Archive for Tom Wilson

The Little Punk

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2021 by dcairns

I think we can forgive Jack Coogan Sr. for calling his son a little punk, but maybe not for spending all his earnings as a child star, or for taking him to see a lynching. Anyway, dispel those thoughts from your minds because he’s now about to appear as an actor.

But let’s get back to where we left off. Maybe deduct a point from Chaplin for failing to give Edna a closeup when she discovers the note proving Jackie is her long-lost son. The emotion still comes across, so maybe it doesn’t matter. Add a point, but a weird one, for the fact that he has the insert shot of the note wobble about as if the hand holding it is in a state of high emotion. We won’t worry about the naked thumb that sways into view holding the paper — Edna is wearing gloves in the wide shot.

Charlie & Jackie have been forced to abandon their garret, as the law is after them — a rare instance of actual consequences for criminal action being depicted in a Chaplin film. Usually you just run away from the kops and your troubles are over. But now they know where he lives. The ever-versatile Henry Bergman makes his third appearance in this film as the lodging-house proprietor whose premises Charlie resorts to. Bergman is disguised with a long beard, but isn’t doing the full Jewish stereotype Leo White would have treated us to (and did).

Charlie has only a single coin to gain admission, so he has to do a Laughing Gravy with Jackie, smuggling the lad in through a window and keeping him concealed. Good comic suspense.

Jack Coogan Sr.’s face (and character) ideally suits him to the role of pickpocket, his thieving hand straying towards Charlie’s baggy pants even as the rest of him is seemingly asleep. Emerging from behind Charlie, it seems at first that he’s grown an extra arm, an anatomical illusion gag in line with Charlie’s own thieving hands routing in A DOG’S LIFE, or the dance of the bread rolls.

Charlie allows Lightfingered Jack to pillage his pockets, secure in the knowledge that he’s penniless, but when the thief actually discovers a tiny coin, he actively encourages the search, after relieving the cutpurse of his ill-and-all-too-briefly-gotten gains.

Some good hide-and-seek with Bergman leads to Jackie’s discovery, and the last coin must be surrendered.

But now Bergman learns that the law is after Jackie — there’s a nifty iris-in on his newspaper coupled with a dissolve to a big close-up that makes it feel somehow like the magnification has been turned up on a microscope. And we get the first DESCRIPTION of Charlie anywhere in a Chaplin film: “a little man with large flat feet and small moustache.”

The ad looks like it’s been pasted straight onto an existing newspaper but never mind. Add one thousand points for the detail of a housefly strolling casually across the page, mickeymoused by Chaplin’s score.

Bergman reads the ad, and the reward decides him, it seems: he can tell himself he’s rescuing a kidnapped child, I guess. He abducts the slumbering Jackie, leaving Charlie to wake in fright and find his son stolen away in the night. We can see his lips say “John,” the only other time the Kid’s name is mentioned, I think. actually, I’m no good as a lipreader but I think he might be saying “Jack.”

Jackie did in fact go missing during the shoot, falling asleep behind some scenery and then waking up to watch, fascinated, as everyone hunted desperately for him. He got a licking from Jack Sr.

Good realistic night scenes as Jackie is handed over to the police and Charlie runs desperately through the streets. Dawn is less realistic: a backcloth has been added to the T-junction set, representing sunrise. Interesting to see. The sky has been stark white in earlier scenes — I think what we’ve been seeing is a diffusing scrim stretched up above the set walls.

Edna turns up at the stationhouse in furs and feathers to claim her child — evidently she wants to dazzle him with her affluence. The feathered hat allows us to appreciate how infernally draughty it is in that cop shop — an open air set.

Charlie, hatless, still clutching Jackie’s cap, arrives at his own doorstep, evidently tired and footsore. He lies down and dreams — the third Chaplin dream sequence, or is it the fourth? All of HIS PREHISTORIC PAST is a dream, and SUNNYSIDE contains one definite vision, maybe two.

