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Where East is East
Where East is East
DVD ~ Lon Chaney
Price: $14.68
21 used & new from $10.39

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Browning and Chaney's delightfully demented popcorn opus, March 19, 2013
This review is from: Where East is East (DVD)
Like a true auteur, Tod Browning essentially kept remaking the same film. He was a peculiarity in Hollywood. He refused an agent, generally refused assignment scripts and, instead, consistently sought out material that interested him.

Where East is East (1929) was the last of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations, it was the last of Browning's silent films, and it contained many themes from their previous efforts together.

The heavily scarred, large-feline-monikered Tiger Haynes (Chaney) is an animal trapper who has an uncomfortably playful relationship with his daughter Toya (the bubbly Lupe Velez). Their relationship alters between games of feline patty cake and overt protection. Daddy and Toya's relationship gets thrown its first monkey wrench when Toya acquires a new boyfriend, Bobby (Lloyd Hughes).

Acting like a jealous lover, Tiger refuses to warm up to Bobby, until Bobby assists Tiger in saving Toya from a real tiger. Now Bobby is a real swell and welcome to the pride. While delivering tigers on a cruise to the East, Tiger and Bobby run into Tiger's ex-wife and Toya's mother, Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor, the real-life one time wife of Jack Dempsey). For Bobby, Sylva is the embodiment of oriental fantasy. She is a true tigress with a jealous, soothsayer-like female servant (hints of a lesbian relationship). Sylva spews her man-baiting poison on the intoxicated Bobby, in order to exact sexual revenge on Tiger and parental revenge on their daughter,Toya. This is a reversal of West of Zanzibar (1928), in which Chaney was the parent exacting parental revenge on a whelp. The incestuous relationship hinted between Tiger and Toya (on Tiger's part, twice unrequited) is paralleled in Bobby and Sylva.

Sylva enters Toya's world and repressed, invisible secrets threaten the illusory fabric of Tiger's world. Of course, some animals devour their young, and Sylva, one step removed, attempts to incestuously devour Toya. Unfortunately for Sylva, behind a fragile cage she has a nemesis in a gorilla holding a grudge for secret, past abuses. It is the savage animal kingdom that will exact revenge. Chaney, impotently declawed, scowls and threatens Sylva from the sidelines until he unleashes the beast, which will end in paternal sacrifice for the daughter he cannot possess (shades of West again).

Where East is East hands the film to Taylor, who, reportedly, managed her off-screen relations with men in a fashion similar to Sylva. Luckily, Taylor is up to the part, as is Velez, who conveys innocence, diverse emotions, and energetic sexual charm. Chaney is excellent as usual, in the secondary, castrated role.

One off-screen note of interest: "Mexican Spitfire" Velez and Taylor became quite close after working together in this film. Velez, pregnant and abandoned, spent her last hours on earth with Taylor, before departing her mortal coil with the aid of Seconal. Somehow, in the Browning universe, that is an apt, dark underside to the narrative.

Needless to say, Where East is East does not subscribe to any sort of orthodox realism. It is representative of the blue collar surrealism that both Browning and Chaney espoused and can be best enjoyed with a heaping plate of elephant ears and cotton candy, along with a well-worn copy of "The Interpretation of Dreams."

* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies


West of Zanzibar
West of Zanzibar
DVD ~ Lon Chaney
Price: $14.68
22 used & new from $10.39

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An over the top and typically idiosyncratic collaboration (plus a bonus), March 19, 2013
This review is from: West of Zanzibar (DVD)
West of Zanzibar (1928) is missing some footage, but, unlike the earlier The Road to Mandalay, it is in much more viewable state. Enough of Zanzibar remains intact so as not to appear too fragmentary. Originally tilted Kongo, West of Zanzibar is the most flagrant, delightfully vile of the Browning/Chaney Oedipal absurdities.

Chaney plays Phroso. Phroso is married to Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden) and together they work in a Limehouse music hall as a magic act (in the early scenes as the magician, the protean Chaney gives a remarkable, Chaplin-like performance). Behind Phroso's back, Anna is carrying on an affair with Crane (Lionel Barrymore). When Phroso and Crane inevitably fight over Anna, Phroso falls from a great height, forever crippling himself. After a short time has passed, Phroso is told that his wife has returned to town, with a baby, and is in the local church. The dead-legged Phroso zips down to the church via scooter and crawls into the tabernacle, only to find his wife, with crying babe in arms, collapsed in death, at the feet of a Madonna and child statue. Phroso looks at the baby girl, then at the Madonna, and vows revenge on Crane and the infant.

Twenty years later, Phroso re-emerges as "Dead Legs": a witch doctor and trader, lording over a swamp in Africa, utilizing his cheap parlor tricks to keep the local cannibals in submission. Dead Legs is under the care of the derelict, alcoholic Doc (Warner Baxter) and an assortment of unsavory characters. Using the natives, Dead Legs steals ivory from his nemesis, Crane. It's all part of a twenty year grand scheme for ultimate revenge.

Dead Legs summons Maisie (the beautiful, tragic, and short-lived Mary Nolan). Maisie is the now grown infant, whom Phroso believes to be the child of Anna and Crane. During the past twenty years, Maisie was placed, by Phroso, in the surroundings of a seedy bar in Zanzibar. Naturally, Maisie has become a tragic and loose alcoholic. In the original script, Maisie was placed in a brothel and raised as a debauched prostitute who contracts syphilis. However, producer Irving Thalberg predictably insisted this be softened somewhat in the film, which only lowers the film's sleaze level from ten to about a nine and a half.

Dead Legs instructs the tribesmen to inform Crane that it is he, their master, who has been stealing the ivory. Of course, this kind of grimy silent era melodrama insists on throwing a monkey wrench or two into the scheme, complications Browning delivers in spades. Doc falls in love with Maisie and finds himself at odds with Dead Legs torturous treatment of the girl, who has recently sworn to kick the bottle. Nolan excels in the scene in which her paralyzed father descends from his wheel chair, slithering towards her. She is simultaneously petrified and optimistic, but Dead Legs drives her back to the brink of brandied insanity. Enter Crane, who sadistically reveals to Dead Legs the terrible secret that Maisie is Phroso's daughter, not Crane's.

It's cornball, grotesque spectacle that Chaney and Browning treat as austere entertainment. Crane is shot and killed by the natives. It is tribal custom to burn alive a female relative of a dead male. The natives had previously been told that Maisie was the daughter of Crane and they demand that the sacrificial custom be carried out. Dead Legs must now make amends for his terrible mistake and hopes he has one last parlor trick up his sleeve to save his daughter and Doc.

As Dead Legs, Chaney delivers an amazing, masochistic, emotionally high-octane, and downright creepy performance. He writhes his way through most of the film, contorting his body with gleeful abandon. Chaney was a master of pantomime expression, learned from years of communicating with his deaf-mute parents. Chaney communicated best with those who shared his penchant for what others consider macabre. His wife had previously been married to a legless man and his preeminent director, Tod Browning, ran way from home to join the carnival, supposedly having had at least one affair with a freak. In many of his films, Browning depicted men paralyzed from the waist down, and later, in Freaks (1932), utilized actual legless freaks.

The Road to Mandalay (1926) & West of Zanzibar (1928) represent the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration at the height of its nefarious, Oedipal zenith, brought to you, for your entertainment, by Irving Thalberg.

