Archive for Kubrick

Idle Idol Idyll

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2021 by dcairns

THE IDLE CLASS, released 100 years ago TODAY begins with very rambunctious, bumptious music. Though Chaplin composed/hummed wonderfully catchy and emotive tunes, their feel does vary a lot depending on who’s doing the orchestration. Here it’s Eric Rogers, known for his CARRY ON film scores, and that’s kind of what this feels like. It’s jaunty, brash, vulgar. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It forewarns us not to expect THE KID.

I’m curious about how I’ll feel about the last shorts CC made before getting fully into feature filmmaking. Will we see him drawing back from the soaring ambition of THE KID? A little, yes, I think. But will this be, in a sense, liberating? With the pressure off, will this allow him to be creative or bold in different ways? Maybe.

The titles (the first of which are missing from the YouTube version) feel subtly modern — this is Chaplin’s 1971 rerelease, which gives us his score, but deprives us I’m guessing of the authentic original title cards. We also seem to be moving rather slowly — as if the frame-rate has been artificially slowed down to eliminate the 16mm speed-up, but maybe they’ve gone a little too far? (I’m watching Criterion’s release; and there isn’t an alternative version on YouTube.)

A series of nicely caricatured upper-class twits disembark from a train at some kind of golf resort. Followed by Edna Purviance, elegantly accoutred:

Her stockings are impressive.

Also getting off the same locomotive is Charlie the Tramp, also presented in a feet-first kind of way. Chaplin gives a lot of thought to his entrances, obviously, and one thing he knows is that each part of his costume/anatomy is instantly recognisable, so he can give the audience a thrill with a minimal glimpse.

Charlie has brought his own golf kit, and an alarm clock — true to his nature, he’s a hobo with pretensions to the upper class. A natural aristocrat in reduced circumstances. Reduced to absurdity.

Meanwhile, another Charlie is abroad in the world. An actual posh person, an inebriate fop with Charlie’s face. A foppelganger, if you will. He could be the rich drunk of ONE A.M., come to think of it. A really smart move by C.C. — he wanted to get away from playing the Tramp all the time, but knew his audience didn’t like to see Chaplin films without the Tramp. So why not make a film where he plays the Tramp, but also someone else? And rather than inventing a disguise, as he had done in A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, or having The Tramp disguise himself, as in THE MASQUERADER, he could display his versatility by playing too markedly different characters who look exactly alike.

(Chuck Jones observed that when sound came into cartoons, you could get away from the old dichotomy of bad characters having to be ugly looking and good ones having to be cute — in Disney’s THE THREE LITTLE PIGS all look the same apart from some subtle differences of costuming, and they’re differentiated by their personalities and attitudes, delivered by dialogue [and song] — but here Chaplin shows that the trick could be done wordlessly.)

Edna is this Charlie’s wife (well, we knew she wasn’t any relation to the first one). She’s wired him to meet her at the station, including a note that she’s glad he’s not drinking. He shoots a furtive glance at his chums in the audience. Theory: having eliminated those awful expository mimes that were de rigeur at Keystone, and more or less eliminated the habitual breaking of the fourth wall, he’s started to allow his special relationship with the camera/us to reassert itself. It was part of the Chaplin character’s very foundations, as in KID AUTO RACES where he literally gets in a fight with a camera crew. He’s scaled it way back, but he always knows we’re looking. Oliver Hardy breaks the fourth wall to enlist our sympathy and the rupture is funny in itself. With Chaplin, there’s no sense of rupture. He always knows. Part of the Tramp’s performance of gentility is for our benefit.

Back at the station, Charlie #1 hitches a ride on the back of Edna’s car, selecting his vehicle with a connoisseur’s eye, mounting the rear bumper with insouciance, and then pratfalling off before the suspicious eyes of a kop.

Chaplin as Charlie #2 executes a flawless “pull back to reveal no trousers gag.” This gloriously stupid concept was a great favourite of Monty Python, but the term can be used to metaphorically describe any gag where a wide angle reveals something not apparent in the preceding close-up, resulting in our perceptions of the scene changing on a dime. Here, it’s not just funny because underpants, but because it changes our whole understanding. Charlie #2’s attempts to give up alcohol have not been as successful as Edna believes. Like Charlie #1 in the previous scene, he has fallen off the wagon.

