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THE KID (1921)

THE KID (1921) is Charlie Chaplin’s first real feature. He had previously appeared in Mack Sennett’s full length 1914 production of TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, but only in a supporting role. With THE KID, Chaplin was in complete control. He wrote it, directed it and played the lead role – that of his soon to be legendary “tramp” character. Developed during a series of shorts at Essanay and then Mutual Studios, the tramp was allowed full flowering in this First National Studios release. With its mixture of whimsy and heartbreak, THE KID gave audiences a richer version of the profoundly impoverished yet elegant little man who through it all sported a three-piece (though shabby) suit and a proper bowler hat. And his walking stick was always on hand to add a regal touch.

As the film begins, an unwed woman (Edna Purviance) has just given birth to a baby boy, and feeling hopeless, wanders the streets in a daze with her newborn. Chaplin emphasizes her internal struggle by cutting to a statue of Christ carrying his cross. This, the first of the film’s many spiritual references, infuses the audience with a sense of the unfortunate woman’s desperation. Desiring to give her child a better life, she leaves him in the backseat of a car in a wealthy neighborhood. But the car is stolen by a couple of thugs, who discovering the foundling, deposit him in an alley. The child has now been abandoned twice and the cruelty of existence is masterfully depicted by Chaplin. Also depicted is life’s serendipity as the next person to come along is the little tramp. Upon discovering the child, he places him along side another baby in a carriage being pushed by a matronly woman who happens down the same alley. Of course the woman balks and the tramp is left with an unwanted companion. But not before he himself tries to abandon the child – several times. He even contemplates leaving the baby in a sewer grate! Along the way he is followed by a cop who complicates his predicament considerably. These complications reveal a wicked playfulness in Chaplin and a frightful pragmatism in the tramp. Clearly, this is a deeper character than we may have previously believed.

Finding a note tucked in the baby’s blanket, the tramp is touched by the mother’s plea for a loving home for her boy. Making the best of things, he takes the baby home to his hovel and is soon a caring adopted father. A title card reveals a passage of five years and that poverty-stricken mother is now a famous stage star. The baby is now a five-year old “kid” whom the tramp calls “John” (Jackie Coogan). Chaplin’s universal compassion is nicely displayed in a scene involving another “kid” – a small black child making a delivery of sumptuous roses to the actress following a triumphant opening night. Touched by the urchin, the mother/actress shows an egalitarian kindness in her generous tipping of the boy. He smiles broadly and happily makes his exit. This sweet little vignette is at odds with so many other depictions of black Americans in the motion pictures of this era. These “Topsy” type characters, often portrayed by white actors in black face, must have been anathema to Chaplin, who as an Englishmen, was unfamiliar with America’s peculiar racial caste system of the early twentieth century.

Later this charitable woman visits the slum on a typical mission of mercy, finding herself holding a neighborhood woman’s baby while sitting on the front “stoop” of the tramp’s home. As she gazes longingly at the child, her own son sits behind her on the doorstep. This haunting moment concludes as the actress unwittingly hands her son a small toy and an apple. She is then on her way to touch other lives. Simply beautiful…

On another trip to the ghetto, the mother, who has befriended John, discovers he is ill. The tramp calls a doctor on her advice. When the physician (Jules Hanft) learns that John has never been legally adopted, the tramp shows him the mother’s note from so long ago. The doctor contacts the “Orphan Asylum” personnel who come to take the child. This gives Chaplin the opportunity to attack the cold, impersonal bureaucracy of government entities. The asylum is represented by two men: a snobbish dapper looking fellow who is clearly the boss, and his driver. The man in charge – dressed to the nines and chomping a no doubt expensive cigar – refuses to look at the lowly tramp or address him directly. “Ask him how old the child is” he tells the driver, among other commands.

