Archive for DW Griffith

The Sunday Intertitle: The Drop

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2021 by dcairns

Time to get on with THE KID. I’m running the full-length version with the scenes Chaplin deleted for re-release put back in, because I want to see what audiences saw a hundred years ago. But I’m watching it with Chaplin’s score, which they wouldn’t have been able to do.

IMDb offers no ID for the charity hospital nurse, but she looks a bit like Phyllis Allen, from the Keystone days.

As Walter Kerr points out, the only parts of the film which are really sentimental in the true sense are those involving Edna Purviance as the mother. And it’s these that he cut back on later. Fading in an image of Christ on the way to Calgary as Edna is released from the charity hospital with her illegitimate baby is a very Victorian, very Griffith idea.

This being a Chaplin film, though, she immediately heads for the park.

Now we meet “the man” — obviously the baby’s father. Chaplin does some stuff that’s unusual for him here — he’s working in an usual mode, though it’s close to what we’ve later come to regard as “chaplinesque.” When the Man looks at Edna’s photo, Chaplin dissolves to it, quite gradually, rather than just cutting to a POV. The dissolve as language of solemnity. And he’s not wrong to lard on the seriousness, because he has to cue his audience, who have come expecting laughs, to get into the dramatic situation first, and not look for titters. Command of tone is one of the most important skills there is.

Edna, meanwhile, passes a church where a wedding is taking place. Artsy vignette effects — also not typical of CC’s style. For whatever reason, the bride looks miserable, which may be a case of larding on misery where it doesn’t belong. The true trick to this kind of scene ought to be to show everyone being happy except Edna. Having a flower drop on the ground and get trodden on may also be belabouring the point too much. Still, for artful, religiose sentiment, lighting up a stained glass window behind Edna’s head so that she grows a halo is a neat bit of stagecraft. And subtle enough that egginess is avoided, mostly — you could easily miss it.

The business of giving up the baby is echoed in Alan Rudolph’s TROUBLE IN MIND, which everyone should see. It’s a bit of dramatic contrivance of the kind you might get in Dickens, or Wilkie Collins, only with an automobile. Edna stows the child in the back seat of a fortuitously unlocked limo. This being LA and sunny, one might expect the poor mite to broil, but thieves in cloth caps (including regular Albert Austin) steal the car (lock up your autos!) and the baby (Silas Hathaway) is whisked off, dumped in a slum neighbourhood, and the lovely new environment Edna had dreamed of for him is dashed away and replaced with…

Charlie! A jaunty tune switches genres on us and Chaplin again capitalizes on his inconceivable fame by entering in extreme long shot, his tiny figure instantly recognisable, the most successful costume design in film history. Barely dodging a rain of garbage from an upper window, Charlie parades, a figure of natural dignity and poise, dressed in rags.

The location is Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley — in 1922, Buster Keaton would run through it and catch a passing car with one hand and be yanked offscreen in COPS, and in 1926 Harold Lloyd would sneak into work the back way using the same sidestreet. There’s a campaign to name the anonymous alley in honour of the three great silent clowns.

— and a second avalanche of debris strikes Charlie, shattering his mood and his air of superiority. The intertitle “Awkward ass” illustrates Chaplin’s love of language, I guess, but isn’t funny and doesn’t seem to fit the situation very well. But I guess Charlie’s attempts at snootiness are being stressed.

Charlie takes a fragment of cigarette from a tin box full of butts — the facts of poverty dressed up in the style of a gentleman — cargo cult richness. An elaborate play is made of tapping the tiny fag end on the tin as if to break the filter. Another bit of comedy when Charlie finds that binning his decrepit gloves is easier than putting them in his pocket.

Baby Silas is discovered, bawling. This is a delicate situation and Chaplin handles it brilliantly, refusing all sentiment. First, he does a classic Charlie trope, looking up to see if the sprog, like the garbage, has been tossed down from a window. Chaplin knew he could rely on a laugh by looking straight up whenever encountering anything unexpected.

