Archive for Intolerance

The Sunday Intertitle: With silent lips

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2021 by dcairns

We sort of know how THE IMMIGRANT came into existence, thanks to the surviving rushes, presented in digest form in the documentary Unknown Chaplin. Although of course we will actually never know how THE IMMIGRANT or any work of art like it comes into existence.

Chaplin had planned to make a film set among the bohemians of Paris. He built a set representing a cafe. Edna Purviance was going to play the lead, Henry Bergman was a bullying waiter. Then things sort of evolved.

Chaplin ended up with a cafe scene featuring himself in the Tramp guise, Edna in support, and Eric Campbell took over the role of the waiter as he evolved into the story’s main threat. Henry Bergman was recast as a deus ex machina, the last surviving bohemian element, a wealthy artist. When the sequence was done, Chaplin realised all he needed was a sequence to set up his characters — this meant they now knew each other, which meant more reshooting. A brief coda on a rainy street put the finishing touch on one of his most satisfying shorts, a vindication of his extraordinary practice or writing films with the camera, through filmed rehearsals.

Establishing shot of a ship, which executes some strange pulsing movements, not clearly identifiable as the effect of missing frames or digital repairs. Weird.

Rollie Totheroh rigged up a gimbal for his camera to give a rocking ship effect, but sets on rockers were also used. As well as the natural motion of the sea. Edna and her mother are introduced. Kitty Bradbury, who plays that role, had just played a small part in INTOLERANCE, would play two more mothers for Chaplin, and an aunt for Buster Keaton in OUR HOSPITALITY.

Charlie is introduced as a pair of kicking feet — relying on the recognition factor of those boots. Fiona thought at first they were the spasming feet of a hanged man, which was not, I think, the intention of anyone concerned, but it added a further wrinkle to the gag. Tilting up the little figure bent over the side, we’re supposed to diagnose mal de mer, until he turns, grinning, to show us the fish he’s caught. Is he smiling because he caught a good one, or because he fooled us? Charlie often seems sort of aware of the camera and his chums in the audience. This carries right on until his courtroom speech in MONSIEUR VERDOUX.

This ship seems to be bearing immigrants from Eastern Europe: some rather crude racial humour when Charlie’s fish sets its teeth into a Semitic nose. Charlie entertains us just by promenading on deck, where the wild canting of the ship/Totheroh’s camera causes him to teeter. The one leg out for balance thing he usually does when skidding is adapted as a counterweight to the vessel’s pitching.

Albert Austin, in the first of two roles, plays a Russian type afflicted with seasickness. Charlie can’t seem to get away from him. It’s like the two men struggling with the rifle in THE GOLD RUSH, where all Charlie’s scampering can’t keep him out of the line of fire. Instead of a gun, we have AA’s urping fizzog, a convulsing chunder cannon constantly pivoting in CC’s direction.

It would be fun to see the stagehands’ exertions going in to making the ship’s mess lurch as if it had been constructed inside an irate mule. The floor and tables seem to have been copiously greased to make things even more fun, and Charlie is soon skidding from one side of the room to another, either on his belly or on Henry Bergman’s belly. Bergman is dragged up for HIS first role in the film.

Charlie shares a bowl of soup, because it keeps sliding back and forth between him and Austin, who has conquered his malaise long enough to absorb something else to throw up. Then Edna enters and the tossing of the ship magically slows to a less comedic rate.

Charlie gets into a craps game, rolling the dice as if pitching a baseball, with Frank J. Coleman, who usually plays sullen enemies, and does so here (doubling up as restaurant owner later).

Chaplin now does his own mini-version of Bresson’s L’ARGENT, as Coleman swipes Bradbury’s life savings and loses it to Charlie at cards (Charlie shuffles the deck without rearranging a single card), who then gives most of it to Edna, who’s distraught at finding the money gone.

As a melodramatic villain, Coleman’s character would be a natural role for Eric Campbell, had Chaplin not already cast him in the second half of the film. Eric is the one actor, asides from Edna and Chaplin who never plays more than one character, because he’s simply to distinctive. With or without giant beard, you always know it’s him.