Unfortunately, The Road to Mandalay exists only in fragmented and disintegrated state, a mere 36 minutes of its original seven reels. In this passionately pretentious film, which is not related to the Kipling poem, Chaney plays "dead-eyed" Singapore Joe (Chaney achieved the eye effect with egg white) who runs a Singapore brothel. Joe's business associates are the black spiders of the Seven Seas: the Admiral Herrington (Owen Moore) and English Charlie Wing (Kamiyama Sojin), the best knife-thrower in the Orient. Joe's relationship with his partners is tense and, often, threatening.

Apparently, Joe's wife is long dead. The two had a daughter, Rosemary (Lois Moran), who Joe left at a convent in Mandalay, under the care of his brother, Fr. James (Henry Walthall). Joe, a repulsive sight, occasionally emerges from his sordid, underworld activities to visit Rosemary, who works in a bazaar. Joe plans to clean up his act within two years, once he has enough money to undergo plastic surgery and retire. Joe wants to be a reborn man, so he can reunite with his daughter and rescue her from the confines of poverty. Rosemary, however, unaware that Joe is her father (a frequent Browning theme), is repulsed by dead eyed Joe, understandably mistaking his friendliness for sexual predation. Fr. James warns Joe that waiting two years is too long. Joe's insistence for patience only makes Fr. James skeptical that Joe can actually achieve or sustain the redemption necessary to give Rosemary a good life.

One day the Admiral walks into Rosemary's Bazaar and discovers love at first sight when meeting Rosemary. Falling in love with his partner's daughter inspires the Admiral to instantaneously see the light and put his past behind him. It is the Admiral, rather than Joe, who undergoes conversion. After spying Rosemary preparing for her impending wedding, Joe discovers the truth. He succumbs to an unsettling rivalry for his daughter and is furiously determined to put a stop to the union. Joe goes to Fr. James, insisting that the Admiral, like himself, is too defiled, too corrupt. The priest tires to assure Joe that the Admiral's about face is genuine; he's been converted by love. In a rage, Joe attempts to strangle his brother. A reel or so is missing here and next we find out that, somehow, Joe has shanghaied the wedding, kidnapped the Admiral, and is bound for the seven seas.

Searching for her missing lover, Rosemary arrives at Joe's brothel, but she is lured upstairs by Charlie Wing. Joe arrives in time to stop Charlie from having his way with Rosemary, but the Admiral also arrives and a knife fight ensues, during which Rosemary stabs her father. Mortally wounded, Joe blocks Wing's way and urges the Admiral to take Rosemary away to the seraphic life. Fr. James arrives in time to give Joe the last rites.

The Road to Mandalay is depraved, pop-Freudian, silent melodrama at its ripest. Fortunately, both Browning and Chaney approach this hodgepodge of silliness in dead earnest. Chaney is simultaneously cocky, parental, disturbingly coarse, and leering, projecting pathos and machismo. His Oedipal wailing, when his daughter tells Joe that she hates the mysterious father who has abandoned her, is classic. Browning, as was typical, idiosyncratically mixes melodramatic hi-jinks with exotic locales and strong actors. Unfortunately, The Road to Mandalay is in such dissipated state that it makes for burdensome, strained viewing. The only known print is a 16 mm abridged version, which was discovered in France in the 1980s. Even in its abridged state, The Road to Mandalay is intoxicating, outrageous silent cinema melodrama, badly in need of restoration.

Together, Browning and Chaney acted out of the darkest recesses of their psyche in the silent era's most manic productions, and they did it with authentic devotion.

* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies. Since "Road to Mandalay", in its truncated form, will probably not be released I have included it here.


The Blackbird
The Blackbird
DVD ~ Lon Chaney
Price: $14.68
19 used & new from $12.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Browning and Chaney's ode to the misfits, March 19, 2013
This review is from: The Blackbird (DVD)
The Blackbird (1926) is a typically deranged underworld melodrama from the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney canon. It has, lamentably, never been made available to the home video market, even though the restored print shown on TCM is in quite good condition and, surprisingly, is missing no footage. The Blackbird is also one of the most visually arresting of Browning's films.

Browning opens the film authoritatively with close-ups of Limehouse derelicts fading in and out of the foggy London setting. Lon Chaney plays dual roles, of a sort. He is the debilitated cripple Bishop who runs a charitable mission in the squalid Limehouse district. Bishop's twin brother is Dan Tate, better known as the vile thief The Blackbird. Actually, in this highly improbable (and typical, for Browning) scenario, Bishop and the Blackbird are one and the same. The Blackbird feigns the role of his own twin brother as a front, which means contorting his body as he acts as if he's in excruciating pain (shades of Chaney, behind the scenes).

The Limehouse district unanimously loves the Bishop and dreads the Blackbird, save for the Blackbird's ex-wife, Limehouse Polly (Doris Lloyd, the only one of the principals players who did not die young). Polly inexplicably still loves and believes in Dan. In a vignette, Browning does not hesitate to show the ugliness of the Blackbird's racist side (an extreme rarity for the time), but the Blackbird has a slither of a soft spot himself for French patroness and music hall marionette performer Fifi (Renee Adore).

Dan is competing for Fifi's attention with his partner in crime, West End Bertie (the amazingly prolific silent actor Owen Moore). At times, Bertie resembles a virile, monocled Bond villain. The suave Moore makes a worthwhile nemesis for the grimy Chaney. Unlike the Blackbird, Bertie is willing to convert from the dark side, for the love of a classy woman. Of course, this turn of events arouses jealousy and leads to intensified competition between the former partners, a frame-up job, and an ironic twist of fate when the two "brothers" will merge into a third, ill-fated persona.

The scenes of Chaney frantically changing identities with constables from Scotland Yard waiting below are deliriously incredible. The constables buy it, and so does an audience open to allowing the capered stream to wash over it.

Browning spins his elastic yarn a bit like Albert Finney's Ed Bloom in Big Fish (2003). Aided enormously by Chaney's energetic conviction, and with his penchant for a tenebrous, commanding climate, Browning pulls the ultimate con job on his audience. During its running time we are so drawn into the commanding perversity of Browning's fable that the inherent haziness of the narrative's essence rarely obscures his inclusive vision.

* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies


The Show
The Show
DVD ~ John Gilbert
Price: $17.99
18 used & new from $13.99

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Long overdue dvd release from a true Hollywood auteur, March 19, 2013
This review is from: The Show (DVD)
The screenplay for The Show (1927) was written by frequent Tod Browning collaborator Waldemer Young (with uncredited help from Browning). It is (very loosely) based on Charles Tenney Jackson's novel, "The Day of Souls." Originally titled "Cock O' the Walk," The Show is one of the most bizarre productions to emerge from silent cinema, nearly on par with the director's The Unknown from the same year.

John Gilbert plays Cock Robin, the ballyhoo man at the Palace of Illusions. A character with the name of an animal is a frequent Browning trademark, and Gilbert's Robin is a proud Cock indeed, both the character and the actor. The Show amounted to punishment for star Gilbert, who had made what turned out to be a fatal error. When co-star and fiancee Greta Garbo failed to show up at their planned wedding, Gilbert was left humiliated at the altar, where studio boss Louis B. Mayer made a loud derogatory remark for all to hear. Gilbert responded by thrashing Mayer. Mayer swore revenge, vowing to destroy Gilbert's career, regardless of cost (at the time Gilbert was the highest paid star in Hollywood). Mayer's revenge began here and climaxed with the coming of sound, when he reportedly had the actor's recorded dialogue manipulated to wreck Gilbert's voice and career. Whether Mayer's tinkering with Gilbert's voice is legendary or not, Mayer did intentionally set out to give Gilbert increasingly unflattering roles, and the consequences were devastating for Gilbert. Having fallen so far, so fast, Gilbert took to excessive drink. He actually had a fine voice and starred in a few sound films, including Tod Browning's Fast Workers (1933) and with Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) (she insisted on Gilbert, over Mayer's strenuous objections). Gilbert died forgotten at 37 in 1936, and became the inspiration for the Norman Maine character in a Star is Born (1937). The Show was the first film after Gilbert's aborted wedding incident, and instead of playing his usual role of swashbuckling matinee idol, Gilbert is cast as a cocky lecher.

