Archive for He Who Gets Slapped

Red Star Blues

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2022 by dcairns

The central imposture in THE CIRCUS — where the ringmaster makes Charlie the star of the show, but lets him believe he’s a lowly props man (and pays him accordingly) is like an inverted version of RED STAR, a project developed by Richard Lester to star Robin Williams.

In Charles Wood’s unfilled screenplay, based on a short story from the collection Red Monarch by Yuri Krotkov, Williams was to have played a bum actor in the Soviet Union with an accidental resemblance to Josef Stalin (it would have been brilliant casting, Williams had a vaguely Stalinesque bone structure). The regime is in need of a lookalike for certain less important public occasions, and so he gets recruited. But he sucks at the job, because he’s treated like a failed actor, so they realise they have to allow him a bit of prestige so he can get into character. They give him his own limo — well, he has to share it with a performing bear… The film was to have been almost a silent comedy. Lester told me that one gag would be when the actor tries to escape (perhaps having realised he’s a target for assassination?) but the boat he launches has been built as a movie set, and it only exists down one side…

In THE CIRCUS, Charlie is only funny when he doesn’t know it, when he’s not performing but being. As it happens, the very next plot development, midway through the picture, is that Merna Kennedy as the girl tells him what’s going on. There follows a fee negotiation scene that feels vaguely authentic — Chaplin was a hard bargained and knew what he was worth. But the scene is tricked out with a pratfall and some incompetent arithmetic so that Charlie’s snootiness is undercut.

Part of the bargain is that the girl’s father has to be nice to her, so Charlie isn’t being purely selfish. But he’s back to treating people as objects, lighting a match on the chief property man’s bum. A minute later, in an excess of glee, he will kick Henry Bergman in the chest. It’s uncomfortably like his bullying behaviour way back in THE PROPERTY MAN.

An intertitle notes that Merna’s character name is Merna. And finally Rex, King of the Air, is introduced. The tightrope-walker, played by Harry Crocker, immediately becomes romantic rival, and we’re back to a scenario first tried out in THE TRAMP: Charlie meekly making way for the more suitable love interest. But here he does try to put up a struggle, launching his own high-wire career to compete with Sexy Rexy.

Charlie keeps his money in his sock — so he’ll always know which bills are his (acknowledgement: Talking Heads). Ralph Fiennes in SPIDER is a sock man, too, but he keeps his sock in his pocket, which seems rather redundant.

Charlie listening in on Merna’s conversations with the fortune teller — a sympathetic Roma character to make up for the nasty gang in THE VAGABOND — reminds me of EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, in which Woody Allen has creepy access to Julia Roberts’ shrink sessions. Here, Charlie’s hopes are raised and almost immediately dashed, leading to a great tragic medium shot reaction, and then a scene where he has to go on and perform, broken-hearted, which again seems like it might be inspired by Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED.

The scene with the splitscreen identical twin boxers may have been deleted, but Rollie Totheroh gets a chance to show off his special effects when Charlie imagines beating up his romantic rival: he astrally projects, leaving his body in a double exposure shot and administering a brutal drubbing to his rival — in fantasy, of course. Whether this was inspired by Buster Keaton’s out-of-body-experience in SHERLOCK JR (1924) or by some more recent movie OOBE, I don’t know. It does satisfactorily deal with THE TRAMP’s weird character inconsistency, where Charlie goes from the violent bully Essanay audiences knew and loved, to a mild-mannered simp, with next to no transition.

Bravura acting sequence where Merna and Charlie watch Rex on the wire, she rapturous, he sneering at the bravado and applauding the mistakes, then getting caught up in it so that his mirror neurons fire up, making his body twist and squirm in mimicry of Rex’s performance. Surprising moment when Rex tears his tuxedo off to reveal acrobat kit underneath. “And all my clothes fall off!” Merna does not respond erotically, but with increased anxiety for his wellbeing. Possibly his mental wellbeing.

Charlie’s jealousy of Rex will lead to the big monkey climax, the scene which singlehandedly converted Fiona from Chaplin scepticism…

Meanwhile, Charlie sneezes into Merna’s face-powder, another Woody Allen gag although he did it with cocaine in ANNIE HALL. Editor Ralph Rosenbaum recalled inserting more and more footage to let the audience recover from their laughter before the next scene started. In the end he added thirty seconds of, essentially, dead air, nothing, just the actors sitting around waiting for “cut” to be spoken. It seemed like an eternity to him, but with an audience it was essential. I haven’t watched that film in decades so I don’t recall how it plays without a cinema-full of laughs…

All this sequence is basically set-up — we see how Rex’s act is supposed to work, so we can enjoy how Charlie’s version will go wrong. In fact, it isn’t essential — the monkey scene works brilliantly as an extract in Schickel’s Chaplin documentary, without even an explanation of how the monkeys come to be there. Some things are just funny.

