Archive for Monsieur Verdoux

The Sunday Intertitle: Pilgrim Versus the World

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by dcairns

At four reels, THE PILGRIM isn’t quite a short and doesn’t seem quite a feature, but the IMDb classes it as one.

Excitingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, not all the way through.

Chaplin is recycling the escaped convict routine from THE ADVENTURER and having another go at the mistaken identity gag from THE IDLE CLASS — again anticipating THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, immediately, is what put me off the film on my previous attempt at viewing: this bloody song. Vocals are tricky in a silent movie score, because if people can sing, why can’t anybody talk, audibly I mean? And yet it can be done. I just don’t happen to like this particular song. It’s a case of Chaplin imposing words on his work, as he did in the revised version of THE GOLD RUSH. Billy Wilder’s dismissal of talking-picture Chaplin — “a child of nine making up lyrics for a Beethoven symphony” isn’t true, I don’t think, of Chaplin’s talkies, but it’s arguably true of this kind of thing. We don’t need words.

We immediately get them, though, and the singer going on while we try to read the wanted sign is distracting. The text here is a basic physical description of Charlie, though the addition “Extremely nervous” is an interesting one, and we learn he has blue eyes.

Like BARRY LYNDON later/earlier, Charlie effects a change of clothing by stealing the duds of a bather — we see the clergyman examining the discarded prison stripes with dismay, a nice bit of economical storytelling.

Charlie the chaplain manages to maintain his usual look surprisingly well — tight jacket and baggy trousers, big shoes. The hat and dog collar are the only noticeable change. So far so good. What comedy will he manage from the impersonation? Early priests in Chaplin’s films — in THE TRAMP and POLICE, are portrayed in a notably acerbic way: one has a rotten egg pressed into his psalm book, the other is a shameless crook and hustler. But in EASY STREET the church scenes are rather delicate and Chaplin seems on his best behaviour. What’s he going to be like here?

But Chaplin jumpstarts a whole new plot before we can find out. Elopers! A pursuing dad!

The chap is Sydney Chaplin, the girl and her father unidentified, despite a very sizable cast list available online. And the plot turns out to be just an excuse for mistaken intentions and running about. The course of true love doesn’t get smoothed out and Syd gets a boot up the bum from Dad. We can assume the girl had a lucky escape.

The bloody song starts again as Charlie is trying to choose a random destination. That song kills everything it plays over, a real shame when Chaplin’s accompanying music is otherwise so good. Trying to stab at a city name from the list, he jabs Henry Bergman in the butt. Well, in the waiting rooms of small-town railway stations, between traveling businessmen and members of the church, such action is not unknown.

Buying his ticket, Charlie still tries to hitch a ride on the underside of the train, before a conductor (Syd again!) corrects him. Charlie has never been in a compartment before.

Another notice is posted, this time announcing the arrival of the new minister, Philip Pim — Charlie, in his new identity. It goes neatly with the wanted poster earlier. The name is an echo of “pilgrim”, obvs.

Among those present, Mack Swain and Edna Purviance, who already harbours romantic imaginings about this new minister, saucy trout that she is.

Chaplin’s train approaches on Sunday, and we see him eating crackers next to Henry Bergman, and we get a look at the newspaper article about his escape, learning that in this film, Charlie, unusually, has a name, Lefty Lombard, and also a pseudonym, “Slippery Elm.” Chaplin was indeed left-handed, though at the workhouse they beat him until he became ambidextrous. Lefty’s escape, like those of John Goodman and William Forsythe in RAISING ARIZONA, and Tim Robbins in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, has been sewer-based, and the paper writes of the prison guards’ “astonisment.” But the entire article does seem to have been written, it doesn’t suddenly devolve into Latin or rubbish about trade conferences. I would quite like that job, just as I would like to have been tasked with typing Jack Torrance’s novel in THE SHINING. My ideal job.

Charlie/Lombard/Pim is dismayed to find the tow sheriff and all the prominent citizens waiting to welcome him. Phyllis Allen gives herself a lovely bit of business, stepping back and colliding with the locomotive. She’s not even in focus, which makes it somehow even more delightfully throwaway.

Charlie filches a quart of whisky from Swain’s back pocket, which I guess establishes that Mack is a bit of a hypocrite. But Charlie loses the booze when they both slip on the sidewalk. They find themselves sitting in a puddle of hooch — mutual embarrassment, as each suspects the other of attributing the contraband to himself.

Charlie giving a service, and not knowing how, seems like the kind of business tailor-made for the talkies. What can Chaplin do with it,wordlessly?

The choir are a notable gang of grotesques, carved from walnut. There is awkward sitting-down-standing-up confusion. More good business with Phyllis and her itchy son. And there is quite a bit of comic value in Charlie having no idea what happens in a church or what is expected of a minister. Plus he has his eyes on the collection boxes.

