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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

The Further Adventures of Commodore Slick

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2021 by dcairns

Last we saw, Charlie was waking up in a strange bed. “This is not my beautiful house,” sings David Byrne in the movie trailer. (Why do trailer editors keep doing that?)

We’re at about 11.30 in the above.

Albert Austin, with his upper lip uncharacteristically nude, enters as a butler. Charlie receives fine clothes. Impostures and mistaken identities are as central to Chaplin’s work as they are to Wodehouse’s. Wodehouse may have felt like an imposter in the upper class scenes he described. Chaplin surely must have sometimes felt he didn’t belong amid the riches of Hollywood. And, though his screen character had a magical transformative power — he becomes a lampstand in this one — the comedy demands that he should struggle to adapt his behaviour to such settings.

Eric is flirting with Edna, but his hideous bifurcated beard is tickling her bare arm. The conjoined beard makes him look like two Rasputins standing close together, (each with one eye closed). A hopeless romantic prospect in any sane world.

Attired in a tux, but with giant flapshoe boots, our man descends to join the other guests. The name’s Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie has the same approach as me when it comes to free drink. When there’s free drink, one should attempt to drink all of it, because later there will be no free drink. This approach has a flaw in it somewhere, but looking at it in black and white (or white and black) I’m not sure just what it is.

Albert Austin’s role here, as ever, is to stand by looking vaguely appalled. He’s great at it. Chaplin relies a little less on a stock company from here on, or at least he mixes things up more, but Austin will still be around.

Edna welcomes Charlie eagerly — he’s rescued her from drowning and now he’s rescuing her from a tickly beard. Eric and Charlie square off. We get another iteration of Chaplin’s cigar-burn gag, a rather ouchy piece of supposed slapstick that’s fallen well out of favour today. The last comic cigar burn I recall was in TIME BANDITS, and there David Rappaport merely singed little Craig Warnock’s hair by mistake, and apologised afterwards.

A bit of arse-kicking here, which is funnier because it’s being done covertly. A curtain is introduced so the men can boot each other from adjoining rooms. Since Chaplin gets many effects using contrast, his traditional arse-kick gets funnier when performed in polite circles, discreetly between pleasantries. Also, an innocent party gets kicked, by Eric, naturally.

Henry Bergman is Edna’s dad, his second role in this one. Usually if he’s doubling up, one role will be in drag, but only social class and an inextinguishable pipe separate his twin characters here.

Eric discovers Charlie’s secret: the newspaper carries a story on the recent escapee, complete with incriminating mug shot. Note that Chaplin is quite keen to keep his character nameless. Here, he’s Convict 23, alias “The Eel,” and at the party he’s assumed the pseudonym of Commodore Slick.

Eric resolves to expose his rival, but foolishly leaves Charlie alone with the newspaper. When he presents it, triumphantly, to his fellow guests, it’s been cunningly altered.

Hilariously, the beard is clearly not drawn on to the photograph: Chaplin has had two photos taken and printed up as two newspapers, only in one of them he’s wearing Campbell’s beard.

Unlike in most Hollywood movies, the full text of the news article seems to have been typed out — it doesn’t turn into Latin when the print gets small, it doesn’t turn into a completely unrelated story. “Officials Completely Baffled.” Chaplin has anticipated that I will be freezeframing his work 105 years later. Further evidence of time travel to compliment that woman with the cell phone.

The threat seemingly defused, “Commodore Slick” mingles, continuing to soak up all the free drink he can swipe, even tipping the contents of Loyal Underwood’s glass into his own.

Meanwhile, one of the prison guards from reel one is being entertained by the cook. This twist is borrowed from POLICE and THE COUNT — cooks may be relied upon to entertain kops and the like, bringing fresh jeopardy into the scenario. It’s hardly necessary here. But since the guard is an interloper it not only adds jeopardy, it produces the irony of the guard hiding from Charlie rather than the other way around. The natural order is subverted. We’re through the looking glass here, folks.

