Archive for Sydney Chaplin

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…

Machine Made

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2022 by dcairns

In MODERN TIMES the people are mute but the machines talk. It wasn’t always thus: Chaplin seems to have initially planned the film as a full talkie.

GAMIN: ‘What’s your name?’

TRAMP: ‘Me? oh, mine’s a silly name. You wouldn’t like it. It begins with an “X”.’

GAMIN: ‘Begins with an “X”?’

TRAMP: ‘See if you can guess.’

GAMIN: ‘Not eczema?’

TRAMP: ‘Oh, worse than that — just call me Charlie.’

Remember Billy Wilder’s complaint that Chaplin was a genius, but when he let his characters talk he became like a child of four writing lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth? Unfair, of course, but I think it’s true to say that dialogue like the above wouldn’t have improved MODERN TIMES. It might have felt more like the talkie inserts in LONESOME, inept longeurs. Of course, talking films had developed hugely since Pál Fejös’ 1928 masterpiece, but Chaplin hadn’t. You can see him recapitulating the history of sound films: music and sound only, now a part-talkie, then a full-fledged sound film with music and dialogue and effects (I guess he was able to skip out the phase where everyone stood around a hidden mic and talked, without benefit of music or post-produced FX).

The dialogue Chaplin considered, but rejected, is CHATTER — exactly the kind of talk the combination of pantomime and intertitles excluded, instead boiling the verbiage down to its purest narrative essentials, and putting the focus on behaviour. When we come to THE GREAT DICTATOR we will have to reckon with Chaplin’s decision to embrace talk, and his surprising success with it. But we’re not there yet.

The first voice we hear in MT is the boss, but we hear him over his METROPOLIS-style CCTV, or Skype or Zoom or whatever you want to call it. Something which is finally commonplace, and we do speak with our bosses quite a bit on it. Hang on in there, we’ll get the flying cars and jetpacks eventually.

So the boss is mechanized, effectively, and soon Charlie, discovered at the assembly line, will be mechanized too. The terrible thing about these machines, observes Anthony Hopkins in THE ELEPHANT MAN, is you can’t reason with them.

Chaplin had been inspired by the horror of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Though he would quote Ford’s suggestion for a shorter working week, he was otherwise quite opposed to this kind of modernity. As David Robinson (also my source for the dialogue above) points out, MODERN TIMES would be attacked both for having a political subtext and for not having one. I suppose either attack can be justified, but the truth is that the film attacks capitalist modernity using the tools of pantomime and slapstick, therefore its arguments are, in a sense, unsophisticated: but beautiful, emotive, and surprising.

Also, we could propose that Chaplin’s criticism is tempered, or undermined, or corrupted, by his visual delight in whirling cogs and giant dynamos and the other accoutrements of industry, As Tati is a bit in love with the more domestic modernism of MON ONCLE and PLAYTIME. Still, the humour Chaplin concocts here is sufficiently black, sufficiently alarming, in fact, to make the film’s intent clear.

I’ve expended a lot of words and I still haven’t moved on a single moment from where I got to in my last post: Chaplin at the conveyor. Let’s make a start.

Charlie in his screen career has been drunk (often), drugged (in EASY STREET), concussed (CITY LIGHTS), and he has been not only in altered states himself but has participated in the hallucinations of others (transforming into a big chicken in THE GOLD RUSH). MODERN TIMES is the first time he goes mad, though. Maybe this final departure from consensus reality had to wait until after the death of Hannah Chaplin, which occurred in 1928.

Chaplin had a fear of madness, and his charming brother Sydney seems to have expected him to succumb to it, waiting, he once said, for that moment so he could sell the studio and relax on the proceeds. The portrayal of insanity in MT is not a realistic one: but it’s the kind of madness the Little Fellow WOULD get. It starts in the muscles. All that bolt-tightening becomes compulsive, a nervous tic. He fights against it: a twist of the body and that back-kick which he uses to cheer himself up, and the tic goes away. It’s like a skipping needle on a phonograph record, it just needs a nudge so that the mechanism can continue smoothly. Henry Bergson’s dictum that comedy arises from human beings behaving like machines is a good one, though of course it doesn’t remotely cover all humour.

At a certain point, of course, the bolt-tightening perseverance (mechanical continuation of a movement after it has lost all conscious purpose) can’t be stopped, and the subject (Charlie, or X) snaps — which comes as a kind of joyous release, really, the return of the repressed, in this case the impish, dervishlike demon of the Keystone era, comes out of the box — manic, anarchic, smutty, irrepressible…


The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Not One Word

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 17, 2022 by dcairns

But He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly.

Matthew, 27:14
Charles Spencer Chaplin turned 133 yesterday, and he's looking very good on it I think we can agree.

