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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

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

A Touch Of Méliès

Georges Méliès was a conjuror at heart – a magician who truly had the calling to be an artist of illusion.  Starting in 1888 Méliès performed his magic act at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, an establishment he purchased with money made from selling his share of the family footwear business.  He loved to mystify, and it is fun to think of his own mystification upon first seeing the Lumière brother’s demonstration of their motion picture projector.  This seminal event in film history occurred  at the Grand Cafe in Paris in December of 1895.  Méliès was hooked.  He would soon turn the Robert-Houdin theatre into a movie house, showing the works of Edison, among others.  Before long he designed his own camera, and was not only exhibiting but making films.  He formed his own company, STAR FILM, and his early output was very much like the typical product of the time: Each film was a few seconds long – trains arriving at a station, waves crashing on a beach etc.  But the soul of a magician (and a story-teller) was nagging at him…

It was a discovery he made on a Paris street that would lead to his becoming the first master of special effects and fantasy films.  One day, as he was filming city scenes, his camera jammed.  Fixing the problem in a matter of minutes, he was ready to begin shooting again.  Upon developing the film, he was fascinated by what he saw: People magically transformed into objects; carriages disappeared and reappeared from out of nowhere.  These were in effect, the first jump cuts, as well as the first time-lapse shots.  Melies’ revelation would change the course of cinema.  As far as the visualization of a movie was concerned, anything was now possible.  The Lumière brothers captured reality on the screen, now, led by Méliès, filmmakers could capture true magic.  Of course, this did not mean that he was disinterested in cinema realism.  There were his “reconstructions”, sober recreations of topical events of the day.  Such films as DREYFUS AFFAIR (1899), his reenactment of the French military case.  Because he had to tell the whole story, it was necessary to include dozens of scenes and locations.  Thus his films were longer and more elaborate than much of the product of the time.  He was also known for films of  past historical events.  His JOAN OF ARC (1900) contained a dozen scenes and over 500 performers. 

Most historians believe Méliès to be the great innovator in creating story films, though there are those who credit female director Alice Guy-Blache (also French) with this achievement.  Her film LE FEE AUX CHOUX (1896) may have predated  Méliès’ story films by several months.  In any case, he certainly did more than any other filmmaker to advance the idea of entertaining audiences with narrative movies.  And that magicians soul…

It was the genre of fantasy and science fiction with which Méliès would be most identified.  And with good reason.  Full of mischief and a joyful spirit of adventure, these films offer a dizzying cocktail of trick effects, dancing-girls, fanciful men of science (to Méliès, the ultimate magicians), naughty sprites, playful demons and the overwhelming sense of Méliès (and his audience) having a good time.  In A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), perhaps his most famous and typical film, he combines many of these elements into a story sixty-seven years ahead of its time.  With over thirty scenes, the film is more than 15 minutes long  and begins with astronomers debating the endeavor and  dissolves to scenes of workmen building the craft that will carry the explores to the moon, depicted as a delightfully cheesy celestial body to say the least.  While there they encounter devilish (but always comical) beings, barely escaping with their lives.   Not exactly scientifically accurate (the director could not be heralded as a prophet of Aeronautics) , the film does foresee the excitement and sheer spectacle of the 1969 moon landing. 

Despite the flights of revolutionary imagination in his films, there is a single, deadly flaw that runs through all of them.  It is a cinematic flaw and it may have led to his downfall.  It seems that this master magician never understood the basic building blocks of cinema, the techniques quickly mastered by his contemporaries, men such as G.A. Smith and Robert W. Paul.  These are the techniques that are still used in modern cinema: Breaking down scenes into different shots of divergent angles.  The use of close-ups, medium shots and long shots.  He never caught on or never cared.  Virtually all of his scenes are photographed using the same master shot.  In BLUEBEARD (1901) a scene called for a detailed shot of a key, screaming for a close-up.  Yet he opted instead  for a giant foot long prop key to get his message across.  Perhaps because of this cinematic blind spot, the market for his films eventually vanished, like in one of his special effects.  In 1911 he had to borrow money from the Pathe brothers to continue production.  His next film THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE (1912) is among his most charming with a giant snow monster that is a marvel of engineering and design.  Nevertheless, he was soon out of business.  Soon after that, he was forgotten.  He destroyed the prints of most of his films (only 200 or so survive) and returned to his first love: Performing his magic act.  In 1923 he filed for bankruptcy.  In 1928 a revival of his films began and a few years after that he was awarded the “Legion Of Honor” by the french government.  He was also awarded a rent free apartment where he would spend the rest of his life. Georges Méliès died in 1938 at the age of 76.

July 23, 2012 Posted by | early cinema, film directors, French cinema, silent film | , , , , , | 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