Suspense + improbability — the revelation of our man’s bottomless condition is deferred by the passage of a man carrying a set of curtains. This kind of wild improbability may have earthshaking implications for the whole question of probability in dramatic motion pictures. “I don’t dislike coincidence, but I despice convenience,” was a very nice epigram of Chaplin’s, which goes neatly with the Vince Gilligan Principle, that a staggeringly unlikely coincidence is fine, SO LONG AS IT MAKES THINGS WORSE. This unlikely event actually spares Charlie #2 his blushes, for the time being, so maybe it’s making things better. But probably it’ll make them worse later, by delaying the inevitable until it becomes the disastrous. And it’s just funny in itself. The Roger Rabbit Principle applies: anything is possible, but only if it’s funny.

“And the execution!” as Sidney Lumet said, rapturously, of a moment in MODERN TIMES. Chaplin choreographs an elaborate series of comings and goings in the hotel lobby, in which C2’s demi-nudity is artfully concealed from a series of potential witnesses by the providential synchronisation of everybody’s movements. It gets more and more unlikely, in other words. There’s a “do you believe me so far?” vibe to a lot of silent comedy.

Entering the phone booth is a great topper. And a great way for C2 to discover his faux pas, when he hunts for change in pants pockets that aren’t there. He’s safe from discovery in his present situation, but his present situation is unsustainable. So it’s actually perfect, the worst rime/place for him to realise.

The construction starts to pay off, as Edna’s car arrives at the hotel, Charlie #1 gets off first, then Edna passes into the lobby, missing her panic-stricken, trouserless spouse. C2 eventually escapes his dreamlike public nudity predicament by personating Comte Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa.

We seem to be back to a more familiar silent-movie framerate now: perhaps Chaplin slowed down the opening to ease a modern audience into things.

C2 gains his rooms, but Edna is there ahead of him so, after an altercation with a blow-lamp outside, he springs into bed and feigns invalidity, his top hat and tails rather ruining any hoped-for illusion. Edna gives him a look dripping with contempt and self-sacrifice, and breezes out with her retinue, and Chaplin discovers that the wide shot he’d used to establish the space and show himself retreating to the bedroom now serves to encapsulate his aloneness and defeat:

And the effect is a curious midpoint between pathos and slightly cruel mockery.

Now comes the film’s most celebrated gag — one I stole outright in THE NORTHLEACH HORROR, my little WWII science fiction horror espionage comedy. The original utterly depends on this being a silent film: Chaplin convinces us that, brokenhearted at Edna’s abstinence ultimatum, he’s sobbing helplessly; but no: he’s mixing a cocktail, perfectly indifferent to his disintegrating marriage. If this were a soundie, we might expect to hear him cry, and we’d definitely expect to hear the ice sloshing in the shaker, so the gag would be impossible. My version used a high-powered electric toothbrush and we had to cheat the soundtrack like crazy by fading down the music just as the character turned to face us. This gag was the only moment the stupendously talented Freddie Fox had any trouble achieving.

Chaplin’s version is fascinating — he fools us not only in real time, but retrospectively: to begin with, he’s absolutely miming heaving sobs, not cocktail-shaking. As he turns, his movement morphs into something else, and he tricks us into thinking the something else is what he was doing all along. Amazing.

He really cheats outrageously though: he starts the racking sob movements BEFORE he picks up the shaker (off camera). So what are these movements meant to represent, since it turns out he’s not crying at all? Pure stagecraft and legerdemain.

At the end, C2 toasts the audience, like Alex at the start of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (a thing Kubrick, a Chaplin fan, never even noticed until he saw the rushes).

C1, meanwhile, wanders the links, innocently acquiring other people’s balls and clubs. He doesn’t have to be actively larcenous, just open to developments.

Mack Swain! We missed you, buddy! Although I mainly like him as Big Jim in THE GOLD RUSH, his presence is welcome here.

Amazing bit with a sleeping tramp (Henry Bergman). Our waking Tramp, Charlie #1, knocks a golf ball into the snoring mouth of this prone individual. The ball rises and falls menacingly to the back of the guy’s capacious throat.

