substantial piece. True, it’s basically an advertisement — selling war bonds. Chaplin was somewhat obligated to make it as he was receiving a lot of criticism for not being in uniform and dying in a ditch, which is apparently what we want from our geniuses.

Some evidence suggests that the film was not his top priority — he made it in just a week, shutting down production on A DOG’S LIFE when he was reminded he was supposed to be doing this. The sets are, uniquely for Chaplin, simple white line drawings on a black background. If he was providing this thing free for the war effort, he’d be damned if he’d spend a lot of money on it.

But THE BOND is really good! The sets — presumably by Charles D. Hall, drawing (literally) on his Karno stage experience, are striking and delightful. It would have been interesting to see CC experiment more in this mode, maybe for one of his numerous dream sequences. Some critics have admitted the cheapness of Chaplin’s sets and argued that this was a shrewd choice, as Chaplin didn’t want to the backgrounds to upstage him. I, on the other hand, deny that the sets are cheap, except in the very early films — but these graphic jobs could be used to justify the argument.

The film has a simple, effective structure: we’re taken through a variety of bonds: the bond of friendship, the bond of love, the bond of marriage, leading up to the liberty bond. What’s striking is the film’s cynical attitude to the first three types of bond. Albert Austin as the friend bores Charlie with a supposedly funny story, then hits him up for a loan. Like a lot of rich people, and especially those who have been poor, Charlie was known to be somewhat tightfisted, and probably he’d been plagued by hand-out seekers once his success was known. As the embodiment of love, Edna flirts outrageously, showing an ankle the saucy minx, so that what we’re seeing is clearly pure, or impure, lust. Marriage is shown as another grift, a means of parting the poor groom from his money. This is all fascinating since Chaplin, on the rebound from Edna, was to marry Mildred Harris in October 1918. David Robinson pretty much implies that teenage actress Mildred was on the make, hoping to advance her acting career and profit financially from a union with the insanely famous comic.

The film does not satirically undercut the bonds it’s supposed to be selling… that would be going too far. But the scathing depiction of other bonds does rather make one wonder.

As he would again in SHOULDER ARMS, Syd Chaplin plays the Kaiser, advancing lecherously upon Lady Liberty (Edna again), as he would upon Molly Wright necessitating his flight from the UK some years later. It’s a little uncomfortable to see him being so much himself. This of course is Liberty’s second appearance in a Chaplin film, after the notably astringent depiction in THE IMMIGRANT.

Walloping Syd/Kaiser Bill with a very large mallet, the only bit I’d seen before, is good, cartoonish fun, and the fact that he takes so long to fall down, legs getting more rubbery, manner more crosseyed and dazed with each Whack-a-mole smack, is extremely amusing to me. Syd was a talented performer, curse him.

The creepy lunar Cupid is played by four-year-old Joan Marsh, later a platinum bombshell in pre-codes. Albert Austin doubles up as Brummie Uncle Sam.

Man and His Mut(t)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2021 by dcairns

A DOG’S LIFE, Reel #3. Now read on…

David Robinson’s ultradiligent Chaplin bio uncovers the purchase of some beer for Mut the dog in A DOG’S LIFE. Apparently it was necessary to get the young fellow drunk so Chaplin could use him as a pillow. Not the sort of thing one approves of, obviously, but not on the same level as tripping horses. They could have got a vet to etherise the pooch, but that would have been MORE risky.

Edna gets the boot from the Green Lantern. That job had no future anyway. She’s fired for not making nice with a rough customer, the sort of situation that would turn up in films back in the day without anyone thinking it was “dark” or “inappropriate for children.”

Charlie (Chaplin) is awoken by Scraps (Mut) kicking dirt in his face. But the day gets better: Scraps has dug up the bulging wallet given up to muggers by a drunken millionaire in the previous reel. Charlie is suddenly in funds.

Obeying a natural impulse, Charlie returns to the joint he was kicked out of the day before in order to swank it up. He rolls a cigarette singlehandedly while standing motionless on the crowded dance floor to display his cool. The fag disintegrates in his hand.

He finds Edna, her bag packed (she’s been LIVING in the Green Lantern?) and consoles her. He hi-hats the barman, flashing his new-found loot, still unwisely in the original wallet. The thieves, spotting this from a handy position above, maybe realise this fellow’s stolen their stealings, or maybe they just see money and do what they do: in the speed of the storytelling, one kind of assumes they recognize the billfold as their own ill-gotten gains. They wallop Charlie in the midst of his elaborate mime about settling down in the country.

Charlie is then ejected by the barman — he does an extraordinary unconscious tiptoe lope as he’s dragged by the collar. Edna comforts him outside, and Chaplin performs a recovering memory in great detail — you can see just where in the plot he’s got to, purely from his expressions.

With barely a pause, Charlie sets off to steal back the money he stole from the men who originally stole it. We don’t see how he manages to get back in, but we see him hold a finger to his lips to hush Edna, so it seems SNEAKING is involved.

