Modern Times by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 by mchoffman

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In discussing The Gold Rush with French artist and director Jean Cocteau, Chaplin complained, “The dance of the bread rolls. That’s what they all congratulate me on. It is a mere cog in the machine. A detail. If that was what they specially noticed, they must have been blind to the rest!” The same could be said of Modern Times. Today, people remember the iconic image of the Little Tramp literally becoming a cog in the machine– like film itself running through a camera– but it is only a detail. New audiences will see all the other great things around that one famous image.

The inspiration for that moment of comic fantasy is rooted in Chaplin’s own childhood. Silent film historian Jeffrey Vance writes, “The image of man eaten by machine was formed in Chaplin’s mind when, as a boy, he worked three weeks at Straker’s, a printing and stationery shop, operating a Wharfdale printing machine. The first day he was a nervous wreck for he felt the enormous machine, over twenty feet long, was going to devour him.”

Modern Times contains some rather heavy subject matter for a comedy. You wouldn’t think there’d be many laughs in a film about nervous breakdowns, strikes, unemployment, and especially hunger. And yet, it is one of the greatest comedies Chaplin ever made. His genius, as seen with films like The Gold Rush, was in his ability to balance these darker aspects of story with his humor and humanity.

It’s a story about trying to maintain one’s humanity in the modern world. Social success must not subjugate individuality, and Charlie keeps his until the very end. (The Tramp would only snap his fingers at the idea of climbing a social ladder.) This is a story about how human relationships are dehumanized under the weight of modern technology. We see how the Big Brother network around Charlie’s little factory worker reduces human interaction. (This is 1984 in 1936.) In the world of Modern Times people– more specifically, the movers and shakers– communicate through large-screen monitors. How different is that from a 2011 society that interacts through cell phones and computers?

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Like his previous films, Charlie is socially alienated by society, and it’s not until he meets the pretty street waif—known as the Gamin, played by Paulette Goddard– that he finally finds someone to connect with on a spiritual– rather than physical– level. She is his partner. With her, he dreams of finding a place, a sense of home, though we doubt there could ever be a home for this eternal wanderer.

Chaplin had always been socially conscious, and the origins of the story can be traced to a 1931 world tour he took after the premiere of City Lights. While on this trip he saw the effects of the Depression around the world. He met with various leaders, from Churchill to Gandhi, who shaped his thoughts. This awareness of what was going on around the globe led Chaplin to make a film that reflected the social and economic conditions of its time. Much has been written about Chaplin’s own politics– and most of it wrong. Chaplin himself had said that he was suspicious of a picture with a message. There’s no political agenda behind this film, and you can’t pigeonhole Chaplin as easily as some sensationalist writers have. The Little Tramp defies all political -isms.

Graham Greene, then a film critic, said that the film had no real point of view in the way of politics: “Mr. Chaplin, whatever his convictions may be, is an artist and not a propagandist. He doesn’t try to explain, but presents with vivid fantasy what seems to him a crazy comic tragic world without a plan… He presents, he doesn’t offer political solutions.”

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I think about the moment in the film when Charlie innocently picks up a red flag that has fallen off the back of a truck and starts waving it—prompting the police to arrest him as an agitator. By the early 1950s,  Charles Chaplin was still waving a flag of humanitarianism. In the political climate of the day, he was labeled something he was not.

Modern Times is a silent film with a silent rhythm– shot mostly at silent speed (18 or 16 frames per second). Only the dialogue scenes had to be shot at 24 frames. To make a silent movie almost ten years after sound’s arrival was a daring move in 1936 even with Chaplin’s tremendous name recognition. By this time, audiences had grown accustomed to sound comedy as exemplified by the Marx Brothers. At one point during production, Chaplin did have some dialogue sequences in mind for his characters…

Girl: What’s your name?

Tramp: Me? Oh, mine’s a silly name. You wouldn’t like it. It begins with an “X.”

Girl: Begins with an “X”?

Tramp: See if you can guess.

Girl: Not eczema?

Tramp: Oh, worse than that—just call me Charlie.

Girl: Charlie! There’s no “X” in that!

Tramp: No—oh, well, where d’ya live?

Girl: No place—here—there—anywhere.

Tramp: Anywhere? That’s where I live.

