Archive for Keystone

The Sunday Nonsense: Chaplin Sings!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve set myself what may be an impossible task (for me). I thought, Yes, the song in MODERN TIMES deserves a post of its own. But what to say about it?

Popping out to buy some milk, ONE answer occurred to me. Chaplin got quite a few bad reviews for MT, though the public flocked to it. One accusation the critics flung at him was that he was just repeating favourite old gags from his earlier days. I think we can dismiss that as nonsense. But there ARE callbacks to Keystone, Essanay and Mutual, and this may be one of them.

Charlie, having lost his crib sheet — his cuffs, where the lyrics to his song are written — improvises a song in gibberish Esperanto, with expressive gestures that make the saucy meaning abundantly clear. It’s that old staple of Keystone, the expository mime. Remember how I hate it when Mack Swain or Mabel Normand turn to the camera and make a series of rapid gestures attempting to explain their motivation to the audience?

Chaplin is a master of breaking the fourth wall, but typically in his mature work only he is allowed to do it, and not for explicatory purposes, but merely to establish and expose his rapport with the audience.

But here — in the guise of a performance — Charlie really does tell us a story with pantomime. And it’s aimed right at us. “With Chaplin you can always sense the proscenium,” complained Richard Lester, and it’s certainly a conscious choice here. The audience is all around him but Charlie directs his performance straight at the camera, for the most part. One assumes that there are more diners behind the fourth wall, who have the best seats.

Thanks to Donald Benson for pointing out that, while Chaplin takes his tune from Je cherche après Titine, a 1917 hit by Léo Daniderff, the story he tells seems inspired by The Girl was Young and Pretty, a composition by… Charles Chaplin. His father. Lyrics.

So this is a return to his roots in more than one way, while also being a brave step forward (almost a decade after the coming of sound).

It’s also a kind of ending. The Little Fellow has given utterance. “A sacred principle is breached,” as Simon Louvish puts it. It’s going to be even harder for him to stay mute after breaking his silence. He manages one more scene in this movie, then it’s all change.

Chaplin had been considering various solutions to the problem of the Tramp’s voice. He’d thought about mumbles and monosyllables, which would work OK for Tati. But making him capable of poor speech is again a distortion of the character. He’s a somewhat inarticulate figure in THE GOLD RUSH, but mostly he seems to talk quite well. We just don’t hear it. And any form of speech would tend to anchor him to 24fps, and to reality, in a way that Chaplin had always avoided. Chaplin has one big shoe in truth, the other in fantasy, and changing the balance upsets the… balance.

Yesterday I bought a secondhand issue of Sight and Sound from 1972 and by coincidence it has my man David Robinson’s review of MODERN TIMES, then being reissued in Britain for the first time in seventeen years (!). Robinson says of the song, “we see instantly and beautifully resurrected all the vitality and absurdity of the English music hall in which Chaplin was bred, and acquired the skills of comedy.” It’s a terrific piece and I’ll return to it.

The reception of the piece is richly ironic — Charlie makes a success of his nonsense song, but just as he conquers showbiz — having failed in all normal occupations — he’s forced into exile on account of his connection to an underage girl. It’s like a jumbled autobiography and prophecy. Obviously it wouldn’t do for the eternal wanderer to find a home in the theatre, or would it? Of the previous features, only THE GOLD RUSH produces a settled ending for its hero: rendered implausibly wealthy, Charlie can carry on behaving exactly as before, because millionaires are supposed to be eccentric. To allow him a singing career would be to open up a whole new narrative thread at the ninety-minute mark, so it has to be curtailed, and so it’s back to the open road — TBC

The Sunday Intertitle: Feeding Time

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2022 by dcairns

Before Charlie can have his full-fledged breakdown, he is subjected to an experimental lunch administered by feeding machine. I’ve dealt with this sequence before but there’s always more to say. This rather chilling CLOCKWORK ORANGE sequence is introduced by another talking machine, a recorded sales pitch setting up the idea of the device that lets the worker eat hands-free, so he can continue to labour on behalf of his employer while ingesting the required protein.

