Chaplin’s War Trilogy

Chaplin’s War Trilogy
An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947
by Wes D. Gehring

 “A Pablo Picasso painting might seem an unusual catalyst for a book on Charlie Chaplin.”

Chaplin’s-War-Trilogy-An-Evolving-Lens-in-Three-Dark-Comedies-1918-1947And so begins Wes Gehring’s Chaplin’s War Trilogy (which does, indeed, feature a black-and-white reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica in the frontispiece). Gehring makes the point that the painting of a horrific wartime attack puts him in mind of another piece of art generated from the same crucible of pain and horror, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. And as I’d had my own, less learned, encounters with the movies featured here, I looked forward to a more complete examination.

Complete is a good descriptor, too. Gehring knows that to examine such iconic films, it needs to be in the context of their time, and the case of one of cinema’s first auteurs, also in the context of his life. Thus, Chaplin’s War Trilogy first serves as a fairly complete overview of Chaplin’s life and career, not just the parts directly involved in the three films that form the core of this book. The roots of art go deep, and Gehring attempts, with fair success, to find from whence these movies, with their increasingly complicated ethical outlooks, came.

Beginning with Chaplin’s truly Dickensian childhood in London, Gehring traces the origins of Chaplin’s Victorian outlook, his music hall career and success, which led to Mack Sennett plucking him from an American tour for the movies. That childhood gave birth in time to Chaplin’s signature character, The Tramp, the perpetual underdog in perpetual battle against oppressive authority figures, sometimes winning, just as often losing. There is an essential darkness in that setup, and slapstick comedy always has a dark, violent subtext; that often matters little in most silent shorts, as the actors are generally indestructible cartoon characters (look at Sennett’s Keystone Kops hurtling like meteors through a chaotic universe, none the worse for wear). With Chaplin’s Tramp, though, we have a perceptive artist actively engaging audience sympathies and emotions.

Shoulder_Arms_posterAfter tracing Chaplin’s artistic influences, Gehring begins to drill down into his subject with Chaplin’s incredibly successful Liberty Bonds Tour of 1918, traveling America pounding the drum with fellow matinee idols Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, for war bonds. It’s during this period that the first movie, Shoulder Arms plays, and Chaplin’s darker tendencies begin to get full play. How could they not? It’s The Little Tramp goes to war, for pete’s sake!

Shoulder Arms was the only one of the featured movies I had not yet seen, and I set to correcting that. It’s only 45 minutes long, and time well spent; Chaplin’s genius manages to find humor even in the terrible conditions of a WWI Behind enemy lines in disguisetrench. As Gehring points out repeatedly – and it is, indeed, a point well worth repeating – Chaplin works hard to not fall into the rabid anti-German sentiments of the time. One of the other major box office winners was a propaganda film called The Kaiser – Beast of Berlin. Chaplin treats the enemy soldiers with a fair bit of sympathy – except, of course, for the officers, who are all cads, drunkards and bounders.

Gehring then takes Chaplin through the time he could do no wrong, even into City Lights and Modern Times, essentially silent movies made long after The Jazz Singer had supposedly put paid to them. He pulls together contemporary reviews, all still lauding Chaplin, even for his stubborn refusal to commit to sound. But Gehring also points out that the authority figures in Modern Times are the Police, often in full Depression union-busting mode, which will return to haunt Chaplin, along with his several failed marriages and resulting scandals.

the-great-dictator-1940-6The Great Dictator is the cornerstone of this trilogy, and its darkness is not too problematic, as it is tempered by the lighter side of Chaplin’s dual roles, a Jewish barber who is, for all intents and purposes, the classic Tramp character, although with a profession and a shop to go with it. The Great Dictator‘s controversy stems from the very idea of using Hitler for laughs – though with the typically long gestation period of Chaplin’s later works (four years between Modern Times and Dictator), it is important to remember the true horrors of the Third Reich had not yet occurred. Gehring also documents the forces working against even making the movie, mainly fears that Hitler would close the German market to Hollywood movies. That would happen in any case as America entered the war, and Franklin Roosevelt rather famously cheered on the production.

All the analysis and reviews of the time made me drag out my Criterion blu-ray again to watch favorite parts. No matter how you may feel about the movie itself, Chaplin is brilliant as Adenoid Hynkel, his hours of studying newsreel footage of Hitler resulting in one of the great comic performances – and satiric put-downs – in film history.

Sadly, no. America could not.

Sadly, no. America could not.

