Archive for Georgia Hale

Limousine Love

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2022 by dcairns

The fact that it took Chaplin a year of filming to figure out a way to make the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) in CITY LIGHTS mistake the Tramp for a millionaire just gets more incredible when you realise that Chaplin had already solved the problem, back in THE IDLE CLASS. He did it with a car door, with the Tramp chortcutting through a limo. That was ten years before — did Charlie eventually remember how he did it, or did he never remember it, and come up with the idea again, as if from scratch?

(In THE IDLE CLASS, Charlie cuts through the back of a limo and, emerging at a costume ball, is naturally mistaken for a toff disguised as a tramp. So it’s not exactly the same gag — he had to get the idea of using the sound of the car door, not a natural notion for a silent filmmaker. And, though I continue to argue that CITY LIGHTS is a sound film but not a talkie, Chaplin tells us he thought of it as a silent. That category error may have got in his way. And, though I’ve said that very many situations in the film depend on sound, this scene is treated silent — the flower girl hears the car door, but we don’t.)

It’s all the more remarkable given that he had gag writers — here credited as assistant directors, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Maybe he’d been resisting the idea of repeating himself, but the use he makes of the misunderstanding here is so different, it hardly makes you think the less of him. I feel if he’d called the idea to mind earlier, he’d have used it without hesitation, since he was going through hell trying to solve the problem — and putting everyone else through hell — “I was a terror to be with” — and spending his own money.

The end result repays the agonies everyone endured. Having seen Georgia Hale’s screen test for the part, and admired it, I can’t say that she’s better than Cherrill, whose lack of experience gives her playing an innocence. It’s what Chaplin wanted — not an actor, a pure medium to transmit his own ideas into performance.

How the girl gets accidentally fooled is clever. How Charlie gets hooked is equally smart, and doesn’t get talked about. Having realised that she’s misunderstood who he is, and that she thinks he’s left without waiting for his change, he can’t bring himself to disappoint and disillusion her. Therefore he gives up his change, which he really needs — the fingers are coming off his gloves — and tiptoes away, like the amphibian removals men of TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. So he’s committed to maintaining the illusion. It must feel good. He’s just been publically shamed at the monument unveiling, humiliated by news boys and intimidated by a typically gigantic antagonist. Now he’s met somebody who admires him.

Chaplin said it was always a challenge to find a way to get a romance going with the Tramp, since women don’t usually list indigence as a trait they look for in a partner. But having her simply ignorant of who he is was an inspiration that arrived quite indirectly.

In My Autobiography, Chaplin describes his initial idea, “a clown who, through an accident at the circus, has lost his sight. He has a little daughter, a sick, nervous child, and when he returns from the hospital the doctor warns him that he must hide his blindness from her until she is well and strong enough to understand, as the shock might be too much for her. His stumbling and bumping into things make the girl laugh joyously. But that was too ‘icky’.”

It certainly was. Though you can feel something of Chaplin’s enthusiasm for the idea lingering, decades later. Sometimes, we’re told, his assistants could talk him out of an overly sentimental idea by expressing open revulsion: I suspect that was the case here.

The idea may have been influenced by another source: Josef Von Sternberg had been taken under Chaplin’s wing after smuggling a print of his no-budget debut feature, THE SALVATION HUNTERS, into CC’s screening room. The film starred Georgia Hale and was, in its way, somewhat Chaplinesque. It was planned that Sternberg would make a film for Chaplin, and he eventually did, the ill-fated A WOMAN OF THE SEA, but another project was envisaged first, a star vehicle for Mary Pickford. “It was called Backwash,” Sternberg tells us in his memoir, “and it concerned a blind girl and a deaf-mute, the subject to be visualized through the eyes of a girl who has never been able to see. […] One of the episodes concerned a visit to a Chaplin comedy by my underprivileged characters, and Mr. Chaplin had agreed to perform some distorted antics.”

