Archive for City Lights

In the Ghetto

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2022 by dcairns

The Ghetto scenes are perhaps THE GREAT DICTATOR’s weaker inventions — it’s harder to mine comedy from nice people being nice, and the problem of how to depict the actual depredations of the Nazi state in a satire become more pressing. But they’re not terrible, or embarrassing, just occasionally uncomfortable.

Chaplin descends from the GHETTO sign using his new crane, and tracks through the environment (another T-junction naturally) as two Hynkel goons approach. Sliding past them he discovers a doorway to a courtyard and follows a civilian in.

The two main exposition guys, the gloomy Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovitch) and the perky Mr. Mann (Bernard Gorcey, yes, father of Leo) exchange reflections on Hynkel’s speech and the barber’s condition, without ever noting the curious resemblance between the two, and then Hannah, played by Paulette Goddard, artfully smudged, is introduced.

Chaplin and Goddard had separated by this point, but still apparently got along, so she gets to be the only repeat leading lady of the feature films.

The introduction — a potted biography by Jaeckel, followed by another crane shot, drifting upwards of its own accord to capture her exit from the house — is clumsy enough to recall Billy Wilder’s dismissal of Chaplin as a talking picture man: “like a child of eight writing lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth.” One can accept the statement as being somewhat just, some of the time, without it actually being a deal-breaker: yes, this dialogue is certainly clumsy, but it’s somewhat beside the point. The key stuff in the film is not dialogue-dependent, until we come to the end.

“The airy-airy-airy-airy-Aryans,” is not a good song. I suspect it was left to the actors to make it up on the day. But that’s fine. Why give the bastards a good song? Chaplin could, of course, have written “authentic” Tomainian lyrics, but the stormtroopers are not supposed to be entertaining. They do use humour as part of their malevolence, in the manner of bullies everywhere. But they’re not allowed to be funny, which is good.

Among those playing stormtroopers in this film are: Hank Mann, the main prize-fighter from CITY LIGHTS, a Chaplin collaborator since A FILM JOHNNIE, ie Chaplin’s first year in movies… this is his last Chaplin perf but he kept acting until 1961; Eddie Gribbon (Canvasback in the JOE PALOOKA films); Eddie Dunn (Detective Grimes in the FALCON films); George Lynn, who’s also in TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

The Lubitsch film reminds me: the Great Ernst said he was treating Nazis differently in his film than was customary. His Nazis are not smirking sadists, enjoying their work. They’ve been doing this for years, and they’re BORED of the incessant cruelty. It’s a very smart choice: Chaplin’s thugs have dated — you can understand him saying that if he’d known about the true conditions in Germany he couldn’t have made the film. Portraying them as thugs, bullies, gangsters, was the best solution most filmmakers could find to the problem of this unfamiliar variety of evil, making it comprehensible in some way to US audiences. But it diminishes the true evil.

Still, there’s something I like about Hollywood films with American actors playing Nazis — THE MORTAL STORM, for instance. Hynkel is specifically Tomainian — he has his own personal language, which besides him only Herring seems to speak. His hoods are just like everyone else, but worse.

What I’m getting at is that Nazism is a worse form of evil than any mere criminality, but as we’re increasingly seeing today it’s not necessarily specific to a race or nationality. Also, Lubitsch’s Nazis seem less inadequate as a dramatic depiction because they’re not trying to seem evil or vicious, just businesslike, banal, bored.

The Sunday Intertitle: Dawn

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2022 by dcairns

The last scene of MODERN TIMES… the Tramp’s last scene as a silent character… is composed of just four shots, with intertitles.

A lovely view of the empty road — pan onto a hard shoulder and a full-figure two shot of Charlie and the Gamin sat at the roadside. He is making his feet more comfortable for the long walk ahead, and after presumably a long walk behind. She is tightening her bindle.

Match cut on this movement to a medium shot of the G. She becomes tearful. Rather than a cut, a moment after she buries her face in the crook of her arm to sob (Paulette Goddard, despite her showgirl origins and never having been in a silent film before, is more like a silent movie actor in this, as the term is usually understood, than anyone else), the camera pans to Charlie, whistling, and then noticing (it being a genuinely silent scene, her sobs do not travel). Pan back with him as he shifts closer to comfort her. So this one shot does the business of three.

Charlies gives a pep talk and they hit the road — a match cut on their getting up leads us into a heroic wide shot, trucking back as our stars advance down the road at us. The classic Chaplin head-to-toe composition but with a relatively rare camera move (though MODERN TIMES is more mobile than most).

Charlie reminds Paulette to “Smile” via pantomime. Which is the name of the song playing, but it hasn’t received a title or lyrics yet.

Chaplin jumps his camera 180 to show the couple retreat, backlit by the rising sun, up the shining asphalt lined with telegraph poles and scrubby palms towards hazy distant hills.

“There is every sign that he consciously recognised this was the last appearance of The Tramp, twenty-two years after his first appearance at Keystone in 1914. The optimistic end–for the first time Chaplin trots off towards the sunset [sic] not alone but in company with the girl, won at last–taken with the clown’s ultimate discovery of a voice, gave the film an air of finality.” ~ David Robinson, in the 1972 Sight and Sound review I got my hands on purely fortuitously last week.

I guess fortune plays a role here two — while Chaplin was thinking that time was running out for his brand of silent film, despite the box office success of this one. Nobody else was holding out against sound, we could argue that the story of MODERN TIMES simply demanded this ending, regardless of any desire to give the Little Fellow a suitable FINIS. Also, if CITY LIGHTS or THE CIRCUS had been Chaplin’s last appearance in character (we can say that the Jewish barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR, a talking character, is the same guy in costume but not wholly in character) they would gain in significance and also seem like magnificent, timeless curtain calls for the famous figure.

