Archive for The Tramp

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 Easter Sunday Intertitle: Not One Word

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 17, 2022 by dcairns

But He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly.

Matthew, 27:14
Charles Spencer Chaplin turned 133 yesterday, and he's looking very good on it I think we can agree.

By the time of CITY LIGHTS, Chaplin knew a lot about storytelling. The film’s climax demonstrates both his precision and his looseness. The introduction of a gang of burglars (including supporting clown, gag man and assistant director Albert Austin in his final screen appearance) is certainly loose, even sloppy. Though burglars certainly belong to the kind of world Chaplin portrayed, in classical Hollywood narrative one would normally want to set them up in advance of using them. Strictly speaking, anything you use in the third act ought to have been set up in acts one or two.

But the key element in the climax is the drunken millionaire, who HAS been set up, and developed, in acts one AND two. After his defeat in the ring, Charlie bumps into his old sometime friend, who happens to be cheerfully plastered, and his problems seem solved. Of course, Charlie mistrusts this good luck, and he’s right to do so. The first time the drunk sobered up into a stranger, it was a surprise. The second time, it was still unexpected for Charlie, but established a pattern which he now imagines could be repeated. Important to get the cash from him as soon as possible. But he still lapses into complacency. What could possibly go wrong?

The fact that a random burglary happens that very night is used as the necessary complication, Wild coincidence, Vince Gilligan has compellingly argued, is acceptable if it makes the protagonist’s situation WORSE. Chaplin also takes care to establish the burglars already in the house when Charlie and his sometime friend arrive.

So, the burglars result in the police being called, and the millionaire being knocked out, and it turns out a blow on the head can sober you up — his alcoholic blackouts have behaved much like movie amnesia anyway, so this seems logical enough. So the money has been produced and even given to Charlie — he can regard it as rightfully his — but neither the donor nor the cops (idiots right out of Keystone) nor the disapproving butler recognise Charlie’s ownership. So stealing the dough is fully justified… leaving aside the morality of accepting large cash gifts from a man who’s drunk out of his senses. Well, he won’t miss it, and Virginia Cherrill’s blind girl needs it more than he does…

Charlie gets away with the cash, delivers it, and is then arrested. The parting scene is beautiful, and Chaplin posing himself by the phonograph seems somehow symbolic. Charlie is going away for a while, and the reason is — the reproduction of sound.

Chaplin also understood that a story can’t just reach a climax and then stop. If the story is really about something, some kind of coda is needed. This should probably be brief, but it’s essential. It’s where the story gets to establish what it’s really been about.

There follows a time-lapse — fluttering calendar pages. The title cards at the start of the film all said things like MORNING and AFTERNOON. Now we jump from January to AUTUMN. Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, picks up on what’s different here. Charlie, emerging from prison, seems broken. He walks haltingly, almost limping (the return of the old wound from THE TRAMP?) He has no reserve of bravado or superiority to draw upon when dealing with the nasty newsboys (who WERE established earlier). He is as low as we’ve ever seen him.

His downward trajectory has been matched by the no-long-blind girl’s upward one. She now has her own flower shop (were there a few bucks left over from the money Charlie got her?). She can see. But when she sees Charlie being humiliated by the kids, she laughs. We’re being set up for tragedy.

Throughout the story, especially as soon as the prospect of a cure for her blindness was introduced, the tension created by Charlie’s fake rich man act has been felt. He couldn’t have maintained this illusion forever. And certainly with vision restored, his love would see through the pretence.

What’s needed is a miracle, which Chaplin provides. Not entirely as callous as the rest of the world which she’s been able to join, Cherrill’s character — after a brief interaction through the shop window, which serves as a barrier to dialogue, she decides to replace Charlie’s boutonnière, which, like the rest of his costume, is disintegrating.

Handing him the flower causes their fingers to touch, which is the rational part of what happens. The rest is done by their eyes. Charlie’s eyes convey so much love here: she senses that she’s been looked at this way before. She recognises him.

“You?”

And then, “You can see now?” and “Yes, I can see now.” An intertitle that carries two distinct meanings (at least) — the now refers, mundanely, to post-operation sight, and transcendental, to NOW, right now. She can see now what she couldn’t see moments ago. The truth was concealed behind what was visible. The hero was really a poor tramp but actually a hero.