So this may have influenced Chaplin — it seems more than likely. You could say he practically swiped Sternberg’s idea the way he later did Welles’ with MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Of course, his treatment of other people’s ideas makes them distinctly his own: we don’t see the blind girl’s distorted imaginings of what Charlie is like, instead we get to see him struggle to maintain her illusion, without the financial means.

At the end of the scene, after the girl thinks Charlie has driven away, he sneaks back to watch her. Voyeurism — and a fantasy — when she stares into space and he’s occupying that space, it looks like she’s looking at him, tenderly. Her lack of sight supplies him with something he lacks — the illusion of love. All this complex stuff is neatly deflated when she throws a plant pot full of water in his face. Chaplin usually knows when things are at risk of getting too serious too soon.


The Sunday Intertitle: The King Gets Off

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2022 by dcairns

Intertitle from THE SACRIFICE, a stupid home movie made by Lord Mountbatten at the time of THE CIRCUS’ shooting, and starring Chaplin as a South Sea tribal monarch. Badly shot, titled, acted, preserved and transferred, it makes me resent every second Chaplin wasted hobnobbing with the upper class. But hey, it gives us a title! The first useful thing it’s achieved in almost a hundred years of existence.

“Sheer perseverance to the point of madness” was how Chaplin described his approach to getting ideas. The phrase could also apply to the shooting of THE CIRCUS — the film was completed despite a storm destroying the big top (a “blow-down” in carny-speak), lab problems which rendered several weeks’ worth of rushes unusable, a horrific divorce that halted filming for eight months (the show was “sloughed,” in carny terms), a fire which swept the Chaplin studio, destroying sets and equipment, and the theft of the entire circus train on location by a gang of playful students who were narrowly prevented from torching the lot for kicks. Several difficulties that the carnies don’t even have terms for.

With all that stress, little wonder that Chaplin omitted the film (and the marriage) from his autobiography.

By the time THE CIRCUS was released, there must have been doubts as to whether the public would even accept Chaplin again, so scandalous was his divorce. Among the lurid details exposed was Chaplin’s fondness for oral sex, then illegal in California (I believe it’s compulsory now). The sex secrets seem pretty innocent now, though Chaplin’s lust for teenage girls less so. He paid a penalty for that this time. One possible consequence is that the romances in Chaplin’s next few films become EXTREMELY chaste. Already, in THE GOLD RUSH, Georgia Hale is an impossible aspiration for Charlie, but she IS a sex worker, and he DOES keep her picture under his pillow. Future leading ladies are virginal, and so, it seems, is Charlie.

The film begins with a song Chaplin recorded himself when he scored the movie in 1970 — he seems to have rearranged the opening to introduce his co-star Merna Kennedy along with the song “Swing, Little Girl.” He makes sure to give himself a credit for this, whereas Josephine the monkey isn’t credited for her contribution, and Henry Bergman’s training Chaplin on the tightrope goes unmentioned. (As David Robinson points out, the hard-to-picture circumstances in which the portly HB acquired this knowledge are unrecorded by showbiz history, and this must be deeply regretted.)

The fun of the big top segues rapidly into dark melodrama as Kennedy’s ringmaster father looms over her with his whip. The score continues to play festive circus music, but more dimly, so this is score-as-source, a useful dramatic counterpoint to the cruel scene.

He’s even mean to the clowns: “And you’re supposed to be funny!” he snarls. So, two story problems are set up in under three minutes: Merna has a rotten father, and clowns aren’t funny.

At last — three minutes is plenty of time to spend waiting for Charlie — our star is introduced, “Around the Side Shows, hungry and broke.” Chaplin always, or nearly always, does something fun with his entrance, capitalising on the most famous silhouette in the business. Here he enters from the back, in longshot, as part of a crowd, from whom he instantly pops out via movement and costume.

This begins a complicated pickpocket routine which seems to find an echo a decade later in LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS. The broken-nosed thief (Steve Murphy, who also played louts for Keaton in SHERLOCK JR and Lloyd in SPEEDY), caught by his mark, plants the incriminating wallet on Charlie, and then has trouble getting it back.

