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Tomorrow on TCM: 3 Chaplin Classics

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on July 7, 2016 by travsd

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Tomorrow afternoon (Eastern times) Turner Movie Classics will be presenting three classic Charlie Chaplin movies. As a lead-in, almost to whet your appetite before the big feast, they’ll have two Preston Sturgis movies (The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels) and D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. I like it, because it fits as an equation: Sturgis + Griffith = Chaplin. Works for me!

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12pm: Modern Times (1936) 

Modern Times is widely regarded as the last of the silent films, made nearly a decade since The Jazz Singer had made talkies popular with audiences, and five years since the release of the previous “last silent film,” Chaplin’s own City Lights. 

In fact, Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times is largely about that conflict, about a man who is striving to maintain natural human rhythms and proportions in a world that has become regimented and automated. How is his old-fashioned character going to fit into this modern world? How does the anachronistic silent man fit in a sound universe? The film seems like a statement about the question whether Chaplin himself is relevant any more.

Modern Times reflects Chaplin’s two decades-long flirtation with leftist politics in its criticism of a society that values profits before people. Set in an Orwellian near-future dystopia, the film introduces him as an assembly line worker in a factory full of Keatonesque gadgets. Constantly exhorted to speed up, he has a nervous breakdown, a sort of repetitive motion psychosis. He spends the bulk of the rest of the film unemployed, in jail, or struggling to keep up in dehumanizing jobs. To keep it balanced, there are a couple of episodes in which he suffers on account of labor unrest and strikes as well, implying that his real target is any larger system that diminishes the individual. There really is no more plot to it than that.

His co-star in the film was his then-girlfriend, the lovely Paulette Goddard, as the “Gamine,” a sort of cross between The Kid and Chaplin’s heroines of the Purviance era. Feisty and full of the grit of self-preservation, the role might well have been perfect for Mabel Normand during her Mickey period. Goddard is terrific as the resourceful urchin; one of the very few times Chaplin allows himself a leading lady who can match his charisma on the screen.

As Chaplin had said many times and in many ways “we think too much and feel too little.” To the extent that he is an artist who proceeds by instinct and feeling, his satires are thankfully prevented from being straight-up agit-prop for this cause or that. There appears to be much confusion in his head but his work is better because of it. For example, throughout most of the film we are presented with a Dickensian vision of industrialization’s victims, with our heroes suffering from hunger and privation due to their constant unemployment, a problem associated with laissez-faire capitalism. Yet the factory scenes he presents give us a vision much more like the Soviet Union, the visual fetishization of sprockets, gears, and assembly lines, and the constant supervision of Big Brother on a video screen (which was at the time pure science-fiction). In the end he seems to say, along with Emerson, “How shall I live? We are incompetent to solve the times.”

As Modern Times remains one of Chaplin’s most popular films, I feel I scarcely need to recount the humor he mines from the film’s bleak setup: The image of the Little Fellow trapped within the machinery gears ranks with Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock as one of the most widely known images from silent comedy. The nervous breakdown, which starts as a twitchy inability to stop tightening bolts (or things that look like bolts), and culminates in the last of his great Pan dances. The scene where he becomes the test subject for a malfunctioning self-feeding machine (which will allow people to work without stopping for lunch). And the scene where he pays the system back by trapping Chester Conklin in the middle of a large manufacturing device and has to feed his defenseless face during their five-minute break. The repeated comic premise of the Little Fellow trying to get INTO jail strictly for the food and shelter. His arrest for accidentally seeming to lead a communist demonstration (the red traffic flag he is holding doesn’t help). And his single-handed quelling of a prison riot, enabled solely by the Little Fellow’s inadvertent ingestion of a large amount of contraband cocaine (yes, that’s in there!).

To sweeten the pot, he composed one of his most memorable scores for the film, including the hit song “Smile,” and introduced his first scraps of spoken dialogue. Cleverly, he has most of the talk come out of devices. The stern admonitions of the omnipresent boss-head on video screens. A radio in the prison. And then his very own, much-anticipated first words, which he coyly gives to us as gibberish in the form of a song to which he has forgotten the lyrics.

Modern Times was and remains one of Chaplin’s great blockbusters.  Chaplin’s Tramp had suddenly gained new symbolic relevance during the Depression. In 1923, the U.S. unemployment rate had been 3.3%. At that time, the Tramp had been merely an amusing “other.” By 1933, unemployment had hit 23.2%. A quarter of the audience (if they could afford a dime for the movies) was out of work and suddenly—terrifyingly—the Tramp was someone they could relate to.