Then he sees a woman with a pram. Obviously, she must have dropped the contents by mistake. He tries to cuckoo her, planting Silas in the pram along with her young one, and when she remonstrates, he nearly takes the wrong one. The plot could have gotten twice as complicated just then.

Events conspire to saddle Charlie with the unwanted stray. He tries to leave it where he found it, but a kop is hovering at hand. He tries to fob it off on an old wreck of a guy — “I need to tie my shoelace” — hands it to him — legs it. The guy, no more scrupulous than Charlie, dumps Silas back in the pram, and Charlie is blamed for this when he innocently walks by. Baby Silas is as hard to shake as Droopy or the bottle imp.

This is all so effective precisely because under the comedy there’s something desperate, almost the first time this has occurred in Chaplin’s work. Amid the “seriousness” it’s nice to note that Baby Wilson, the one in the pram, is really enjoying the sight of Charlie being hit with an umbrella.

(The IMDb notes that Baby Wilson was born in 1919, but somehow appeared in THE HEART OF A MAGDALEN in 1914, presumably with the help of that cell-phone woman who traveled back in time to see THE CIRCUS.)

Charlie now gives some thought to murdering the infant by dropping it down an open drain. Well, it’s not quite as harsh as that. Chaplin knows how to present things. It’s simply a man looking for a solution to his problem. He COULD drop it down the drain. That would work. But no, he can’t very well do that. A micro-glance in our direction confirms him in this view. It just isn’t the done thing.

He finds a note left by Edna: Please love and care for this orphan child. Well, that does seem to be the only remaining option, doesn’t it?

TO BE CONTINUED

It’s a Gas!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin is BOUNCING at Mutual. If THE RINK is just riotous misbehaviour with a fig leaf of farce plot, EASY STREET, with its mostly-parody temperance theme, a “reformation melodrama” as David Robinson calls it, is tightly plotted and the rambunctiousness is sort of ABOUT something.

It’s a very simple plot — simplicity is working well for CC at Mutual, by concentrating on one strong narrative line, or intercutting a couple, he’s been drawing back from the slightly random cutaways he’s apt to use: Character X is asleep. Here he is asleep. Here he is STILL asleep because we needed to trim a bit out and didn’t want to cause a jump cut. Here he is waking up, which is important, but we’re seeing it now because we had another gap to fill, and you won’t actually see him do anything for another five minutes.

This kind of thing was no doubt common in other comedies, but Chaplin does it A LOT. Whichever nouvelle vague fellow (Rivette?) said that Chaplin was the greatest editor only has a case to make once you get further along in the career.

Fade-up on Charlie asleep in an exterior corner of the New Hope Mission. He evidently hasn’t read the sign or got the message. He’s just been billed as “The Derelict” and then an intertitle calls him The Lost Sheep and the first image confirms those words in strong terms. I’d argue that basically only the first and last shot of this brilliant short are serious, the rest is playful and parodic even when it seems melodramatic or sentimental.

A thing I hadn’t realised before is that Chaplin preceded his attempt as sentiment by making fun of sentiment, and this is how he slowly dripped it into his work.

Charlie awakens and hears Edna Purviance singing. She must be singing beautifully because her hair is all backlit. She’s so good, Charlie goes into the church to investigate. Some mild comedy is produced from his uncertainty how to behave. Chaplin has produced some quite caustic commentary about churchmen (the opening of POLICE) and some flat-out contemptuous slapstick (the rotten egg in the hymnbook in THE TRAMP) so this seems at first a big change of viewpoint. But there’s still something lightly satirical — Charlie is only interested in religion because he’s interested in Edna. His feelings for her are quite tender and chivalric, rather than the impish and impudent flirtations of yore, but they’re romantic not religious.

Charlie’s change of character is signalled by him returning the collection box he’d planned to steal, which takes the curse off any preachy quality. Rather than being touched by his reformation, we gasp at the perfidy he’s moving on from.

There’s a comedy drunk in the mission played by John Rand, which means we get to see him without a big black moustache. Later he’ll play a kop and the cookie-duster is back on for that.

