Archive for The Gold Rush

The Sunday Intertitle does not exist

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2022 by dcairns

No intertitles in 1907’s THE HAUNTED HOTEL, another weirdie from J. Stuart Blackton. Thought to be the first ever use of stop motion: Blackton animates a still-life: his writhing sausage anticipates the crawling steak of POLTERGEIST. He borrows from Melies the magic-trick jump-cut, and also makes the building itself alive via all kinds of fancy effects.

The very fuzzy version on YouTube doesn’t do it justice:

The moon arcs across the sky in what looks like animation, but may only be pop-up book type articulation: wisps of real smoke escape from the chimney, attesting to live-action: but these might be superimposed. A film from 1907, and I’m still guessing as to how the effects were done.

When they ran this at Gaumont, resident artist Emile Cohl was immediately charged with figuring out what was involved and replicating it. By careful study of the footage he was able to work it out. So his career got invigorated. Segundo de Chomon also obviously pieced it together, and so he was able to enhance his Melies-inspired work with animation, something Melies himself apparently couldn’t be bothered with. Or maybe, I don’t know, he thought it was cheating or something.

Blackton’s work is clever and fluid. When he wants the coffee pot to levitate, he slips into live action and achieves it with wires, so as to get the flowing liquid and steam. Then back into animation for the sugar tongs, which rest on a mound of sugar lumps so they don’t have to hover.

The presence of a pip-smoking homunculus in the milk jug would put me off drinking the contents, personally. And the sausage being, it seems, alive, makes it unappealing as foodstuff.

At least the Fagin-like protag can enlist jumpcuts of his own to help him change into his pjs without wasting screen time or offending the ladies.

A troupe of double-exposed wraiths then cavort round his bed, trampling him, and then the whole place starts to tilt like Chaplin’s log cabin. The hotel is holistically haunted: the very building is possessed of a malign animus.

Finally, in a breathtaking and authentically horrible climax, the room spins like a 30s newspaper, one wall disappears, and a carbuncular colossus peers in through a mysteriously vanished wall, seizing the sheeted protag in a giant Kong mitt. The transition to model shot is beautifully done. The fact that the giant nudges the sky, wobbling it, as he ducks from the diorama, only enhances my pleasure.

The Great (Dictator) War

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on July 30, 2022 by dcairns

So, just like that, without any fuss, Chaplin speaks — not nonsense words, but English ones (despite him playing a Tomainian — only Hynkel and his close confederates seem to speak the language).

The opening of THE GREAT DICTATOR is a return to the terrain of SHOULDER ARMS, but Chaplin resists any urge to repeat gags, it’s all new material, folks. And very funny — the Jewish Barber is not having a good war.

I’m a little uncertain about the dud shell following, with its nose, Chaplin’s movement. I don’t see the comic logic there. It’s doing exactly what the fought-over rifle in THE GOLD RUSH did, aiming squarely at the Little Fellow wherever he goes, but without some line of explanation saying it’s magnetized, or a homing missile or something, it’s un-shell-like behaviour is a tad disturbing to our sense of the film’s reality. It’s really the only joke tinged with this kind of surrealism (unless we count the improbability of Hynkel’s globe being a balloon).

Who was it did the hand grenade gag where the one with the pin pulled out falls into the box full of others? That’s a very nice joke, but Chaplin dropping the thing down his sleeve is arguably even better, because it’s even worse — you can’t run away from the consequences.

The nightmare gag depends on a horrific situation that hasn’t quite reached its grisly climax, and it has to be caused by something going wrong. A gas attack in the trenches isn’t comical, since the enemy’s equipment is working just as it should. The dropped hand grenade loose in one’s own clothing IS, because of the human error and the irony of it being your own weapon, and because of the unexpectedness. So many separate elements seem to be necessary to make a mere event into a gag.

I like Chaplin’s silence while tracing the missing bomb — an officer is yelling at him but he can’t reply — he’s concentrating. Keaton said his character couldn’t smile because he was concentrating on what he was doing. Could Chaplin perhaps have kept dialogue to a minimum by the same device?

But, I think, for good or ill, Chaplin now wanted to talk — if he was going to make a talkie, he was going to take advantage of the possibilities.

