Archive for Steve Murphy

The Sunday Intertitle: The King Gets Off

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2022 by dcairns

Intertitle from THE SACRIFICE, a stupid home movie made by Lord Mountbatten at the time of THE CIRCUS’ shooting, and starring Chaplin as a South Sea tribal monarch. Badly shot, titled, acted, preserved and transferred, it makes me resent every second Chaplin wasted hobnobbing with the upper class. But hey, it gives us a title! The first useful thing it’s achieved in almost a hundred years of existence.

“Sheer perseverance to the point of madness” was how Chaplin described his approach to getting ideas. The phrase could also apply to the shooting of THE CIRCUS — the film was completed despite a storm destroying the big top (a “blow-down” in carny-speak), lab problems which rendered several weeks’ worth of rushes unusable, a horrific divorce that halted filming for eight months (the show was “sloughed,” in carny terms), a fire which swept the Chaplin studio, destroying sets and equipment, and the theft of the entire circus train on location by a gang of playful students who were narrowly prevented from torching the lot for kicks. Several difficulties that the carnies don’t even have terms for.

With all that stress, little wonder that Chaplin omitted the film (and the marriage) from his autobiography.

By the time THE CIRCUS was released, there must have been doubts as to whether the public would even accept Chaplin again, so scandalous was his divorce. Among the lurid details exposed was Chaplin’s fondness for oral sex, then illegal in California (I believe it’s compulsory now). The sex secrets seem pretty innocent now, though Chaplin’s lust for teenage girls less so. He paid a penalty for that this time. One possible consequence is that the romances in Chaplin’s next few films become EXTREMELY chaste. Already, in THE GOLD RUSH, Georgia Hale is an impossible aspiration for Charlie, but she IS a sex worker, and he DOES keep her picture under his pillow. Future leading ladies are virginal, and so, it seems, is Charlie.

The film begins with a song Chaplin recorded himself when he scored the movie in 1970 — he seems to have rearranged the opening to introduce his co-star Merna Kennedy along with the song “Swing, Little Girl.” He makes sure to give himself a credit for this, whereas Josephine the monkey isn’t credited for her contribution, and Henry Bergman’s training Chaplin on the tightrope goes unmentioned. (As David Robinson points out, the hard-to-picture circumstances in which the portly HB acquired this knowledge are unrecorded by showbiz history, and this must be deeply regretted.)

The fun of the big top segues rapidly into dark melodrama as Kennedy’s ringmaster father looms over her with his whip. The score continues to play festive circus music, but more dimly, so this is score-as-source, a useful dramatic counterpoint to the cruel scene.

He’s even mean to the clowns: “And you’re supposed to be funny!” he snarls. So, two story problems are set up in under three minutes: Merna has a rotten father, and clowns aren’t funny.

At last — three minutes is plenty of time to spend waiting for Charlie — our star is introduced, “Around the Side Shows, hungry and broke.” Chaplin always, or nearly always, does something fun with his entrance, capitalising on the most famous silhouette in the business. Here he enters from the back, in longshot, as part of a crowd, from whom he instantly pops out via movement and costume.

This begins a complicated pickpocket routine which seems to find an echo a decade later in LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS. The broken-nosed thief (Steve Murphy, who also played louts for Keaton in SHERLOCK JR and Lloyd in SPEEDY), caught by his mark, plants the incriminating wallet on Charlie, and then has trouble getting it back.

But this gag sequence is interrupted by another, in which Charlie robs a tiny child of his hotdog. It’s all done with kindness. Chaplin makes googoo faces at his mark-in-arms, charming him until he’s practically shoving the revolting meat product down the tramp’s throat. This kind of bad behaviour is whimsically charming, especially when Charlie adds ketchup to the r.m.p. The kid, in fact, does seem a bit eager to cooperate, and we cut just as he seems about to hand the entire bun to his robber.