Charlie #1 tees up, and for a moment I’m afraid he’s going to smash the guy’s teeth out. But, mercifully, he stomps on the bulbous gut, propelling the ball out and into the air as if shot from a cannon, and he swipes it away with his club (how many takes?). This is worth our applause, but Chaplin isn’t done: it turns out this tramp contains a lot of balls. Every time you compress his belly he shoots forth another one, like some kind of fleshy dispenser.

Finally, the tramp runs out of ammunition and wakes, angry. To him, naturally enough, a stranger pressing his stomach with one foot while he sleeps seems an intrusive imposition: he cannot know the health benefits he is likely to enjoy now that he’s no longer rattling full of gutties.

Chaplin is doing quite well at making golf, which is not entertaining, seem entertaining. PG Wodehouse could do that too, but he could find fun in just about anything. Chaplin is having to distort reality quite far to pull it off, to the point of cartoon gags, whereas the drunken rich guy’s antics have one foot in recognisable reality.

A reverie: Charlie #1 sees Edna on horseback. Immediately he fantasises the old riding accident routine: her horse bolts, he rescues her, and in a dizzying succession of unlikely events, they marry, have a kid, etc. And then we’re back in reality with Edna riding sedately into the distance. It’s like a more benign version of the bandit seeing the wife in RASHOMON.

Charlie goes on causing chaos and starting fights without meaning to. I like how, in this shot, having pelted Mack Swain with balls and trodden on his straw boater, causing Mack to blame an innocent twit and throttle him, Chaplin seems to be visible as a tiny, oblivious silhouette in the extreme distance, top left:

I don’t hugely like the other gags in this sequence though. Time to end it, and Chaplin agrees, irising in on a spluttering twit in deep water. Iris out on a costume ball.

Charlie #2 has dressed up as a knight in armour, but gets his visor jammed. This is giving me PINK PANTHER VIBES and though the party climax in that film seems to derive from TO CATCH A THIEF, along with a good bit of the plot set-up, this movie may also have been in the mix.

But outside it’s daylight, and Charlie #1 gets into another anatomical mix-up gag with another thieving hand. This is a straight repeat of a gag he pulled with Jack Coogan Sr. in his previous hit.

One reason THE IDLE CLASS is scaled-down, less ambitious than THE KID, is that the tightwads at First National had insisted on paying Chaplin the same money he got for a short film, per their contract. Chaplin had spent vastly more time and therefore money on THE KID than he did on shorts, and those were HIS expenses. So this hugely successful film may actually have lost him cash.

So — Charlie #1 is unjustly accused of trying to steal a wallet, of being the possessor of an illicit third arm. Unlike on the golf course, where he was to blame for everything that happened, however unknowingly, here he’s the victim of circumstance. I guess the world of this film is one where everybody is always jumping to the wrong conclusions.

Charlie legs it, and we have yet another park and policeman chase. He finds himself in the driveway, where limos are pulling up for the masked ball, and gets boxed in between cars. To escape this trap, he slips THRU a limo, and emerging on the other side is mistaken for a rich guy in tramp fancy dress. Ten years later, stuck for a plot gimmick on CITY LIGHTS which would enable Virginia Cherrill as the blind girl to mistake him for a millionaire, Chaplin remembered this bit and finally escaped from WEEKS of creative blockage. So thank God for THE IDLE CLASS.

Also: another brief appearance from Henry Bergman. Odd, when you think of it, that a man of such distinctive appearance (basically a human Blue Meanie) should be Chaplin’s chief man-of-a-thousand-faces. All of them fat.

Good gag where Bergman’s kop, who seems to be following C1 with suspicion, turns out to be merely another disguised party guest. The fact that he suddenly puts on a domino mask doesn’t really make sense, but they needed something quick that would make this clear.

C2 is still trapped in his helmet, unable to even take a drink (a straw would solve this problem). So another unlikely but logical situation has arisen. C2 is forcibly anonymous behind his jammed visor, so Edna won’t recognise him. And C1 looks exactly like C2 and his normal clothing has been mistaken for a costume, so she WILL recognise him.

