Archive for The Godfather Part II

The Sunday Intertitle: With silent lips

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2021 by dcairns

We sort of know how THE IMMIGRANT came into existence, thanks to the surviving rushes, presented in digest form in the documentary Unknown Chaplin. Although of course we will actually never know how THE IMMIGRANT or any work of art like it comes into existence.

Chaplin had planned to make a film set among the bohemians of Paris. He built a set representing a cafe. Edna Purviance was going to play the lead, Henry Bergman was a bullying waiter. Then things sort of evolved.

Chaplin ended up with a cafe scene featuring himself in the Tramp guise, Edna in support, and Eric Campbell took over the role of the waiter as he evolved into the story’s main threat. Henry Bergman was recast as a deus ex machina, the last surviving bohemian element, a wealthy artist. When the sequence was done, Chaplin realised all he needed was a sequence to set up his characters — this meant they now knew each other, which meant more reshooting. A brief coda on a rainy street put the finishing touch on one of his most satisfying shorts, a vindication of his extraordinary practice or writing films with the camera, through filmed rehearsals.

Establishing shot of a ship, which executes some strange pulsing movements, not clearly identifiable as the effect of missing frames or digital repairs. Weird.

Rollie Totheroh rigged up a gimbal for his camera to give a rocking ship effect, but sets on rockers were also used. As well as the natural motion of the sea. Edna and her mother are introduced. Kitty Bradbury, who plays that role, had just played a small part in INTOLERANCE, would play two more mothers for Chaplin, and an aunt for Buster Keaton in OUR HOSPITALITY.

Charlie is introduced as a pair of kicking feet — relying on the recognition factor of those boots. Fiona thought at first they were the spasming feet of a hanged man, which was not, I think, the intention of anyone concerned, but it added a further wrinkle to the gag. Tilting up the little figure bent over the side, we’re supposed to diagnose mal de mer, until he turns, grinning, to show us the fish he’s caught. Is he smiling because he caught a good one, or because he fooled us? Charlie often seems sort of aware of the camera and his chums in the audience. This carries right on until his courtroom speech in MONSIEUR VERDOUX.

This ship seems to be bearing immigrants from Eastern Europe: some rather crude racial humour when Charlie’s fish sets its teeth into a Semitic nose. Charlie entertains us just by promenading on deck, where the wild canting of the ship/Totheroh’s camera causes him to teeter. The one leg out for balance thing he usually does when skidding is adapted as a counterweight to the vessel’s pitching.

Albert Austin, in the first of two roles, plays a Russian type afflicted with seasickness. Charlie can’t seem to get away from him. It’s like the two men struggling with the rifle in THE GOLD RUSH, where all Charlie’s scampering can’t keep him out of the line of fire. Instead of a gun, we have AA’s urping fizzog, a convulsing chunder cannon constantly pivoting in CC’s direction.

It would be fun to see the stagehands’ exertions going in to making the ship’s mess lurch as if it had been constructed inside an irate mule. The floor and tables seem to have been copiously greased to make things even more fun, and Charlie is soon skidding from one side of the room to another, either on his belly or on Henry Bergman’s belly. Bergman is dragged up for HIS first role in the film.

Charlie shares a bowl of soup, because it keeps sliding back and forth between him and Austin, who has conquered his malaise long enough to absorb something else to throw up. Then Edna enters and the tossing of the ship magically slows to a less comedic rate.

Charlie gets into a craps game, rolling the dice as if pitching a baseball, with Frank J. Coleman, who usually plays sullen enemies, and does so here (doubling up as restaurant owner later).

Chaplin now does his own mini-version of Bresson’s L’ARGENT, as Coleman swipes Bradbury’s life savings and loses it to Charlie at cards (Charlie shuffles the deck without rearranging a single card), who then gives most of it to Edna, who’s distraught at finding the money gone.

