Archive for Cry For Bobo

The Sunday Intertitle: Four-Legged Fiends

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 20, 2022 by dcairns

Let’s try to finish THE CIRCUS. This coming week is what they call Flexible Learning Week at Edinburgh University, meaning I have no teaching. They used to call it a non-teaching week, which sounded really bad. “Oh yes, the swimming pool is open. You can go there. But it’s a non-swimming week.” Flexible Learning implies the students will still be acquiring knowledge, just without the aid of teaching. And in truth, quite a bit of learning is done that way, independently, if the student is any good.

A new status quo at the circus: Charlie is to be employed as a property man (a job he filled before, at Keyston) but his really duties are clowning. He just doesn’t know it. Trying to interpret this as a metaphor for Chaplin’s talent just isn’t going to get you anywhere, as Walter Kerr admitted, but you can take it to mean that Charlie is only funny when he’s in a somewhat real situation. I once chatted with a radio producer who was a former circus clown, and he said that he would argue with the other clowns that just running into the ring and throwing buckets of feathers at one another wasn’t any good unless it was part of a SITUATION. He was right! That was my purpose in making my own clown film: I felt the abstract nature of clowning — funny-costumed men doing strange things for no reason — would only be amusing if it were a compulsion, and then you put them in situations where they had to try to behave normally.

The ringmaster seems to be taking a big chance that Charlie will always find himself in an amusing situation when tasked with a serious job, but we’ve been following the guy for fourteen years now and we know that’s basically true. For his next trick, he’s tasked with assisting Professor Bosco, the magician (George Davis, Dutch-born background comic, a baddy in SHERLOCK JR).

All the best bits in THE CIRCUS in involve children or animals, as if you disprove a showbiz dictum. No sooner has he got Bosco’s desk into the ring than Charlie accidentally triggers… everything. Prolonged business with him trying to control the doves, rabbits, geese, balloons and piglets endlessly spewed from Bosco’s trick top hats. The act wouldn’t work well in a circus anyway, since a desk set up required the magician to face in one direction, and the circus works in the round, and are magicians usually featured in circuses anyway? Doesn’t matter. They are of the same approximate branch of showbiz.

The only downside of this plot idea is that having an audience laughing at Charlie is contrary to the usual rules of the Chaplin universe, and arguably makes things slightly less funny. Usually, only THIS audience, US, can see that Charlie is funny. We feel superior to everyone else in the films apart from him, and though we admire him we feel a little bit superior even to him because we know he’s funny when he often doesn’t. Only the leading lady is sometimes amused by him, which is her privilege.

Now the credits sequence crashes into the main body of the film, as the shots Chaplin stole and duplicated to accompany his introductory song get repeated, in their original context: Merna Kennedy on the flying trapeze. With the added business of Charlie throwing her food when the wicked ringmaster’s not looking.

Chaplin uses this routine to get an actual custard cream pie in the face gag in, which is another feature of this film: using the tired old slapstick elements, up to and including the banana peel, but in fresh and surprising ways. If I may presume a creative connection with the Great Clown, maybe we were both asking, What would make this dull stuff funny again?

Charlie is entrusted with odd jobs even when he’s not being held up to the delight of the crowd: cleaning a fish tank — he diligently wipes each fish — a real prop man has apparently divided the tank into two compartments, one with live fish swimming about in front, one in the back with dead fish for Charlie to grab and wipe; and blowing a pill down a sick horse’s neck, a job I could have told them would go wrong. Especially given Chaplin’s long tradition of gags about choking, which I trace back to a childhood trauma here.

Go wrong it does, and it leads somehow to Charlie running into a lion’s cage, which has carelessly been left unlocked, and then getting himself locked in.

As I say, the best bits involve animals. Here, the real comedy doesn’t come from the lion (“the bridge is just suspense!” as Keaton argued on THE RAILRODDER) but from the small yapping dog that happens along at the worst possible time. I’m going to jump ahead to the bit with the monkeys now, because Simon Louvish is very good on that in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey.

Chaplin apparently told actor/gagman/restauranteur Henry Bergman that he had this idea about being attacked by monkeys while in a high place, and Bergman suggested that a circus might be a logical location/situation. Louvish takes leave to doubt this, speculating that the scene is too perfect a metaphor for Charlie’s plight, mid-way through the film’s troubled shoot, to be anything other than a creative response to the predicament of being in the public eye (up a tightrope in front of a circus audience, or the biggest movie star in the world) and assailed by lesser beings (monkeys, an estranged wife and her divorce lawyers and the press). It definitely works as a reading, and I’m ashamed it never occurred to me. I was too busy admiring the conception and execution.

Well, the dog and lion bit works in a similar way. What makes it hilarious to me is the irony of a man threatened by a slumbering lion, but the thing that’s going to get him killed is a wee dug, which doesn’t even mean him harm but has just decided to bark at him for reasons of its own. “You shouldn’t be in there, are you mad?” it might very well be saying, in its own canine idiom.