Gehring chronicles Chaplin’s marital problems throughout, and though those might have played into the eventual making of Monsieur Verdoux – easily his blackest comedy (certainly one of the blackest comedies ever), Gehring shows that other forces were in play. Based on the real-life serial murderer Henri Landru, it serves ultimately as a condemnation of the military-industrial complex; Verdoux, at his sentencing to the guillotine, pronounces that basically he was doing exactly what nations did in war – killing to survive – but “numbers sanctify”. The same actor who was a cheerleader for the war effort in 1918, who pleaded for peace at the end of Dictator, now savagely condemns the machinery of war; the Tramp is nowhere in sight, and lacking that safety net (or release valve), the movie confuses American audiences and is savagely drubbed by most of the American critics.

Life will get progressively worse for Chaplin, as the post-WWII Red Scare begins to percolate through America, and Chaplin – who had never become an American citizen – was constantly under fire for his liberal pronouncements and his friendship with subversive artist-types. There was a continual threat of his being called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and when he went to London in 1952 for the opening of Limelight, his re-entry visa was revoked.

Gehring is kind in his outlining of Chaplin’s post-exile career; his last two movies, A King in New York (which contains a not-terribly caustic attack against HUAC) and Countess from Hong Kong were made in unfamiliar circumstances and do not reach the heights of Chaplin’s earlier works, but lesser Chaplin is still equal to the best of many. In Gehring’s analysis, it is more likely the sex scandals than any actual political involvements that led to the revoking of Chaplin’s visa (and given America’s ingrained neurosis about anything having to do with sex, this has the ring of truth).

One of the more heartfelt "We're sorry!"s in recorded history.

One of the more heartfelt “We’re sorry!”s in recorded history.

In the arc of the artist’s life, this fall from grace thirty years after he was the major draw for the Liberty Bonds Drive (and for a country he had only recently adopted, no less) is bewildering and not a little crazy-making. Verdoux is the father of many justly-lauded Ealing comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. American cinema would soon enough embrace dark comedy and even begin to consider what they had lost to paranoia and jingoism, resulting in Chaplin receiving the only Honorary Oscar given out in 1972, and a 12 minute standing ovation.  And since some politicians lately have been bloviating about resurrecting the HUAC, it is very important to consider the damage that was done last time, to no lasting benefit.

Wes Gehring is reportedly finishing up another book, logically enough about the dark comedies of the 1970s, the direct descendents of The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. After the care and detail lavished on that dark cinema’s great progenitors, I am impatiently looking forward to reading it, too.

Buy Shoulder Arms on Amazon
Buy The Great Dictator on Amazon
Buy Monsieur Verdoux on Amazon

Oh, alright, times are hard, money is tight, so this is the best-looking Shoulder Arms I could find online. You’re welcome:

Comin’ On Like A… MEGA POST!

100June 16, 2015

So if you watch TV at all, you might be aware that, as I write this, Tropical Storm Bill has made landfall somewhere south of me in Texas, an event that the local media has been trumpeting as if it were the vengeful return of Hurricane Ike, attended by flesh-eating zombies, who were themselves on fire. Grocery stores were emptied out, schools were closed, and I couldn’t go to work. Couldn’t even work on this blog, because my Verizon DSL craps out when it rains. Even the infinitesimal amount of precipitation I’ve gotten so far.

Well, this is what word processors are for, yes? Eventually my Internet has to come back. Eventually my teenage son has to stop barging into my office, demanding I reset “the router” “just in case that might help.” I’ve stopped correcting him that the router and the modem are separate creatures. I just grumble and do it.

In the course of all this madness, as I fall farther and farther behind in everything else, I might as well say, hey, I watched some movies.

THE-INNOCENTS-1961For instance, I watched The Innocents for the first time in, ooooh, maybe 50 years? I didn’t like it back then, but, you know, I was just a kid and all that. I bring entirely new sensibilities to the table. Surely now I will experience it as the classic it truly is!

Nope. I’m going to have to admit that most ghost stories simply do not do it for me, no matter how well made they are, and make no mistake – The Innocents is a well-made movie. Deborah Kerr, as a first-time governess who finds herself in a battle for her charges’ souls against the ghosts of two former servants, felt this was her best role. That’s quite possible. As a child I did not care for the downbeat ending. As an adult I appreciate that Kerr and director Jack Clayton leave the possibility open that this ghost business may all be in the governess’ troubled mind.

Or, if you're Amurrican, you saw this movie.

Or, if you’re Amurrican, you saw this movie.