Murphy now strikes, and is caught by a kop trying to steal from Charlie the wallet he’d previously stolen from (checks IMDb) Max Tyron, a German thesp whose only other known role is in GREED. Charlie is astonished at the recovery of a wallet he didn’t know he had, and his reactions as the kop makes him check the contents are a delirious dream. He’s having a good day, really, though a strange one.

Charlie, buying more meat, is apprehended by Tyron, who recognises his wallet and watch, and flees, joining Murphy, who has slipped away from the kop and is also fleeing. A moment of astonishment and irony as they recognise their shared situation. We can also appreciate Charles Daniel Hall’s sideshow sets.

The mirror maze sequence looks forward to LADY FROM SHANGHAI and back to the day in 1917 when multiple Chaplins were hallucinated all over America, and to various events in which whole crowds dragged up in tramp attire for a lark. Chaplin’s very uniqueness seemed to inspire fantasies of multiplication.

More false Chaplin as our man impersonates a jerking automaton on the front of the sideshow, taking the opportunity to repeatedly cosh Murphy when the crook is forced into a similar imposture. The fact of Murphy being unable to retaliate without breaking character (the kop is watching) is deliciously mean. Chaplin’s old bullying instincts get plenty of expression in his later work, but he’s careful to play an underdog who has only momentarily got the upper hand, and is making the most of it. I guess already here the circus is trying to absorb Charlie, or he’s trying to get absorbed by it, and it’s not quite happening.

Fleeing the last kop, Charlie finds himself in the ring where he disrupts the clowns’ act and the magic show and convulses a moribund audience. This gets him unexpectedly hired, and we enter into the section of the film dealing with Charlie as clown. Critic Walter Kerr is really harsh on this trope, seeing it as inescapably false: Charlie can’t get laughs by deliberate capering, only by accident. To Kerr, this is denying the hard work and artistry that goes into Chaplin’s work. He has a point, but I’ll try to mount another couple of readings of what’s going on here, and maybe offer a defence.

In Chaplin’s films, the other characters don’t normally find Charlie funny. We’re in on a joke they’re not in on, and that he’s not generally in on, which gives us a slightly smug feeling of superiority and therefore a comic distance from the action.

Chaplin’s films, clearly, are happening in a comic universe, in which situations we find absurd are treated with the utmost seriousness by all concerned. No doubt this is partly because it’s hard to see the funny side when you’re in trouble (“Comedy is a man in trouble.” ~ Jerry Lewis) but in a way that’s just an excuse to stop the characters laughing and make room for the audience to do so.

Certainly things get a bit mixed up when Chaplin, a silent clown, plays a man playing a circus clown in a movie. But I think we have to forget about this being Chaplin’s analysis of his own creative process: Kerr is right, it’s not an adequate portrayal of that. But I think it’s an excellent portrayal of something else Chaplin may have felt.

In the sequences where Charlie manages to make the circus customers laugh, he’s really experiencing serious discomfort or danger. This is analogous to Chaplin the artist’s situation: he presents his (real) suffering, and we the audience laugh at it. I think Chaplin may have sensed the strangeness of the way he was recycling his experiences of poverty and also loneliness (which continued, intermittently, long after he became hugely successful) and getting big laughs with it.

We can also look at the character of the tramp as being different from Chaplin. The way one finds success as a clown need not be the way the other does it. In the comic universe of Charlie, what has to happen in order for his antics to be seen as funny, rather than irritating? (Most of the people he comes into contact with seem to find Charlie hugely annoying, which should be relatable for non-Chaplin fans, but doesn’t seem to help them any.) It seems that all he needs to do is step onto a stage or into a sawdust-strewn tent, and his floundering is seen as amusing. We may see some of this come back in LIMELIGHT, Chaplin’s other key film about performance (maybe MONSIEUR VERDOUX also counts?)

Act One of THE CIRCUS fades out with a title card and an image depicting Charlie’s new status, and his obliviousness to it. He’s asleep in a chariot, a vehicle with an air of pomp and regality to it, unaware that the world has repositioned itself under him while he slumbers…