Archive for Easy Street

The Sunday Intertitle: He couldn’t get arrested

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2022 by dcairns

When a man who wants to go to jail meets a girl who doesn’t want to go to jail, you have a pretty good meet cute on your hands. Paulette Goddard stares in bewilderment at Charlie as he voluntarily takes the rap for her loaf-snatching. (As Elaine May explains in Mike Nichols: A Life, you should only steal flat things. Bread is too bulky. An Elaine May purloined sandwich would consist of a slice of cheese between two steaks. This doesn’t apply if you happen to be Divine, who could shoplift portable televisions, but who among us is Divine?) Charlie appears to her as both hero and lunatic — a fairly accurate impression of him, given what he’s seen.

We can see MODERN TIMES as Charlie’s origin story — fittingly enough, since it’s his last appearance as The Tramp (the Jewish barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR both is and is not the Tramp). It’s like Clint Eastwood acquiring his poncho at the end of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY — Charlie starts as one worker among many, then loses his job and his wits, is put back together by Dr. Ludovico, then finds he can’t settle into any one role, and exchanges his profession for “a life of aimless wandering” as Ulysses Everett McGill might put it.

The Gamin will play a central role — as an underclass wanderer herself, she can show him the ropes.

But for now, Charlie’s noble and opportunistic deceit is thwarted when the “Stop, thief!” busybody puts the finger on the Gamin.

There’s a funny exchange when Charlie extends the appropriated bread product. He shows it to the cop, who shows it to the baker, saying something like “Is this your loaf?” and the baker nods earnestly.

Having failed as criminal samaritan, Charlie decides to eat a hearty meal and refuse to pay, a gratifying and near-victimless way of getting arrested. There’s something very beautiful about the shot of him sliding his mountainous trays along the counter. The scenario puts me in mind of the melancholy death of Clyde Bruckman, Keaton’s old gag man and co-director, who, hard-up since the coming of sound, and sued by Harold Lloyd for recycling gags from THE FRESHMAN for a Three Stooges short, borrowed Keaton’s gun, ate a hearty meal at a swank eatery, and then shot himself dead in the phone kiosk.

There’s no good way to go, but that one has admirable as well as regrettable aspects.

Charlie compounds his initial impudence by smoking a cigar, which he also can’t pay for, while under arrest. Style. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Charlie has learned the secret of not caring about society.

Meet cute 2 — in the black maria or paddy wagon if one can still use that expression. After being nauseated by a dyspeptic “gypsy” (Chaplin traducing the Romany people again — in spite of his own probably heritage), Charlie meets the Gamin now that she’s rearrested. The police wagon is surprisingly similar to a bus, and I guess we’re not in the south as there’s a black lady passenger, who Charlie sits on by accident, thrice. Knowing his humour, he’d probably have preferred to sit on a dignified dowager, but it’s not probable that one would be present. Is it, arguably, a compliment that Chaplin instead chooses to settle his tiny bottom on this dour, thick-set woman? She does have dignity, despite her lowly status.

The van is moving very fast (rear projection), hence Charlie’s unsteadiness. A little too fast, as it now crashes and with one bound our heroes are free. Actually, it’s unclear if it crashes — it does a wheelie, seemingly, leaning over at a 45 degree angle with screeching tyres. The implication is that it’s come to rest leaning against a lamppost or something (maybe the one Eric Campbell urigellered in EASY STREET?). But anyway, Charlie and the G are OUT. The kop who’s fallen out with them can easily be reconcussed so they may make good their escape.

Beautiful shot of Paulette waiting at the corner for him to join her. In the foreground, trash cans — his present. In the background, a billboard showing a car, pointed in the direction of escape — the future!

Her closeup reveals an even more pointed detail: a second billboard, showing some kind of pioneer couple, he gesturing towards the landscape ahead — a role-reversal of our current scene. Kudos to production designer Charles D-for-Danny Hall.

Charlie considers whether to escape or not. A Look To Camera is indicated. I should be able to tell you if this is his first in the film, but I can’t remember. It could be. Which would make it his first ever, if this is his origin story. He at first doesn’t intend to go, but what the hell — he can always get himself rearrested later. The G, who has been visibly upset, obviously needs a friend. The decision to escape = the decision to be a Tramp, but it’s not a FINAL one — he will attempt other professions throughout the film, as the Tramp would throughout Chaplin’s career.

