Archive for Sydney Chaplin

The Sunday Intertitle: Behind the Seen

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2022 by dcairns

“You don’t count, I discount you. I give you the great laugh of all time, the laugh of acceptance — which melts you down.” Ray Bradbury in Kevin Brownlow’s doc The Tramp and the Dictator, attempting to summarise what Chaplin does to Hitler in THE GREAT DICTATOR, and perhaps more accurately summarising the end of his own novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. I wonder if he made the connection, and I wonder if he was in any way thinking of Chaplin, or Nazism, when he wrote the book. Dark & Cooger’s Pandemonium Carnival seems wholly a manifestation of supernatural evil, but maybe its cyclical behaviour, returning again and again to plague humanity, could be a gesture towards political madness and badness, which seems set on an eternal return of its own.

I miss Ray B.

The Brownlow documentary is excellent, of course.

When Kenneth Branagh narrates that two mysterious suitcases belonging to Sydney Chaplin were found in the Chaplin villa in Switzerland, I immediately flashed on how alarming it might be to have the job of opening them, knowing what we know about Syd’s proclivities. They might contain anything — the missing bits of the Black Dahlia, for instance. I’m barely even kidding here.

Instead, to our relief and gratification, we get Syd’s home movies, which include behind-the-scenes shots, in colour, of the shooting of THE GREAT DICTATOR. Also holiday film of topless native girls, filmed with a lascivious eye to the viewfinder. But that’s relatively innocent in comparison to Syd’s history of aggravated sexual assault (only one incident, so far as we know, but a singularly horrible one).

In the film of TGD’s ballroom scene, Syd seems to have his eye on an attractive blonde extra. I can only hope she escaped unscathed.

Interesting to see Chaplin and Grace Hayle dancing, from the wrong angle, with camera tremor, and in colour. When you see Keaton performing via a documentary camera in BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN, his stylisation becomes more apparent: he’s acting for THAT camera, not THIS one. Chaplin’s stylisation is nearly always apparent, I think. And Grace H. is always almost completely real, which is why we feel a bit sorry for her Madame Napaloni, even though we probably needn’t.

Later, when we see Billy Gilbert, NOT acting, laughing at something Chaplin has said, he seems as vaudevillian and exaggerated in life as he does when performing (above right, left of frame).

We also get to see Chaplin staging WWI in Woodland Hills, and the ghetto on the back lot, surrounded by Los Angeles with its palm trees, and everything is in too-gaudy colour, both more and less real than the scenes in the finished movie.

In this extra feature, made for the European DVD of TGD, my man Costa-Gavras goes deep on the world’s tolerant approach to Hitler as Chaplin set out to make his denunciation. Chaplin can seem naive and woolly, the self-educated man full of opinions he likes, but the fact is on Hitler he was bang on, and most of the rest of the world was horribly wrong.

He also talks about Napaloni’s arrival by rail, the scene I just discussed yesterday — he finds the clapped-together production values intriguing, and is sure Chaplin meant the cardboard production design to signify the emptiness, the deep falsity of the two dictators. And he sings the praises of Heinkel’s dance with the globe — and one might think of the Dance of the Eurocrats at the end of his most recent film, the criminally neglected ADULTS IN THE ROOM.

Oh yes, it’s Sunday, we need an intertitle. Brownlow’s documentary provides one, untranslated, as the VO notes “audiences did not respond to [Hitler] as a silent actor.” Despite the low angle framing, making the little man in short trousers look big, the vital element of the voice is missing. Hitler needed radio and talking pictures to convey his message beyond his immediate presence. They were invented at just the right time for him, and you might argue the wrong time for Chaplin.

God knows, Hitler’s actual words — “Germany’s freedom will rise again just as people and fatherland will resist, stronger than ever!” — are not particularly meaningful. They have the tone of prophecy rather than political analysis, which presumably worked in their favour, but you would need A.H.’s salesmanship to put them across.

Chaplin said Hitler was the greatest actor he’d ever seen.

More fun with Charlie and Adolf next week!

Brahms stroker

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


The big gap between posts on this subject can be attributed to that feeling you get when you’re near the end of a journey — the desire to slow down and relish it. I’m only halfway through TGD but I’m quite close to the end of the Chaplin oeuvre as a whole. It’s like when Alvin Straight stops for a beer near the end of his odyssey in THE STRAIGHT STORY. Only I didn’t get any beer.

Now read on:

Big set-piece where Charlie the barber shaves Chester Conklin, in his last co-starring appearance with his Keystone Kolleague. The action is timed, with split-second precision, to Brahms’ Hungarian Dance,

Obviously this is an amazing tour-de-force. Hard to pinpoint why it’s FUNNY — I guess because the music is an incongruous accompaniment to this mundane activity, and yet the exact timing makes it seem like it was composed to order.

I note that the national currency of Tomainia appears to be the cent.

The Criterion disc includes a comparable scene from Sydney Chaplin’s 1921 KING, QUEEN AND JOKER, which I’d like to see. The clip certainly shows that the younger Chaplin sibling was influenced by the earlier scene, but he’s able to take advantage of the close synch sound cinema affords. With the scene performed to Brahms it becomes a different animal altogether.

Syd’s grinning sadism with the hot towel is a little alarming, given what we know of his later activities.