Well, on then to stuff I appreciated more. Last week we lost a bunch of cool people, the biggest splash belonging to Sir Christopher Lee. I’ve said many times I found him to be an actor of limited range, but he had more presence and gravitas than ten normal actors, and when you put him in the right role, damn but he was unstoppable. One of those right roles was the Duc de Richelieu in The Devil Rides Out, Hammer’s movie version of the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name (the credits remind us it is a “classic novel”).

Richelieu, along with his two-fisted pal Rex (Leon Green) are determined to free the son of their deceased comrade, Simon (Patrick Mower) from the insidious control of Mocata (Charles Gray at his villainous best), a Satanist of incredible power. Fortunately for the good guys, de Richelieu is himself knowledgeable in the ways of magic, and is  able to protect his friends – if just barely – from the black magic onslaught that comes. The story meanders a bit, but there’s hypnotism, spirit mediums, giant spiders, the Angel of Death and Satan Himself (a guy with a goat’s head. It’s 1968, after all, and for that, it’s not bad).

There’s a fair amount of action and derring-do – I seem to remember the novel having a lot more, but then, I read it uhhhh forty-something years ago. A lot of movies about Satanism are pretty dull, but this is not one of them. It really needs a quality video release in the U.S., but I say that about most Hammer movies.


70s, you have so much to answer for.

Then I went to Rick’s for our monthly watching of movies. We had our three movies all picked out, and our pattern of late was two acknowledged classics and one lamentable piece of crap, usually sandwiched between the two classics as a palette cleanser. This time we decided to forego the “shit sandwich” model and start with the non-classic: in this case, the recently-revived Supersoul Brother, which goes by an *ahem* much vulgar title in actuality.

This is the star vehicle for Wildman Steve, a minor league Rudy Ray Moore (who was himself in Petey Wheatstraw as a character named Steve), who plays a wino -named Steve – picked by two thugs to be the guinea pig for a super-strength potion they’ve bankrolled to the tune of six thousand dollars (geddit? Geddit?). The plan is for Steve to carry out a safe from a jewelry store, then the hoods will plug him and make off with the diamonds. They figure this will be a mercy because, unknown to Steve, the formula will kill him in six days. Well, the formula also makes him bulletproof, so he makes off with the diamonds and tries to find an antidote.

supersoul6bigNow that is almost the plot to a decent movie. Unfortunately, this is a Wildman Steve movie, which means it’s a Dolemite movie without the budget, wit or charm.

I’m going let that statement sink in on you for a while. As Rick so very succinctly put it, “This movie makes you re-calibrate your opinion of the Dolemite movies.”

I managed one intentional laugh during the movie. There is also one point during which we said, “You know, this was an okay movie until these white women showed up,” so there are degrees of bad. Predictably, although a derelict wino, Steve has no problem getting women into bed. The mad scientist, Doctor Dippy (Peter Conrad) has a girlfriend played by the magically named Wild Savage, who seemingly took acting lessons from Dolores Fuller, but again, without the budget, wit or charm of an Ed Wood movie.

vlcsnap-2015-04-15-19h33m18s228This was directed by Miami filmmaker Rene Martinez, Jr., whose other big claim to fame is The Guy From Harlem, which, dammit, I own, so someday I have to watch it. At one point we spotted a triple-beam scale in Dr. Dippy’s office and Rick said, “That’s how they measured out the payroll every week.”

Vinegar Syndrome’s DVD is mainly clear and deceptively beautiful, but it has enough missing frames and streaking to really bring home the seedy grindhouse experience. I can’t recommend it, but I also cannot wait to force it on my friends.

Well, I see Everything is Terrible has edited it down to two minutes. Be aware this only gives you the smallest inkling of it’s… uh… quality:

So to soothe our bruised sensibilities, we slipped in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

The_Great_Dictator-335887708-largeChaplin’s first all-sound movie still has stretches of silent comedy (or scenes that would play as well silently), but suffers from some tonal problems. It’s the tale of a Jewish barber who spends years in a hospital, suffering amnesia from injuries in a World War I-style war between the countries of Tomania and Bacteria. Thus he misses the rise of dictator Adenoid Hynkel, his Double Cross party, and his anti-Jewish agenda. Both men are played by Chaplin.

Chaplin’s Hitler manque is justly famous – he spent hours watching footage of Hitler and knows exactly how to puncture the dictator, right down to his adjutants, rechristened Herring (Billy Gilbert) and Garbitsch (Henry Daniell). The Hynkel scenes are so exacting, so precise, that the parallel storyline with the barber seem scattered and happenstance – the Barber isn’t even given a name – until the two switch places, more by accident than anything.

