Archive for Charlie Chaplin

The Sunday Nonsense: Chaplin Sings!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve set myself what may be an impossible task (for me). I thought, Yes, the song in MODERN TIMES deserves a post of its own. But what to say about it?

Popping out to buy some milk, ONE answer occurred to me. Chaplin got quite a few bad reviews for MT, though the public flocked to it. One accusation the critics flung at him was that he was just repeating favourite old gags from his earlier days. I think we can dismiss that as nonsense. But there ARE callbacks to Keystone, Essanay and Mutual, and this may be one of them.

Charlie, having lost his crib sheet — his cuffs, where the lyrics to his song are written — improvises a song in gibberish Esperanto, with expressive gestures that make the saucy meaning abundantly clear. It’s that old staple of Keystone, the expository mime. Remember how I hate it when Mack Swain or Mabel Normand turn to the camera and make a series of rapid gestures attempting to explain their motivation to the audience?

Chaplin is a master of breaking the fourth wall, but typically in his mature work only he is allowed to do it, and not for explicatory purposes, but merely to establish and expose his rapport with the audience.

But here — in the guise of a performance — Charlie really does tell us a story with pantomime. And it’s aimed right at us. “With Chaplin you can always sense the proscenium,” complained Richard Lester, and it’s certainly a conscious choice here. The audience is all around him but Charlie directs his performance straight at the camera, for the most part. One assumes that there are more diners behind the fourth wall, who have the best seats.

Thanks to Donald Benson for pointing out that, while Chaplin takes his tune from Je cherche après Titine, a 1917 hit by Léo Daniderff, the story he tells seems inspired by The Girl was Young and Pretty, a composition by… Charles Chaplin. His father. Lyrics.

So this is a return to his roots in more than one way, while also being a brave step forward (almost a decade after the coming of sound).

It’s also a kind of ending. The Little Fellow has given utterance. “A sacred principle is breached,” as Simon Louvish puts it. It’s going to be even harder for him to stay mute after breaking his silence. He manages one more scene in this movie, then it’s all change.

Chaplin had been considering various solutions to the problem of the Tramp’s voice. He’d thought about mumbles and monosyllables, which would work OK for Tati. But making him capable of poor speech is again a distortion of the character. He’s a somewhat inarticulate figure in THE GOLD RUSH, but mostly he seems to talk quite well. We just don’t hear it. And any form of speech would tend to anchor him to 24fps, and to reality, in a way that Chaplin had always avoided. Chaplin has one big shoe in truth, the other in fantasy, and changing the balance upsets the… balance.

Yesterday I bought a secondhand issue of Sight and Sound from 1972 and by coincidence it has my man David Robinson’s review of MODERN TIMES, then being reissued in Britain for the first time in seventeen years (!). Robinson says of the song, “we see instantly and beautifully resurrected all the vitality and absurdity of the English music hall in which Chaplin was bred, and acquired the skills of comedy.” It’s a terrific piece and I’ll return to it.

The reception of the piece is richly ironic — Charlie makes a success of his nonsense song, but just as he conquers showbiz — having failed in all normal occupations — he’s forced into exile on account of his connection to an underage girl. It’s like a jumbled autobiography and prophecy. Obviously it wouldn’t do for the eternal wanderer to find a home in the theatre, or would it? Of the previous features, only THE GOLD RUSH produces a settled ending for its hero: rendered implausibly wealthy, Charlie can carry on behaving exactly as before, because millionaires are supposed to be eccentric. To allow him a singing career would be to open up a whole new narrative thread at the ninety-minute mark, so it has to be curtailed, and so it’s back to the open road — TBC

The Sunday Intertitle: Cafe Society

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2022 by dcairns

Leaving the factory, Charlie is pushed around by a nasty cop, and takes an accidental revenge — stumbling on a chance arrangement of objects, he hurls the last brick of his career. Ever the unconscious anarchist.

The running gag of imprisonment is played one last time. Going to prison is like going to the cinema — when you step outside, the world has changed. But in this case, it’s for the better: Paulette has a job. Dancing solemnly to a hurdy-gurdy in the street, she’s alent-spotted by Henry Bergman, loyal Chaplin supporting actor and gagman in his final screen role. Bergman suddenly looks much older, but then the gaps between films are now years long. He may have lost a bit of weight, or gravity may have started pulling it all down his skeleton. He’d live another ten years, though, and I hope they were happy. Did his cafe stay open? Was it like the one in this film?

Paulette Goddard’s dancing: she was a Ziegfeld girl, but the subtle assistance of a choreographer might have been useful. But I guess the idea is that she’s a charming natural.