But this dialogue was discarded. The Tramp had always been a universal clown, and giving him a voice, a specific language and identity, would’ve detracted from that special quality that made him an international figure. “For years, I have specialized in one type of comedy—strictly pantomime,” Chaplin had said in 1931. “I have measured it, gauged it, studied it. I have been able to establish exact principles to govern its reactions on audiences. It has a certain pace and tempo. Dialogue, to my way of thinking, always slows action, because action must wait on words.”

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But Modern Times is far from silent. It is filled with a dynamic use of sound. Note how the human voices that we hear at the factory are all reproduced through some kind of mechanical device, such as the radio and the closed-circuit television. Sound effects like Chaplin’s gurgling stomach enhance the comedy. Orchestral sounds even substitute for the human voice. And then there’s the brilliant film score that Chaplin created with musical arranger David Raksin, who is most famous for his theme to the film noir Laura in 1944.

Much has been written about the evolution of this great film by authors more astute than me. The best books on Chaplin are the ones written by authors David Robinson and Jeffrey Vance, both have contributed wonderful introductions and visual essays to these films on the recent dvd releases. The special features are amazing and the material is essential viewing for those who want to learn more about Chaplin.

So instead of quoting others here, I’d like to say a few words about why I selected this film. Modern Times may not be the best-constructed film Chaplin has done. Film critic Otis Ferguson said it had the feel of four two-reelers strung together, but the relationship between Charlie and the Gamin is the unifying thread throughout all these episodes. Paulette Goddard may have been his best leading lady because she and Charlie are very much equals in this film. Goddard was a former chorus girl whom Chaplin had put under contract. He would succeed in making her a star. In Modern Times, he photographs her as though she already is one. They had an eight-year personal and professional relationship, during which Paulette was a stabilizing force in his life. She would also appear in Chaplin’s first full-talking film, The Great Dictator, in 1940.

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Modern Times is visually the most polished of his films and benefits from the contribution of set designer Charles Danny Hall. Hall had done the sets for such films as Dracula and Frankenstein, and many others at Universal during the 1930s. There is a gloss to Modern Times, especially in the factory scenes. We have no idea what those machines do exactly besides provide great images of art deco futurism. Indeed, it is a factory of the future as though designed by Metropolis’ Rotwang, the inventor. (Makes you wonder what the Tramp would’ve done had he been turned loose in Metropolis.)

There is more location filming here than in Chaplin’s previous film, City Lights. It’s refreshing to see other scenes out in the country or near the waterfront. More atmosphere is evoked in seeing these places recorded on film. The waterfront shack that Charlie and Paulette call home is actually near a Ford motor plant, which you can see off in the distance. (Chaplin’s tour of the Ford assembly line in the 1920s was one of the memories that had shaped his vision of the film.)

Modern Times is a coda to both Chaplin’s career as the Little Tramp and to silent comedy. It’s a nostalgic summary of what defined him. There are moments throughout the film that recall his earliest days in two-reelers. His roller skating on the department store balcony, for example, reminds us of the physical comedy in his short film The Rink, made 20 years before. Modern Times is also cast with familiar character actors from his formative years, such as Chester Conklin, who plays the senior engineer who gets stuck in the machinery. Though only a couple years older than Chaplin, Conklin was a comic veteran whose career went back to the days of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio, which is where the two men had met. He worked with some of the greatest comedy artists, so it’s sad to learn that Conklin wound up as a department store Santa Claus in the mid-1950s.

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This film was made midway in Chaplin’s career, but I feel he never surpassed it. There are so many memorable sequences, such as the feeding machine (which Chaplin operated himself offscreen), and the scene at the café where we finally hear his voice. It’s the moment audiences have been waiting for. However, during this expressive song he uses an Italian-French gibberish. (A sly fellow that Charlot!) Even in the face of sound, the Little Tramp’s universal identity is preserved.

What followed in the second half of his career were films with darker themes that were more heavy-handed. Once Chaplin did finally speak, he couldn’t stop! But he was always at his best as a mime of the silent film language. If Chaplin had only made Modern Times he’d be recognized as a great comedian. As it is, tonight’s film remains a reminder of the golden silence that had come before. It encapsulates all the qualities that made Chaplin a master comedian.