Charlie-Chaplin-in-The-Gr-004It was, in fact, a matter of some curiosity to me that nobody notices the two men are identical. In retrospect, that is absolutely the right way to approach it; as one of the Juden, the Barber is considered by the stormtroopers to be subhuman, and therefore no notice is given to him as a person; it isn’t until the Barber escapes from a concentration camp and is found in a stolen uniform that it is assumed he is Hynkel, just as Der Fooey, taking a pre-invasion vacation in an Alpine costume, is mistaken for a common man.

This is all leading up to the Barber giving a speech when everyone assumes he is Hynkel, to celebrate his conquering of another fictional country; the speech is, instead, one advocating peace and brotherhood, and you have no doubt had it posted to your various timelines more than once, captioned as “The Greatest Speech Ever Made” (and here it is with some Hans Zimmer music, for  extra chills):

Please note that this speech is also one of the pieces of evidence given for branding Chaplin a Communist. Why? Because fuck the world, that’s why.

As I said, I don’t feel the two storylines mesh ideally, but who cares when the two resulting movies are this good? Chaplin was very nervous about his first talkie, so much so that the movie pretty much ruined his relationship with Paulette Goddard, radiant as always as the Barber’s girlfriend, Hannah. He needed not have worried so much, even if in later years he had misgivings about taking a relatively lighthearted approach when the true horrors of Nazi Germany began to come to light. But The Great Dictator had such value as a propaganda tool in the early days of World War II, it cannot be discarded as misguided. Hell, it’s even recorded that Hitler himself had a copy smuggled in so he could watch it. Apparently he did so twice.

mononcle-posterSo, excellent movie, even though I could not, in all conscience, give it the full five stars. Unlike the movie which ended our evening, Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle.

Several years back, when I decided that I wasn’t getting any younger and needed to start experiencing a higher quality of film, this is precisely the sort of movie I suspected I was missing out on. I don’t even know how to begin to talk about it, as the examination of even one of the many wonderful bits of imagery that run throughout the movie leads to the temptation to talk about all of them.

But let’s try. In the introduction to Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, one of the many plot threads concerned a young boy, whose businessman father was too occupied with important phone calls to pay attention to his son (much less enjoy his own vacation), who began to emulate Hulot. In Mon Oncle, Tati makes that connection a familial one.

Mononcle houseGerard (Alain Becourt) is the son of the Arpels; Mr. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) is the manager of a successful plastic hose company; Mrs. Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) busies herself with caring for their ultra-modern and extremely ugly house. Hulot (Tati, as always) is Madame Arpel’s brother, living in a strange apartment building requiring an almost Escher-like path to get to his room, at the very top. Hulot lives in a older, rundown suburb that might as well be the rustic village in Jour de Fête; the heartbeat of life there is much slower and more erratic than in the contained and regimented world of the Arpels.

hqdefaultThus, Gerard looks forward to his outings with his uncle – they promise and provide more adventure and actual living than in his nightmare Tex Avery Home of the Future (at one point the Arpels quite literally become prisoners of their own technology). The Arpels, of course, keep trying to cram Hulot into the pegboard of their lives – Arpel gets him a job in the plastics factory (which goes about as well as you’d expect), while his sister attempts to set him up with their next-door neighbor, a bizarre scarecrow given to wearing Andean rugs as a cape.

Mon_Oncle_Hulot_Arpel-Large1Tati isn’t really against the modernity of the Arpel’s house, he’s more against the fact that it’s a house to be shown, not a house to be lived in – there is not a single comfortable chair in the joint, they are all plastic monstrosities that theoretically double as pieces of art. Even then, Tati is never truly vicious in his portrayal of the nouveau riche couple. Even when the father, tired of his son’s admiration for Hulot, packs him off to the provinces – a rather downbeat ending, in my estimation – Tati manages to wring a bit of sweetness from the proceedings, a reconciliation between father and son that shows the father may not have been totally despising his brother-in-law all this time.

Wow, we just hit 2000 words on this, but I managed to be kind of brief about Mon Oncle, so let’s try to get one more movie in here, continuing the comedy vein with Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night.

smiles-of-a-summer-night-movie-poster-1955-1020235556This was the movie that made Bergman’s bones, make no mistake. He was terribly depressed, and his producer telling him if his next picture didn’t make some money, they wouldn’t be letting him make any more probably didn’t help. Then they entered Smiles into Cannes without telling him, it was a major hit, and suddenly they had to let him make his dream project, The Seventh Seal, which cemented the whole “genius” thing for him. Smiles also inspired Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, but that’s not as much fun as imagining he based Sweeney Todd on Bloodthirsty Butchers.

