Archive for David Gill

The Sunday Intertitle: Will the real Charlie Chaplin…?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2022 by dcairns

Not taken with Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America by Richard Carr. Maybe the word “political” somehow makes it seem like it’s trying too hard. I picked up a copy from the library and looked up THE CIRCUS. “To modern tastes, it remains Chaplin’s most amusing film, however — the comedy that truly stands up to a twenty-first century-audience in both its inventiveness and execution.” Which tells me that Carr doesn’t much like Chaplin as a comedian or filmmaker and hasn’t bothered to watch the films with an audience, because if he had he’d see and hear them “standing up” rather admirably. It could just be he’s writing sloppily and doesn’t mean to imply that the other films don’t work anymore — certainly the word “remains” is a weak choice where I think the word “is” would better represent his intended meaning.

Not finding anything useful to my little pieces on THE CIRCUS (which is excellent, and maybe has Chaplin’s funniest scene, but isn’t his best or best-made feature in my view, not that that matters), I moved on to CITY LIGHTS, which has more “politics” maybe since it deals with the struggle to survive in the capitalist west, among other things.

Carr’s description of the film and its making are very decent summaries, though “it took time” is a rather unimpressive summary of the months of camera-writer’s-block that afflicted Chaplin when he tried to set up Virginia Cherrill’s mistaken belief in Charlie’s wealth. Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin series does a magnificent job of this, but even if you couldn’t spare the time they lavish on the question, just saying that it took over a year to solve the problem would be more impressive.

“Whatever the politics, the film remains a classic from beginning to end.” There you go with “remains” again, though it’s slightly better here. Still, Carr’s book assembles maybe the most detailed record of Chaplin’s political thoughts and contacts, including his meetings with persons as diverse as Churchill and Gandhi, John Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw. The problem is that I don’t think Chaplin’s politics are even the tenth most interesting thing about him.

Peter Ayckroyd’s straight biography Charlie Chaplin is actually quite fine, I think. Though we didn’t necessarily need another Chaplin bio after Robinson, Louvish, Baxter, and of course Chaplin himself. It’s still pretty enjoyable — Ayckroyd really knows his London, and the areas where he’s not so obviously an expert, the film history and the film analysis and appreciation, he actually does very well with. He seems to genuinely admire the films, in a way Carr can’t manage to suggest. “The details of their opening scene together, when Charlie purchases a flower before realising she is blind, too two years and 342 takes to assemble.” There you go, that wasn’t hard. Ayckroyd nails it, except for the inaccurate use of “opening” — it’s their first scene together, but it doesn’t open the film or anything else. I may not be a great critic but I’m a great pedant.

Also: “City Lights remained Chaplin’s own favourite among his films.” Bravo! A correct use of the r word.

Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s new film THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN is a pretty terrific documentary. It had big boots to fill. It is inferior to Kevin Brownlow’s documentaries with and without David Gill — Hollywood, Unseen Chaplin and The Tramp and the Dictator — because it doesn’t let the viewer see enough of Chaplin’s comedy to judge his genius. LET CHAPLIN HELP YOU! But, apart from some ill-judged reconstructions and some slightly doubtful chronology — saying Chaplin scored his films when describing his accomplishments in the twenties is an inaccuracy — it’s really very good indeed. Beautifully cut by Julian Quantrill, using a plethora of source materials in very creative ways. Beautifully narrated by Pearl Mackie. Beautifully scored by Robert Honstein.

It goes out of its way to be fair to Lita Grey, and it’s time someone did, though it may be going too far in the other direction. But she had a story and it’s worth at the very least asking, What if it’s true? If it’s true, Chaplin could be a sonnovabitch, and there’s no shortage of material to support that claim.