Cock Robin is the barker for a Hungarian carnival, dazzling the ladies and bilking them of their hard earned silver. He ushers patrons in to the show with the help of "The Living Hand of Cleopatra," a disembodied hand akin to Thing from "The Addams Family." Among Cock's unholy trio of mutilated-below-the-waist attractions is `Zela, the Half Lady.' "Believe me boys, there are no cold feet here to bother you!" Zela is followed by `Arachnadia! The Human Spider!,' a heavily mascaraed, disembodied head in a web (played by the enigmatic Edna Tichenor, Lon Chaney`s nocturnal Goth companion Luna in London After Midnight) and `Neptuna, Queen of the Mermaids!' who inspires the divers to "go down deep!"

Next up in the Show is a reenactment of Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils. Browning ups the ante here well past Oscar Wilde. Cock disappears behind a door and re-emerges as the bearded John the Baptist. (This is another frequent Browning theme; a character, via a door, is transformed into a new character and transported into a new world). Awaiting him is Salome (Renee Adoree, who became an instant sex symbol when she starred with Gilbert in 1925′s the monster hit The Big Parade--like Gilbert, Adoree tragically died in her mid thirties). Salome demands the head of the Baptist from Herrod. Thanks to a trap door and fake sword, the head of Cock's Baptist is severed but still living, at least long enough to react to the big wet kiss Salome plants on its lips.

Behind the act, Salome and Cock have a broken relationship. She is currently mistress to the nefarious and extremely jealous Greek (Lionel Barrymore), while Cock is attempting to latch onto Lena (Gertrude Short), the daughter of a wealthy shepherding merchant. The Greek may have a jealous streak, but so does Salome, who shoves Spider Baby Edna aside when she flirts with Cock, telling her "Away from him. You're freaks, not vampires!"

Cock gets blamed for the murder of Lena's daddy after Salome tells Lena that he's a hedonistic opportunist. The real murderer is none other than The Greek who, aware of the continued chemistry between Cock and Salome, plans to give Cock a disembodied head for real. In the arena of sexual resentment The Greek gets his comeuppance via the animal kingdom (typical Browning theme number five, or six, if you're still counting). This time, the instrument of revenge is none other than a poisonous iguana in a closet!

Unfortunately, The Show is flawed by a saccharine finale. Cock sees the light of redemption through Salome and a selfless act. It may be high cholesterol sentiment but it's served up in the director's unique, devious style, with the principals finding nirvana in the only place they could in a Tod Browning melodrama; on the carnival stage.

* my review original appeared at 366 weird movies


The Kid  (2 Disc Special Edition)
The Kid (2 Disc Special Edition)
DVD ~ Charles Chaplin
8 used & new from $15.64

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chaplin's first and most autobiographical feature, January 24, 2013
The Kid (1921) was Charlie Chaplin`s first and most autobiographical feature film. Produced for First National, it fulfilled his ambition to move beyond shorts. Critics immediately hailed it as a masterpiece, but its reputation has since suffered due to its many flaws. Of course, no work of art is flawless and the film's status remains intact. It is, in many ways, a synthesis of Chaplin's previous work and the work which followed. Chaplin began filming shortly after losing his infant son with first child bride, Mildred Harris. The Kid is, in part, a fantasy about what might have been, which Chaplin wedded to his own bitter childhood memories. The film was also a blueprint for Chaplin's work process. He took his time filming, much to the chagrin of the studio, who applied considerable pressure on him to speed up the process.

It opens with Edna Purviance as a (single) woman "whose sin was motherhood." Chaplin, who was himself illegitimate, edits the image of the suffering woman with a shot of Christ carrying the cross. This is visual storytelling, of course, so Chaplin's not done with the manipulation yet. Our Scarlet Letter-styled heroine sees a couple coming out of a church. The bride, looking shell shocked, is all of about 16 years old. She drops a withered flower, symbolizing her loss of virginity. Her groom emerges, a white-bearded man who is at least 70. The minister and congregation bless the wedding. Edna, empathizing with the bride from afar, is accentuated with a halo round her head as she holds her bastard son. Within a few seconds, Chaplin takes his big swipe at hypocritical American piety, puritanism, and organized religion.

Edna sees an open limousine, darts in through its door (a device he reworked in 1931′s City Lights) and dumps her shame in the back seat, with a letter: "please love and care for this orphan child."

Now Chaplin has fun. Two robbers steal the car, find the squalling brat in the back seat, duck into an alley and dump him in a nearby trashcan. Cue the Tramp. He finds the bundle of joy and does everything imaginable to dispatch of it, including contemplating throwing the infant into a street grating. This vignette is, often, hilariously cold-blooded. Finally, the Tramp accepts his fate and unofficially adopts the Kid, christening him "John." The Tramp ingeniously turns a tea pot into a milk bottle and, with a pair of scissors, transforms an ordinary chair into a potty training seat. Meanwhile, the grief-stricken Edna has seen the error of her ways and will, henceforth, lead a life of charity.

Five years later, the infant is Jackie Coogan: the first and probably greatest child star actor in cinema history. The Kid is dressed in oversized clothes, a reflection of the Tramp. Daddy Tramp is teaching junior Tramp the fine art of swindling, which puts them under the radar of resident cop Tom Wilson. High octane slapstick follows.

Loss of mother, poverty, fear of the orphanage, and surreal amorous escapades are all movements in Chaplin's opus. The Tramps do get plenty of pancakes to eat with the money they swipe from gullible patrons. Little doubt this is fantasy from Chaplin's own destitute, half-starved London childhood.

John's fight with a bully neighborhood kid leads to a further fight between the bully's brother (Charles Reisner, in shoulder pads) and the Tramp. Edna, now a worldwide star (!) arrives to preach the gospel of turning the other cheek. Good news for Charlie that the bully listens, and the second that said bully gets soft, Charlie takes full advantage with a brick in his hand.

When the Kid gets sick, a visiting doctor discovers Edna's old letter and contacts the authorities. Orphan Control soon arrives and kinetic slapstick is masterfully blended with pathos. Coogan's acting is simply stunning. Only an ice cube would remain unaffected.

The Tramp flees to a flophouse and, again, the cruelty of poverty blended with inventive slapstick is nearly seamless. What follows has long been a source of controversy: the Heaven dream sequence. Having lost his child, the Tramp dreams of heaven. The Tramp gets his wings and, it turns out, heaven's not that different from the earthly realm. Temptation arrives in the form of 12-year old Lita Grey, whom Chaplin would marry and bitterly divorce in real life (Grey was the source of inspiration for Vladimir Nabakov's "Lolita"). Jealousy leads to a brawl and celestial murder. To some, it is an ill-fitting surreal sequence. Yet, it is an aesthetically potent bridge to the finale, which is, thankfully, a happy one.

The Kid is, indeed, awash in mawkish sentiment. However, fused with the fierceness of street survival, apathetic institution, and surrealistic hope, The Kid is a landmark in film as visual storytelling.