Albert Austin comes rolling across the swaying deck, ending up in the perfect position to throw up in Charlie’s bowler. Charlie’s fierce and righteous expression upon kicking AA out of frame is very funny. Sick people are annoying. Charlie’s character only really experiences sympathy for Edna. Jackie Coogan will be a development.

The sequence climaxes with the much-remarked-upon “Arrival in the land of liberty.” The Statue of Liberty is too obvious and self-declaring a symbol to be used anything but ironically in the movies. As Lady Lib glides through frame, everyone looks at it in awe, then they get shoved behind a rope. Charlie gives the statue a second glance. This almost happens again in THE GODFATHER PART II.

As his ship docked in New York at the start of his Karno tour, Chaplin is said to have shouted, “America, I am coming to conquer you!” He almost certainly said it with a slight touch of humour, but he was right all the same.

THE IMMIGRANT falls into two separate reels more than most Chaplin two-reelers, but this doesn’t seem to hurt it. A lot happens between the reels — Charlie and Edna have each lost all their money and Edna has lost her mother. Chaplin had a curious brain indeed if the purpose of the ship scenes, filmed after the restaurant, was to set up the latter. They actually set up mostly the wrong circumstances.

Anyway, Charlie is now broke on a wet street (his studio was open-air, remember — but later we will see rain that is undoubtedly hose-produced and this may be its aftermath). He finds a coin. Enough to eat. I probably would have suggested that this isn’t a first-class joint, based on the signage alone.

Charlie goes in and immediately annoys headwaiter Eric Campbell, in his shaven-headed EASY STREET guise. The business with the hat is genius — most of it is stuff Charlie has done before, but it’s better-motivated here. Eric is an authority figure, so he must be tormented, but only so far. Charlie’s teasing is flirty and impudent. All this business sets up in an important aspect of this restaurant: the customer is not king.

Charlie then dismays fellow-customer Albert Austin with his idiosyncratic way of eating beans. Maybe, given the number of takes Chaplin liked to shoot (“Film is cheap!”), this was self-protection: one bean is forked at a time, lingered over. Then a huge cuboid array of beans is scooped up with the knife, but dropped into the coffee. It was Edna who had to endure endless beanfeasting. This must have been Chaplin’s fartiest film.

Charlie finally notices Edna and invites her over. It’s established that Mother, having fulfilled her plot function, has sadly died. But Charlie’s coin can feed two: he makes a show of arrogantly commanding Eric to bring more beans.

Now the comedy of terror, so effective in EASY STREET, kicks in. John Rand is a drunken customer who can’t pay. I hope the booze has him good and anaesthetized, because the waiters turn into a mob and, led by Eric with his roundhouse slaps, beat the guy savagely. Most comedies with impecunious diners end with the humiliation of being made to wash dishes. Here, they murder you. We’re in a strange blend of Keystone knockabout and Griffith melodramatic social realism — the audience must have known this kind of violence wasn’t a realistic aspect of dining out. Or was it? I might have to research the 1917 catering trade.

Seeing Rand get dragged out, a limp and pulpy mass, leaving only a hat on the floor, prompts Charlie to check his cash situation.

Disaster! Chaplin, who is already a near-Hitchcockian master of suspense using only story and performance, has himself check every pocket twice before finding the Fatal Hole, just to draw out our agony. When he does, he looks right at us: Can you believe this? Having just about abolished the theatrical aside, so central to the Keystone school, over the past year, Chaplin is now slipping it back in, but only he gets to do it. He has a unique and privileged relationship with the camera/audience.

The presence of Edna precludes making a dash for it, which might seem a perfectly viable desperate solution otherwise.

The difficulty with social realism is that misery by itself is not dramatic. So Chaplin has to produce a source of hope, so that a struggle can result that moves the audience. So: Charlie will attempt to cadge change from a fellow diner, BUT Eric the headwaiter is forever hovering.

