Archive for Walter Kerr

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.

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

The Sunday Intertitle: The King Gets Off

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2022 by dcairns

Intertitle from THE SACRIFICE, a stupid home movie made by Lord Mountbatten at the time of THE CIRCUS’ shooting, and starring Chaplin as a South Sea tribal monarch. Badly shot, titled, acted, preserved and transferred, it makes me resent every second Chaplin wasted hobnobbing with the upper class. But hey, it gives us a title! The first useful thing it’s achieved in almost a hundred years of existence.

“Sheer perseverance to the point of madness” was how Chaplin described his approach to getting ideas. The phrase could also apply to the shooting of THE CIRCUS — the film was completed despite a storm destroying the big top (a “blow-down” in carny-speak), lab problems which rendered several weeks’ worth of rushes unusable, a horrific divorce that halted filming for eight months (the show was “sloughed,” in carny terms), a fire which swept the Chaplin studio, destroying sets and equipment, and the theft of the entire circus train on location by a gang of playful students who were narrowly prevented from torching the lot for kicks. Several difficulties that the carnies don’t even have terms for.

With all that stress, little wonder that Chaplin omitted the film (and the marriage) from his autobiography.

By the time THE CIRCUS was released, there must have been doubts as to whether the public would even accept Chaplin again, so scandalous was his divorce. Among the lurid details exposed was Chaplin’s fondness for oral sex, then illegal in California (I believe it’s compulsory now). The sex secrets seem pretty innocent now, though Chaplin’s lust for teenage girls less so. He paid a penalty for that this time. One possible consequence is that the romances in Chaplin’s next few films become EXTREMELY chaste. Already, in THE GOLD RUSH, Georgia Hale is an impossible aspiration for Charlie, but she IS a sex worker, and he DOES keep her picture under his pillow. Future leading ladies are virginal, and so, it seems, is Charlie.

The film begins with a song Chaplin recorded himself when he scored the movie in 1970 — he seems to have rearranged the opening to introduce his co-star Merna Kennedy along with the song “Swing, Little Girl.” He makes sure to give himself a credit for this, whereas Josephine the monkey isn’t credited for her contribution, and Henry Bergman’s training Chaplin on the tightrope goes unmentioned. (As David Robinson points out, the hard-to-picture circumstances in which the portly HB acquired this knowledge are unrecorded by showbiz history, and this must be deeply regretted.)

The fun of the big top segues rapidly into dark melodrama as Kennedy’s ringmaster father looms over her with his whip. The score continues to play festive circus music, but more dimly, so this is score-as-source, a useful dramatic counterpoint to the cruel scene.

He’s even mean to the clowns: “And you’re supposed to be funny!” he snarls. So, two story problems are set up in under three minutes: Merna has a rotten father, and clowns aren’t funny.

At last — three minutes is plenty of time to spend waiting for Charlie — our star is introduced, “Around the Side Shows, hungry and broke.” Chaplin always, or nearly always, does something fun with his entrance, capitalising on the most famous silhouette in the business. Here he enters from the back, in longshot, as part of a crowd, from whom he instantly pops out via movement and costume.

This begins a complicated pickpocket routine which seems to find an echo a decade later in LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS. The broken-nosed thief (Steve Murphy, who also played louts for Keaton in SHERLOCK JR and Lloyd in SPEEDY), caught by his mark, plants the incriminating wallet on Charlie, and then has trouble getting it back.

But this gag sequence is interrupted by another, in which Charlie robs a tiny child of his hotdog. It’s all done with kindness. Chaplin makes googoo faces at his mark-in-arms, charming him until he’s practically shoving the revolting meat product down the tramp’s throat. This kind of bad behaviour is whimsically charming, especially when Charlie adds ketchup to the r.m.p. The kid, in fact, does seem a bit eager to cooperate, and we cut just as he seems about to hand the entire bun to his robber.