The sermon — David and Goliath! A tour de force of mime, my favourite part being Charlie’s graphic insistence that David’s slingshot passes clean through Goliath’s massive skull. All done with gestures. Little Raymond Lee, the bully kid from THE KID, is wild about all this, and the equally explicit decapitation scene.

Charlie finishing the sermon as if he were, alternately, a victorious prizefighter, and a prima ballerina receiving an opening night ovation, is good too.

A fellow crook! But, despite his character having three names, the Inaccurate Movie Database doesn’t seem to know any of them. But Charlie does, and the presence of an old acquaintance strikes him as very inconvenient. This is Charles Reisner, the thug from THE KID, whose son, Dean or Dinky Riesner, who married Vampira, is also in the film. And no, I don’t know why they spell their surname differently.

Charlie, meanwhile, has been billeted with Edna and her widowed mother. Observing Edna’s shape through her shapeless dress, Charlie treats us to a downright sinister glance, comparable to his eerie look from the dock in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Pure serial killer.

Visitors arrive. One is Dinky Dean, another is Syd again, in character actor guise:

Dinky recalled later in life that it took quite a bit of coaching to get him to hit people, especially Charlie, but his dad was the assistant director as well as acting, and between Chaplin and Reisner they persuaded him to cut loose and sock the great star repeatedly in the kisser. This business isn’t too amusing — I was waiting for Charlie to do something more in character with him being a convict than a minister — of course, this is probably the suspense Chaplin had in mind. I’m just frustrated he doesn’t do more to pay it off.

Finally, he does, kicking — gently — the recalcitrant tot onto his keister, or maybe he spells it kiester. It’s moderately gratifying, but Dinky rather spoils it with a grin directed past the camera, presumably at dad. I suppose Chaplin may have welcomed this as proof he hadn’t really harmed a small child.

Cute stuff in the kitchen with Edna. This is all very mild — it seems like Chaplin has decided he doesn’t want to give offence, the anti-clerical tendencies seen in his earlier films are in abeyance here. But let’s see…

Here’s an interesting thing: since, as I’ve observed, Chaplin had taken to using both his cameras to gather coverage, typically a wider and closer view of the same action, he was compelled, to create a second negative for foreign territories, to use alternate takes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the US and foreign (in this case, Russian) versions of THE PILGRIM. The camera angles are mostly the same, but the action is always subtly different.

TO BE CONTINUED

Sun damage

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2021 by dcairns

I recall feeling slightly unconvinced by those sections of the (excellent) novel Sunnyside where author Glen David Gold tries to get inside Chaplin’s creative process, but I think I was probably being unfair. Gold talks us through Chaplin’s rejected ideas, and they all sound pretty terrible. Shouldn’t even the non-starters of a genius be somewhat impressive? But looking at SUNNYSIDE the movie, no, perhaps they shouldn’t. Bits of it are very good but bits of it are worse than the ideas Gold has Chaplin throw out.

The L’Apres-Midi d’un Faun dream-ballet isn’t the worst thing in there. It’s inoffensive. But it has no narrative reason for being there. Other Chaplin dreams happen when he’s heartbroken and so they have at least a claim on poignancy. Here, he’s merely downtrodden — a dream of the easy life would make sense, but not this capering around with Grecian nymphets.

Anyway, the wake-up is decently staged. Charlie falls off the same bridge in dream he fell off in reality, whereupon the woodland sylphs toss him a creeper or something and attempt to pull him back up. Upon awakening, he finds himself jolted back to reality and the bridge by a crowd of Sunnysiders, and then sent packing with multiple boots up the arse by the Boss.

“And now, the ‘romance’.” says an intertitle, throwing off a palpable sense of exhaustion and formulaic will-this-do? Rushing up to a house, dodging Henry Bergman, who he just passed on the road as a different character (beard), Charlie plucks some flowers and goes in to see Edna. Also present is “His brother, Willie,” for some reason. Willie is characterised as a village idiot type in overalls, staring into space and smiling while Charlie raps on his forehead. It would seem more logical for him to be Edna’s sibling since he’s in her house, but I think Charlie wants the license to mistreat him… that’s the best reason I can think of for what follows.

Since the boy is being a gooseberry, Charlie invites him to play blind man’s bluff — binding his eyes and sending him outside, where he is imperilled by traffic. David Robinson says this as an interesting experiment in black comedy, I just find it obnoxious. It’s further evidence of Chaplin’s creative crisis, since he’s usually careful to seem sympathetic, at least since the Mutual period.

Still, this undercuts the fairly anemic romance stuff. Charlie presents Edna with an engagement ring, and sings mutely as she plays piano. Then he attempts a gag that would work better as a variation in MONSIEUR VERDOUX — finding a flat note, Charlie excites a tiny goat living behind the piano (!) which baahs each time he hits the note, causing him to think the piano is making goat bleats. This is quite funny but, though you don’t need the sounds to understand it, it would be funnier with the sounds.