TV film critic Barry Norman used to say that he couldn’t respond to Chaplin because he asked you to laugh and cry at the same time. I think this is nonsense: untrue. The sentiment and the comedy are often very close together, but they reinforce one another and Chaplin always knows what effect he’s going for. It’s simply the case that some people don’t get on with Chaplin, and there’s probably no accounting for it. A good friend used to say, “He thinks he’s IT,” which is true — Charlie knows the camera is there and he wants to be admired by it. But feeling than Chaplin preens would not be enough to put you off his comedy is his comedy worked for you. It’s simply the case: not everything is funny to everyone. It makes film criticism a bit harder if you don’t want to just bully your readers/audience into agreeing.

Anyway, Chaplin doesn’t elide comedy and pathos but he knows that comedy and terror work great together. That’s what Eric brings to the table, besides beans.

Eric, it turns out, also has a hole in his pocket. When the other diner pays him, the coin uses his trouser leg as an escape chute and lands on the floor.

Charlie now has to retrieve it without alerting the headwaiter. The logic isn’t totally ironclad: he could, presumably, have said “Ah, my coin!” and picked it up openly. There are possible reasons why this might not be practicable, but it somehow doesn’t matter: simply by going into a routine of covertly trying to get the coin, Charlie produces hysteria, half fear, half hilarity. This might not work on everybody but it works on enough of everybody to make an audience very vocally anxious and amused.

This is such a perfect illustration of a dramatic situation. A character (Charlie) wants something; there are clear bad consequences waiting if he doesn’t get it (a beating from the entire waiting staff); there is a clear obstacle to him getting it (Eric); he is resourceful and persistent in trying to solve his problem. You can have all the social realism you like but it tends to fall down like a tower of mulch without the above elements.

These elements are best derived through an organic creative process rather than by Syd Field box-ticking, however. You can back-engineer an exciting graph from the drama in a film — the audience’s hope-despair index starts zigzagging violently — all is lost! — saved! — lost! Charlie gets the coin and presents it to Eric, who bites it. The coin bends. This is so unjust — he didn’t bite the coin when the other guy gave it to him, and it’s the same damn coin. But Eric doesn’t LIKE Charlie. He still holds the business with the hat against him.

Charlie goes limp, sliding from his seat like a spineless spaghetti strand. He can only order more coffee — digging himself deeper (holes are, it seems, important in this film). Every cup represents about ten kicks to the head and torso when the bill comes due.

The day is saved by Henry Bergman ex machina, last survivor of the bohemia concept — he’s an artist who simply must paint Charlie and Edna. He’s had a vision. This would be a slightly lame solution to the problem but Chaplin has more torments up his tiny sleeve. Bergman offers to pick up the tab. Politeness and suavity prompt Charlie to say, or anyway mouth, “No,” pushing back the offered coin. The audience — Fiona in this case — starts screaming at him not to be an idiot. He keeps this up an absurd length, knowing he’s got us where he wants us. FOUR TIMES he refuses to let Bergman take the check. Until of course Bergman gives up. Horror!

The reason story or plot is difficult is you have to find a dreadful situation, which is not easy, and then you have to resolve it in a way thousands of audience members don’t predict. Your only advantage is having more time to think about it. So Charlie is able to sneakily pay his bill with the change from Bergman’s bill. Eric gets a miniscule tip.

This is maybe the only film in which Eric doesn’t get a proper comeuppance, but as he’s an impersonal force of capitalism, he doesn’t need one. We expect him to be still around and dominant at the fadeout, just like the Statue of Liberty.

It’s raining outside. Charlie begs an advance from Bergman and uses it to marry Edna, which is done in a cute way, hopefully, and is all the ending this miniature masterpiece needs, since everything else it’s about is the eternal struggle for survival, which isn’t going to be cleared up in two reels.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The Christmas Day Intertitle: Dough Nuts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2020 by dcairns

Charlie Chaplin always hated Christmas. It reminded him of the poorhouse. And then he died on Christmas Day, aged 88, which I guess allowed him to skip the last one. Take your small victories where you can, and have the merriest one possible under the circumstances.

