Archive for David Robinson

The Little Punk

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2021 by dcairns

I think we can forgive Jack Coogan Sr. for calling his son a little punk, but maybe not for spending all his earnings as a child star, or for taking him to see a lynching. Anyway, dispel those thoughts from your minds because he’s now about to appear as an actor.

But let’s get back to where we left off. Maybe deduct a point from Chaplin for failing to give Edna a closeup when she discovers the note proving Jackie is her long-lost son. The emotion still comes across, so maybe it doesn’t matter. Add a point, but a weird one, for the fact that he has the insert shot of the note wobble about as if the hand holding it is in a state of high emotion. We won’t worry about the naked thumb that sways into view holding the paper — Edna is wearing gloves in the wide shot.

Charlie & Jackie have been forced to abandon their garret, as the law is after them — a rare instance of actual consequences for criminal action being depicted in a Chaplin film. Usually you just run away from the kops and your troubles are over. But now they know where he lives. The ever-versatile Henry Bergman makes his third appearance in this film as the lodging-house proprietor whose premises Charlie resorts to. Bergman is disguised with a long beard, but isn’t doing the full Jewish stereotype Leo White would have treated us to (and did).

Charlie has only a single coin to gain admission, so he has to do a Laughing Gravy with Jackie, smuggling the lad in through a window and keeping him concealed. Good comic suspense.

Jack Coogan Sr.’s face (and character) ideally suits him to the role of pickpocket, his thieving hand straying towards Charlie’s baggy pants even as the rest of him is seemingly asleep. Emerging from behind Charlie, it seems at first that he’s grown an extra arm, an anatomical illusion gag in line with Charlie’s own thieving hands routing in A DOG’S LIFE, or the dance of the bread rolls.

Charlie allows Lightfingered Jack to pillage his pockets, secure in the knowledge that he’s penniless, but when the thief actually discovers a tiny coin, he actively encourages the search, after relieving the cutpurse of his ill-and-all-too-briefly-gotten gains.

Some good hide-and-seek with Bergman leads to Jackie’s discovery, and the last coin must be surrendered.

But now Bergman learns that the law is after Jackie — there’s a nifty iris-in on his newspaper coupled with a dissolve to a big close-up that makes it feel somehow like the magnification has been turned up on a microscope. And we get the first DESCRIPTION of Charlie anywhere in a Chaplin film: “a little man with large flat feet and small moustache.”

The ad looks like it’s been pasted straight onto an existing newspaper but never mind. Add one thousand points for the detail of a housefly strolling casually across the page, mickeymoused by Chaplin’s score.

Bergman reads the ad, and the reward decides him, it seems: he can tell himself he’s rescuing a kidnapped child, I guess. He abducts the slumbering Jackie, leaving Charlie to wake in fright and find his son stolen away in the night. We can see his lips say “John,” the only other time the Kid’s name is mentioned, I think. actually, I’m no good as a lipreader but I think he might be saying “Jack.”

Jackie did in fact go missing during the shoot, falling asleep behind some scenery and then waking up to watch, fascinated, as everyone hunted desperately for him. He got a licking from Jack Sr.

Good realistic night scenes as Jackie is handed over to the police and Charlie runs desperately through the streets. Dawn is less realistic: a backcloth has been added to the T-junction set, representing sunrise. Interesting to see. The sky has been stark white in earlier scenes — I think what we’ve been seeing is a diffusing scrim stretched up above the set walls.

Edna turns up at the stationhouse in furs and feathers to claim her child — evidently she wants to dazzle him with her affluence. The feathered hat allows us to appreciate how infernally draughty it is in that cop shop — an open air set.

Charlie, hatless, still clutching Jackie’s cap, arrives at his own doorstep, evidently tired and footsore. He lies down and dreams — the third Chaplin dream sequence, or is it the fourth? All of HIS PREHISTORIC PAST is a dream, and SUNNYSIDE contains one definite vision, maybe two.