Edna invites Charlie #1 over. This of course makes no sense to him, and he fixes us with a singularly haunting look. This is clearly a dream but he doesn’t want it to end. And anything he does or says could make that happen.

It’s a touching idea — Edna’s fake husband is more sensitive than her real one. And Charlie #1’s fantasy has suddenly come true, for reasons he can’t divine. And again, C1 is the innocent focus of a misunderstanding.

Oh-ho, and I hadn’t even thought of this until now: C2 being stuck in his armour, we can show both Charlies at once without the aid of special effects. C2 does a big double-take at the sight of his wife with another, yet somehow the same, man. In fact, he doesn’t seem to register that his wife’s new beau is a dead ringer for the old one.

And yes, the doppelganger idea would come back in a big way in THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Fight! The rightful Charlie is ejected for starting a brawl, and the wrongful Charlie remains.

Mack Swain, the highland rogue! I like this costume. And Mack is Mabel’s dad. Where is this heading? Nowhere good, I’d guess.

Charlie #1 blows it: “We’re not married.” When you’re in a dream, don’t fight it. Go with the flow.

Mack knocks Charlie #1 down repeatedly with repeated shove to the face, for insulting his daughter. The last time, C1 just lies down by himself. Great low angle of a looming Mack, unusually expressionistic for Chaplin, but justified by the spacial relations.

Chased onto the slippery dance floor, C1 hides under a handy hoop skirt. He could have easily sought shelter ‘neath Mack’s kilt, but then low-angle views would have had to be abandoned.

Bedroom farce: Edna has swooned. C1 is handed her limp form, and shown to C2’s rooms, where C2 is re-outraged to find his wife in the arms of another/the same man.

Fight! C1 spears a cushion on the point of C2’s visor, blinding him, and uses the cushion to deliver punches without hurting his hand. Very practical — surprising there’s no record of this being tried in the middle ages.

Mack arrives, initially siding with C!, but then C2 invites him to peek through his front grille and identify him. In a really good development, C1 is enlisted to help unhelmet the soused spouse. Again, Charlie #1 is wholly unaware of what’s going on or who is concealed in the plate armour.

Weird cartoon gag where Swain coughs and his sporran, for some reason pinned to the bottom of his ribcage, jolts up and down like a catflap.

A bellboy turns up with a hammer — the same exact hammer, I think, Jackie Coogan uses in THE KID. C1 makes various incompetent attempts to tap C2 loose. Result: unconsciousness. Then C1 remembers he has a can opener. Might have been good to establish that earlier in the film, but it’s not what you’d call really important.

I was waiting for a special effect or, more likely, just a closeup of Chaplin in the armour when his visor is peeled off, but Chaplin just goes for a stand-in, and it works.

The situation is uncannily close to the fantasy in BRAZIL where Sam defeats a huge samurai which turns out to have his own face under its mask (Sam-you-are-I). Gilliam unaccountably used a rubber mask cast from Jonathan Pryce’s face rather than getting Pryce to do it, with the result that audiences couldn’t tell that this rubbery visage was supposed to represent the hero.

C! is shown the door now that his unintentional imposture is exposed. He gives Edna a look as he leaves: “This could have been a beautiful thing.”

Edna realises that Charlie #1 is an innocent party in all this and Mack volunteers to go apologise. And in the film’s final misunderstanding, C1 sees Mack coming after him and runs for it — wait, what, he doesn’t? Oh, OK, he tricks Mack into bending to tie a loose shoe buckle, and kicks him up the arse and runs. OK, that’s good too. Not massively clever, but there are times when what’s needed is just a good old-fashioned boot up the bum. Always leave them rubbing their backsides.

FINIS

Deleted scene, three takes:

The Sunday Intertitle: Over There

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2021 by dcairns

SHOULDER ARMS (1918) was provided free to military hospitals where it was projected on the ceilings, for burns patients who couldn’t be moved. I can imagine watching it being a painful experience if you were severely wounded, because it’s very funny, but I guess it would be worth it.

