Archive for King Vidor

The Sunday Intertitle: Big Top Charlie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2022 by dcairns

Back to THE CIRCUS at last. Or almost.

I gave a talk recently at college about another Josephine the monkey star vehicle, THE CAMERAMAN, where I said the one thing keeping the film of the list of top Keaton movies is the long sequence where Buster goes on a date with the girl. Not that the sequence isn’t good, but it’s unrelated to the central theme of Buster trying to become a successful newsreel photographer. Whereas in, say, THE GENERAL, everything that happens supports several interlaced themes — winning the girl, of course,and also getting into the army, and then, once the train is stolen, getting the train back and foiling the enemy attack. In THE CAMERAMAN the middle sequence does advance the romantic struggle but it ignores the method Buster has identified as the means to that end.

That may be why Chaplin opted not to include a neat, self-contained bit in THE CIRCUS where he tries to impress Merna Kennedy by decking a prizefighter. The prizefighter has been bribed to take a fall, so the whole thing is a set-up. Using fraudulent means to impress the girl is something Charlie is not above, since his tightrope act elsewhere in the film is planned as the same kind of gag. The only trouble with the prizefighter is that he’s not a big top attraction.

The sequence was shot by Chaplin during one of the production’s several shut-downs: a fire at his studio had destroyed the tent. So he invented something that didn’t need a tent, adding a circus intro to it once he’d acquired a sufficiency of canvas.

Charlie calls on Merna. He’s wearing a longer, more flared coat than usual, evidently his Sunday best. Begged or borrowed or bought since he started at the circus, presumably, since tramps don’t typically have a lot of wardrobe changes. He practices tightroping on a rake while waiting for her, with predictable consequences.

An overexposed walk in the Californian sunshine, an uncommon tracking or trucking shot. Annoyingly, Rex, Charlie’s romantic rival turns up, the real high-wire man. These handsome rivals are always rather dull figures in Chaplin, but they don’t need to be anything else. Rex is played by Harry Crocker, nephew of a big baking tycoon, sometime assistant to Chaplin, perhaps a result of his fondness for hobnobbing with the nobs of society — Virginia Cherrill in CITY LIGHTS is another. Crocker had a few roles prior to this, including two bit parts for King Vidor, which suggests he may have been an uncredited assistant for KV also. He also opened a movie props museum on Sunset Blvd. in 1928, about which little is known. I think I saw a reference to it in a twenties movie mag while researching THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.

The trip to the cafe involves an attempt by Charlie to show he can outdo Rex at good deeds. This goes horribly wrong when he tries to help a stroppy woman with a dropped package of fish. The clever touch here is making the woman really obnoxious, so that not only does the small act of kindness turn into a prolonged, Sisyphean and odorous ordeal, the beneficiary isn’t even deserving: she could be Mr. Muckle’s daughter. Charlie can ultimately walk off and leave her with her groceries still smeared on the sidewalk and we’re on his side.

The prizefighter sequence depends on great splitscreen work from Rollie Totheroh, turning actor Doc Stone into pugilist Twin Spud and his brother, who is presumably also called Twin Spud. So it’s another of Chaplin’s doppelganger conceits, like the ones in THE IDLE CLASS and THE GREAT DICTATOR, only this time it’s not Charlie who’s doubled. Spud’s bullying of Charlie is horrible. It seems out of character for him to agree to Charlie’s ruse, and optimistic of Charlie to expect him to keep up his end of it. But the gag goes wrong not because of treachery on Spud’s part, but because of his failure to mention that he has an identical twin.

When Charlie starts fighting with the wrong twin, not only does he fail to score a glorious victory to impress Merna, he gets ignominiously rescued by Rex.

The best part of this is Charlie “taking back” his money from the wrong twin, who’s lying prone having been decked by Rex.

We can’t be certain why this decent, but slightly upsetting sequence wasn’t included in the released version of THE CIRCUS. Nor do we know why Chaplin decided not to follow his original plan of introducing his character as a flea circus proprietor, which would have made us of the gag sequence devised way back at Essanay. I guess that sequence wouldn’t have set up the story, and it was better to have Charlie be a newcomer to circus life. Still, Chaplin had no objection to beginning CITY LIGHTS with a sequence which isn’t essential to the story. He DID take the flea circus proprietor’s name, Professor Bosco, and give it to the put-upon magician in THE CIRCUS.

Waste not, want not.

The Sunday Intertitle: Full and Fuller

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2020 by dcairns

THE ROUNDERS is mainly known to me for its closing shot, which introduced Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to me in Brownlow & Gill’s life-changing series Hollywood. (Me to Brownlow: Your series changed my life and made me become a filmmaker!” Brownlow to me: “You must be broke!” Me to Brownlow: “I am!”) Chaplin and Arbuckle, dead drunk, sinking underwater… one on his way to immortality, the other to obscurity.

A title identifies Charlie as “Mr. Full” — he’s doing the drunk act again, and also wearing a silk hat and an Inverness coat (swanky coat with built-in mini-cape) — so he’s not the Tramp. But he’s got the moustache, just like in ONE A.M. And the cane, and the disreputable boots (out of keeping with the rest). So I guess the walk has become central to Chaplin’s screen persona, even if the rest isn’t secured yet. It seems that it has not been definitely determined yet that the public wants to see Chaplin as a Tramp at all times. He would find that out later, and his experiments with departing from the familiar character would become very, very occasional.

I don’t know if Chaplin really felt the Tramp character limited him unduly. Looking at all he did with it, he would clearly have been WRONG to think so. I think perhaps he just felt that he SHOULD play other characters, because clearly he COULD, and he wanted the world to know it. I mean, he wanted to play Jesus Christ, for Chrissake.

Even though shitfaced, Mr. Full take it upon himself to twist his own ear and emit cigarette smoke from his mouth, as if his head were a contraption. Nobody is around. This little performance is executed for an audience of one: Mr. Full. He doesn’t seem to be aware of us watching, though with Chaplin that’s always a possibility. Chaplin never quite gave up on these little tricks performed for his own amusement, which are almost breaking character, but he did cut down on them as his character got more involved in the world of his stories. It’s possible, I suppose, that Mr. Full isn’t doing this as a conscious trick, but is so drunk his body has become alienated from him, and he feels he NEEDS to operate it like a machine to get results.

Now Mr. Full is staggering around a hotel lobby, just as the proto-Tramp did in his first appearance. Compelled to churn out films at an appalling rate, Chaplin seems to have grabbed at anything he’d already done for other directors, reworking it to suit himself.

Mr. Full seems to be a far less aggressive, more genteel inebriate than the predatory creep of MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT: bumping into a large man’s backside, he raises his hat politely to the backside, apologising to it, rather than its owner.

I’ve now picked up a second hand Chaplin, the biography by David Robinson, a book even better than its high reputation suggests. Not just a bio but an unbeatable critical study (superior even to Walter Kerr, so far as Chaplin goes). Here he is on the Chaplin hat-tip:

“The traditional historical explanation of Chaplin’s innovations at Keystone is that, despite the doubt and resistance of Sennett and the Keystone comedians, he succeeded in slowing down the helter-skelter pace, and introduced new subtlety to the gag comedy. This is true so far as it goes, but the difference lay deeper. Keystone comedy was created from without; anecdote and situations were explained in pantomime and gesture. Chaplin’s comedy was created from within. What the audience saw in him was the expression of thoughts and feelings, and the comedy lay in the relation of those thoughts and feelings to the situations around him. The crucial point of Chaplin’s comedy was not the comic occurrence itself, but Chaplin’s relationship and attitude to it. In the Keystone style, it was enough to bump into a tree to be funny. When Chaplin bumped into a tree, however, it was not the collision that was funny, but the fact that he raised his hat to the tree in a reflex gesture of apology. The essential difference between the Keystone style and Chaplin’s comedy is that one depends on exposition, the other on expression. While the exposition style may depend on such codes as the Keystone mime, the expressive style is instantly and universally understood; that was the essential factor in Chaplin’s almost instant and world-wide fame.”

Also in the lobby: future Keaton collaborator Eddie Cline. And in the next scene, the eternal bellhop Al St. John. St John, I must say, always catches the attention and holds it. He’s an unusual presence. His solo shorts may or may not be great but he justifies star billing by being TOO ATTRACTIVE TO THE EYE to really work in a bit part. How long before Chaplin gives him the elbow?

Phyllis Allen plays the scold, Mrs. Full, first seen alone, “nursing her wrath to keep it warm.” Mr. F. tries a winning smile on her. Twice. She’s having none of it. It’s a very Tam O’Shanter marital set-up with very clearly defined roles.

Meet Mr. Fuller: Arbuckle, of course. Equally paralytic in his drunkenness, he has an innocence about him that Chaplin hasn’t quite discovered. Children loved both Chaplin and Arbuckle because they’re both naughty boys. Arbuckle is basically a giant, polluted baby. He staggers into the lobby, mirroring Chaplin’s bit, but doing his own thing with the set-up.

Mrs. Fuller is Araminta Estelle “Minta” Durfee, with her huge wad of hair that seems to have fallen on her scalp like dough, who, as I perhaps haven’t previously remarked, was the real-life Mrs. Arbuckle. She’s bemoaning her husband’s alcoholism, which may have been Minta’s real-life situation.

Minta is mainly responsible for our knowing that Chaplin smelled bad (like Robert Pattinson and Michael Fassbender, allegedly). He had apparently embraced or invented a theory that one should wear a single set of clothes, unwashed, until they disintegrated out. This doesn’t seem to have any particular advantage over the more conventional, society-approved procedure of washing and changing. I guess you save on laundry bills and your clothes fall apart before the moths get ’em.

I don’t know when Chaplin stopped reeking, but his stinginess, embossed upon his psyche by childhood poverty, lasted. Nestor Almendros, filming an interview with C.C. at the end of his life, was appalled to hear him answer a question about whether he was happy with “God, yes. I’ve got money!” But if you grow up in extreme poverty, isn’t that understandable?

Mrs. Full uses the Chaplin cane to hook her husband by the neck: a rare occurrence. Charlie never normally allows anyone else to use his cane. It’s like a fifth limb.

Good bits: Arbuckle trying to pick up his topper, but kicking it away each time; Chaplin falling onto his bed and hooking his feet around the headboard so as to lock himself into a vulgar, arse-up, body-rictus. Minta unlocks him by thrashing his upturned posterior with the cane, which is now officially hers, it seems. A kind of marital emasculation.

Mr. Fuller is a bit rough to his missus, but Arbuckle’s performance makes clear that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing: any brutality is unconscious. As is he, practically, after Minta retaliates with roundhouse slaps to the spherical physog.

That’s all funny enough, but when Fuller starts strangling his wife it’s slightly less amusing. He’s strangling so loud, Mrs. Full can hear him clear across the hall. She sends Mr. Full to the rescue, a curiously futile idea. But it works! Full knocks down Fuller with the door upon entering, but then is set upon by Mrs. Fuller. How dare you prevent my husband strangling me? Then the formidable Mrs. Full counterattacks. How dare you assault my worthless drunk of a husband?

This is all good, well-observed stuff. If you allow that alcoholism and domestic abuse are suitable subjects for “farce comedy” — and on the one hand, this is a terrible, insensitive idea and on the other, they are IDEAL subjects, perhaps the ONLY subjects, for Keystone-type “farce comedy” — then what Chaplin and chums are doing is reasonably accurate knockabout satire.

Mr. Full now tries to extricate his wife from her battle with Mrs. Fuller, but gets knocked flying by a thrust of her pugilistic buttocks. So Mrs. Full is fighting to defend her husband, and thumping her husband at the same time. Because that’s her inalienable right, and no other woman is going to horn in on it. It all makes perfect sense, you see.

Rendered irrelevant to the hostilities they sparked off, Full & Fuller now recognize one another as brothers in inebriation, and sneak off, with Fuller using his cane to filch his wife’s handbag.

Hand-shaking now becomes a terrific bit of business — every time the boys look away, they forget the other is there, and so when they turn back it’s a surprised and they have to shake hands again.

With the wives arguing in the Fuller rooms, the husbands ransack the Full household: the second cane and hat are fetched and the second purse is pilfered. Now as synchronized as Siamese twins, the two freshly-moneyed gentlemen stagger off in search of booze. It’s interesting to see that film grammar of the day requires us to see them pass through the lobby on their way out, even though nothing happens during this part of the voyage. Al St John is placed in the lobby, just for continuity’s sake — he’s got to be in the hotel somewhere, so why not here? — but gets nothing to do.

The wives discover the theft(s) and console one another. Sisterhood! They set off to find, and possibly assassinate, their errant spouses.

Arbuckle hauls Chaplin to “Smith’s Cafe,” which, like all the best establishments, had a doorman in blackface. This is Billy Gilbert, but not the later Laurel & Hardy co-star, Joe Pettibone in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Herring in THE GREAT DICTATOR. I presume Chaplin knew he was hiring a different Billy Gilbert on that occasion: clearly, Herring/Goering needed to be fat.

Arbuckle and Chaplin abuse the blackface guy just for the hell of it, which makes an already uncomfortable situation even more uncomfortable. “They have suffered too much ever to be funny to me,” Chaplin later said of African Americans. But blackface comedians are fair game.

(Sidebar: King Vidor, talking of the difficulty he had getting HALLULUJAH! made in 1929, said that even the success of Al Jolson didn’t help, a clear and clueless case of category error if I ever heard one. God bless him.)

During this whole segment of the film, Chaplin’s Mr. Full has gone from falling-down drunk to the next level, fallen-down drunk, and is reduced to the status of carry-on prop for Arbuckle. Hauled lifeless into the presence of table service, however, he revives enough to light a match on a bald man’s scalp. We then get a little tour-de-force on the myriad offensive uses a stranger’s head may be turned to.

These two barbarians are pretty great together, if you can get behind the Marxian project of destroying all rational thought and civilized behaviour. Arbuckle uses the tablecloth as a bedsheet, putting his feet up in a winestand and attempting slumber. Chaplin begins to undress. Assailed by waiters, they turn pugnacious. But then the wives arrive like the Seventh Cavalry (not to rescue but to massacre). Their attempts to clobber their befuddled consorts are frustrated somewhat by the men’s inability to stand in place, or even stand at all. One feels that Dante missed a trick by not placing in his inferno a wife attempting eternally to batter her better half who keeps falling on his keister before she can lamp him one.

The husbands flee into the inevitable park. The situation is too urgent even to allow them to pause and abuse the doorman. Strictly speaking, introducing a whole new location, previous unprepared-for, is poor structure, but the appearance of Westlake Park in a Keystone short is so inevitable that one feels no dereliction by the scenarist in resorting to it.

Fleeing their fate, Chaplin and Arbuckle run smack into it — a watery appointment in Samarra — the short film collides with the famous excerpt. Launching themselves in a leaky vessel, and apparently drowning two innocent bystanders, our shitfaced heroes fall asleep as the waters of the fatal pond gradually creep up to absorb them. Arbuckle’s abdomen, a waistcoated Atlantis, remains for a moment after the rest of him has gone, and then all that remains is a top hat.

It’s not markedly more “sophisticated” than previous Chaplin endings (everyone is knocked unconscious or into Echo Park Lake), but it feels much more like a proper ending. Some care (and discomfort) has been put into it. An ending, the Coen Brothers have claimed, is just a bunch of things that, when put together, feel like an ending. But surely a certain compositional shape or attitude is also required. THE ROUNDERS, for maybe the first time in Chaplin’s directorial career, achieves this. And by cutting out extraneous business and characters (even the meaningless drowning couple are there to provide a boat), and focussing on what we might even term an over-arching THEME — the Dysfunctional Relationships of Hotel-Dwelling Drunks — it actually feels like a little story. Without being as funny as THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR, it builds on that film’s sense of shape and purpose.

The Sunday Intertitle: An Eleven Letter Word

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2019 by dcairns

What unmentionable word is John Gilbert mentioning here in THE BIG PARADE (1925)? Not BASTARDS, surely. Too many letters. I think it must be BUTTFUCKERS.

You have to remember, it was a different era.

I first knew of this movie through Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood series, which I saw on first airing some thirty-nine years ago, so it’s pretty bad that it’s taken me this long to catch up with it (and worse that I open my analysis with a sodomy joke). Sometimes the makers of that legendary series would make a film look even better than it was, by careful extraction of the juiciest morsels, and that’s sort of true here. Nearly everything involving the pastoral love affair with Renee Adoree is either a drag, or frankly incredible (not her fault). And then there’s the repulsive Karl Dane as a comic relief buddy out of Nosferatu’s worst nightmares.

But the great bits are indeed great, elevating the whole proposition to well-deserved classic status.

Vidor writes in his book that he took care to always film the advancing US army traveling from screen left to screen right, because on a map, west is left and east is right. An army going from America to Europe and then advancing should have a rightward movement — this will seem subconsciously CORRECT to an audience and if you stick to it, all confusion can be avoided. It’s a beautiful, simple, almost dumb idea.

In fact, Vidor abandons it for his most celebrated sequence, the death march through the forest. I’m not sure why. Much of the scene is purely frontal, but for the really wide shots, the army is moving right to left — maybe because that creates slightly more tension in a western audience comfortable reading text from right to left.

Vidor specified that the scene should be scored with just a slow, solo drum beat — which he had used to choreograph it during filming, his soldiers marching and dying to the rhythm. Carl Davis, rescoring the movie for Thames Silents, can’t bring himself to go THAT stark and simple, but he does allow the steady, deadly percussion to dominate.

The most impressive thing, though, is how Vidor initially keeps Death in the background.

As the men march, we slowly become aware that there are bodies strewn here and there among the fallen leaves. Gilbert has to step over one, which brings them more sharply into our consciousness. Then — BANG! — an out-of-focus figure in the background throws up his rifle and drops.

You can just see him, on his knees by Karl Dane’s elbow on the right.

Then, in a closer shot on Tom O’Brien, another one goes (far right). The closer view makes the casualty seem even more incidental, somehow. Our protagonists seem unaware of what’s happening (an ambiguity of silent cinema: surely they’d hear the gunshots?). By putting the fatalities in the background and out of focus, Vidor somehow emphasises them by refusing to emphasise them. There’s a greater quality of “Look out!” since we can see what the men cannot.

There are a lot more great moments in the film. The POV that follows, tracking towards an enemy position… It feels like this may have influenced the execution scene in PATHS OF GLORY, the hit in the woods in MILLER’S CROSSING, the climax of THE WAY AHEAD…

THE BIG PARADE stars Count Vronsky, Nag Ping, Starbuck, Wolf Larsen and Stupid McDuff.