The gag develops smartly: a much larger goat appears, and Charlie is even more confused. The goat can also eat the sheet music which isn’t as clever but it’s logical.

Moderately funny business back at the hotel with Charlie cleaning up: picking up tiny invisible specks of dirt and carrying them to a single place.

Enter Tom Terriss as a young man in spats — “the city chap.” SUNNYSIDE as distaff version of SUNRISE. He enters the movie crashing his car into Sunnyside. He’s carried into the hotel by the fat boy, who is, it seems, Tom Wood and not J. Park Jones as previously reported. And Charlie innocently tries to get the comatose city chap to sign the register.

The village doctor arrives, a fake beard in pince-nez and a derby, his gladstone bag bulging with booze and, disturbingly, handcuffs. I think the normally clear line between first aid kit and rape kit is getting blurrier than desirable. As he takes City Chap’s pulse on screen right, Charlie mimics him screen left, using the victim’s own fob watch. Best bit of mime: having briefly held the watch in his mouth, Charlie gives it a theatrical shake in an exact reproduction of classic thermometer business. The doctor then presents his bill, after merely taking the pulse and kneading the patient’s shoulder in a vaguely sympathetic manner. (Like the village idiot actor, the doctor is unidentified on IMDb but I’d say it’s Albert Austin under the whiskers.)

Very routine bit with Charlie mopping the lobby while three random guys are sitting in it. Yes, he turns with the mop and wetly knocks hats off. That kind of business. “City chap fully recovered,” reports an intertitle, unnecessarily. These cards have the dutiful tone of a child’s book report. City chap (who has the same initials as Chaplin) has a lighter built into his cane. Which is kind of cool. Charlie is impressed.

In a cutaway shot, Edna gets her fingers stuck in some fly paper — a rare (unique?) example of her getting a solo gag, though it develops in such a conventional way it scarcely qualifies. Similarly, the business of her forgetting what she came to the hotel to buy (it’s also a general store) and Charlie offering suggestions from his shelves unfolds without kicking loose any real comedy at all. OK, him wrapping the final item — enormous woolly socks — in a huge paper cone as if it were a bouquet of flowers, is sort of amusing. All this is just to effect a meet uncute with the city chap, who watches with more interest than I could muster. Edna is dressed like an old lady again, further stressing the resemblance of this movie to a much earlier period of Chaplin’s career.

Charlie gets Edna’s paper money stuck to the fly paper, which is quite a good gag, but it’s cut short — I think we want to see him picking the banknote to little shreds to bring home the hopelessness of the situation.

Seeing Edna strolling amiably with the chap, Charlie performs a head-clutching gesture of operatic despair, I think the biggest and lamest reaction I’ve seen from him. No doubt he’s thinking of how he felt when he caught her with Thomas Meighan. But it’s too much for the film, the situation and the genre. Sitting down and resting his head, Charlie prepares the ground for a second dream sequence. [Iris in.]

Now Charlie prances up to Edna’s house to bring her flowers and sing with her, but finds the city chap already installed at the pianoforte. A musical cuckold, Charlie gazes through the window (the overheard music perhaps recalls Charlie’s experience in childhood of being passionately transfixed by a rendition of “You are the honeysuckle, I am the bee” caught as he passed by a window). Edna gazes blankly at the lighter-cane as if it held some mesmeric power. The lovers smile coyly over a photo album. Much of the comedy in this film is rote, but absolutely all the romance is, a likely result of Chaplin’s loveless marriage following fairly quickly on the break-up with Edna.

Charlie attempts to copy the c. chap’s elegant ways, fashioning crude spats from a pair of the woolly socks (a loose thread spoils the effect) and installing a candlestick on his cane (it blazes with the same inextinguishable fervour as the one Harpo produces from his mackintosh in HORSE FEATHERS, burning at both ends — that would impress me if I were Edna).

Walter Kerr identifies the pathos here as operating on the same unsuccessful level as that in THE TRAMP, but I think it’s much worse. Charlie’s self-pity isn’t affecting whatsoever, whereas his illiterate note in the Essanay film is genuinely pitiable even if the tonal shift isn’t managed well at all. His everlasting candle a wash-out, Charlie crouches on a country road with fingers in ears, awaiting extirpation by an approaching auto. A sudden jolt — the boss kicking him out of his chair — brings him back to reality. His rejection by Edna was all a jealous dream, brought on by seeing her chatting with chap.

Coda: the chap is checking out. He tips his hat to Edna but she turns her back on him sniffily. What on earth has happened between them during Charlie’s dream? Seeing Edna, Charlie rushes to embrace her in an awkward stranglehold, makes to punch the city chap for offences committed during R.E.M. sleep, then gratefully receives a tip from him for carrying his bags three feet to the waiting car. City chap departs and Charlie and Edna embrace.