Third act dream sequences are tricky — this one may have inspired the ballet in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, which is similarly predicated: the hero thinks all is lost, but in reality it isn’t. The audience is encouraged to share Charlie/Gene’s misapprehension, but to make this dramatic low point last, a phantasy is concocted. I never feel this really works in dramatic terms, though there’s no denying the brilliance of the invention displayed by Kelly, Minnelli, Alton, Lerner et al, and by Chaplin and his team here.

The idea of staging heaven on the streets Charlie knows is a terrific one. Without that idea, it wouldn’t be worth doing. There’s no particular reason for an afterlife fantasy — Charlie doesn’t think he’s dead, and has no reason to think Jackie’s dead.

J.M. Barrie, “king of whimsy”, according to David Robinson, thought the sequence too whimsical. It’s also hard to find any of it funny given the suspended emotional crisis this stuff is wedged into. Francis Hackett in The New Republic praised the scene, though, for imagining and depicting the limited imagination of Charlie’s character: he only knows these streets, so the Heaven he imagines is set here, and has all the same problems as earth, only with wings on (and lots of flowers and balloons in the street).

An intertitle identifies this as “Dreamland,” which sort of gets around the obvious “Why heaven?” question. A young Esther Ralston and Lita Grey, Chaplin’s second wife of four years’ hence, are among the juvenile throng, but only the winged spaniel really impresses.

Charlie gets himself outfitted with wings and a chorister’s smock — from an obviously Jewish tailor. Shades of Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule. I think, from the bay window, this is Henry Bergman in appearance #4, with a false beard and silly-putty nose.

Sin creeps in: Jack Coogan Sr. in red devil costume creeps past the dozing gatekeeper (Henry Bergman, appearance #5, going for a new record) with a couple of acolytes.

And you were there, and you, and you! Charles Reisner’s street tough is magically transformed into a good citizen, full of sweetness — he’s unable to avoid making himself seem slightly sissy.

At the demonic Coogan Sr.’s suggestion, Lita, in angel form, vamps Charlie, showing a fifteen-year-old ankle. Chaplin’s ephebophilia is most nakedly displayed in this sequence.

Also, this dream is only five minutes long, but I always thought it was twenty, because that’s how it feels. We want to know what happens next, for real.

Trouble in paradise — Lita, who is very cute, but cute like Jackie Coogan, provokes jealousy in Mr. Reisner, and the feathers fly. We could argue that just as Charlie is unable to imagine a Paradise separate from the neighbourhood he knows, he can’t imagine one without fight scenes either. God’s Kop (Tom Wilson again) arrives to break up the war in Heaven, Charlie flees/flies the scene, and something that never happens in Chaplin’s earthly police altercations occurs: Wilson draws a revolver and shoots him out of the sky.

Jackie rushes to the fallen angel, mouthing “Dad!” and DISSOLVES INTO HIM.

At this point, the expiring angel Charlie COULD go into a dream within a dream, a new afterlife nested in the first — it could be like INCEPTION. But, fortunately, he wakes up instead — going from an angelic corpse being manhandled by Wilson, to a live mortal in exactly the same situation.

Hollywood screenwriting #101: you create dramatic peaks and troughs zigzagging between triumph and disaster, and you try to make the chart intensify as it goes on, so the third act looks like a heart attack. You try to make the final switch go from ALL IS LOST TOTAL DISASTER to SAVED HAPPY ENDING in a single beat, which Chaplin more or less accomplishes here by having Wilson take Charlie, not to prison, but to Edna and Jackie.

Tom the kop laughs indulgently as father and son embrace. Yeah, whatever, we still don’t like you, pig.

Walter Kerr appreciates this as being like the end of CITY LIGHTS — it ends exactly where it has to. How will Jackie adapt to his new surroundings? What will Charlie’s position be? These are largely unanswerable questions, but fortunately outside the scope of the story being told, so Chaplin knows exactly what he has to do:

FADE OUT

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.

Sun damage

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2021 by dcairns

I recall feeling slightly unconvinced by those sections of the (excellent) novel Sunnyside where author Glen David Gold tries to get inside Chaplin’s creative process, but I think I was probably being unfair. Gold talks us through Chaplin’s rejected ideas, and they all sound pretty terrible. Shouldn’t even the non-starters of a genius be somewhat impressive? But looking at SUNNYSIDE the movie, no, perhaps they shouldn’t. Bits of it are very good but bits of it are worse than the ideas Gold has Chaplin throw out.