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1:30pm: City Lights (1931) 

Despite being released well into the sound era, City Lights may be thought of as Chaplin’s last movie of the silent period, as work on it began in 1927.  Before he had finished it (granted he was taking an exceptionally long time) the entire industry had switched over to talkies. So now his project was burdened with being more than just a silent movie. It sort of had to be THE silent movie, to put a period to the entire silent era, and perhaps the entire history of pantomime as a popular art form. Thus the movie aspires to be not just a silent comedy, but also something more like a clown piece for the stage, a pantomime in the modern French sense. (By the way, Paris is known as the “City of Light,” a nickname that goes back to its place as the first European city to be illuminated at night with gaslight. The name evokes a bygone, glamorous era.) Thus redoing the film as a talking picture was unthinkable; Chaplin had devised it pretty deliberately as a mimoplay. It depends on a delicate balance of gesture-based scenes. Introducing speech to the equation would make Chaplin’s stereotyped situation seem like weaker broth than it really is.

The plot is about the Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakenly thinks he’s a millionaire. Meanwhile, the Tramp is also hanging around with an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), who has a distressing fair-weather habit of recognizing and embracing Charlie only when he’s drunk—and not recalling a thing the morning afterwards. Eventually the Tramp procures funds for the girl’s eye operation (eye operation!) from the drunken millionaire, only to be arrested for theft when the latter sobers up. When the Tramp gets out of the pokey, he finds the flower girl to be in possession of two good, working eyes. Which means, sadly that she can see him. And that he isn’t a millionaire. The complex beat on which the film closes—of her realization and his trepidation when the truth is revealed—has been called by many critics one of the greatest and most moving moments in all cinema.

The new element (and this is why City Lights is the next chronological high-water mark for Chaplin after The Gold Rush) is that he also composed an original musical score for the film (filled though it may be with borrowings and quotations) and a funny soundtrack of effects and comical gibberish substituting for speech. In some ways it’s a more complex undertaking than just writing a screenplay and recording actors talking.

But complex or simple it’s still a pantomime. Chaplin intended for it to be such, and it is. You cannot, as George Jean Nathan tried to do in a 1934 essay, castigate the story for its lack of originality. Chaplin never intended for it to have any. There are only a limited number of plots in this world as it is. When you begin to boil the cast of characters down to “Tramp” and “Blind Flower Girl” things get awfully simplified indeed. That is the convention.

Also there’s a feeling of closure as the film’s theme applies to Chaplin the man as well. City Lights contains a sense of summation of his career, a recap of all that the public loves about him: there are the comical drunk scenes, the run-ins with policemen and other authorities, a comedy boxing match, and the pathos of a hopeless love-from-afar.

Chaplin had kicked off the era of classic comedy features with The Kid; it was only fitting that he should end it with City Lights.

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3:00 Limelight (1952)

Limelight was a victim of history twice over; if not for two accidents of history one imagines it would have been hailed by press and public upon its release. But that’s not what happened. Chaplin’s last huge success had been The Great Dictator, over a decade earlier. Unfortunately, he had followed it up with Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a movie so deeply unpopular with the American public it single-handedly tanked what had theretofore been a spotless, almost infallible career. Chaplin was all but pilloried in the wake of this film’s release, which is particularly a shame since the public was likely to have embraced his next film as Chaplin’s Triumphant Return if circumstances hadn’t prejudiced them against even checking it out.

Limelight (1952) is not so much a comedy as a drama about a comedian – a down on his luck, aging clown with an alcohol problem, someone who used to be great but now can’t even get work. He pulls himself together to become the mentor and salvation of a suicidal ballet dancer played by Claire Bloom. Along the way there are bits of pantomime as Chaplin’s music hall performer (named Calvero, and quite distinct from the Tramp) takes the stage. We finally get to see Chaplin’s flea circus routine (previously filmed in fragments in By the Sea and The Professor) in its entirety. And there is the tour de force comedy scene between him and Buster Keaton, the only time the pair appeared together on film.

By all rights, this should have been Chaplin’s last film, as was originally planned. His artistic reputation would have been intact, the story caps his myth, and it is the only picture in which his character dies. Talk about Oscar bait! But as great as Limelight is (and the script and performances are terrific, too) the film never had a chance. As Chaplin sailed to England for the promotional tour, he received a wire saying that his re-entry permit to return to the U.S. had been revoked. Rather than suffer the indignity of reapplying, he spent the remainder of his life in American exile in Switzerland. (This is the second accident of history I mentioned. This mishigas meant Limelight was never properly promoted or distributed in the U.S. after its initial release, leaving critics and audiences to discover it gradually over the ensuing decades).

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Tonight! See “Old Hats” Streaming Online!