Third act dream sequences are tricky — this one may have inspired the ballet in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, which is similarly predicated: the hero thinks all is lost, but in reality it isn’t. The audience is encouraged to share Charlie/Gene’s misapprehension, but to make this dramatic low point last, a phantasy is concocted. I never feel this really works in dramatic terms, though there’s no denying the brilliance of the invention displayed by Kelly, Minnelli, Alton, Lerner et al, and by Chaplin and his team here.

The idea of staging heaven on the streets Charlie knows is a terrific one. Without that idea, it wouldn’t be worth doing. There’s no particular reason for an afterlife fantasy — Charlie doesn’t think he’s dead, and has no reason to think Jackie’s dead.

J.M. Barrie, “king of whimsy”, according to David Robinson, thought the sequence too whimsical. It’s also hard to find any of it funny given the suspended emotional crisis this stuff is wedged into. Francis Hackett in The New Republic praised the scene, though, for imagining and depicting the limited imagination of Charlie’s character: he only knows these streets, so the Heaven he imagines is set here, and has all the same problems as earth, only with wings on (and lots of flowers and balloons in the street).

An intertitle identifies this as “Dreamland,” which sort of gets around the obvious “Why heaven?” question. A young Esther Ralston and Lita Grey, Chaplin’s second wife of four years’ hence, are among the juvenile throng, but only the winged spaniel really impresses.

Charlie gets himself outfitted with wings and a chorister’s smock — from an obviously Jewish tailor. Shades of Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule. I think, from the bay window, this is Henry Bergman in appearance #4, with a false beard and silly-putty nose.

Sin creeps in: Jack Coogan Sr. in red devil costume creeps past the dozing gatekeeper (Henry Bergman, appearance #5, going for a new record) with a couple of acolytes.

And you were there, and you, and you! Charles Reisner’s street tough is magically transformed into a good citizen, full of sweetness — he’s unable to avoid making himself seem slightly sissy.

At the demonic Coogan Sr.’s suggestion, Lita, in angel form, vamps Charlie, showing a fifteen-year-old ankle. Chaplin’s ephebophilia is most nakedly displayed in this sequence.

Also, this dream is only five minutes long, but I always thought it was twenty, because that’s how it feels. We want to know what happens next, for real.

Trouble in paradise — Lita, who is very cute, but cute like Jackie Coogan, provokes jealousy in Mr. Reisner, and the feathers fly. We could argue that just as Charlie is unable to imagine a Paradise separate from the neighbourhood he knows, he can’t imagine one without fight scenes either. God’s Kop (Tom Wilson again) arrives to break up the war in Heaven, Charlie flees/flies the scene, and something that never happens in Chaplin’s earthly police altercations occurs: Wilson draws a revolver and shoots him out of the sky.

Jackie rushes to the fallen angel, mouthing “Dad!” and DISSOLVES INTO HIM.

At this point, the expiring angel Charlie COULD go into a dream within a dream, a new afterlife nested in the first — it could be like INCEPTION. But, fortunately, he wakes up instead — going from an angelic corpse being manhandled by Wilson, to a live mortal in exactly the same situation.

Hollywood screenwriting #101: you create dramatic peaks and troughs zigzagging between triumph and disaster, and you try to make the chart intensify as it goes on, so the third act looks like a heart attack. You try to make the final switch go from ALL IS LOST TOTAL DISASTER to SAVED HAPPY ENDING in a single beat, which Chaplin more or less accomplishes here by having Wilson take Charlie, not to prison, but to Edna and Jackie.

Tom the kop laughs indulgently as father and son embrace. Yeah, whatever, we still don’t like you, pig.

