Archive for The Pilgrim

The Sunday Intertitle: Pilgrim Versus the World

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by dcairns

At four reels, THE PILGRIM isn’t quite a short and doesn’t seem quite a feature, but the IMDb classes it as one.

Excitingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, not all the way through.

Chaplin is recycling the escaped convict routine from THE ADVENTURER and having another go at the mistaken identity gag from THE IDLE CLASS — again anticipating THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, immediately, is what put me off the film on my previous attempt at viewing: this bloody song. Vocals are tricky in a silent movie score, because if people can sing, why can’t anybody talk, audibly I mean? And yet it can be done. I just don’t happen to like this particular song. It’s a case of Chaplin imposing words on his work, as he did in the revised version of THE GOLD RUSH. Billy Wilder’s dismissal of talking-picture Chaplin — “a child of nine making up lyrics for a Beethoven symphony” isn’t true, I don’t think, of Chaplin’s talkies, but it’s arguably true of this kind of thing. We don’t need words.

We immediately get them, though, and the singer going on while we try to read the wanted sign is distracting. The text here is a basic physical description of Charlie, though the addition “Extremely nervous” is an interesting one, and we learn he has blue eyes.

Like BARRY LYNDON later/earlier, Charlie effects a change of clothing by stealing the duds of a bather — we see the clergyman examining the discarded prison stripes with dismay, a nice bit of economical storytelling.

Charlie the chaplain manages to maintain his usual look surprisingly well — tight jacket and baggy trousers, big shoes. The hat and dog collar are the only noticeable change. So far so good. What comedy will he manage from the impersonation? Early priests in Chaplin’s films — in THE TRAMP and POLICE, are portrayed in a notably acerbic way: one has a rotten egg pressed into his psalm book, the other is a shameless crook and hustler. But in EASY STREET the church scenes are rather delicate and Chaplin seems on his best behaviour. What’s he going to be like here?

But Chaplin jumpstarts a whole new plot before we can find out. Elopers! A pursuing dad!

The chap is Sydney Chaplin, the girl and her father unidentified, despite a very sizable cast list available online. And the plot turns out to be just an excuse for mistaken intentions and running about. The course of true love doesn’t get smoothed out and Syd gets a boot up the bum from Dad. We can assume the girl had a lucky escape.

The bloody song starts again as Charlie is trying to choose a random destination. That song kills everything it plays over, a real shame when Chaplin’s accompanying music is otherwise so good. Trying to stab at a city name from the list, he jabs Henry Bergman in the butt. Well, in the waiting rooms of small-town railway stations, between traveling businessmen and members of the church, such action is not unknown.

Buying his ticket, Charlie still tries to hitch a ride on the underside of the train, before a conductor (Syd again!) corrects him. Charlie has never been in a compartment before.

Another notice is posted, this time announcing the arrival of the new minister, Philip Pim — Charlie, in his new identity. It goes neatly with the wanted poster earlier. The name is an echo of “pilgrim”, obvs.

Among those present, Mack Swain and Edna Purviance, who already harbours romantic imaginings about this new minister, saucy trout that she is.

Chaplin’s train approaches on Sunday, and we see him eating crackers next to Henry Bergman, and we get a look at the newspaper article about his escape, learning that in this film, Charlie, unusually, has a name, Lefty Lombard, and also a pseudonym, “Slippery Elm.” Chaplin was indeed left-handed, though at the workhouse they beat him until he became ambidextrous. Lefty’s escape, like those of John Goodman and William Forsythe in RAISING ARIZONA, and Tim Robbins in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, has been sewer-based, and the paper writes of the prison guards’ “astonisment.” But the entire article does seem to have been written, it doesn’t suddenly devolve into Latin or rubbish about trade conferences. I would quite like that job, just as I would like to have been tasked with typing Jack Torrance’s novel in THE SHINING. My ideal job.

Charlie/Lombard/Pim is dismayed to find the tow sheriff and all the prominent citizens waiting to welcome him. Phyllis Allen gives herself a lovely bit of business, stepping back and colliding with the locomotive. She’s not even in focus, which makes it somehow even more delightfully throwaway.

Charlie filches a quart of whisky from Swain’s back pocket, which I guess establishes that Mack is a bit of a hypocrite. But Charlie loses the booze when they both slip on the sidewalk. They find themselves sitting in a puddle of hooch — mutual embarrassment, as each suspects the other of attributing the contraband to himself.

