Archive for Monsieur Verdoux

Man’s Beast Friend

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2021 by dcairns

On the subject of A DOG’S LIFE, Chaplin’s first film for First National, Walter Kerr (in The Silent Clowns) sagely notes ~

“The dirt floor of the vacant lot on which Charlie is discovered sleeping is now real dirt, hard, soiling, transparently uncomfortable. He will make nothing of this, or, rather, he will deflect attention from it with a gag without denying its presence. The board fence beside him is rickety, uneven at ground level, obviously no shelter from wind. The wind bothers him, a bit. He studies its cause. There is a small knothole in one board. He stuffs that with a piece of cloth and curls up to sleep again, reassured. The joke has had a double face: it is funny because closing off the least source of wind is preposterous in the circumstances; it also accentuates the circumstances. The comedy and a certain harshness of fact are being welded.

“When he goes to the tavern, The Green Lantern, the paint is peeling from the cement walls that frame its entrance, the sign promising Beer 5¢ is weathered almost to obliteration. The curbstone on which he sits is littered: there is garbage for him to probe in search of possible food. Compare the environment in which all of the spirited gagging takes place with that of the earlier Easy Street and the new texture becomes plain. Easy Street is a slum street, populated by bullies, drug addicts, impoverished women who must steal. But it is as clean as a drawing for a fairy tale. A Dog’s Life is not a picture of a place but a place. The “setting” as a thing closer to documentation is taking its place.”

Kerr’s observations are all the more astute because there’s no evidence he knew that the Chaplin unit had been joined by a new production designer, uncredited, in the person of Charles D. Hall. Hall would design every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES, while running the design department at Universal for the last few of those years. He’s a giant of cinema, giving us not just the clockwork innards Chaplin will reel through, iconically, but Castle Dracula, Frankenstein’s laboratory, the Bauhaus Satanism of THE BLACK CAT.

Hall was a companion from the Fred Karno days, but by the time he starts working with Chaplin he already has absorbed cinema’s need for close-up detail, as described in Kerr’s examples. It’s not clear whether he absorbed this working on earlier films or simply had his own ideas, or followed Chaplin’s orders. But he certainly brings a new reality to the films. If you’re wondering if a designer would really be responsible for the quality of dirt on the set in 1917, you can read my short bio in this month’s Sight & Sound but also read Tom Charity on Richard Sylbert in the same issue: Sylbert dictated that, since CHINATOWN was about a drought, he didn’t want to see a single cloud. He designed the SKY.

We can compare directly Chaplin waking up in EASY STREET and in A DOG’S LIFE:

In addition to the detail, the new film begins with a slow tilt down from ramshackle buildings, a movement that adds depth and solidity.

The new film benefits especially from the realistic textures because its gags are mostly about SURVIVAL. The addition of a dog is sympathetic but also holds a mirror up to Charlie, as Jackie Coogan would. Scraps is introduced as “a thoroughbred mongrel,” a contradictory statement that also applies to Charlie, a natural aristocrat, an indigent lord of the manner.

Scraps is played by Mut. Chaplin had been experimentally buying dogs, then giving them away to good homes when he judged them insufficiently cinematic. A dachshund, a pomeranian and a poodle preceded the final mutt, Mut. Obviously a mongrel was the way to go, but Chaplin liked to find things out by trial and error.

Class warfare: in Chaplin, the underdog is permitted to mistreat the upper crust silk hat fellow, since this qualifies as revenge on the persecutor, but he can also rob the honest salesman: in EASY STREET, Charlie as constable helps a woman load up with purloined groceries from a stall, and there’s no thought to how the poor stall-keeper is to survive. In THE KID, breaking the windows of the honest poor is permissible (windows are expensive).

A kop! No longer with the silly tit helmet, but with a dignified cap and an unblinking stare. Played not by a clown but by a regular actor, Tom Wilson, previously of Griffith and Pickford productions. But he has to get down and slapsticky with the rest of them, as Charlie uses the gap beneath the fence to roll back and forth and play merry hell with the kopper’s ankles.