Smiles is one of those mannered comedies about relationships concerning six couples, most of whom are entangled with the wrong people, and the conniving actress who gathers them all at a country estate so that everybody can get with the right person. Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrad is Egermann, a middle-aged lawyer married to a 20 year old girl, who is still a virgin (also, his depressive adult son, the same age as the bride, is in love with her). The conniving actress is Egermann’s former mistress, who may have had his illegitimate son (which is a surprise to Egermann). She is currently the mistress of Count Carl Magnus Malcolm, a martinet who would allow his own wife to have affairs, if that just didn’t make him so jealous.

smileshaAnd just to add a little spice to the proceedings, there’s the child bride’s saucy maid, played by Harriet Andersson (who blew me away so completely in Through a Glass Darkly), who is herself looking for love. Bergman had apparently been having a love affair with Andersson prior to this movie, but it was over by this point – another reason for his profound depression during shooting.

It’s a complex plot, but Bergman keeps a bunch of balls in the air and brings it all to a satisfying conclusion. The main thrust of the story is that men are are a bunch of idiots and women can make them do anything they want, and I’d argue with that if I could. I was confused through the opening half of Smiles, because Egermann’s relation with his second wife – who he finally admits loves him more like a father than a mate – bears more than a slight resemblance to the life of Moliere, the French playwright who lends much inspiration to this script.

charlottefredrik360Moliere was similarly married to a much younger woman, even more unhappily than Egermann. Back when I was an actor, I played Moliere in a repertory project that alternated Mikail Bulgakov’s biographical The Cabal of Hypocrites with The Imaginary Invalid. In preparation, I read Bulgakov’s excellent biography of Moliere, along with the playwright’s works, and the most revelatory experience was reading The School for Wives, which is about… an older man married to a much younger woman. The final scene is basically a duel of romantic pronouncements between Moliere’s character and his wife’s younger lover. Contemporary reviews of the play mention Moliere’s hilarious puncturing of overwrought romantic plays and their actors in that scene, but knowing the man’s life, you are struck by how easily it could be played as bleakest tragedy, without changing a single word.

There’s quite a bit of that vibe in the opening act of Smiles of a Summer Night. By the third act, I was pretty certain it was a comedy, though, largely thanks to Andersson’s maid and her earthy major domo boyfriend, played by another repertory company member , Åke Fridell. And if nothing else, I liked it a whole lot more than the similarly-themed Rules of the Game.

It’s now June 22, and I have written 2725 words. Good God, I have work to do. Here, take this.

Three Movies That Don’t Belong Together

100April is shaping up to be a killer month, as in next week (known throughout the land as “@#$!ing Tax Week”) will not only damage me financially but physically, a week of non-stop labor that will (at least) end with a Crapfest, but it’s a Crapfest that largely exists because one of our number passed away recently. More on that later. If I survive.

So at least I watched some movies at Rick’s before this horrible month started. We tend to put together three movies that have some sort of connection, but this time we decided to get all eclectic and see what happened. 1308402322One of the things that this “Watch These 100 Movies” Challenge is doing is, at least, getting me off my ass as far as Charlie Chaplin goes, and it turns out Rick hadn’t really watched any of his stuff either. One I had on hand was Modern Timesso off we went.

The major memory I carry with me from my first feature-length Chaplin, The Gold Rush, is that in the opening shot I was immediately introduced to Charlie Chaplin, Serious Filmmaker. I’m not kidding about that. That proto-Herzog shot involving hundreds of people made me reconsider my opinion of Chaplin instantly. So what, then, are we to make of Modern Times, an almost entirely silent movie released in 1936, almost ten years after The Jazz Singer ushered in the era of talkies?

modern_timesIn the extended riff on Metropolis that opens Modern Times, the only time human speech is heard is through machinery: the head of the steel mill commanding his foreman to speed things up through a TV screen (science fiction in 1936!) and a sales pitch recorded on a Victrola record. Everything else? as if it were filmed fifteen, twenty years earlier: silent, with only the occasional sound effect. It’s hard arguing with the result: a master working within a format with which he is intimately familiar and comfortable.