Frederic Raphael says that the unique quality of cinema is that it can end a story with a look. Chaplin most often uses the traditional long shot, the archetypal walk off into the sunset, which he could practically establish copyright ownership of. But here he uses a closeup. As Kerr says, it’s one of those endings you can’t project forward. Depending on your personality, you may feel that this couple face insuperable difficulties, or that everything has been resolved happily ever after. It’s a transcendentally happy ending, but what does it promise? I think we feel everything will be OK. We are in the presence of love. But the details are not explained, that would ruin it.

Chaplin’s son Sydney tried to explain the emotional power of this scene, and words quite literally failed him. “It’s murder,” he managed. That doesn’t quite cover it, is somewhat grotesquely inadequate. But words are, in the presence of pantomime raised to an art form, inadequate things. Still, the situation, and the perfect closeups, do get a boost by the perfectly chosen words Chaplin puts in the title cards.

You can see now, Yes, I can see now.

The Circus is Leaving Town

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2022 by dcairns

So, Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS has been turned into an exciting serial, but last time I neglected to give you the cliffhanger: when Rex the high-wire guy unaccountably disappears (is there ever a reason given?), Charlie, who has been practising on a rope one foot above sawdust, is suddenly enlisted to hopefully break his neck. Hurriedly getting ready, he accidentally unleashes a platoon of capuchin monkeys belonging to Bosco the magician (no reason why either monkeys or a magician would be present in a circus, but I guess it’s possible, barely).

Not being a complete clown, except by profession, Charlie enlists a props man — the wonderful John Rand — to harness him up on a wire so he can perform feats of derring-do and derring-don’t in complete safety without the aid of a safety net. We anticipate disaster, and we are right to do so.

Rand has been one of the more delightful discoveries of my Chaplin deep dive — an incredibly effective clown, without a hugely strong individual personality but with a lot of style. He seems to specialise in frantic characters, often particularly dedicated kops in pursuit of Charlie, as in POLICE. Here, his perpetually flustered manner is usefully deployed as he’s entrusted with another man’s very life.

The monkey assault was, it seems, Charlie’s initial idea for the whole film — “I’m in a high place being attacked by monkeys or something,” Henry Bergman reports him saying. It sounds like someone reporting a dream, which seems appropriate. Of course Simon Louvish sees the sequence as a metaphor for Charlie’s divorce difficulties, which forces him to assume Bergman is lying. But one could still take a psychological approach to the scene (particularly appropriate the more like a dream the idea is — a fragmentary notion arising from the subconscious) and say it’s inspired by Chaplin’s exposed position as a celebrity who performs for a public, and is prey to attack by critics or personal enemies. It’s relevance to the divorce story becomes coincidental, or prophetic. The divorce and scandal merely fulfill the pre-existing anxiety, the nightmare comes true.

As well as John Rand, we have Josephine, Hollywood’s go-to monkey, who co-starred with Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN and Lloyd in THE KID BROTHER and even Laurel and Hardy in BABES IN TOYLAND (unrecognisably costumed as Mickey Mouse!) I’m unskilled at reading monkey markings so I don’t know which one she is, but as a skilled performer she could have been trusted with any of the more elaborate bits of business.

The different uses of Josephine by the three great silent clowns tells us a lot about them. For Lloyd, she’s originally a threat, part of the film’s array of bad guys, but with typical resourcefulness Harold turns her into a tool, a useful decoy, dressing her in his shoes to lure the villain away. Keaton focusses on her role as organ grinder’s assistant: an animal that has been trained to turn the crank on an organ may also usefully or hazardously operate a Gatlin gun in a Tong war, or a movie camera. Though Keaton’s universe is the most whimsically hostile, generally, it’s Chaplin who uses Josephine and her simian friends or relatives as an attack force. David Robinson continually describes the monkeys as awful or vicious, but I see them as awful only in effect. They’re not savagely attacking Charlie, they’re just, you know, monkeying around. Even the one biting his nose seems interested only in messing with him. The monkeys will, potentially, kill him, but it doesn’t seem to me that they WANT to. In fact, the comic irony of the scene is that small, basically harmless creatures become a menace to life and limb(s). It’s the same gag as the wee dog barking at Charlie in the lion cage.