FADE OUT. FADE IN — on the road. We are halfway through the film. TO BE CONTINUED.

The Stripey Hole

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2022 by dcairns

The prison sequence in MODERN TIMES contributes to the film’s episodic feeling. Nothing that’s planted here is used later. Chaplin could have had himself arrested and placed immediately into a van with Paulette, I think. But, on the other hand, placing our first glimpse of her “Gamin” before the prison term helps tie the different parts of the film together. And the prison sequence is very funny. I wonder if any of the ideas here came from CITY LIGHTS, where the Tramp has a spell inside which we never see (and quite rightly).

Cast into dungeons dark dank and donk — Charlie shares a cell with, of all people, Prince Barin from FLASH GORDON, made this same year. I knew if I kept blogging for a decade and a half things would start to make sense. (Paulette Goddard’s later work with QUIEN SABE?’s Damiano Damiani in LA NOIA is another charming connection, and I’ve already pointed out how FLASH recycles sets from FRANKENSTEIN designed by Charles D. Hall, who is also responsible for the production design in MODERN TIMES) Charlie is perturbed by Barin’s needlepoint. Having this big guy — a more naturalistic Eric Campbell — thread a needle in your direction is, from Charlie’s alarmed reaction, like gazing down the barrel of a gun.

Dissolve when the convicts go to dinner indicates to me that Chaplin has made a trim. I always liked the cheap gag of his meal being ladled into his plate while he’s otherwise occupied, and when he discovers the slop has apported in front of him, he looks upwards as if some passing seagull must be responsible. Silly and low and wonderful.

NOSE-POWDER! This is an excuse to have Charlie turn into a heroic berserker warrior, as he did in EASY STREET. It’s also a surprising post-code drug reference. How was it allowed? It’s true that Charlie doesn’t consciously take the drugs, and the drugs are being smuggled by bad guys. And Charlie uses the illicit substance as a condiment, rather than shooting up as he did (accidentally) in EASY STREET. But the seven-per-cent solution turning him into an unstoppable crimefighter seems like not the message Joe Breen was anxious to get out.

Anyway, I love the dramatic iris-in on the drug connection. A technique audiences of 1936 would not have been accustomed to seeing on their screens for close to a decade. The IMDb doesn’t seem to know who this guy is. I would like that information.

Love the dynamic pan to the salt cellar. Chaplin’s camera is already getting hyper. Now we get to see Charlie deliver a masterclass in what he imagines coke is like. It’s very moreish, apparently. In case we struggle to imagine how eating the stuff would work (oh, it would work, I think), Chaplin has himself wipe the stuff across his lower face so he can also inhale it.

Distracted by Prince Barin — under the influence, does Charlie see the guy abruptly clad in a breast plate and plumed helmet? — Charlie attempts to deliver a forkful of cocaine mush into his right ear. Like William Lee in NAKED LUNCH, reaching for a cigarette on the wrong side of his mouth, he has forgotten where his face is.

The ebullience Charlie now feels — showing Prince Barin where he can get off — does seem like plausible cokehead arrogance. Rotating mechanically on the spot when the convicts are sent back to their cells does not. It’s Harpo zaniness, and another illustration of Henri Bergson’s notion that comedy comes from people behaving like machines.

In a daze, Charlie accidentally escapes, and is panic-stricken when the call of a cuckoo brings him back to reality. An interesting use of sound — the bird does not appear.

JAILBREAK! One of the two gunmen is Frank Moran, with his “wrecked jeep of a face” (Manny Farber), a few years before he became a favourite player of Preston Sturges (“Psycho-lology!”)

Charlie thwarts the breakout with a dashing display of Peruvian courage, reacting to gunfights with flashing fists, as if he could deflect bullets with his cuffs like Wonder Woman (he won’t get magic cuffs until the end of the movie) and defeats his enemies by using an iron door as an offensive weapon. Charlie has been able to play the upright citizen, but only while coked out of his face, which I suppose makes it acceptable.

MODERN TIMES star Adenoid Hynkel; Lucretia Borgia; Fat Whiskered German Soldier / The Kaiser’s General / Bartender; Porthos; Mr. Whoozis; Norwegian Radio Listener (uncredited); The Millionaire’s Butler; Prince Barin; Cardinal Richelieu; Eggs; Frederick F. Trumble (uncredited); Tough Chauffeur;

Machine Made

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2022 by dcairns

In MODERN TIMES the people are mute but the machines talk. It wasn’t always thus: Chaplin seems to have initially planned the film as a full talkie.

