Archive for Syd Chaplin


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2022 by dcairns

Title above is a headline that appears towards the end of THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK, which I always found obscurely hilarious. I presume Mussolini must have been awkwardly translated from time to time in the early forties, often enough for the gag to be comprehensible, but it’s still funny even if not comprehended.

Salute envy — Napaloni’s salute is bigger than Heinkel’s. And the massive clock — not easy to devise a monument more outlandish than any real dictators have built to themselves, but Chaplin manages it — is two minutes slow.

This brief section of the film is full of visual effects — the kind of thing which, CC complained, took a long time to prepare and necessitated the precise planning of the script.

As the dictators drive off, poor Mrs Napaloni gets separated from her husband and mixed in with the crowd.

Planning scene: Garbitsch outlines how Napaloni can be made to feel inferior, by psychology. This kind of set-up is new to Chaplin, and it’s made possible by dialogue. One could, I guess, find ways to do it in a silent, but it would be even more laborious. The idea is to set out clearly what the intention is, so we can enjoy everything going wrong. A boring scene in itself, but one that builds anticipation and gets paid off in laughs.

I once had a brief conference with the acting head of my institution, Edinburgh College of Art, in his office. I was a mere student. He had an incredibly low chair for me to sit in, my arse practically scraping the floor, while he sat erect behind his desk. I remember feeling not so much intimidated as contemptuous.

I’ve forgotten who was it who told the story about Harry Cohn’s office being modeled on Mussolini’s. And Cohn described how Mussolini, after dismissing him, had the door open on cue, with an electric button on his desk. “That son-of-a-bitch!” Then Cohn dismissed his interviewee, and as he reached the door, it automatically clicked open.

So, things go wrong — Napaloni comes in via the wrong door, surprising Heinkel with a back-slap that knocks him from his chair, banging his chin on the desktop. Napaloni, of course, is oblivious or indifferent to this mishap.

A reprise of the very good salute/handshake gag from the station, the two men’s hands shooting up then out, always missing one another.

Jack Oakie’s Chico Marx imitation even goes so far as to borrow his unique truncation of words: “Ah, my brother dictate!”

The low chair works momentarily — Benzino is discomfited. He simply cannot perform from such a low position. Has trouble even crossing his legs. Chaplin tracks in to savour the triumph.

Sitting on the desk, he reverses the situation, and on “They like to see new faces, he not only does the weird Mussolini lower lip thing, emulated by Trump, he turns right to the camera, as Chaplin had advised Oakie to do if he wanted to upstage the maestro.

The barbershop gag is good, but curiously mistimed — it starts fading out too soon for my taste, “stepping on the gag” to use Jerry Lewis’s phrase. I think the situation is good enough that they could have extended the action of the two idiots cranking themselves ever higher. Curious also that nothing is made of the connection to Chaplin’s other character, a barber. But I don’t know what he could have made of it.

Review of the army: Napaloni eating nuts from a paper bag (DUCK SOUP?), discarding the shells with blithe malice all over his pall “Hinky.” This scene works by not showing any of the tanks or aircraft under review, just the reactions and a few sound effects. Chaplin is really embracing sound cinema. In fact, its use of the unseen approaches the medium of radio. It’s not, admittedly, as great as his silent sequences — the best bits of this film are more visual. But it’s funny and odd.

Ballroom — as seen in Syd’s colour home movies. All the women are blonde. Another planning session with Garbitsch. The Chaplinverse’s version of the Anschluss is prepared, and it involves Henikel going duck hunting — the set-up for the film’s final comedy of errors.

Brief comic dance with Madam Napaloni. We see more of this in Syd’s home movies, and I wish we had more of it here — it plays better in longshot, even in Syd’s makeshift compositions. “Can you see my feet?” was Chaplin’s most common question to his cameramen, and here we don’t. It’s a loss.

Next up — Napaloni’s last stand! (It was over too soon.)

The Fatal Pudding

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve written before about this recurring thing in Chaplin — metal in the mouth, choking.

