Archive for My Autobiography

The Sunnyside Intertitle

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , on August 15, 2021 by dcairns

Full dissection of SUNNYSIDE soon.

it’s 1919. Chaplin has married, unwisely. Either she married him for his money or the career boost or love (David Robinson favours the middle option, but supplies no definite proof), but at any rate the honeymoon period ended quickly and the Chaplins find themselves living largely separate lives. “No mental heavyweight” is Chaplin’s summation of his bride in his memoir.

Chaplin describes making SUNNYSIDE as being “like pulling teeth,” and blames his marriage for doing something bad to his creative process. He was able to marry several more times without the same creative crisis, so Glen David Gold, in the novel Sunnyside, blames the block on Hannah Chaplin, Charlie’s mentally ill mother, joining him in California. It seems credible. So does the claim that Hannah’s illness was caused by syphilis, though diagnosing the long-departed is a dicey business. If true, it means that Charlie’s fear that he himself would suffer a permanent mental collapse were unfounded, since the illness would likely have showed itself before adulthood if he had it.

So much for the spirochetes. What we’ll be embarking on is a breakdown of what’s generally agreed to be Chaplin’s weakest film of the period, a movie that proceeded in a series of fits, starts and abortions, far more so than the usual fraught process, and ended with the film not so much finished as abandoned, with the funniest scene left on the cutting room floor for inexplicable reasons.

First, though, Charlie and I both need to wake up.

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.

Hoot Spa

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2021 by dcairns

THE CURE is generally admired, and genuinely good, but coming after EASY STREET as we watch in sequence, it seems a far less ambitious work. The narrative is super-slight, there’s no real drama. But you can turn that around and say that the ambition lies in structuring a comedy WITHOUT those things.

There’s much to enjoy. After starting the film with himself in the role of orderly, Chaplin restarted from scratch, taking the role of a rich, straw-hatted dipso. He could almost be the same character from ONE A.M. Which is odd, because that film underperformed and was regarded by CC as a failed experiment. It’s hardly surprising, given his back ground of extreme poverty and his sudden, inexplicable wealth and fame, that Chaplin didn’t feel secure in his success. What’s more surprising is the risks he ran, avoiding settling into one formula with his films — probably his comedy just couldn’t function within a set pattern, which would be why he kept trying to escape the Tramp character. The other reason would be the way the character reminded him painfully of his origins.

In his memoir, Chaplin only discusses THE CURE in relation to Nijinsky’s visit to the set. (He doesn’t mention EASY STREET at all.) The great dancer solemnly watched him perform, never laughing once, but was very flattering: “Your comedy is balletique, you are a dancer.” Anticipating W.C. Fields. For a day or two, Chaplin acted without film in the camera, because he knew he couldn’t use anything he shot in front of this tragic fellow.

Nijinsky’s insanity seems to have impressed Chaplin — he writes more about Nijinsky than about Eric Campbell, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman, none of whom rate a mention — but doesn’t connect it to any worries about his own equilibrium. Despite regularly playing dipsomaniacs, and having an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother, Chaplin doesn’t admit to any concerns on that score. I guess, like most of us, most of the time, he simply felt sane.

His manager and half-brother Syd seems to have said not long after this time that he was only waiting for Charlie to crack up finally so he could sell the studio to a supermarket and retire on the proceeds.

Loyal Underwood is the founder of THE CURE’s health spa, and he’s a physical wreck. This broad satire allows Chaplin to treat the place as a system to be destroyed. It’s a place full of rich people pretending to get healthier. A romance with Edna will provide Charlie with a motivation to change his way of life, but nothing serious will result from this.

Eric Campbell plays a gouty villain. Gout being mainly a disease of the rich, it doesn’t have to be treated sympathetically.

An attendant (John Rand) tries to steer a veering Charlie towards and through the revolving doors into the establishment. Drunk and disoriented, Charlie tends to take off in random directions, stepping over the wellspring of the healing waters, teasing us with the suggestion he’s going to fall in — a set-up whose pay-off is saved for the very end.