The Chaplin Revue (2 Disc Special Edition)
The Chaplin Revue (2 Disc Special Edition)
DVD ~ Charles Chaplin
6 used & new from $69.69

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Chaplin's First National Shorts, January 17, 2013
Charles Chaplin left Mutual Film in 1917 and signed a contract with First National. Their agreement amounted to more than a million dollars per year. Chaplin was the first movie star to sign such a lucrative offer. Loyal to his inner circle, he brought leading lady Edna Purviance and heavy Mack Swain with him, among others.

Although Chaplin's first feature length film, The Kid (1921), would emerge from his five years at First National, his relationship with the studio was not an amiable one. The struggles between artist and executives would inspire Chaplin to form his own studio, United Artists. Again, this was a first for Hollywood.

Most critics and film historians consider the First National films a notch below the work Chaplin did for Mutual. In the First national shorts, Chaplin's level of inspiration often noticeably wanes, so the general consensus is, for once, correct. Still, even lesser Chaplin is worthwhile (well, until we get to the late Chaplin features).

A Dog's Life (1918) was Chaplin's first short for First National. It was also the first movie to make a million dollars, more than justifying its considerable budget. Chaplin is in full Tramp mode here. Although an immensely popular film, and containing elements which Chaplin would develop more fully in The Kid, A Dog's Life is an uneven effort.

Dawn brings only another day of misery in poverty. The Tramp ingeniously tires to steal a hotdog, but policeman Tom Wilson shows up to soil the spoils (Wilson would appear as the same character in The Kid).

In flight, the Tramp saves a mongrel, Scraps, from a scrape with a pack of dogs. Scraps, like the Kid (and, the Gamin later still) is a reflection of sorts of the Tramp, creating an identifying bond between the two.

The Tramp is a scrapper himself, fighting desperately for employment, but to no avail, alas. Dog and man enter The Green Lantern bar to find a mother and wife figure in Edna, who, as an amusingly awkward torch singer, has the locals in buckets of tears. (Literally. This scene also includes Henry Bergman in mighty uncomfortable drag).

Edna's Big Boss Man threatens her with: "flirt or you're fired! Give them a wink and smile!" Poor Edna's just no good at flirting. "Do you have something in your eye?" asks the Tramp. Now Edna's out of a job.

Lo and behold, some local bank robbers have buried some money, which Scraps has located. It looks like Paradise has been found, but not before at least one more scrap (which involves a surreal rendezvous with the crooks in a booth).

An over-written, bucolic finale rings phony. Ambiguity pointing to a release from the hell of poverty would have worked considerably better.

Shoulder Arms (1918) finds Chaplin again in social commentary mode, which was a gutsy move considering that the star was under intense criticism for not having volunteered for service in WWI.

Sharp anti-war satire would not arrive full force until Duck Soup (1933) and, frankly, Shoulder Arms pales comparatively. Until the near-finale, it is what one might expect. Edna is, of course, the love interest. Here, she is a virginal French girl risking her life to save the American doughboy. Sydney Chaplin (Charlie's brother) also has a small role.

Chaplin's disguise as a tree on the war front (predating Bugs Bunny), is surrealistic and bizarrely funny. Essentially propaganda, Shoulder Arms
was an enormous hit.

A Day's Pleasure (1919) is anything but pleasurable; in fact, it's one of Chaplin's worst films. The star was working on The Kid (1921) at the time and First National was growing impatient with the amount of time he was spending on it. They demanded an immediate product and Chaplin responded by hastily slapping together A Day's Pleasure in a week.

Charlie and Edna are married and have two sons (one of which is played by an uncredited Jackie Coogan). Charlie loads the family up into the Model T. This new motor car contraption apparently has not had its morning coffee, which leads to mechanical slapstick, none of which is particularly funny. It's calculated mayhem, recycled from third-rate slapstick of the period.

Once the family is off and running, they arrive at a boat for a sea cruise. More third-rate slapstick, and a black musician turning white from sea sickness. After the excessively long cruise ends, Charlie is back in his Ford for more excruciatingly painful slapstick. The American public, never able to distinguish gems from excrement, made it a hit anyway, satisfying the coffers.

With The Kid behind him, The Idle Class (1921) is a different affair. Chaplin plays two roles: the Tramp and an alcoholic millionaire married to Edna. There is some inventive slapstick: the millionaire, seen from the back, seems to be having an emotional break down after reading a letter of rejection from his wife. When he turns to face the camera, we see he is actually mixing a drink. In another scene, the millionaire, having forgotten his trousers, uses a newspaper for a skirt, as he walks on his knees to the elevator.

Only Chaplin could make a game of golf seem kinetic. He shows his cruel streak here, stealing a cigarette case, allowing a fellow golfer (John Rand) to receive a brutal beating from Mack Swain (a beating which should have been the Tramp's), and doing an about face by playing good Samaritan to a girl thrown from a horse.

There is also a precursor for a later plot development in City Lights (1931). The Tramp, evading trouble, weaves in and out of parked limousines, emerges from an open door, and is mistaken for a millionaire.

Naturally, this is going to lead to identity mix-up, which occurs at a masked ball. The millionaire, Edna, Swain, and the Tramp engage in spirited hi-jinx. Although, primarily fluff, The Idle Class is one of the better First National efforts, highlighted by a near-perfect score from Chaplin.

Edna is daughter to Mack Swain again in Pay Day (1922), but the role amounts to little more than a cameo. Swain is a construction site foreman to the Tramp (called "the Laborer" here). There are slight shades of Modern Times (1936) to come (in the work site scenes).

Here the Laborer is married to a bully shrew (Phyllis Allen), complete with roller pin and curlers. The tension between them is meat of the film. When our hero has a drunken night out with friends (which includes Sydney Chaplin), you can rest assure that hell awaits in Phyllis scorned. Pay Day is paced well and has a near-classic ending in a bath tub.
Sunnyside (1919) opens with a not so subtle Chapliesque swipe at the hypocritical reverence inherent in Americana. Chaplin's iris opens on a church steeple cross. This dissolves into a frilly plaque, which reads "Love Thy Neighbor." The owner of the plaque is tyrannical farmer Tom Wilson. Tom wakes early to give the sleeping farmhand, Charlie, a forceful kick in the daily duties. That accomplished (after a few, predictable false starts), Tom returns to bed.

After breakfast is served, we learn that it is Sunday morning. All the true Christians are where they are supposed to be: in church. Charlie's loaded down with work, so he can't (and won't) join them. However, he will peek into what it's all about, by taking a look-see at the Good Book. While doing so, the herd of cattle he is leading wanders off and disrupts the church service, driving the parishioners out the doors. Chaplin's nose-thumbing at the the facade of rural reverence is about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles. So much the better.

Next, Chaplin inserts a surreal dream. Some commentators assess it as an ill-fitting sequenc; the same was said of Chaplin's heaven vignette in The Kid (1921). I disagree here as much as I do to those objections re: The Kid. The Sunnyside dream is pure Chaplin and well suits the character as an escape from the phony piety to which he is subjected daily. After falling off a bridge, the Tramp dreams he is frolicking with flowered nymphs on a bucolic hillside. This is his idea of heaven, and more than justifies W.C. Field's astute observation that Chaplin was "a goddamned ballet dancer."

Unfortunately, the dream sequence is far too brief. Chaplin, in a much smaller way, was to American Protestantism what Luis Buñuel was to European Catholicism. However, Bunuel did it better. The true ill-fitting element in Sunnyside is the romantic subplot between the Tramp and leading lady Edna Purviance. Edna has another suitor: the Fat Kid, who is clearly slow on the uptake. The Tramp takes advantage of that weakness, cruelly ridiculing his rival.