The thugs are sitting in their upper booth, from where they snatched Charlie’s wad. There’s a convenient curtain with a convenient tear at eye level. Charlie has hold of a mallet (for uncorking casks). He crawls along behind the bar, beneath the distracted barman (it’s only the front door bit that’s conveniently ellided, the rest plays fair).

CLUNK! Charlie knocks Thug #1 unconscious with the hammer, a blow merely suggested, with Lubitschian delicacy, by the wafting of the curtain and the sudden poleaxed expression on Thug #1. He’s played by Albert Austin and this is his apotheosis. His signature role for Chaplin is staring blankly from just above a cookie-duster. So, playing eyes-open unblinking unconsciousness for a protracted spell is very much his forte.

This is a major stepiece for CC, maybe the best thing he’s done in his career to date. Inserting his arms under the stupefied Austin’s, Charlie IMPERSONATES HIS ARMS. It’s a great gag with an uncanny edge — so much so that Alejandro Jodorowsky (a mime director who worked with Marceau) was able to spin a whole movie out of it (padded out with an elephant’s funeral and the like). It inhabits a spectrum with the dance of the bread rolls in THE GOLD RUSH — a fantastic beast is created out of bits of human and/or other matter — the miracle of Frankenstein.

Coming up with the idea is impressive, but Chaplin also executes it with staggering skill. He has to make Austin seem plausibly alert and responsive — in his usual, zonked and glassy manner, anyway — using only his arms and hands. He succeeds in a thousand ways, all while his victim’s zombie gaze testifies mutely (how else?) to the absurdity of the proposition.

Many many variants are developed — see the comatose Austin clink glasses, drink (using Charlie’s mouth, chin propped on shoulder Red Queen style), decorously daub his lips with a kerchief which is then stashed, after fumbling attempts to blindly locate an inside pocket, under his jacket shoulder.

A lot of this performance is necessary to get Thug #2 to split the loot, and then to get both shares. As Thug #2, old favourite Bud Jamison, steps in to what would have been the late Eric Campbell’s role for the asking, bringing less menace but more dopey, inebriated gawping. He is convincingly the kind of person who would fall for all this.

According to Vonnegut, slapstick = grotesque situational poetry.

The callousness of reconcussing Austin when he threatens to come to is also commendable, and the funny pay-off when both dupes regain consciousness after Charlie’s departure puts the tin lid on it — Jamison wakes, and sees Austin sitting opposite with a broken beer bottle, and makes the inevitable assumption, so Austin gets thumped AGAIN.

Charlie is nabbed by that damn bartender and there’s a brilliant bit of wallet-snatching, as the barman (Dave Anderson, a tall Swede who seemingly worked as an assistant director as much as he acted) snatches the waller from Charlie, Thug #2 snatches it from him, Thug #1 snatches it from him, he snatches it back, the barman snatches it back from HIM and Charlie completes the loop by snatching it one last time and legging it.

Is it arguably a weakness that Scraps, let a lone Edna, has nothing much to do during the climax? Doesn’t matter.

The chase leads back to Syd’s lunch wagon, and a brilliant bit of poetic transfiguration transforms this into a shooting gallery, with the Brothers Chaplin as moving targets and a china plate getting somehow bullet-ridden so Charlie can use it as a kind of mask, peering through the perforations.

For once, the kops (more and more like actual cops, less like comedy devices — grim facts of life) actually make things better, grabbing the bad guys while Charlie, Edna and Scraps flee to the safety of the epilogue.

But not before Chaplin has shown us, gleefully, that the unoffending Syd character is a ruined man.

Chaplin can be cruel.

But he treats himself and his family unit to a bucolic finale, as he plants seeds in his own rather laborious manner, and Scraps, visibly male throughout, miraculously blesses the little home with a litter of pinto pups.

***

Unhappy aftermaths:

Would Mut/Scraps have continued as Charlie’s boon companion, or made further cameo appearances when the plot demanded it? Probably not, but he didn’t have the chance, poor fellow, because when Chaplin went on a well-earned vacation after completing this short, Mut pined away and died. It seems he was so used to Chaplin’s daily attention on the shoot, he couldn’t do without it.

Syd’s acting career went in fits and starts, as he spent a lot of time managing Chaplin’s business affairs, which he seems to have done shrewdly — fortunes were made. But he made a few features as star — a version of CHARLEY’S AUNT, and THE MAN ON THE BOX, which is not bad. He made a couple in Britain, too, which is where he raped and mutilated a co-star called Molly Wright, and fled the country to escape the consequences. British International Pictures settled out of court, which tends to suggest Syd was guilty, and Wright certainly didn’t bite her own nipple off. Horrifyingly, Syd apparently joked about the incident later. (Also horribly, the documentary Sydney, the Other Chaplin, while not denying his guilt, tries to shrug off this assault. Syd’s biographer, Lisa Haven, says that nobody’s ever heard of Molly Wright, she didn’t do anything else, so… SO?)

I guess Charlie believed Syd’s protests of innocence, or else Syd was such an essential companion (not just the bonds of [half]blood, but a fellow survivor of that awful Victorian childhood) that he couldn’t part with him. It still gives me the creeps.