Also: the dramatic close-up, expertly used. Closeups in early Chaplin were usually just shots of the girl with a puppy or something. A bit of cuteness for variety, one of those slightly random cutaways. This is strong filmmaking.

There’s some tasteful humour with a baby — Charlie only THINKS its micturated on his leg. The baby, no trouper, stole Charlie’s moustache, perhaps intent on becoming a Pubert Addams avant la letter, an outtake that seems not to have survived.

We cut from this backlit, religiose idyll to the startling contrast of Easy Street itself. The T-junction becomes a Chaplin meme — it looks like a London street, as everyone has by now pointed out (I read it in Robinson first). But the shape is a useful one because it gives the impression you’re seeing a lot more than you are. A surrounding city is implied but unshown and unbuilt. In fact, we’ll see later that if you run off one end of Easy Street you find yourself in an LA location shot, and if you keep running you wind up back on another end of Easy Street.

The scene is of indescribable chaos. A bunch of thugs is beating up a bunch of kops. Eric Campbell, “the bully,” is leading the thugs. Beardless and shaven-headed, he’s discarded his usual air of an overinflated melodramatic villain of the moustache-twirling variety, and is now a figure of terrifying strength and violence, and at the same time a comic exaggeration of that idea.

Now Charlie has to choose to become a kop, something almost unthinkable. In THE CURE, Chaplin would delete a scene where he acts as unofficial traffic cop to a lot of drunken (dis)orderlies and their bathchair-bound clients, and the assumption by Brownlow & Gill, who use the clip in the priceless doc series Unknown Chaplin, and David Robinson agrees, is that Charlie can’t be seen to impose order out of chaos when his whole personality is based on the reverse of that. Well, in this film, he does little BUT impose order out of chaos, but at least he does it by hitting people on the head.

The police station interior seems to have been shot during or after a shower of rain, and indeed bad weather did delay filming on this one. Mostly Chaplin just waited for the weather, but he seems to have decided to compromise on this one shot. Since his studio was open-air, he couldn’t very well have shot the mission interiors with rain pouring down.

The reason the kops are desperate for men is that Big Eric keeps mangling them, sometimes so badly that they are transformed into floppy dummies. We love a good floppy dummy here in the Shadowplayhouse, and this film has some terrific substitutions, performed without the aid of the jump cut. Charlie doesn’t know any of this, however.

The first honest citizen to get a look at Charlie in Kop kostume is convulsed in hysterics. Charlie knocks the guy unconscious with his baton and has him hauled off the the cells. Any worry we may have had that our agent of misrule is going to become boringly civilised is dispelled. He’s going to carry on being a little brute but enjoy his ability have people locked up instead of just thumping them.

As promising as this line may be — or not — the movie has other plans. Charlie is given Easy Street as his beat, which means he’ll rapidly be running into Big Eric. The film has set Eric up as a genuine figure of terror, which is a whole new thing for Chaplin to play with. The hobos in THE TRAMP and the “gypsies” in THE VAGABOND were early attempts at setting the Little Fellow up against vicious characters who don’t know they’re in a slapstick comedy and don’t expect to play by those rules, but this is more intense, because Chaplin has taken the trouble to show Eric being savagely effective against someone other than Edna.

Now we have SUSPENSE — “He’s behind you!” — dramatic irony/poignancy — Eric has been set up as a menace and nothing about Charlie suggests he’ll be able to cope with his hulking opponent. It’s great. Fear is such a useful component in comedy. My mother never liked Chaplin particularly but anything that injects terror into comedy gets her SCREAMING at the TV.

Eric has just played his own game of peekaboo, causing the entire degenerate population of Easy Street to vanish whenever he whirls to face them, so he has been set up as not only a man who can tear the pants off policemen, but one who can terrorise a score of people with a mere look.

This is all impressive because it’s both funny and dramatic, and the dramatic parts — the fear and poignancy — enhance the comic, and vice versa probably.