Charlie now visits the Employment Office. Despite his offscreen British origins, queuing is not a natural activity for him. An ad for a brewery job provokes a near-riot, and despite his greater speed, Charlie suffers the inevitable consequence of being the smallest jobseeker. The fat jobseeker is the inevitable Henry Bergman, in the first of his inevitable two roles.

That other Henry, Henry Jaglom, was horrified to learn that Chaplin used gag writers. This seems to be true, but unlike with Keaton it seems we’re not allowed to know who they were. Vincent Bryan & Maverick Tyrrel (cool name) are listed by the IMDb as co-screenwriters of the Mutual films, but on what factual basis I don’t know. Bryan was also a songwriter, responsible for”In My Merry Oldsmobile” (?) No co-writers are given for subsequent Chaplins until we get Orson Welles supplying the story for MONSIEUR VERDOUX. But Glen David Gold’s well-researched novel Sunnyside gives Chaplin a gaggle of gagmen. Albert Austin and Henry Bergman are said to have contributed ideas, and so I suspect the stock company could be said to serve as co-authors, like the actors in Mike Leigh films, but the man in charge serves as filter of all suggestions.

After being roundly defeated in the Job Centre — even the tiniest jobseekers somehow arrive at the service window before him — the problem is there are TWO –Charlie rescues Scraps from bigger dogs: the parallel with his own scrappy existence is clear. He at once becomes surrogate bitch to the pup, helping access the dregs of a milk bottle using Scraps’ own tail as a kind of milk-sop. Probably THE KID has a better origin story, with Charlie simply forced into partnership with a baby, much against his wishes. But this is fine, and sweet.

Attention to set detail is complimented by attention to extras once we relocate to the Green Lantern bar, a low dive full of low characters. Chaplin invents bits of business for the local colour. But he’s cutting ahead if the plot here — nothing happens in the bar/dance hall this time round. He just needed a cutaway.

Sydney! Chaplin’s half-brother last shared a screen with him in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, Chaplin’s last Keystone film and Sydney’s first. Since then, Syd had made a number of shorts using his “Gussle” character, sometimes called a Chaplin impersonation but not really. Syd was less handsome than Charlie and his characters usually up the grotesquerie factor.There are at a couple of features where he bares his face and looks natural, but he retreats behind makeup and cookieduster again for THE BETTER ‘OLE, the better to resemble the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon the film takes its title from.

I can only hate Syd as a human being, but he’s another comic who, not surprisingly, has fantastic timing with his brother. Like Conklin and Turpin. This is their probably their best bit together, but I’ll be watching out for his subsequent appearances.

The basis of this routine is Charlie and scraps stealing from Syd’s lunch counter. Scraps cleans up a string of sausages in time-honoured fashion. Charlie eats all the pies. It is incredible to see him cram those things into his skinny face. He’s like Paul Newman with the hardboiled eggs. I think they must have made nearly-empty pies, but then again, his face looks pretty full. Syd tries to catch him at it. This becomes very funny indeed, since by the diminishing number of pies and Charlie’s proximity to the dish, his guilt is transparent. But Syd is determined to catch him in flagrante. Circumstantial evidence is insufficient for this stickler. The variety of ways Charlie gets the better of him is dazzling, and a lot of it is played out in unbroken master shots so you can see the interplay in real time. There are cutaways to the dog and closeups, maybe so Chaplin can run off and be sick. But the bulk of the action is in wides of twenty seconds and a minute ten.

The arrival of that kop, whose sinister gaze Charlie meets just as he’s lifting another pie to his gob, breaks up the skit — Charlie flees and the kop gets hit with the colossal sausage intended for him.

Stuffed with meat, Charlie and Scraps enter the Green Lantern and the first thing that can be called plot occurs (I may be being over-strict, but I think the meeting with Edna is the first thing in the film that leads to something else).

