Archive for Walter Kerr

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

The Kid IS the picture

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2021 by dcairns

THE KID, continued.

Charlie’s job apparently also afford the opportunity to meet and flirt with housewives — I’ve just read Jack Trevor Story’s Live Now, Pay Later, a funny, bleak kitchen sink dramedy or dromedary about buying on credit, a new craze of the sixties, and the “tally boys” of the story are great seducers of bored housewives. Unfortunately, Charlie is fooling with a kop’s wife. Chaplin reveals this with an artful wide shot of the corner, showing Charlie and the missus chatting by the window on one side, and the kop coming home via the door on the other: Hitchcockian suspense a la MARNIE’s safecracking scene (Hitchcock observed in 1964 that his former preference for intercutting was now “old-fashioned”).

A great “he’s behind you!” moment as the kop appears at the window, and the framing actually suggests the scenario of the Punch and Judy show which is where Chaplin as a lad may have learned this routine, a sure-fire way of getting the audience hysterical with both laughter and tension.

When the kop kollars Charlie, amusingly, he thinks its the housewife putting her arm around him, and it takes a moment for him to realise his mistake even when he’s being throttled. My English teacher Mrs. Chapman explained this as “poignancy” or “dramatic irony,” neither of which seems quite to suit the comedy version.

After that, the inevitable chase isn’t a show-stopper, but has some nice tight alleyway shots — think Griffith’s PIG ALLEY perspectives but in fast motion — and shows CC’s ability to cut from (I think) location to studio and back, seamlessly.

Time for lunch! Huge ladle-loads of steaming muck. Looks kind of appealing to me, but then I’m on the low-carb Mediterranean diet so pretty much everything does.

Edna, meanwhile, has become a theatre star. No particular reason why this should have to happen, but the narrative function it fulfills is to remove any sense of financial need, and let her focus on the absent child. And make her well-equipped to care for him, if she should find him. Chaplin cut back on Edna’s scenes when he re-released the film, evidently feeling he’d given her screen time because she was his friend and regular co-star rather than because the picture needed it. And perhaps because, as Walter Kerr suggests, her stuff is “sentimental” in the bad sense.

Edna’s maid is May White, who we just saw as the first victim of Jackie’s window-smashing spree. A spot of makeup renders her easily able to do a Henry Bergman.

Speak of the devil, here’s Henry as “Professor Guido, impressario.” Yeah, don’t know why we need him here.

Then a walking wall of flowers comes in, carried by a little Black kid. Nice to see a non-white character given something to do that’s not outright degrading.

One little seed is planted for later: a mysterious bunch of toys is brought in by May White…

Back to Charlie & Jackie, finishing their meal. Jackie has acquired some of his foster father’s delicacy, requesting a splash of Charlie’s glass of water to make a fingerbowl. He dips his hands in it, then wipes them on his shoulders, and drags his sleeve across his mouth, rather ruining the genteel effect. Charlie then borrows some of the water and wipes his own hands and face on the tablecloth. This focus on behaviour, the gags buried deep within it, is the kind of thing Chaplin could rarely get away with at Keystone but had already been itching to try.

Edna, meanwhile, is handing out toys in the neighbourhood. Fulfilling her maternal instincts, or searching for her lost son? And is that May White in a third role, as a friendly slum mum?

There’s quite a weird shot here, ostensibly depicting Edna as she goes into a thoughtful dwam at the babe in her arms, but actually favouring Charlie & Jackie’s front door. Of course the unusual effect is completely lucid: without her knowing it, that door is exactly what she’s thinking about. And now Jackie comes through that door, which was the true reason for the framing. I’m not sure whether Chaplin always intended to use the negative-space-that’s-really-positive-space in this way, or if it was chance that in covering the scene he got this useful and expressive material.

Jackie is, of course, adorable. By avoiding the melodramatic cliche of the mother and son instantly recognising each other, but showing an instant bond between them, Chaplin can build greater suspense and BETTER MELODRAMA.

And on that poignant note — with more than half the film left to run — I’m going to leave it there for today as I have a shit-tonne of work to do. Might mean I’m still writing about THE KID through next week, but I hope nobody objects to that.

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.