Archive for Simon Louvish

The Sunday Nonsense: Chaplin Sings!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve set myself what may be an impossible task (for me). I thought, Yes, the song in MODERN TIMES deserves a post of its own. But what to say about it?

Popping out to buy some milk, ONE answer occurred to me. Chaplin got quite a few bad reviews for MT, though the public flocked to it. One accusation the critics flung at him was that he was just repeating favourite old gags from his earlier days. I think we can dismiss that as nonsense. But there ARE callbacks to Keystone, Essanay and Mutual, and this may be one of them.

Charlie, having lost his crib sheet — his cuffs, where the lyrics to his song are written — improvises a song in gibberish Esperanto, with expressive gestures that make the saucy meaning abundantly clear. It’s that old staple of Keystone, the expository mime. Remember how I hate it when Mack Swain or Mabel Normand turn to the camera and make a series of rapid gestures attempting to explain their motivation to the audience?

Chaplin is a master of breaking the fourth wall, but typically in his mature work only he is allowed to do it, and not for explicatory purposes, but merely to establish and expose his rapport with the audience.

But here — in the guise of a performance — Charlie really does tell us a story with pantomime. And it’s aimed right at us. “With Chaplin you can always sense the proscenium,” complained Richard Lester, and it’s certainly a conscious choice here. The audience is all around him but Charlie directs his performance straight at the camera, for the most part. One assumes that there are more diners behind the fourth wall, who have the best seats.

Thanks to Donald Benson for pointing out that, while Chaplin takes his tune from Je cherche après Titine, a 1917 hit by Léo Daniderff, the story he tells seems inspired by The Girl was Young and Pretty, a composition by… Charles Chaplin. His father. Lyrics.

So this is a return to his roots in more than one way, while also being a brave step forward (almost a decade after the coming of sound).

It’s also a kind of ending. The Little Fellow has given utterance. “A sacred principle is breached,” as Simon Louvish puts it. It’s going to be even harder for him to stay mute after breaking his silence. He manages one more scene in this movie, then it’s all change.

Chaplin had been considering various solutions to the problem of the Tramp’s voice. He’d thought about mumbles and monosyllables, which would work OK for Tati. But making him capable of poor speech is again a distortion of the character. He’s a somewhat inarticulate figure in THE GOLD RUSH, but mostly he seems to talk quite well. We just don’t hear it. And any form of speech would tend to anchor him to 24fps, and to reality, in a way that Chaplin had always avoided. Chaplin has one big shoe in truth, the other in fantasy, and changing the balance upsets the… balance.

Yesterday I bought a secondhand issue of Sight and Sound from 1972 and by coincidence it has my man David Robinson’s review of MODERN TIMES, then being reissued in Britain for the first time in seventeen years (!). Robinson says of the song, “we see instantly and beautifully resurrected all the vitality and absurdity of the English music hall in which Chaplin was bred, and acquired the skills of comedy.” It’s a terrific piece and I’ll return to it.

The reception of the piece is richly ironic — Charlie makes a success of his nonsense song, but just as he conquers showbiz — having failed in all normal occupations — he’s forced into exile on account of his connection to an underage girl. It’s like a jumbled autobiography and prophecy. Obviously it wouldn’t do for the eternal wanderer to find a home in the theatre, or would it? Of the previous features, only THE GOLD RUSH produces a settled ending for its hero: rendered implausibly wealthy, Charlie can carry on behaving exactly as before, because millionaires are supposed to be eccentric. To allow him a singing career would be to open up a whole new narrative thread at the ninety-minute mark, so it has to be curtailed, and so it’s back to the open road — TBC

The Circus is Leaving Town

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2022 by dcairns

So, Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS has been turned into an exciting serial, but last time I neglected to give you the cliffhanger: when Rex the high-wire guy unaccountably disappears (is there ever a reason given?), Charlie, who has been practising on a rope one foot above sawdust, is suddenly enlisted to hopefully break his neck. Hurriedly getting ready, he accidentally unleashes a platoon of capuchin monkeys belonging to Bosco the magician (no reason why either monkeys or a magician would be present in a circus, but I guess it’s possible, barely).

Not being a complete clown, except by profession, Charlie enlists a props man — the wonderful John Rand — to harness him up on a wire so he can perform feats of derring-do and derring-don’t in complete safety without the aid of a safety net. We anticipate disaster, and we are right to do so.