Rejected from the joint for having a dog with him, Charlie stuffs Scraps down his baggy pants, which at last have a use. The dog is somewhat large for this role, which may have looked more realistic on paper. Special effects will be used to basically shrink him: once he’s inside, Charlie looks normal-ish, no longer bulging fantastically, but with a wagging tail protruding from his trousers. The seat was torn earlier, when Charlie rescued Scraps from the bigger dogs, so this is unusually logical.

Various barflies and one drummer are freaked out by Charlie’s tail. Mut seems very contented in those pants, whenever we cut to a medium-shot and we see his face.

Edna is a singer in this joint. She sings a sad song — cutaways of various plug uglies weeping into their beer. Henry Bergman, in his inevitable second inevitably drag appearance, cries clown tears, but instead of spurting like water pistols his eyes just dribble in cataracts down his big face upon the place beneath, where Charlie happens to be sitting.

You have to see this one with Chaplin’s score — I guess this is the earliest Chaplin film with his own music accompanying it. He couldn’t write music but he would whistle or hum it for a composer to transcribe. I gather sometimes what he whistled wasn”t entirely original, but his films are full of cute tunes, and Nino Rota’s collaboration with Fellini is impossible to imagine without C.C. Here, Edna’s lament is preceded and followed by a very vigorous and zaftig dancer, and the contrast in style and dignity is very funny.

Syd’s then-wife Minnie is credited as “Dance hall dramatic lady” on the IMDb. Does that make her the dancer? It’s a bit strange.

Fiona likes Edna’s incompetent flirting. It’s one of the few Edna roles where she gets to transform pathos — her bully of a boss demands she flirt with customers — with comedy — she’s so innocent she has no idea how to do it. She looks like she’s having a fit. Charlie, the customer she tries it on, is baffled until she provides an explanatory title card. Such visual cues would be useful in real life.

At attempt to dance with a dog in tow looks forward to the improvised dog leash belt in THE GOLD RUSH. It looks pretty uncomfortable. Charlie is just sitting down to a (leftover) half drink with Edna when the bartended unreasonably demands he buy something for her. He gives her the drink. The bartender starts to eject him so he grabs it back and downs it on his way out.

Charlie and Scraps get the bum’s rush. Meanwhile, a rich drunk is rolled for his bulging wallet. This tipsy walk-on clearly would be given to an experienced comic, but the IMDb offers no clue as to who it is and I don’t recognise him. There’s a nice “mercy shot” after he’s dragged offscreen by thugs and relieved of his loot — he staggers back into view, dazed but unperturbed, and staggers off back the way he came.

Kops chase robbers, and the purloined wad is buried where Scraps can easily find it, providing the ensuing complications of Reel #3 and Day #2 (or is it #3?) of this film.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Sunday Intertitle: With silent lips

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2021 by dcairns

We sort of know how THE IMMIGRANT came into existence, thanks to the surviving rushes, presented in digest form in the documentary Unknown Chaplin. Although of course we will actually never know how THE IMMIGRANT or any work of art like it comes into existence.

Chaplin had planned to make a film set among the bohemians of Paris. He built a set representing a cafe. Edna Purviance was going to play the lead, Henry Bergman was a bullying waiter. Then things sort of evolved.

Chaplin ended up with a cafe scene featuring himself in the Tramp guise, Edna in support, and Eric Campbell took over the role of the waiter as he evolved into the story’s main threat. Henry Bergman was recast as a deus ex machina, the last surviving bohemian element, a wealthy artist. When the sequence was done, Chaplin realised all he needed was a sequence to set up his characters — this meant they now knew each other, which meant more reshooting. A brief coda on a rainy street put the finishing touch on one of his most satisfying shorts, a vindication of his extraordinary practice or writing films with the camera, through filmed rehearsals.

Establishing shot of a ship, which executes some strange pulsing movements, not clearly identifiable as the effect of missing frames or digital repairs. Weird.

Rollie Totheroh rigged up a gimbal for his camera to give a rocking ship effect, but sets on rockers were also used. As well as the natural motion of the sea. Edna and her mother are introduced. Kitty Bradbury, who plays that role, had just played a small part in INTOLERANCE, would play two more mothers for Chaplin, and an aunt for Buster Keaton in OUR HOSPITALITY.

