Archive for My Autobiography

Page Seventeen IV: Ernest Goes to Jail

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2022 by dcairns

In my earliest baby-boy memories, the man’s either looming and glum–not drunk enough–or bug-eyed and stubbly after a three-day bender, so liquored up he tilts when he leans down to snatch me off the burlap rags my brothers and sisters piled on the floor of our Kansas shack and called our “sleepy blankets.” I’d blink awake in the air, shaking cold, my face so close to Daddy’s the rye fumes burned my eyeballs. He’d rattle me till my teeth clacked, then start ranting in that high, Hoosier whine he only got when he was blotto and wanted to hurt something.

Pig had moved aside two dozen beer glasses and seated himself on a ledge behind the bar. In times of crisis he preferred to sit in as voyeur. He gazed eagerly as his shipmates grappled shoatlike after th seven geysers below him. Beer had soaked down most of the sawdust behind the bar: skirmishes and amateur footwork were now scribbling it into alien hieroglyphics.

That’s how my character was born.

Joe never tired of finding new ways to identify his Buster as an altogether unique personality in American show business. He liked to experiment with teasing tag lines to get people’s attention. One such line appeared in hundred of papers all over the country in 1909: KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE KID KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE KID KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE KID. He tried to interest the females in the audience with the announcement that Buster was “the cutest little bundle of jollity that ever wriggled into the hearts of audiences.”

3780009 Little Red Riding Hood, engraving by Gustave Doré. by Dore, Gustave (1832-83); ( Charles Perrault \’s, Little Red Riding Hood: Little Red Riding Hood with the wolf, engraving by Gustave Doré. Little Red Riding Hood sits in the bed next to the wolf, disguised in her grandmother \’s night-cap. Drawn by Gustave Doré, French artist, b January 6, 1832 – January 23, 1883. Engraved by Pannemaker. From Charles Perrault \’s Les Contes de Perrault / Perrault \’s Fairy Tales; CP: French writer, b January 12,1628 – May 16, 1703. From Cassell \’s \’Doré \’s Gallery\’ by Edmund Ollier, published Cassell & Company, Ltd., p. 106.); Lebrecht History.

Was that the way B.D. and my son, Michael, felt when they visited me after the stroke? Did I look so different and act so different that this is the mother they would remember, and not the mother they had always known. Since leaving the hospital Kathryn has told me many times about the way I looked. One of my oldest friends said, “The first time I saw you after the stroke, Bette Davis wasn’t in that bed. She was gone.” He was crying.

‘I’ll try the pills. I like that Xanax is spelled the same backwards and forwards,’ She didn’t want to have the suicide/fate discussion right now. For weeks she’d been feeling as if someone or something was fucking with her norepinephrine levels. She was exhausted from the effort to stay alive when she wasn’t motivated. Like an involuntary reflex, Kate’s face flipped onto the vid-screen she carried at all times in her head. It used to be a movie screen, but that was in the seventies.

She had been having trouble with her voice. It was never strong, and the slightest cold brought on laryngitis which lasted for weeks; but she was obliged to keep working, so that her voice grew progressively worse. She could not rely on it. In the middle of singing it would crack or suddenly disappear into a whisper, and the audience would laugh and start booing. The worry of it impaired her health and made her a nervous wreck. As a consequence, her theatrical engagements fell off until they were practically nil.

Seven paragraphs from seven page seventeens from seven books recently acquired or else rediscovered on forgotten shelves in the Shadowplayhouse.

I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl; V by Thomas Pynchon; Some Like It Hot: Me, Marilyn and the Movie by Tony Curtis with Mark A. Vieira; Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down by Tom Dardis; This ‘n That by Bette Davis with Michael Herskowitz; You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again by Julia Phillips; My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin,

Rich Man, Poor Man

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2022 by dcairns

Chaplin also described the origin of the rich inebriate subplot in CITY LIGHTS. In My Autobiography he recounts a story idea whereby the Tramp would be plucked from poverty by rich dilettantes, and established in a townhouse, shown a life of luxury for a day, then returned to the gutter while he slept. All as a kind of experiment or bet. Waking, he would regard his day of wealth as a dream.

This sounds quite a lot like TRADING PLACES: it only needs the reverse procedure to be added. Chaplin liked his dreams, of course — even THE GREAT DICTATOR was at one point supposed to end with Charlie waking up.

After a brief interlude establishing the blind girl’s home life with granny, Chaplin cuts to the riverside, where the drunken millionaire arrives with a suitcase. Unusually well prepared, he has in it a rope and a rock. Charlie arrives moments later, ignoring his companion until he belatedly realises what’s afoot. He then launches into a speech, in intertitle form, on the joys of life. Chaplin was almost as capable of making fun of sentimentality as he was of indulging in it / elevating it to art.