Rand has been one of the more delightful discoveries of my Chaplin deep dive — an incredibly effective clown, without a hugely strong individual personality but with a lot of style. He seems to specialise in frantic characters, often particularly dedicated kops in pursuit of Charlie, as in POLICE. Here, his perpetually flustered manner is usefully deployed as he’s entrusted with another man’s very life.

The monkey assault was, it seems, Charlie’s initial idea for the whole film — “I’m in a high place being attacked by monkeys or something,” Henry Bergman reports him saying. It sounds like someone reporting a dream, which seems appropriate. Of course Simon Louvish sees the sequence as a metaphor for Charlie’s divorce difficulties, which forces him to assume Bergman is lying. But one could still take a psychological approach to the scene (particularly appropriate the more like a dream the idea is — a fragmentary notion arising from the subconscious) and say it’s inspired by Chaplin’s exposed position as a celebrity who performs for a public, and is prey to attack by critics or personal enemies. It’s relevance to the divorce story becomes coincidental, or prophetic. The divorce and scandal merely fulfill the pre-existing anxiety, the nightmare comes true.

As well as John Rand, we have Josephine, Hollywood’s go-to monkey, who co-starred with Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN and Lloyd in THE KID BROTHER and even Laurel and Hardy in BABES IN TOYLAND (unrecognisably costumed as Mickey Mouse!) I’m unskilled at reading monkey markings so I don’t know which one she is, but as a skilled performer she could have been trusted with any of the more elaborate bits of business.

The different uses of Josephine by the three great silent clowns tells us a lot about them. For Lloyd, she’s originally a threat, part of the film’s array of bad guys, but with typical resourcefulness Harold turns her into a tool, a useful decoy, dressing her in his shoes to lure the villain away. Keaton focusses on her role as organ grinder’s assistant: an animal that has been trained to turn the crank on an organ may also usefully or hazardously operate a Gatlin gun in a Tong war, or a movie camera. Though Keaton’s universe is the most whimsically hostile, generally, it’s Chaplin who uses Josephine and her simian friends or relatives as an attack force. David Robinson continually describes the monkeys as awful or vicious, but I see them as awful only in effect. They’re not savagely attacking Charlie, they’re just, you know, monkeying around. Even the one biting his nose seems interested only in messing with him. The monkeys will, potentially, kill him, but it doesn’t seem to me that they WANT to. In fact, the comic irony of the scene is that small, basically harmless creatures become a menace to life and limb(s). It’s the same gag as the wee dog barking at Charlie in the lion cage.

The unusual situation allows Charlie to get a fresh laugh out of the tiredest old joke, the banana peel. It becomes a bigger hazard, and an unlikelier one (though the association with monkeys is strong and logical) and the anticipation caused by its being in his path is even stronger because his path is so damned narrow. Totally unnecessary to add any new wrinkles — just have him slip on it. Also, Charlie’s trousers falling down, an old gag that’s suddenly funny and terrifying, and also adds to the sense of public exposure and humiliation underlying all this.

Chaplin COULD have emphasised the association with his own life and career by having the audience laughing at his peril, assuming it to be part of his act, but instead they react in terror. This augments the tension — those cutaways of horrified faces are really powerful — but it seems less pertinent to the film’s plot and themes. Oh well, he made a sensible choice, one can’t deny it works.

Excellent use of the pole, too.

Oh, along with the nose-biting there’s another oral intrustion, the monkey sticking its tail in Charlie’s mouth. Maybe the detail that convulsed Fiona the most. I’ve written about Charlie’s oral fixation in terms of the choking gag, and related it to a childhood trauma in the best dollar book Freud tradition — Charlie choking on a coin he attempted to swallow as part of a magic act — money, performance, choking — three big themes. The number of times in his films Charlie ingests metal is astonishing. And of course food and its absence are absolutely defining concepts for Chaplin. And we could also note that sexually Charlie was extremely oral (I just typed oran by mistake, a Freudian ape-slip) — the salacious aspects of the divorce involved his enthusiasm for receiving fellatio. Let’s agree that sometimes a monkey tail is just a monkey tail. Ptui.

Incidental research: since this sequence converted Fiona from a non-fan to a full-on supporter, I decided to try it on my parents, who both declared that they didn’t like his stuff (and probably had to suffer through a fair bit when I was growing up) and they’re not silent film enthusiasts. My Mum was particularly strong in her statement that she didn’t like him. My Dad does have a fondness for both Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon. Anyway, they both laughed hysterically. But didn’t act like I’d changed their minds. Which must prove something: some distinction between laughing at and appreciating.