I was grateful to see some footage of Chaplin impersonator Charles Aplin for the first time (that I know of). And amused to learn Aplin’s defence when Chaplin sued him: “I’m not impersonating Chaplin, I’m impersonating (Chaplin impersonator) Bill Ritchie.” Unbelievable. I think if he’d claimed Billy West he might have come closer to convincing someone — West at least was a close facsimile of Chaplin. If you’re impersonating Ritchie, why do you look so much more like Chaplin than he does, and why did you tale the name Aplin? An interesting case — maybe the first time an actor sued to protect his rights, not to a film or story, but to a visual characterisation. Though Ford Sterling could presumably have sued Chaplin over MAKING A LIVING, in which the frock-coated interloper has clearly been tasked with playing a Sterling substitute.

And I suppose Kevin Brownlow could sue over being played by a lookalike in THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN, except I’m sure he wouldn’t, he’s such a nice man and obviously they would have asked him.

When running through the previous Chaplin docs, I should mention the Biography Channel one which is better than the Richard Schickel one, which is also good. I have the Biography Channel one on VHS somewhere but don’t recall who made it. Kenneth Branagh narrated it, a service he also provides for Brownlow, but it didn’t have Brownlow’s name on it and it doesn’t appear on the Branagh IMDb page. A small mystery. (It’s not the one on YouTube, presented by Peter Graves of all people.)

I’m a prestidigitator who works in a world of legerdemain

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

— those were the words four-year-old Jackie Coogan used to introduce himself to Chaplin. David Robinson notes that, with Chaplin’s love of words (something we might not expect from a silent comedian), this was bound to endear him as well as impress him. It’s also a good job description of Chaplin, and his magic act in the following sequence from THE KID shows him a veritable Cagliostro.

“I must go now, but I’ll return,” says Edna, anticipating Chaplin’s VO in THE GOLD RUSH: “I am going, but when I return, I will come back again.”

Jackie’s illness is too sudden and unmotivated to work as pathos, at least to my eyes, but it gets us where we’re going: a doctor is called (a good bit from one Jules Hanft) and Charlie happens to admit to not being Jackie’s natural father. The doc, being an officious busybody as well as an idiot, reports the case. Charlie has shown him the note that says “Please love and care for this orphan child,” which does not say “Please put this child in an uncaring institution.”

This is raw stuff for Chaplin, of course, who had been in the workhouse as a boy when his mother became too mentally ill to care for her sons. Nestor Almendros filmed an interview with Chaplin late in his life, and when asked if he was happy, CC replied “Yes, of course, I’ve got money.” Almendros was appalled by this shallow and materialistic reply, but think about what’s behind it.

Chaplin now follows the DW Griffith rulebook: charity workers, social workers and the like are baddies, just like kops. (Something I was told at a party by a social worker: if a department has a particularly bad case, like a child who gets murdered by their stepdad while supposedly being monitored by social services, the department gets its budget cut — of course making further tragedies more likely, not less,)

Incidentally, the doctor gets to do something Chaplin’s supporting cast are rarely allowed to do, post-Keystone: he turns and appeals to the audience. I guess he’s that kind of guy. Charlie’s doing it too, so why not?

The doc blusters off, still complaining about everything in sight — he’s sat on the toilet-chair which broke, the place is filthy, the stairs nearly kill him. Look how tiny Charlie’s hands are. Now it’s September!

Now the two brutes from the orphan asylum turn up. Fantastic the way the one in charge won’t even talk to Charlie, relaying his questions (“Ask him where the kid is,” while Jackie is in plain view) through his doltish underling.

Things escalate fast — these guys, apart from their lack of human empathy, are incredibly bad at their jobs. Chaplin has learned, possibly from Griffith, how to amplify the emotion of a scene with a well-placed closer shot:

jackie saves the day for now, striking both intruders with a hammer and chasing them away. Appropriately enough, I think it’s a chasing hammer. I’m interested in the balance of comedy and drama in the next sequence, the point where Chaplin’s use of comedy and melodrama together reached the sublime. The hammer thumps are something we’ve seen in Chaplin comedies before — THE FATAL MALLET is almost entirely devoted to blows on the head — and it’s gratifying to see these guys receive them, but they’re not played particularly for laughs here. We’re too concerned with the drama to be ready to laugh, I think.

