Archive for City Lights

It’s a Gas!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin is BOUNCING at Mutual. If THE RINK is just riotous misbehaviour with a fig leaf of farce plot, EASY STREET, with its mostly-parody temperance theme, a “reformation melodrama” as David Robinson calls it, is tightly plotted and the rambunctiousness is sort of ABOUT something.

It’s a very simple plot — simplicity is working well for CC at Mutual, by concentrating on one strong narrative line, or intercutting a couple, he’s been drawing back from the slightly random cutaways he’s apt to use: Character X is asleep. Here he is asleep. Here he is STILL asleep because we needed to trim a bit out and didn’t want to cause a jump cut. Here he is waking up, which is important, but we’re seeing it now because we had another gap to fill, and you won’t actually see him do anything for another five minutes.

This kind of thing was no doubt common in other comedies, but Chaplin does it A LOT. Whichever nouvelle vague fellow (Rivette?) said that Chaplin was the greatest editor only has a case to make once you get further along in the career.

Fade-up on Charlie asleep in an exterior corner of the New Hope Mission. He evidently hasn’t read the sign or got the message. He’s just been billed as “The Derelict” and then an intertitle calls him The Lost Sheep and the first image confirms those words in strong terms. I’d argue that basically only the first and last shot of this brilliant short are serious, the rest is playful and parodic even when it seems melodramatic or sentimental.

A thing I hadn’t realised before is that Chaplin preceded his attempt as sentiment by making fun of sentiment, and this is how he slowly dripped it into his work.

Charlie awakens and hears Edna Purviance singing. She must be singing beautifully because her hair is all backlit. She’s so good, Charlie goes into the church to investigate. Some mild comedy is produced from his uncertainty how to behave. Chaplin has produced some quite caustic commentary about churchmen (the opening of POLICE) and some flat-out contemptuous slapstick (the rotten egg in the hymnbook in THE TRAMP) so this seems at first a big change of viewpoint. But there’s still something lightly satirical — Charlie is only interested in religion because he’s interested in Edna. His feelings for her are quite tender and chivalric, rather than the impish and impudent flirtations of yore, but they’re romantic not religious.

Charlie’s change of character is signalled by him returning the collection box he’d planned to steal, which takes the curse off any preachy quality. Rather than being touched by his reformation, we gasp at the perfidy he’s moving on from.

There’s a comedy drunk in the mission played by John Rand, which means we get to see him without a big black moustache. Later he’ll play a kop and the cookie-duster is back on for that.

Also: the dramatic close-up, expertly used. Closeups in early Chaplin were usually just shots of the girl with a puppy or something. A bit of cuteness for variety, one of those slightly random cutaways. This is strong filmmaking.

There’s some tasteful humour with a baby — Charlie only THINKS its micturated on his leg. The baby, no trouper, stole Charlie’s moustache, perhaps intent on becoming a Pubert Addams avant la letter, an outtake that seems not to have survived.

We cut from this backlit, religiose idyll to the startling contrast of Easy Street itself. The T-junction becomes a Chaplin meme — it looks like a London street, as everyone has by now pointed out (I read it in Robinson first). But the shape is a useful one because it gives the impression you’re seeing a lot more than you are. A surrounding city is implied but unshown and unbuilt. In fact, we’ll see later that if you run off one end of Easy Street you find yourself in an LA location shot, and if you keep running you wind up back on another end of Easy Street.

The scene is of indescribable chaos. A bunch of thugs is beating up a bunch of kops. Eric Campbell, “the bully,” is leading the thugs. Beardless and shaven-headed, he’s discarded his usual air of an overinflated melodramatic villain of the moustache-twirling variety, and is now a figure of terrifying strength and violence, and at the same time a comic exaggeration of that idea.

Now Charlie has to choose to become a kop, something almost unthinkable. In THE CURE, Chaplin would delete a scene where he acts as unofficial traffic cop to a lot of drunken (dis)orderlies and their bathchair-bound clients, and the assumption by Brownlow & Gill, who use the clip in the priceless doc series Unknown Chaplin, and David Robinson agrees, is that Charlie can’t be seen to impose order out of chaos when his whole personality is based on the reverse of that. Well, in this film, he does little BUT impose order out of chaos, but at least he does it by hitting people on the head.

The police station interior seems to have been shot during or after a shower of rain, and indeed bad weather did delay filming on this one. Mostly Chaplin just waited for the weather, but he seems to have decided to compromise on this one shot. Since his studio was open-air, he couldn’t very well have shot the mission interiors with rain pouring down.