Charlie is introduced as a pair of kicking feet — relying on the recognition factor of those boots. Fiona thought at first they were the spasming feet of a hanged man, which was not, I think, the intention of anyone concerned, but it added a further wrinkle to the gag. Tilting up the little figure bent over the side, we’re supposed to diagnose mal de mer, until he turns, grinning, to show us the fish he’s caught. Is he smiling because he caught a good one, or because he fooled us? Charlie often seems sort of aware of the camera and his chums in the audience. This carries right on until his courtroom speech in MONSIEUR VERDOUX.

This ship seems to be bearing immigrants from Eastern Europe: some rather crude racial humour when Charlie’s fish sets its teeth into a Semitic nose. Charlie entertains us just by promenading on deck, where the wild canting of the ship/Totheroh’s camera causes him to teeter. The one leg out for balance thing he usually does when skidding is adapted as a counterweight to the vessel’s pitching.

Albert Austin, in the first of two roles, plays a Russian type afflicted with seasickness. Charlie can’t seem to get away from him. It’s like the two men struggling with the rifle in THE GOLD RUSH, where all Charlie’s scampering can’t keep him out of the line of fire. Instead of a gun, we have AA’s urping fizzog, a convulsing chunder cannon constantly pivoting in CC’s direction.

It would be fun to see the stagehands’ exertions going in to making the ship’s mess lurch as if it had been constructed inside an irate mule. The floor and tables seem to have been copiously greased to make things even more fun, and Charlie is soon skidding from one side of the room to another, either on his belly or on Henry Bergman’s belly. Bergman is dragged up for HIS first role in the film.

Charlie shares a bowl of soup, because it keeps sliding back and forth between him and Austin, who has conquered his malaise long enough to absorb something else to throw up. Then Edna enters and the tossing of the ship magically slows to a less comedic rate.

Charlie gets into a craps game, rolling the dice as if pitching a baseball, with Frank J. Coleman, who usually plays sullen enemies, and does so here (doubling up as restaurant owner later).

Chaplin now does his own mini-version of Bresson’s L’ARGENT, as Coleman swipes Bradbury’s life savings and loses it to Charlie at cards (Charlie shuffles the deck without rearranging a single card), who then gives most of it to Edna, who’s distraught at finding the money gone.

As a melodramatic villain, Coleman’s character would be a natural role for Eric Campbell, had Chaplin not already cast him in the second half of the film. Eric is the one actor, asides from Edna and Chaplin who never plays more than one character, because he’s simply to distinctive. With or without giant beard, you always know it’s him.

Albert Austin comes rolling across the swaying deck, ending up in the perfect position to throw up in Charlie’s bowler. Charlie’s fierce and righteous expression upon kicking AA out of frame is very funny. Sick people are annoying. Charlie’s character only really experiences sympathy for Edna. Jackie Coogan will be a development.

The sequence climaxes with the much-remarked-upon “Arrival in the land of liberty.” The Statue of Liberty is too obvious and self-declaring a symbol to be used anything but ironically in the movies. As Lady Lib glides through frame, everyone looks at it in awe, then they get shoved behind a rope. Charlie gives the statue a second glance. This almost happens again in THE GODFATHER PART II.

As his ship docked in New York at the start of his Karno tour, Chaplin is said to have shouted, “America, I am coming to conquer you!” He almost certainly said it with a slight touch of humour, but he was right all the same.

THE IMMIGRANT falls into two separate reels more than most Chaplin two-reelers, but this doesn’t seem to hurt it. A lot happens between the reels — Charlie and Edna have each lost all their money and Edna has lost her mother. Chaplin had a curious brain indeed if the purpose of the ship scenes, filmed after the restaurant, was to set up the latter. They actually set up mostly the wrong circumstances.

Anyway, Charlie is now broke on a wet street (his studio was open-air, remember — but later we will see rain that is undoubtedly hose-produced and this may be its aftermath). He finds a coin. Enough to eat. I probably would have suggested that this isn’t a first-class joint, based on the signage alone.