The ending of the film is the perfect swan song not only to this phase of his career, but to the era of silent moviemaking. It’s the definitive road ending because Chaplin is, in essence, taking the tradition of silent film with him. It began with Chaplin, so how fitting is it that it should end with him. This was the last mainstream silent film from Hollywood’s glory days, and it is the final time we shall see The Little Tramp.
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Smile by annette bochenek

Posted in Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 by mchoffman

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Smile though your heart is aching, smile even though it’s breaking.

These are the opening lines to the song “Smile,” which Charlie Chaplin composed as a soundtrack for his 1936 film, Modern Times. Although we never hear the lyrics in this film since John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons would write them in 1954, its melody illuminates every scene that dares to show glimpses of humanity in an industrial age.

Throughout the film, the Tramp struggles in an impersonal world of technology. The marvels of machinery seem to be taking over everything—dictating the pacing of a task, the assembly of a product, and even how to eat. The world is cold and unfeeling, and he easily becomes alienated and alone.

However, Chaplin would never allow his Tramp to be overpowered by technology. Chaplin once said, “I am for people, I can’t help it.” And people—humanity—are the exact remedy for the ills of industry.

The Tramp meets his counterpart, an orphan girl, played by his then-wife Paulette Goddard. The Tramp and the girl establish individuality through their ability to feel, to hope, to dream, to sing, to dance, and to love. This is what separates them from the machinery of the age. Emotions rescue them from routine. Their humanity brings them hope.

What’s more, Chaplin consoles us as his film reaffirms that individualism is absolutely necessary. The film opens with sheep milling about, and compares them to people on their way to work. Each of them clearly has a destination, but none are truly living life. None even seem to look ahead of themselves—each step in the chaos is predictable and memorized.

Chaplin tells us that it is okay to be the black sheep in this situation. Subtle human gestures are nearly extinct in the industrial world, and to see the Tramp reintroduce them with the girl is almost overwhelming. They strikingly bring emotion back into the humdrum world of industry and gain a renewed sense of purpose through one simple but powerful characteristic: the ability to face each situation with a smile.

This message has held up for 75 years. Technology continues to grow and develop, and we frequently lose ourselves in its materialism. However, what is important cannot be bought or sold. If we do not maintain ourselves and the love and the emotions that make us so very vulnerable and so very human, then we are no more than the machines in the backdrop of the film.

Instead, we should embrace life in its fullest form and simply follow the closing lyric to Chaplin’s “Smile:”

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just smile.

The Mechanics of The Cameraman by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13, 2011 by mchoffman

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“You must always grind forward… never backward.” ~ Sally to Buster in The Cameraman

In 1917, Buster Keaton was introduced to movie making when he was given a tour  of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s studio, which was operating in New York. “Anything special you want to see first?” Arbuckle asked his guest. “Yes,” Keaton replied. “The camera.” With those words, Buster Keaton began a lifelong fascination with the camera. He was fascinated not just by how it worked, but by what it could do. Buster immediately thought of the medium’s possibilities which could free him from the reality of the theatrical stage. The films, as author Rudi Blesh wrote, “could preserve forever the happy harlequin magic of a clown.”

Our audiences have seen in weeks past the extent of Buster Keaton’s genius in films like Sherlock, Jr., The Navigator, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. He had the mind of an engineer; his films reflect a technical brilliance unseen in other comedies of the time. He embraced the technology whole-heartedly.  Buster knew how to tell stories with a camera. What he told were stories about heroes battling both man and nature.

The onscreen Buster appeared to have a tentative, handshake agreement with the Universe’s natural order; he always seemed to escape unscathed. Like the eye of a hurricane, he was the calm in the storm. Chaos— be it a cyclone or a Chinese Tong War—was always around him. A recurring theme pitted Buster against the mechanical world of man’s creation. Whether it was a steamboat or a locomotive, his characters used machinery to overcome the disorder. In The Cameraman, Buster finally triumphs and brings order when his camera captures the Chinatown footage.

In film after film, set piece after set piece, Keaton’s characters defy the physical laws of the universe. It’s a strange, sometimes surreal relationship. We wonder how any mortal could survive a dynamic where a series of fortunate accidents keeps the race going at silent speed. Buster bent the laws of physics in his favor. The Buster we see onscreen was larger than life– an American myth who embodied a stoic heroism. Behind the camera that shaped this identity was a man who had complete mastery of the form. His command of the camera was simply effortless.