Posted in Broadway, Clown with tags , , , , , , on April 2, 2016 by travsd

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Tonight (April 2, 2016)!  BroadwayHD will be streaming live Signature Theatre’s production of Old Hats with Bill Irwin and David Shiner so you can see it from the convenience of your own home! And they also have several other shows on tap and on demand. I noticed the current production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child ; that would be high on my list. This is an idea whose time has come and I think the possibilities are limitless.   Tonight’s show streams at 8pm at https://www.broadwayhd.com/.

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Take This Class With One of the Funniest Performers I Know

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , , on January 5, 2016 by travsd

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In the Wee Hours on TCM: Circus Clown Silents

Posted in Clown, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , on November 3, 2015 by travsd

Tonight (tomorrow) in the wee hours on Turner Classic Movies: three silent features about circus clowns.

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12:45am (EST): He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

The very acme of over-the-top storytelling, based on the play by Leonid Andreyev and directed by Swedish director Victor Sjöström (rendered “Seastrom” in most American advertising). In this one, Lon Chaney plays a scientist whose life’s work AND girlfriend are stolen by a devilish Baron, who compounds the humiliation by slapping him in front of all his colleagues, who then proceed to laugh at him. Traumatized, he naturally becomes a circus clown whose entire job is to re-enact this same humiliation night after night after night. THEN, to top it off, that Baron shows up one night and begins attempting to steal the NEW love of his life (Norma Shearer). This of course is too much and Chaney does what he can to prevent it. But this is a tragedy — don’t go looking for a happy ending. Also in the cast are John Gilbert and two honest-to-God clowns, Ford Sterling and Clyde Cook. This was one of the first movies released by the newly-formed MGM.

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2:15am: (EST): Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

Loretta Young was all of 14 when she played Lon Chaney’s love interest in this creepy but tragic romance, directed by Herbert Brenon. Based on an earlier stage play by David Belasco, and starring Lionel Barrymore, Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) tells the story of Tito, a circus clown who finds a baby and raises her as his daughter (Loretta Young).

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“Yes! Please powder my distinctly prominent nose, my dear!”

When she grows to young womanhood Tito has the horrible predicament of falling in love with her — the creep! If that weren’t dilemma enough, the girl falls in love with a rich, young suitor. Tito solves it all (I can hardly be spoiling it, can I? the ending is pretty famous) with a spectacular death scene in front of a crowded circus audience. This story is one of the origins of the “sad clown” motif, and the film was the origin of the popular song by the same name. Nils Asther also in the cast.

 

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3:45am: (EST): The Circus (1928)

Despite being an estimable hit in its day (the 7th most successful film financially of the silent era), today The Circus is the least well known of Charlie Chaplin‘s silent comedy features. Why might that be? Possibly because it is more “thinky” than “feely”.  The film (which may have been inspired by Max Linder’s 1925 swan song The King of the Circus) begins with the Tramp fleeing a cop on a circus lot after being framed for a theft. His flight accidentally takes him into the middle of the circus ring where the audience, thinking he’s part of the show, greets him with gales of laughter and storms of applause. He is hired as a clown and turns out to be terrible at it. Meanwhile he falls in love with an equestrienne (Merna KennedyLita Grey’s best friend) who makes the mistake of being nice to him. In due course she falls in love with Rex, a tightrope walker (Harry Crocker), a plot point that is not only reminiscent of The Tramp  but anticipates Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932). In the end, the circus blows town, but the Tramp elects to string along alone. The image of him sitting on a log as the show (and his girl) leave without him is at once striking, moving and, well, kitschy, in a black velvet painting kind of way.

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So, this can work on a couple of levels. At its most accessible, it’s set in a circus, and children love the circus. It’s possible to enjoy this film without having a contemplative brain in your head. After all, in one scene Charlie is walking a tightrope with his pants down, with monkeys crawling all over him (see above. It’s one of the highlights of the film). At another remove, however, The Circus is terribly self-conscious. This is a movie about a lonely clown who is having trouble being funny. That’s a formula that may be thought provoking but is probably intrinsically unworkable, despite having been tried many times. Others who’ve given the “accidental comedian” motif a go with varying success included Mabel Normand (The Extra Girl, 1923), Harold Lloyd (Movie Crazy, 1932), Red Skelton (Merton of the Movies, 1947), and Jerry Lewis (The Patsy, 1964). As a comedy premise the deck is stacked against you. The idea of an unintentionally funny comedian is too overwrought, too convoluted to be completely funny. The moments in the film that work best are the ones that are at a remove from that idea, such as when the Tramp poses as part of an animatronic Noah’s Ark display on the midway in order to evade the cop.