This Chaplin-Conklin bunfight took nine days to make, an unheard-of thing at Keystone. Sennett announced, per Chaplin’s autobiography, that the only way it could make its money back was as a two-reeler, so it was allowed to spread out a bit more than was typically allowed. Chaplin forfeited his $25 bonus for going $800 over the $1000 budget.

The film made a fortune.

Sennett recollects that he was absent for the studio for a few days. He left Chaplin and Conklin making a short about idle roomers competing for their landlady’s affections, he recalls (but that’s the plot of a different film, THOSE LOVE PANGS, made immediately previously) and when he got back, the boys had taken inspiration from a “help wanted” sign at a local bakery. Sennett claims credit for adding the explosive element. The Chaplin Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell, explains the confusion by suggesting that CC & CC began THOSE LOVE PANGS, got sidetracked onto D&D, then returned to the landlady idea and finished it.

The New York Dramatic Mirror wrote, of Chaplin “His odd little tricks of manner and his refusal to do the most simple things in an ordinary way are essential features of his method, which thus far has defied successful imitation.” Which is actually pretty perceptive.

The film begins, somewhat unusually for the studio, with a stark, one-word intertitle: TROUBLE. Chaplin is cast as an appalling waiter. He’s unusually jovial about it, but his customers don’t seem amused. Never mind, here’s a pretty girl loitering at the ASSORTED FRENCH TARTS counter, so Charlie abandons his disgruntled victims to attend to her needs.

Charlie is very fussy and jolly in his incompetence, which is a new look for him. A departure from the Little Fellow’s general air of downbeat, dogged uselessness when called upon to do work. It’s automatically less funny when he’s laughing.

Then he’s leering at the girl’s swinging hips, and his own tiny ass starts metronoming in sympathy with hers. Maybe the smuttiest sequence in Chaplin’s work so far. His attempts to be a leading man as well as a clown have been tentative to date. The romances, such as they are, have not tended to be full narratives requiring resolution.

Chaplin didn’t go in for pie-throwing as much as many would suspect, but a fair bit of pastry tossing occurs in this one’s opening minutes, with Charley Chase as one of the recipients.

Once Charlie is propelled into the kitchen, his cheerful attitude unexpectedly changes as he gets into an immediate fight with Conklin, with the tubby female cool an inadvertent victim. Charlie, it’s clear, despise his fellow workers. His aggression has to make room for numerous gestures of superiority. This movie should have been shown as proof that he wasn’t a communist. You can’t be a hero of the proletariat and kick Chester Conklin in the face, twice.

Down in the cellar, two employees are fomenting a strike. It’s a lot like METROPOLIS, this film, only messier. The dough everyone’s required to handle is revoltingly stick and stringy. Is it Larry Cohen’s THE STUFF? Charlie manages to burn his hand (twice) and his foot on an oven door, then slam the trapdoor on the same foot as he exits through the shop floor.

Back to the kitchen, where some dishes are smashed and CC and CC punch one another in the chest. Charlie’s small frame and tight jacket always make his chest seem impossibly small, and his ribs do seem here to be a weak spot: he staggers, winded, at every blow.

Another intertitle:

It’s hardly a socialist tract. Of course, Chaplin is perhaps trying to please his boss. He recalled getting along quite well with Sennett now and so he’d probably not want to spoil it by suggesting that the workers should control the means of custard pie production, even in a skit.

One particularly aggressive striker threatens Charlie with a knife: he reverses it when the guy’s not looking (or feeling, apparently: he somehow doesn’t notice when it’s taken from his hand and then replaced) and gives the guy a sharp jab. Unlike in MAKING A LIVING, stabbing here isn’t just another form of slapstick violence: we may expect that a more sincere stab might cause non-comic injury.