As a tiny child, Chaplin tried to imitate a trick big brother Syd showed him, apparently swallowing a coin, but little Charlie took the trick literally, popped a penny in his gob and almost choked to death, saved only by mother Hannah’s timely application of the East End Heimlich, which involves lifting the sufferer by the ankles and pounding his back, newborn-style. We can assume the experience formed what the Scientologists call an engram, a compressed diamond of experience, in which the concepts of metal taste, choking, and performance became fused and permanently associated at a subconscious level.

See here for the breakdown. This motif turns up A LOT.

This is the most literal rendition of the idea. A one-scene subplot that goes nowhere — Schultz, hiding in the ghetto, an inverted Anne Frank, persuades his hosts to take part in a gunpowder plot, blowing up Heinkel’s palace. The lucky suicide bomber will be selected by the distribution of puddings, in one of which a coin is to be concealed. Hannah (Paulette Goddard, here named after Ma Chaplin), sabotage’s the plan by hiding a coin in every pudding.

The bomb plot may well derive from Guy Fawkes, and the coin-in-pudding theme is another bit of British culture (I think – does anyone else do this?). The Great British Christmas pudding traditionally conceals a penny — one lucky diner wins the jackpot and possibly a broken tooth. Chaplin always hated Christmas because it reminded him of the workhouse — another engram.

The dinner scene begins mid-track-and-pan, the camera sweeping across the table. When Schultz is revealed, standing at one end, something disc-shaped is swaying behind him — evidently a dinner gong has just been struck, but Chaplin has decided to cut this, rendering the scene’s start a little ragged.

The sequence is scored like a dance. Three of the Jewish barber’s co-conspirators find coins and transfer them to their neighbour’s pudding. The barber ends up with all of them, and his method of subterfuge is to swallow them down with a swig of water. Then the honourable Mr. Jaeckel declares that HE has the coin, and the barber’s all come back on him, hiccuping out of his mouth and chinking onto his plate.

Chaplin simplifies his set-up by arraying all the plotters along one side of the table, like The Last Supper. The camera plays a more significant role than in most of Chaplin’s comedy scenes — panning from one coin-shifter to another, pushing in from three-shot to one-shot, panning off the serious Mr. Jaeckel’s serious announcement to the barber’s comic digestive interruption.

Since Chaplin seems to take Hannah’s part, opposing direct action of this kind, this scene allows Schultz to be even more of an ass than usual. He tells his reluctant terrorist cell that the pudding idea derives from an ancient Aryan custom. He starts to say “Hail Hynkel!” then breaks off with a bathetic “Oh, what am I saying?” He gets very stuff when meek Mr. Agar questions why he isn’t going on the mission himself. (“If it’s a question of my honour, this is most embarrassing…”)

Chaplin liked Reginald Gardner, who plays Schultz and perfectly nails his combination of genuine nobility and stuffed-shirt nationalist psychopathy. He didn’t, apparently, care for Henry Daniell. A shame. HD, being classically trained, slightly awed Chaplin, who didn’t feel comfortable giving him notes. If Garbitsch was meant to be funnier, I think it’s fine that he didn’t turn out that way — he ends up embodying the evil of Nazism, which Heinkel can’t quite do because he has to personify the absurdity and insanity of it. It’s OK to hate Garbitsch — you can’t precisely hate Heinkel because you have to be able to laugh at him. And recognize that he’s crazy in a way that Garbitsch isn’t. Not that you LIKE him — but you welcome his appearances.

Pay-off, topping the topper — once the assassination is called off, the frugal barber carefully pockets all his regurgitated coins. A pocketful of sticky pennies.

Most amusing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2022 by dcairns


With carefully dreadful dramatic efficiency, the Jewish barber’s date with Hannah (Paulette Goddard) coincides with the state’s decision to start persecuting the Jews again. The same terrible story logic prevails in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF where a pogrom interrupts one of the daughters’ weddings. Efficient storytelling can seem rather crass in the face of real world horrors.

