Archive for The Circus

The Sunday Intertitle: The Idiot Stick

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2022 by dcairns

Afternoon, everybody.

Before Charlie meets the blind flower girl in CITY LIGHTS he was at one point going to spend five solid minutes struggling with a stick stuck in a grating outside a department store.

An entire sequence without a single intertitle, pure pantomime, and with no discernible connection otherwise to the film’s plot. Since the statue unveiling sequence is also non-plot-related, this would, I think, have delayed the start of the film’s real story by a dangerous amount, so cutting it was the right decision.

Still, I think it’s a great sequence — depending on the company you watch it with, it’s either progressively more hilarious or more frustrating. If you’re into it, the frustration is part of the hilarity.

Great supporting performances. I remember being astonished at who was playing the idiot messenger boy, then forgetting, then finding out again and being astonished all over again. It’s Charles Lederer, future screenwriter for Howard Hawks among others — he was Marion Davies’ favourite nephew, and Chaplin may have met him at San Simeon, where he was a regular guest, or through Marion, with whom he seems to have been intimate, or maybe through socialite-AD Harry Crocker.

Crocker himself plays the window dresser who gets so infuriated with Charlie, and he’s excellent. Though short, and ultimately deleted, it’s a much more challenging role than Rex, the King of the Air in THE CIRCUS. Long takes, lots of business and expressive pantomime. The actors have to sustain it and communicate it without the aid of title cards or cutaways.

The scene depends for its effect on a hierarchy of stupidity. The mouth-breathing Lederer, barely conscious or alive, is at the lowest end of the idiot spectrum, regarded with horror by Charlie. In an earlier film, at Keystone or Essanay, Charlie might have bullied the dolt, but here the only cruelty is in the simple observation. It’s still a bit cruel. We can call him an idiot, maybe, because he’s just a comic type, not a specific syndrome, though David Robinson goes further and calls him “a haunting figure whose malevolent, wooden-faced idiocy gives him the look of a distant and mentally-retarded cousin of Buster Keaton,” a beautiful turn of phrase except for the slur (if you look up the origins of the phrase “mental retardation” you discover it’s actually racist).

Charlie himself is in the middle phase of the idiot scale — his obsession with pushing the stick through the grating, even though he’s just passing the time, is one symptom, his inability to understand that pushing one side or the other results in an identical effect, and only pushing the centre can be expected to work, is the other plank upon which his dumbness rests.

But Crocker’s shop man is the third kind of idiot. Like Oliver Hardy, he’s just intelligent enough to think he’s smart, but not smart enough to realise he’s an idiot. He gets obsessed with Charlie’s stick problem, and excited and infuriated about it. Charlie at least is smart enough to know it doesn’t matter one way or another. He’s never agitated about his dumb stick. Although he does get possessive of it when the message boy shows an interest.

Charlie’s incomprehension of Crocker is a subtle joke in its own right: the gag being that Charlie is completely unable to understand a clear and explicit pantomime.

The fourth form of idiocy, I guess, is that of the street gawkers who stop to watch Charlie. They don’t even have any ideas to suggest. Their passivity may tell us something about Chaplin’s attitude to his audience, or that may be a reach. But once again, as in THE CIRCUS, Charlie finds himself an unintentional entertainer.

Chaplin was very pleased with this sequence — “a whole story in itself” — but it had to go, precisely BECAUSE it was so self-contained, so it was left to Kevin Brownlow to issue it as part of Unknown Chaplin, thirty years after it was shot, by which time Chaplin, Lederer, Crocker and probably everyone else in the crowd and behind the camera, were gone.

The Sunday Intertitle: Will the real Charlie Chaplin…?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2022 by dcairns

Not taken with Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America by Richard Carr. Maybe the word “political” somehow makes it seem like it’s trying too hard. I picked up a copy from the library and looked up THE CIRCUS. “To modern tastes, it remains Chaplin’s most amusing film, however — the comedy that truly stands up to a twenty-first century-audience in both its inventiveness and execution.” Which tells me that Carr doesn’t much like Chaplin as a comedian or filmmaker and hasn’t bothered to watch the films with an audience, because if he had he’d see and hear them “standing up” rather admirably. It could just be he’s writing sloppily and doesn’t mean to imply that the other films don’t work anymore — certainly the word “remains” is a weak choice where I think the word “is” would better represent his intended meaning.