Although it is an bad fit, and an extremely uncomfortable one at that, it does take us back, albeit briefly, to the Tramp of Keystone, who often revealed an inherent selfish, mean streak. So, in that sense, the revelation of a less than saintly Tramp is a bit refreshing, while admittedly wrecking the composition of the film.

The ending has a rushed feel, partly due to Chaplin's constant battling with First National.

The Pilgrim (1923) was Chaplin's last film for First National. It was also his final short. This is Chaplin's anti-clericalism at it's best. Audiences identified, making it a bona fide hit, much to the chagrin of the Evangelical Ministers Association and the Klu Klux Klan who teamed up (imagine that) to denounce The Pilgrim as a blasphemous mockery to organized religion.

Chaplin does not play the Tramp here. His character is the Pilgrim, an escaped convict disguised in clerical attire. At the train station, he purchases a ticket to Devil's Gulch, Texas. Meanwhile, the residents of that town are awaiting a Rev. Pim to fill in their newly open position of pastor. Unknown to them, and most convenient for the Pilgrim, the real Rev. Pim is running a week behind. Charlie, of course, steps off the train just in time for a case of mistaken identity.

The small congregation, lead by the Deacon (Mack Swain) are on hand to welcome their pseudo-pastor. Unfortunately for Charlie, he has stepped into the clerical shoes just in time for Sunday-go-to-meeting.

The Sunday promenade with Deacon Swain is highlighted by our Pilgrim swiping the elder's Southern Comfort. However, the Pilgrim doesn't even get in a swig before an inconvenient banana peel wastes that much-needed elixir.

Naturally, the service reveals this Rev. Pim as untried and uncomfortable, but he's not so awkward when it comes to making sure the collection plate is abundantly filled. Perhaps he is a true cleric at heart after all.

The homily is classic Chaplin. The Pilgrim picks the David and Goliath story to tell, but his Bible interpretation is refreshingly free of embedded theology. In buoyant pantomime, the good reverend depicts little shepherd boy David provoking the Philistine warrior Goliath. However, rather than a kill shot, David's wimpy little sling merely manages to provoke a minor headache in the giant. Provoked, rather than defeated, Goliath promptly draws his sword and decapitates the irksome gnat. A child in the congregation, who has not yet been conditioned by his religion, gives his new pastor a standing ovation, while the grown-ups stand in abject horror. They have come to the comfort and safety of church, only to have their traditional narrative exposed as myth. The most child-like persons in the church, the Pilgrim and his young fan, are the only two who appreciate it.

The service over, the Pilgrim is told he will be boarding with Edna and her elderly mother. An argument for pro-choice, a discovered wanted poster, and the appearance of an ex- prison cell mate will prove to be flies in the Pilgrim's ointment. Fortunately, he has a conscience and a guardian who will notice.

The Pilgrim is short on the trademark sentiment and admirably long on licentious parody.

*my reviews original appeared at 366 weird movies


Charlie Chaplin: The First National Collection
Charlie Chaplin: The First National Collection
DVD ~ Henry Bergman
3 used & new from $108.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Chaplin's First National Shorts, January 17, 2013
Charles Chaplin left Mutual Film in 1917 and signed a contract with First National. Their agreement amounted to more than a million dollars per year. Chaplin was the first movie star to sign such a lucrative offer. Loyal to his inner circle, he brought leading lady Edna Purviance and heavy Mack Swain with him, among others.

Although Chaplin's first feature length film, The Kid (1921), would emerge from his five years at First National, his relationship with the studio was not an amiable one. The struggles between artist and executives would inspire Chaplin to form his own studio, United Artists. Again, this was a first for Hollywood.

Most critics and film historians consider the First National films a notch below the work Chaplin did for Mutual. In the First national shorts, Chaplin's level of inspiration often noticeably wanes, so the general consensus is, for once, correct. Still, even lesser Chaplin is worthwhile (well, until we get to the late Chaplin features).

A Dog's Life (1918) was Chaplin's first short for First National. It was also the first movie to make a million dollars, more than justifying its considerable budget. Chaplin is in full Tramp mode here. Although an immensely popular film, and containing elements which Chaplin would develop more fully in The Kid, A Dog's Life is an uneven effort.

Dawn brings only another day of misery in poverty. The Tramp ingeniously tires to steal a hotdog, but policeman Tom Wilson shows up to soil the spoils (Wilson would appear as the same character in The Kid).

In flight, the Tramp saves a mongrel, Scraps, from a scrape with a pack of dogs. Scraps, like the Kid (and, the Gamin later still) is a reflection of sorts of the Tramp, creating an identifying bond between the two.

The Tramp is a scrapper himself, fighting desperately for employment, but to no avail, alas. Dog and man enter The Green Lantern bar to find a mother and wife figure in Edna, who, as an amusingly awkward torch singer, has the locals in buckets of tears. (Literally. This scene also includes Henry Bergman in mighty uncomfortable drag).

Edna's Big Boss Man threatens her with: "flirt or you're fired! Give them a wink and smile!" Poor Edna's just no good at flirting. "Do you have something in your eye?" asks the Tramp. Now Edna's out of a job.

Lo and behold, some local bank robbers have buried some money, which Scraps has located. It looks like Paradise has been found, but not before at least one more scrap (which involves a surreal rendezvous with the crooks in a booth).

An over-written, bucolic finale rings phony. Ambiguity pointing to a release from the hell of poverty would have worked considerably better.

Shoulder Arms (1918) finds Chaplin again in social commentary mode, which was a gutsy move considering that the star was under intense criticism for not having volunteered for service in WWI.

Sharp anti-war satire would not arrive full force until Duck Soup (1933) and, frankly, Shoulder Arms pales comparatively. Until the near-finale, it is what one might expect. Edna is, of course, the love interest. Here, she is a virginal French girl risking her life to save the American doughboy. Sydney Chaplin (Charlie's brother) also has a small role.

Chaplin's disguise as a tree on the war front (predating Bugs Bunny), is surrealistic and bizarrely funny. Essentially propaganda, Shoulder Arms
was an enormous hit.

A Day's Pleasure (1919) is anything but pleasurable; in fact, it's one of Chaplin's worst films. The star was working on The Kid (1921) at the time and First National was growing impatient with the amount of time he was spending on it. They demanded an immediate product and Chaplin responded by hastily slapping together A Day's Pleasure in a week.

Charlie and Edna are married and have two sons (one of which is played by an uncredited Jackie Coogan). Charlie loads the family up into the Model T. This new motor car contraption apparently has not had its morning coffee, which leads to mechanical slapstick, none of which is particularly funny. It's calculated mayhem, recycled from third-rate slapstick of the period.

Once the family is off and running, they arrive at a boat for a sea cruise. More third-rate slapstick, and a black musician turning white from sea sickness. After the excessively long cruise ends, Charlie is back in his Ford for more excruciatingly painful slapstick. The American public, never able to distinguish gems from excrement, made it a hit anyway, satisfying the coffers.

With The Kid behind him, The Idle Class (1921) is a different affair. Chaplin plays two roles: the Tramp and an alcoholic millionaire married to Edna. There is some inventive slapstick: the millionaire, seen from the back, seems to be having an emotional break down after reading a letter of rejection from his wife. When he turns to face the camera, we see he is actually mixing a drink. In another scene, the millionaire, having forgotten his trousers, uses a newspaper for a skirt, as he walks on his knees to the elevator.