Swing doors, with their tendency to keep swinging, have given Charlie’s drunk characters a lot of trouble. The revolving doors don’t bother him at all — he just always seems to find himself outside when he goes in. But this infuriates John Rand only — Charlie doesn’t mind in the least. In Unknown Chaplin we see him accidentally catch his cane (one part of his signature look, along with moustache and baggy trousers, that he’s retained) in the doors, then hurl it away in sudden fury. But then he incorporates the mistake into the routine, beautifully. Charlie is dazedly delighted with the way he’s trapped Campbell and Rand in airtight glass compartments, bellowing silently at him.

The impetus from the doors, when Charlie is finally spat out into the spa interior, sends him all the way upstairs, spinning like a top, while Rand, a servile Hoskins, gently guides him to his room. His steamer trunk arrives: a giant booze cabinet. This is psychologically quite true, of course: anyone seeking to be cured of an addiction takes along a bit of what they’re addicted to, just in case. Thereby defeating the whole point, but what are points for, if not to be defeated? We don’t want to ever let points get the upper hand.

Albert Austin, another attendant, arrives to take Charlie to the waters. Prolonged flirtation with nurse — almost three minutes of this single locked-off setting, and I feel it could have been productively pruned. But there’s a bit of amusing salaciousness, and Charlie’s avoidance of the water. The scene ends when he finally takes a sip and then goes scampering around looking for a place to throw up. Digestion is a favourite Chaplin topic. And then, since Chaplin likes to do vulgar jokes and then de-vulgarize them, we find out he was racing back to his room for a proper drink.

Now James Kelley as an aged attendant is showing signs of drink — he’s been at Charlie’s steamer trunk, the first sign that our hero’s state of intoxication is going to spread through the population like a virus.

That Bad Man Eric is bothering Edna again. I suppose it’s slightly odd that he’s been mistreated before he’s done anything wrong (just as in THE RINK) but Charlie is depending on the gout being unsympathetic and also on Eric being in melodramatic villain guise, and being known to the audience as his regular antagonist. Edna proves well able to defend herself, stamping on the bandaged hoof then stomping off. Eric, however, simply can’t take “Take that!” for an answer.

Charlie blunders into this situation, sitting between annoyer and annoyee, so that he thinks Eric’s repulsive coochy-cooing is meant for him. Ever-mutable, he flirts back, becoming a winsome coquette for as long as the moment demands. So the next blow to Eric’s inflamed foot is delivered flirtatiously.

Good gag with the wicker chairs. There are two joined together, so when Charlie repositions his, he removes the one Eric was about to sit on. All this guys were great at falling over without getting hurt. Only Jerry Lewis, who didn’t have the training, went on to have terrible back pain. Eric, alas, didn’t live long enough to regret his tumbling.

The manager, or some other important figure, comes to impose order and rebuke Charlie, but Edna springs to his defense — Eric goes into a melodramatic pose, tugging the twin points of his beard which somehow conveys that his perfidy is rumbled, and Charlie, protean as ever, steps forward to his audience, the film having been transformed to a play by the situation and Eric’s posturing. An amazing moment, when you think about it.

Having caused a little more chaos, Charlie is whisked off to have a massage. Henry Bergson is the aggressive masseur.

Meanwhile, two more attendants have gotten bevvied up on Charlie’s stash. The manager orders them to throw out the liquor. Albert Austin, incapably pie-eyed, tosses the bottles out the window into the healthful well…

Charlie’s undressing behind a curtain in the changing room annoys Eric and another patron, as he carelessly flings shoes etc. When the curtain is whisked open, he strikes fey poses. I’ve never been sure what this is a reference to but it always struck me as funny, regardless. Some kind of Windmill Theatre tableau vivant thing is being spoofed, I guess. Or bathing beauties? But it’s a chance for Chaplin to be graceful and effeminate and impudent.

Chaplin had engaged a contortionist for this bit, but initially struggled to find the right role for him (as seen in Unknown Chaplin). The eventual solution is excellent: Bergman twists the guy into impossible shapes while Charlie watches in alarm. It’s a plan he’d re-use in THE IMMIGRANT: visualise, using some hapless subject, the terrible fate awaiting the hero, then see what he can do to escape it.