Walter Kerr appreciates this as being like the end of CITY LIGHTS — it ends exactly where it has to. How will Jackie adapt to his new surroundings? What will Charlie’s position be? These are largely unanswerable questions, but fortunately outside the scope of the story being told, so Chaplin knows exactly what he has to do:

FADE OUT

Enter Jackie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2021 by dcairns

The story is worth repeating: Chaplin saw Jackie Coogan, aged four, in a show with his dad. He danced the shimmy, which was considered hilarious because that’s a sexy female dance. There was some discussion about hiring the kid but it was dismissed. The subject came up again a day later, for some reason, and this time ideas started popping all over the place, between Chaplin and his gag men / supporting cast. They quickly made inquiries. Disaster! Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had signed Coogan while they were wasting time. Then: relief! It was Coogan Sr. he’d hired! A deal was quickly struck for little Jackie’s services, and his dad came along as combination childminder and bit player.

Jackie kind of looks like a tiny, tiny Arbuckle: Roscoe really missed a trick.

Time passes:

Wide shot of a typical Chaplin T-junction. Jackie is sitting on the kerb, manicuring himself with Keatonesque solemnity. It’s incredible to me how Coogan aged into Uncle Fester, but you can just about see the resemblance by an enormous effort of imagination. It’s like he was given a transfusion of Drew Friedman’s ink.

My friend Danny’s uncle, I think it was — or great-uncle? — was in the war with Jackie. Well, they were both in the war, and they met one time. Jackie’s greeting: “Shake the hand that holds the prick that fucked Betty Grable.”

And yet, he’s cute here.

Silas Hathaway, the baby version of the Kid, is immediately forgotten. He would live to be 98 without doing anything else that need concern us here.

In A DAY’S PLEASURE (and SHOULDER ARMS’ deleted scenes), Chaplin had toyed with the idea of children as miniature versions of himself, but those were almost identical mini-mes (Keaton did the same thing in THE BOAT). Jackie is his own personality, but the baggy pants and beat-up boots establish a relationship with Charlie.

Great moment when Jackie, after buffing his nails on his bare arm and admiring the shine, rises with an almighty roar of a yawn and stretch — but Rollie Totheroh is too slow to catch it properly. I’m surprised a retake wasn’t attempted, Allowance should perhaps be made for the fact that THE KID was edited in a hotel room (in defiance of fire regulations, nitrate stalk being highly flammable) while Chaplin hid out from his wife’s divorce lawyers.

Jackie enters the flat and Charlie tells him to “Put the quarter in the gas meter.” The first dishonest act. The great point of THE KID is that Charlie is, on the one hand, a terrible father who teaches his adopted son to do crimes, and on the other hand the perfect father because he provides love, food and shelter.

Jackie’s nails pass inspection, an analysis of his earholes is satisfactory, but his throat and the minute nose are less salubrious, the nostrils, barely the size of the adult Coogan’s pores, requiring the handkerchief’s ritual intervention. Jackie’s face is turned decorously away from the camera while he gets nasally scoured, a delicate touch.

I wonder how many in the audience laughed as soon as they saw Jackie picking up stones and Charlie strapping on his glazier’s kit? Does everyone need to see the act played out in order to get the joke? It’s definitely funnier when you see it.

Jackie emerging from behind a street corner is just a perfect image, it has it’s own ineffable rightness. As does the undercranked shot of him retreating across the street at high speed.

Jackie smashes a window. May White, a Chaplin actor since his Keystone phase, emerges, in old age disguise. Charlie wanders up, doing his best to look like a happy coincidence. He is commissioned to replace the broken glass.

But Jackie runs into difficulties — a kop — on his third window.

Beautiful bit of mime. You just know Chaplin acted everything out for Jackie to copy, but Jackie — “the greatest child performance in film history” (says Roddy McDowall) — had to be brilliant to be able to channel the moves. Here, he throws away his rock playfully, attempting to give the impression, as forcefully as possible, that he is a nice boy who never throws stones at windows. Then he does a “Look, a baby wolf!” routine and legs it.