The first gag of the sequence — though Charlie’s initial failure to notice the glaring suicide attempt before him is pretty funny — comes when the despairing drunk accidentally throws his rope over Charlie’s neck as well as his own, then accidentally slips out of it, so that it’s the unwitting Samaritan who gets yanked into the drink. Chaplin, who certainly felt desperate at times, does not ask us to feel sorry for the rich man — in fact, at the film’s end, no solution is offered to the man’s aimless self-destructive lifestyle. His purpose is to create trouble for Charlie. Chaplin is smart enough to know that his audience is not too likely to be moved by the “problems” of the very rich. Charlie doesn’t share these problems because he has a purpose in life.

Filming this scene led to another production hiccup. Chaplin had befriended a classically-trained actor and cast him as the drunk, working closely with him on the part. But when they got to this first scene, the actor begged off, asking that they wait a few hours until the studio tank had been warmed by the sun. Already facing difficulties with Virginia Cherrill, Chaplin flew into a rage, called off shooting for the day, fired his friend, closed the iron door on him, and eventually recast the part with Harry Myers, who is excellent, as everyone always is in Chaplin films.

Myers had been a leading man ten years before (ROBINSON CRUSOE) but was sliding down into bit parts — in that capacity he’d later work in talkies with Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy.

The sequence illustrates Chaplin’s skill in escalating a crisis and creating problems. Having inadvertently sent his saviour into the drink, the drunk is determined to save him — but he must take his jacket and shoes off first.

After the eventual rescue — or, at any rate, after the drunk joins Charlie in the river — he is full of renewed joi de vivre, declares Charlie his best buddy in the world, and the two sodden gentlemen head home, watched by a suspicious policeman trying out for a part in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

At the palatial home, we meet the butler and learn that the drunkard’s wife is leaving him, the only backstory he gets. Chaplin may have been thinking of doing more with this, but he chooses not to. Nothing more is needed. Both men appear to have dried off remarkably fast, but are rumpled. Booze is taken — a mistake, as it increases loss of body temperature, and anyway, one of these guys has had enough. Also, the drunk accidentally pour the bottle down Charlie’s trousers.

A useful comic device is the character who is well-meaning, seems to offer help to the hero, but due to some character flaw creates more trouble than he’s worth. Look at the whole series of non-rescues Brian endures at the end of MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN. The drunk is a deus ex machine, but he has to be equipped with quirks that will hamper his helpful descent from Olympus. His shambling inebriation is one, but his goldfish amnesia is the other. One provides entertainment for us, the other moves the plot on via a series of interruptions. Oh, and there’s his intermittent but very urgent desire to pop his clogs. Seizing a gun with ludicrous abruption he takes aim at his temple and Charlie has to intervene again.

The film abruptly rediscovers sound: the gun makes a gunshot noise, and when Myers slumps on the piano there’s a thunk of keys being hit. Both are the kind of sounds a silent movie orchestra pit might produce, but they’re here, now, in synch on the soundtrack. Whereas all the falling in the water produced not a single splash. I guess Chaplin is thinking in terms of replacing the live accompaniment, rather than adding anything beyond its abilities.

Chaplin now gets to do his own drunk act as the boys head out to paint the town red. Painful business with cigars. Charlie sets a lady’s dress ablaze and extinguishes it with a soda syphon. Sennett-type amusement in a sequence that echoes THE ROUNDERS and A NIGHT OUT. A brief suggestion of a tracking shot, one of those directionless drifts away from the action Chaplin would occasionally indulge in.

They are then served spaghetti (the gag potential of this pasta dish always cause Chaplin to ignore the unlikelihood of its turning up on the menu of a swank establishment). Descending ticker tape is confused with the spag. Typical of Charlie’s luck: for once he’s offered free food, and instead ingests a falling stream of paper. Failing to notice this (he’s evidently VERY drunk) Charlie slowly ascends from his chair, a man in a dream, (he hasn’t been THIS plastered since THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR) ruminating upon the endless ribbon. The drunk, who is now apparently the more rational and observant one, rescues him.

Chaplin starts to have fun with a swanee whistle effect on his pasta, another pit orchestra device, here available to sync perfectly forever, without relying on the reflexes of countless overworked musicians (who will now be unemployed, reduced to Chaplinesque indigence themselves).

Now there’s an apache dance — this is a peculiar idea of a nightclub. I think Chaplin is capitalising on his presumed audience’s unfamiliarity with such joints. It’s just a series of disconnected ideas of nightlife, crammed together into one implausible spot. The drunks’ response to the violent dance routine is about what you’d expect, and had already been played for laughs in a French talkie, CHIQUE, the previous year.