The unusual situation allows Charlie to get a fresh laugh out of the tiredest old joke, the banana peel. It becomes a bigger hazard, and an unlikelier one (though the association with monkeys is strong and logical) and the anticipation caused by its being in his path is even stronger because his path is so damned narrow. Totally unnecessary to add any new wrinkles — just have him slip on it. Also, Charlie’s trousers falling down, an old gag that’s suddenly funny and terrifying, and also adds to the sense of public exposure and humiliation underlying all this.

Chaplin COULD have emphasised the association with his own life and career by having the audience laughing at his peril, assuming it to be part of his act, but instead they react in terror. This augments the tension — those cutaways of horrified faces are really powerful — but it seems less pertinent to the film’s plot and themes. Oh well, he made a sensible choice, one can’t deny it works.

Excellent use of the pole, too.

Oh, along with the nose-biting there’s another oral intrustion, the monkey sticking its tail in Charlie’s mouth. Maybe the detail that convulsed Fiona the most. I’ve written about Charlie’s oral fixation in terms of the choking gag, and related it to a childhood trauma in the best dollar book Freud tradition — Charlie choking on a coin he attempted to swallow as part of a magic act — money, performance, choking — three big themes. The number of times in his films Charlie ingests metal is astonishing. And of course food and its absence are absolutely defining concepts for Chaplin. And we could also note that sexually Charlie was extremely oral (I just typed oran by mistake, a Freudian ape-slip) — the salacious aspects of the divorce involved his enthusiasm for receiving fellatio. Let’s agree that sometimes a monkey tail is just a monkey tail. Ptui.

Incidental research: since this sequence converted Fiona from a non-fan to a full-on supporter, I decided to try it on my parents, who both declared that they didn’t like his stuff (and probably had to suffer through a fair bit when I was growing up) and they’re not silent film enthusiasts. My Mum was particularly strong in her statement that she didn’t like him. My Dad does have a fondness for both Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon. Anyway, they both laughed hysterically. But didn’t act like I’d changed their minds. Which must prove something: some distinction between laughing at and appreciating.

Miraculously surviving his aerial ordeal, Charlie interrupts the ringmaster beating Merna, delivering not only a kick up the arse to the villain, but a sock in the eye. This gets him fired, and he’s discovered by Merna camped outside the grounds the following night. I’ve seen a beautiful illustration of this by production designer Charles D. Hall. It’s a rare exterior set, because Chaplin clearly wanted to see the moon in the sky.

Incidentally, Hall also illustrated the monkey rampage, indicating it was indeed part of the original plan for the film (this was concept art, not set designs) rather than a direct artistic response to the divorce scandal. Charlie now behaves like he did in THE TRAMP, making way for the better man. By getting Rex married to Merna he assumes the role, in modern parlance, of cuck — but here the role is portrayed as noble and selfless, as indeed it is in the circumstances. The ringmaster can no longer push Merna around as she has a protector with rights, a respected star of the show.

(Ringmasters are usually baddies — they’re bosses, of course, making them natural Chaplin enemies, and they seem to have twirly moustaches as part of the job description. Al Ernest Garcia even does a “Curses!” gesture, a little midriff-level air-punch.)

This stuff is played skillfully played: Charlie maintains the guise of being happy for his friends, no horse in this race, until the circus leaves town and he doesn’t join it.

This is one of his great endings — it hadn’t occurred to me before but the sort of crop circle he’s left in is only an abstract suggestion of the patch of pale grass that’s left when a tent is removed. This is more like someone has scuffed up the dirt in a ring. A big top crop circle. (UFOs and circuses are much alike — they visit and depart, people go in and see inexplicable things and lose track of time.)

Chaplin uses a surprising number of shots, for him. The extreme wide is tragedy, as Welles observed. Then a medium of the pensive ex-clown. His eyes meet ours, a return to the camera intimacy that defined early Charlie, but with the intent melancholy rather than humorous.

Closeup of the tattered star on the ground, also. What’s significantly absent is the standard Chaplin head-to-toe framing. Even when he gets up and leave, we’re much wider than that.

Incidentally, I’d like a restoration of the film’s original cut — this star is supposed to be the film’s opening image, but Chaplin altered that when he added the damn song at the start. Opening on the star and then leaving it in the dust at the end would be so neat. And makes the film more explicitly a film about stardom, something which at this time in his life Chaplin was apparently wishing he could leave behind. But he still had quite a few years left to go…

Charlie walks off, back-kicking the crumpled star, and forcing himself into a jaunty walk. Off to the city lights…