But this gag sequence is interrupted by another, in which Charlie robs a tiny child of his hotdog. It’s all done with kindness. Chaplin makes googoo faces at his mark-in-arms, charming him until he’s practically shoving the revolting meat product down the tramp’s throat. This kind of bad behaviour is whimsically charming, especially when Charlie adds ketchup to the r.m.p. The kid, in fact, does seem a bit eager to cooperate, and we cut just as he seems about to hand the entire bun to his robber.

Murphy now strikes, and is caught by a kop trying to steal from Charlie the wallet he’d previously stolen from (checks IMDb) Max Tyron, a German thesp whose only other known role is in GREED. Charlie is astonished at the recovery of a wallet he didn’t know he had, and his reactions as the kop makes him check the contents are a delirious dream. He’s having a good day, really, though a strange one.

Charlie, buying more meat, is apprehended by Tyron, who recognises his wallet and watch, and flees, joining Murphy, who has slipped away from the kop and is also fleeing. A moment of astonishment and irony as they recognise their shared situation. We can also appreciate Charles Daniel Hall’s sideshow sets.

The mirror maze sequence looks forward to LADY FROM SHANGHAI and back to the day in 1917 when multiple Chaplins were hallucinated all over America, and to various events in which whole crowds dragged up in tramp attire for a lark. Chaplin’s very uniqueness seemed to inspire fantasies of multiplication.

More false Chaplin as our man impersonates a jerking automaton on the front of the sideshow, taking the opportunity to repeatedly cosh Murphy when the crook is forced into a similar imposture. The fact of Murphy being unable to retaliate without breaking character (the kop is watching) is deliciously mean. Chaplin’s old bullying instincts get plenty of expression in his later work, but he’s careful to play an underdog who has only momentarily got the upper hand, and is making the most of it. I guess already here the circus is trying to absorb Charlie, or he’s trying to get absorbed by it, and it’s not quite happening.

Fleeing the last kop, Charlie finds himself in the ring where he disrupts the clowns’ act and the magic show and convulses a moribund audience. This gets him unexpectedly hired, and we enter into the section of the film dealing with Charlie as clown. Critic Walter Kerr is really harsh on this trope, seeing it as inescapably false: Charlie can’t get laughs by deliberate capering, only by accident. To Kerr, this is denying the hard work and artistry that goes into Chaplin’s work. He has a point, but I’ll try to mount another couple of readings of what’s going on here, and maybe offer a defence.

In Chaplin’s films, the other characters don’t normally find Charlie funny. We’re in on a joke they’re not in on, and that he’s not generally in on, which gives us a slightly smug feeling of superiority and therefore a comic distance from the action.

Chaplin’s films, clearly, are happening in a comic universe, in which situations we find absurd are treated with the utmost seriousness by all concerned. No doubt this is partly because it’s hard to see the funny side when you’re in trouble (“Comedy is a man in trouble.” ~ Jerry Lewis) but in a way that’s just an excuse to stop the characters laughing and make room for the audience to do so.

Certainly things get a bit mixed up when Chaplin, a silent clown, plays a man playing a circus clown in a movie. But I think we have to forget about this being Chaplin’s analysis of his own creative process: Kerr is right, it’s not an adequate portrayal of that. But I think it’s an excellent portrayal of something else Chaplin may have felt.

In the sequences where Charlie manages to make the circus customers laugh, he’s really experiencing serious discomfort or danger. This is analogous to Chaplin the artist’s situation: he presents his (real) suffering, and we the audience laugh at it. I think Chaplin may have sensed the strangeness of the way he was recycling his experiences of poverty and also loneliness (which continued, intermittently, long after he became hugely successful) and getting big laughs with it.

We can also look at the character of the tramp as being different from Chaplin. The way one finds success as a clown need not be the way the other does it. In the comic universe of Charlie, what has to happen in order for his antics to be seen as funny, rather than irritating? (Most of the people he comes into contact with seem to find Charlie hugely annoying, which should be relatable for non-Chaplin fans, but doesn’t seem to help them any.) It seems that all he needs to do is step onto a stage or into a sawdust-strewn tent, and his floundering is seen as amusing. We may see some of this come back in LIMELIGHT, Chaplin’s other key film about performance (maybe MONSIEUR VERDOUX also counts?)