As a melodramatic villain, Coleman’s character would be a natural role for Eric Campbell, had Chaplin not already cast him in the second half of the film. Eric is the one actor, asides from Edna and Chaplin who never plays more than one character, because he’s simply to distinctive. With or without giant beard, you always know it’s him.

Albert Austin comes rolling across the swaying deck, ending up in the perfect position to throw up in Charlie’s bowler. Charlie’s fierce and righteous expression upon kicking AA out of frame is very funny. Sick people are annoying. Charlie’s character only really experiences sympathy for Edna. Jackie Coogan will be a development.

The sequence climaxes with the much-remarked-upon “Arrival in the land of liberty.” The Statue of Liberty is too obvious and self-declaring a symbol to be used anything but ironically in the movies. As Lady Lib glides through frame, everyone looks at it in awe, then they get shoved behind a rope. Charlie gives the statue a second glance. This almost happens again in THE GODFATHER PART II.

As his ship docked in New York at the start of his Karno tour, Chaplin is said to have shouted, “America, I am coming to conquer you!” He almost certainly said it with a slight touch of humour, but he was right all the same.

THE IMMIGRANT falls into two separate reels more than most Chaplin two-reelers, but this doesn’t seem to hurt it. A lot happens between the reels — Charlie and Edna have each lost all their money and Edna has lost her mother. Chaplin had a curious brain indeed if the purpose of the ship scenes, filmed after the restaurant, was to set up the latter. They actually set up mostly the wrong circumstances.

Anyway, Charlie is now broke on a wet street (his studio was open-air, remember — but later we will see rain that is undoubtedly hose-produced and this may be its aftermath). He finds a coin. Enough to eat. I probably would have suggested that this isn’t a first-class joint, based on the signage alone.

Charlie goes in and immediately annoys headwaiter Eric Campbell, in his shaven-headed EASY STREET guise. The business with the hat is genius — most of it is stuff Charlie has done before, but it’s better-motivated here. Eric is an authority figure, so he must be tormented, but only so far. Charlie’s teasing is flirty and impudent. All this business sets up in an important aspect of this restaurant: the customer is not king.

Charlie then dismays fellow-customer Albert Austin with his idiosyncratic way of eating beans. Maybe, given the number of takes Chaplin liked to shoot (“Film is cheap!”), this was self-protection: one bean is forked at a time, lingered over. Then a huge cuboid array of beans is scooped up with the knife, but dropped into the coffee. It was Edna who had to endure endless beanfeasting. This must have been Chaplin’s fartiest film.

Charlie finally notices Edna and invites her over. It’s established that Mother, having fulfilled her plot function, has sadly died. But Charlie’s coin can feed two: he makes a show of arrogantly commanding Eric to bring more beans.

Now the comedy of terror, so effective in EASY STREET, kicks in. John Rand is a drunken customer who can’t pay. I hope the booze has him good and anaesthetized, because the waiters turn into a mob and, led by Eric with his roundhouse slaps, beat the guy savagely. Most comedies with impecunious diners end with the humiliation of being made to wash dishes. Here, they murder you. We’re in a strange blend of Keystone knockabout and Griffith melodramatic social realism — the audience must have known this kind of violence wasn’t a realistic aspect of dining out. Or was it? I might have to research the 1917 catering trade.

Seeing Rand get dragged out, a limp and pulpy mass, leaving only a hat on the floor, prompts Charlie to check his cash situation.

Disaster! Chaplin, who is already a near-Hitchcockian master of suspense using only story and performance, has himself check every pocket twice before finding the Fatal Hole, just to draw out our agony. When he does, he looks right at us: Can you believe this? Having just about abolished the theatrical aside, so central to the Keystone school, over the past year, Chaplin is now slipping it back in, but only he gets to do it. He has a unique and privileged relationship with the camera/audience.

The presence of Edna precludes making a dash for it, which might seem a perfectly viable desperate solution otherwise.