The Sunday Intertitle: Death-Slide for Cutie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2022 by dcairns

Still need to write at least two posts to finish off Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS, but meanwhile we watched DIE TODESCHLEIFE — aka LOOPING THE LOOP (although that title really means The Death-Slide), directed by the rather marvelous Arthur Robison (WARNING SHADOWS) and starring Werner Krauss, Jenny Jugo and featuring Warwick Ward and Sig Arno (“Nitz, Toto!”)

It’s worth mentioning in this context because it came out the same year as Chaplin’s film, and similarly features a lovelorn clown as protag, with an aerial acrobat rival, and the girl between. I think it’s not so much a case of direct influence as one of both films being inspired by HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, which has just those elements also.

Jenny Jugo shows how she got her name

Krauss for once is not playing an old man, and he keeps it simple and affecting. While watching, it is necessary to forget about him being such an enthusiastic Nazi, and then when it’s over, it is necessary to remember again, and sigh. He’s really good, in an entirely different mode from CALIGARI etc.

Robison’s politics are unknown to me. The Chicago-born German filmmaker made THE INFORMER in Britain the following year, but was still working in Germany in 1935, the year of his death. But then, the star of his last film, THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE, was Anton Walbrook, no Nazi. Seemingly quite a few filmmakers who were not themselves Jewish or Nazi felt able to stay in Germany for a few years after Hitler came to power: one thinks of Sirk and Lang. So Robison may have been thinking of getting out, but his early death (at 52) intervened. As I say, I know nothing of him save his birth, death and filmography: I’d love to know more.

The film is really stylish and quite involving: among the best touches is a scene where Krauss, as Botto the Clown, recalls a woman who he was romantically interested in, but who only wanted him for his clowning ability. In flashback, she demands that he laugh for her. His laugh — that of a broken-hearted man — apparently terrifies her until she backs away, and Robison stages this moment on a cunningly slanted set to give everything a delirious-vertiginous angst. You feel it in the distorted perspective but also in the straining of her legs. See also THUNDER ROCK and SCROOGED.

Elsewhere there are artful mirror shots; double-exposures, in which Krauss imagines himself grown to Godzilla size and stomping his rival beneath a titanic flap-shoe; a spectacular trick-shot following Ward all the way down and around the death-slide; a miniature journey to England, tiny landscapes rolling past as in Murnau’s FAUST or May’s HEIMKEHR or Powell & Pressburger’s I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING!

Krauss’s act involves a dummy made up just like him, allowing many uncanny moments. Does he converse with it, does it seem to come to life. Oh yes. Fascinating to see Krauss as an offbeat romantic hero. At times he’s almost cute. His hair is the only problem. That and his Nazism.

The Sunday Intertitle: Going to The Circus

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on January 23, 2022 by dcairns

THE CIRCUS is the next Chaplin film for me to consider. As with many of the major ones, I’ve written about it before, and touched on it in a video essay for Criterion. But there’s always more to say, I suspect. I’ve even made the effort of BUYING the movie on DVD this time.

In Bengt Forslund’s respectable study Victor Sjostrom, we learn that Chaplin was a great admirer of this Swedish director in Hollywood: “There is a wide discrimination between Seastrom and the rest of us. He distinguishes himself with finer feeling and better taste. He is the greatest director in the world.”

So Chaplin would have seen HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, and could not have failed to be impressed by it. His own circus film would have followed it much sooner if not for the considerable delays and difficulties Chaplin was beset by in production. Forslund even suggests that a famous Chaplin routine, Hynkel playing with the globe in THE GREAT DICTATOR, may have been inspired by an image in Sjostrom/Seastrom’s movie. But THE CIRCUS is where we see that influence most strongly.

Sjostrom had been inspired to get into showbusiness by a childhood visit to the circus, so his own clown tragedy comes from quite a personal place. Chaplin had no real connection to the circus, but had trod the boards of the music hall from a tender age, and of course he WAS a clown, in a slightly different sense.

In adapting (and improving) Leonid Andreyev’s play, Sjostrom was himself influenced by another source, a well-known painting by Nils Forsberg. In fact, this image is somewhat reproduced in his film, but forms only a minor moment in the story. Chaplin’s film takes the idea of a cruel instructor and his acrobat victim and makes it a central plank of his story. So hats off to Nils Forsberg.

In seeing HE as an influence on Chaplin — both films feature scary situations with caged lions, and confusion between comedy and tragedy, slapstick and reality — I take nothing away from Chaplin. It’s a feature of his genius that whenever you find someplace he got an idea from, you find that what he did with the idea was so original or just plain effective, his brilliance loses nothing.