Act One of THE CIRCUS fades out with a title card and an image depicting Charlie’s new status, and his obliviousness to it. He’s asleep in a chariot, a vehicle with an air of pomp and regality to it, unaware that the world has repositioned itself under him while he slumbers…

Gold Fever

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2021 by dcairns

Charlie and Big Jim arrive at their cabin again after “a long, tedious journey” — not “arduous,” noted Fiona — which Chaplin wisely declines to show us. They arrive spectacularly provisioned, so we know there are to be no starvation jokes, and since baddie Black Larssen has got himself crevassed out of the picture, we are left to wonder from which direction jeopardy will strike. We’re also wondering about the suspended romance with Georgia — Charlie believes she loves him, she believes nothing of the sort, and the revolting Jack is still hanging around like a bad and chubby smell.

But the Yukon is a place of danger — a storm blows the cabin loose from whatever foundations it had, and leaves it teetering on a cliff edge. Where did this idea come from? We know that all subsequent iterations of it got it from here — the building undermine by coastal erosion in DON’T MAKE WAVES, and the car parked on the brink in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em — but those adaptations each use more logical explanations for their peril. Chaplin COULD have had a cliff collapse leave his dwelling in this precarious situation, but opts instead for a scenario of near-WIZARD OF OZ-level improbability. Which makes me wonder how on earth he came up with it. It’s hard to follow the thought process… “What if the storm blows the cabin around during the night?” Such a proposition seems more likely to inspire a response of “That wouldn’t happen,” rather than one of “And then…?” This is why it’s important not to reject stupid-sounding ideas out of hand, but to explore them and see if they lead somewhere useful.

Having done so, he milks it for everything it’s worth: Charlie, hungover from the tippling that got him through the strenuous unpacking process, puts the floor’s groaning movement down to his excesses, so there’s a protracted bit of dramatic irony where he’s unaware of the danger, but we are.

I will admit that the sonorized version, with VO, has some decent lines in this sequence, and Chaplin’s clipped delivery adds tension as he acts for both himself and Big Jim. When they discuss crossing to the far side of the room to see how far it’ll go over, that creates a lovely “Oh no!” moment for the audience. But generally the wordless version, with Timothy Brok recreating Chaplin’s score, is much to be preferred.

For the only time in his career, Charlie turns into a puppet, when he hangs from the door of the cabin over the snowy void. And this seems apt. It’s a lovely lesson in screen direction (the one thing Chaplin acknowledged learning from Henry “Pathe” Lehrman) — if you exit screen left you must enter the next shot from screen right — so that a life-sized Chaplin walks out the cabin door and a tiny puppet with loose string joints emerges from the miniature cabin exterior — and we BELIEVE IT. Also, there seems something apt about Chaplin as puppet. He’s made himself into one in the bread roll dance, come to think of it. And this is, in a way, a reprise of the film’s original cabin gag, when the howling wind blasting through one door jetted him out the opposite one.

The cabin, it seems, is a classic liminal space, a bit of civilisation plonked down in the icy wilderness and prone to becoming unplonked. It is inherently unstable, a place where, as the Red Queen would have it, you have to run just as fast as you can to stay in place, and if you want to get anywhere you have to run twice as fast again. While previously it was atmospheric pressure shoving Charlie through this door, now it’s gravity, grown mysteriously capricious. Carrollian physics prevail here.

The cabin tried to warn us: on first welcoming Charlie in to its warm and well-provisioned interior, it spat snow at him through a knothole. It has creakingly leaned to and fro in the gale, rhombohedronizing itself back and forth as if limbering up to become a Fu Manchu infernal device.

And it is, let’s not forget, a place of madness: after Charlie has transformed shoe-leather and laces into a delicious meal by sheer force of pantomime, he himself is turned into a chicken, all unwilling. Thing lose their shapes in what Daniel Riccuito calls Chaplin’s clapboard universe.

