Archive for Kevin Brownlow

The Sunday Intertitle: The Idiot Stick

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2022 by dcairns

Afternoon, everybody.

Before Charlie meets the blind flower girl in CITY LIGHTS he was at one point going to spend five solid minutes struggling with a stick stuck in a grating outside a department store.

An entire sequence without a single intertitle, pure pantomime, and with no discernible connection otherwise to the film’s plot. Since the statue unveiling sequence is also non-plot-related, this would, I think, have delayed the start of the film’s real story by a dangerous amount, so cutting it was the right decision.

Still, I think it’s a great sequence — depending on the company you watch it with, it’s either progressively more hilarious or more frustrating. If you’re into it, the frustration is part of the hilarity.

Great supporting performances. I remember being astonished at who was playing the idiot messenger boy, then forgetting, then finding out again and being astonished all over again. It’s Charles Lederer, future screenwriter for Howard Hawks among others — he was Marion Davies’ favourite nephew, and Chaplin may have met him at San Simeon, where he was a regular guest, or through Marion, with whom he seems to have been intimate, or maybe through socialite-AD Harry Crocker.

Crocker himself plays the window dresser who gets so infuriated with Charlie, and he’s excellent. Though short, and ultimately deleted, it’s a much more challenging role than Rex, the King of the Air in THE CIRCUS. Long takes, lots of business and expressive pantomime. The actors have to sustain it and communicate it without the aid of title cards or cutaways.

The scene depends for its effect on a hierarchy of stupidity. The mouth-breathing Lederer, barely conscious or alive, is at the lowest end of the idiot spectrum, regarded with horror by Charlie. In an earlier film, at Keystone or Essanay, Charlie might have bullied the dolt, but here the only cruelty is in the simple observation. It’s still a bit cruel. We can call him an idiot, maybe, because he’s just a comic type, not a specific syndrome, though David Robinson goes further and calls him “a haunting figure whose malevolent, wooden-faced idiocy gives him the look of a distant and mentally-retarded cousin of Buster Keaton,” a beautiful turn of phrase except for the slur (if you look up the origins of the phrase “mental retardation” you discover it’s actually racist).

Charlie himself is in the middle phase of the idiot scale — his obsession with pushing the stick through the grating, even though he’s just passing the time, is one symptom, his inability to understand that pushing one side or the other results in an identical effect, and only pushing the centre can be expected to work, is the other plank upon which his dumbness rests.

But Crocker’s shop man is the third kind of idiot. Like Oliver Hardy, he’s just intelligent enough to think he’s smart, but not smart enough to realise he’s an idiot. He gets obsessed with Charlie’s stick problem, and excited and infuriated about it. Charlie at least is smart enough to know it doesn’t matter one way or another. He’s never agitated about his dumb stick. Although he does get possessive of it when the message boy shows an interest.

Charlie’s incomprehension of Crocker is a subtle joke in its own right: the gag being that Charlie is completely unable to understand a clear and explicit pantomime.

The fourth form of idiocy, I guess, is that of the street gawkers who stop to watch Charlie. They don’t even have any ideas to suggest. Their passivity may tell us something about Chaplin’s attitude to his audience, or that may be a reach. But once again, as in THE CIRCUS, Charlie finds himself an unintentional entertainer.

Chaplin was very pleased with this sequence — “a whole story in itself” — but it had to go, precisely BECAUSE it was so self-contained, so it was left to Kevin Brownlow to issue it as part of Unknown Chaplin, thirty years after it was shot, by which time Chaplin, Lederer, Crocker and probably everyone else in the crowd and behind the camera, were gone.

The Sunday Intertitle: Will the real Charlie Chaplin…?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2022 by dcairns

Not taken with Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America by Richard Carr. Maybe the word “political” somehow makes it seem like it’s trying too hard. I picked up a copy from the library and looked up THE CIRCUS. “To modern tastes, it remains Chaplin’s most amusing film, however — the comedy that truly stands up to a twenty-first century-audience in both its inventiveness and execution.” Which tells me that Carr doesn’t much like Chaplin as a comedian or filmmaker and hasn’t bothered to watch the films with an audience, because if he had he’d see and hear them “standing up” rather admirably. It could just be he’s writing sloppily and doesn’t mean to imply that the other films don’t work anymore — certainly the word “remains” is a weak choice where I think the word “is” would better represent his intended meaning.

Not finding anything useful to my little pieces on THE CIRCUS (which is excellent, and maybe has Chaplin’s funniest scene, but isn’t his best or best-made feature in my view, not that that matters), I moved on to CITY LIGHTS, which has more “politics” maybe since it deals with the struggle to survive in the capitalist west, among other things.

Carr’s description of the film and its making are very decent summaries, though “it took time” is a rather unimpressive summary of the months of camera-writer’s-block that afflicted Chaplin when he tried to set up Virginia Cherrill’s mistaken belief in Charlie’s wealth. Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin series does a magnificent job of this, but even if you couldn’t spare the time they lavish on the question, just saying that it took over a year to solve the problem would be more impressive.

“Whatever the politics, the film remains a classic from beginning to end.” There you go with “remains” again, though it’s slightly better here. Still, Carr’s book assembles maybe the most detailed record of Chaplin’s political thoughts and contacts, including his meetings with persons as diverse as Churchill and Gandhi, John Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw. The problem is that I don’t think Chaplin’s politics are even the tenth most interesting thing about him.

