Archive for David Robinson

Big Bertha

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2022 by dcairns

The trenches of Woodland Hills.

Chaplin opens with a surprising tracking shot — a pre-Kubrickian vision of WWI. Lewis Milestone and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT might be the influence. Dissolves link different bits of tracking shot, as if Chaplin wouldn’t quite get the oner he was after, or as if he wanted to make this a series of glimpses implying a much bigger conflict.

The hills in the background are recognizable as the view from the back of my friend Randy Cook’s house in Woodland Hills.

As in MODERN TIMES, we have two cinematographers, but this time it’s Rollie Totheroh (as usual) and Karl Struss — as contrasting a pair of Hollywood artists as youcould choose. Struss had shot things like Griffith’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN and Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE. It’s tempting to associate him with the mobile camera and any mood lighting, and Totheroh with more straightforward head-to-toe prosccenium framing.

David Robinson’s Chaplin confirms this — Chaplin was for unknown reasons growing dissatisfied with Totheroh’s work — perhaps an obscure feeling that it was old-fashioned, which was true. But Struss “wasn’t giving him enough light. He was getting in tree branches and things to achieve ‘mood’. It might have been ‘mood’, but it wasn’t what Chaplin wanted,” AD Dan James is quoted as saying.

It’s a real problem — the most important quality for photography in a visual comedy is CLARITY — the figures need to READ. Everything central to the gag needs to be absolutely clear. The slightest ambiguity squashes the laugh. There are no effective slapstick noirs, no slapsticks with impressionistic visuals, and quite possibly what doomed Spielberg’s 1941 is the very attractive, diffuse, backlit cinematography and the Louma crane movement.

Big Bertha — the first character we meet with a name. The Jewish Barber remains anonymous. There was a real BB howitzer in WWI, the 42 cm kurze Marinekanone 14 L/12, but it was much shorter and less dramatic than the one constructed by J. Russell Spencer and Chaplin’s art department. (A shame Charles D. Hall had just stopped his collaboration with Chaplin — their first film together was SHOULDER ARMS and it would have been nice symmetry if this were the last. There’s one account from the set of ALL QUIET — which CDH also designed — suggesting that the designer served in WWI, but no family tradition confirms this).

VO! Who is this narrator? The IMDb is silent on the matter. His voice is deeper than Chaplin’s, but has similar clipped diction. Could CC be lowering his timbre, or just drilling someone else to deliver the lines as he would?

Horribly, Bertha’s target is Notre Dame, which would survive the war, and then survive the next war (IS PARIS BURNING? showcases the cathedral standing proud at the end) and then get gutted by fire due to human error, bad luck, poor contingency planning.

But, with Charlie the Jewish Barber pulling the trigger, Bertha merely explodes a nearby outhouse. The film’s first visual joke is a very Burt Reynolds type gag.

I was thinking I’d cover the whole WWI sequence in this post, but NO — we need to stop and ask WHO IS THE JEWISH BARBER? In what ways is he or is he not the Tramp/The Little Fellow/Mr. Wow-Wow?

NEXT

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 Sunday Nonsense: Chaplin Sings!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve set myself what may be an impossible task (for me). I thought, Yes, the song in MODERN TIMES deserves a post of its own. But what to say about it?

Popping out to buy some milk, ONE answer occurred to me. Chaplin got quite a few bad reviews for MT, though the public flocked to it. One accusation the critics flung at him was that he was just repeating favourite old gags from his earlier days. I think we can dismiss that as nonsense. But there ARE callbacks to Keystone, Essanay and Mutual, and this may be one of them.

Charlie, having lost his crib sheet — his cuffs, where the lyrics to his song are written — improvises a song in gibberish Esperanto, with expressive gestures that make the saucy meaning abundantly clear. It’s that old staple of Keystone, the expository mime. Remember how I hate it when Mack Swain or Mabel Normand turn to the camera and make a series of rapid gestures attempting to explain their motivation to the audience?

Chaplin is a master of breaking the fourth wall, but typically in his mature work only he is allowed to do it, and not for explicatory purposes, but merely to establish and expose his rapport with the audience.

But here — in the guise of a performance — Charlie really does tell us a story with pantomime. And it’s aimed right at us. “With Chaplin you can always sense the proscenium,” complained Richard Lester, and it’s certainly a conscious choice here. The audience is all around him but Charlie directs his performance straight at the camera, for the most part. One assumes that there are more diners behind the fourth wall, who have the best seats.

Thanks to Donald Benson for pointing out that, while Chaplin takes his tune from Je cherche après Titine, a 1917 hit by Léo Daniderff, the story he tells seems inspired by The Girl was Young and Pretty, a composition by… Charles Chaplin. His father. Lyrics.

So this is a return to his roots in more than one way, while also being a brave step forward (almost a decade after the coming of sound).

It’s also a kind of ending. The Little Fellow has given utterance. “A sacred principle is breached,” as Simon Louvish puts it. It’s going to be even harder for him to stay mute after breaking his silence. He manages one more scene in this movie, then it’s all change.

Chaplin had been considering various solutions to the problem of the Tramp’s voice. He’d thought about mumbles and monosyllables, which would work OK for Tati. But making him capable of poor speech is again a distortion of the character. He’s a somewhat inarticulate figure in THE GOLD RUSH, but mostly he seems to talk quite well. We just don’t hear it. And any form of speech would tend to anchor him to 24fps, and to reality, in a way that Chaplin had always avoided. Chaplin has one big shoe in truth, the other in fantasy, and changing the balance upsets the… balance.

Yesterday I bought a secondhand issue of Sight and Sound from 1972 and by coincidence it has my man David Robinson’s review of MODERN TIMES, then being reissued in Britain for the first time in seventeen years (!). Robinson says of the song, “we see instantly and beautifully resurrected all the vitality and absurdity of the English music hall in which Chaplin was bred, and acquired the skills of comedy.” It’s a terrific piece and I’ll return to it.

The reception of the piece is richly ironic — Charlie makes a success of his nonsense song, but just as he conquers showbiz — having failed in all normal occupations — he’s forced into exile on account of his connection to an underage girl. It’s like a jumbled autobiography and prophecy. Obviously it wouldn’t do for the eternal wanderer to find a home in the theatre, or would it? Of the previous features, only THE GOLD RUSH produces a settled ending for its hero: rendered implausibly wealthy, Charlie can carry on behaving exactly as before, because millionaires are supposed to be eccentric. To allow him a singing career would be to open up a whole new narrative thread at the ninety-minute mark, so it has to be curtailed, and so it’s back to the open road — TBC