But MODERN TIMES, if you could somehow shuffle the filmography around, would lose out, at least in the pang of its ending. Other Chaplins where he apparently gets the girl, or a stable companion, are different: THE KID and CITY LIGHTS end with a slight question mark — how is this going to continue? Unanswerable in both cases — will the Tramp fit into Edna Purviance’s elegant household, is he going to marry the formerly blind flower girl? The movies stop at a point of beautiful affirmation but, as Walter Kerr noted, they HAVE to stop there, because what happens afterwards is a puzzle. The square one endings seen in THE TRAMP, THE CIRCUS, and many others, totally work in themselves, affirming the Tramp’s essential rootlessness. Only THE GOLD RUSH concocts a finale that seems to set out a forseeable life of ease. What all this demonstrates I guess is that Chaplin was so good at endings, any of these might have seemed a suitable note to end his tramping career on, GOLD RUSH alone lacking a really suggestive evocation of uncertainty.

MODERN TIMES’ last image suggests two contradictory ideas: our heroes walk off into the future, and the past. In 1936 and for some years after, it would surely have seemed possible to imagine them still out there, scrounging a living, Now, of course, that is a hard illusion to sustain. Both actors lived to a decent age, but are both gone, buried in Switzerland. The Tramp is immortal, but he belongs to the past. He’s out there in those hills, maybe, but they’re black-and-white hills, composed of light or celluloid not earth, alive with the sound of nothing.

The Stripey Hole

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

The prison sequence in MODERN TIMES contributes to the film’s episodic feeling. Nothing that’s planted here is used later. Chaplin could have had himself arrested and placed immediately into a van with Paulette, I think. But, on the other hand, placing our first glimpse of her “Gamin” before the prison term helps tie the different parts of the film together. And the prison sequence is very funny. I wonder if any of the ideas here came from CITY LIGHTS, where the Tramp has a spell inside which we never see (and quite rightly).

Cast into dungeons dark dank and donk — Charlie shares a cell with, of all people, Prince Barin from FLASH GORDON, made this same year. I knew if I kept blogging for a decade and a half things would start to make sense. (Paulette Goddard’s later work with QUIEN SABE?’s Damiano Damiani in LA NOIA is another charming connection, and I’ve already pointed out how FLASH recycles sets from FRANKENSTEIN designed by Charles D. Hall, who is also responsible for the production design in MODERN TIMES) Charlie is perturbed by Barin’s needlepoint. Having this big guy — a more naturalistic Eric Campbell — thread a needle in your direction is, from Charlie’s alarmed reaction, like gazing down the barrel of a gun.

Dissolve when the convicts go to dinner indicates to me that Chaplin has made a trim. I always liked the cheap gag of his meal being ladled into his plate while he’s otherwise occupied, and when he discovers the slop has apported in front of him, he looks upwards as if some passing seagull must be responsible. Silly and low and wonderful.

NOSE-POWDER! This is an excuse to have Charlie turn into a heroic berserker warrior, as he did in EASY STREET. It’s also a surprising post-code drug reference. How was it allowed? It’s true that Charlie doesn’t consciously take the drugs, and the drugs are being smuggled by bad guys. And Charlie uses the illicit substance as a condiment, rather than shooting up as he did (accidentally) in EASY STREET. But the seven-per-cent solution turning him into an unstoppable crimefighter seems like not the message Joe Breen was anxious to get out.

Anyway, I love the dramatic iris-in on the drug connection. A technique audiences of 1936 would not have been accustomed to seeing on their screens for close to a decade. The IMDb doesn’t seem to know who this guy is. I would like that information.

Love the dynamic pan to the salt cellar. Chaplin’s camera is already getting hyper. Now we get to see Charlie deliver a masterclass in what he imagines coke is like. It’s very moreish, apparently. In case we struggle to imagine how eating the stuff would work (oh, it would work, I think), Chaplin has himself wipe the stuff across his lower face so he can also inhale it.

Distracted by Prince Barin — under the influence, does Charlie see the guy abruptly clad in a breast plate and plumed helmet? — Charlie attempts to deliver a forkful of cocaine mush into his right ear. Like William Lee in NAKED LUNCH, reaching for a cigarette on the wrong side of his mouth, he has forgotten where his face is.

The ebullience Charlie now feels — showing Prince Barin where he can get off — does seem like plausible cokehead arrogance. Rotating mechanically on the spot when the convicts are sent back to their cells does not. It’s Harpo zaniness, and another illustration of Henri Bergson’s notion that comedy comes from people behaving like machines.

In a daze, Charlie accidentally escapes, and is panic-stricken when the call of a cuckoo brings him back to reality. An interesting use of sound — the bird does not appear.

JAILBREAK! One of the two gunmen is Frank Moran, with his “wrecked jeep of a face” (Manny Farber), a few years before he became a favourite player of Preston Sturges (“Psycho-lology!”)

Charlie thwarts the breakout with a dashing display of Peruvian courage, reacting to gunfights with flashing fists, as if he could deflect bullets with his cuffs like Wonder Woman (he won’t get magic cuffs until the end of the movie) and defeats his enemies by using an iron door as an offensive weapon. Charlie has been able to play the upright citizen, but only while coked out of his face, which I suppose makes it acceptable.

MODERN TIMES star Adenoid Hynkel; Lucretia Borgia; Fat Whiskered German Soldier / The Kaiser’s General / Bartender; Porthos; Mr. Whoozis; Norwegian Radio Listener (uncredited); The Millionaire’s Butler; Prince Barin; Cardinal Richelieu; Eggs; Frederick F. Trumble (uncredited); Tough Chauffeur;