Getting lost in the smoke of battle is another great gag. And so in character that the Jewish Barber apologises to the enemy for intruding. How many takes to get the smoke to billow just right? In the scene where the JB finds himself surrounded by doughboys, the men’s shadows stretch far along the ground, so it’s evidently the very end of a long, long day.


The Sunday Intertitle: Dawn

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2022 by dcairns

The last scene of MODERN TIMES… the Tramp’s last scene as a silent character… is composed of just four shots, with intertitles.

A lovely view of the empty road — pan onto a hard shoulder and a full-figure two shot of Charlie and the Gamin sat at the roadside. He is making his feet more comfortable for the long walk ahead, and after presumably a long walk behind. She is tightening her bindle.

Match cut on this movement to a medium shot of the G. She becomes tearful. Rather than a cut, a moment after she buries her face in the crook of her arm to sob (Paulette Goddard, despite her showgirl origins and never having been in a silent film before, is more like a silent movie actor in this, as the term is usually understood, than anyone else), the camera pans to Charlie, whistling, and then noticing (it being a genuinely silent scene, her sobs do not travel). Pan back with him as he shifts closer to comfort her. So this one shot does the business of three.

Charlies gives a pep talk and they hit the road — a match cut on their getting up leads us into a heroic wide shot, trucking back as our stars advance down the road at us. The classic Chaplin head-to-toe composition but with a relatively rare camera move (though MODERN TIMES is more mobile than most).

Charlie reminds Paulette to “Smile” via pantomime. Which is the name of the song playing, but it hasn’t received a title or lyrics yet.

Chaplin jumps his camera 180 to show the couple retreat, backlit by the rising sun, up the shining asphalt lined with telegraph poles and scrubby palms towards hazy distant hills.

“There is every sign that he consciously recognised this was the last appearance of The Tramp, twenty-two years after his first appearance at Keystone in 1914. The optimistic end–for the first time Chaplin trots off towards the sunset [sic] not alone but in company with the girl, won at last–taken with the clown’s ultimate discovery of a voice, gave the film an air of finality.” ~ David Robinson, in the 1972 Sight and Sound review I got my hands on purely fortuitously last week.

I guess fortune plays a role here two — while Chaplin was thinking that time was running out for his brand of silent film, despite the box office success of this one. Nobody else was holding out against sound, we could argue that the story of MODERN TIMES simply demanded this ending, regardless of any desire to give the Little Fellow a suitable FINIS. Also, if CITY LIGHTS or THE CIRCUS had been Chaplin’s last appearance in character (we can say that the Jewish barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR, a talking character, is the same guy in costume but not wholly in character) they would gain in significance and also seem like magnificent, timeless curtain calls for the famous figure.

But MODERN TIMES, if you could somehow shuffle the filmography around, would lose out, at least in the pang of its ending. Other Chaplins where he apparently gets the girl, or a stable companion, are different: THE KID and CITY LIGHTS end with a slight question mark — how is this going to continue? Unanswerable in both cases — will the Tramp fit into Edna Purviance’s elegant household, is he going to marry the formerly blind flower girl? The movies stop at a point of beautiful affirmation but, as Walter Kerr noted, they HAVE to stop there, because what happens afterwards is a puzzle. The square one endings seen in THE TRAMP, THE CIRCUS, and many others, totally work in themselves, affirming the Tramp’s essential rootlessness. Only THE GOLD RUSH concocts a finale that seems to set out a forseeable life of ease. What all this demonstrates I guess is that Chaplin was so good at endings, any of these might have seemed a suitable note to end his tramping career on, GOLD RUSH alone lacking a really suggestive evocation of uncertainty.

MODERN TIMES’ last image suggests two contradictory ideas: our heroes walk off into the future, and the past. In 1936 and for some years after, it would surely have seemed possible to imagine them still out there, scrounging a living, Now, of course, that is a hard illusion to sustain. Both actors lived to a decent age, but are both gone, buried in Switzerland. The Tramp is immortal, but he belongs to the past. He’s out there in those hills, maybe, but they’re black-and-white hills, composed of light or celluloid not earth, alive with the sound of nothing.