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It is somewhat ironic, then, that in The Cameraman Buster should play a tintype photographer who knows absolutely nothing about motion pictures. In the projection room we witness our hero’s technical incompetency when it becomes evident he has double-exposed the images he so desperately sought to capture as a newsreel photographer. Like Sherlock, Jr., The Cameraman is about film, but in an altogether different way. Tonight’s film does not playfully probe the line between illusion and reality the way the earlier film did. The Cameraman is simply a story about making movies.

After years as an independent filmmaker, Keaton came to a crossroads in his career. He turned to the biggest studio in town where he hoped for larger budgets and better distribution of his films. MGM was the studio that boasted having “more stars than there are in Heaven,” but they did not have a comedy star until Buster arrived at the gates of MGM with his bag of gags. It was a situation he was forced into when his long-time producer, Joe Schenck, decided to close shop. The days of the independents were coming to an end, and Buster did not have the money to produce his own films the way Chaplin and Lloyd did.

The Cameraman was a promising beginning for Keaton at his new home. The end product was so perfect that MGM proudly used it as a comedy training film to show future comedians how a comedy should be made. It would influence films such as The Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. Of course, the studio saw this film as a model MGM comedy. They didn’t get it. The reality is that its perfection went beyond big-budget gloss. The film is a classic because of Buster Keaton, not because of the studio’s method of creating it.

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It was directed by a former vaudevillian named Edward Sedgwick, who would direct most of Buster’s MGM features, but it was Buster who was the creative force behind it. He was able to assemble some of his old production crew, such as cameraman Elgin Lessley as well as writer Clyde Bruckman, who had been co-director on The General. What they fashioned was a capsule of the Keaton mystique. Again, he is a character who reflects both strength and resilience with that familiar, shy innocence towards women.

This was the first time Keaton worked from a studio-approved script. Though Bruckman is credited as a co-writer of the story, there were many people contributing to it. Much of it Buster had to eliminate as unnecessary, such as subplots involving gangsters. The Cameraman does have about the funniest inter-title in any silent comedy—silent films had their own title writers– and it comes when Keaton runs into the organ grinder on the street and flattens the monkey.

Interfering producers put an over-emphasis on the written scenario. This is an example of the studio system impeding his creative process. Improvisation was frowned upon by the studio as something that was too costly. “Slapstick has a format,” Buster once said, “but it is hard to detect in its early stages unless you are one of those who can create it. The unexpected was our staple product, the unusual our object, and the unique was the ideal we were always hoping to achieve.” Nevertheless, two of the best moments were completely improvised: Buster trying to open his piggybank in his apartment, and his one-man ballgame at an empty Yankee Stadium– a sequence that shows off his great talent as a mime.

The film was only partially shot in New York. Buster Keaton was too recognizable a figure to blend in. Location shooting didn’t go as smoothly for him as it had for Harold Lloyd with Speedy. Only a few street scenes were actually filmed while the rest were recreated back in Culver City. Coney Island, for instance, was actually Venice Beach.

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Marceline Day portrays Sally, and she is actually one of Buster’s strongest heroines. His relationship with her is probably the most romantic in any of his films. The comedy business between them seems to grow naturally from the story. Fans may never see Marceline Day in London After Midnight— the most famous of all lost films which she starred in the year before– but she can be seen in a somewhat revealing bathing suit in The Cameraman– more revealing when it’s wet. She appeared in many of Harry Langdon’s short films as well. She passed away in 2000 at the age of 91.

Harold Goodwin portrays Stagg, the rival. Goodwin was a native of Peoria, Illinois, and appeared in over 200 films including, most notably, All Quiet on the Western Front. An online reference claims he was killed in 1987 for adultery! Keaton enthusiasts will remember him as the rival in College, and he appeared in the Educational Pictures shorts like Grand Slam Opera as the band leader.

Also, viewers should look for Vernon Dent, a familiar face to all fans of the Three Stooges, as well as Edward Brophy, who would go on to have a successful career as a character actor. Brophy appears with Buster in the changing room scene at the pool—a four-minute sequence which was done in a single take. Buster believed that rehearsed scenes looked mechanical.

