Archive for Merna Kennedy

The Sunday Intertitle: Gamin(e)

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2022 by dcairns

The choppy narrative of MODERN TIMES could have worked in Chaplin’s favour when he’s incarcerated for the first time: the story can shift over to introduce our leading lady. Instead, he has himself immediately released, offscreen miracle cure effected — his white-coated shrink (Dr. Kugelschlapp, never to be seen again) whacks him heartily on the back after cautioning him to avoid excitement. Charlie walks out of what looks like a library into a dervish-like montage of Dutch tilts. Finds his way to the docks, and innocently involves himself in a labour protest attacked by police.

This is fascinating for reasons beyond Lumet’s great line — “My God, the execution!” — Chaplin avoids making his character politically aware. He’s just trying to helpfully return a red flag. But the film can be political: a peaceful protest is attacked by cops on horseback. I’m not aware of a great many other films of the thirties which show that kind of action. Even at Warners.

You can argue that Chaplin’s indirect approach — surely a lot of audiences don’t think about the underlying assumptions about cops versus workers here — perhaps robs the commentary of punch. But the fact that it’s even there is remarkable. And doubtless a black mark on Chaplin’s FBI file, though the Feds don’t seem too hot at textual analysis.

This is all just an unusually longterm set-up for a meet cute, since on that same waterfront dwells wild-eyed banana snatcher Paulette Goddard, “the gamin.” The most prominent spelling mistake in cinema.

The whole character is interesting. Edna Purviance may have occasionally played juveniles, but this is the first major Chaplin heroine I can think of explicitly typed as a kid. (Merna, in THE CIRCUS, under her father’s thumb until recued by marriage, is a strong candidate though.) The former Ziegfeld girl was 26, old by Chaplin’s usual standards, but he casts her young to make up for it. The two were dating, but kept their relationship non-specific for the press, since marriage was not in their immediate plans.

Chaplin wrote in his plans for the film that there would be no hint of sex in the screen relationship. Probably wise, given his by now apparent middle-age (a spry forty-seven). But then he introduces his co-star lustily eating a banana, which, given his own must-publicised orality, could be a Freudian signifier or what I’m sure I don’t know.

Paulette, as Chaplin’s first leading lady since Edna to star in more than one movie with him (THE GREAT DICTATOR is next), is a significant figure. She encouraged Chaplin to make re-establish contact with his two sons, Sydney and Charles Jr. Sydney recalled sharing a bed with her until it was noticed the boys were getting a mite too old for that, and the pity of it is their pleas — “Why can’t we sleep with Paulette?” — would, by their very ardency, have made the ban more final.

The gamin has some young siblings — don’t worry, too young even for Chaplin — throwaway sentimentality — they’ll get taken away by the authorities, never to be worried about again. The child welfare people, as in THE KID, are a Dickensian social menace. But the true purpose of these characters, like Monsieur Verdoux’s wife, is to justify the gamin’s criminality. Her father, a listless victim of unemployment, is a micro-nod to the film’s social conscience.

The fact that Charlie is arrested by the docks and bundled into a police wagon suggests to me that Chaplin may have intended the tramp and the gamin to meet up immediately after his initial arrest. But instead we now get a whole prison sequence, leaving Paulette’s introduction lying there, not so much a plot thread as an off-cut, waiting to be picked up later.

So now we’re off to jail…

Red Star Blues

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2022 by dcairns

The central imposture in THE CIRCUS — where the ringmaster makes Charlie the star of the show, but lets him believe he’s a lowly props man (and pays him accordingly) is like an inverted version of RED STAR, a project developed by Richard Lester to star Robin Williams.

In Charles Wood’s unfilled screenplay, based on a short story from the collection Red Monarch by Yuri Krotkov, Williams was to have played a bum actor in the Soviet Union with an accidental resemblance to Josef Stalin (it would have been brilliant casting, Williams had a vaguely Stalinesque bone structure). The regime is in need of a lookalike for certain less important public occasions, and so he gets recruited. But he sucks at the job, because he’s treated like a failed actor, so they realise they have to allow him a bit of prestige so he can get into character. They give him his own limo — well, he has to share it with a performing bear… The film was to have been almost a silent comedy. Lester told me that one gag would be when the actor tries to escape (perhaps having realised he’s a target for assassination?) but the boat he launches has been built as a movie set, and it only exists down one side…

In THE CIRCUS, Charlie is only funny when he doesn’t know it, when he’s not performing but being. As it happens, the very next plot development, midway through the picture, is that Merna Kennedy as the girl tells him what’s going on. There follows a fee negotiation scene that feels vaguely authentic — Chaplin was a hard bargained and knew what he was worth. But the scene is tricked out with a pratfall and some incompetent arithmetic so that Charlie’s snootiness is undercut.

