Archive for DW Griffith

Old Gods

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2021 by dcairns

Here’s the statue of Moloch in CABIRIA, big old god to whom human sacrifices are rendered.

Joe May obviously admired Giovanni Pastrone’s film, and also Griffith’s INTOLERANCE which was influenced by its gigantism and its mobile camera. For years, cinematographers referred to “Cabiria shots,” meaning any camera move designed to show off the dimensions of a big set. May copied the sets but didn’t pick up on the tracking shots until years later.

MISTRESS OF THE WORLD is May’s super-epic adventure film. Eight episodes, each something like three hours long, I think. In episode three, the heroes journey to the lost African city of Ophir, as you do, and discover the benighted natives worshipping Baal. Although May built super-colossal sets for his super-epic, his Baal is fairly tiny compared to Moloch.

All I’ve been able to see of the possible day-long saga is a few shots excerpted in Brownlow & Winterbottom’s Cinema Europe documentary. I would like to experience the whole thing, which apparently contains revenge, white slavery, science fiction rays, media satire, exotic travel, and tits.

Fritz Lang worked on MISTRESS as an assistant director.

And here’s Moloch again, for the machine age, in Lang’s METROPOLIS. But the way the workers shuffle robotically into his maw is directly lifted from the May film. Although, since it’s a crowd scene, Lang could have been the one who thought of having the extras move that way, in which case he’s only SELF-plagiarising.

I feel like METROPOLIS, which HG Wells thought a “foolish film,” may have also influenced George Pal’s film of Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE, where the Eloi are hypnotised by a mechanical siren song into walking robotically to their dooms beneath the statue of a sphinx. Tastefully, Pal avoids making his Morlock Moloch a copy of Lang’s. The sphinx DOES appear in Wells book, but Pal and screenwriter David Duncan seem to have developed the really good idea, never spelt out, that the air raid siren that makes everybody go below during WWII and WWIII, seen earlier in the time traveller’s travels, has become a race memory, evoking a Pavlovian response in the poor Eloi. And maybe the whole thing was developed subconsciously from the euphony of the names Moloch and Morlock? And it leads to a really brilliant notion, that of an air raid siren functioning like a mythical one.

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.

The Kid IS the picture

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2021 by dcairns

THE KID, continued.

Charlie’s job apparently also afford the opportunity to meet and flirt with housewives — I’ve just read Jack Trevor Story’s Live Now, Pay Later, a funny, bleak kitchen sink dramedy or dromedary about buying on credit, a new craze of the sixties, and the “tally boys” of the story are great seducers of bored housewives. Unfortunately, Charlie is fooling with a kop’s wife. Chaplin reveals this with an artful wide shot of the corner, showing Charlie and the missus chatting by the window on one side, and the kop coming home via the door on the other: Hitchcockian suspense a la MARNIE’s safecracking scene (Hitchcock observed in 1964 that his former preference for intercutting was now “old-fashioned”).

A great “he’s behind you!” moment as the kop appears at the window, and the framing actually suggests the scenario of the Punch and Judy show which is where Chaplin as a lad may have learned this routine, a sure-fire way of getting the audience hysterical with both laughter and tension.

When the kop kollars Charlie, amusingly, he thinks its the housewife putting her arm around him, and it takes a moment for him to realise his mistake even when he’s being throttled. My English teacher Mrs. Chapman explained this as “poignancy” or “dramatic irony,” neither of which seems quite to suit the comedy version.

After that, the inevitable chase isn’t a show-stopper, but has some nice tight alleyway shots — think Griffith’s PIG ALLEY perspectives but in fast motion — and shows CC’s ability to cut from (I think) location to studio and back, seamlessly.

Time for lunch! Huge ladle-loads of steaming muck. Looks kind of appealing to me, but then I’m on the low-carb Mediterranean diet so pretty much everything does.

Edna, meanwhile, has become a theatre star. No particular reason why this should have to happen, but the narrative function it fulfills is to remove any sense of financial need, and let her focus on the absent child. And make her well-equipped to care for him, if she should find him. Chaplin cut back on Edna’s scenes when he re-released the film, evidently feeling he’d given her screen time because she was his friend and regular co-star rather than because the picture needed it. And perhaps because, as Walter Kerr suggests, her stuff is “sentimental” in the bad sense.

Edna’s maid is May White, who we just saw as the first victim of Jackie’s window-smashing spree. A spot of makeup renders her easily able to do a Henry Bergman.

Speak of the devil, here’s Henry as “Professor Guido, impressario.” Yeah, don’t know why we need him here.

Then a walking wall of flowers comes in, carried by a little Black kid. Nice to see a non-white character given something to do that’s not outright degrading.

One little seed is planted for later: a mysterious bunch of toys is brought in by May White…

Back to Charlie & Jackie, finishing their meal. Jackie has acquired some of his foster father’s delicacy, requesting a splash of Charlie’s glass of water to make a fingerbowl. He dips his hands in it, then wipes them on his shoulders, and drags his sleeve across his mouth, rather ruining the genteel effect. Charlie then borrows some of the water and wipes his own hands and face on the tablecloth. This focus on behaviour, the gags buried deep within it, is the kind of thing Chaplin could rarely get away with at Keystone but had already been itching to try.

Edna, meanwhile, is handing out toys in the neighbourhood. Fulfilling her maternal instincts, or searching for her lost son? And is that May White in a third role, as a friendly slum mum?

There’s quite a weird shot here, ostensibly depicting Edna as she goes into a thoughtful dwam at the babe in her arms, but actually favouring Charlie & Jackie’s front door. Of course the unusual effect is completely lucid: without her knowing it, that door is exactly what she’s thinking about. And now Jackie comes through that door, which was the true reason for the framing. I’m not sure whether Chaplin always intended to use the negative-space-that’s-really-positive-space in this way, or if it was chance that in covering the scene he got this useful and expressive material.

Jackie is, of course, adorable. By avoiding the melodramatic cliche of the mother and son instantly recognising each other, but showing an instant bond between them, Chaplin can build greater suspense and BETTER MELODRAMA.

And on that poignant note — with more than half the film left to run — I’m going to leave it there for today as I have a shit-tonne of work to do. Might mean I’m still writing about THE KID through next week, but I hope nobody objects to that.