Who’s the guy with the beard? I recognize him, I know I do, but no cast list is available.

It’s not just the idea of a choreographed shaving scene — KQ&J is about lookalikes, both played by Syd, one a king and the other a commoner. Eighteen years later, Charles has decided there’s something in the idea.

Scene in the ghetto. Exposition. Little Aggie makes her little appearance. Francesca Santoro had just appeared with Laurel & Hardy in SAPS AT SEA and would do voice work in BAMBI. A pretty remarkable career for one not yet ten years old. She’s still with us, it seems. I wonder what she can recall.

Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) falls foul of Hynkel. Guards are summoned via a microphone hidden in a fruit bowl, which feels like an early sound cinema joke a la SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. It’s notable that, even as he mouths the message of the film — “Your cause is doomed to failure because it’s built upon the stupid, ruthless persecution of innocent people,” — Schultz sounds like a stiff-necked prig and a dolt. Not until the end of the film will anybody say what Chaplin believes in a way that’s really calculated to convince.

Schultz is an amazing character because he’s the “good German” (OK, “good Tomainian”) and yet he exists to make more trouble for the Jewish barber. We don’t LIKE him.

Infuriated by Schultz’ defiance, Hynkel curses up a presumably blue streak in Tomainian, savagely peels a banana, and then discards it. “Schultz, why have you forsaken me?” is a bold line. Hynkel paraphrases the Messiah.

Then Henry Daniell leans forward in an armchair — rather startling, this — he’s been in shot all along, but completely frozen and unnoticable. I guess I have a tyrannosaur’s eye, like Ruth Shepley.

Comic difficulty with a cape: Chaplin’s enormous skill with objects — how many takes did it take for him to flounder about in the cape for just long enough and then get it stuck over his face? A thing of beauty.

The offscreen banker Epstein has refused to loan Tomainia money for its invasion of Osterlich (you remember). So the ceasefire is over: the ghetto is in peril again.

Who would have played Epstein if Chaplin had decided to show him, I wonder?


The Sunday Intertitle: Gamin(e)

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2022 by dcairns

The choppy narrative of MODERN TIMES could have worked in Chaplin’s favour when he’s incarcerated for the first time: the story can shift over to introduce our leading lady. Instead, he has himself immediately released, offscreen miracle cure effected — his white-coated shrink (Dr. Kugelschlapp, never to be seen again) whacks him heartily on the back after cautioning him to avoid excitement. Charlie walks out of what looks like a library into a dervish-like montage of Dutch tilts. Finds his way to the docks, and innocently involves himself in a labour protest attacked by police.

This is fascinating for reasons beyond Lumet’s great line — “My God, the execution!” — Chaplin avoids making his character politically aware. He’s just trying to helpfully return a red flag. But the film can be political: a peaceful protest is attacked by cops on horseback. I’m not aware of a great many other films of the thirties which show that kind of action. Even at Warners.

You can argue that Chaplin’s indirect approach — surely a lot of audiences don’t think about the underlying assumptions about cops versus workers here — perhaps robs the commentary of punch. But the fact that it’s even there is remarkable. And doubtless a black mark on Chaplin’s FBI file, though the Feds don’t seem too hot at textual analysis.

This is all just an unusually longterm set-up for a meet cute, since on that same waterfront dwells wild-eyed banana snatcher Paulette Goddard, “the gamin.” The most prominent spelling mistake in cinema.

The whole character is interesting. Edna Purviance may have occasionally played juveniles, but this is the first major Chaplin heroine I can think of explicitly typed as a kid. (Merna, in THE CIRCUS, under her father’s thumb until recued by marriage, is a strong candidate though.) The former Ziegfeld girl was 26, old by Chaplin’s usual standards, but he casts her young to make up for it. The two were dating, but kept their relationship non-specific for the press, since marriage was not in their immediate plans.

Chaplin wrote in his plans for the film that there would be no hint of sex in the screen relationship. Probably wise, given his by now apparent middle-age (a spry forty-seven). But then he introduces his co-star lustily eating a banana, which, given his own must-publicised orality, could be a Freudian signifier or what I’m sure I don’t know.

Paulette, as Chaplin’s first leading lady since Edna to star in more than one movie with him (THE GREAT DICTATOR is next), is a significant figure. She encouraged Chaplin to make re-establish contact with his two sons, Sydney and Charles Jr. Sydney recalled sharing a bed with her until it was noticed the boys were getting a mite too old for that, and the pity of it is their pleas — “Why can’t we sleep with Paulette?” — would, by their very ardency, have made the ban more final.

The gamin has some young siblings — don’t worry, too young even for Chaplin — throwaway sentimentality — they’ll get taken away by the authorities, never to be worried about again. The child welfare people, as in THE KID, are a Dickensian social menace. But the true purpose of these characters, like Monsieur Verdoux’s wife, is to justify the gamin’s criminality. Her father, a listless victim of unemployment, is a micro-nod to the film’s social conscience.

The fact that Charlie is arrested by the docks and bundled into a police wagon suggests to me that Chaplin may have intended the tramp and the gamin to meet up immediately after his initial arrest. But instead we now get a whole prison sequence, leaving Paulette’s introduction lying there, not so much a plot thread as an off-cut, waiting to be picked up later.

So now we’re off to jail…