Archive for The Immigrant

The Sunday Intertitle: Kid Kaiser

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2021 by dcairns

THE BOND is sometimes not even counted as a proper Chaplin film and I’d only ever seen a few seconds of it. I didn’t realise it was such a substantial piece. True, it’s basically an advertisement — selling war bonds. Chaplin was somewhat obligated to make it as he was receiving a lot of criticism for not being in uniform and dying in a ditch, which is apparently what we want from our geniuses.

Some evidence suggests that the film was not his top priority — he made it in just a week, shutting down production on A DOG’S LIFE SHOULDER ARMS when he was reminded he was supposed to be doing this. The sets are, uniquely for Chaplin, simple white line drawings on a black background. If he was providing this thing free for the war effort, he’d be damned if he’d spend a lot of money on it.

But THE BOND is really good! The sets — presumably by Charles D. Hall, drawing (literally) on his Karno stage experience, are striking and delightful. It would have been interesting to see CC experiment more in this mode, maybe for one of his numerous dream sequences. Some critics have admitted the cheapness of Chaplin’s sets and argued that this was a shrewd choice, as Chaplin didn’t want to the backgrounds to upstage him. I, on the other hand, deny that the sets are cheap, except in the very early films — but these graphic jobs could be used to justify the argument.

The film has a simple, effective structure: we’re taken through a variety of bonds: the bond of friendship, the bond of love, the bond of marriage, leading up to the liberty bond. What’s striking is the film’s cynical attitude to the first three types of bond. Albert Austin as the friend bores Charlie with a supposedly funny story, then hits him up for a loan. Like a lot of rich people, and especially those who have been poor, Charlie was known to be somewhat tightfisted, and probably he’d been plagued by hand-out seekers once his success was known. As the embodiment of love, Edna flirts outrageously, showing an ankle the saucy minx, so that what we’re seeing is clearly pure, or impure, lust. Marriage is shown as another grift, a means of parting the poor groom from his money. This is all fascinating since Chaplin, on the rebound from Edna, was to marry Mildred Harris in October 1918. David Robinson pretty much implies that teenage actress Mildred was on the make, hoping to advance her acting career and profit financially from a union with the insanely famous comic.

The film does not satirically undercut the bonds it’s supposed to be selling… that would be going too far. But the scathing depiction of other bonds does rather make one wonder.

As he would again in SHOULDER ARMS, Syd Chaplin plays the Kaiser, advancing lecherously upon Lady Liberty (Edna again), as he would upon Molly Wright necessitating his flight from the UK some years later. It’s a little uncomfortable to see him being so much himself. This of course is Liberty’s second appearance in a Chaplin film, after the notably astringent depiction in THE IMMIGRANT.

Walloping Syd/Kaiser Bill with a very large mallet, the only bit I’d seen before, is good, cartoonish fun, and the fact that he takes so long to fall down, legs getting more rubbery, manner more crosseyed and dazed with each Whack-a-mole smack, is extremely amusing to me. Syd was a talented performer, curse him.

The creepy lunar Cupid is played by four-year-old Joan Marsh, later a platinum bombshell in pre-codes. Albert Austin doubles up as Brummie Uncle Sam.

The Sunday Intertitle: Imposture Exercises

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2021 by dcairns

THE ADVENTURER marks the end of Chaplin’s amazing run at Mutual. It also marks the end of his collaboration with his Goliath, Eric Campbell, and of Campbell’s life.

Nobody got hurt making these films, Chaplin reports, except Chaplin himself, who received a cut requiring stitches after a mishap with the bendy streetlight on EASY STREET. Offscreen, it was another matter. Campbell’s wife died suddenly of a heart attack. His teenage daughter was struck by a car and seriously injured. All within a couple of months. His drinking got out of hand. He met a girl at a party and married her five days later. Within two months, she sued for divorce. Driving home drunk from a cast party after making THE ADVENTURER, Campbell crashed and was killed. He was thirty-seven. There were two other women in the car, whose fates seem to be generally not recorded.

The “gentle giant” monicker is often used to describe Campbell. Even his last wife, seemingly a gold-digger, alleged profanity and drunkenness in the divorce, rather than violence. But I’m a bit cross with him for throwing his life away and depriving his daughter of a father and maybe getting other people killed too. But the man was grieving — in a very Hollywood way.

The movie opens with Charlie on the lam — a good start. It mirrors the prison release at the start of POLICE, and sets up the character’s rootlessness in a fresh way. He’d return to the idea in THE PILGRIM. Although, despite said rootlessness, Charlie emerges from the ground like a stripey tuber. Fiona’s interpretation was that he’d burrowed out of prison, whereas I figure he’s escaped by some unspecified means and buried himself in the sand to elude his pursuers. Of course he emerges looking down the barrel of Frank J. Coleman’s shotgun. If there is a gun barrel around, Charlie will find himself looking down it.

Actually, Charlie most resembles a crab at this moment, a pair of ragged claws and a head, the same bits he’s reduced to in the dance of the bread rolls (THE GOLD RUSH). He tries to rebury himself but that just underscores the impossibility of him having completely buried himself in the first place. In a nice gag, he flees, leaving a good hole in the sand for Colemanto fall into.

Then he scampers up a steep incline with the aid of a little wirework. Coleman doesn’t have a wire so the hefty circus clown struggles to follow, while Charlie watches from the cliff edge, clapping politely at the perspiring prison guard’s efforts. And another guard creeps up behind him…

There follows one of those slow-burn discoveries… Jackie Coogan does roughly the same thing with a looming kop in THE KID. The initial discovery is tactile. Then the brain puts together, from the initial touch, the potential outlines of an antagonist, confirmed by some exploratory groping. One doesn’t want to use the eyes yet because it would be too alarming to see the fellow, and it would mean he could see YOU.

Diving through the guard’s legs, Charlie knocks him off the cliff by butting him on the butt with his butt. Off course he slides down the sandy face and crashes into Coleman.

This is a bravura sequence of fleeing, ducking, diving, butting. Many variations on a limited set of moves. The reason for the lack of on-set injuries, Chaplin says, is that they rehearsed everything like a dance. And like a dance, the comedy is made up of recurring movements. Charlie engages so well with kids because he’s childlike himself, usually dwarfed by his opponents and armed only with cheek, and because of this repetition-with-variations. Little kids especially love repetition.

All this was shot on the Sierra Madre coast, a favourite location of John Carpenter — see also THE FOG, for instance. The next sequence was shot last, as Chaplin needed a bridging scene to join together the two main parts of his film.

Charlie escapes the guards, for now, by diving into the sea. They pursue with a handy boat but a huge wave immediately slaps them all underwater.

Cut to Venice, California, per the IMDb. A location familiar to Chaplin from the Tramp’s first appearance, but we’re now on a pier rather than at a race track, where Eric Campbell is pitching woo to Edna Purviance. She is invited to admire his bicep. But suddenly Edna’s mother is drowning! One of those long, drawn-out drownings which invites the participation of a rescuer. Eric stalls and blusters. Edna heroically but not so brightly dives in herself, and commences to drown also.

A collapsing railing now precipitates heavyweights Campbell and Henry Bergman, as a pipe-puffing stoic, into the drink. Now everyone is drowning, except the buoyant Bergman, who simply relaxes in the water, exhaling clouds of improbable tobacco smoke.

Fortuitously, Charlie happens along. “I don’t mind coincidence,” he said of his unlikely plotting, “but I despise convenience.” Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad creator, put it less epigrammatically when he said that wild coincidences are fine as long as they make things worse. Problems must be solved with engenuity equal to the craziness of the original coincidence, not with more coincidence. It has to be said, this moment is pretty convenient. Charlie has stolen a bathing costume so he doesn’t attract suspicion. He swims up to Edna’s mum but, like a particular fisherman, rejects her in favour of Edna. Charlie’s diving and life-saving technique is quite poor, but he gets the job done. Then he must go back for mom (Marta Golden from WORK and A WOMAN). Finally Eric is hauled to the pier by his elaborate Middle Earthian beard. Henry B. is left contentedly bobbing on the brine.

There’s a magnificently mean gag where Charlie lifts one end of Big Eric’s stretcher and unintentionally tips him back into the ocean. Very Simpsons, somehow. It follows the lesson Chaplin has learned that his nastiest mistreatment of other characters should be purely accidental, brought about by the Little Fellow’s fundamental fecklessness, with the only malice being behind the camera and in the audience.

The documentary series Unknown Chaplin shows an outtake where Eric’s mountainous belly causes him to get stuck under the fence, rather than sliding smoothly to sea like a liner.

Eric, in a feat of perfidy beyond even his usual infamous behaviour, callously kicks his rescuer, Charlie, off the pier ladder and leaves him to perish. He even shakes a fist at the waterlogged wretch, adding insult to fatal injury.

There now follows a kind of guest appearance. The opulent Locomobile into which the half-drowned parties are loaded is Chaplin’s own, recently-purchased limo driven, and it’s driven by Toraichi Kono his Japanese chauffeur, who now rescues Charlie. This is his only appearance in a film, because his wife objected to this low-grade kind of activity. But Tom Harrington, Chaplin’s valet, can be seen at the end of THE IMMIGRANT as the snooty clerk at the marriage bureau, and later in SUNNYSIDE.

Charlie is now conveyed to Edna’s rich parents’ house. He’s able to claim that his clothes are all “on his yacht”. Exhausted by his ordeal he awakens in a guest bedroom, where his stripey pajamas and the bars of the bedstead suggest to him at first that he’s back in the clink. A really nice touch.

Now, since this film, like several Chaplin two-reelers, falls neatly into two halves, and since I have some editing to do, I’m going to continue this tomorrow. Hope to see you then.

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!”