The reason the kops are desperate for men is that Big Eric keeps mangling them, sometimes so badly that they are transformed into floppy dummies. We love a good floppy dummy here in the Shadowplayhouse, and this film has some terrific substitutions, performed without the aid of the jump cut. Charlie doesn’t know any of this, however.

The first honest citizen to get a look at Charlie in Kop kostume is convulsed in hysterics. Charlie knocks the guy unconscious with his baton and has him hauled off the the cells. Any worry we may have had that our agent of misrule is going to become boringly civilised is dispelled. He’s going to carry on being a little brute but enjoy his ability have people locked up instead of just thumping them.

As promising as this line may be — or not — the movie has other plans. Charlie is given Easy Street as his beat, which means he’ll rapidly be running into Big Eric. The film has set Eric up as a genuine figure of terror, which is a whole new thing for Chaplin to play with. The hobos in THE TRAMP and the “gypsies” in THE VAGABOND were early attempts at setting the Little Fellow up against vicious characters who don’t know they’re in a slapstick comedy and don’t expect to play by those rules, but this is more intense, because Chaplin has taken the trouble to show Eric being savagely effective against someone other than Edna.

Now we have SUSPENSE — “He’s behind you!” — dramatic irony/poignancy — Eric has been set up as a menace and nothing about Charlie suggests he’ll be able to cope with his hulking opponent. It’s great. Fear is such a useful component in comedy. My mother never liked Chaplin particularly but anything that injects terror into comedy gets her SCREAMING at the TV.

Eric has just played his own game of peekaboo, causing the entire degenerate population of Easy Street to vanish whenever he whirls to face them, so he has been set up as not only a man who can tear the pants off policemen, but one who can terrorise a score of people with a mere look.

This is all impressive because it’s both funny and dramatic, and the dramatic parts — the fear and poignancy — enhance the comic, and vice versa probably.

Chaplin’s slow approach from extreme long shot stresses his tininess compared with Eric. Standing parallel, they’re eye to eye only because of the tall sidewalk, and when Eric steps up onto it, dwarfing Charlie, it’s a little like the big guy emerging, inch by inch, from the sidewalk loading bay in CITY LIGHTS, until Charlie’s bravado vanishes in his shadow.

Also, tracking shots! There are five simple motivations for moving the camera — following characters; showing a moving character’s POV; the psychological reaction intensifier; telling a story by showing things in succession; exploring space. Surprisingly, Charlie’s tentative first moves were of the last-named kind, and they sometimes seemed like distractions. But his pull-back from Edna’s portrait in THE VAGABOND worked as a combination of spacial exploration and storytelling. His push onto the dance floor in THE COUNT is a stab at following characters, but the relationship of dancers and camera was slightly amorphous. Here, tracking along with Charlie and Eric keeps them roughly the same size but also adds importance to them, increases the involvement of our eyes, intensifies our emotional response.

It’s all the more suspenseful because Charlie is simply trying to pretend Eric doesn’t exist — just about the weakest thing he could do.

Charlie wanders around Chaplin’s set, followed by Rollie Totheroh’s camera in a deadpan pan.

As Charlie loiters by the police telephone, trying to get his hand on the mouthpiece without the rest of his body showing any interest — so that Eric will disregard his hand, seeing it as an independent creature for which Charlie is not responsible (this is a good technique if you’re operating a puppet in plain view and you want people to believe it’s alive) — Charlie produces his sickly smile, a Rik Mayall effect not seen on the Chaplin countenance since the cinema scene in TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. And that wasn’t even the Tramp character.

Grabbing the phone but getting caught at it, he transforms it by mime into a snake charmer’s flute, to which surely Bully Eric could have no objection? I mean, everybody likes music, right?

This has an unexpected but gratifying effect — Eric, who is not the sharpest lug hammer in the box, grabs the phone and looks into it, to see if it really does have musical properties. I think. The motivations of large and terrible men may be slightly beyond me. Charlie seizes the moment and clonks his new friend on the bristly occiput with his truncheon. No effect.

This may be the first time anyone thought of doing a basic slapstick wallop and having it not work, and using that for comic terror. A technique copied by everyone, or certainly by Roger Moore and Richard Kiel. I think maybe Sean Connery and Harold Sakata also.

Everything Chaplin’s doing is suspense-based, without Hitchcockian editing but with performance that adjusts the audiences focus from character to character in less than the blink of an eye. And it’s all comedy too.