And everyone was having such a nice time. “That Hynkel isn’t such a bad fellow after all,” observes Hannah, before things kick off. “Most amusing,” agrees the barber, who at this stage in the narrative is not a deep political thinker, but is it seems a student of comedy.

The ghetto’s Hynkel button salesman is doing a roaring trade. Charlie orders two with a finger gesture known in the UK as a rude sign akin to “flipping the bird,” and reversed by Churchill a little later as the V for Victory sign.

When Hynkel starts broadcasting his antisemitic Tomainian bile through the loudspeakers, we dissolve to a big closeup with vaguely radiographic shadows behind him. This noir treatment isn’t pursued much elsewhere, as Hynkel has to appear at least as absurd as he is threatening, but when his words directly threaten the other Chaplin character, he has to be taken seriously. Such is the movie’s balancing act.

The barber returns the two buttons.

The button salesman is uncredited and though there are several ambiguous IMDb credits like “Ghetto man”, it’s not clear who he is. He looks a bit like Chaplin’s brother Syd, though, who was around shooting colour home movies of the set. Anyone else think it could be him?

Hynkel’s hate speech clears the ghetto like those bits in westerns when a duel is imminent. As Charlie and Paulette run for cover, the speech accelerates along with them, a witty and inventive touch that shows how deft Chaplin could be with sound. We can be glad he spent his whole youth in silent cinema, but if talkies had hit sooner I reckon he’d have given us even more audiovisual slapstick like this.

When the barber drops his derby, he goes back for it in the best Indiana Jones manner, and it becomes a kind of terrifying schoolyard game — as Hynkel’s rant drops in volume, Charlie is tempted to tiptoe towards the fallen hat, but then Hynkel suddenly shrieks louder and he scuttles to perceived safety.

A nice bit of “He’s behind me, isn’t he?” and a neat stormtrooper dodge, and then we dissolve into an even more alarming ECU of the dictator. There can’t be many ECUs in Chaplin’s oeuvre — I’m tempted to suggest this is the first. Correct me if you have another candidate.

It feels very much like a Karl Struss shot, rather than a Rollie Totheroh shot.

I just acquired Chaplin’s book My Life in Pictures, which is really good. It has this impressive still of Hynkel. It’s striking how seldom he appears like this in the movie, a scary, demonic maniac. He’s always somewhat alarming, of course, but Chaplin wants to give him the reductio ad absurdum treatment. Emphasizing his menace would probably have just flattered the Nazis. (We don’t know what Hitler thought of the film, though we’re told he ran it twice. He must have found it at least interesting, but he couldn’t have felt flattered by it.)

The arrival of more stormtroopers singing their moronic song — perhaps not fully understanding the Nazi threat, Chaplin stated that his main motivation in making the film was to mock the absurd racial claims of superiority — this arrival provokes Chaplin into some dramatic crane movement, hoisting the camera up as the protags retreat into their courtyard, then swooping down on Hannah as she dissolves into hysterics. Supposedly Chaplin had never seen a camera crane before 1939 and thought it was a new invention, but we do see some high angle movement in MODERN TIMES which must have been achieved with a crane. (It’s possible I’m misremembering a MT anecdote as a TGD one.)

As Mr. Jaeckel takes charge, the microphone boom sweeps through shot, apparently escaping everyone’s notice. The day is saved by Commander Schultz’s orders that the residents of this building shouldn’t be molested. I have fun at Schultz’s expense but we can be grateful for his intervention.

Seeing off the last of the stormtroopers, Chaplin executes a perfect Del Boy lean-and-fall gag.

As the barbershop is torched, our protags retreat to the rooftop, watching the miniature inferno via the miracle of rear projection. The illusion is pretty convincing in the daylight scene, less so at night, though adding some fire sound effects might have helped.

The two brief rooftop scenes are divided by a shot of Hynkel at the piano, clearly meant to echo Nero.

Mr Jaeckel, the film’s humanist info-dump, arrives to announce that Schultz is hiding out in the cellar, a fugitive from Hynkel: he’s gone from being the Schindler type good Tomainian to some topsy-turvy Anne Frank. Before either of those people had been heard of.