The L’Apres-Midi d’un Faun dream-ballet isn’t the worst thing in there. It’s inoffensive. But it has no narrative reason for being there. Other Chaplin dreams happen when he’s heartbroken and so they have at least a claim on poignancy. Here, he’s merely downtrodden — a dream of the easy life would make sense, but not this capering around with Grecian nymphets.

Anyway, the wake-up is decently staged. Charlie falls off the same bridge in dream he fell off in reality, whereupon the woodland sylphs toss him a creeper or something and attempt to pull him back up. Upon awakening, he finds himself jolted back to reality and the bridge by a crowd of Sunnysiders, and then sent packing with multiple boots up the arse by the Boss.

“And now, the ‘romance’.” says an intertitle, throwing off a palpable sense of exhaustion and formulaic will-this-do? Rushing up to a house, dodging Henry Bergman, who he just passed on the road as a different character (beard), Charlie plucks some flowers and goes in to see Edna. Also present is “His brother, Willie,” for some reason. Willie is characterised as a village idiot type in overalls, staring into space and smiling while Charlie raps on his forehead. It would seem more logical for him to be Edna’s sibling since he’s in her house, but I think Charlie wants the license to mistreat him… that’s the best reason I can think of for what follows.

Since the boy is being a gooseberry, Charlie invites him to play blind man’s bluff — binding his eyes and sending him outside, where he is imperilled by traffic. David Robinson says this as an interesting experiment in black comedy, I just find it obnoxious. It’s further evidence of Chaplin’s creative crisis, since he’s usually careful to seem sympathetic, at least since the Mutual period.

Still, this undercuts the fairly anemic romance stuff. Charlie presents Edna with an engagement ring, and sings mutely as she plays piano. Then he attempts a gag that would work better as a variation in MONSIEUR VERDOUX — finding a flat note, Charlie excites a tiny goat living behind the piano (!) which baahs each time he hits the note, causing him to think the piano is making goat bleats. This is quite funny but, though you don’t need the sounds to understand it, it would be funnier with the sounds.

The gag develops smartly: a much larger goat appears, and Charlie is even more confused. The goat can also eat the sheet music which isn’t as clever but it’s logical.

Moderately funny business back at the hotel with Charlie cleaning up: picking up tiny invisible specks of dirt and carrying them to a single place.

Enter Tom Terriss as a young man in spats — “the city chap.” SUNNYSIDE as distaff version of SUNRISE. He enters the movie crashing his car into Sunnyside. He’s carried into the hotel by the fat boy, who is, it seems, Tom Wood and not J. Park Jones as previously reported. And Charlie innocently tries to get the comatose city chap to sign the register.

The village doctor arrives, a fake beard in pince-nez and a derby, his gladstone bag bulging with booze and, disturbingly, handcuffs. I think the normally clear line between first aid kit and rape kit is getting blurrier than desirable. As he takes City Chap’s pulse on screen right, Charlie mimics him screen left, using the victim’s own fob watch. Best bit of mime: having briefly held the watch in his mouth, Charlie gives it a theatrical shake in an exact reproduction of classic thermometer business. The doctor then presents his bill, after merely taking the pulse and kneading the patient’s shoulder in a vaguely sympathetic manner. (Like the village idiot actor, the doctor is unidentified on IMDb but I’d say it’s Albert Austin under the whiskers.)

Very routine bit with Charlie mopping the lobby while three random guys are sitting in it. Yes, he turns with the mop and wetly knocks hats off. That kind of business. “City chap fully recovered,” reports an intertitle, unnecessarily. These cards have the dutiful tone of a child’s book report. City chap (who has the same initials as Chaplin) has a lighter built into his cane. Which is kind of cool. Charlie is impressed.