When the men try to take John, a comical fight ensues in which the bureaucrat is reduced to a disheveled mess – being knocked down more than a peg or two. However, a cop arrives and the tramp is soon overpowered. John is placed in the bed of the asylum truck like so much garbage, as he pleads to God and cries out for his father. He is whisked away as the tramp scurries through a window, just out of the cop’s grasp. Climbing along the rooftops, he follows the truck, finally leaping onto the back of the truck to save the boy and escape to a flophouse. Because of a nebby proprietor who wants to collect a reward, the boy is taken away to the police while the tramp sleeps. He soon awakens however, and begins a frantic search for his son.

The mother wanting to know if John has recovered from his illness, returns to the tramp’s home just as the doctor is passing by. Unaware of her true identity, he shows her the note she left with the child five years before. She now knows the truth. Mother and child are soon reunited at the police station. But the tramp still searches…He returns home and finding the door locked, falls asleep on the door step – and dreams a silly dream. It is all about angels and innocence and love and how chaos is introduced to the natural order by Satan – or as a title card warns – “Sin creeps in.” Roses are everywhere in this dream. They line the houses and sidewalks and instantly remind us of the black child presenting the roses to the unwed mother turned actress. Carefree, the tramp flies through the air on giant wings in a visualization of the exhilaration of love – romantic and familial. The flight is also a surreal take on the tramps earlier flight over the rooftops to save his child. Highly comical, this dream scene is also potently moving – especially when a cop arrives to shoot the tramp in mid-flight causing him to fall dead on his doorstep. The image of the broken man laying in a crumpled heap at his door is amazingly shocking coming as it does at the end of such frivolity. It is also a perfect symbolic recreation of the many times cops have interrupted his relationship with John. The cop shakes the fallen angel in an attempt to revive him. Chaplin then dissolves to the same cop waking the sleeping tramp and taking him away in his police car. But he doesn’t arrest him. Instead he takes him to the front door of the actress’s mansion where he is warmly greeted by mother and child. John leaps into his arms as the cop roars with approving laughter at the sight of this heartwarming reunion. The cop leaves and the little tramp is invited inside.

A surprising subtext to THE KID is Chaplin’s apparent belief in (or at least respect for the belief in) the saving power of faith. Along with the opening shot of Christ the film also gives us scenes of the main characters saying “Grace” and praying before bedtime. The mother quotes from the Bible and of course, there is the harrowing brief prayer in the back of that asylum truck. Throughout, Chaplin shows a respect for faith that would be scoffed at by most modern filmmakers.

Also notable is the film’s visual style. Told almost entirely without title cards, THE KID finds its greatest pictorial acumen in a procession of witty pantomimes that are as surprising as they are funny. The best example of this is the blanket scene. As the tramp awakens one morning, the audience is made aware of a large hole in his blanket. He slides under the bed cloths, his head momentarily disappearing then popping up through the hole. The odd little man stands, letting the blanket fall around him like a poncho! All dressed for breakfast, he makes his happy way to the table. With moments like this in his films, it is no wonder that Charlie Chaplin would soon become, in the words of actor and close friend Norman Lloyd, “not only the most famous actor in the world but the most famous man in the world.”

CREDITS: Produced, Written and Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Photographed by Roland Totheroh. Edited by Charlie Chaplin. Music for later rerelease by Charlie Chaplin. With: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan, Jules Hanft, Jackie Coogan Sr.

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June 26, 2013 Posted by | classic cinema, film comedy, film directors, film editors, screenwriters, silent film | , , , , | Leave a comment

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942)

To quote Don Ameche, “Things change.”  For all our stiff-necked opposition, progress, for better or worse, is inevitable.  Transformation, whether of a society or of an individual, is at the heart of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), Orson Welles’ follow up to CITIZEN KANE.  Though wrestled away from Welles by studio bosses and eventually mangled and truncated, AMBERSONS manages to be a worthy successor to his cinematically adventurous and dramatically astounding debut.

In late nineteenth century Indiana, Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), the daughter of a wealthy businessman known as “the Major” (Richard Bennett), secretly loves Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) but marries the milquetoast (and much safer) Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway).  They have a son George who is, to say the least, incorrigible in his youth.  He grows to adulthood (here portrayed by Tim Holt) as nothing more than a slacker, in the modern vernacular, and he scoffs at innovation in general and Eugene especially, who is fascinated by the prospects of “a new type of horseless carriage” or automobile, in other words.  Eugene invests his money in bringing the idea to fruition.  He meets with great success and his fortunes rise dramatically even as the Amberson’s falter.