By the time of CITY LIGHTS, Chaplin knew a lot about storytelling. The film’s climax demonstrates both his precision and his looseness. The introduction of a gang of burglars (including supporting clown, gag man and assistant director Albert Austin in his final screen appearance) is certainly loose, even sloppy. Though burglars certainly belong to the kind of world Chaplin portrayed, in classical Hollywood narrative one would normally want to set them up in advance of using them. Strictly speaking, anything you use in the third act ought to have been set up in acts one or two.

But the key element in the climax is the drunken millionaire, who HAS been set up, and developed, in acts one AND two. After his defeat in the ring, Charlie bumps into his old sometime friend, who happens to be cheerfully plastered, and his problems seem solved. Of course, Charlie mistrusts this good luck, and he’s right to do so. The first time the drunk sobered up into a stranger, it was a surprise. The second time, it was still unexpected for Charlie, but established a pattern which he now imagines could be repeated. Important to get the cash from him as soon as possible. But he still lapses into complacency. What could possibly go wrong?

The fact that a random burglary happens that very night is used as the necessary complication, Wild coincidence, Vince Gilligan has compellingly argued, is acceptable if it makes the protagonist’s situation WORSE. Chaplin also takes care to establish the burglars already in the house when Charlie and his sometime friend arrive.

So, the burglars result in the police being called, and the millionaire being knocked out, and it turns out a blow on the head can sober you up — his alcoholic blackouts have behaved much like movie amnesia anyway, so this seems logical enough. So the money has been produced and even given to Charlie — he can regard it as rightfully his — but neither the donor nor the cops (idiots right out of Keystone) nor the disapproving butler recognise Charlie’s ownership. So stealing the dough is fully justified… leaving aside the morality of accepting large cash gifts from a man who’s drunk out of his senses. Well, he won’t miss it, and Virginia Cherrill’s blind girl needs it more than he does…

Charlie gets away with the cash, delivers it, and is then arrested. The parting scene is beautiful, and Chaplin posing himself by the phonograph seems somehow symbolic. Charlie is going away for a while, and the reason is — the reproduction of sound.

Chaplin also understood that a story can’t just reach a climax and then stop. If the story is really about something, some kind of coda is needed. This should probably be brief, but it’s essential. It’s where the story gets to establish what it’s really been about.

There follows a time-lapse — fluttering calendar pages. The title cards at the start of the film all said things like MORNING and AFTERNOON. Now we jump from January to AUTUMN. Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, picks up on what’s different here. Charlie, emerging from prison, seems broken. He walks haltingly, almost limping (the return of the old wound from THE TRAMP?) He has no reserve of bravado or superiority to draw upon when dealing with the nasty newsboys (who WERE established earlier). He is as low as we’ve ever seen him.

His downward trajectory has been matched by the no-long-blind girl’s upward one. She now has her own flower shop (were there a few bucks left over from the money Charlie got her?). She can see. But when she sees Charlie being humiliated by the kids, she laughs. We’re being set up for tragedy.

Throughout the story, especially as soon as the prospect of a cure for her blindness was introduced, the tension created by Charlie’s fake rich man act has been felt. He couldn’t have maintained this illusion forever. And certainly with vision restored, his love would see through the pretence.

What’s needed is a miracle, which Chaplin provides. Not entirely as callous as the rest of the world which she’s been able to join, Cherrill’s character — after a brief interaction through the shop window, which serves as a barrier to dialogue, she decides to replace Charlie’s boutonnière, which, like the rest of his costume, is disintegrating.

Handing him the flower causes their fingers to touch, which is the rational part of what happens. The rest is done by their eyes. Charlie’s eyes convey so much love here: she senses that she’s been looked at this way before. She recognises him.


And then, “You can see now?” and “Yes, I can see now.” An intertitle that carries two distinct meanings (at least) — the now refers, mundanely, to post-operation sight, and transcendental, to NOW, right now. She can see now what she couldn’t see moments ago. The truth was concealed behind what was visible. The hero was really a poor tramp but actually a hero.

Frederic Raphael says that the unique quality of cinema is that it can end a story with a look. Chaplin most often uses the traditional long shot, the archetypal walk off into the sunset, which he could practically establish copyright ownership of. But here he uses a closeup. As Kerr says, it’s one of those endings you can’t project forward. Depending on your personality, you may feel that this couple face insuperable difficulties, or that everything has been resolved happily ever after. It’s a transcendentally happy ending, but what does it promise? I think we feel everything will be OK. We are in the presence of love. But the details are not explained, that would ruin it.

Chaplin’s son Sydney tried to explain the emotional power of this scene, and words quite literally failed him. “It’s murder,” he managed. That doesn’t quite cover it, is somewhat grotesquely inadequate. But words are, in the presence of pantomime raised to an art form, inadequate things. Still, the situation, and the perfect closeups, do get a boost by the perfectly chosen words Chaplin puts in the title cards.

You can see now, Yes, I can see now.