Critics and scholars have apparently argued about whether the heartbreak leading up to suicide is a dream, or whether the happy ending is the dream, flashing through Charlie’s mind in a split second as he’s mangled by the onrushing jalopy. While that would be cleverer, more unusual and better, making the film a slapstick version of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, it’s absolutely plain that the more prosaic version was Chaplin’s intended reading. The dream is cued up by Charlie resting his head, and he awakens from the same posture. The reason for the confusion is the film’s awkward shape, with TWO longish dream sequences, and the other problem identified by Walter Kerr: while Chaplin often creates poignancy by having his character dream of idyllic happiness (heaven, bread rolls, etc) when he’s miserable in reality, here he dreams of a scenario much worse than his real life situ. But this is perhaps excusable — we DID get the reason Charlie thinks he’s washed up with Edna, right before he went to sleep. So it’s motivated, it’s just not very effective or interesting or amusing or touching.

SUNNYSIDE is pretty fascinating as an example of mature Chaplin operating without inspiration, judgement thrown off, forced to release a film that simply hasn’t gelled. Mysteriously, he called it a favourite film in his 1922 memoir, but dismissed it later. During shooting he toyed with abandoning it in favour of another, equally amorphous and unpromising notion, but he’d invested too much time in it for that option to fly.

The crisis would continue through the next short — I can hardly wait. And you?

Full of IT

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2021 by dcairns
Thomas Meighan

David Robinson reported that when he came to research his biography of Chaplin, he found Chaplin’s memoirs to be substantially accurate, his memory of events fairly reliable. But here’s a peculiar bit.

Chaplin talks, in My Autobiography, of the prominent figures who were around during his start in movies, including Elinor Glyn, the noted lady novelist. He cites a film called Her Moment (after wittily remarking that there was “a time-diminishing nature” to the trilogy of Three Weeks, His Hour and Her Moment) and describes a sensational scene:

The plot concerns a distinguished lady, played by Gloria Swanson, who is to marry a man she does not love. They are stationed in a tropical jungle. One day she goes horse-back riding alone, and, being interested in botany, gets off her horse to inspect a rare flower. As she bends over it, a deadly viper strikes and bites her right on the bosom. Gloria clutches her breast and screams, and is heard by the man she really loves, who happens, opportunely, to be passing close by. It is handsome Tommy Meighan. Quickly he appears through the bush.

“What has happened?”

She points to the poisonous reptile. “I have been bitten!”

“Where?”

She points to her bosom.

“That’s the deadliest viper of all!” says Tommy, meaning of course the snake. “Quick, something must be done! There is not a moment to spare!”

They are miles from a doctor, and the usual remedy of a tournequet — twisting a handkerchief around the affected part to stop blood circulating — is unthinkable. Suddenly he picks her up, tears at her shirt-waist, and bares her gleaming white shoulder, then turns her from the vulgar glare of the camera, bends over her and with his mouth extracts the poison, spitting it out as he does so. As a result of this suctorial operation she marries him.

Chaplin seems to be recounting this scene to show us how movies were in the old days. Corny and melodramatic. He seems to find it salaciously enjoyable as well as ridiculous, though.

Interestingly, Elinor Glyn never wrote a movie called HER MOMENT. There is a 1918 film of that name but the action is laid in Romania. Thomas Meighan never acted in an Elinor Glyn adaptation, but Gloria Swanson did, and the film was called THE GREAT MOMENT. It’s set in Nevada, but the hero, played by Milton Sills, does save Gloria from snakebite, though the IMDb is silent as to whether she is afflicted in the same spot the asp got Cleopatra.

So, as Robinson essentially predicted, Chaplin turns to be more accurate than at first appears.

The substitution of Thomas Meighan as leading man is suggestive, however. The next time this largely-forgotten strong, silent leading man is mentioned in My Autobiography is when Chaplin discovers his leading lady and girlfriend Edna Purviance almost in Meighan’s arms at a Hollywood party. They broke up more or less as a result of the resulting suspicion, though Chaplin kept Edna as co-star until 1923, tried to make her an independent star with A WOMAN OF PARIS and A WOMAN OF THE SEA, and kept her on salary for decades. I’ll try to spot her short appearances in MONSIEUR VERDOUX and LIMELIGHT.

The IMDb also has her playing a small role in a Bernard Natan production in France in 1927, which doesn’t seem very likely. And yet: photographic evidence ~

So the placement of Meighan in a role he never played, where he steals the heroine away from a man she doesn’t love, is open to a Freudian reading if you’re that way inclined. And Chaplin comes out of this whole thing looking pretty classy, if odd.