Only Chaplin could make a game of golf seem kinetic. He shows his cruel streak here, stealing a cigarette case, allowing a fellow golfer (John Rand) to receive a brutal beating from Mack Swain (a beating which should have been the Tramp's), and doing an about face by playing good Samaritan to a girl thrown from a horse.

There is also a precursor for a later plot development in City Lights (1931). The Tramp, evading trouble, weaves in and out of parked limousines, emerges from an open door, and is mistaken for a millionaire.

Naturally, this is going to lead to identity mix-up, which occurs at a masked ball. The millionaire, Edna, Swain, and the Tramp engage in spirited hi-jinx. Although, primarily fluff, The Idle Class is one of the better First National efforts, highlighted by a near-perfect score from Chaplin.

Edna is daughter to Mack Swain again in Pay Day (1922), but the role amounts to little more than a cameo. Swain is a construction site foreman to the Tramp (called "the Laborer" here). There are slight shades of Modern Times (1936) to come (in the work site scenes).

Here the Laborer is married to a bully shrew (Phyllis Allen), complete with roller pin and curlers. The tension between them is meat of the film. When our hero has a drunken night out with friends (which includes Sydney Chaplin), you can rest assure that hell awaits in Phyllis scorned. Pay Day is paced well and has a near-classic ending in a bath tub.
Sunnyside (1919) opens with a not so subtle Chapliesque swipe at the hypocritical reverence inherent in Americana. Chaplin's iris opens on a church steeple cross. This dissolves into a frilly plaque, which reads "Love Thy Neighbor." The owner of the plaque is tyrannical farmer Tom Wilson. Tom wakes early to give the sleeping farmhand, Charlie, a forceful kick in the daily duties. That accomplished (after a few, predictable false starts), Tom returns to bed.

After breakfast is served, we learn that it is Sunday morning. All the true Christians are where they are supposed to be: in church. Charlie's loaded down with work, so he can't (and won't) join them. However, he will peek into what it's all about, by taking a look-see at the Good Book. While doing so, the herd of cattle he is leading wanders off and disrupts the church service, driving the parishioners out the doors. Chaplin's nose-thumbing at the the facade of rural reverence is about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles. So much the better.

Next, Chaplin inserts a surreal dream. Some commentators assess it as an ill-fitting sequenc; the same was said of Chaplin's heaven vignette in The Kid (1921). I disagree here as much as I do to those objections re: The Kid. The Sunnyside dream is pure Chaplin and well suits the character as an escape from the phony piety to which he is subjected daily. After falling off a bridge, the Tramp dreams he is frolicking with flowered nymphs on a bucolic hillside. This is his idea of heaven, and more than justifies W.C. Field's astute observation that Chaplin was "a goddamned ballet dancer."

Unfortunately, the dream sequence is far too brief. Chaplin, in a much smaller way, was to American Protestantism what Luis Buñuel was to European Catholicism. However, Bunuel did it better. The true ill-fitting element in Sunnyside is the romantic subplot between the Tramp and leading lady Edna Purviance. Edna has another suitor: the Fat Kid, who is clearly slow on the uptake. The Tramp takes advantage of that weakness, cruelly ridiculing his rival.

Although it is an bad fit, and an extremely uncomfortable one at that, it does take us back, albeit briefly, to the Tramp of Keystone, who often revealed an inherent selfish, mean streak. So, in that sense, the revelation of a less than saintly Tramp is a bit refreshing, while admittedly wrecking the composition of the film.

The ending has a rushed feel, partly due to Chaplin's constant battling with First National.

The Pilgrim (1923) was Chaplin's last film for First National. It was also his final short. This is Chaplin's anti-clericalism at it's best. Audiences identified, making it a bona fide hit, much to the chagrin of the Evangelical Ministers Association and the Klu Klux Klan who teamed up (imagine that) to denounce The Pilgrim as a blasphemous mockery to organized religion.

Chaplin does not play the Tramp here. His character is the Pilgrim, an escaped convict disguised in clerical attire. At the train station, he purchases a ticket to Devil's Gulch, Texas. Meanwhile, the residents of that town are awaiting a Rev. Pim to fill in their newly open position of pastor. Unknown to them, and most convenient for the Pilgrim, the real Rev. Pim is running a week behind. Charlie, of course, steps off the train just in time for a case of mistaken identity.

The small congregation, lead by the Deacon (Mack Swain) are on hand to welcome their pseudo-pastor. Unfortunately for Charlie, he has stepped into the clerical shoes just in time for Sunday-go-to-meeting.

The Sunday promenade with Deacon Swain is highlighted by our Pilgrim swiping the elder's Southern Comfort. However, the Pilgrim doesn't even get in a swig before an inconvenient banana peel wastes that much-needed elixir.

Naturally, the service reveals this Rev. Pim as untried and uncomfortable, but he's not so awkward when it comes to making sure the collection plate is abundantly filled. Perhaps he is a true cleric at heart after all.

The homily is classic Chaplin. The Pilgrim picks the David and Goliath story to tell, but his Bible interpretation is refreshingly free of embedded theology. In buoyant pantomime, the good reverend depicts little shepherd boy David provoking the Philistine warrior Goliath. However, rather than a kill shot, David's wimpy little sling merely manages to provoke a minor headache in the giant. Provoked, rather than defeated, Goliath promptly draws his sword and decapitates the irksome gnat. A child in the congregation, who has not yet been conditioned by his religion, gives his new pastor a standing ovation, while the grown-ups stand in abject horror. They have come to the comfort and safety of church, only to have their traditional narrative exposed as myth. The most child-like persons in the church, the Pilgrim and his young fan, are the only two who appreciate it.

The service over, the Pilgrim is told he will be boarding with Edna and her elderly mother. An argument for pro-choice, a discovered wanted poster, and the appearance of an ex- prison cell mate will prove to be flies in the Pilgrim's ointment. Fortunately, he has a conscience and a guardian who will notice.

The Pilgrim is short on the trademark sentiment and admirably long on licentious parody.

*my reviews original appeared at 366 weird movies


The Circus: The Chaplin Collection (Two Disc Special Edition)
The Circus: The Chaplin Collection (Two Disc Special Edition)
DVD ~ Charles Chaplin
7 used & new from $65.64

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A formidable Greek maiden between two Norse gods., January 3, 2013
Charlie Chaplin`s The Circus (1928) has long been considered something akin to Beethoven's 4th Symphony, which composer Robert Schumann referred to as "a Greek maiden between two Norse gods (the Eroica and the Fifth)." The Circus is the the maiden between two certifiable Chaplin masterpieces: The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). Yet, Beethoven's Fourth, seen without Schumann's assessing lens, has, on occasion, proven to be a maiden unleashed, as in Carlos Kleiber's live, mercurial Munich version (on DVD) and Herbert Von Karajan's devastatingly sensuous 1963 performance with the BPO.

Like Beethoven's 4th, The Circus is an underrated opus. Seen without the preconceived assessment of historians, it is an interesting gem. Oddly, it is the one film of Chaplin's that was recognized for a "special" Academy Award. Despite that, it is an infrequently revived (and discussed) film.

The filmmaker himself did not help the cause for The Circus. Chaplin's autobiography is interesting primarily as a career autobiography. Private, painful details are omitted. Quite tellingly, Chaplin never once mentioned this film in that autobiography. Clearly, he avoided it because this film was made while he was going through a highly embarrassing divorce from one of his child brides (Lita Grey) at the time. Intimate details from Chaplin's sex life were exposed to the public. According to Kenneth Anger`s "Hollywood Babylon," Chaplin went through such an ordeal that during the divorce trial, the star's hair literally turned prematurely white.