Eric is apparently taking such pleasure in his work — menacing is fun! — he wants to demonstrate what he’s going to do to his victim on a lamp post — Easy Street is a portal to Victorian London so I’m not saying “streetlight.” It’s like when Withnail attributes imaginary threats to wrestler Jeff Wode:

‘In fact, he’d probably tell you what he was going to do before he did it. [Starts acting out the scene in his head] “I’m going to pull your head off”. “Oh no, please, don’t pull my head off”. “I’m going to pull your head off because I don’t like your head.”‘

Eric can’t tell Charlie because it’s a silent film, so he SHOWS, and Charlie seizes the chance to humanely gas his opponent.

Fiona, like many audiences before, was fairly horrified by this part of the struggle — Campbell, an early progenitor of the mutant chief in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, makes a grisly spectacle of succumbing to asphyxiation. But it’s all done with scientific care and the community’s best interests.

Fiona was twice fooled into thinking Eric was dead. He’s like Michael Myers, only with a face.

Charlie is now a figure of fear like Eric had been, and he reprises the gag where the street’s populace creeps into view behind him then flees in terror when he turns.

When the other kops come scurrying round the corner to see if Eric is really defeated, I unaccountably get an Akira Kurosawa vibe. Certainly Kurosawa saw Chaplin films as a kid, and certainly he became a master of moving actors in groups in wide shots. It’s the way they scatter horizontally upon emerging here…

Charlie lights a ciggie and blows up the gaslight.

Next — the movie just pretends that didn’t happen — he helps a desperate woman who’s stolen some groceries. That is, he helps her steal MORE. He’s an unconventional policeman. Like Special Agent Chester Desmond, he’s got his own M.O.

Modus operandi!

This middle part of the film is somewhat aimless, but Charlie’s good deeds impress Edna favourably. We meet Loyal Underwood, a relatively new member of the stock company, playing a feeble little guy who’s somehow fathered a small army.

Eric regains consciousness at the kop shop, snaps his handcuffs, and initiates a donnybrook. Batons have no effect! He shoves one constable out of shot for an instant, and when he drags him back into view, the fellow has metamorphosed into a floppy dummy, and is used to belabour his fellows. All done with framing rather than the more usual jumpcut.

Meanwhile Charlie is feeding the children as if they were chickens. “I do that because I despise them,” Chaplin told someone or other. Strange, for a man who’d have so many kids himself.

Eric goes home and gets into a Punch and Judy fight with his wife — for a moment she seems like she might subdue him by sheer ferocity, but soon she’s in trouble. Charlie rushes on over to see what’s up, then rushes away when he sees what’s up. Eric follows.

There now occurs a chase sequence as M.C. Escher might have designed it. Charlie runs off the right arm of the T-junction, onto an LA street, turns right onto another L.A. street, then reappears on the left of Easy Street, a journey which looks like this —

It’s a good trick if you can do it. Perhaps a hole in spacetime is involved. Perhaps the same phenomenon that allowed a woman with a cell phone to turn up for the premiere of THE CIRCUS?

Having successfully folded space like a DUNE navigator, defeating Eric should be a doddle, but in fact Charlie struggles quite a bit. He’s chased through Eric’s flat, then winds up back there, then manages to drop the stove on his enemy’s head. I vividly recall my Dad explaining to ten-year-old me exactly how fatal that would be.

Chaplin could presumably have ended the story with Eric’s defeat but surprisingly he keeps going. Edna is abducted by a bearded Henry Bergson and, in a parody of Griffith’s to-the-rescue cross-cutting, he keeps cutting back to The Derelict sitting idly in Eric’s ruined home, relaxing after his busy day.

Edna is imprisoned with a sinister junky who, after shooting up, becomes possessed of rapacious desires. I don’t know what’s in that syringe but when Charlie’s dropped on it, he transforms into a furious Viking berserker. It’s a startling drugs moment, repeated in MODERN TIMES where an accidental noseful of marching powder transforms the Tramp into a fearless and energetic thumper of felons.

Pounding and kicking the junky and Henry is a mere nothing, taking a flying drop-kick at eight men and knocking them all out of frame is slightly more effort. Judo throws follow. Henry’s ample belly serves as a kind of trampoline to propel our hero back to (Easy) street level — you can tell Chaplin has someone waiting to catch his arms and pull him the rest of the way. The clinch with Edna is delayed slightly by a pratfall — Chaplin is anxious not to let excitement completely replace comedy.

