Archive for David Gill

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: An Eleven Letter Word

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2019 by dcairns

What unmentionable word is John Gilbert mentioning here in THE BIG PARADE (1925)? Not BASTARDS, surely. Too many letters. I think it must be BUTTFUCKERS.

You have to remember, it was a different era.

I first knew of this movie through Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood series, which I saw on first airing some thirty-nine years ago, so it’s pretty bad that it’s taken me this long to catch up with it (and worse that I open my analysis with a sodomy joke). Sometimes the makers of that legendary series would make a film look even better than it was, by careful extraction of the juiciest morsels, and that’s sort of true here. Nearly everything involving the pastoral love affair with Renee Adoree is either a drag, or frankly incredible (not her fault). And then there’s the repulsive Karl Dane as a comic relief buddy out of Nosferatu’s worst nightmares.

But the great bits are indeed great, elevating the whole proposition to well-deserved classic status.

Vidor writes in his book that he took care to always film the advancing US army traveling from screen left to screen right, because on a map, west is left and east is right. An army going from America to Europe and then advancing should have a rightward movement — this will seem subconsciously CORRECT to an audience and if you stick to it, all confusion can be avoided. It’s a beautiful, simple, almost dumb idea.

In fact, Vidor abandons it for his most celebrated sequence, the death march through the forest. I’m not sure why. Much of the scene is purely frontal, but for the really wide shots, the army is moving right to left — maybe because that creates slightly more tension in a western audience comfortable reading text from right to left.

Vidor specified that the scene should be scored with just a slow, solo drum beat — which he had used to choreograph it during filming, his soldiers marching and dying to the rhythm. Carl Davis, rescoring the movie for Thames Silents, can’t bring himself to go THAT stark and simple, but he does allow the steady, deadly percussion to dominate.

The most impressive thing, though, is how Vidor initially keeps Death in the background.

As the men march, we slowly become aware that there are bodies strewn here and there among the fallen leaves. Gilbert has to step over one, which brings them more sharply into our consciousness. Then — BANG! — an out-of-focus figure in the background throws up his rifle and drops.

You can just see him, on his knees by Karl Dane’s elbow on the right.

Then, in a closer shot on Tom O’Brien, another one goes (far right). The closer view makes the casualty seem even more incidental, somehow. Our protagonists seem unaware of what’s happening (an ambiguity of silent cinema: surely they’d hear the gunshots?). By putting the fatalities in the background and out of focus, Vidor somehow emphasises them by refusing to emphasise them. There’s a greater quality of “Look out!” since we can see what the men cannot.

There are a lot more great moments in the film. The POV that follows, tracking towards an enemy position… It feels like this may have influenced the execution scene in PATHS OF GLORY, the hit in the woods in MILLER’S CROSSING, the climax of THE WAY AHEAD…

THE BIG PARADE stars Count Vronsky, Nag Ping, Starbuck, Wolf Larsen and Stupid McDuff.