Charlie goes in and immediately annoys headwaiter Eric Campbell, in his shaven-headed EASY STREET guise. The business with the hat is genius — most of it is stuff Charlie has done before, but it’s better-motivated here. Eric is an authority figure, so he must be tormented, but only so far. Charlie’s teasing is flirty and impudent. All this business sets up in an important aspect of this restaurant: the customer is not king.

Charlie then dismays fellow-customer Albert Austin with his idiosyncratic way of eating beans. Maybe, given the number of takes Chaplin liked to shoot (“Film is cheap!”), this was self-protection: one bean is forked at a time, lingered over. Then a huge cuboid array of beans is scooped up with the knife, but dropped into the coffee. It was Edna who had to endure endless beanfeasting. This must have been Chaplin’s fartiest film.

Charlie finally notices Edna and invites her over. It’s established that Mother, having fulfilled her plot function, has sadly died. But Charlie’s coin can feed two: he makes a show of arrogantly commanding Eric to bring more beans.

Now the comedy of terror, so effective in EASY STREET, kicks in. John Rand is a drunken customer who can’t pay. I hope the booze has him good and anaesthetized, because the waiters turn into a mob and, led by Eric with his roundhouse slaps, beat the guy savagely. Most comedies with impecunious diners end with the humiliation of being made to wash dishes. Here, they murder you. We’re in a strange blend of Keystone knockabout and Griffith melodramatic social realism — the audience must have known this kind of violence wasn’t a realistic aspect of dining out. Or was it? I might have to research the 1917 catering trade.

Seeing Rand get dragged out, a limp and pulpy mass, leaving only a hat on the floor, prompts Charlie to check his cash situation.

Disaster! Chaplin, who is already a near-Hitchcockian master of suspense using only story and performance, has himself check every pocket twice before finding the Fatal Hole, just to draw out our agony. When he does, he looks right at us: Can you believe this? Having just about abolished the theatrical aside, so central to the Keystone school, over the past year, Chaplin is now slipping it back in, but only he gets to do it. He has a unique and privileged relationship with the camera/audience.

The presence of Edna precludes making a dash for it, which might seem a perfectly viable desperate solution otherwise.

The difficulty with social realism is that misery by itself is not dramatic. So Chaplin has to produce a source of hope, so that a struggle can result that moves the audience. So: Charlie will attempt to cadge change from a fellow diner, BUT Eric the headwaiter is forever hovering.

TV film critic Barry Norman used to say that he couldn’t respond to Chaplin because he asked you to laugh and cry at the same time. I think this is nonsense: untrue. The sentiment and the comedy are often very close together, but they reinforce one another and Chaplin always knows what effect he’s going for. It’s simply the case that some people don’t get on with Chaplin, and there’s probably no accounting for it. A good friend used to say, “He thinks he’s IT,” which is true — Charlie knows the camera is there and he wants to be admired by it. But feeling than Chaplin preens would not be enough to put you off his comedy is his comedy worked for you. It’s simply the case: not everything is funny to everyone. It makes film criticism a bit harder if you don’t want to just bully your readers/audience into agreeing.

Anyway, Chaplin doesn’t elide comedy and pathos but he knows that comedy and terror work great together. That’s what Eric brings to the table, besides beans.

Eric, it turns out, also has a hole in his pocket. When the other diner pays him, the coin uses his trouser leg as an escape chute and lands on the floor.

Charlie now has to retrieve it without alerting the headwaiter. The logic isn’t totally ironclad: he could, presumably, have said “Ah, my coin!” and picked it up openly. There are possible reasons why this might not be practicable, but it somehow doesn’t matter: simply by going into a routine of covertly trying to get the coin, Charlie produces hysteria, half fear, half hilarity. This might not work on everybody but it works on enough of everybody to make an audience very vocally anxious and amused.

This is such a perfect illustration of a dramatic situation. A character (Charlie) wants something; there are clear bad consequences waiting if he doesn’t get it (a beating from the entire waiting staff); there is a clear obstacle to him getting it (Eric); he is resourceful and persistent in trying to solve his problem. You can have all the social realism you like but it tends to fall down like a tower of mulch without the above elements.