Chaplin’s slow approach from extreme long shot stresses his tininess compared with Eric. Standing parallel, they’re eye to eye only because of the tall sidewalk, and when Eric steps up onto it, dwarfing Charlie, it’s a little like the big guy emerging, inch by inch, from the sidewalk loading bay in CITY LIGHTS, until Charlie’s bravado vanishes in his shadow.

Also, tracking shots! There are five simple motivations for moving the camera — following characters; showing a moving character’s POV; the psychological reaction intensifier; telling a story by showing things in succession; exploring space. Surprisingly, Charlie’s tentative first moves were of the last-named kind, and they sometimes seemed like distractions. But his pull-back from Edna’s portrait in THE VAGABOND worked as a combination of spacial exploration and storytelling. His push onto the dance floor in THE COUNT is a stab at following characters, but the relationship of dancers and camera was slightly amorphous. Here, tracking along with Charlie and Eric keeps them roughly the same size but also adds importance to them, increases the involvement of our eyes, intensifies our emotional response.

It’s all the more suspenseful because Charlie is simply trying to pretend Eric doesn’t exist — just about the weakest thing he could do.

Charlie wanders around Chaplin’s set, followed by Rollie Totheroh’s camera in a deadpan pan.

As Charlie loiters by the police telephone, trying to get his hand on the mouthpiece without the rest of his body showing any interest — so that Eric will disregard his hand, seeing it as an independent creature for which Charlie is not responsible (this is a good technique if you’re operating a puppet in plain view and you want people to believe it’s alive) — Charlie produces his sickly smile, a Rik Mayall effect not seen on the Chaplin countenance since the cinema scene in TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. And that wasn’t even the Tramp character.

Grabbing the phone but getting caught at it, he transforms it by mime into a snake charmer’s flute, to which surely Bully Eric could have no objection? I mean, everybody likes music, right?

This has an unexpected but gratifying effect — Eric, who is not the sharpest lug hammer in the box, grabs the phone and looks into it, to see if it really does have musical properties. I think. The motivations of large and terrible men may be slightly beyond me. Charlie seizes the moment and clonks his new friend on the bristly occiput with his truncheon. No effect.

This may be the first time anyone thought of doing a basic slapstick wallop and having it not work, and using that for comic terror. A technique copied by everyone, or certainly by Roger Moore and Richard Kiel. I think maybe Sean Connery and Harold Sakata also.

Everything Chaplin’s doing is suspense-based, without Hitchcockian editing but with performance that adjusts the audiences focus from character to character in less than the blink of an eye. And it’s all comedy too.

Eric is apparently taking such pleasure in his work — menacing is fun! — he wants to demonstrate what he’s going to do to his victim on a lamp post — Easy Street is a portal to Victorian London so I’m not saying “streetlight.” It’s like when Withnail attributes imaginary threats to wrestler Jeff Wode:

‘In fact, he’d probably tell you what he was going to do before he did it. [Starts acting out the scene in his head] “I’m going to pull your head off”. “Oh no, please, don’t pull my head off”. “I’m going to pull your head off because I don’t like your head.”‘

Eric can’t tell Charlie because it’s a silent film, so he SHOWS, and Charlie seizes the chance to humanely gas his opponent.

Fiona, like many audiences before, was fairly horrified by this part of the struggle — Campbell, an early progenitor of the mutant chief in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, makes a grisly spectacle of succumbing to asphyxiation. But it’s all done with scientific care and the community’s best interests.

Fiona was twice fooled into thinking Eric was dead. He’s like Michael Myers, only with a face.

Charlie is now a figure of fear like Eric had been, and he reprises the gag where the street’s populace creeps into view behind him then flees in terror when he turns.

When the other kops come scurrying round the corner to see if Eric is really defeated, I unaccountably get an Akira Kurosawa vibe. Certainly Kurosawa saw Chaplin films as a kid, and certainly he became a master of moving actors in groups in wide shots. It’s the way they scatter horizontally upon emerging here…

Charlie lights a ciggie and blows up the gaslight.

Next — the movie just pretends that didn’t happen — he helps a desperate woman who’s stolen some groceries. That is, he helps her steal MORE. He’s an unconventional policeman. Like Special Agent Chester Desmond, he’s got his own M.O.