There’s also a jazz band wearing Russian peasant smocks. Chaplin does another track-back, through the ecstatically undercranked dancers, and this one feels more purposeful, the reason for getting the dolly out in the first place. A second camera move pursues the dancers’ feet, alighting on Charlie’s, which are becoming compulsively happy, due to the rhythm. Dervishlike, he leaps onto the dance floor, abducting another man’s wife, then a waiter, before collapsing in his buddy’s arms, his brain spun into an alcoholic froth.


Limousine Love

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2022 by dcairns

The fact that it took Chaplin a year of filming to figure out a way to make the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) in CITY LIGHTS mistake the Tramp for a millionaire just gets more incredible when you realise that Chaplin had already solved the problem, back in THE IDLE CLASS. He did it with a car door, with the Tramp chortcutting through a limo. That was ten years before — did Charlie eventually remember how he did it, or did he never remember it, and come up with the idea again, as if from scratch?

(In THE IDLE CLASS, Charlie cuts through the back of a limo and, emerging at a costume ball, is naturally mistaken for a toff disguised as a tramp. So it’s not exactly the same gag — he had to get the idea of using the sound of the car door, not a natural notion for a silent filmmaker. And, though I continue to argue that CITY LIGHTS is a sound film but not a talkie, Chaplin tells us he thought of it as a silent. That category error may have got in his way. And, though I’ve said that very many situations in the film depend on sound, this scene is treated silent — the flower girl hears the car door, but we don’t.)

It’s all the more remarkable given that he had gag writers — here credited as assistant directors, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Maybe he’d been resisting the idea of repeating himself, but the use he makes of the misunderstanding here is so different, it hardly makes you think the less of him. I feel if he’d called the idea to mind earlier, he’d have used it without hesitation, since he was going through hell trying to solve the problem — and putting everyone else through hell — “I was a terror to be with” — and spending his own money.

The end result repays the agonies everyone endured. Having seen Georgia Hale’s screen test for the part, and admired it, I can’t say that she’s better than Cherrill, whose lack of experience gives her playing an innocence. It’s what Chaplin wanted — not an actor, a pure medium to transmit his own ideas into performance.

How the girl gets accidentally fooled is clever. How Charlie gets hooked is equally smart, and doesn’t get talked about. Having realised that she’s misunderstood who he is, and that she thinks he’s left without waiting for his change, he can’t bring himself to disappoint and disillusion her. Therefore he gives up his change, which he really needs — the fingers are coming off his gloves — and tiptoes away, like the amphibian removals men of TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. So he’s committed to maintaining the illusion. It must feel good. He’s just been publically shamed at the monument unveiling, humiliated by news boys and intimidated by a typically gigantic antagonist. Now he’s met somebody who admires him.

Chaplin said it was always a challenge to find a way to get a romance going with the Tramp, since women don’t usually list indigence as a trait they look for in a partner. But having her simply ignorant of who he is was an inspiration that arrived quite indirectly.

In My Autobiography, Chaplin describes his initial idea, “a clown who, through an accident at the circus, has lost his sight. He has a little daughter, a sick, nervous child, and when he returns from the hospital the doctor warns him that he must hide his blindness from her until she is well and strong enough to understand, as the shock might be too much for her. His stumbling and bumping into things make the girl laugh joyously. But that was too ‘icky’.”

It certainly was. Though you can feel something of Chaplin’s enthusiasm for the idea lingering, decades later. Sometimes, we’re told, his assistants could talk him out of an overly sentimental idea by expressing open revulsion: I suspect that was the case here.

The idea may have been influenced by another source: Josef Von Sternberg had been taken under Chaplin’s wing after smuggling a print of his no-budget debut feature, THE SALVATION HUNTERS, into CC’s screening room. The film starred Georgia Hale and was, in its way, somewhat Chaplinesque. It was planned that Sternberg would make a film for Chaplin, and he eventually did, the ill-fated A WOMAN OF THE SEA, but another project was envisaged first, a star vehicle for Mary Pickford. “It was called Backwash,” Sternberg tells us in his memoir, “and it concerned a blind girl and a deaf-mute, the subject to be visualized through the eyes of a girl who has never been able to see. […] One of the episodes concerned a visit to a Chaplin comedy by my underprivileged characters, and Mr. Chaplin had agreed to perform some distorted antics.”

So this may have influenced Chaplin — it seems more than likely. You could say he practically swiped Sternberg’s idea the way he later did Welles’ with MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Of course, his treatment of other people’s ideas makes them distinctly his own: we don’t see the blind girl’s distorted imaginings of what Charlie is like, instead we get to see him struggle to maintain her illusion, without the financial means.

At the end of the scene, after the girl thinks Charlie has driven away, he sneaks back to watch her. Voyeurism — and a fantasy — when she stares into space and he’s occupying that space, it looks like she’s looking at him, tenderly. Her lack of sight supplies him with something he lacks — the illusion of love. All this complex stuff is neatly deflated when she throws a plant pot full of water in his face. Chaplin usually knows when things are at risk of getting too serious too soon.