Miraculously surviving his aerial ordeal, Charlie interrupts the ringmaster beating Merna, delivering not only a kick up the arse to the villain, but a sock in the eye. This gets him fired, and he’s discovered by Merna camped outside the grounds the following night. I’ve seen a beautiful illustration of this by production designer Charles D. Hall. It’s a rare exterior set, because Chaplin clearly wanted to see the moon in the sky.

Incidentally, Hall also illustrated the monkey rampage, indicating it was indeed part of the original plan for the film (this was concept art, not set designs) rather than a direct artistic response to the divorce scandal. Charlie now behaves like he did in THE TRAMP, making way for the better man. By getting Rex married to Merna he assumes the role, in modern parlance, of cuck — but here the role is portrayed as noble and selfless, as indeed it is in the circumstances. The ringmaster can no longer push Merna around as she has a protector with rights, a respected star of the show.

(Ringmasters are usually baddies — they’re bosses, of course, making them natural Chaplin enemies, and they seem to have twirly moustaches as part of the job description. Al Ernest Garcia even does a “Curses!” gesture, a little midriff-level air-punch.)

This stuff is played skillfully played: Charlie maintains the guise of being happy for his friends, no horse in this race, until the circus leaves town and he doesn’t join it.

This is one of his great endings — it hadn’t occurred to me before but the sort of crop circle he’s left in is only an abstract suggestion of the patch of pale grass that’s left when a tent is removed. This is more like someone has scuffed up the dirt in a ring. A big top crop circle. (UFOs and circuses are much alike — they visit and depart, people go in and see inexplicable things and lose track of time.)

Chaplin uses a surprising number of shots, for him. The extreme wide is tragedy, as Welles observed. Then a medium of the pensive ex-clown. His eyes meet ours, a return to the camera intimacy that defined early Charlie, but with the intent melancholy rather than humorous.

Closeup of the tattered star on the ground, also. What’s significantly absent is the standard Chaplin head-to-toe framing. Even when he gets up and leave, we’re much wider than that.

Incidentally, I’d like a restoration of the film’s original cut — this star is supposed to be the film’s opening image, but Chaplin altered that when he added the damn song at the start. Opening on the star and then leaving it in the dust at the end would be so neat. And makes the film more explicitly a film about stardom, something which at this time in his life Chaplin was apparently wishing he could leave behind. But he still had quite a few years left to go…

Charlie walks off, back-kicking the crumpled star, and forcing himself into a jaunty walk. Off to the city lights…

The Sunday Intertitle: Four-Legged Fiends

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 20, 2022 by dcairns

Let’s try to finish THE CIRCUS. This coming week is what they call Flexible Learning Week at Edinburgh University, meaning I have no teaching. They used to call it a non-teaching week, which sounded really bad. “Oh yes, the swimming pool is open. You can go there. But it’s a non-swimming week.” Flexible Learning implies the students will still be acquiring knowledge, just without the aid of teaching. And in truth, quite a bit of learning is done that way, independently, if the student is any good.

A new status quo at the circus: Charlie is to be employed as a property man (a job he filled before, at Keyston) but his really duties are clowning. He just doesn’t know it. Trying to interpret this as a metaphor for Chaplin’s talent just isn’t going to get you anywhere, as Walter Kerr admitted, but you can take it to mean that Charlie is only funny when he’s in a somewhat real situation. I once chatted with a radio producer who was a former circus clown, and he said that he would argue with the other clowns that just running into the ring and throwing buckets of feathers at one another wasn’t any good unless it was part of a SITUATION. He was right! That was my purpose in making my own clown film: I felt the abstract nature of clowning — funny-costumed men doing strange things for no reason — would only be amusing if it were a compulsion, and then you put them in situations where they had to try to behave normally.

The ringmaster seems to be taking a big chance that Charlie will always find himself in an amusing situation when tasked with a serious job, but we’ve been following the guy for fourteen years now and we know that’s basically true. For his next trick, he’s tasked with assisting Professor Bosco, the magician (George Davis, Dutch-born background comic, a baddy in SHERLOCK JR).

All the best bits in THE CIRCUS in involve children or animals, as if you disprove a showbiz dictum. No sooner has he got Bosco’s desk into the ring than Charlie accidentally triggers… everything. Prolonged business with him trying to control the doves, rabbits, geese, balloons and piglets endlessly spewed from Bosco’s trick top hats. The act wouldn’t work well in a circus anyway, since a desk set up required the magician to face in one direction, and the circus works in the round, and are magicians usually featured in circuses anyway? Doesn’t matter. They are of the same approximate branch of showbiz.