Modus operandi!

This middle part of the film is somewhat aimless, but Charlie’s good deeds impress Edna favourably. We meet Loyal Underwood, a relatively new member of the stock company, playing a feeble little guy who’s somehow fathered a small army.

Eric regains consciousness at the kop shop, snaps his handcuffs, and initiates a donnybrook. Batons have no effect! He shoves one constable out of shot for an instant, and when he drags him back into view, the fellow has metamorphosed into a floppy dummy, and is used to belabour his fellows. All done with framing rather than the more usual jumpcut.

Meanwhile Charlie is feeding the children as if they were chickens. “I do that because I despise them,” Chaplin told someone or other. Strange, for a man who’d have so many kids himself.

Eric goes home and gets into a Punch and Judy fight with his wife — for a moment she seems like she might subdue him by sheer ferocity, but soon she’s in trouble. Charlie rushes on over to see what’s up, then rushes away when he sees what’s up. Eric follows.

There now occurs a chase sequence as M.C. Escher might have designed it. Charlie runs off the right arm of the T-junction, onto an LA street, turns right onto another L.A. street, then reappears on the left of Easy Street, a journey which looks like this —

It’s a good trick if you can do it. Perhaps a hole in spacetime is involved. Perhaps the same phenomenon that allowed a woman with a cell phone to turn up for the premiere of THE CIRCUS?

Having successfully folded space like a DUNE navigator, defeating Eric should be a doddle, but in fact Charlie struggles quite a bit. He’s chased through Eric’s flat, then winds up back there, then manages to drop the stove on his enemy’s head. I vividly recall my Dad explaining to ten-year-old me exactly how fatal that would be.

Chaplin could presumably have ended the story with Eric’s defeat but surprisingly he keeps going. Edna is abducted by a bearded Henry Bergson and, in a parody of Griffith’s to-the-rescue cross-cutting, he keeps cutting back to The Derelict sitting idly in Eric’s ruined home, relaxing after his busy day.

Edna is imprisoned with a sinister junky who, after shooting up, becomes possessed of rapacious desires. I don’t know what’s in that syringe but when Charlie’s dropped on it, he transforms into a furious Viking berserker. It’s a startling drugs moment, repeated in MODERN TIMES where an accidental noseful of marching powder transforms the Tramp into a fearless and energetic thumper of felons.

Pounding and kicking the junky and Henry is a mere nothing, taking a flying drop-kick at eight men and knocking them all out of frame is slightly more effort. Judo throws follow. Henry’s ample belly serves as a kind of trampoline to propel our hero back to (Easy) street level — you can tell Chaplin has someone waiting to catch his arms and pull him the rest of the way. The clinch with Edna is delayed slightly by a pratfall — Chaplin is anxious not to let excitement completely replace comedy.

The ending, with Easy Street transformed by the judicious use of extreme violence into an urban paradise, is obviously somewhat satiric. Eric, who did not die, is now a smartly dressed model citizen. An employment agency, strategically placed, lends some slight credibility to the reformation of the neighbourhood. A new mission is prominent too, and when Charlie and Edna walk towards it arm in arm, all thought of parody has flown.

Chaplin hasn’t stopped bouncing — his next film accentuates the reformation-parody so it can’t be taken seriously at all, and substitutes increasing anarchy for the enforcement of order. And the Tramp takes a breather…

Moses strikes poses

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2021 by dcairns

An amusing irony: Howard Hawks said he learned what NOT to do by looking at DeMille’s films, then when he made his own ancient world epic, LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, he ran into the famous “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks” problem, which DeMille had, you could say, solved: in DeMille films, pharaohs talk like characters in Cecil B. DeMille films.

Never more so that in the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS where Yul Brunner is at his Yul Brynneriest throughout. (Yet Cedric Hardwicke comes within shouting distance of humanity at times.) But the one, true biscuit is taken by Chuckles Heston, who starts out in his version of naturalism — declamatory, gravelly, planting his feet wide apart, flexing, heaving the words up from his solar plexus — but becomes something wholly other once Moses gets religion…

In prophet mode, Heston produces a form of “acting” I’m not sure we’ve really seen before. Maybe it’s what D.W. Griffith would have sounded like if his 1908 semaphore could be translated into spoken form. It has something in common with the ghosts in Japanese movies — think RASHOMON. It has nothing in common with human speech.

The best example is when Rameses finally frees the Israelites: we have to blame the script for some of it, though DeMille in his intro claims that history is really to blame. Moses starts speechifying — then walks out of the scene, still declaiming. You can hear his voice diminishing in the distance for close to a minute. Who does that? Rod Steiger does it in THE BIG KNIFE, playing a lunatic film producer of the L.B. Mayer variety. Charles Haid does it in ALTERED STATES, to hilarious effect. In the first case, a character point is being made, in the second, Ken Russell was forced to include a lot of talk he didn’t particularly care for, so he tried to dispose of it in novel ways. No such excuse exists here. Moses is just being written as a nutjob, unintentionally.

If you’re inclined to laugh at infant mortality, this film has much to offer, but this scene is the finest example, because the army of scribes has taken care to insert between Heston’s wooden lips pointed references to the liberation of the CHILDREN of Israel (DeMille has made the whole story an anti-commie tract), timed to coincide/clash with Anne Baxter descending a grand staircase with her divinely slain son in her arms. Which tends to make Moses seem every bit as crass as Heston giving one of his NRA speeches in the wake of a school shooting.

This moment, jaw-dropping though it is, is just a preliminary to Moses’ Big Hair acting in the film’s third act. Chuckles has looked in the mirror and asked himself, what would a guy who looks like THIS talk like? Big mistake. I can’t describe what he does. It involves BOOMING. The oratorical style might be defensible when Moses is speaking to the masses, as he so often is in this section. But he keeps it up for casual conversation. Booming banter. Supremely confident terrible acting.

For a few minutes, I thought I was going to find the film’s weird non-naturalism fascinating, the stiffness of its blocking and delivery hypnotic and kind of impressive. But it’s not quite rigid ENOUGH. The tableau style of GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is more my bag — genuinely experimental.

When Scorsese talks about the power of DeMille’s images, he seems to mainly be talking about the effects shots, and I think maybe we should credit the storyboard artists and John P. Fulton and his team, though I guess DeMille is responsible for approving everything. But I think it’s fair to say that none of the film’s undeniably impressive images have any good acting in them. (Only Edward G. Robinson is good in this, though I wish he’d played it at a Warner pre-code pace. As the only Jewish actor, naturally he plays the Bad Jew. Oh, and Yvonne DeCarlo, gamely battling her dialogue like Jason struggling with the hydra: whenever one terrible line is defeated, two more rise to take its place.)

I can understand Scorsese’s residual affection for a film he was impressed by as a kid. But I don’t think it’s objectively better than the Marvel and DC films he rightly dismisses.

Touchingly, Moses waves goodbye to us/his people at the end of the film, which was DeMille’s last as director. He clearly wanted to get the most out of it, which is why he narrates huge swathes, patiently describing what we can already see, sometimes sneakily suggesting debauchery and wickedness he’s not allowed to show us, much though he would love to.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS stars Major Dundee; King Mongkut of Siam; Lucy Morgan; Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello; Lily Munster; Shila – Cleopatra’s Daughter; Hajji Baba; Arthur Winslow; Julia Ross; Ellie Hilliard; Mrs. Danvers; Prince Prospero; Hatfield; Athos; The Black-Bearded One; Actor on DeMille’s ‘Samson & Delilah’ Set; Jesus – the Christ; John Miljan – Actor in Bedroom Scene; 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge; Scar / Cicatriz; Hatfield; Donald Pecos – aka The Pecos Kid; Dr. Franz Edlemann; Samson Posey; Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis; Judas; Norman Frink; Alvin Straight; Mary Todd Lincoln; Chubby Bannister; Lucifer Jr; Alfalfa; Napoleon Solo; and Herb Alpert as himself.