Part of the bargain is that the girl’s father has to be nice to her, so Charlie isn’t being purely selfish. But he’s back to treating people as objects, lighting a match on the chief property man’s bum. A minute later, in an excess of glee, he will kick Henry Bergman in the chest. It’s uncomfortably like his bullying behaviour way back in THE PROPERTY MAN.

An intertitle notes that Merna’s character name is Merna. And finally Rex, King of the Air, is introduced. The tightrope-walker, played by Harry Crocker, immediately becomes romantic rival, and we’re back to a scenario first tried out in THE TRAMP: Charlie meekly making way for the more suitable love interest. But here he does try to put up a struggle, launching his own high-wire career to compete with Sexy Rexy.

Charlie keeps his money in his sock — so he’ll always know which bills are his (acknowledgement: Talking Heads). Ralph Fiennes in SPIDER is a sock man, too, but he keeps his sock in his pocket, which seems rather redundant.

Charlie listening in on Merna’s conversations with the fortune teller — a sympathetic Roma character to make up for the nasty gang in THE VAGABOND — reminds me of EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, in which Woody Allen has creepy access to Julia Roberts’ shrink sessions. Here, Charlie’s hopes are raised and almost immediately dashed, leading to a great tragic medium shot reaction, and then a scene where he has to go on and perform, broken-hearted, which again seems like it might be inspired by Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED.

The scene with the splitscreen identical twin boxers may have been deleted, but Rollie Totheroh gets a chance to show off his special effects when Charlie imagines beating up his romantic rival: he astrally projects, leaving his body in a double exposure shot and administering a brutal drubbing to his rival — in fantasy, of course. Whether this was inspired by Buster Keaton’s out-of-body-experience in SHERLOCK JR (1924) or by some more recent movie OOBE, I don’t know. It does satisfactorily deal with THE TRAMP’s weird character inconsistency, where Charlie goes from the violent bully Essanay audiences knew and loved, to a mild-mannered simp, with next to no transition.

Bravura acting sequence where Merna and Charlie watch Rex on the wire, she rapturous, he sneering at the bravado and applauding the mistakes, then getting caught up in it so that his mirror neurons fire up, making his body twist and squirm in mimicry of Rex’s performance. Surprising moment when Rex tears his tuxedo off to reveal acrobat kit underneath. “And all my clothes fall off!” Merna does not respond erotically, but with increased anxiety for his wellbeing. Possibly his mental wellbeing.

Charlie’s jealousy of Rex will lead to the big monkey climax, the scene which singlehandedly converted Fiona from Chaplin scepticism…

Meanwhile, Charlie sneezes into Merna’s face-powder, another Woody Allen gag although he did it with cocaine in ANNIE HALL. Editor Ralph Rosenbaum recalled inserting more and more footage to let the audience recover from their laughter before the next scene started. In the end he added thirty seconds of, essentially, dead air, nothing, just the actors sitting around waiting for “cut” to be spoken. It seemed like an eternity to him, but with an audience it was essential. I haven’t watched that film in decades so I don’t recall how it plays without a cinema-full of laughs…

All this sequence is basically set-up — we see how Rex’s act is supposed to work, so we can enjoy how Charlie’s version will go wrong. In fact, it isn’t essential — the monkey scene works brilliantly as an extract in Schickel’s Chaplin documentary, without even an explanation of how the monkeys come to be there. Some things are just funny.

The Sunday Intertitle: Four-Legged Fiends

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 20, 2022 by dcairns

Let’s try to finish THE CIRCUS. This coming week is what they call Flexible Learning Week at Edinburgh University, meaning I have no teaching. They used to call it a non-teaching week, which sounded really bad. “Oh yes, the swimming pool is open. You can go there. But it’s a non-swimming week.” Flexible Learning implies the students will still be acquiring knowledge, just without the aid of teaching. And in truth, quite a bit of learning is done that way, independently, if the student is any good.

A new status quo at the circus: Charlie is to be employed as a property man (a job he filled before, at Keyston) but his really duties are clowning. He just doesn’t know it. Trying to interpret this as a metaphor for Chaplin’s talent just isn’t going to get you anywhere, as Walter Kerr admitted, but you can take it to mean that Charlie is only funny when he’s in a somewhat real situation. I once chatted with a radio producer who was a former circus clown, and he said that he would argue with the other clowns that just running into the ring and throwing buckets of feathers at one another wasn’t any good unless it was part of a SITUATION. He was right! That was my purpose in making my own clown film: I felt the abstract nature of clowning — funny-costumed men doing strange things for no reason — would only be amusing if it were a compulsion, and then you put them in situations where they had to try to behave normally.

The ringmaster seems to be taking a big chance that Charlie will always find himself in an amusing situation when tasked with a serious job, but we’ve been following the guy for fourteen years now and we know that’s basically true. For his next trick, he’s tasked with assisting Professor Bosco, the magician (George Davis, Dutch-born background comic, a baddy in SHERLOCK JR).