The ending, with Easy Street transformed by the judicious use of extreme violence into an urban paradise, is obviously somewhat satiric. Eric, who did not die, is now a smartly dressed model citizen. An employment agency, strategically placed, lends some slight credibility to the reformation of the neighbourhood. A new mission is prominent too, and when Charlie and Edna walk towards it arm in arm, all thought of parody has flown.

Chaplin hasn’t stopped bouncing — his next film accentuates the reformation-parody so it can’t be taken seriously at all, and substitutes increasing anarchy for the enforcement of order. And the Tramp takes a breather…

Charlie the Champion

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2021 by dcairns

So, Leo White just turned up in THE CHAMPION, playing the kind of mock-melodramatic villain Chaplin himself had essayed a few times at Keystone. He’s impressively sleekit. He went on to bit parts in feature films up until the forties, including MR. SKEFFINGTON and CASABLANCA (I guess everybody really DOES come to Rick’s). I imagine he’d changed his look by then.

Unusual to see three short people in a row: silent slapsticks thrived on physical contrasts. Also unusual: Edna gets a medium shot. It’s simply used as a cutaway, which is what Chaplin did with most of his closer angles.

The Snidely type offers Charlie five big ones to take a fall, wafting the notes under his nose until the bribee attempts to filch one with his teeth. An oft-repeated gag: Legree keeps slapping Charlie on the back, heartily, until he gets laid out with a retaliatory slap. Charlie then pockets the money — it’s not certain that he intends to take a dive, but he may not have the option.

On waking up, Dastardly actually says “Curses!” and gives a little invisible maracas-type wag of his fists. Never knowingly underplayed. He confronts Charlie. An essentially honest man, Charlie intends to simply keep the money and do nothing in return. He wrestles with his conscience — and wins. When Snidely Dastardly Legree follows him into the shower with a small pistol, he drenches the scoundrel.

The big night: Charlie’s dog, forgotten about for at least a reel, makes his return, watching as Charlie prepares for the match by slugging down beer (the thing he’s best at slugging). Charlie shakes the anonymous pooch’s paw before going to his doom. The dog’s expression, indeed its whole attitude, is pretty funny.

And “Broncho” Billy Anderson, Charlie’s employer at Essanay, makes a cameo in the front row of the audience. Simon Dick Whiplash has just sat down on him by mistake.

Moments later, Ben Turpin, sans cookie-duster, appears as a belligerent ringside vendor, clambering over the audience to deliver his wares.

In Charlie’s last fight, in THE KNOCKOUT, he was the referee, and had to compete for attention with a riot of other clowns. Here, even in a wide-shot, the action is arranged so he’s always the centre of attention.

Upon catching sight of his opponent, Charlie goes into a series of overlapping faints. He then rubs his tiny buttocks in the sandbox, like a dog dealing with a dag, until they are two white spots.

What follows seems every bit as choreographed as the fight in CITY LIGHTS, but there’s less attention to character, with Chaplin simply trying whatever seems funny in the moment. It’s very skilled, but there isn’t an overarching comic idea. Charlie as coward, Charlie as incompetent, Charlie fighting while concussed… it leaps from one inspiration to another. Charlie is suddenly good enough at boxing to knock the champ down. As in CITY LIGHTS and THE KNOCKOUT, the ref gets a drubbing. Charlie discovers that when a punch from the champ sends him into a stagger, a punch from himself can revive him. The gag of the ref trying to count out two dazed boxers at once, as they keep getting up and falling down, appears here for the first time. It’s a good one.

Repeating gags, like trying to use his opponent as a chair when he’s knocked over onto his shoulders with his ass up, allows Charlie to double the laughs (slower audience members only catching on the second time round) and to emphasise the resemblance to a dance, which is a gag in itself. Keaton, who never repeated a gag, was doing things the hard way, as always.

The dog gets a closeup. Charlie’s never had one.

The fight goes from round one to round twenty when Charlie flips the card. There have in fact been multiple rounds, we’ve seen the fighters return to their corners (Charlie’s trainers “revive” him more vigorously/brutally each time) but apparently the art dept. only had one card made.

Finally, appalled at the spectacle of his master’s pulverisation, the pooch enters the ring and takes hold of Bob Uppercut’s leotards. Broncho Billy performs an expository mime in the audience, repeatedly pointing at his own derriere. The dog is swung around by his jaws but does not release Bob’s seat. It’s pulled by the hind legs. He has a death grip. He’s trailing bonelessly from his rear end, a mere carcass, all his powers of concentration invested in his teeth. This ain’t exactly Queensberry Rules, but Charlie seizes the moment just as his dog has.