Fiona asked if Harold Lloyd had started hanging off buildings yet — he had! So possibly Chaplin was looking to compete, but without breaking his neck. Terror as an accelerant for comedy again. And done without cinematic hype: a more dramatically inclined director would have been unable to resist a POV shot through the back door, the mountainous horizon line tilting vertiginously UP, the gorge rising to devour us… Chaplin settles for the model shot and a set built to rock (no fake Star Trek camera-rocking here, he must have real gravity to work against).

Speed is a weapon — by what can only be considered the most ludicrous of coincidences, the bobsledding house has brought Big Jim to his mountain of gold, previously discovered then lost to concussion. And a good thing to, for the cabin was supposed to be the landmark that helped him locate his loot, a function it can hardly perform while sliding around nocturnally, a rickety land yacht.

Chaplin stops this seeming like a disgusting convenience by having Jim strike his motherload at the worst possible moment, while Charlie is still indoors, sliding towards extinction. Jim, who we know to be forgetful, comes over all amnesiac again once the light of gold is in his eyes. With the best possible action-movie climax, Charlie ends by leaping free of the cabin AS IT FALLS, a stunning effects shot.

(The puppet figure is delightful, and every bit as convincing as we need it to be — in a “just suppose” way — but in a way it’s a shame it punctures the illusion, since the other effects put together by Rollie Totheroh and Charles D. Hall are absolutely successful — as a child, it didn’t even occur to me that Chaplin hadn’t really dropped Tom Murray on a bit of collapsing cliff, or really filmed a low angle of crumbling ice (Totheroh knew to shoot his miniatures in slow motion, something other Hollywood pictures hadn’t, apparently, figured out yet).

There follows a strange lacuna which absolutely works, but maybe shouldn’t: Big Jim and Charlie are millionaires, sailing home. What about Georgia? She’s on the boat too, for unknown reasons, and unaware of Charlie’s good fortune. Charlie has, we can only presume, looked for her but found her gone. But we’re not told this or encouraged to think too much about it.

Big Jim is something of a rough diamond, but is evidently going to enjoy being rich, while Charlie is now outwardly the gentleman he always was inwardly. Fiona laughed heartily when he took of his fur-lined coat to reveal another fur coat underneath. The dainty music Chaplin had used to score the boot-eating scene is now employed, almost irony-free, to accompany the boys entering their shipboard cabin (like the log cabin, a domicile that slides about from place to place).

There’s a bit of plotting here that’s as neat as the car-door slam in CITY LIGHTS that convinces the blind girl that Charlie is rich: photographers documenting Charlie’s rags to riches story require him to dress up in his old prospecting outfit. Georgia will encounter him, thus attired, and mistake him for a stowaway she’s heard about. Critics tend to focus on the improbability of them meeting like this, but we can be generous and note the felicity of the idea: Georgia has never really shown us that she loves Charlie, and she can’t very well turn around and convince us of her romantic feelings if she knows him to be a millionaire. She has to think him impoverished, a failure. Apparently that thing with Jack didn’t work out too good and she’s been thinking about how sweet he was. It’s really a perfect bit of plotting, and I’d love to know when Charlie thought of it: if he had it up his sleeve all along, it would make sense that he kept Georgia from showing any real affection for Charlie until this point. If he had to come up with it on the spot, having created this narrative problem, it’s an impressively ingenious solution.

Charlie, ironically, doesn’t realise that Georgia is expressing a change of heart, or anyhow a belated moment of realisation — he still believes she wrote him a love note back at the dance hall.

One of Chaplin’s least happy alterations to THE GOLD RUSH was to its ending, where Charlie and Georgia go into a clinch and refuse to break it for the photographer’s benefit, a bit of meta larking which for some reason struck him the wrong way in 1942. It seems perfect to me. Had the Tramp retired at this point, it would have served as a nice call-back to his picture-wrecking activities in his first screen appearance, KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE.

Fortunately for us, Chaplin had further ideas for the Little Fellow…

The Chaplin Odyssey will continue in 2022.