Very rapidly the sequence passes through plot (a) developments — the bar falling down and locking Charlie in, Charlie nearly dropping a noisy trough to awaken the slumbering jungle monarch, the dog, and Merna showing up — hope! — and promptly fainting — hope dashed! and (b) Charlie’s quicksilver emotions, fingers in ears (if I can’t hear the dog, it isn’t making a noise), trying to calm the dog, pleading with the dog, taking a firm line with the dog, praying to the almighty. It’s like the five stages of grief, minus acceptance. And another bit of cleverness, Charlie splashing water from the trough/tray he nearly dropped, to try to awaken Merna. He is indeed a Props Man.

The main lion here was exactly as peaceful as it appears, though I note that Charlie covers the scene with himself and the beast in separate shots as much as he’s able. He’s still in there are fair bit. And the next-door wildcat, the one he encounters when trying to escape through the partition, was every bit as savage as it appears. Now, we know from the deleted scene that Rollie Totheroh was pretty good at splitscreen effects when required, so Chaplin could presumably have faked all his more dangerous interactions here, but it looks like he decided to risk it. I see none of the exposure fluctuations that make the twins scene look ever-so-slightly fake, and the lions’ and Charlie’s responses seem too perfectly synchronised to be anything but dangerous reality.

Merna eventually recovers, Charlie feigns bravado, but a snarl from the lion sends him up a flagpole, which introduces the idea of him trying to impress Merna with aerial feats…

But did the sick horse ever get his medicine?


Shave and a Haircut

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2015 by dcairns

15.06.14. LM Barney Thomson Ltd. The Legend of Barney Thomson, 43 INT BARROWLANDS BINGO Barney spots Charlie at the bingo * Cast approved flagged in Green only Production Office Suite 1:09, Red Tree Business Park, 33 Dalmarnock Rd, Bridgeton, Glasgow Graeme Hunter Pictures, " Sunnybank Cottages " 117 Waterside Rd, Carmunnock, Glasgow. U.K.  G76 9DU.   Tel.00447811946280

I can’t really review THE LEGEND OF BARNEY THOMSON because I’m very good mates with the screenwriter, Colin McLaren. One drunken evening in 2001 we watched five Scottish state-funded short films back to back, got a bit cross about them, and wrote CRY FOR BOBO as the farthest possible opposite we could conceive of to Scottish miserablism.

And, frustratingly, I can’t give you any gossip either, because I don’t know very much and I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone. I mean, I know who modeled for the prosthetic severed penis, but I just can’t tell you. (His name does not appear in this post. But there’s a clue for you — it’s a man.) And I know whose mum Thomson’s performance is partially inspired by, but I don’t think I should go into that either.

Robert Carlyle, making his feature debut, directs and also stars as the titular Barney, a put-upon barber in Glasgow. And the city has never looked better — Glasgow has its own mythic sense of itself, and the film taps into that with expressive, red-soaked visuals. Carlyle seems like a real director, not just for the strong performances he elicits, but for his visual sense and narrative control.

Barney Thomson 6

Chief among these is Emma Thompson, barely recognizable in startlingly convincing old-age makeup and a gravelly Glaswegian accent, swearing her head off as Barney’s appalling mum. When Barney accidentally kills a fellow barber, it’s to mum he turns, at which point the plot’s grisly black comedy really starts to ramp up, with rival detectives Ray Winstone and Ashley Jensen closing in on the nervous hairdresser and mum being perhaps more a hindrance than a help.

Oh, there’s also Stephen McCole (the bully from RUSHMORE), and a trio from Colin’s previous feature, Martin Compston, James Cosmo and Brian Pettifer (having a very good year, what with his turn in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). And Tom Courtenay, who’s HILARIOUS. His timing

But you can’t really trust me on any of this, since Colin’s a mate. So probably you should just see the film for yourself, right?


Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2015 by dcairns


During WWII, British Intelligence identified a fatal flaw in the enemy’s thinking: the German spymasters were prone to what the Brits called “wishfulness.” When an agent offered his services, or when a piece of possible positive information came to light, the Germans would tend to get so excited about how good it would be if the agent were genuine or the information were true, that they could pretty soon find themselves believing in it without proper evidence. As an amusing result of this, all of Germany’s spies in Britain were either double agents working for us and feeding the Germans misinformation, or entirely fictional agents invented by British intelligence. Eventually, we had so many fictional agents sending bogus intel to the Nazis that we had to form a special subcommittee to catch or kill off a few of them in the interests of realism. We were also able to bamboozle the Boche with some fake documents in a briefcase chained to a corpse floating in the sea. Like Fox Mulder in later years, the Germans wanted to believe.