A film about change, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is filled with amazing cinematic transitions.  The most impressive of which are found in the famous “sleigh ride” scene, as Eugene desperately tries to crank start his new car.  Welles and his editor, Robert Wise, cut from the image and sound of the crank to shots of a sleigh hurrying along the winter landscape, jingling sleigh bells filling the country air.  Over and over they cross-cut these visual and audio effects, more and more quickly each time, until the car finally starts, its motor drowning out the sound of the bells.  This  symbolic victory of modern technology over the old ways will not be an easy one, however:  The car soon stalls, and the horse-drawn sleigh runs wild causing its occupants, George and Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter as Eugene’s daughter) to tumble onto the snowy banks.  Like the runaway progress that will later be illustrated in the film, nature can be wild and dangerous as well.  Eventually, all the main characters pile into Eugene’s car and drive off shakily into the future.  The scene ends with a bucolic “iris out”, a quaint silent movie technique, and is followed by another startling transition: Accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s  grim, forbidding music we fade into a shot of the Minafer’s front door opening to usher in mourners.  Wilbur has died.  This is the most somber and oppressive scene in the film.  Wordless, all is told by images – and Herrmann’s music.  Coming after the electricity of the sleigh ride/auto scene, it is all the more effective.  The old ways are truly dying.  As Eugene says earlier in the film “Times aren’t gone, they’re dead.  There are no times but new times.”

To Booth Tarkington’s genteel novel of changing times, Orson Welles brings a Santa’s sack full of expressionism and energy.  Like much of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, Welles’ film has many scenes set on or around staircases.  Staircases, of course were a favorite motif of German expressionist directors, and here as in those earlier films, the winding stairs seem to represent the ups and downs, the fortunes of each individual life’s journey.  A key scene set on stairs involves George’s first encounter with Lucy, a woman he will soon love.  They are seated on the steps, he on the left side of the screen with Lucy opposite him.  A bannister post rises up between them and reaches, with its ornamentation, to the top of the frame, splitting the image in two.  The old-fashioned opulence of the Ambersons lifestyle as represented by the staircase post, will come between them.  His lack of willingness to change is one of George’s identifying characteristics.  Another revelatory scene on this same set occurs when Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead – in a wonderful turn as a sexually repressed biddy) confronts George with her belief that Isabel has loved Eugene all along, even while married to Wilbur.  Other moments are shot from the stairs or are photographed from the viewpoint of a child peering through the slats of the bannister.

Eugene’s words that changes brought by the automobile to society may not be all positive, are treated by Welles as prophecy.  As the film progresses and Eugene’s business flourishes, the sounds of car engines and horns become overwhelming, even when the noisy machines are not shown.  This is especially notable as George and Lucy walk along a city street, discussing the changing fortunes of the Ambersons.   Later, it seems ironic in the extreme when George is hit and nearly killed by a car.  But by this time he has proven himself to be a better man than we may have expected.  While the vanishing wealth and subsequent accident suggest that George Amberson Minafer has “finally gotten his comeuppance” (as the townspeople had wished) his behavior in the face of it is surprising.  He decides to look for a job in a high paying but dangerous profession so as to provide Fanny with a comfortable existence.  His transition from nere-do-well to practical man is complete.  Throughout the film neighbors refer to George as “Mr. Amberson” suggesting the dominance the Amberson wealth has over him.  We have the feeling at the film’s conclusion that he will finally be correctly addressed as “Mr. Minafer”.

After the accident, Lucy visits George in the hospital and it is suggested that the full-blown romance he has always yearned for may become a reality.  The rise of the modern automobile based society has been a mixed blessing as Eugene (and Welles) had predicted.  It nearly lead to George’s death but it was also responsible for true love blooming – and the blossoming of a new age.