The only downside of this plot idea is that having an audience laughing at Charlie is contrary to the usual rules of the Chaplin universe, and arguably makes things slightly less funny. Usually, only THIS audience, US, can see that Charlie is funny. We feel superior to everyone else in the films apart from him, and though we admire him we feel a little bit superior even to him because we know he’s funny when he often doesn’t. Only the leading lady is sometimes amused by him, which is her privilege.

Now the credits sequence crashes into the main body of the film, as the shots Chaplin stole and duplicated to accompany his introductory song get repeated, in their original context: Merna Kennedy on the flying trapeze. With the added business of Charlie throwing her food when the wicked ringmaster’s not looking.

Chaplin uses this routine to get an actual custard cream pie in the face gag in, which is another feature of this film: using the tired old slapstick elements, up to and including the banana peel, but in fresh and surprising ways. If I may presume a creative connection with the Great Clown, maybe we were both asking, What would make this dull stuff funny again?

Charlie is entrusted with odd jobs even when he’s not being held up to the delight of the crowd: cleaning a fish tank — he diligently wipes each fish — a real prop man has apparently divided the tank into two compartments, one with live fish swimming about in front, one in the back with dead fish for Charlie to grab and wipe; and blowing a pill down a sick horse’s neck, a job I could have told them would go wrong. Especially given Chaplin’s long tradition of gags about choking, which I trace back to a childhood trauma here.

Go wrong it does, and it leads somehow to Charlie running into a lion’s cage, which has carelessly been left unlocked, and then getting himself locked in.

As I say, the best bits involve animals. Here, the real comedy doesn’t come from the lion (“the bridge is just suspense!” as Keaton argued on THE RAILRODDER) but from the small yapping dog that happens along at the worst possible time. I’m going to jump ahead to the bit with the monkeys now, because Simon Louvish is very good on that in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey.

Chaplin apparently told actor/gagman/restauranteur Henry Bergman that he had this idea about being attacked by monkeys while in a high place, and Bergman suggested that a circus might be a logical location/situation. Louvish takes leave to doubt this, speculating that the scene is too perfect a metaphor for Charlie’s plight, mid-way through the film’s troubled shoot, to be anything other than a creative response to the predicament of being in the public eye (up a tightrope in front of a circus audience, or the biggest movie star in the world) and assailed by lesser beings (monkeys, an estranged wife and her divorce lawyers and the press). It definitely works as a reading, and I’m ashamed it never occurred to me. I was too busy admiring the conception and execution.

Well, the dog and lion bit works in a similar way. What makes it hilarious to me is the irony of a man threatened by a slumbering lion, but the thing that’s going to get him killed is a wee dug, which doesn’t even mean him harm but has just decided to bark at him for reasons of its own. “You shouldn’t be in there, are you mad?” it might very well be saying, in its own canine idiom.

Very rapidly the sequence passes through plot (a) developments — the bar falling down and locking Charlie in, Charlie nearly dropping a noisy trough to awaken the slumbering jungle monarch, the dog, and Merna showing up — hope! — and promptly fainting — hope dashed! and (b) Charlie’s quicksilver emotions, fingers in ears (if I can’t hear the dog, it isn’t making a noise), trying to calm the dog, pleading with the dog, taking a firm line with the dog, praying to the almighty. It’s like the five stages of grief, minus acceptance. And another bit of cleverness, Charlie splashing water from the trough/tray he nearly dropped, to try to awaken Merna. He is indeed a Props Man.

The main lion here was exactly as peaceful as it appears, though I note that Charlie covers the scene with himself and the beast in separate shots as much as he’s able. He’s still in there are fair bit. And the next-door wildcat, the one he encounters when trying to escape through the partition, was every bit as savage as it appears. Now, we know from the deleted scene that Rollie Totheroh was pretty good at splitscreen effects when required, so Chaplin could presumably have faked all his more dangerous interactions here, but it looks like he decided to risk it. I see none of the exposure fluctuations that make the twins scene look ever-so-slightly fake, and the lions’ and Charlie’s responses seem too perfectly synchronised to be anything but dangerous reality.

Merna eventually recovers, Charlie feigns bravado, but a snarl from the lion sends him up a flagpole, which introduces the idea of him trying to impress Merna with aerial feats…

But did the sick horse ever get his medicine?