But we were guilty of wishfulness on a much larger scale. Entire campaigns were launched based on the exciting hope of success rather than on a realistic assessment of the risk of failure. Watching THEIRS IS THE GLORY got me curious about the Battle of Arnhem so I picked up Arnhem 1944 The Airborne Battle by Martin Middlebrook from the library. It’s a substantial, impressive work which tries hard to be fair to everybody (it also confirms that Dickie Attenborough’s A BRIDGE TOO FAR is pretty accurate in its account, unusually for these kind of epics). Middlebrook points out the benefits a victory at Arnhem would have brought — a much earlier end to the war, quicker liberation for Holland and the shutting down of Germany’s rocket attacks on London, and an Anglo-American conquest of Germany that would have put us in a much stronger bargaining position at Yalta: Germany might not have been split down the middle, the East enduring decades of communist rule. Someone remarked that Germany’s biggest disaster in the war was winning the Battle of Arnhem.

But this is wishfulness. British military command discovered that Arnhem was heavily defended with tanks, but as this info was discovered awkwardly late in the planning stage of the attack, it was simply suppressed. Thousands of men were air-dropped to pretty much certain death. The plan was a very fragile one. The RAF didn’t want to fly too close to enemy defences so they dropped the infantry miles from their targets, sacrificing the element fo surprise which was the main advantage of an airborne attack. Here’s a quote from Brigadier ‘Shan’ Hackett which is hilarious in its analysis of the tragic absurdity of the plan.

The airborne movement was very naive. It was very good on getting airborne troops to battle, but they were very innocent when it came to fighting the Germans when we arrived. They used to make a beautiful airborne plan and then add the fighting-the-Germans bit afterwards. We brigade commanders were at one of the divisional commander’s conferences […] where this lovely plan was being presented. The Polish commander, Sosabowski, said in his lovely deep voice, ‘But the Germans, General, the Germans!’

(Sosabowski is played, incompetently, by Gene Hackman, in the Attenborough film, probably the only time I’ve seen Hackman be bad. He seems to have thought he could do a Polish accent without research, by effort of will alone, or else he just has a tin ear for accents.)

Anyway, I think filmmakers can fall prey to wishfulness too. Wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true, and the marvelous rewards available if a thing comes off does not make it any more likely that it WILL come off.

Art Linson recounts preparing an action-comedy in the nineties, and finding none of the appropriate leading men available. Willem Dafoe was suggested. An up-and-coming young star. But Linson wasn’t convinced he was a light comedian. He asked his wife one night, “Do you think Willem Dafoe could make you laugh?” She replied, “I don’t know, but I saw him smile once and I had nightmares for a week.”

But with nobody obviously bankable and better suited to be found, Linson talked himself into it. And had to burn the negative. The whole film was abandoned, and I think they managed to somehow claim the insurance, or else there was a fortuitous accident and they used it as an excuse. There you go.


When w e made CRY FOR BOBO, ace producer Nigel Smith (far right) and I packed the script with every gag we could think of. We wanted to win the commission, so we wanted it to sound as impressive as possible. But the film had to be under ten minutes long. We used lots of formatting tricks to pack a lot of content into less than ten pages — the theory is that one page = a minute of screen time, but if you have a disproportionate amount of action to dialogue, and if you pack the prose tighter than a Dashiell Hammett shopping list in shorthand, that all gets thrown out of whack.

Having won the commission, we should have then pruned the script a bit, but we fell in love with our own material and then tried to shoot all of it. I had to drop a banana skin and plank gag, but nearly everything else got shot — and the first cut was fourteen minutes long without credits. That’s half again as long as it needed to be.

Working with Nigel, the late, great Bert Eeles as editor, and resourceful assistant editor Anna Mehta, we somehow managed to hack the thing down, preserving the best jokes, keeping the story coherent, and stopping the pace getting so hectic it would just irritate everyone, but it wasn’t easy. We had convinced ourselves that we could make it ten minutes long just by playing everything fast. Wishfulness. It’ll get you in a lot of trouble. Fortunately, we didn’t have German tanks shooting at us on this one.


The best bit in Richard Attenborough and William Goldman’s A BRIDGE TOO FAR involves Frank Grimes, a young intelligence officer who breaks the news to Dirk Borgarde’s General Browning that there are a bunch of German tanks at Arnhem which could scupper the whole plan. Browning, in reality, refused to alter the plan and did not inform his superiors, his peers or his men about the tanks. Goldman had the job of writing dialogue which would explain Browning’s reasoning, or unreasoning if you prefer. I think he did a great job.

“I doubt they’re fully serviceable.”

“Then why would the Germans conceal them, sir?”

“Normal routine.”

Browning realises this is weak. “We’ve had dozens of aerial photographs taken and these are the only ones that show tanks!”

Ye-es. But they DO SHOW TANKS.

“Do you seriously expect us to call off the biggest operation mounted since D-Day… because of three photographs?”


An effective scene which utilises a human attribute insufficiently exploited by modern movies — our ability to get infuriated by idiocy. I think it’s very tempting to suspect that modern movies don’t try this because they don’t respect the audience enough to credit them with that reaction.