Of course, everybody had told Chaplin not to make this film, since joking about the war was considered unacceptable, and Chaplin had received a lot of flack for not being at the front (though not as much flack as he might have received AT the front). As a Brit (he never took US citizenship, considering himself “a citizen of the world”) Chaplin could in theory have enlisted earl and skipped a movie career altogether in favour of an early death and we’d never have heard of him. Obviously I think he made the right call.

By contrast, two of Chaplin’s sons served in WWII (along with his movie-adopted-son Jackie Coogan). So, despite the liberty bonds and the rallies Chaplin attended, we might guess that he wasn’t that enthusiastic about the Great War. And SHOULDER ARMS seems to bear that out. Still, it’s not an anti-war film — a pacifist movie simply wouldn’t have been accepted while the war was raging. But it’s an expression of sympathy for the enlisted man — something Chaplin’s instincts must have told him he could pull off, so he would not be accused of mockery. It worked: the movie was one of his biggest moneymakers, and nobody seems to have condemned it.

For some reason this one isn’t on YouTube in its entirety except in a fuzzy Russian version — by rights it should be public domain so I dunno why not. But there are lengthy clips.

Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin doc series triumphantly unearthed the opening sequences Chaplin shot but discarded, and here they are:

The plan was to show Charlie pre-war and post-war as well as in uniform. Midway through the plan changed, the decision was made to keep the movie short, and the postwar material was never filmed. But here’s Charlie with the kids, three mini-Charlies, waiting outside the pub in a ritual very familiar in Charlie’s native East End. I don’t know that his own dad was around long enough for him to have experienced this, but he’d have seen it.

Mrs. Charlie is an offscreen domestic tyrant hurling dishes, a cartoon-strip cliché. After the film’s first food joke (peeling onions behind his back to avoid the eye-stinging effect) Charlie accepts his draft notice as an escape route from the projectile crockery. But the enemy will be throwing more than plates.

The medical test scene leads to embarrassment, as a shirtless Charlie tries to hide from nurse Edna. David Robinson finds it strange that she should appear here undisguised, since she turns up later as a Frenchwoman at the front. He wonders if this stuff was being shot in a halfhearted or diffident way, with Chaplin not fully meaning to use it. I suspect rather that he planned to have Edna’s nurse turn up again in the war scenes, which would be easy enough to arrange (see also Clara Bow’s role in WINGS), and simply changed his mind.

The test features one of my favourite of Chaplin’s deleted gags, a variant on a routine played for Karno, and taken up in the AUSTIN POWERS movies with ruder gags: silhouetted through a frosted glass door, Charlie is seen accidentally swallowing Dr. Albert Austin’s twelve-inch long tongue depressor (seemingly a spoon), followed by the pliers he tries to retrieve it with. Maybe this was too grotesque and unrealistic for Chaplin’s taste, or maybe it was simply a casualty of restructuring.

So the film as we have it (in two cuts filmed with adjacent cameras and sometimes with alternate takes) opens (after Chaplin signs the main title in his own hand, a quixotic trick to counteract piracy) with Charlie in camp, undergoing training. His feet keep turning out and his legs get tangled. Generally athletic and startlingly nimble, his body disassembles into a storm of malfunctioning limbs when anyone tries to regiment it.

(If you were seeing the film on rerelease as part of The Chaplin Cavalcade, you’d have the director himself narrating a short intro composed of actuality war footage, showing that he had no qualms about relating his comic fantasia of total war to the real thing).

Chaplin benefits from the fact that American doughboys sported the silliest looking uniforms, complete with baggy pants and goofy hats and boots, so his distinctive outline retains some of its attributes, swapping rifle for cane.

The trenches. Charlie enters frame, back to us, displaying the number 13 on his kit, and Rollie Totheroh’s camera dollies after him down the narrow sunken aisle, irresistibly recalling Kubrick and PATHS OF GLORY (I confess the travelling shot during drill made me think of FULL METAL JACKET, too). Since we’re traversing roughly-laid planks, and we can see the ground, so there are no tracks down there, I’m wondering if the camera’s been hung from above, supported from each side, using two sets of tracks alongside the trench? It’s reported that Charlie hadn’t even heard of camera cranes until THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Syd plays a comrade of Charlie’s, though comradeship is in short supply here, as usual in Chaplin’s work. Syd’s character is alternately a schlemiel to be the victim of Charlie’s fecklessness, and a dashing and heroic figure. Not sure who the other bunkmate is, disguised by extravagant facial hair comprising Irish beard with unconnected Groucho moustache and eyebrows.

