Archive for Richard Schickel

Book Fair

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2022 by dcairns

Some of these were too good to pass up, some were too cheap to pass up. There are some hints here as to a forthcoming project, but YOU’LL NEVER GUESS.

Probably some good page seventeens in here too.

The Sunday Intertitle: Will the real Charlie Chaplin…?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2022 by dcairns

Not taken with Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America by Richard Carr. Maybe the word “political” somehow makes it seem like it’s trying too hard. I picked up a copy from the library and looked up THE CIRCUS. “To modern tastes, it remains Chaplin’s most amusing film, however — the comedy that truly stands up to a twenty-first century-audience in both its inventiveness and execution.” Which tells me that Carr doesn’t much like Chaplin as a comedian or filmmaker and hasn’t bothered to watch the films with an audience, because if he had he’d see and hear them “standing up” rather admirably. It could just be he’s writing sloppily and doesn’t mean to imply that the other films don’t work anymore — certainly the word “remains” is a weak choice where I think the word “is” would better represent his intended meaning.

Not finding anything useful to my little pieces on THE CIRCUS (which is excellent, and maybe has Chaplin’s funniest scene, but isn’t his best or best-made feature in my view, not that that matters), I moved on to CITY LIGHTS, which has more “politics” maybe since it deals with the struggle to survive in the capitalist west, among other things.

Carr’s description of the film and its making are very decent summaries, though “it took time” is a rather unimpressive summary of the months of camera-writer’s-block that afflicted Chaplin when he tried to set up Virginia Cherrill’s mistaken belief in Charlie’s wealth. Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin series does a magnificent job of this, but even if you couldn’t spare the time they lavish on the question, just saying that it took over a year to solve the problem would be more impressive.

“Whatever the politics, the film remains a classic from beginning to end.” There you go with “remains” again, though it’s slightly better here. Still, Carr’s book assembles maybe the most detailed record of Chaplin’s political thoughts and contacts, including his meetings with persons as diverse as Churchill and Gandhi, John Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw. The problem is that I don’t think Chaplin’s politics are even the tenth most interesting thing about him.

Peter Ayckroyd’s straight biography Charlie Chaplin is actually quite fine, I think. Though we didn’t necessarily need another Chaplin bio after Robinson, Louvish, Baxter, and of course Chaplin himself. It’s still pretty enjoyable — Ayckroyd really knows his London, and the areas where he’s not so obviously an expert, the film history and the film analysis and appreciation, he actually does very well with. He seems to genuinely admire the films, in a way Carr can’t manage to suggest. “The details of their opening scene together, when Charlie purchases a flower before realising she is blind, too two years and 342 takes to assemble.” There you go, that wasn’t hard. Ayckroyd nails it, except for the inaccurate use of “opening” — it’s their first scene together, but it doesn’t open the film or anything else. I may not be a great critic but I’m a great pedant.

Also: “City Lights remained Chaplin’s own favourite among his films.” Bravo! A correct use of the r word.

Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s new film THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN is a pretty terrific documentary. It had big boots to fill. It is inferior to Kevin Brownlow’s documentaries with and without David Gill — Hollywood, Unseen Chaplin and The Tramp and the Dictator — because it doesn’t let the viewer see enough of Chaplin’s comedy to judge his genius. LET CHAPLIN HELP YOU! But, apart from some ill-judged reconstructions and some slightly doubtful chronology — saying Chaplin scored his films when describing his accomplishments in the twenties is an inaccuracy — it’s really very good indeed. Beautifully cut by Julian Quantrill, using a plethora of source materials in very creative ways. Beautifully narrated by Pearl Mackie. Beautifully scored by Robert Honstein.

It goes out of its way to be fair to Lita Grey, and it’s time someone did, though it may be going too far in the other direction. But she had a story and it’s worth at the very least asking, What if it’s true? If it’s true, Chaplin could be a sonnovabitch, and there’s no shortage of material to support that claim.

I was grateful to see some footage of Chaplin impersonator Charles Aplin for the first time (that I know of). And amused to learn Aplin’s defence when Chaplin sued him: “I’m not impersonating Chaplin, I’m impersonating (Chaplin impersonator) Bill Ritchie.” Unbelievable. I think if he’d claimed Billy West he might have come closer to convincing someone — West at least was a close facsimile of Chaplin. If you’re impersonating Ritchie, why do you look so much more like Chaplin than he does, and why did you tale the name Aplin? An interesting case — maybe the first time an actor sued to protect his rights, not to a film or story, but to a visual characterisation. Though Ford Sterling could presumably have sued Chaplin over MAKING A LIVING, in which the frock-coated interloper has clearly been tasked with playing a Sterling substitute.

And I suppose Kevin Brownlow could sue over being played by a lookalike in THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN, except I’m sure he wouldn’t, he’s such a nice man and obviously they would have asked him.