The hurdy gurdy and the cafe are right next to the jail on the dockland street we’ve seen previously.

Chaplin recycles his “One week later” title to signal his own release. If I’d known you only got two weeks for lobbing masonry at people, I might have thrown more bricks in my life. The Gamin is waiting for him once more, this time in new clothes. Time for Charlie to start his final short-lived career, as “Smile” plays again.

If MODERN TIMES is a satire on western civilisation in the twentieth century, then I guess this is the part where Chaplin rips the lid off the singing waiter racket. Paulette rapid-fire talks Bergman into hiring Charlie. “Can you sing?” I wonder if this was enough to tip off the sharper viewers in 1936 that Charlie was going to give voice? It’s smart to make us wait…

Charlie, being a silent actor, is naturally dismayed at the prospect. Fingers to throat, he tries to explain the impossibility of it to the G. Somehow, I’m never really bothered by the conceptual clash of characters talking in intertitles but singing vocally.

Meanwhile — the County Juvenile Division issues a warrant for the Gamin for Vagrancy. When I hear the word, I always think of the Vatican newspaper correspondent’s denunciation of Elizabeth Taylor for “erotic vagrancy,” a charge that might apply here, though they meant something else by it. Nobody else ever made the hobo life so appealing.

The form has a bunch of blank entries for “Name,” “Description,” etc, but the big lunk filling it in makes like two scratches of the pen and the thing is somehow complete.

Charlie is waiting tables. As always happens when he crosses a dance floor, he becomes entangled with a dog (well, vaguely similar incidents occur in A DOG’S LIFE and THE GOLD RUSH). He does show some promise in the job, though, falling over and getting up without spilling anything from his highly-stacked tray. On the other hand, as a natural unconscious anarchist, he’s going to have trouble with kitchen doors marked In and Out. They’re swing doors, you see. They open both in AND out. So why can’t they be used interchangeably?

If MODERN TIMES frequently looks back to Mutual days (and beyond), this sequence refers to THE COUNT and CAUGHT IN A CABARET. But Chaplin, giving the Tramp his last solo starring role, is not content just to revisit old favourites. The gags are substantially fresh.

Whimsy! Charlie borrows a drill from a workman to put the holes in a block of cheese.

As Charlie’s longest-suffering patron, Lloyd Ingraham (INTOLERANCE) manages, by the power of acting, to make us immediately unsympathetic towards a figure we might otherwise relate to. He just wants his dinner. But he’s obnoxious about it. The head waiter, played by Fred Malatesta, is another asshole. Faced with these characters, Charlie’s inefficiency becomes a heroic trait

From their movements, the two waiters inadvertently provoked into a fight by Charlie’s door trouble, are clearly silent clowns. The IMDb is silent on the identity of one, but claims the other to be John Rand. I wouldn’t have recognized him, and still don’t. And I missed him in CITY LIGHTS, as the other tramp who dives for a cigar! I guess he’s the one with hair here. As with Bergman, this is his last appearance for Chaplin, though he’d make a few more appearances elsewhere.

Crossing the dance floor with Ingraham’s duck, Charlie is swept up in a sea of humanity and loses the duck to a waiting chandelier. It can happen. Ingraham delivers a study in apoplectic frustration as his tray approaches, then retreats, finally arriving duckless. Retrieving the wandering fowl, Charlie makes a slip-up carving it and the greasy bundle is abducted by a drunken footballer. I never enjoy loutishness in films, whether Charlie is perpetrator (in early shorts) or victim, so this bit makes me feel too much sympathy for Charlie to find it funny.

The waiters start singing — not really synchronized — while Charlie rehearses. It’s clear his job retention, always dicey, is going to depend on his voice (!). Unfortunate that in a film with so few words, one of them, via the waiters’ song, should be “darkies.” But I always view this kind of discomfort as salutary. It’s good to be shocked by the recognition that this kind of thing was once casual pop culture discourse.

Charlie has trouble with his lines. Paulette writes them on his cuffs. How she’s going to fit all the verses one I don’t know, but the sheriff has already demonstrated that writing in this film is a magical activity. The lyrics we get to read set up what the song is about, so that when Charlie tells it with Italianate nonsense words and pantomime, we will have a helpful clue as to what he’s on about. It’s the story of a rich old guy seducing a pretty girl: it’s hard to see any self-awareness from Chaplin about this narrative, a familiar one in his life. I think he doesn’t relate to it because he’s not fat.

Full of confidence with his crib sheet on his wrists, Charlie steps out to sing —


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

I always thought Charlie got rehired by the Electro Steel Company an hour into MODERN TIMES, but no, it says plain as day that he’s now working for the Jetson Mills. But the cogs look the same — I’m assuming designer Charles D. Hall simply rearranged some of the earlier set and added new bits. If he built a whole new clockwork contraption then the effort was kind of wasted because it LOOKS the same to me.