Charlie has forgotten to include any cutaways of Edna during the fight — apparently she wasn’t there, but she comes in handy as a fade-out shot. Taking the romance very slightly seriously allows the film to end on something other than the climax of a chase or battle, as if it actually meant something. Later, maybe it will.

It’s a lovely shot, too.

The Sunday Intertitle: Sausage, Dog, Boxer, Pug

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , on March 7, 2021 by dcairns

I’ve written a little about Chaplin’s 1915 boxing romp THE CHAMPION before. The two main points I made back in 2014 were, I think, key — Chaplin is starting to work on our sympathy, this is a dry run for the big fight in CITY LIGHTS, and he has a dog, anticipating A DOG’S LIFE. “Give the hero a dog” is time-honoured screenwriting wisdom if you want to create easy sympathy — whether Chaplin had heard this or just came up with it himself is unknown to me.

THE TRAMP, considered Chaplin’s first conscious attempt at pathos, is still a couple of films away — though he seems to have settled on making the Little Fellow at least less of a thug than in his Keystone days. Even as a drunken lout in A NIGHT OUT he’s disagreeable but not quite vicious. Starting this one by offering his last hot dog to his not-so-hot dog companion makes him a nice guy in our eyes. He even sprinkles some salt, mysteriously produced from his inside jacket pocket (maybe it’s lint) on the commestible to make it more appetising. The dog cannot be convinced to eat: maybe this is take thirty and he’s stuffed full of sausage by now. He does look stuffed full of sausage.

Enter Spike Dugan, a pugilist (Ernest Van Pelt), stuffed full of sausage also — a proper Goliath-type foe for our man. Not quite an Eric Campbell man-mountain, but BIG and muscular, looking quite capable of disassembling the star in a set-to.

Charlie’s way of making his nameless dog “heel” is striking — reaching behind himself with his cane, he nudges the canine hindquarters with the tip. Every few paces. The next shot is presumably an early take: the dog pauses to cock a leg and mark his territory at Spike Dugan’s Training Quarters. Charlie is going to reject this job prospect (The Hero’s Mythic Journey: The Quest Refused) but finds a horseshoe at the door, a clear invitation from Lady Luck.

The usual trouble with one of those swaying Weeble punchbag dummies, which keeps bashing into Charlie because he keeps bashing into it. Next, Charlie finds himself sat next to a punchy pug constantly shadowboxing an invisible opponent. Charlie’s look of “I might be in trouble here” is very characteristic, and I think somewhat new to the character. We’ll see it a lot in the future whenever he meets someone who seems likely to cause problems, or someone crazy, which can be the same thing. Fascinated by his benchfellow’s feints, Charlie studies the one-sided bout until, like the great mime he is, he too can see the imaginary welterweight, and counts him out. Infectious insanity.

Spike Dugan, we discover, is wearing a small mattress under his pullover. No idea if this was a fashion among pugilists in 1915 or if it’s padding to allow for a forthcoming stunt. It’s not exactly invisible.

I’m wondering who was on intertitle duty on this one: it’s good and slangy. Chaplin, despite being a silent comedian, did have a strong appreciation of language. Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside has him memorising a new word from the dictionary every day — no idea if that’s true, but it feels truthful.

The mutability of objects: having been rendered punch-drunk by a little warm-up with Dugan, Charlie returns to the bench and is handed a set of gloves. He immediately puts one to his forehead, transforming it into an ice-bag for just long enough for him to discover it isn’t cold.

I note that few of the sparring partners (one of whom is future director Lloyd Bacon) actually spar. Mostly they just stand there, sacrificial hams, waiting to be laid out. Dugan uses them as human punchbags. Their prone forms are soon heaped up on the bench, crowding in on Charlie and his thoughts.

See how much Chaplin can cram into a single moment. When the last sparring partner goes off to be slaughtered, Charlie’s features cycle through the following: watching the other fellow go, upper lip curled with sickly dread; eyes close in a philosophical sigh at the tragedy of it all; a despairing inspection of the comatose slugger to his immediate left; turning away in nauseated horror; a little pout of distaste; foot-tapping impatience (displacement activity for the urge to flee); an attempt at a carefree whistle to soothe the nerves; it turns into a cough. This little masterclass is delivered in about eight seconds. Even allowing for undercranked acceleration, that’s impressive. And is precisely the sort of end-of-shot business the Keystone editors would have lopped off.

The film’s been going for just over six minutes and we’ve had our money’s worth right there.

TO BE CONTINUED