All the best bits in THE CIRCUS in involve children or animals, as if you disprove a showbiz dictum. No sooner has he got Bosco’s desk into the ring than Charlie accidentally triggers… everything. Prolonged business with him trying to control the doves, rabbits, geese, balloons and piglets endlessly spewed from Bosco’s trick top hats. The act wouldn’t work well in a circus anyway, since a desk set up required the magician to face in one direction, and the circus works in the round, and are magicians usually featured in circuses anyway? Doesn’t matter. They are of the same approximate branch of showbiz.

The only downside of this plot idea is that having an audience laughing at Charlie is contrary to the usual rules of the Chaplin universe, and arguably makes things slightly less funny. Usually, only THIS audience, US, can see that Charlie is funny. We feel superior to everyone else in the films apart from him, and though we admire him we feel a little bit superior even to him because we know he’s funny when he often doesn’t. Only the leading lady is sometimes amused by him, which is her privilege.

Now the credits sequence crashes into the main body of the film, as the shots Chaplin stole and duplicated to accompany his introductory song get repeated, in their original context: Merna Kennedy on the flying trapeze. With the added business of Charlie throwing her food when the wicked ringmaster’s not looking.

Chaplin uses this routine to get an actual custard cream pie in the face gag in, which is another feature of this film: using the tired old slapstick elements, up to and including the banana peel, but in fresh and surprising ways. If I may presume a creative connection with the Great Clown, maybe we were both asking, What would make this dull stuff funny again?

Charlie is entrusted with odd jobs even when he’s not being held up to the delight of the crowd: cleaning a fish tank — he diligently wipes each fish — a real prop man has apparently divided the tank into two compartments, one with live fish swimming about in front, one in the back with dead fish for Charlie to grab and wipe; and blowing a pill down a sick horse’s neck, a job I could have told them would go wrong. Especially given Chaplin’s long tradition of gags about choking, which I trace back to a childhood trauma here.

Go wrong it does, and it leads somehow to Charlie running into a lion’s cage, which has carelessly been left unlocked, and then getting himself locked in.

As I say, the best bits involve animals. Here, the real comedy doesn’t come from the lion (“the bridge is just suspense!” as Keaton argued on THE RAILRODDER) but from the small yapping dog that happens along at the worst possible time. I’m going to jump ahead to the bit with the monkeys now, because Simon Louvish is very good on that in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey.

Chaplin apparently told actor/gagman/restauranteur Henry Bergman that he had this idea about being attacked by monkeys while in a high place, and Bergman suggested that a circus might be a logical location/situation. Louvish takes leave to doubt this, speculating that the scene is too perfect a metaphor for Charlie’s plight, mid-way through the film’s troubled shoot, to be anything other than a creative response to the predicament of being in the public eye (up a tightrope in front of a circus audience, or the biggest movie star in the world) and assailed by lesser beings (monkeys, an estranged wife and her divorce lawyers and the press). It definitely works as a reading, and I’m ashamed it never occurred to me. I was too busy admiring the conception and execution.

Well, the dog and lion bit works in a similar way. What makes it hilarious to me is the irony of a man threatened by a slumbering lion, but the thing that’s going to get him killed is a wee dug, which doesn’t even mean him harm but has just decided to bark at him for reasons of its own. “You shouldn’t be in there, are you mad?” it might very well be saying, in its own canine idiom.

Very rapidly the sequence passes through plot (a) developments — the bar falling down and locking Charlie in, Charlie nearly dropping a noisy trough to awaken the slumbering jungle monarch, the dog, and Merna showing up — hope! — and promptly fainting — hope dashed! and (b) Charlie’s quicksilver emotions, fingers in ears (if I can’t hear the dog, it isn’t making a noise), trying to calm the dog, pleading with the dog, taking a firm line with the dog, praying to the almighty. It’s like the five stages of grief, minus acceptance. And another bit of cleverness, Charlie splashing water from the trough/tray he nearly dropped, to try to awaken Merna. He is indeed a Props Man.

The main lion here was exactly as peaceful as it appears, though I note that Charlie covers the scene with himself and the beast in separate shots as much as he’s able. He’s still in there are fair bit. And the next-door wildcat, the one he encounters when trying to escape through the partition, was every bit as savage as it appears. Now, we know from the deleted scene that Rollie Totheroh was pretty good at splitscreen effects when required, so Chaplin could presumably have faked all his more dangerous interactions here, but it looks like he decided to risk it. I see none of the exposure fluctuations that make the twins scene look ever-so-slightly fake, and the lions’ and Charlie’s responses seem too perfectly synchronised to be anything but dangerous reality.

Merna eventually recovers, Charlie feigns bravado, but a snarl from the lion sends him up a flagpole, which introduces the idea of him trying to impress Merna with aerial feats…

But did the sick horse ever get his medicine?

TO BE CONTINUED