Fiona was taken by the grim detail of the mousetrap hung from Charlie’s coat button, though a rat trap the size of one of his huge boots would be more use in reality.

The trenches are detailed, gritty and convincing, which brings us to a mystery. In Andrew Kelly’s All Quiet on the Western Front: The Story of a Film, if I recall correctly, a Universal press release is quoted stating that several of the crew of Lewis Milestone’s landmark war movie were veterans of the Great War, including designer Charles D. Hall, who is also the man in charge of SHOULDER ARMS’ sets. Now, I’m in touch with Hall’s great-nephew, Matthew Hall, who reports that there’s no oral history about a military record for CDC. The family’s oral tradition has him entering the US via Canada after his career in Fred Karno’s company. He could have found time to serve in the British army, but then he’d have had to be invalided out, and you’d expect the family to know about it. It COULD just be Universal ballyhoo. All I’m saying is, from the look of the sets, and the details like trenches being named Broadway and Rotten Row, somebody connected to the production has seen the real thing.

Chaplin makes fun of the enemy, with a tiny martinet strutting up and down, berating his hulking, mismatched Keystone Kops Kombat Unit.

Meanwhile, the Chaplin brothers eat lunch, unperturbed by the falling shells. A surprising splitscreen shows Charlie nostalgic for the real Broadway, with Henry Bergman (first of three roles) as a jovial bartender. This stuff is great, but fragmented. Chaplin shot lots (including some troubles with hand grenades which he’d take up later in GREAT DICTATOR), and these sequences may have been a bit more fluid before he got to trimming them down. Edna wrote to Chaplin to say how moved she was by the scene where he receives no mail from home. Impossible to imagine this working as well if it followed footage of him being harangued by a dish-hurling termagant. Charlie reading another soldier’s letter over his shoulder, facial reactions synching up exactly, is a great way of turning pathos into a gag (Chaplin imitators rarely master his ability to take the curse off potential saccharine by startling the audience with unexpected humour).

Chemical warfare! Charlie receives a delayed package from home, a pungent limburger disimproved by its Atlantic crossing. Donning gas mask, he lobs it across no-man’s land where it splatters the tiny commandant (the loyal Loyal Underwood). Note that all the early humour levied against the enemy targets the leaders, not the enlisted men.

The flooded barracks is my favourite sequence, because it’s so grim. The frog on Syd’s bare foot! Note that, when Charlie mistakes Syd’s foot for his own — a gag Stan & Ollie would make use of more than once — it’s apparent that the lack of family resemblance extends to the extremities. Charlie’s outsize boots would actually FIT Syd.

Charlie sleeping underwater with a phonograph trumpet to breathe through is a great gag. And plumping his waterlogged pillow is as excruciating an example of “making the best of things” as we would see until the boot-eating scene in THE GOLD RUSH.

Preparations to go “over the top” — Charlie is newly concerned about his unlucky serial number, then breaks his hand mirror for good measure. Still, seven years bad luck might mean you’re not going to get shot dead… The signal to charge is given, and Charlie goes through a magnificent set of changes, attempting to go through the motions of heroism, then having ladder trouble, then having second thoughts, finally doing his duty with no great enthusiasm. Sending his colleagues up ahead of him is probably the worst thing Charlie does in this film, and the most in character — elsewhere in his filmography, Charlie would always land his fellows in difficulty than get in any himself. But in this context, that’s not a point which can be pressed too far.

The enemy trench is taken — a vanishingly rare occurrence in real life — and Charlie singlehandedly captures thirteen Germans. “I surrounded them,” he says via intertitle, with a descriptive mime of a fast-circling finger to make it clear how this was achieved. He gives the tiny leader a spanking, to the delight of the German soldiers. This kind of solidarity with the ordinary men of the other side must have been very rare in American WWI pictures of the day.