The kop does not take the incident seriously. But…

Well, you can watch my Criterion video essay on this.

The kop now finds the broken window, and Jackie seems altogether less innocent. Then he finds Charlie, and suspicions, as yet uncertain and inchoate, begin to materialise:

He’s a slow thinker, this kop (ex-pugilist and soldier Tom Wilson, a blackface specialist), but he gets there in the end. Realisation dawns when he sees Charlie and Jackie together. Charlie realises this danger but Jackie doesn’t. Charlie tries to shoo Jackie away, even shoving him with one boot. This is the problem of accomplices — they may get the basic scheme, but do they understand the potential consequences, the need for denial and secrecy, can they improvise if the plan goes pear-shaped? I recommend solo crimes.

Walter Kerr points out the shocking nature of the scene — a father rejecting his son — while admiring the beautiful way Chaplin gets away with it. It’s because he makes this tiny child into a THREAT, we’re proofed against focussing on Jackie’s feelings, though we certainly understand them. And the incongruity of someone so small and innocent posing such a danger is funny.

I’m determined to get THE KID finished by Sunday, I know this is taking ages… But it’s the first Chaplin feature (not counting TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE) so I want to give it sufficient appreciation.

Charlie’s Day Out

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2021 by dcairns

Legend has it that MGM changed the title of its 1927 Anna Karenina adaptation from HEAT to LOVE, because a prospective marquee reading “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Heat” would have been comical, bit “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love” would be commercially appealing. With that in mind, the title card “Charlie Chaplin in A Day’s Pleasure with Edna Purviance” may be thought unfortunate.

“Music by Charlie Chaplin” — the fact that it doesn’t say “Charles” makes me wonder if these titles are director-approved. The rambunctiousness of the score may be explained by the fact that the person Chaplin is humming the tunes to is Eric Rogers, of Carry On film fame, rather than the more artful David Raksin. The tunes are as catchy but the tone is different depending on the personality of the notator-orchestrator.

The premise of this one was later used by Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and no doubt a gaggle of others. A family outing. Edna, tow Charlie mini-mes, and the man himself emerge in turn from a respectable Los Angeles bungalow. It’s a very L&H style sunblasted suburban sprawl setting. The idea of Chaplin kids dressed as smaller versions of the man himself had been tried out in a deleted scene from SHOULDER ARMS, which may be an early clue that inspiration is a bit dry.

In fact, this film was begun as CHARLIE’S PICNIC, a follow-up to SUNNYSIDE, which was shut down after the same creative problems caused production to grind to a halt. Then Chaplin discovered Jackie Coogan, started THE KID, and inspiration once more began flowing freely. But partway through shooting that film, Chaplin realised it was going to be bigger and more complex than anything he’d attempted before, and he had First National breathing down his neck. So he dug out the shelved footage from the picnic film and very quickly, by his standards, shot material to complete it. Although the mental logjam apparently triggered by his miserable marriage had broken, working at this speed had never really suited Chaplin and he’d gotten used to the luxury of time. So A DAY’S PLEASURE bears the signs of haste.

Charlie is swathed in a greatcoat, marking the character as more settled and respectable than usual. He cranks the boneshaker into violent motion, but the motor keeps dying just as he steps onto the running board. I suspect the presence of hefty stagehands shaking the vehicle from the lee side.

The jalopy is abandoned almost as soon as it appears, as this is to be a boat ride. Maybe some memory of the outing to Southampton Charlie experienced with Hannah and Syd when a boy. Standard fat lady humour: when a big woman misses the boat and ends up stretched between it and the dock, Charlie, also late, is able to use her as a human bridge. Then, when she’s dangling from the starboard, he tries pulling her aboard with a dangerously spikey looking boathook. Mercifully, the victim appears to be a large man in drag (Tom Wood? The fat peoples’ credits on Chaplin films at the IMDb are very confusing). David Robinson suggests she’s a woman, Babe London.