Charlie giving a service, and not knowing how, seems like the kind of business tailor-made for the talkies. What can Chaplin do with it,wordlessly?

The choir are a notable gang of grotesques, carved from walnut. There is awkward sitting-down-standing-up confusion. More good business with Phyllis and her itchy son. And there is quite a bit of comic value in Charlie having no idea what happens in a church or what is expected of a minister. Plus he has his eyes on the collection boxes.

The sermon — David and Goliath! A tour de force of mime, my favourite part being Charlie’s graphic insistence that David’s slingshot passes clean through Goliath’s massive skull. All done with gestures. Little Raymond Lee, the bully kid from THE KID, is wild about all this, and the equally explicit decapitation scene.

Charlie finishing the sermon as if he were, alternately, a victorious prizefighter, and a prima ballerina receiving an opening night ovation, is good too.

A fellow crook! But, despite his character having three names, the Inaccurate Movie Database doesn’t seem to know any of them. But Charlie does, and the presence of an old acquaintance strikes him as very inconvenient. This is Charles Reisner, the thug from THE KID, whose son, Dean or Dinky Riesner, who married Vampira, is also in the film. And no, I don’t know why they spell their surname differently.

Charlie, meanwhile, has been billeted with Edna and her widowed mother. Observing Edna’s shape through her shapeless dress, Charlie treats us to a downright sinister glance, comparable to his eerie look from the dock in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Pure serial killer.

Visitors arrive. One is Dinky Dean, another is Syd again, in character actor guise:

Dinky recalled later in life that it took quite a bit of coaching to get him to hit people, especially Charlie, but his dad was the assistant director as well as acting, and between Chaplin and Reisner they persuaded him to cut loose and sock the great star repeatedly in the kisser. This business isn’t too amusing — I was waiting for Charlie to do something more in character with him being a convict than a minister — of course, this is probably the suspense Chaplin had in mind. I’m just frustrated he doesn’t do more to pay it off.

Finally, he does, kicking — gently — the recalcitrant tot onto his keister, or maybe he spells it kiester. It’s moderately gratifying, but Dinky rather spoils it with a grin directed past the camera, presumably at dad. I suppose Chaplin may have welcomed this as proof he hadn’t really harmed a small child.

Cute stuff in the kitchen with Edna. This is all very mild — it seems like Chaplin has decided he doesn’t want to give offence, the anti-clerical tendencies seen in his earlier films are in abeyance here. But let’s see…

Here’s an interesting thing: since, as I’ve observed, Chaplin had taken to using both his cameras to gather coverage, typically a wider and closer view of the same action, he was compelled, to create a second negative for foreign territories, to use alternate takes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the US and foreign (in this case, Russian) versions of THE PILGRIM. The camera angles are mostly the same, but the action is always subtly different.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Sunday Intertitle: Fame

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2021 by dcairns

Amidst the general critical appreciation of Chaplin introducing and integrating sentiment SUCCESSFULLY for the first time, everyone tends to forget his other mode, which appears here absolutely for the first time, with barely a hint of its coming before: the sophisticated side. Chaplin obviously thought this was an important mode to master, and would make an entire feature film, A WOMAN OF PARIS, to showcase it. I’m looking forward to seeing that one again to see what I think of it. What I think right now is that it appealed to CC’s vanity to be seen as sophisticated, and I’m not too keen on this kind of showing off. I don’t think he was as sophisticated as he wanted to appear, I’m more in sympathy with his attempts to be DEEP, with THE GREAT DICTATOR and MONSIEUR VERDOUX (the latter being also a sophisticated comedy in parts). I think Chaplin was deep in the sense of feeling things deeply, and his work shows that from THE KID onwards, and he can sometimes transmute his intense emotion into intellectual ideas without tripping over his flap shoes, and when he does it’s worth the occasional stumble.

Anyhow, The man re-enters the picture, to no particular effect. This scene was one of Chaplin’s key deletions when he rereleased the movie. Consequently, Carl Miller, who plays The man, gets a ridiculously prominent credit for doing practically nothing, while actors who contribute invaluable comic bits go completely uncredited and the IMDb still doesn’t know who a bunch of them are.