As the story progresses and the title character (and modern times is a character in this movie) frustrates and blockades the Little Tramp at every turn, in the final sequence, even he must give himself over to synchronized sound, with – just as The Jazz Singer did – a song. Even then, losing the lyrics written on his cuffs, he has to resort to pantomime and nonsense.

Modern Times was made after Chaplin had spent a year and a half traveling the world, and talking with people as diverse as Henry Ford and Mahatma Gandhi. He returned to an America still deeply mired in the Great Depression, probably not a little politicized – and it shows. The opening section in the factory is based on Chaplin’s visit to Henry Ford’s famous assembly line, where young men were abandoning farm work for better money and, after a few years working that line, suffering nervous breakdowns. After the Little Tramp suffers a similar breakdown, he proceeds to drift from one attempted job to another, where any whiff of unionizing is visited by police wielding batons. This movie was Exhibit A when the House Un-American Activities Committee decided Chaplin was a Commie. chaplin-modern-times-1936-granger

A breath of fresh air is Chaplin’s then-lover, Paulette Goddard, as The Gamin, a young lady down on her luck, who manages to escape the juvenile authorities when the rest of her family is packed off to an orphanage. On the waterfront, the Gamin is like Tarzan (right down to wearing what appears to be one of Jane’s tossed-off dresses), and her and the Tramp’s run-ins with the Law leads to a partnership alternately heartbreaking and uplifting (and hilarious, needless to say). Once they finally seem to have found their ideal place, it’s those same forces of the Law that rousts them (all other problems solved, they still want to bust The Gamin for vagrancy), and they find themselves on the road again. That isn’t a new sensation for the Little Tramp, but he has a companion. Again, not new, but this time we have the feeling that companion is an equal, and that’s nice. And if Chaplin had to put a coda to The Little Tramp character, the silent era in general, and a last word (ha!) to an America in distress – “Buck up! Never say die! We’ll get along!” ain’t a bad one, at all.

I don’t give out five-star ratings easily. Modern Times got one instantly, and without a second thought. bloodthirsty

We had decided to place a “palette cleanser” in the second position, acting like a raspberry sorbet between courses of a meal. No sorbet this, however, what we had was a blu-ray of Andy Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers. (Andy Milligan on blu. This is an age of wonders.)

Bloodthirsty Butchers is Milligan’s screen version of “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, a piece of penny dreadful literature that dates back to 1846. Lots of folks have taken a crack at the story, including Tod Slaughter – there’s even a ballet, for pete’s sake. This is one of two movies Milligan actually shot in England in 1970. (The other one, The Body Beneath, gets my vote as the almost watchable of his films), instead of trying to make Staten Island look like period Europe. Tim Lucas put it best: Andy Milligan’s movies play out like filmed community theater productions. There are one or two good actors, many mediocre ones, and some oy-god-get-off-the-stage actors. And somebody’s mom (in this case, Milligan himself) sewed the costumes out of whatever was available.

The heartbreak of nailess Milligan hand.

The heartbreak of nailess Milligan hand.

The most fun was finding modern devices in the background, and how every room has the curtains drawn to avoid the 1970 neighborhoods outside; the modern hairstyles and makeup. And yelling “WHO ARE YOU??” every time a new character suddenly cropped up. (Actually, the most fun I had was fantasizing a 40-ish Stephen Sondheim, chilling out from the intense workshopping of Company and catching this crap at a 42nd St. theater. Thinking, “Hey, I bet I could get a musical out of this!”)

Watching Milligan movies is perversely fascinating, but draining. I really can only manage one a year. And I still have these other two blu-rays…

This part, at least, did have us screaming in horror.

This part, at least, did have us screaming in horror.

How was the blu, you might ask? Well, it’s quite clear, but so obviously a 16mm print that was blown up to 35mm the grain should get a screen credit. That’s not the fault of Code Red, who put out the blu – that was standard operating procedure for Milligan and William Mishkin. How else do you think he made movies for only $12,000? Milligan always had his framing too tight, so if you’re watching this on a modern 16:9 TV, reset your aspect ratio to 4:3. Andy had enough shortcomings on his own without adding to them by cropping off what little frame he had.

And I couldn’t find a trailer online. Lucky you. IF

So what were we cleansing our palettes between? Well, Rick has been having a bit of a problem with the entertainment he enjoyed as a youth. Most recently, a few months ago, we watched an episode of Space 1999 which murdered that particular sector of his childhood (the episode had an implied-nude Sarah Douglas, and endless scenes of a slow-motion bouncing ball). Then, a month or so ago, he watched an old cable favorite, Foxes ,with terrible results. So his next attempt to capture the cable glory of his childhood was approached with not a little fear. The movie was Thief, and as I put it, “This is a Criterion blu-ray. How bad can it be?”