The rocking boat allows Rollie Totheroh to get his camera gimbal out again, but a dance floor sequence on deck produces no real gags. The black jazz quartet accompanying the hectic jig escapes too much racial mockery until the intertitle “Three minds with but a single thought” gratuitously ruins things, and also gets the number of musicians wrong. “They have suffered too much ever to be funny to me,” Chaplin would later say, but when the comic muse is AWOL, low-hanging (strange) fruit is duly plucked.

The inevitable mal de mer business ticked off, Charlie entangles himself in a complex deckchair which resolutely fails to come alive the way ONE A.M.s Murphy bed had. And the violent rocking of the camera really gets in the way here. Chaplin is going through the motions in an unsuitable sitcom scenario about bourgeoise family problems, something he has no feeling for nor experience of. Still, it’s only a two-reeler and I’ve never seen it before so at least it’s short and new.

Through convoluted means, Charlie, so seasick he’s coming off as inebriated, collapses across the lap of another stout lady, and is covered with a blanket by an attendant. When the woman’s husband arrives with refreshments, Charlie’s waving hand, emerging from under the blanket, is mistaken for the woman’s. A dim echo of the brilliant alien hands routine from A DOG’S LIFE. It’s unconvincing spatially: I would have thought the bodies and limbs could have been arranged to make it work better. For a better example of the same kind of thing, see Lorelei Lee and Mr. Spofford in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, arranged around a porthole. (“Quit it.”)

This leads to a fight with the husband (burly ex-boxer Tom Wilson, rather a colourless antagonist), interrupted by seasickness — as the husband leans over the side, Chaplin rains kicks and punches on his upthrust buttocks. A coward at heart, Charlie always waxes belligerent when his opponent is handicapped in any way. One of his less attractive qualities — which always seem to emerge when he’s feeling hurried or uninspired.

Still, he disembarks victorious. Which is a problem for me, because the loose structuring device of these kind of comedies is “a series of disasters/frustrations/mishaps”. Certainly the film tries to evoke that notion with the next bit of action, introduced flatly as “The hold-up at the crossroads.” Actually it’s the most inventive sequence.

Charlie manages to upset a traffic cop, tiny, obstreperous Loyal Underwood and his womenfolk, a haulage firm, Henry Bergman as two separate men, Toraichi Kono his chauffeur in real life (Mrs Kono apparently objected to his earlier appearance in THE ADVENTURER, feeling that acting was beneath a respectable driver’s dignity, but here he is again), and a couple of tar-spreaders and their vat, which is quite literally upset.

When Charlie and Bergman (in his second guise, as a second cop or kop) both get their feet stuck in the tar while arguing, the film actually threatens to become amusing. Charlie leans forwards at a super-Hulot ankle-straining angle, then pulls himself erect by the seat of his pants, a good piece of comedy physics.

Leaving his flap-shoes and both kops hopelessly sunk in bitumen, Charlie escapes using a policeman’s cap as stepping stone, making the film’s title, and the final intertitle “The end of a perfect day,” oddly UN-ironic.

Chaplin was still stuck in a disappointing marriage, and partway through production became father to Norman Spencer Chaplin, born incomplete — mostly missing his brain. The child died after a few days.

Victims of such birth defects are not usually viable, though I was once told by a nurse that the custom is to starve them so they die as quickly as possible. Glen David Gold gets quite a bit of high drama out of this tragedy in his novel Sunnyside, concluding with the horrific moment at the funeral when Chaplin sees that the mortician has arranged his son’s features into a grotesque SMILE in the tiny coffin. True.

Are we having fun yet?

Chaplin managed only two shorts in 1920, neither of them up to his exacting standards. ADP was released in December, and he didn’t manage to get another film in cinemas all through the following year. But when THE KID appeared in February 1921 (this is its centenary!) any suspicions of creative bankruptcy would be utterly dispelled.

It’s masterpiece time.