Archive for The Cameraman

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: Big Top Charlie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2022 by dcairns

Back to THE CIRCUS at last. Or almost.

I gave a talk recently at college about another Josephine the monkey star vehicle, THE CAMERAMAN, where I said the one thing keeping the film of the list of top Keaton movies is the long sequence where Buster goes on a date with the girl. Not that the sequence isn’t good, but it’s unrelated to the central theme of Buster trying to become a successful newsreel photographer. Whereas in, say, THE GENERAL, everything that happens supports several interlaced themes — winning the girl, of course,and also getting into the army, and then, once the train is stolen, getting the train back and foiling the enemy attack. In THE CAMERAMAN the middle sequence does advance the romantic struggle but it ignores the method Buster has identified as the means to that end.

That may be why Chaplin opted not to include a neat, self-contained bit in THE CIRCUS where he tries to impress Merna Kennedy by decking a prizefighter. The prizefighter has been bribed to take a fall, so the whole thing is a set-up. Using fraudulent means to impress the girl is something Charlie is not above, since his tightrope act elsewhere in the film is planned as the same kind of gag. The only trouble with the prizefighter is that he’s not a big top attraction.

The sequence was shot by Chaplin during one of the production’s several shut-downs: a fire at his studio had destroyed the tent. So he invented something that didn’t need a tent, adding a circus intro to it once he’d acquired a sufficiency of canvas.

Charlie calls on Merna. He’s wearing a longer, more flared coat than usual, evidently his Sunday best. Begged or borrowed or bought since he started at the circus, presumably, since tramps don’t typically have a lot of wardrobe changes. He practices tightroping on a rake while waiting for her, with predictable consequences.

An overexposed walk in the Californian sunshine, an uncommon tracking or trucking shot. Annoyingly, Rex, Charlie’s romantic rival turns up, the real high-wire man. These handsome rivals are always rather dull figures in Chaplin, but they don’t need to be anything else. Rex is played by Harry Crocker, nephew of a big baking tycoon, sometime assistant to Chaplin, perhaps a result of his fondness for hobnobbing with the nobs of society — Virginia Cherrill in CITY LIGHTS is another. Crocker had a few roles prior to this, including two bit parts for King Vidor, which suggests he may have been an uncredited assistant for KV also. He also opened a movie props museum on Sunset Blvd. in 1928, about which little is known. I think I saw a reference to it in a twenties movie mag while researching THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.

The trip to the cafe involves an attempt by Charlie to show he can outdo Rex at good deeds. This goes horribly wrong when he tries to help a stroppy woman with a dropped package of fish. The clever touch here is making the woman really obnoxious, so that not only does the small act of kindness turn into a prolonged, Sisyphean and odorous ordeal, the beneficiary isn’t even deserving: she could be Mr. Muckle’s daughter. Charlie can ultimately walk off and leave her with her groceries still smeared on the sidewalk and we’re on his side.

The prizefighter sequence depends on great splitscreen work from Rollie Totheroh, turning actor Doc Stone into pugilist Twin Spud and his brother, who is presumably also called Twin Spud. So it’s another of Chaplin’s doppelganger conceits, like the ones in THE IDLE CLASS and THE GREAT DICTATOR, only this time it’s not Charlie who’s doubled. Spud’s bullying of Charlie is horrible. It seems out of character for him to agree to Charlie’s ruse, and optimistic of Charlie to expect him to keep up his end of it. But the gag goes wrong not because of treachery on Spud’s part, but because of his failure to mention that he has an identical twin.

When Charlie starts fighting with the wrong twin, not only does he fail to score a glorious victory to impress Merna, he gets ignominiously rescued by Rex.

The best part of this is Charlie “taking back” his money from the wrong twin, who’s lying prone having been decked by Rex.

We can’t be certain why this decent, but slightly upsetting sequence wasn’t included in the released version of THE CIRCUS. Nor do we know why Chaplin decided not to follow his original plan of introducing his character as a flea circus proprietor, which would have made us of the gag sequence devised way back at Essanay. I guess that sequence wouldn’t have set up the story, and it was better to have Charlie be a newcomer to circus life. Still, Chaplin had no objection to beginning CITY LIGHTS with a sequence which isn’t essential to the story. He DID take the flea circus proprietor’s name, Professor Bosco, and give it to the put-upon magician in THE CIRCUS.

Waste not, want not.

Monkey with a Movie Camera

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2019 by dcairns

I’m not used to days that have CLIMAXES — Buster Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN in the Piazza Maggiore with a full orchestral accompaniment was certainly one.

Mind you, the day began with OVER THE HILL, a simply brilliant Henry King drama from 1931 which showcases Fox’s mobile camera style and James Dunn’s performing. It’s a bit like MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW only with the worst son receiving a punitive ass-kicking at the end.

Dunn turned up again in HELLO, SISTER! a weird Fox romance, begun by Von Stroheim (Zasu Pitts co-stars) but finished by Edwin Burke and maybe Alan Crosland, Raoul Walsh and Alfred “I’ll finish it” Werker. The tonal shifts, which could induce whiplash in a less hardy reviewer, may be the result of surviving Stroheim footage. Romcom, slapstick, rape and an exploding tenement — half the plot and cast seem to be recycled from Borzage’s BAD GIRL. Enjoyed the mess thoroughly.

SURRENDER! was more coherent but duller. William K. Howard’s long tracking shots are among the best Fox ever had, but this was a boring story with a snoozy cast. Warner Baxter, Leila Hyams. Ralph Bellamy is somewhat amusing as a disfigured war veteran, half his face concealed beneath a black mask.

I’d been missing the Eduardo de Filippo season so was glad to catch FILUMENA MARTURANO, the 1951 original of MARRIAGE – ITALIAN STYLE. Slightly less funny than the celebrated remake, but even more emotional, thanks to Filippo and his co-star Titina de Filippo. Talented family. Excuse me, I think I have something in my eye.