Thief was Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature, after a very well-received TV movie, The Jericho Mile, gave him enough clout to convince James Caan to take the title role. Caan plays Frank, who is, you might guess, a thief, and an awfully good one. His two-man crew (one of which is Jim Belushi) and he plan and perform heists that specialize only in cash or diamonds locked inside seemingly invulnerable vaults. This eventually garners the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky, a TV actor also making the jump to movies), a godfather type who wants Frank to work for him exclusively.

caan weldFrank carries in his wallet a photo collage of the ideal life he wants: house, kids, wife. He convinces a waitress he’s attracted to, Jessie (Tuesday Weld) to be the wife and mother in the collage, and once she agrees, Frank also agrees to Leo deal: a couple of big jobs to sweeten his retirement pot, and then he will retire to his carefully-managed secret identity as the owner of a car lot. And that, as they say, is when the trouble starts.

Mann insisted on authenticity, not only from his actors (and the diner scene between Jessie and Frank is still taught in method acting classes), but from his story: there are several actual high-profile thieves in the cast, who were consultants, and lent the movie their tools of the trade (like that huge drill Caan uses in the opening scene). Apparently Caan learned so much under their tutelage he actually cracked a safe in his sister’s house when the mechanism fouled up. burn bar

Rick was gratified: the movie was actually better than he remembered it. For my part, I had owned the soundtrack for something like mumble mumble years, oh, all right, I bought it when it came out in 81. This was only Tangerine Dream’s second American theatrical score, but I had been buying their albums since about 77 or so. So it was nice to finally see the images that inspired some of the music.

But how did I like the movie? Thief is very good, primarily for the reason Rick put forth: its balance between character and technique, Frank’s life and his trade, is almost perfect. Mann is stretching visual muscles here that are eventually going to coalesce into Miami Vice and shape fashion and entertainment for a good portion of the 80s. And the choice of Tangerine Dream is perfect for the neon-lit vistas and brutal technology Frank employs – sometimes the score is almost indistinguishable from the  roar of the drill.

It’s also fun to see other members of the Mann Repertory Company crop up – William Peterson as a bouncer in a bar, Dennis Farina as a gunsel. Good stuff.

Now I need to finish this up, post it, and gird my loins for the next two weeks. I may get to slide in a movie or two, but I won’t get to write about them, until the latter part of the month. Enjoy what’s left of your Easter baskets, kiddies, and be excellent to each other. I should be back.

The Gold Rush (1925)

goldrushIt is a hard, and odd thing to admit – but up until this point, I had never seen a complete Chaplin movie.

Bizarre, isn’t it? I’ve seen plenty of clips over the course of my life, but never even a complete two-reeler, much less his feature-length work. It just never happened.

So here I am, watching what is arguably his most popular feature (a lot of people, Chaplin included, would argue for the more sentimental City Lights, but I ain’t there yet), if not his most profitable, a reputation bolstered by a re-release in the 40s, re-edited and with a new narrative track. That was also supposedly Chaplin’s favored version,  but rebel that I am, I watched the original, silent version. Come to think of it, I’ve never watched any of Lucas’ bowdlerized versions of the Star Wars movies, either.

chaplin-gold-rush-1925-grangerThe first thing that is going to hit you upside the head is the fact that Chaplin was a serious filmmaker. I mean, that goes without saying, right? But the casual viewer enters the movie without realizing just how serious. After a intercard setting up the historical context of the Alaskan Gold Rush of 1898 – “historical” is a bit much, since we’re talking less than 30 years before – we have a shot of hundreds of people making their way up to a narrow mountain pass. Supposedly populated by boxcars of hobos shipped in from Sacramento, this is the sort of practical shot that you can imagine a young Werner Herzog seeing in a darkened theater and thinking, “Ja, this is what I want to do with my life!”