Since Chaplin is no fool, he isn’t remotely interested in reuniting the former lovers, and he cuts Mr. Miller off in mid-intertitle, in order to get to the more important business of PANCAKES:

Jackie is preparing A GREAT QUANTITY OF FOOD.

Chaplin may be on e of the few filmmakers who can do more good work the less plot he has to work with. This scene has very little to do with the story, it’s just behaviour. Of course the more we see Charlie & Jackie interact in a sweet, quirky way, the more we care, but the trick is in making all this stuff entertaining. Jackie preparing pancakes is fascinating because it’s midway between acting and being. Impossible to tell how much of it Chaplin has acted out first, and how much is Jackie responding in the moment to the pancake mix and frying pan and the taste.

Charlie is in bed, smoking and reading the Police Gazette (looking for tips). Called to breakfast, he sticks his head through a tear in his blanket to turn it into a kind of djellaba or poncho.

Those pancakes look good. I probably can’t have pancakes on my low-carb diet because of the flour quotient, and the syrup might be an issue too.

We note that Jackie still has the toy dog Edna gave him, and getting Charlie to kiss it is an important family ritual.

Enter Raymond Lee, a bully. Lee was a busy actor into the twenties, and also appears in THE PILGRIM for Chaplin, and LONG LIVE THE KING opposite Coogan. He steals Jackie’s dog AND his ball and throws them away.

FIGHT! An audience immediately gathers. Henry Bergman puts on some stubble just to appear at a window. Nobody attempts to separate the lads, it’s all just a great spectator sport. I’m pleased that Charlie steps in — and then it’s funny when he steps back out as soon as he sees Jackie winning. I never understood the rules of this kind of thing, growing up. Boys are/aren’t supposed to fight? I was an OK shin-kicker, was OK at catching the opponent’s foot when they tried to kick me, but still lost every single fight (none of which I started) until I learned to pick on the smallest, dumbest kids. And then I got a pang of conscience and stopped that. So I went back to losing. It’s strange to me that we were basically allowed to spend playtime punching each other. Does that still happen?

Charlie starts to treat this as a boxing match, with himself as trainer, and right on cue a washing line serves as rope for Jackie to lean on in “his corner.” Charlie instructs Jackie in nose-punching, stomach-punching, and his signature move, the kick up the arse.

Enter Charles Reisner, curiously padded, as the bully’s big brother. Reisner had been a boxer, and has the face for it, though I suspect he’s using putty to push his ears forward in the approved movie “pug” manner. Actual cauliflower ears, which you don’t see much these days, tend to be flat. Reisner had been assistant direct for Chaplin since A DOG’S LIFE, and would go on to “direct” STEAMBOAT BILL JR (really Keaton’s work, chiefly), a couple of Sydney Chaplin features including THE BETTER ‘OLE, and, um, THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929. His son Dean Riesner (note the vowel swap in the surname) would act for Chaplin as a boy, and go on to co-write DIRTY HARRY and marry Vampira, AKA Maila Nurmi. So there’s that.

Once again, Chaplin turns Jackie into a threat, and manages to make Charlie’s ignoble behaviour sympathetic. Reisner insists on his kid brother continuing the fight, but warns Charlie —

This is enough to make Charlie look straight at the camera, enlisting our support in an Oliver Hardy manner.

Charlie now watches in horror as Jackie successfully enacts the tactics he’s schooled him in. With no chance of a confidential “Let the wookiee win” to Jackie, he’s reduced to helpless spectatorship until, on an inspiration, he steps on Jackie when he’s down and quickly counts him out. But Jackie isn’t in on the gag, and proceeds to beat up his foe some more even as Charlie is trying to declare the fight over. Reisner’s uncomprehending glower during all this is a great bit of dumb dumbshow.

The situation having deteriorated as far as it can, a kop shows up to intervene but is punched out by Reisner (a show of actual strength, rather than just a menacing appearance, is always best for an antagonist). Charlie is next in line. He dodges a bit, then mimes a weak heart (Withnail-fashion: “If you hit me, it’ll be murder.”) A missed punch takes a chunk out of one of designer Charles D. Hall’s brick walls, quite convincingly. The next one bends a lamppost, in tribute to the shade of Eric Campbell.

Enter Edna, to do what the kop kouldn’t. And there I’m going to leave it as I have editing to do, a class to prepare, a walk to take. But watch this space because I might post some more this evening.

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.