Charlie is left on edge. This guard is prowling around the house. Every champagne cork is now a threatening shotgun. With relief, he allows himself to be escorted upstairs to the ballroom by Edna.

Unknown Chaplin reveals that the director considered two added elements for the ballroom, but deleted both. There was to be a sexy Spanish dancer, and a malfunctioning radiator. Charlie would find himself getting hot under the collar, think it’s the result of the tarantella lady, then discover he’s sat next to the radiator which is spurting steam up him. You can still see the radiator, but he deleted this curious gag.

Instead, he disinterestedly contemplates sticking a pin in a big lady’s backside, but doesn’t, only because Edna’s watching. We’re all glad he restrained himself. This kind of active malice is being eliminated.

Meanwhile, Eric phones the prison with a tip-off.

The ballroom has provided only spot gags, but a more promising invention is the balcony/ice cream gag. Chaplin wrote a fairly long analysis of this for the press, emphasising that dropping ice cream down the back of a fat lady’s dress works on TWO LEVELS.

Firstly, the audience is familiar with the cold wetness of ice cream, so they can relate to the gag on a tactile level. He compares this to the gooeyness of the cream pies of yore, harking back to some mythical, prelapsarian age of incessant pie throwing which seems to have been a dim cinematic memory even in 1917. Which is curious, because film historians have found no evidence that it ever really happened.

Secondly, dignified fat rich ladies are fair game. Like rich men in silk hats, the exaggerated dignity of the dowager demands to be taken down a peg or three. So the gag combines, in dynamic tension, the opposite qualities of empathy and alienation. Surprise and not-me.

(All explanations of comedy are only partial at best, and so the one devised by the desensitized dystopia-dwellers of Nigel Kneale’s TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics is as good as any: a gag must be surprising, and it must be befalling someone else.)

But what makes the ice cream gag funny in this case, is its effect on Eric Campbell. He’s just teased the dowager with his ice cream spoon on her bare back, and been gently scolded, but it’s all in good fun.

Then Charlie has an ice cream accident, depositing the whole of his dessert down the front of his trousers. This is traumatic enough to provoke a sympathy-seeking glance at his chums in the audience ~

The ice cream globule completes a shiversome odyssey down the baggy pants leg, and is chuted out by trouser cuff over the edge of the balcony — SPLAT!

The poor lady gets the dairy bombshell down her dress, and Eric gets the blame. “You’ve gone too far this time, Campbell!” His shamed squirming is very funny, and he’s a much more deserving victim than the lady. She’s just collateral damage. His attempts to help out, rolling up a sleeve to retrieve the offending item like some dapper veterinary surgeon, get him deeper into social disgrace.

Very funny reaction when she sits down. You can tell exactly where the melting ice cream has gotten to, just from her acting.

And this is the same woman Eric kicked earlier, doubling his disgrace.

But who is it? The IMDb has May White, the big lady from A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, in this, but she’s not. But the IMDb is fatally confused about White, misattributing one of her roles in A NIGHT IN THE SHOW. I *think* this is Marta Golden, playing Edna’s mother, in which case it’s quite strong mistreatment for a heroine’s mother. But Chaplin could be like that.

Edna, incidentally, has not much of a role in this one — the romance doesn’t really develop into anything we care about, maybe because Chaplin knew he was going to end it by running away.

Nicely judged aftermath to the ice cream incident. Charlie hastily leads Edna back into the ballroom, Loyal Underwood innocently wanders out onto the balcony, and Edna’s dad comes up and assaults him in vengeance for the ice cream drop. Charlie watches nervously — NOT gleefully, as he had as recently as THE RINK, when someone else gets the blame for his blunders. The character, and Chaplin’s grasp of him, keeps improving.

Frank Coleman and his prison guards turn up en masse. An absolutely brilliant chase ensues — it’s the opening pursuit restaged for a house. Suddenly all the features of the home reveal themselves as having been chase-landscape-in-waiting. The staircase allows Charlie to run up, vault off, and hide under the grand piano while his persecutors pursue thin air. The lampshade can be placed over his head as a cunning disguise (the first time this was done?). The balcony can be leapt off of, Fairbanks-fashion.

A chaste kiss on Edna’s cheek is a nod to romance. Then Eric, throwing off the shackles of civilisation amid the melee, attempts to seize Edna, so Charlie lays him out with arse-kick, lampshade over head, and a slug to the massive gut that makes the antagonist collapse like a dynamited tower block.

Charlie makes some noble and romantic declarations to Edna — think of the lines Chaplin overdubbed on THE GOLD RUSH if you like: “I am going, but when I return, I shall come back again.”

He flees, taking the lampshade with him.

But we’re not done. Coleman chases Charlie back upstairs, and the ballroom’s sliding doors are turned to Charlie’s advantage. The best architecture-as-gag yet. It builds fast and brilliantly. The doors, refusing to behave like normal doors (Charlie’s only just gotten used to hinges) are at first a menace, then a weapon. By the time our hero has used Coleman’s stolen handcuffs to trap both a revived Eric and Coleman himself, a disembodied head and a matching headless body, things have reached an intense pitch of invention, panic and hilarity. It takes less than a minute but it’s absolutely perfect.

There’s only one more gag. Edna spurns Commodore Slick, who is now unmasked as the mere Eel. No time for pathos, though. Collared by Coleman, Charlie uses the airs and graces of the class system to make his escape: formally introduced to Edna, Coleman has no choice but to take her hand, at which point our man legs it.

You could make a case that having Edna play a more active, willed role in Charlie’s escape would be much better from a character arc viewpoint. Instead, Charlie/Chaplin kind of reduces her to another prop.

The abrupt fadeout leaves us laughing, though I could probably do with a shot of Convict 23 on the open road, heading for the sunset. But there’ll be time for that later.

Unstarry Nights

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2021 by dcairns

Maurice Pialat’s VINCENT is, for some reason, the first Pialat movie I’ve gotten around to. I’ve owned the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of it, and POLICE, for ages. This should prompt me to watch more.

I mean, one could complain — the movie is long and often slow and one ends with no huge sense of understanding the main character — it’s not clear whether he’s ill or mad, his eventual suicide comes out of left field, and although he was clearly not a happy man, there’s no obvious MOTIVATION behind him suddenly shooting himself. So any desire for narrative neatness is defeated.

Pialat in interviews seems obviously complicated, a tricky customer, but he never says anything that would help guide you through his movie. He never discusses the large fictional elements he inserted into VVG’s life. Some of the movie’s deleted scenes seem like they might have helped a little, and that may be why they were deleted.

But it seems churlish to me to complain about the movie’s length (it’s not THAT long but it does SEEM quite long) when so much that’s good in it wouldn’t be there if there was a serious attempt to chip away everything that doesn’t look like a story. In the hostelry where VVG has taken a room, we see people in the back bar, and then a big hay cart comes by the window, VERY CLOSE.

(Had to photograph it off TV because I can’t frame-grab Blu-rays currently.)

“That’s amazing,” I said.

“I was about to say that,” said Fiona. But neither of us could decide exactly WHY it was amazing. The reverberant trundle and rattle of the cart in the night street is part of its gentle ominous loveliness. Certainly it relates to one of the film’s major strengths, its evocation of time and place. Without trying to transform the landscape into a Van Gogh painting, as Minnelli and Kurosawa in their own ways do, it creates an immersive beauty. Paul Verhoeven once said that when you make a period movie, you often can’t afford to pan an inch to the left or an inch to the right for fear of exposing something modern (CGI has almost removed that problem). Pialat’s filmmaking makes it feel like the painter’s world surrounds us completely, and everything we see is real.

He seems to have had a fair bit of money, but there are no Parisian street scenes, so the budget wasn’t unlimited. He’s just really good. The performances are startlingly informal, they feel present-tense but at the same time they’re never anachronistic (the prostitute singing Carmen with da-dum da-dum raunchiness). It puts you inside Van Gogh’s world but can’t or won’t put you inside his head. But it succeeds so exceptionally at the former that it still impresses no end.