Charlie, Chester and the Cook, unquestioning blacklegs, set about trying to run the joint all by themselves. Chaplin tries to carrie a bag of flour the size of Mack Swain: his legs crumpling under him and distorted by the baggy pants, resemble those of some trouser-wearing insect or a de-poled scarecrow. The cook has to shove his knees back into their rightful places. He’s also stuffed an apron down his front, making the crotch and seat bulge in carapace-like manner. A new look for him: Chaplin the crippled ant.

Of course, hobbling through the cafe, he has to careen sideways and crush a plump patron. Good outraged reaction from Phyllis Allen. He then drops the whole overstuffed futon down the trapdoor onto Conklin’s head. A few bits of business are then conducted with the wretched Chester pinned under the heavy sack. Chaplin even walks over him, It’s a foretaste of MODERN TIMES, where Conklin is again the butt, though in that one Charlie is much more solicitous and the atrocities more accidental.

The strikers are now transformed into an anarchist cell, their fake whiskers and dynamite evoking a road company version of Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot.

Intriguingly, though Charlie never considers going on strike, he continues to treat his boss with the contempt reserved for anyone he doesn’t want to get off with, hurling hard loaves at the patron, until the guy (Fritz Schade M. La Vie, per cast list) slings one back and it shatters into crumbs on his face.

Chaplin getting his neck caught in the trapdoor as Conklin pulls his legs from below merits a rare close-up:

We’ve established from day one that anything with a hinge is Charlie’s mortal enemy. If you had a hinge, you would be too.

Once Charlie is freed, he and Chester start whacking each other with dough in a painful-looking manner. The two have magnificent timing together, so the short breathers — during one of which Charlie says a silent prayer — are perfectly matched. Then we get this —

This got me very excited. So the 1914 projectionists had no automated means of changing reels in the “seemless” manner I remember from the days of 35mm — cigarette burn flashes up, crashed burp of soundtrack, scratches and missing footage — and so the show simply stopped while they removed one reel, threaded another, and got the carbon arc going again, all while the customers sat and grumbled. I guess most attractions were still one reel long. I haven’t considered the effect of INTOLERANCE happening as a series of ten-fifteen minute chapters with mini-intermissions. Did at least some of the classier venues have a two-projector system to avoid hiatuses? They must have… it’s not a high-tech solution, just a more expensive one.

Come to think of it, the fact that I grew up seeing reel changes performed by hand and eye kind of makes me feel like a dinosaur.

One of the dynamiteers buys a loaf in the most suspicious possible manner.

Chaplin is struggling to get much comedy out of the ovens. He’s had the set designer build them. They are unquestionably an element of a bakery. But what to do with them, slapstickwise? Yes, he can singe his fingers again.

Ah, this looks promising —

A nasty poke in the face for Chester, which of course Chaplin repeats, because he knows the audience will laugh harder the second time. First for surprise, second for satisfaction. It’s rough on Chester, but what are you going to do?

Charlie then discovers that he can warm his hands before the ovens. Still not funny. Ah, but he can warm his arse! Not actually a gag, but potentially funny because it has an arse in it.

A couple of saucy, giggling wenches descend into the cellar. Charlie sends Chester away so he can slack off work and flirt with them. Going on strike is not an option for the little fellow, it seems (see also the red flag mix-up in MODERN TIMES, an epic gag), but bunking off to chase girls just comes naturally.

Raymond Durgnat put it like this: “One could summarise a proletarian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being outtalked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted. Something like that.”

The strikers create an exploding loaf, a detailed process which we watch in real time, like something out of RIFIFI. It even gets a medium closeup. This is the most anti-labour element in the film, so it makes sense that management, in the form of Sennett, thought of it.

The strikers attack, conking Conklin with sticks. This deliberate assault, however, is arguably no worse than the routine treatment the poor guy has been receiving from Charlie in the ordinary course of his duties. Grievous bodily harm practically qualifies as a rest break.