Often, assessment of Chaplin's films include the biographical. A good example of this is Roger Ebert's review of The Circus. Ebert takes the often-traveled road of comparing Chaplin to Buster Keaton:

Chaplin was a considerable artist, brave and gifted, but I am in a minority in placing him second to Keaton among the silent clowns. My reasons for that are admittedly impulsive: I sense Keaton was the better man. Chaplin was so famous, so rich, so powerful when so young that there is a kind of conceit in the Tramp, a reverse noblesse oblige. Yes, he had a miserable childhood, and in his films, he often plays the friend of waifs, but there's an air of back-patting about it. The Buster Keaton character has his feet on the ground. He would be embarrassed to parade his goodness. He uses ingenuity rather than divinity. Chaplin's untidy love life suggests he felt he deserved whomever he wanted; Keaton in private life seems to have been melancholic because of alcoholism, but a decent enough sort with women.

The problem with Ebert's assessment of Chaplin is his objection to Chaplin's enormous success and his bullet point details of Chaplin's post-stardom biography. This view reduces Chaplin's films to the anecdotal. While remnants of personal history cannot be completely excluded in approaching Chaplin's art, his films, inevitably, transcend biography.

To be fair, Ebert is certainly correct in his comparison of the contrasting silent clown screen personas; Keaton's Stone Face never asked for audience sympathy in the obvious way that Chaplin's Tramp did. However, nor can Keaton identify with the everyman on Chaplin's level. The Tramp's poverty, which has nothing to do with the success of the actor playing the character, imbues him with an intimate personality that Keaton lacked. Out of all Chaplin's contemporaries, only Harry Langdon emerged with a comparable persona.

Ebert also makes a comparative notation regarding the amorous nature of the two clowns. To me, both Chaplin and Keaton are sexless, at least when filtered through a contemporary perspective. Chaplin's celibacy is that of the adolescent, as a people's priest. Keaton's character, while more intelligent and ambitious, is too phlegmatic for us to imagine him as anything other than chaste.

That Keaton was the more original filmmaker cannot be denied. His sense of aesthetic exploration is a model for early cinema. However, Chaplin proved more cunning in his business dealings. He never lost control of his films the way Keaton naively did. (Before he fatally lost artistic control to MGM, Keaton etched a celluloid character who embodied an admirable sense of detachment without resorting to overt populism).

The Circus finds Chaplin closest to Keaton territory, both in it's organic, innovative composition and its existential arc. The Circus emerges as a flawed, unique work of art, with the bleakest ending of all Chaplin's features. Desperation, contrasting with carnivalesque tinsel, evolves from the world of music hall pantomime and Max Linder, echoes Picasso's canvases of harlequins, and prefigures Fellini.

The Circus iris-ins on Merna (Merna Kennedy), riding bareback, bursting through a large star. Her ringmaster father (Al Garcia) becomes enraged when she misses the hoop on a second attempt. This misstep elicits a thrashing and period of starvation. Merna's act is followed by an ensemble of flabby, geriatric clowns. Al desperately needs a saving act.

Enter the Tramp, in an elaborate, virtuoso introduction. Starving, the Tramp is not above stealing food from a baby before he becomes the unwitting victim and pawn of a pickpocket. Wrongly accused, the Tramp runs for his life. He surrealistically mimics an animatronic prop in an amusement ride. Once discovered, he evades capture within a hall of mirrors (this scene surely influenced Orson Welles' Lady From Shanghai). This delightfully elongated vignette takes Charlie to the circus stage where he unknowingly becomes the hit of the show. The film's one conceit, which Chaplin could not resist, is in the audience crowning him as "the Funny Guy."

The Tramp is offered a job, as a prop man. The key to the Tramp's comic success is that his act is unintentional. Al shrewdly keeps his new employee in the dark, which, for awhile, isn't that hard to do. Charlie is the classic hobo, cooking his meager meal over an open fire, and sharing it with Merna, whom he is secretly in love with.

Naturally, several slapstick vignettes are in order. These involve the animal kingdom inhabitants of the circus. A jackass, a lion, a tiger, and monkeys on a high wire plague Charlie. While some of these bits are elaborately staged, none equal the freshness of the opening.

The Tramp discovers that he is the hit act, yet somehow this discovery does not dispel the performer's magic. However, the object of his affection is in love with trapeze artist Rex (Harry Crocker). The film ends with the Tramp exactly where he started. He accepts his fate without self-pity. Like us, he can understand his rejection, and the iris closes him off to us. Chaplin apparently hoped that iris would forever swallow up what he considered to be a best-forgotten opus. However, Chaplin cannot be trusted here as an objective judge or interpreter of his own work, which stands as a formidable maiden.

*my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies.


Modern Times (The Criterion Collection)
Modern Times (The Criterion Collection)
DVD ~ Charles Chaplin
Price: $21.58
14 used & new from $17.58

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Little Fellow's Swan Song, December 28, 2012
People often say that we have lost Christ, we have lost Mary. Living in the 21st century, I am, perhaps, more concerned that we have lost Chaplin`s Tramp.

Easter is not Mel Gibson's blood-soaked sadism posed as religious dogma. Rather, it's Fred Astaire and Judy Garland strolling down an Easter Parade. Christmas is not Cecil B. DeMille pious kitsch. Christmas is personified by the Little Tramp trying to find existential depth in an increasingly plasticized, dumbed-down modern Western world. Indeed, there may be a bit of poetic irony in Charles Chaplin's exiting this mortal coil on Christmas day itself, in 1977.

Chaplin was not a religious man. Yet, his Tramp is the most religious and iconic figure in all of cinema. Chaplin seemed to be partly aware of this. The late film historian Leslie Halliwell reported that when Cecil B. DeMille was casting for The King of Kings (1927), Chaplin approached DeMille, offering to play the role of Christ: "I am Jewish, I am an atheist, and I am a comedian. I would be prefect for the part because I could play it totally objective." DeMille had Chaplin thrown out of his office. Although Chaplin was probably right in that assessment, we can be grateful that DeMille rejected the casting. King of Kings may be one of the worst examples of 1920′s Hollywood. Of course, Chaplin exaggerated his beliefs in the interest of self-promotion. He was not Jewish and his atheism is debatable. The clown was, predominantly, anti-clerical.

With the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), silent cinema was history. Someone forgot to tell Chaplin. He was still making silent films nearly a decade later. Many commentators have noted Modern Times (1936) is anything but modern. This film was a last, in many respects, for Chaplin: his last silent film and the final indisputable appearance of the Tramp. (There is a debate over whether Chaplin's Barber from 1940′s The Great Dictator was really the Tramp, or not).

Modern Times, originally titled "The Masses," is not completely silent. The Factory task master talks through a Orwellian screen.The Billows feeding machine speaks through a "pre-recorded device." Chaplin sings a gibberish song near the finale. However, these do not add up to a "talkie." Rather, it adds up to a silent with clever, carefully chosen, cartoonish sound effects.

As a social commentary, Modern Times is derivative, borrowing from Fritz Lang, among others. As a romantic comedy, it's also derivative, recycling numerous gags and plot elements from Chaplin's Mutual shorts. It has, rightly, been pointed out that Modern Times is like a feature-length compendium of those shorts. However, the screen presences of Chaplin and Paulette Goddard are imbued with such authentic personalities that it somehow seems fresh.