The difficulty with social realism is that misery by itself is not dramatic. So Chaplin has to produce a source of hope, so that a struggle can result that moves the audience. So: Charlie will attempt to cadge change from a fellow diner, BUT Eric the headwaiter is forever hovering.

TV film critic Barry Norman used to say that he couldn’t respond to Chaplin because he asked you to laugh and cry at the same time. I think this is nonsense: untrue. The sentiment and the comedy are often very close together, but they reinforce one another and Chaplin always knows what effect he’s going for. It’s simply the case that some people don’t get on with Chaplin, and there’s probably no accounting for it. A good friend used to say, “He thinks he’s IT,” which is true — Charlie knows the camera is there and he wants to be admired by it. But feeling than Chaplin preens would not be enough to put you off his comedy is his comedy worked for you. It’s simply the case: not everything is funny to everyone. It makes film criticism a bit harder if you don’t want to just bully your readers/audience into agreeing.

Anyway, Chaplin doesn’t elide comedy and pathos but he knows that comedy and terror work great together. That’s what Eric brings to the table, besides beans.

Eric, it turns out, also has a hole in his pocket. When the other diner pays him, the coin uses his trouser leg as an escape chute and lands on the floor.

Charlie now has to retrieve it without alerting the headwaiter. The logic isn’t totally ironclad: he could, presumably, have said “Ah, my coin!” and picked it up openly. There are possible reasons why this might not be practicable, but it somehow doesn’t matter: simply by going into a routine of covertly trying to get the coin, Charlie produces hysteria, half fear, half hilarity. This might not work on everybody but it works on enough of everybody to make an audience very vocally anxious and amused.

This is such a perfect illustration of a dramatic situation. A character (Charlie) wants something; there are clear bad consequences waiting if he doesn’t get it (a beating from the entire waiting staff); there is a clear obstacle to him getting it (Eric); he is resourceful and persistent in trying to solve his problem. You can have all the social realism you like but it tends to fall down like a tower of mulch without the above elements.

These elements are best derived through an organic creative process rather than by Syd Field box-ticking, however. You can back-engineer an exciting graph from the drama in a film — the audience’s hope-despair index starts zigzagging violently — all is lost! — saved! — lost! Charlie gets the coin and presents it to Eric, who bites it. The coin bends. This is so unjust — he didn’t bite the coin when the other guy gave it to him, and it’s the same damn coin. But Eric doesn’t LIKE Charlie. He still holds the business with the hat against him.

Charlie goes limp, sliding from his seat like a spineless spaghetti strand. He can only order more coffee — digging himself deeper (holes are, it seems, important in this film). Every cup represents about ten kicks to the head and torso when the bill comes due.

The day is saved by Henry Bergman ex machina, last survivor of the bohemia concept — he’s an artist who simply must paint Charlie and Edna. He’s had a vision. This would be a slightly lame solution to the problem but Chaplin has more torments up his tiny sleeve. Bergman offers to pick up the tab. Politeness and suavity prompt Charlie to say, or anyway mouth, “No,” pushing back the offered coin. The audience — Fiona in this case — starts screaming at him not to be an idiot. He keeps this up an absurd length, knowing he’s got us where he wants us. FOUR TIMES he refuses to let Bergman take the check. Until of course Bergman gives up. Horror!

The reason story or plot is difficult is you have to find a dreadful situation, which is not easy, and then you have to resolve it in a way thousands of audience members don’t predict. Your only advantage is having more time to think about it. So Charlie is able to sneakily pay his bill with the change from Bergman’s bill. Eric gets a miniscule tip.

This is maybe the only film in which Eric doesn’t get a proper comeuppance, but as he’s an impersonal force of capitalism, he doesn’t need one. We expect him to be still around and dominant at the fadeout, just like the Statue of Liberty.

It’s raining outside. Charlie begs an advance from Bergman and uses it to marry Edna, which is done in a cute way, hopefully, and is all the ending this miniature masterpiece needs, since everything else it’s about is the eternal struggle for survival, which isn’t going to be cleared up in two reels.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”