GAMIN: ‘What’s your name?’

TRAMP: ‘Me? oh, mine’s a silly name. You wouldn’t like it. It begins with an “X”.’

GAMIN: ‘Begins with an “X”?’

TRAMP: ‘See if you can guess.’

GAMIN: ‘Not eczema?’

TRAMP: ‘Oh, worse than that — just call me Charlie.’

Remember Billy Wilder’s complaint that Chaplin was a genius, but when he let his characters talk he became like a child of four writing lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth? Unfair, of course, but I think it’s true to say that dialogue like the above wouldn’t have improved MODERN TIMES. It might have felt more like the talkie inserts in LONESOME, inept longeurs. Of course, talking films had developed hugely since Pál Fejös’ 1928 masterpiece, but Chaplin hadn’t. You can see him recapitulating the history of sound films: music and sound only, now a part-talkie, then a full-fledged sound film with music and dialogue and effects (I guess he was able to skip out the phase where everyone stood around a hidden mic and talked, without benefit of music or post-produced FX).

The dialogue Chaplin considered, but rejected, is CHATTER — exactly the kind of talk the combination of pantomime and intertitles excluded, instead boiling the verbiage down to its purest narrative essentials, and putting the focus on behaviour. When we come to THE GREAT DICTATOR we will have to reckon with Chaplin’s decision to embrace talk, and his surprising success with it. But we’re not there yet.

The first voice we hear in MT is the boss, but we hear him over his METROPOLIS-style CCTV, or Skype or Zoom or whatever you want to call it. Something which is finally commonplace, and we do speak with our bosses quite a bit on it. Hang on in there, we’ll get the flying cars and jetpacks eventually.

So the boss is mechanized, effectively, and soon Charlie, discovered at the assembly line, will be mechanized too. The terrible thing about these machines, observes Anthony Hopkins in THE ELEPHANT MAN, is you can’t reason with them.

Chaplin had been inspired by the horror of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Though he would quote Ford’s suggestion for a shorter working week, he was otherwise quite opposed to this kind of modernity. As David Robinson (also my source for the dialogue above) points out, MODERN TIMES would be attacked both for having a political subtext and for not having one. I suppose either attack can be justified, but the truth is that the film attacks capitalist modernity using the tools of pantomime and slapstick, therefore its arguments are, in a sense, unsophisticated: but beautiful, emotive, and surprising.

Also, we could propose that Chaplin’s criticism is tempered, or undermined, or corrupted, by his visual delight in whirling cogs and giant dynamos and the other accoutrements of industry, As Tati is a bit in love with the more domestic modernism of MON ONCLE and PLAYTIME. Still, the humour Chaplin concocts here is sufficiently black, sufficiently alarming, in fact, to make the film’s intent clear.

I’ve expended a lot of words and I still haven’t moved on a single moment from where I got to in my last post: Chaplin at the conveyor. Let’s make a start.

Charlie in his screen career has been drunk (often), drugged (in EASY STREET), concussed (CITY LIGHTS), and he has been not only in altered states himself but has participated in the hallucinations of others (transforming into a big chicken in THE GOLD RUSH). MODERN TIMES is the first time he goes mad, though. Maybe this final departure from consensus reality had to wait until after the death of Hannah Chaplin, which occurred in 1928.

Chaplin had a fear of madness, and his charming brother Sydney seems to have expected him to succumb to it, waiting, he once said, for that moment so he could sell the studio and relax on the proceeds. The portrayal of insanity in MT is not a realistic one: but it’s the kind of madness the Little Fellow WOULD get. It starts in the muscles. All that bolt-tightening becomes compulsive, a nervous tic. He fights against it: a twist of the body and that back-kick which he uses to cheer himself up, and the tic goes away. It’s like a skipping needle on a phonograph record, it just needs a nudge so that the mechanism can continue smoothly. Henry Bergson’s dictum that comedy arises from human beings behaving like machines is a good one, though of course it doesn’t remotely cover all humour.

At a certain point, of course, the bolt-tightening perseverance (mechanical continuation of a movement after it has lost all conscious purpose) can’t be stopped, and the subject (Charlie, or X) snaps — which comes as a kind of joyous release, really, the return of the repressed, in this case the impish, dervishlike demon of the Keystone era, comes out of the box — manic, anarchic, smutty, irrepressible…

TO BE CONTINUED