Peter Ayckroyd’s straight biography Charlie Chaplin is actually quite fine, I think. Though we didn’t necessarily need another Chaplin bio after Robinson, Louvish, Baxter, and of course Chaplin himself. It’s still pretty enjoyable — Ayckroyd really knows his London, and the areas where he’s not so obviously an expert, the film history and the film analysis and appreciation, he actually does very well with. He seems to genuinely admire the films, in a way Carr can’t manage to suggest. “The details of their opening scene together, when Charlie purchases a flower before realising she is blind, too two years and 342 takes to assemble.” There you go, that wasn’t hard. Ayckroyd nails it, except for the inaccurate use of “opening” — it’s their first scene together, but it doesn’t open the film or anything else. I may not be a great critic but I’m a great pedant.

Also: “City Lights remained Chaplin’s own favourite among his films.” Bravo! A correct use of the r word.

Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s new film THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN is a pretty terrific documentary. It had big boots to fill. It is inferior to Kevin Brownlow’s documentaries with and without David Gill — Hollywood, Unseen Chaplin and The Tramp and the Dictator — because it doesn’t let the viewer see enough of Chaplin’s comedy to judge his genius. LET CHAPLIN HELP YOU! But, apart from some ill-judged reconstructions and some slightly doubtful chronology — saying Chaplin scored his films when describing his accomplishments in the twenties is an inaccuracy — it’s really very good indeed. Beautifully cut by Julian Quantrill, using a plethora of source materials in very creative ways. Beautifully narrated by Pearl Mackie. Beautifully scored by Robert Honstein.

It goes out of its way to be fair to Lita Grey, and it’s time someone did, though it may be going too far in the other direction. But she had a story and it’s worth at the very least asking, What if it’s true? If it’s true, Chaplin could be a sonnovabitch, and there’s no shortage of material to support that claim.

I was grateful to see some footage of Chaplin impersonator Charles Aplin for the first time (that I know of). And amused to learn Aplin’s defence when Chaplin sued him: “I’m not impersonating Chaplin, I’m impersonating (Chaplin impersonator) Bill Ritchie.” Unbelievable. I think if he’d claimed Billy West he might have come closer to convincing someone — West at least was a close facsimile of Chaplin. If you’re impersonating Ritchie, why do you look so much more like Chaplin than he does, and why did you tale the name Aplin? An interesting case — maybe the first time an actor sued to protect his rights, not to a film or story, but to a visual characterisation. Though Ford Sterling could presumably have sued Chaplin over MAKING A LIVING, in which the frock-coated interloper has clearly been tasked with playing a Sterling substitute.

And I suppose Kevin Brownlow could sue over being played by a lookalike in THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN, except I’m sure he wouldn’t, he’s such a nice man and obviously they would have asked him.

When running through the previous Chaplin docs, I should mention the Biography Channel one which is better than the Richard Schickel one, which is also good. I have the Biography Channel one on VHS somewhere but don’t recall who made it. Kenneth Branagh narrated it, a service he also provides for Brownlow, but it didn’t have Brownlow’s name on it and it doesn’t appear on the Branagh IMDb page. A small mystery. (It’s not the one on YouTube, presented by Peter Graves of all people.)

Old Gods

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2021 by dcairns

Here’s the statue of Moloch in CABIRIA, big old god to whom human sacrifices are rendered.

Joe May obviously admired Giovanni Pastrone’s film, and also Griffith’s INTOLERANCE which was influenced by its gigantism and its mobile camera. For years, cinematographers referred to “Cabiria shots,” meaning any camera move designed to show off the dimensions of a big set. May copied the sets but didn’t pick up on the tracking shots until years later.

MISTRESS OF THE WORLD is May’s super-epic adventure film. Eight episodes, each something like three hours long, I think. In episode three, the heroes journey to the lost African city of Ophir, as you do, and discover the benighted natives worshipping Baal. Although May built super-colossal sets for his super-epic, his Baal is fairly tiny compared to Moloch.

All I’ve been able to see of the possible day-long saga is a few shots excerpted in Brownlow & Winterbottom’s Cinema Europe documentary. I would like to experience the whole thing, which apparently contains revenge, white slavery, science fiction rays, media satire, exotic travel, and tits.

Fritz Lang worked on MISTRESS as an assistant director.

And here’s Moloch again, for the machine age, in Lang’s METROPOLIS. But the way the workers shuffle robotically into his maw is directly lifted from the May film. Although, since it’s a crowd scene, Lang could have been the one who thought of having the extras move that way, in which case he’s only SELF-plagiarising.

I feel like METROPOLIS, which HG Wells thought a “foolish film,” may have also influenced George Pal’s film of Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE, where the Eloi are hypnotised by a mechanical siren song into walking robotically to their dooms beneath the statue of a sphinx. Tastefully, Pal avoids making his Morlock Moloch a copy of Lang’s. The sphinx DOES appear in Wells book, but Pal and screenwriter David Duncan seem to have developed the really good idea, never spelt out, that the air raid siren that makes everybody go below during WWII and WWIII, seen earlier in the time traveller’s travels, has become a race memory, evoking a Pavlovian response in the poor Eloi. And maybe the whole thing was developed subconsciously from the euphony of the names Moloch and Morlock? And it leads to a really brilliant notion, that of an air raid siren functioning like a mythical one.