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS represents Orson Welles at his near best.  While CITIZEN KANE and TOUCH OF EVIL are the ultimate expressions of his talent, AMBERSONS contains many of his hallmarks: From the moody photography of Stanley Cortez, here doing his best to outshine Gregg Toland, to the elegant camera movements and “lightning mixes” of sound and images.  And, of course, there is the Welles stock company of players, many with him since his radio days.  These include Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorhead and Erskine Sanford.

Welles claims forty-five minutes was cut from the film by meddling studio executives.  What idiots these bunglers were.  The “suits” haunted Welles throughout his career and one is left to wonder “what might have been?”, for Orson Welles’ larger body of work, and for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in particular.

CREDITS:  Written and Directed by Orson Welles, from the novel by Booth Tarkington.  Photographed by Stanley Cortez.  Edited by Robert Wise.  Music by Bernard Herrmann.  Starring Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins and Erskine Sanford.

October 7, 2012 Posted by | American Film, expressionism, film directors, film editors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)

Rupert Julian didn’t have much of a career after the coming of talkies, but his successful silent work reached a peak with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).  This classic melodrama stars Lon Chaney as the menacing/pathetic Phantom who becomes obsessed with a beautiful singer in a Parisian Opera house.  He lives in the catacombs beneath the house, of course, and this metaphor for the subconscious artistic psyche provides Chaney with plenty of opportunity for creeping about and causing general unease in the young lady and the film’s audience.  You know the rest of the story which became immortalized through several film incarnations and the blockbuster stage musical. 

As usual, Chaney provides his own make-up for the film and this disfigured entity is one of his greatest achievements.  The amount of discomfort he endured to bring the Phantom to life is most impressive.  He employed springs in his nostrils to give them that distinctive bestial flare.  Even more amazing, he tightened wires around his eyeballs to make them bug out in a ghastly gaze.  This is a lot of suffering for his art, reminding us of the pounds of clay he carried around to give the impression of a massive hump (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) and his bending his legs and having them tightly bound to create the illusion of being a double amputee (THE PENALTY).  As was always the case, the unpleasantness he endured for THE PHANTOM was well worth it – if only for the unmasking.  It is the most memorable scene in the Chaney cannon and 85 years after it first unfolded before startled audiences it still has the electricity to provide an unmitigated jolt.  As it is the first view we get of Chaney’s incredible make-up, the terror it creates is understandable.  But it is a mistake to underestimate the contribution made by director Julian and the film’s editor, Maurice Pivar.  The staging is so immaculate, the timing of the cuts so astute that the impact is enhanced immeasurably.  As the phantom plays the pipe organ in his underground lair, the opera singer beauty he has kidnapped (Mary Philbin) lets her curiosity get the better of her.  Slowly she moves closer to the enraptured organist, who is unaware of her intentions.  In fact, he does not even notice her sneaking up on him.  She reaches for the mask – then pulls away.  She will try again.  Just as she reaches for it a second time, Julian and Pivar cut to a head on close-up of Chaney.  Instantly the mask is pulled away and the horror revealed – and as he later stated in a television interview – Robert Bloch has a laundry problem.  Bloch, author of PSYCHO, was a small boy in 1925 and was among the people traumatized by Julian’s and Pivar’s expertise.  The experience was a direct influence on Bloch’s work (one thinks of that shower curtain pulling away as an extension of the removal of Chaney’s mask) and his desire to create heart stopping shocks in his audience. 

Rupert Julian is now a footnote in cinema history, his career petering out with the end of the silent era.  But for that one moment, that glorious scene in the catacombs, he was a master of his craft. 

CREDITS: Directed by Rupert Julian.  Supplementary direction (final chase) by Edward Sedgwick.  Written by Raymond Schrock, Elliot Clawson.  Novel by Gaston Leroux.  Photography by Charles Van Enger and Virgil Miller.  Edited by Maurice Pivar.  Art direction by Dan Hall.  Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry and Gibson Gowland.

August 6, 2010 Posted by | film directors, film editors, silent film | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment