Archive for The Kid

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: Unrest

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2022 by dcairns

Having introduced the Gamin, her unemployed father, and her little sisters, Chaplin now ruthlessly expunges all the relatives: dad is slain in a riot (more heavy-handed police tactics) and the siblings are taken away by social workers, a la THE KID. The G escapes pluckily.

As pathos goes, this is all somewhat formulaic. We haven’t known these supporting players long enough to get broken up about them, and I think Chaplin is counting on that because of course we never see the sisters again. They were basically there to give the G a sympathetic reason for stealing, and their extraction from the narrative puts her in a parlous situation when she eventually meets Charlie.

The two little girls were both called Gloria — Gloria Delson, who went on to be a vocalist in a ’40s big band, and Glora DeHaven, daughter of Chaplin’s friend Carter DeHaven, a vaudeville star, movie actor, and the film’s assistant director — also the guy seemingly responsible for the short CHARACTER STUDIES, with its remarkable all-star cast —

Anyway, these two cute kids are treated as disposable by Chaplin’s picaresque narrative, like Madame Verdoux later. In this case, one could even find a certain ruthlessness in the Gamin’s decision to abandon them to their fate.

Charlie, meanwhile, is just getting comfortable in prison when they go and release him, a nice irony. We learn of this through one of the film’s regular TALKING MACHINES, in this case a wireless giving a news announcement. It seems fitting — the talking machines always bring trouble for Charlie.

Immediately we get human dialogue reported by intertitle: Chaplin is quite unashamed of mixing up talking picture and silent technique. Interesting to learn that, like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner or Malcolm McDowall in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Charlie is known by a numeral. Of course, Number Seven is a convenient thing to call him, since Chaplin is generally unwilling to settle on a name for the Little Fellow.

Stomach-gurgling scene with the minister’s wife. Really first-rate intestinal embarrassment. Chaplin apparently insisted on doing the sound effects himself, blowing a straw into water, but everyone warned him the results would be too exaggerated, and they were. So I don’t know for sure who executed the final effects, or how they were achieved, but they sound amazingly lifelike. They might even be the real thing.

The Breen Office apparently objected to the noises, but Chaplin won that round. He did remove a number of mildly risque references, and Simon Louvish’s biography tells us that by cutting the word “dope” from the nose-powder scene (as well as some effeminacy from Charlie’s needlepoint cell-mate Prince Barin), Chaplin was able to smuggle the drugs into his picture.

This is one of the scenes that was originally prepared with dialogue, which I guess makes sense since it’s a scene dependent on sound. The decision that MODERN TIMES would be essentially a lip-synch free production was made, it seems, on the day of shooting this. And we can be grateful.

Good yapping dog action. The dog is the only one crass enough to draw attention to the characters’ inner orchestrations. So Charlie and the minister’s wife have to not only ignore their own and each other’s noises, but the dog’s alert-cries.

When Charlie turns on the wireless to try to drown out the ruckus, the ad man who comes on MIGHT be Chaplin himself, but I’m unconvinced. Not quite high enough and too American? If it were him, it would give the lie to the notion that Chaplin does not speak any “real” words in the film.

Launched into the workplace with a helpful letter from the governor, Charlie in turn launches a half-built ship, a hopelessly expensive gag made possible by rear projection and a model shot. Chaplin is always supposed to have been behind the times, astonished by a camera crane in 1939, but here he’s picked up on effects technology that had only become widespread a few years earlier.

It’s a grand gag, though it’s lessened by being a trick. What mainly undermines the illusion is the blurry scaffolding in the model’s foreground: impossible for a real shot to have a sharp-focussed foreground character, a sharp distant boat, but a soft midground.

Richard Lester planned a variation on this gag in RED STAR, the never-produced visual comedy that was to have starred Robin Williams as a Stalin impersonator. The boat would have been a movie set, only existing on one side, like Cameron’s TITANIC. I keep wondering where Lester would have put the camera for the reveal. A good visual gag happens in one shot. But I guess you could cut to a view from off the stern like Chaplin’s, getting one laugh, while the actual gag would happen when the ship is launched to the bottom.

And now for the meet cute…

Comedy Star

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2022 by dcairns

THE CIRCUS continues. More evidence of the nasty ringmaster mistreating his daughter — he’s starving her. Presumably concerned that she needs to remain slim for the trapeze. This circus is a lot like a movie studio, only he’s not giving her speed a la Judy Garland.

A star is discovered — Chaplin, asleep in the chariot/cart — the seed has been planted — the audience called for him. The ringmaster knows he’s a meal ticket. It IS a bit like Chaplin’s own story, how he was on the verge of getting canned from Keystone for being so difficult, until the box office receipts came in from his first films. The audience had spoken. Mack Sennett does not seem to have been as mean as Al Ernest Garcia is here, though.

Garcia is one of those effective but colourless supporting characters Chaplin liked. He didn’t want the attention on anyone but himself, but the actors around him needed to be very skilled indeed. Garcia plays the drunken millionaire’s butler in CITY LIGHTS and the factory boss in MODERN TIMES, and I’d never put one and one and one together before and realised it’s the same guy.

I recognise Tiny Sandford, the head props man, though — he’s Charlie’s co-worker in MODERN TIMES.

Making breakfast the next morning — there’s a good chicken-strangling gag — and Charlie has a waistcoat pocket full of salt for his meagre repast, rather the way Harpo might. Charlie is very fastidious about food, as we saw earlier with the hot dog. This is all a set-up for the meet cute, for the girl is hungry. Charlie is at first furious when he finds her eating his single slice of bread. A thief — a rival thief — must be fought off. But a girl is another matter. He ends up sharing the bread, and then she eats it so fast she gives him indigestion. Production designer Danny Hall’s painting of a sword swallower doesn’t help him.

Immediately, Charlie is behaving like a father, a benign one to contrast with the nasty real one. It’s his first time in this role since THE KID, the first time his romantic interest has been acknowledged as rather young for him, the relationship ambiguous. A few films later we have MONSIEUR VERDOUX and LIMELIGHT, which take this further — the relationship is played as platonic and paternal. The Paulette Goddard films are slightly more romantic — maybe because they were a couple and it felt safer. It feels to me like Chaplin, unlike Woody Allen for decades, was becoming aware that audiences didn’t want to see him wooing and winning much younger women. Chaplin was rather handsome, but his Tramp guise negated some of that. And his scandalous divorce made any intimation of sexual desire dangerous.

So, anyway, Charlie has met the girl. Now he has to audition as a clown. Told to be funny, he does some Chaplinesque things. A backwards kick, a funny walk, hoisting himself up with his cane. “That’s awful!” says the ringmaster. Now we get a longish sequence where clowns demonstrate routines and Charlie tries to copy their schtick. This seems to be the stuff Walter Kerr objected to so strongly in The Silent Clowns.

For me, the problem is that none of it is particularly funny. The clown routines, performed by regulars Henry Bergman and Albert Austin with Heinie Conklin (a prospector in THE GOLD RUSH, and a specialist in racist caricatures), aren’t terribly interesting, though Charlie laughs and claps to try to convince us. His screwing them up isn’t interesting either. There’s a conflict of response, a confusion — is Charlie destroying the comedy, resulting in something unfunny, or is he destroying bad comedy, resulting in something that IS funny? Maybe the latter is the intention, but it’s not clear to me.

It SHOULD work, since Charlie is working in a mode he knew well — the incompetent and rascally assistant. In the William Tell routine, that’s also the role he’s actually asked to play. It’s the Auguste (Chaplin) and the whiteface clown (Bergman). Arrogant leader and minion who messes up. Workman and boss. Laurel & Hardy. Chaplin had been doing this since Keystone (WORK; HIS MUSICAL CAREER). But making the task performed a comedy routine seems to overcomplicate it.

The William Tell routine is something Chaplin had played with when Scottish comic Harry Lauder had visited his studio. There’s a piece of film. Here, Charlie elaborates it by substituting a banana skin for the apple, making a surreal mash-up of different slapstick ingredients, but it lands in that strange are of is-this-supposed-to-be-funny? It’s not clear that Charlie’s improvisation is worse than the original act.

Then there’s the barbershop act, which gets done very differently in THE GREAT DICTATOR, and had been done differently in SUNNYSIDE, but deleted. This one’s all buckets of foam getting slapped over everyone. There might have been a convincing conflict between a routine that’s all meaningless capering, and one based on character. This had been the actual conflict Chaplin faced and overcame at Keystone. But it won’t do here, I guess, because the Tramp character is not a comedian or a comic genius.

This is the trouble with comic plot ideas — they have to be serviceable story engines that move things along and lead to a climax — but they also have to create opportunities for amusing things to happen. Charlie’s inability to be funny on cue fulfils the former but not the latter, or at least, not in this scene.

Anyway, Charlie gets fired, not so much for failure to do the required gags, but for getting foam all over the boss, which we recognise as a real no-no. Chaplin now needs to find a narrative excuse to keep Charlie at the circus, and fortunately he’s really good at coming up with solutions. Here he relies on an old favourite (see, for instance, DOUGH AND DYNAMITE): an industrial dispute. The props men go on strike. A replacement must be found. Charlie is using an unconscious prop man as human furniture when Tiny Sandford finds him. He’s discovered again, hired again, the show’s on again.

TO BE CONTINUED