Charlie the drunk isn’t particularly alarmed, though — he seems the activity as a wrestling match. Charlie is generally devoid of sympathy towards others at this point, except maybe Edna. But he has no intention of taking part in a bout himself. Bergman is astounded when Charlie wrestles back, halfnelsonizing the big guy. All the sliding back and forth on the table to escape Henry’s grip is great. As is Charlie’s aggressive wrestling stance. As with ONE A.M., we get to see the Chaplin legs. Even more so.

Strange bit where Charlie tries to grab Henry by the stomach. He almost succeeds. If the bay window protruded any more — it would have to extrude like a Dali buttock, and probably require a crutch or unicycle to support it — the judo move might have worked.

Meanwhile, Edna is alarmed to find everyone drunk. The spa has acquired a post-apocalyptic quality, like THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS or DAWN OF THE DEAD. Society has broken down. The alcoholics have taken over the asylum. It’s like All Fool’s Day, or St. Patrick’s Day or something. i like the orderly using a lamp as a trumpet. Is it John Rand, in his umpteenth role?

Charlie, having dunked Eric and Henry in the pool, comes upon a scene of pure rambunctiousness. He is now almost the most sober person present, and he doesn’t like it. Things get a bit dark when he has to save Edna from two randy inebriates. I think the beard guy is William Gillespie, a Scot from Aberdeenshire. I wonder what WG thought of Eric’s phony Scotsman act?

The temperance theme — Chaplin really disapproved of overindulgence, sounding kind of priggish when criticising Barrymore’s excesses in his memoir, as if congenital alcoholism was purely a choice — doesn’t stand a chance of being treated seriously. Edna urges Charlie to try the waters. He’s saved her, and she wants to do the same for him. But the waters are now 20% proof. Initially reluctant, Charlie becomes rather keen on the stuff. Edna may soon need protecting from her protector. He throws his leg over her knees, Harpo-fashion.

Eric, having been in the pool while everyone else was getting plastered, is still sober, but the attendant pushing his bath chair isn’t. Well, somebody was bound to end up submerged in the healthful well. Chaplin’s water features exist for no other purpose. Freeze-framing it just allow us to see that a padded stuntman, in Eric’s elaborate makeup, performs the dive.

Looking for a way to end this sequence, Chaplin falls back on a reliable gambit, and has his character stagger about until he falls into the tiny swimming pool. I’m not much of a swimmer but I reckon I could manage a length of that thing. By stretching.

The next day. Everyone is horribly hungover, except Edna and Eric, who does not appear. I don’t suppose he actually drowned. Actually, he might have a hangover too, depending on how much he swallowed when upside down in the well.

Charlie now learns that the well was full of liquor, but not that it was his. Now Edna is urging him NOT to take the waters, and the temperance pledge can be done semi-sincerely. But having already lampooned it, the film can’t really be seen as particularly moralistic now. The curse has been taken off in advance.

Charlie falls in the well. The End.

Unknown Chaplin supplies us with two fine gags I rather wish had been used. In one elaborate routine, Charlie acts as traffic cop to the drunken attendants pushing wheelchairs and bath chairs. He shot this multiple times, first in his disorderly orderly guise, then again after switching roles and becoming the rich drunk. Everyone says that he discarded this because he realised his character is supposed to create chaos, not order, but that’s just a (plausible) assumption. I think it could have worked, because once everybody’s smashed, Charlie DOES become the adult in the room.

Chaplin also shot a bit more ending, where he bobs up and down in the well like a cork, kissing Edna on each surfacing. Again, this seems like a nice way to develop the gag and make it romantic — after all, we’ve already seen someone fall in there, so a plunge alone is not too surprising. I think it’s even possible the gag WAS included — so many of Chaplin’s films seem to have lost frames from the end, that a missing shot doesn’t seem impossible. But I have no evidence to support this idea, except for the fact that Chaplin shot the gag, and it was good.

Next up: Chaplin takes everything he’s learned and applies it to one film.