Murphy now strikes, and is caught by a kop trying to steal from Charlie the wallet he’d previously stolen from (checks IMDb) Max Tyron, a German thesp whose only other known role is in GREED. Charlie is astonished at the recovery of a wallet he didn’t know he had, and his reactions as the kop makes him check the contents are a delirious dream. He’s having a good day, really, though a strange one.

Charlie, buying more meat, is apprehended by Tyron, who recognises his wallet and watch, and flees, joining Murphy, who has slipped away from the kop and is also fleeing. A moment of astonishment and irony as they recognise their shared situation. We can also appreciate Charles Daniel Hall’s sideshow sets.

The mirror maze sequence looks forward to LADY FROM SHANGHAI and back to the day in 1917 when multiple Chaplins were hallucinated all over America, and to various events in which whole crowds dragged up in tramp attire for a lark. Chaplin’s very uniqueness seemed to inspire fantasies of multiplication.

More false Chaplin as our man impersonates a jerking automaton on the front of the sideshow, taking the opportunity to repeatedly cosh Murphy when the crook is forced into a similar imposture. The fact of Murphy being unable to retaliate without breaking character (the kop is watching) is deliciously mean. Chaplin’s old bullying instincts get plenty of expression in his later work, but he’s careful to play an underdog who has only momentarily got the upper hand, and is making the most of it. I guess already here the circus is trying to absorb Charlie, or he’s trying to get absorbed by it, and it’s not quite happening.

Fleeing the last kop, Charlie finds himself in the ring where he disrupts the clowns’ act and the magic show and convulses a moribund audience. This gets him unexpectedly hired, and we enter into the section of the film dealing with Charlie as clown. Critic Walter Kerr is really harsh on this trope, seeing it as inescapably false: Charlie can’t get laughs by deliberate capering, only by accident. To Kerr, this is denying the hard work and artistry that goes into Chaplin’s work. He has a point, but I’ll try to mount another couple of readings of what’s going on here, and maybe offer a defence.

In Chaplin’s films, the other characters don’t normally find Charlie funny. We’re in on a joke they’re not in on, and that he’s not generally in on, which gives us a slightly smug feeling of superiority and therefore a comic distance from the action.

Chaplin’s films, clearly, are happening in a comic universe, in which situations we find absurd are treated with the utmost seriousness by all concerned. No doubt this is partly because it’s hard to see the funny side when you’re in trouble (“Comedy is a man in trouble.” ~ Jerry Lewis) but in a way that’s just an excuse to stop the characters laughing and make room for the audience to do so.

Certainly things get a bit mixed up when Chaplin, a silent clown, plays a man playing a circus clown in a movie. But I think we have to forget about this being Chaplin’s analysis of his own creative process: Kerr is right, it’s not an adequate portrayal of that. But I think it’s an excellent portrayal of something else Chaplin may have felt.

In the sequences where Charlie manages to make the circus customers laugh, he’s really experiencing serious discomfort or danger. This is analogous to Chaplin the artist’s situation: he presents his (real) suffering, and we the audience laugh at it. I think Chaplin may have sensed the strangeness of the way he was recycling his experiences of poverty and also loneliness (which continued, intermittently, long after he became hugely successful) and getting big laughs with it.

We can also look at the character of the tramp as being different from Chaplin. The way one finds success as a clown need not be the way the other does it. In the comic universe of Charlie, what has to happen in order for his antics to be seen as funny, rather than irritating? (Most of the people he comes into contact with seem to find Charlie hugely annoying, which should be relatable for non-Chaplin fans, but doesn’t seem to help them any.) It seems that all he needs to do is step onto a stage or into a sawdust-strewn tent, and his floundering is seen as amusing. We may see some of this come back in LIMELIGHT, Chaplin’s other key film about performance (maybe MONSIEUR VERDOUX also counts?)

Act One of THE CIRCUS fades out with a title card and an image depicting Charlie’s new status, and his obliviousness to it. He’s asleep in a chariot, a vehicle with an air of pomp and regality to it, unaware that the world has repositioned itself under him while he slumbers…