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And, given that Chaplin is the clown in question in The Circus, what’s he really about here? Is he frustrated with the fact that the process of creating funny comedy (or any effective art) is not conscious, that it is (as we have pointed out a few times), completely instinctive? It can’t just be summoned at will. And Chaplin is famous for having made entire crews and casts wait around for hours, days and even weeks as he tried to do just that.

Or does Chaplin want to tell us that, like the Tramp, he is actually really a serious person (the kind of person whose voice is more like A Woman of Paris) and that he’s just been sort of railroaded into being a comedian? Another intriguing element in the film is the group of hack professional clowns who work at the circus and whom the audience hates. If the Tramp is Chaplin, who are they supposed to represent? The Keystone comedians? It certainly seems germane to his actual attitude towards them during the early part of 1914. It’s as though he were saying, “It’s not MY fault the world thinks I’m better than those people. Don’t blame me. I was born this way!”

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Then there is the metaphor of getting the Tramp left behind by that circus. On the one hand he seems to be saying “I can take or leave this comedy thing.” But, on the other hand, perhaps he is expressing the fear that history will pass him by. The Circus was released a few scant months after The Jazz Singer. Was he beginning to have doubts that he could keep up with passing trends?

The self-doubt extends into the romantic realm in this picture, as well, a continuation of a theme he introduces in The Gold Rush. When Edna Purviance had been his leading lady, sometimes the Little Fellow would get the girl, sometimes he wouldn’t. Most of his films of the late silent era follow the model set by The Tramp and The Vagabond, generating pathos out of how the Tramp could never get the girl. (In The Gold Rush he had to buy the girl.). The Circus continued that theme.

Production on The Circus was apparently jinxed. Set-backs during filming included a scratched negative, a fire which set the production back for weeks, and personal woes for Chaplin including the death of his mother, his divorce from Lita Grey, and hassles with the I.R.S. In light of all that, we may fortunate that this film emerged as a comedy at all!

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5:15am: (EST): Chaplin Today: The Circus (2003)

Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica shares his impressions of Chaplin’s The Circus in this 26 minute documentary short.

For more on clowns and silent film don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media. 

Get Yerself a Vaudeville Valentine

Posted in Clown, Contemporary Variety, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, PLUGS, Valentine's Day with tags , , , on February 4, 2015 by travsd

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Becca Bernard, clown musician extraordinaire, whom four or five of you may remember from Dead End Dummy last fall, wants you to know about her Singing Telegram service, in anticipation of Valentine’s Day.  Accompanied by her trusty uke, Becca will work with you to customize an original song, which she’ll deliver at your loved one’s home or work (which, is much better I think you’ll agree, because it is more embarrassing). Becca radiates a very positive, infectious spirit (she’s a hospital clown, too) so I’d recommend her and her service not just as a gift for your Valentine or significant other, but for ANYONE you’d like to make happy for any reason whatsoever. DO IT! I’m Trav S.D., a non-paid, non-attorney spokesperson.

To find out more about Becca’s Singing Valentines visit her site: http://www.valentinesdaytelegramsnyc.com

 

On the Great Grimaldi

Posted in Clown, Comedy with tags , , , , , on December 18, 2013 by travsd

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All honor and reverence to the spirit of Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) on this his birthday. Grimaldi expanded the part of “Clown” from the harlequinade portion of British pantomimes into a starring role. Indeed, he made be said to be the reason we call all clowns “clowns” today. Prior to him, the role was a character rather than an entire mode of performance. Some are said to still refer to clowns as “Joeys” today, although I’ve never heard anyone do that. Grimaldi was the biggest star of the London stage of his day, a sort of national treasure. Chaplin aspired to something like his eminence and respect when he himself became a famous clown (he may be said to have exceeded it).

As its Christmas season, expect to be hearing more about the British pantomimes hereabouts in the near future.

For more slapstick and clown history don’t  miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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For more on the variety theateconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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Emmett Kelly (a.k.a. Weary Willie)

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Clown, Irish with tags , , , , on December 9, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Emmett Kelly (1898-1979), whose Weary Willie character was probably the best known (or best recognized) circus clown of the 20th century. Kelly started out as a trapeze artist with the John Robinson circus in 1923; by 1931 he was a full time clown. He b egan as a white face clown, but gradually developed his familiar hobo character Weary Willie over time, a Chaplinesque creation that spoke to the mood of the nation during the Depression.

From 1942 to 1956 he was the star clown of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. He was one of the few sawdust clowns to be so popular with audiences that he broke through to other media: he was in Cecil B. Demille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), he was mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1956), and he did lots of television and this is how he became a household word. Everyone remembers his favorite bit of sweeping up after the show (and stubbornly trying to sweep up the pool of light from a spotlight). And think about it: how many circus clowns were ever on the Carol Burnett Show?

For more on clown and slapstick history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about show biz past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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