More food: Charlie and Syd eat lunch, ignoring the shelling. “Hush, here comes a whizzbang,” as the song goes. Charlie opens a bottle by holding it aloft so a sniper can shoot the neck off, a gag reprised 56 years later in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. (And in the same director’s HOW I WON THE WAR, Michael Crawford’s serial number is 131313.) He also lights a cigarette using the same method. It’s a stirring scene of two men inured to their desperate situation. Jet black comedy as Charlie chalks up his own sniper kills — the kind of thing that does depend of dehumanizing the other side, to the point where a human life is just a stripe on a blackboard. Harry Lime would laugh more heartily than I can.

Charlie makes the mistake of volunteering. He stands, chest out, proud to serve, until the near-suicidal nature of the mission is pointed out, when he executes an extraordinary physical transformation — his ribs turn concave, his shoulders drop, and he’s suggesting Syd might be a better choice after all.

The scenes of Charlie disguised as a dead tree were filmed amid an LA heatwave and appear to have been no fun at all. Chaplin didn’t like shooting on location at the best of times. He immediately faces chopping-down for firewood, a hazard nobody seems to have anticipated. (Immediate detection owing to being the only tree in France with a moustache would seem a likelier threat.) One of his arm-branches terminates in a knotty lump, which proves handy for knocking the would-be wood-gatherers cold.

Syd is captured by Henry Bergman in his second role (I’ve given up counting Albert Austin’s appearances and disappearances in this one). Charlie saves him from the firing squad but has to flee, losing his Tabanga costume. The bit of pipe he crawls through was a happy discovery on location, swiftly written into the story.

Edna enters the picture, and Charles D. Hall constructs a wonderful bombed-out dollhouse, exposed to the elements like a cutaway drawing. Charlie flees inside, taking care to lock the door and pull the blinds even though the surrounding wall has gone. This kind of large-scale expenditure horrified the budget-conscious Syd, until at last his wife Minnie forbade him to be involved in production at all, since it just upset him. (Syd also starred in his own WWI vehicle, A BETTER ‘OLE. It’s good!)

Edna, the ruin’s inhabitant, finds Charlie passed out and nurses him. Charlie coyly feigns unconsciousness a bit longer to enjoy her ministrations. When he awakens, she’s nervous until he pantomimes (the lack of a shared language justifies added gestural art) that he’s with the Americans. Not sure if this would necessarily be reassuring to a noncombatant — though the Germans were blamed for a lot of atrocities, gleefully reenacted by Von Stroheim back in Hollywood, in reality no one side ever has the monopoly on war crimes.

The Germans — the same troop of Chaplin troupers — show up, but the house collapses and Charlie escapes. With the remains of her home destroyed, Edna is now arrested for good measure, but the Moebius-strip geography of a Chaplin plot soon has him hiding in enemy HQ so he can rescue her, singeing her attacker (yes, these Krauts are all rapey) with a red-hot poker. The Edward II assault seems justifiable given these characters’ sleaziness.

The arrival of the Kaiser sets things up for a bit of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS style revisionism, though since the war was still on I suppose it’s more like prophecy. This part of the film is more exciting than it is funny. It reminded Fiona of ‘Allo, ‘Allo! a sitcom she likes and I don’t. Syd plays Kaiser Bill in a theatrical makeup that renders him unrecognizable. Henry Gibson is also back in another disguise. Now Charlie has to rescue Edna and Syd while capturing the enemy leaders and also making sure Syd’s two characters don’t bump into one another.

The best part of this is Charlie, impersonating a German chauffeur, brutalizing Syd every time someone’s watching. Syd is relieved to learn it’s all a ruse, but then the strangling begins anew, again and again. Mistreating Syd is definitely the Way Forward.

Edna in drag is TOO CUTE. The whole thing ends triumphally but it’s all a dream, which helps in a number of ways. It alibis the story against claims of implausibility, and it adds a bittersweet note — the reality of war is still ahead of Charlie, and it cannot be averted (unless peace breaks out before he’s shipped over). CHaplin COULD have had himself wake up in the sodden trench, thereby making the story’s grimmer parts real and only its heroic climax a fantasy, but he chose, I guess, a safer route. It worked, since nobody was offended, it seems.