Not finding anything useful to my little pieces on THE CIRCUS (which is excellent, and maybe has Chaplin’s funniest scene, but isn’t his best or best-made feature in my view, not that that matters), I moved on to CITY LIGHTS, which has more “politics” maybe since it deals with the struggle to survive in the capitalist west, among other things.

Carr’s description of the film and its making are very decent summaries, though “it took time” is a rather unimpressive summary of the months of camera-writer’s-block that afflicted Chaplin when he tried to set up Virginia Cherrill’s mistaken belief in Charlie’s wealth. Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin series does a magnificent job of this, but even if you couldn’t spare the time they lavish on the question, just saying that it took over a year to solve the problem would be more impressive.

“Whatever the politics, the film remains a classic from beginning to end.” There you go with “remains” again, though it’s slightly better here. Still, Carr’s book assembles maybe the most detailed record of Chaplin’s political thoughts and contacts, including his meetings with persons as diverse as Churchill and Gandhi, John Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw. The problem is that I don’t think Chaplin’s politics are even the tenth most interesting thing about him.

Peter Ayckroyd’s straight biography Charlie Chaplin is actually quite fine, I think. Though we didn’t necessarily need another Chaplin bio after Robinson, Louvish, Baxter, and of course Chaplin himself. It’s still pretty enjoyable — Ayckroyd really knows his London, and the areas where he’s not so obviously an expert, the film history and the film analysis and appreciation, he actually does very well with. He seems to genuinely admire the films, in a way Carr can’t manage to suggest. “The details of their opening scene together, when Charlie purchases a flower before realising she is blind, too two years and 342 takes to assemble.” There you go, that wasn’t hard. Ayckroyd nails it, except for the inaccurate use of “opening” — it’s their first scene together, but it doesn’t open the film or anything else. I may not be a great critic but I’m a great pedant.

Also: “City Lights remained Chaplin’s own favourite among his films.” Bravo! A correct use of the r word.

Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s new film THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN is a pretty terrific documentary. It had big boots to fill. It is inferior to Kevin Brownlow’s documentaries with and without David Gill — Hollywood, Unseen Chaplin and The Tramp and the Dictator — because it doesn’t let the viewer see enough of Chaplin’s comedy to judge his genius. LET CHAPLIN HELP YOU! But, apart from some ill-judged reconstructions and some slightly doubtful chronology — saying Chaplin scored his films when describing his accomplishments in the twenties is an inaccuracy — it’s really very good indeed. Beautifully cut by Julian Quantrill, using a plethora of source materials in very creative ways. Beautifully narrated by Pearl Mackie. Beautifully scored by Robert Honstein.

It goes out of its way to be fair to Lita Grey, and it’s time someone did, though it may be going too far in the other direction. But she had a story and it’s worth at the very least asking, What if it’s true? If it’s true, Chaplin could be a sonnovabitch, and there’s no shortage of material to support that claim.

I was grateful to see some footage of Chaplin impersonator Charles Aplin for the first time (that I know of). And amused to learn Aplin’s defence when Chaplin sued him: “I’m not impersonating Chaplin, I’m impersonating (Chaplin impersonator) Bill Ritchie.” Unbelievable. I think if he’d claimed Billy West he might have come closer to convincing someone — West at least was a close facsimile of Chaplin. If you’re impersonating Ritchie, why do you look so much more like Chaplin than he does, and why did you tale the name Aplin? An interesting case — maybe the first time an actor sued to protect his rights, not to a film or story, but to a visual characterisation. Though Ford Sterling could presumably have sued Chaplin over MAKING A LIVING, in which the frock-coated interloper has clearly been tasked with playing a Sterling substitute.

And I suppose Kevin Brownlow could sue over being played by a lookalike in THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN, except I’m sure he wouldn’t, he’s such a nice man and obviously they would have asked him.

When running through the previous Chaplin docs, I should mention the Biography Channel one which is better than the Richard Schickel one, which is also good. I have the Biography Channel one on VHS somewhere but don’t recall who made it. Kenneth Branagh narrated it, a service he also provides for Brownlow, but it didn’t have Brownlow’s name on it and it doesn’t appear on the Branagh IMDb page. A small mystery. (It’s not the one on YouTube, presented by Peter Graves of all people.)

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…