OK, I compared. Totally different. Because of course each machine had to perform a different comic function — Charlie has to be fed smoothly through the first, like a string of sausages, whereas the second has to bring us the head of Chester Conklin, through various apertures.

Chester Conklin! Returning for his first co-starring role with Chaplin since 1914 (excluding their cameos in SOULS FOR SALE, 1923, which I haven’t bothered reviewing here). The two comics fall into their perfect interplay as before: this time, pretty much the white clown and auguste pattern. The sour boss and incompetent assistant. One of Chaplin’s meaner routines, though Charlie himself acts entirely without malice.

First, he nearly crushes Conklin in the press, and succeeds in turning an oil can into a Joan Miró abstract form. He helpfully suggests, by pantomime, that it might make a good shovel in its new form. On his second attempt, he presses Conklin’s jacket into rigidity and turns his “family heirloom”, a fob watch, into an enlarged 2D abstraction of itself.

Poor Chester’s work day is not destined to improve.

Next, Charlie causes the huge toolkit to fall into the machinery — not just a spanner in the works, but hammers, saws, drills… Very nice sharp pan from disconcerted Charlie to longsuffering Chester, staring in frozen abomination. Then they’re pelted with flying metalwork, establishing that the machinery is capable of grinding a toolkit to fragments.

So, when Chester himself is knocked into the works, the outcome shouldn’t be remotely funny, but the mechanism is strangely gentle with him, as it had been to Charlie in Act One, if we can speak of acts in so meandering a narrative. Chester’s head, still attached to his little body, emerges from amid the cogs to bark silent instructions. Pulling levers, Charlie is able to make the head retract and emerge elsewhere, now turned around to face the ceiling. As his former understudy Stan Laurel might have done, Charlie tries to pull the head loose through the tiny opening, much to Conklin’s consternation.

Then the lunch whistle blows — a sound effect which is also music of a sort. Charlie sits down to eat a sandwich — he’s a little callous, here, but it’s just thoughtlessness. When the Conklin head demands his own lunch be fed to him, Charlie is happy to postpone his own pleasure and feed the head. This proves to be a fairly appalling process and Chester might have been happier going hungry. It’s also a minor tour-de-force by Chaplin, using foodstuffs and tools in odd ways, as inadvertent instruments of torture really.

First he plants a bunch of celery in Chester’s face (salting it first), then he nearly chokes the poor man by slipping a boiled egg down his windpipe. Choking is a HUGE motif in Chaplin. A subset of the eating theme. The cup of coffee doesn’t want to pour in smoothly, so a funnel from a handy oil can is used. Nasty aftertaste. So instead, a roast chicken makes a nice organic funnel, the hot fluid passing through its body cavity and into Conklin. I love coffee and I love chicken, so I don’t see any intuitive reason why chicken-filtered coffee shouldn’t be delicious, but instinct tells me it’s not going to be a success. Too much of a good thing, perhaps. But Conklin seems to like it: I suppose anything that helps erases the taste of oil is going to be welcome, even if it’s the taste of caffeinated poultry.

This all seems like a deliberate echo of the feeding machine sequence from Act One, though in place of the unfeeling device we have Charlie, solicitous, motherly. But still awful if you’re on the receiving end. If the first sequence was a satirical attack on the dehumanisation of modern society, this one is just about how the human element is no great shakes either.

In his early, unfunny notes on the film, Chaplin seems to be deliberately trying to come out of surprising doors — sympathising with the boss rather than the workers, for instance. He no doubt sensed the danger of being predictable. And some of this survives into the film. There’s no sense that the inhumane working conditions that drive Charlie mad at the beginning are connected to the strikes which cause him economic hardship in the middle. It’s all just background that makes life tough for the Little Fellow.

Lunchtime over — just a few minutes, conditions really ARE harsh — the machines are restarted and Chester can be freed: Charlie rushes about, treating the clockwork as a Whack-a-Mole from which Chester’s sconce might protrude at any instant. Instead, he’s borne up and out on a conveyer belt, his helpless squat somehow touching and childlike, though whether it makes me think of perambulator or potty I’m unsure.

With Chester liberated, work can now resume, except it can. We’re on strike again. Beautiful mirroring shot of the two partners in comedy, scratching their heads in befuddlement at the ways of the world. And in itself it mirrors the opening shot of the scene.

Chester will return in THE GREAT DICTATOR!

Charlie will return in the next section of MODERN TiMES — tomorrow!