Chester arranges for Charlie to get the same brutal treatment, and Charlie then pays him back with dough. The two are more focussed on each other than on the guys who concussed them. I think dough-slinging may be funnier than pie-slinging: it’s messier, more strenuous (the combatants frequently become helplessly enmired), more vicious (a good slap send the recipient smothering to the floor).

One of the devilish strikers entrusts the explosive bread product to a random little girl. We’re in BATTLE OF ALGIERS territory now. I suppose the plan is to look unsuspicious by walking INTO a bakery carrying a loaf.

Bakers: worse than Al Qaida.

One presumes at first that the child is a dupe, but she plays it dead sinister, like one of the twins of evil in THE SHINING.

The suspiciously heavy loaf is now delivered to Charlie in the cellar. He decides it wants additional baking. Great idea. Charlie then manages to put a floury handprint on a female derriere, and still won praise for his refusal to resort to vulgarity.

Charley Chase has been sitting bottom right in the cafe for most of this movie, looking bored.

M. La Vie, seeing the handprints on his wife’s behind, flies into a writ of fealous jage and slaps hell out of Charlie (owner of I guess the smallest-hands in the establishment, though Conklin is even shorter). Charlie throws a pie in self-defense and hits Chase, who finally receives the service he’s been waiting for throughout this reel. Big chase, much kicking up the arse, bags of flour hurled left and right (Henry “Pathe” Lehrman’s lesson on screen direction gets a work-out) —

The oven explodes! The roof falls in on Charlie as he is preparing to throw basically all the dough at his boss. The blast causes the strikers’ box of dynamite to fall over and explode, killing (?) them. Or at least making them fall in a heap.

Charlie emerges, swampmonstered by dough, for a messy fade-out.

Virtual Paradise

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2020 by dcairns

So this year, courtesy of the worldwide pandemic, we get to experience a small sampling of Il Cinema Ritrovato’s offerings from the comfort of our own filthy flat in the freezing drizzle of a Scottish summer. It’s very good value — for fifty euros Fiona and I can get enough content to fill our days, or almost, for a week. I don’t really like streaming things — you pay for something but you don’t get to own it — but it’s definitely preferable to international travel in the current world situation.

Day one — yesterday — we dipped in. Two not-quite documentaries. Jean-Pierre Berthomé & Emmanuel Charon’s BABYLON IN HOLLYWOOD is a work-in-progress short film about DW Griffith’s celebrated giant sets for INTOLERANCE — the filmmakers have calculated the measurements and the star of their film is a 3D computer reconstruction of the edifice, which the audience gets whizzed around and about and through. Based on little-seen stills, the filmmakers have also deduced that the set is not a closed, three-sided box as it usually appears — the walls don’t join, thus allowing the extras in more easily, and letting the light flood in. All this was fascinating.

The presentation is rocky, but then the thing isn’t finished.

I first saw Mara Blasetti, daughter of the great Alessandro Blasetti, and a pioneering female production manager, at Bologna on one of my first visits. Now her golden stash of production stills has been rediscovered, and she narrates RITRATTO DI MARA BLASETTI, which has fewer ambitions to be cinematic than the BABYLON joint, but succeeds extremely well as a rostrum-camera slide-show full of insights and history with behind-the-scenes appearances by Sophia, Marcello, et al. Fiona got excited about the thought of Vittorio De Sica playing a lunatic bus driver in TEMPI NOSTRI – ZIBALDONE N. 2 (1954, aka THE ANATOMY OF LOVE) so I popped the disc in and we enjoyed that as an off-shoot of our Bolognese adventure.

Oh, and two shorts — in THE NEW MAID IS TOO MUCH OF A FLIRT (1912), a household crumbles into chaos when none of the male staff can resist the beauteous new ladies’ maid, but the mistress sorts out the fumbling admirers with a bit of hosepipe slapstick (a reliable finish since Lumiere). In TONTOLINI E TRISTE, the downcast comedian tries everything he can to cheer himself up, but the theatre is too tragic and the circus show devolves into a riot, but a trip to the movie house to see himself caper about finally brings a smile to his face.