The Cameraman is Buster’s last great film before he faded into the studio background—lost somewhere along the studio assembly line. In the ensuing years, he would lose more and more creative control; he was not the sort to fight to get it back. As a result, he appeared in films that any other comedian could’ve starred in. MGM didn’t listen to Buster’s ideas or give him his own independednt unit, which is what they should’ve done. Around the time of The Cameraman, Buster had an interesting idea for a Western with Marie Dressler as his costar, but apparently there wasn’t enough plot to satisfy Irving Thalberg.

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MGM never really knew what to do with him, turning him into a sad clown and starring him in stagey quasi-musicals like Free and Easy instead of giving him roles that would offer physical comedy over dull movie talk. Gags defined Buster’s films—not songs or plot twists. Buster was often cast as a dim-witted character named “Elmer” who lacked the ingenuity and resourcefulness of his earlier characters from the silent days. He was eventually mismatched with the overbearing Jimmy Durante for a few films in which they starred as a comedy team. The last of these, What! No Beer? in 1933 was the bottom of the beer barrel for Buster.

The combination of marital strife and creative disintegration led him to the bottle. MGM fired him when he became too unreliable on set. From there, he moved on to Educational and then Columbia Pictures where he also starred in a series of two-reel comedies. Buster would eventually overcome his alcoholism and remarry, but his career never recovered. Perhaps he could’ve had a second life had he teamed up with a director who shared his ideas of using sound in a new way, like Europe’s Rene Clair, for example, but that is only a film historian’s fantasy.

Tonight’s film is a real joy. The Cameraman summarizes what critic James Agee called the Silent Era’s “beauties of comic motion which are hopelessly beyond reach of words.” Watching Buster Keaton run down the street is in itself a thing of beauty. We can never take our eyes off him. That’s how kinetic a physical performer he is, but beyond the physicality, there is an expressiveness belying The Great Stone Face, and it comes in the eyes. This latter facet of Buster is sometimes lost when audiences see the feats of physical comedy, but the stone face could not mask the great actor he was. It’s all there on the screen.

The Cameraman is a film about a photographer trying to get the best shot, but we are the ones who are rewarded. We are witnessing a beautifully-constructed film with all the right shots.

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The Essentials by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 5, 2011 by mchoffman

For those who wish our film series could go another three months, I have listed additional movies you should see. All of the following are available on dvd. Though Legends of Laughter ends on June 2, 2011, I hope you will continue to seek out the work of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. I have also listed my reading sources. These are the best books on the subject.

Charlie Chaplin:

Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies (1916-1917)

The Kid (1921)

The Great Dictator (1940)

Limelight (1952)

The Chaplin Revue (1959)

Harold Lloyd:

Grandma’s Boy (1922)

Why Worry? (1923)

Girl Shy (1924)

For Heaven’s Sake (1926)

The Cat’s Paw (1934)

Buster Keaton:

Buster Keaton’s nineteen independent silent shorts (1920-1923)

Our Hospitality (1923)

Go West (1925)

College (1927)

The Railrodder (1964)

Recommended reading:

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The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr (1975)

Chaplin: His Life and Art, David Robinson (1985)

Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, Jeffrey Vance (2003)

The Search For Charlie Chaplin, Kevin Brownlow (2010)

An American Comedy, Harold Lloyd with Wesley W. Stout (1928)

Harold Lloyd: The King of Daredevil Comedy,  Adam Reilly (1977)

Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian, Jeffrey Vance & Suzanne Lloyd (2002)

Harold Lloyd: Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses, Annette D’Agostino Lloyd (2009)

Keaton, Rudi Blesh (1966)

Silent Echoes, John Bengtson (1999)

Buster Keaton Remembered, Eleanor Keaton & Jeffrey Vance (2001)

The Fall of Buster Keaton, James L. Neibaur (2010)

Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture, Peter Kobel (2007)

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Additionally, look for James Agee’s 1949 Life magazine article, “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” This essay is a terrific work of film criticism and should be read by anyone interested in silent comedy.