As usual when a meal is portrayed in Chaplin’s films, it’s a strange series of courses, chosen for their slapstick potential rather than their adding up into a square or even oblong meal. Soup, corn and pie.

Of course, the machine wouldn’t work unless the worker could operate without seeing what he’s doing, since the metallic dinner table of the feeding machine comes between the hired hand and his hands. But since the machine never gets adopted — “Not practical,” rules the boss (regular unfunnyman Al Ernest Garcia), after Charlie has collapsed — this needn’t bother us.

I had forgotten that the test takes place at the conveyor belt — low angles showing the technician fiddling with the sparking apparatus also reveal Charlie’s hands, their spanners reflexively and uselessly tapping up and down at the stationary belt.

What makes the sequence perfectly cruel and funny is Charlie’s dismay at the whole thing — when the machine is working perfectly, it’s a distressing ordeal. He views each mouthful with alarm, is continually terrified by the mouth-wiping arm. When the thing starts malfunctioning, the horror escalates. In THE CIRCUS, Chaplin revived the comedic impact of the banana peel by laying it on a tightrope. Here, he attempts to breathe fresh life into the custard cream pie by having it delivered robotically. It’s not quite as brilliant a conceit because the mechanical aspect doesn’t make the pie especially more degrading than it normally is, and the prop, otherwise so elegantly designed and smoothly (dys)functional, is unable to deliver a pie into the kisser with the skilled splurch of a Keystone pro — Chaplin has to deliberately smear his face around in the plate to get gooey enough. Progress has yet to supply us with an android Conklin.

But the sequence has this wonderfully chilling aspect to it, partly because the nature of the operation dictates that the scene be played in close-ish medium shot. The usual comic distance is shortened, the suffering is intensified. The whole thing is a torture machine worthy of Kafka’s penal colony anyway, but the victim’s dismay and suffering are brought close to us. Even though we now can see the actor’s eyebrows aren’t real, his distress is. With the cream pie adding another painterly effect (impasto), the tormented subject takes on the aspect of a Francis Bacon pope.

A standard complaint about MODERN TIMES is that it’s episodic, without a strong link between sequences of the kind found in Chaplin’s previous features. “A bunch of two-reelers spliced together” is the complaint. But I’ve never felt this to be a problem. It’s a picaresque yarn, like O LUCKY MAN! — it takes advantage of Charlie’s Tramp status — though he has to DISCOVER that freedom in this movie, starting off as a wage slave — the Tramp becomes our guide through different aspects of modern civilisation. Well, perhaps not a guide, since it’s all so strange to him. He’s no Virgil, nor does he have a Virgil equivalent to show him the way, unless we count the “Gamin.”

Anyway, you could in theory remove the whole eating machine from the film without wrecking the story, but its inclusion does add more of a reason for Charlie to go mad, on this particular day. Maybe a restful lunch hour was the only thing allowing him to hold it together. We know how THAT feels.

Comedy Star

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2022 by dcairns

THE CIRCUS continues. More evidence of the nasty ringmaster mistreating his daughter — he’s starving her. Presumably concerned that she needs to remain slim for the trapeze. This circus is a lot like a movie studio, only he’s not giving her speed a la Judy Garland.

A star is discovered — Chaplin, asleep in the chariot/cart — the seed has been planted — the audience called for him. The ringmaster knows he’s a meal ticket. It IS a bit like Chaplin’s own story, how he was on the verge of getting canned from Keystone for being so difficult, until the box office receipts came in from his first films. The audience had spoken. Mack Sennett does not seem to have been as mean as Al Ernest Garcia is here, though.

Garcia is one of those effective but colourless supporting characters Chaplin liked. He didn’t want the attention on anyone but himself, but the actors around him needed to be very skilled indeed. Garcia plays the drunken millionaire’s butler in CITY LIGHTS and the factory boss in MODERN TIMES, and I’d never put one and one and one together before and realised it’s the same guy.

I recognise Tiny Sandford, the head props man, though — he’s Charlie’s co-worker in MODERN TIMES.

Making breakfast the next morning — there’s a good chicken-strangling gag — and Charlie has a waistcoat pocket full of salt for his meagre repast, rather the way Harpo might. Charlie is very fastidious about food, as we saw earlier with the hot dog. This is all a set-up for the meet cute, for the girl is hungry. Charlie is at first furious when he finds her eating his single slice of bread. A thief — a rival thief — must be fought off. But a girl is another matter. He ends up sharing the bread, and then she eats it so fast she gives him indigestion. Production designer Danny Hall’s painting of a sword swallower doesn’t help him.

Immediately, Charlie is behaving like a father, a benign one to contrast with the nasty real one. It’s his first time in this role since THE KID, the first time his romantic interest has been acknowledged as rather young for him, the relationship ambiguous. A few films later we have MONSIEUR VERDOUX and LIMELIGHT, which take this further — the relationship is played as platonic and paternal. The Paulette Goddard films are slightly more romantic — maybe because they were a couple and it felt safer. It feels to me like Chaplin, unlike Woody Allen for decades, was becoming aware that audiences didn’t want to see him wooing and winning much younger women. Chaplin was rather handsome, but his Tramp guise negated some of that. And his scandalous divorce made any intimation of sexual desire dangerous.

So, anyway, Charlie has met the girl. Now he has to audition as a clown. Told to be funny, he does some Chaplinesque things. A backwards kick, a funny walk, hoisting himself up with his cane. “That’s awful!” says the ringmaster. Now we get a longish sequence where clowns demonstrate routines and Charlie tries to copy their schtick. This seems to be the stuff Walter Kerr objected to so strongly in The Silent Clowns.

For me, the problem is that none of it is particularly funny. The clown routines, performed by regulars Henry Bergman and Albert Austin with Heinie Conklin (a prospector in THE GOLD RUSH, and a specialist in racist caricatures), aren’t terribly interesting, though Charlie laughs and claps to try to convince us. His screwing them up isn’t interesting either. There’s a conflict of response, a confusion — is Charlie destroying the comedy, resulting in something unfunny, or is he destroying bad comedy, resulting in something that IS funny? Maybe the latter is the intention, but it’s not clear to me.

It SHOULD work, since Charlie is working in a mode he knew well — the incompetent and rascally assistant. In the William Tell routine, that’s also the role he’s actually asked to play. It’s the Auguste (Chaplin) and the whiteface clown (Bergman). Arrogant leader and minion who messes up. Workman and boss. Laurel & Hardy. Chaplin had been doing this since Keystone (WORK; HIS MUSICAL CAREER). But making the task performed a comedy routine seems to overcomplicate it.

The William Tell routine is something Chaplin had played with when Scottish comic Harry Lauder had visited his studio. There’s a piece of film. Here, Charlie elaborates it by substituting a banana skin for the apple, making a surreal mash-up of different slapstick ingredients, but it lands in that strange are of is-this-supposed-to-be-funny? It’s not clear that Charlie’s improvisation is worse than the original act.

Then there’s the barbershop act, which gets done very differently in THE GREAT DICTATOR, and had been done differently in SUNNYSIDE, but deleted. This one’s all buckets of foam getting slapped over everyone. There might have been a convincing conflict between a routine that’s all meaningless capering, and one based on character. This had been the actual conflict Chaplin faced and overcame at Keystone. But it won’t do here, I guess, because the Tramp character is not a comedian or a comic genius.

This is the trouble with comic plot ideas — they have to be serviceable story engines that move things along and lead to a climax — but they also have to create opportunities for amusing things to happen. Charlie’s inability to be funny on cue fulfils the former but not the latter, or at least, not in this scene.

Anyway, Charlie gets fired, not so much for failure to do the required gags, but for getting foam all over the boss, which we recognise as a real no-no. Chaplin now needs to find a narrative excuse to keep Charlie at the circus, and fortunately he’s really good at coming up with solutions. Here he relies on an old favourite (see, for instance, DOUGH AND DYNAMITE): an industrial dispute. The props men go on strike. A replacement must be found. Charlie is using an unconscious prop man as human furniture when Tiny Sandford finds him. He’s discovered again, hired again, the show’s on again.

TO BE CONTINUED