These elements are best derived through an organic creative process rather than by Syd Field box-ticking, however. You can back-engineer an exciting graph from the drama in a film — the audience’s hope-despair index starts zigzagging violently — all is lost! — saved! — lost! Charlie gets the coin and presents it to Eric, who bites it. The coin bends. This is so unjust — he didn’t bite the coin when the other guy gave it to him, and it’s the same damn coin. But Eric doesn’t LIKE Charlie. He still holds the business with the hat against him.

Charlie goes limp, sliding from his seat like a spineless spaghetti strand. He can only order more coffee — digging himself deeper (holes are, it seems, important in this film). Every cup represents about ten kicks to the head and torso when the bill comes due.

The day is saved by Henry Bergman ex machina, last survivor of the bohemia concept — he’s an artist who simply must paint Charlie and Edna. He’s had a vision. This would be a slightly lame solution to the problem but Chaplin has more torments up his tiny sleeve. Bergman offers to pick up the tab. Politeness and suavity prompt Charlie to say, or anyway mouth, “No,” pushing back the offered coin. The audience — Fiona in this case — starts screaming at him not to be an idiot. He keeps this up an absurd length, knowing he’s got us where he wants us. FOUR TIMES he refuses to let Bergman take the check. Until of course Bergman gives up. Horror!

The reason story or plot is difficult is you have to find a dreadful situation, which is not easy, and then you have to resolve it in a way thousands of audience members don’t predict. Your only advantage is having more time to think about it. So Charlie is able to sneakily pay his bill with the change from Bergman’s bill. Eric gets a miniscule tip.

This is maybe the only film in which Eric doesn’t get a proper comeuppance, but as he’s an impersonal force of capitalism, he doesn’t need one. We expect him to be still around and dominant at the fadeout, just like the Statue of Liberty.

It’s raining outside. Charlie begs an advance from Bergman and uses it to marry Edna, which is done in a cute way, hopefully, and is all the ending this miniature masterpiece needs, since everything else it’s about is the eternal struggle for survival, which isn’t going to be cleared up in two reels.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The Sunday Intertitle: Down & Out in Beverly Hills

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2020 by dcairns

Somehow I had never watched this, MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT (1914), the first film for which Chaplin donned his tramp costume, having become seduced by the more celebrated KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, the first Chaplin-tramp film RELEASED.

This one is directed by Mabel Normand herself, and affords Chaplin lots of funny business — he’s still practically playing the villain, as he had been in MAKING A LIVING, and the tramp is a drunken lout. He’s also wearing what looks like old-age make-up — not quite Nakadai in RAN, but verging on it. Well, Mack Sennett had worried that he was too young. The ‘tache seems a little bigger, too. All this has settled down into the familiar chalky face with toothbrush by the time of KID AUTO (probably a few days later).

Amazing to see this looking so sharp (the different in maquillage wouldn’t have been noticable in the kind of dupey copies circulating on VHS. Even the print damage is sharp — clusters of lumious snowballs flashing up like muzzle-flashes, so that when Mabel throws a ball for her dog, the poor thing’s confused and doesn’t know what to chase.

Surprisingly coherent farce plot — the typical Keystone looseness is mainly the result of Chaplin being given lots of extraneous business, but it’s magnificently played. A spitoon proves handy. There’s a great moment near the end where the hero shoves him back onto a chair and Chaplin, finding himself unexpectedly seated, has a look around. The performance is full of detail like that, ALIVE with it.

There’s a lot of telegraphy — Mabel signalling to the audience what just happened in a previous scene — and she keeps up a running commentary for the lipreaders amongst you — Chaplin will address the camera too, but not to help with the plot. He just wants to let us know he knows we’re there, and to enlist us as co-conspirators. Still to figure out when he stops doing this — pretty late, I’d say. In fact he’ll still shoot us the occasional look right into the talkies. There’s a good gloat from the dock in MONSIEUR VERDOUX.