The Kid Brother by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 29, 2011 by mchoffman

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“Nineteen twenty seven was a good year for silent comedy. It saw the release of Buster Keaton’s The General, a film considered to be not only his masterpiece, but one of the greatest American films ever made. But 1927 also saw the release of what has been acknowledged as Harold Lloyd’s best, and his own personal favorite of all his films, The Kid Brother. Though its reputation has increased over the years since Harold’s death in 1971, it’s still relatively obscure by popular standards. That’s a shame because an argument could be made that tonight’s film is the highlight of the whole program. It’s certainly my favorite in the series…” — beginning of my introduction to The Kid Brother

This entry is more of a postgame analysis than a detailed examination of the film, but I want to record my impressions of the evening while they are still fresh…

Except for Speedy, which was screened off-site at the Pickwick Theatre, tonight’s showing of Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother brought in the largest attendance thus far for the Park Ridge Public Library’s “Legends of Laughter” film series. The only thing better than getting a full house is the sound of kids laughing and experiencing their first silent movie. Actually, we had all age groups tonight, and it was the best reaction to any film I’ve played. (The place went bananas when “Chicago” the monkey tried to steal the show.) Hearing people applaud at the right moments made it all worthwhile.

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We began the evening early at 6:20 with Harold’s short film, Just Neighbors (1919), followed by two featurettes entitled “Greenacres” (about Harold’s famous estate) and “Harold’s Hollywood: Then and Now” (with Annette D’Agostino Lloyd as our tour guide). After the greeting at 7 PM, I played Harold’s one-reeler The Non-Stop Kid (1918). The talk that followed on the feature presentation was not as long as the previous week’s. Besides the fact that I don’t want to be known as the non-stop talking kid, I did not want to reveal too many secrets of a film I knew most had not seen before.

Harold Lloyd is proving to be the biggest surprise for those who are experiencing his films for the first time. I think part of the draw is that Harold is one of us. Based on his characterizations– as well as the documentaries I’ve played, which familiarize us with the Lloyd family– people feel closer to Harold… I think Buster Keaton remains a mystery to some and an unfathomable puzzle, and Chaplin is on some other plane of genius altogether, but people seem to feel more of a personal bond with Harold. He brought the common touch.

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There’s that wonderful moment in The Kid Brother when Harold Hickory climbs the tree in the hope of getting a better look at Mary (Jobyna Ralston), the girl from the medicine show, as she descends down the hill. He climbs higher and higher in order to watch her and call out to her. Thanks to Walter Lundin’s brilliant elevation of the camera, the scene is one of the most memorable in the film. It’s one moment of  many that makes me emotional in a way no other comedy has. The communal environment of the audience brings it out even more. The ending of City Lights comes to mind, of course, but for me, there are more sustained moments of emotional and cinematic beauty in The Kid Brother. It was heartening to see that I was not alone in feeling this. Shortly after this wonderful moment in the film, one of our loyal regulars turned around and whispered to me, “This is good!”

Another of our regulars came up to me after the show and said that now this one was her favorite of Lloyd’s. (With each one we play she has a new favorite! This tells you how well his films are going over.) I designed the program so that we would see his best in the second half of the series. Our first Harold film in March, Safety Last, is a great film and received a wonderful reaction of its own, but Harold was more than a daredevil comic known for hanging off a clock.

Harold nevertheless managed to work in some daredevil thrills in The Kid Brother

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My friends sometimes ask me who my favorite is, and I prefer not to give a definite answer because all three Legends are so unique. I’m always rather vague about it. I admire Chaplin’s poetry in pantomime, and Keaton– the most silent of the clowns– was a genius with the camera. People know Chaplin and Keaton, and as long as movies are playing on screens fans will debate the merits of their legacies. But moviegoers need to become more aware of the full spectrum of our comedy heritage– specifically, the heritage Harold Lloyd has left us.  I asked my audience to always remember Harold and films like The Kid Brother

One patron thought his films should be shown in school. Considering what kids are being shown today, I don’t think that’s a bad idea. The Kid Brother is clean and decent and just plain good. It’s filled with what author Annette D’Agostino Lloyd called a “warm beauty” which, in my eyes, reflects back off the screen. But on a technical level as well, how it is shot and constructed, it should be taught in film school.  There are few films we can call perfect, but The Kid Brother is one of them. It’s a distinctly American masterpiece.