In Run to the Mountain, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of Modern Times:

"I saw Modern Times, everybody in the theater was laughing. I don't remember when lately I have been in a theater where everybody laughed together so spontaneously as over this three or four years old Chaplin picture. It feels that anything that ever had any happiness about civilization-all the happy things that civilization has produced like Chaplin movies, are all gone and done with. Nothing left but the wars. The West Wall. The Maginot line. The bombers: bombers are our only shining things. Christ have mercy on us. God save you, Mary full of grace."

Chaplin's Tramp, as a screen persona, has emotional resonance in his reflections and labors, inspired by his intimate intertwining and quintessential recognition with the Gamin (Goddard). His Tramp is the socially devalued of the Beatitudes. A misfit in respectable society, he embodies that blistering critique of status-quo avarice, lucidly penned in the Letter of James. The Factory Worker and Gamin are the faces of Them: "Let Them die in the streets before giving Them health care."

The title credits face-off with a monstrous, eschatological clock: Futurism's icon beckoning the 6 a.m. call for America's workforce. A title reads: "Modern Times. A story of industry, of individual enterprise--humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness." Pursuit does not equate attainment, as lambs herded through a chute remind us with brass knuckle subtlety. Charlie's Oedipal fragility, juxtaposed against perpetually bleak industry, sets the absurdist tone. Only an artisan of Chaplin's caliber could credibly render such meek conceit. Fortunately, Chaplin (along with Montgomery Clift) was probably the greatest actor of American cinema, which is why he wholly convinces, securing audience empathy.

The Factory President reads Tarzan funny papers, clips his nails, plays with jigsaw puzzles, bellows, and swivels his chair to catch sight of the Little Fellow trying to sneak off for a "smokin' in the boy's room" break. Robbed of his much-needed cigarette, tightening nuts, tightening nuts, tightening nuts, victim of a mechanical salesman feeding him nuts, feeding him, feeding him nuts: Charlie loses it! Wrenching his hands, he attempts to take his pain to the nipple, much to the outright horror of two unwilling ladies. The Tramp is, indeed, a lost icon in the padded cell.

Enter the Fellow's fellow traveler, the Gamin, adorned in hip-hugging, clingy rags. Orphaned and on the run, she seeks to claim the promise of the New World. Banana in hand, knife clenched in her teeth like a cocky Captain Blood, she stands, with legs apart, barefoot and defiant, as an overtly sexual woman: a refreshing change of pace (and rarity) for a Chaplin leading lady (which were normally of the child bride variety). The Gamin's "Jean Valjean" moment of shame and glory arrives, tucked in a loaf of stolen bread.

Now this Eve will meet her Adam, her soul mate, the Tramp. He will belatedly see the waif as a gift of wisdom. Through a series of strung-together short film vignettes, they will embark on a seemingly ill-fated pursuit of the paradisiacal hour.

Modern Times is deceptively simplistic. Such simplicity is personified in the suburban comic strip-like vignette of "let's play house." The façade is as "stuck" as Charlie in the clogs of machinery (filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne shrewdly compared the latter famous sequence to Chaplin's image being run through a film projector.)

For the most part, the Tramp is a degree more detached here than he was in previous features, which serves him well. The film does have a mawkish "buckle up-never say die" moment of the type that Chaplin will take to maudlin extremes in Limelight (1952). However, this is washed aside by a sublime finale of Gamin and Tramp locked arm-in arm. Having met his equal, the Tramp has evolved. Whether the two reach the sunset horizon together or not is of little concern. They are frozen only where we require them to be.

This Criterion Collection edition of the film is, naturally, exemplary. A detailed booklet (featuring essays by Saul Austerlitz and Lisa Stein), an audio commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, three short films, deleted scenes, and an interview with David Raskin (the arranger of Chaplin's picturesque composition "Smile") are among the wealth of extras.

* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies.


The Gold Rush (Criterion Collection)
The Gold Rush (Criterion Collection)
DVD ~ Charlie Chaplin
Price: $21.36
19 used & new from $15.94

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chaplin's Second (and greatest) Feature (the 1925 original), December 11, 2012
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The Criterion Collection's remastered The Gold Rush (1925) is undoubtedly the Charlie Chaplin release of 2012. For years, the prevailing critical consensus was that Gold Rush was Chaplin's feature film masterpiece. However, a newer generation of critics have since argued that honor should go instead to City Lights (1931). The Gold Rush receives criticism for its episodic structure; however, all of Chaplin's features, including City Lights, are episodic to a degree. This is not necessarily a bad thing, making that a moot critique.

The Criterion Collection release features the 1925 original, along with the 1942 re-edit that omitted the intertitles in favor of narration (by Chaplin) and economically trimmed down of some excess plot developments. While the 1942 version does look better and the editing is better paced, Chaplin's voice-over actually dates the film far worse than the silent original.

Chaplin had a voice which carried well into the sound era. He intuitively knew that silent film was a different art form, however. Thinking about marketing, he seemed to have forgotten that fact. The 1942 version illustrates the artist's discomfort with sound. Chaplin never could wrap his art around the new sound medium, and he pointlessly tells us what we are already seeing. Some may prefer the 1942 version, but my concentration will be on the superior, original version that audiences of 1925 saw.

While The Gold Rush exhibits Chaplin's characteristic pathos, here it is far better balanced with his brand of comedy than any of his other features (when the pathos, often, nearly soaked the films).

Chaplin's increasing need for audience sympathy marred may of his later features. Here, he keeps that need in check, and all for the better. Chaplin's Mutual shorts are considered by many (including Chaplin) to be his best work. One of the reasons for that is the presence of his best nemesis in Eric Campbell. But, when Campbell was killed in an automobile accident in 1917, Chaplin was left without a great heavy. His first feature film, The Kid (1921) was able to bypass that. For this, Chaplin's second Tramp feature, two villains were needed: the bonafide villain Black Larson (Tom Murray) and reformed villain Big Jim McCay (Mack Swain). While neither Swain nor Murray could replace Campbell, they were aptly cast and give the film needed tension.

The Gold Rush`s most discussed scene is the dance of the dinner rolls, often imitated (and usually badly--Chaplin was a master at utilizing props for something other than their intended use). What may be the most compelling scene, however, is the surreal chicken hallucination. Everyone has seen this scene spoofed in countless Looney Tune shorts. The starving villain (Swain) imagines his buddy (Chaplin) to be a walking meal (in this case, a plump chicken). Chaplin's shoe-eating scene (complete with shoe laces substituting for noodles) and the rocking house at the edge of the cliff are additional surreal vignettes.

While Chaplin was never a Surrealist, many of his films contained surreal vignettes. The Kid had the dream of heaven, Sunnyside (1919) has the Tramp frolicking in a ballet with hill nymphs. Perhaps it was Chaplin's occasional, natural elements of Surrealism which endeared him to the movements luminaries, such as André Breton. Next to Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton, Chaplin was the filmmaker most cited by the Surrealists.

As The Gold Rush progresses, hunger, the struggle for survival, and harsh elements give way to a soapy romance with the dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale). Chaplin had originally cast 15 year-old Lita Grey in the role, but his getting her pregnant necessitated a new lead actress. While Chaplin does milk sympathy as a rejected lover, he never does it (here) at the expense of the film's comedic tone.

As to be expected, the Criterion extras are abundant: both film versions, a 15 minute short (Presenting The Gold Rush), audio commentary, booklet, a look at Chaplin the composer, and James Agee's famous 1942 review of the film.

*my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies
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