Chaplin, untrained in storytelling save as a performer in theatre and movies, retained a weakness for it-was-all-a-dream endings, but they’re often used in interesting ways. They don’t solve the story problems — as here, they deepen them. He even contemplated finishing THE GREAT DICTATOR this way, with his Jewish barber character awakening in the concentration camp. Which would have been undeniably strong. But sometimes we don’t want strong.

I’d like this film even better if it took more of the right kind of risks, but it’s the art of the possible we’re talking about here. As it was, Chaplin lost confidence and was on the point of scrapping the movie when chum Doug Fairbanks’ hysterical reaction convinced him not to. Thank God for Doug.

Chaplin wasn’t the only one finding comedy in war. Some of the best war poems have a satiric bite. I like Siegfried Sassoon’s The General ~

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

As with SHOULDER ARMS, nothing about this is really funny, except the rhythm and rhyme of it. Unlike the Chaplin, a bitter aftertaste is definitely the goal. With Chaplin’s film, it’s like more a minor note of disquiet amid the hilarity. Milos Forman talked about seeing THE GREAT DICTATOR in Czechoslovakia after WWII, and feeling the massive relief at finally being able to laugh at this bastard. Audiences in 1918 must have experienced something of the same liberating effect.

Gold off Naples

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2021 by dcairns

In DR STRANGELOVE, Peter Sellers is getting at least some of his vocal inflections from Kubrick when he plays Merkin Muffley, and in TOM THUMB he’s doing George Pal. The third in the trinity of directorial impersonations is AFTER THE FOX, where he reportedly patterned his performance as Italian master criminal Aldo “the Fox” Vanucci on Vittorio De Sica, who he’d already acted alongside in THE MILLIONAIRESS.

It makes sense, when cast as an Italian, to have an actual Italian as model, especially if that Italian is going to be close at hand. And especially since your character masquerades as a great Italian film director. But the movie’s self-referencing doesn’t end there. Vanucci plans to smuggle stolen gold into Italy under cover of a fake film shoot — a film about smuggling gold into Italy — so he enlists real movie star Victor Mature, playing fictional movie star Tony Powell (but with a clip of Mature in Jacques Tourneur’s EASY LIVING to illustrate his career). Mature, who had been semi-retired from the screen, evidently found the experience as invigorating as his character does. It’s quite an early case of an actor sending themselves up with vicious glee, and Mature is not only a good sport but a proficient farceur.

Oh, the title of the fake movie (below) is a broad reference to an earlier, real De Sica film.

And here’s De Sica as himself, directing a movie. Rather excellent gag where a fake sandstorm is produced for the scene, and when the storm dies down, all the equipment has been stolen. This fake movie the real director is making stars another real director, John Huston, but confusingly/hilariously, he’s not played by John Huston. Maybe they’d assumed that Huston, like De Sica a serious gambler, would need the money and agree to play himself playing Moses. Bizarrely, he eventually did play a different Lawgiver in BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.

And is it a reference to Italian movie dubbing when Akim Tamiroff (whose presence in caper movies seemed to be de rigeur — OCEAN’S ELEVEN, TOPKAPI) is lip-synched by Maria Grazia Buccella? It’s quite funny, anyway.

Neil Simon, who scripted, reckoned that the film was only fair, and that there was more funny stuff on a cutting room floor in Rome somewhere (including Sellers disguised as a Beatle). But, going into it with low expectations — I’d seen it once, years ago, and hadn’t laughed much, and we watched the other De Sica-Sellers collaboration, WOMAN TIMES SEVEN, and didn’t laugh at all — we actually found it very enjoyable indeed. It doesn’t really have a second act, just a bunch of stuff, but it has one of the best closing lines in history.

OK, maybe not top ten best end lines, but top hundred. I like it because it destroys the reality of what we’ve been watching, it FORCES THE FILM TO STOP.

AFTER THE FOX stars Pearly Gates; Samson; Goodnight; Det. Milton Arbogast; ‘Uncle’ Joe Grandi; Pope Alexander III; Nero Wolfe; Lucrezia Borgia; Professor Henry Harrington; Kreacher; Baron Fabrizio Donati; Sgt. ‘Muscles’ Dunn; Capannelle; and Fran Garland (archive footage).