In a cutaway shot, Edna gets her fingers stuck in some fly paper — a rare (unique?) example of her getting a solo gag, though it develops in such a conventional way it scarcely qualifies. Similarly, the business of her forgetting what she came to the hotel to buy (it’s also a general store) and Charlie offering suggestions from his shelves unfolds without kicking loose any real comedy at all. OK, him wrapping the final item — enormous woolly socks — in a huge paper cone as if it were a bouquet of flowers, is sort of amusing. All this is just to effect a meet uncute with the city chap, who watches with more interest than I could muster. Edna is dressed like an old lady again, further stressing the resemblance of this movie to a much earlier period of Chaplin’s career.

Charlie gets Edna’s paper money stuck to the fly paper, which is quite a good gag, but it’s cut short — I think we want to see him picking the banknote to little shreds to bring home the hopelessness of the situation.

Seeing Edna strolling amiably with the chap, Charlie performs a head-clutching gesture of operatic despair, I think the biggest and lamest reaction I’ve seen from him. No doubt he’s thinking of how he felt when he caught her with Thomas Meighan. But it’s too much for the film, the situation and the genre. Sitting down and resting his head, Charlie prepares the ground for a second dream sequence. [Iris in.]

Now Charlie prances up to Edna’s house to bring her flowers and sing with her, but finds the city chap already installed at the pianoforte. A musical cuckold, Charlie gazes through the window (the overheard music perhaps recalls Charlie’s experience in childhood of being passionately transfixed by a rendition of “You are the honeysuckle, I am the bee” caught as he passed by a window). Edna gazes blankly at the lighter-cane as if it held some mesmeric power. The lovers smile coyly over a photo album. Much of the comedy in this film is rote, but absolutely all the romance is, a likely result of Chaplin’s loveless marriage following fairly quickly on the break-up with Edna.

Charlie attempts to copy the c. chap’s elegant ways, fashioning crude spats from a pair of the woolly socks (a loose thread spoils the effect) and installing a candlestick on his cane (it blazes with the same inextinguishable fervour as the one Harpo produces from his mackintosh in HORSE FEATHERS, burning at both ends — that would impress me if I were Edna).

Walter Kerr identifies the pathos here as operating on the same unsuccessful level as that in THE TRAMP, but I think it’s much worse. Charlie’s self-pity isn’t affecting whatsoever, whereas his illiterate note in the Essanay film is genuinely pitiable even if the tonal shift isn’t managed well at all. His everlasting candle a wash-out, Charlie crouches on a country road with fingers in ears, awaiting extirpation by an approaching auto. A sudden jolt — the boss kicking him out of his chair — brings him back to reality. His rejection by Edna was all a jealous dream, brought on by seeing her chatting with chap.

Coda: the chap is checking out. He tips his hat to Edna but she turns her back on him sniffily. What on earth has happened between them during Charlie’s dream? Seeing Edna, Charlie rushes to embrace her in an awkward stranglehold, makes to punch the city chap for offences committed during R.E.M. sleep, then gratefully receives a tip from him for carrying his bags three feet to the waiting car. City chap departs and Charlie and Edna embrace.

Critics and scholars have apparently argued about whether the heartbreak leading up to suicide is a dream, or whether the happy ending is the dream, flashing through Charlie’s mind in a split second as he’s mangled by the onrushing jalopy. While that would be cleverer, more unusual and better, making the film a slapstick version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, it’s absolutely plain that the more prosaic version was Chaplin’s intended reading. The dream is cued up by Charlie resting his head, and he awakens from the same posture. The reason for the confusion is the film’s awkward shape, with TWO longish dream sequences, and the other problem identified by Walter Kerr: while Chaplin often creates poignancy by having his character dream of idyllic happiness (heaven, bread rolls, etc) when he’s miserable in reality, here he dreams of a scenario much worse than his real life situ. But this is perhaps excusable — we DID get the reason Charlie thinks he’s washed up with Edna, right before he went to sleep. So it’s motivated, it’s just not very effective or interesting or amusing or touching.

SUNNYSIDE is pretty fascinating as an example of mature Chaplin operating without inspiration, judgement thrown off, forced to release a film that simply hasn’t gelled. Mysteriously, he called it a favourite film in his 1922 memoir, but dismissed it later. During shooting he toyed with abandoning it in favour of another, equally amorphous and unpromising notion, but he’d invested too much time in it for that option to fly.

The crisis would continue through the next short — I can hardly wait. And you?