The orphanarium guys return with the film’s chief kop, Tom Wilson. Wilson’s never hugely funny, but that’s fine here, we want a bit of unleavened menace. The supervisor gets a bowl of flour smashed in his face — good, good — but again, it’s part of a dramatic struggle, not funny. Jackie is successfully abducted.

Coogan, interviewed by Brownlow & Gill, describes how his hysteria in this scene was produced simply by Chaplin talking to him, explaining the meaning of the scene, a kind of hypnosis. No child cruelty was involved, though one suspects Jack Coogan Sr. would have been on board if it had been.

That interview is one of the greatest things ever, though I sadly note that Jackie is NO LONGER CUTE. I’m impressed that the camera operator risks a zoom at a key moment, as an emotional intensifier.

Meanwhile, Charlie is struggling with the two heavies, looking straight at us — a little too much? Never mind. Chaplin’s cinema is inherently proscenium-like, our presence as audience is regularly implied, the fourth wall is not only broken, it’s dissolved, and the effect is whatever the opposite of verfremsdungseffekt might be,

The asylum guy gets two more blows on the head, and this is technically slapstick, in the midst of tragedy, so it plays a little oddly but not so it bothers us. Charlie escapes through a skylight and we now get an exciting rooftop chase as he clambers along the houses, actually preceding the child-catcher’s van down the street, before jumping in the back of it and duffing up the supervisor.

The IMDb lists Frank Campeau as the Welfare Officer (a better title than the ones I’ve been giving him) but Campeau, a character guy for Fairbanks and later in many westerns, seems to be a different man with a different man’s face, so I would like to know who this excellent baddie is.

Again, the W.O. getting kicked from the van and left in the dust is very satisfying, but doesn’t play as comedy, exactly. It’s a slightly amusing incident in a dramatic situation in a comic film.

The eventual embrace with Jackie is unbearably emotional. And then, as Coogan noted years later, Chaplin felt the need to top it off with a bit of humour, so he chases the driver away with a series of feints — now that we know it;s going to be alright, we can laugh freely, and it’s a terrific release. Charlie & Jackie then walk off, victorious.

BUT — in a genuinely clever bit of plotting, the doctor now shows Edna the note which Charlie showed him, and the third act is set in motion IMMEDIATELY.

I will write about this tomorrow.

Flapshod

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 28, 2019 by dcairns

Peter Bogdanovich’s latest, Keaon documentary THE GREAT BUSTER, is…enjoyable enough. You get to see a great deal of clips from Buster’s films, and Bogdanovich nicely divides these between quick montages and long sequences where you get to see gags develop, at least somewhat. There are also an array of talking heads, some of whom know what they’re talking about. Even Johnny Knoxville justifies his presence, though Tarantino makes no sense. Norman Lloyd, Richard Lewis and Dick Van Dyke are invaluable, and Werner Herzog turns out to be a superb, offbeat choice, but it’s a shame the real expert, Patricia Eliot Tobias of the Buster Keaton Society, isn’t allowed to say more since everything she says is terrific, and better than Bogdanovich’s own VO.

PB wrote some terrific profiles back in the day but was never exactly a film critic, and too much of what he says here is just bland praise like “hilarious” or “great.” Which shouldn’t need saying, and for any benighted soul in the audience who ISN’T amused, doesn’t help them understand the appeal.

There’s also an odd structural device, which doesn’t pay off at all — the first two-thirds of the film tells Keaton’s life story in order, but skipping out the features he directed. We hear about Keaton’s hardworking final years, then the death, and then, after this emotional climax, PB takes us through the features, thinking to surprise us with the information that Keaton’s work was rediscovered towards the end of his life. Which is no surprise, really, and we’ve never really felt that Buster was forgotten, since we’ve seen how he was never out of work…

I can sort of see the theory behind this. But I’ve also seen this story told before, by Kevin Brownlow & David Gill in Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, which tells the whole story in correct sequence, is full of people who knew and worked with Buster, and has nearly all the good interview footage of the man himself.

While it’s perfectly right that Buster should have a new major documentary every ten years or so, I doubt the Brownlow/Gill will ever be beaten.