A full house!
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Your program host (center) with two generations of movie fans: The Kilroys.
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Chinatown After Dark: Exploring Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 23, 2011 by mchoffman

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“It was easier to sit down and talk, and to make up verbal quips, to get dialogue, instead of visual action and ocular business, gags, as we used to call them. The spoken word seemed to be much simpler to get their laughs from, and much cheaper. They could make a picture for much less, because visual comedy is expensive. It takes timing. It takes spacing. It takes rehearsal to bring it off correctly. And, as time went on, comedians seemed to lose the art, or the knack you might call it, of doing pantomime. It just became a different school of thought.” ~ Harold Lloyd, 1959

Last Wednesday, April 20th, TCM honored Harold Lloyd’s 118th birthday by playing some of his films. Fortunately, one of them was the rarely-seen Welcome Danger (1929), a film not available on dvd in the United States. It may never be released in this country as there is a dwindling demand for these films. I had never seen it before, but now that I have, I can tell you it’s one of the strangest Harold Lloyd films. You would never think that a movie depicting a charming idyll of Harold mooning over a girl (with a cow-phobia) in the film’s prologue would eventually lead to a climax with Harold locked in a room and about to be beaten and whipped by a hulking black henchman (played by Blue Washington). Storywise, the film is insane (in a good way), but it’s of special interest to historians for what is beyond the plot points. Welcome Danger reveals the process of bridging the gap between silence and sound.

For those who know nothing of its creation, Welcome Danger was the film Harold made immediately after his great success, Speedy (1928). It was completed as a silent film. However, one evening before the film’s release (it was in its final editing stage), Harold was walking down a street in Los Angeles when he passed the Million Dollar Theatre and stopped to take note of an interesting phenomenon. He heard the audience inside responding enthusiastically to what was being aurally projected back at them. He went in and saw that audiences were laughing at the most mundane sounds being heard in the short subject that was playing– bacon sizzling, that sort of thing. It was at this moment that Harold had a creative epiphany about what the value of sound effects could mean; he decided to release Welcome Danger as his first sound film. With his own finances, he rebooted and retooled it by shooting  new scenes with sound (with Clyde Bruckman directing) and then redubbing the completed portions (which had been earlier shot by Mal St. Clair). These sections of the film are partially out of sync.

Harold plays a rather preoccupied botanist named Harold Bledsoe who is on his way by train to San Francisco.  After being stranded while picking flower specimens from a tree, he comes upon Billie Lee (Barbara Kent) and her little brother on the road. She is having car trouble and is in the process of making repairs– or attempting to anyway– when Harold shows up in need of a ride. In her cap and overalls, she passes herself off as a man– there’s a reason she pursues this masquerade, but let’s not get too involved with this summary.

Welcome Danger would probably lay an egg with modern audiences who crave sensory overkill, but at least it has the lovely Barbara Kent in it! (A replacement for Mary McAllister, who was the original lead in the silent version, Kent would go on to co-star with Harold in his next film, Feet First.)

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Other writers have commented on how unlikeable Harold is at the start of this film because of his (mis)treatment of  “Billie.”  Harold was certainly a better comic than this,  so it is disconcerting to see him play a jerk. It’s hard to imagine audiences laughing at these verbal put-downs, but maybe they weren’t meant to. This was Harold’s way of establishing his character’s flaws early. But the problem is that there is a total disconnect between him and us. Unlike his silent films, we are no longer seeing ourselves in him– at least for the early part of the movie. The only thing that can be said in defense of this abusive introduction is that Harold doesn’t realize Billie is a she. (But you wouldn’t talk to anyone the way he talks to her.) One passing shot of her mischievous smile tells us she is playing along with it. She even instigated his animosity by insulting the girl in the picture with whom he is so infatuated. (The girl in the cherished photo is in fact Billie.)

Their relationship is very sweet. Slow-moving perhaps, but still moving with its rural background. Kent’s character is one of those uncomplicated movie heroines  who can love a man unconditionally, running after his departing train as though she were a loyal puppy. You know she will say yes… if he can just get the question out. We like Barbara Kent in this movie, but we don’t understand why she likes Harold as much as she does. We miss the carefully-structured romances of Jobyna Ralston in films like The Kid Brother.