When running through the previous Chaplin docs, I should mention the Biography Channel one which is better than the Richard Schickel one, which is also good. I have the Biography Channel one on VHS somewhere but don’t recall who made it. Kenneth Branagh narrated it, a service he also provides for Brownlow, but it didn’t have Brownlow’s name on it and it doesn’t appear on the Branagh IMDb page. A small mystery. (It’s not the one on YouTube, presented by Peter Graves of all people.)

Red Star Blues

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2022 by dcairns

The central imposture in THE CIRCUS — where the ringmaster makes Charlie the star of the show, but lets him believe he’s a lowly props man (and pays him accordingly) is like an inverted version of RED STAR, a project developed by Richard Lester to star Robin Williams.

In Charles Wood’s unfilled screenplay, based on a short story from the collection Red Monarch by Yuri Krotkov, Williams was to have played a bum actor in the Soviet Union with an accidental resemblance to Josef Stalin (it would have been brilliant casting, Williams had a vaguely Stalinesque bone structure). The regime is in need of a lookalike for certain less important public occasions, and so he gets recruited. But he sucks at the job, because he’s treated like a failed actor, so they realise they have to allow him a bit of prestige so he can get into character. They give him his own limo — well, he has to share it with a performing bear… The film was to have been almost a silent comedy. Lester told me that one gag would be when the actor tries to escape (perhaps having realised he’s a target for assassination?) but the boat he launches has been built as a movie set, and it only exists down one side…

In THE CIRCUS, Charlie is only funny when he doesn’t know it, when he’s not performing but being. As it happens, the very next plot development, midway through the picture, is that Merna Kennedy as the girl tells him what’s going on. There follows a fee negotiation scene that feels vaguely authentic — Chaplin was a hard bargained and knew what he was worth. But the scene is tricked out with a pratfall and some incompetent arithmetic so that Charlie’s snootiness is undercut.

Part of the bargain is that the girl’s father has to be nice to her, so Charlie isn’t being purely selfish. But he’s back to treating people as objects, lighting a match on the chief property man’s bum. A minute later, in an excess of glee, he will kick Henry Bergman in the chest. It’s uncomfortably like his bullying behaviour way back in THE PROPERTY MAN.

An intertitle notes that Merna’s character name is Merna. And finally Rex, King of the Air, is introduced. The tightrope-walker, played by Harry Crocker, immediately becomes romantic rival, and we’re back to a scenario first tried out in THE TRAMP: Charlie meekly making way for the more suitable love interest. But here he does try to put up a struggle, launching his own high-wire career to compete with Sexy Rexy.

Charlie keeps his money in his sock — so he’ll always know which bills are his (acknowledgement: Talking Heads). Ralph Fiennes in SPIDER is a sock man, too, but he keeps his sock in his pocket, which seems rather redundant.

Charlie listening in on Merna’s conversations with the fortune teller — a sympathetic Roma character to make up for the nasty gang in THE VAGABOND — reminds me of EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, in which Woody Allen has creepy access to Julia Roberts’ shrink sessions. Here, Charlie’s hopes are raised and almost immediately dashed, leading to a great tragic medium shot reaction, and then a scene where he has to go on and perform, broken-hearted, which again seems like it might be inspired by Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED.

The scene with the splitscreen identical twin boxers may have been deleted, but Rollie Totheroh gets a chance to show off his special effects when Charlie imagines beating up his romantic rival: he astrally projects, leaving his body in a double exposure shot and administering a brutal drubbing to his rival — in fantasy, of course. Whether this was inspired by Buster Keaton’s out-of-body-experience in SHERLOCK JR (1924) or by some more recent movie OOBE, I don’t know. It does satisfactorily deal with THE TRAMP’s weird character inconsistency, where Charlie goes from the violent bully Essanay audiences knew and loved, to a mild-mannered simp, with next to no transition.

Bravura acting sequence where Merna and Charlie watch Rex on the wire, she rapturous, he sneering at the bravado and applauding the mistakes, then getting caught up in it so that his mirror neurons fire up, making his body twist and squirm in mimicry of Rex’s performance. Surprising moment when Rex tears his tuxedo off to reveal acrobat kit underneath. “And all my clothes fall off!” Merna does not respond erotically, but with increased anxiety for his wellbeing. Possibly his mental wellbeing.

Charlie’s jealousy of Rex will lead to the big monkey climax, the scene which singlehandedly converted Fiona from Chaplin scepticism…

Meanwhile, Charlie sneezes into Merna’s face-powder, another Woody Allen gag although he did it with cocaine in ANNIE HALL. Editor Ralph Rosenbaum recalled inserting more and more footage to let the audience recover from their laughter before the next scene started. In the end he added thirty seconds of, essentially, dead air, nothing, just the actors sitting around waiting for “cut” to be spoken. It seemed like an eternity to him, but with an audience it was essential. I haven’t watched that film in decades so I don’t recall how it plays without a cinema-full of laughs…

All this sequence is basically set-up — we see how Rex’s act is supposed to work, so we can enjoy how Charlie’s version will go wrong. In fact, it isn’t essential — the monkey scene works brilliantly as an extract in Schickel’s Chaplin documentary, without even an explanation of how the monkeys come to be there. Some things are just funny.