After this, we’re getting into more typical comedy territory, as Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character – in this iteration, “The Lone Prospector” – waddles along mountain precipices, unknowingly followed by a huge black bear, and eventually stranded in a cabin during a horrific blizzard with fellow prospector Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) and the villainous Black Larsen (Tom Murray). Chaplin, intrigued by horror stories of the Donner Party, plays their isolation and hunger pangs for maximum comedy, resulting in two classic bits – one, mined for years thereafter by Looney Tunes, where Big Jim hallucinates that Chaplin is an enormous chicken, and the other, where the Tramp boils and eats his shoe. That such an act of desperation is successfully played for laughs is indicative of the heights of Chaplin’s talent.

thegoldrush-2Eventually, the Tramp hits the boom town and sells his useless prospecting tools. This is where he is going to meet his -and Chaplin’s – eventual lady love, Georgia (Georgia Hale), whose every appearance is presaged by a card with lovely typography announcing “GEORGIA!” Never mind that the lady is a prostitute in the local saloon. Such things were not spelled out, even in pre-code Hollywood, and like John Wayne’s naive Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, the guileless Tramp only sees a beautiful woman, where others see a commodity.

Chaplin – like all the great clowns – believed in comedy leavened with a generous portion of pathos, and the Tramp’s smitten love for Georgia provides all the pathos he needs. The Gold Rush has one of Chaplin’s signature bits, what has come to be known as “The Dance of the Rolls”, when the Tramp, unable to speak how rapturously happy he is to be in the adoring presence of his lady love on New Year’s Eve, instead demonstrates his joy with a spontaneous dance number using two rolls on forks as legs. How serious is Chaplin about his clowning? Look carefully – You’ll see him counting time.

The pathos comes when he realizes this is all a dream – Georgia and her fellow working girls have forgotten the date they casually set with the funny little man and are partying hard at the saloon. And even then, as th Tramp looks in the bar window in an attempt to see his feckless love, there is a sequence where the bar patrons sing “Auld Lang Syne” and the camera picks up close-ups from the crowd, faces we have never seen before, and will never see again, united in that song, and with such a mixture of melancholy, regret and hope that it is incredibly affecting.

goldrush cameraIncidentally, the Tramp doesn’t see Georgia because she, her friends, and her brute of a boyfriend have gone to his cabin “To have some fun with the funny little man”. Georgia feels no small pang of sorrow when she discovers the remnants of the party the Tramp worked so hard to put together, but that doesn’t stop her from carrying on with the brute, culminating in a scene where said brute passes a note confessing her rather bewildering love for the douchebag to the Tramp, resulting in a scene that would have been painful beyond bearing had Big Jim not arrived and carried off the Tramp to help find the “mountain of gold” he found and lost during the blizzard.

In point of fact, Chaplin excised the whole passing of the love note sub-plot from the re-issued version, and that is probably a wise thing. Georgia had already rebuked Brutus the scene before, and her confession of love to him really complicates the eventual romantic denouement we know is inevitable.

The_gold_rush_15No, Chaplin has whisked us away for one more classic comedy setup: he and Big Jim wind up once more at Black Larsen’s cabin, the one landmark Big Jim can count on to find his missing claim. A violent windstorm actually moves the cabin during the night, depositing it on a precipice and causing it to see-saw as its occupants wake and move around. It’s probably the first time a set was built on gimbals to tilt so wildly, and the sequence has some pioneering miniature work involving the cabin and even a tiny, articulated Chaplin. Again, it’s a set-up that is going to be utilized over and over again in the coming years.

As luck would have it, the cabin’s precarious position is just outside Big Jim’s strike, so at the end of the movie we have the delight of seeing the Tramp in rich man clothes (though old habits die hard, and he still scrambles to pick up a discarded cigar butt). While he and the equally opulent Big Jim are interviewed and photographed on the deck of a cruise ship, we find out that GEORGIA! is also a passenger, setting up their final meet and romantic clench, which in the context of the ’25 version, feels rote and unearned. The older, wiser Chaplin set it up better in the later re-issue. Still, there are few better things than to follow a sympathetic character in a rags-to-riches story and see him get the girl, unless it would be to also see the brute boyfriend get eaten by a bear.

goldrush3I watch The Gold Rush not entirely tabula rasa; there was a series on PBS in the 80s called The Unknown Chaplin, which I avidly devoured. In it was shown a treasure trove of Chaplin’s outtakes, which served as a marvelous examination of how the man worked. He used the studio as a sketchpad, basically, working scenes over and over with variations to see which  played best, which produced the best laughs. It’s estimated that his first feature, The Kid, had a shot-to-print ratio of somewhere around 55:1. It’s a small wonder then, that The Gold Rush was one of the most expensive silent features ever made – but then again, as one of the most profitable, it proved a risk well worth taking. After this would come The Circus, and then the coming of sound, with which Chaplin would have something of a problematic relationship.

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