In San Francisco we discover that the police department has been stymied by the nefarious “Dragon,”  a villain of the underworld who has a stranglehold on Chinatown. Harold’s father had been the police chief there  years ago, so the current brain trust has the bright idea that perhaps Harold is a chip off his dad’s block; his services are recruited after a good first impression. Since Harold didn’t seem to notice Billie’s obvious femininity earlier in the film, we wonder what kind of sharp detective he’d make. In addition, Harold had never heard of the science of fingerprinting. He makes up for it by obsessively fingerprinting all the cops in the station.

Quite by accident, Harold discovers the opium trade when a plant pot he had absconded with breaks. Finding a carton of dope inside, the Chinese doctor, who had been attending to Billie’s brother (and who also is an enemy of The Dragon), goes off to see what he can find out. He vanishes, but Harold goes in search of him. Harold’s sidekick is Clancy, the wide-eyed, slow-talking traffic cop (played by the wonderful Noah Young) who had earlier been run over by Harold and Billie. (The two men had been paired together earlier in1921’s A Sailor-Made Man in which they had rescued Mildred Davis from the Maharajah.)

There’s a wonderfully atmospheric sequence in a labyrinth involving wall panels and secret passageways. The two find themselves running from dozens of Chinese. It’s not the most subtle brand of humor with most of the action involving characters getting hit over the head with boards. And there’s the candle-on-a-moving-turtle gag. (It never fails!) It might be tedious to some, but I liked this sequence. The music and lighting add to the “haunted house”-type thrills. Listen carefully and you’ll recognize the Alfred Hitchcock theme, “Funeral March of a Marionette,” in the score. The incidental music was arranged by C. Bakaleinikoff.

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Harold incorporates a funny gag here where his match goes out and the screen goes totally black: the joke being that now we have sound but no picture. However, Harold milks this device a little too much with the match continuously going out.

Had the film ended after this first brawl, it would’ve been a huge disappointment. But true to form, Harold extends the action for a topper– and another confrontation with The Dragon.

Back at the station, the police have turned on Harold. He is only a laughingstock. They don’t believe anything he has to say. The scene recalls a moment in The Freshman in which Harold realizes he is the joke of the campus. And like that earlier film, Harold must now prove himself worthy…

The original silent version that was first previewed no doubt would’ve been a better film because it would’ve moved faster without the awkward dialogue to root characters in place. Welcome Danger is by no means a bad film. Harold never made a bad movie. It’s actually technically superior to many early talkies. (The notable exceptions at the time were films like Applause and The Love Parade.) It’s just not as funny as Movie Crazy (his best talkie), or as interesting as The Cat’s Paw, which also used the Chinatown theme. Welcome Danger has its pluses including a great cast of supporting actors.

Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton plays Thorne, an outraged civic leader who is really The Dragon. (It’s never a mystery, folks. Early in the film it’s revealed to us.) Edgar Kennedy, the master of the slow burn, plays the desk sergeant (his character did not appear in the silent version), and the aforementioned Noah Young provides the comic relief in support of our main comic.

The real problem with Welcome Danger is that it is a stylistic mess– neither silent nor a true sound picture. It’s a hybrid, a crossover, a bridge between two worlds of comedy. And the reality of the sound world detracts from the comedy. It’s funnier seeing Harold riding an out-of-control cow backwards in silence than it is hearing him yell for help on it. It’s funnier seeing guys get conked over the head in silent films than hearing the harsh violence of the actual sound effect. The magic silence was its own world, and it did not always translate into the reality of the talking motion picture.

The film is clearly interested in sound, and in fact opens with a train roaring towards the camera. Had audiences seen this image 30 years earlier they would’ve jumped out of their seats for fear the train would run them over. Such was the impact of moving pictures. But now in 1929, it was the sound of the image that made audiences startled. For the first time, they could hear the whistle of the train and all the ordinary sounds of the real world. The opening scene with Harold in the train car is a catalog of aural effects, and each interaction with a passenger presents us with the sounds of everyday life, such as a baby crying. Audiences were curious to finally hear these familiar sounds. Curiosity is what made Welcome Danger his most commercially successful film.

There are even a couple inter-titles that recall the silent film technique. “And so, chop suey to the left of him– laundries to the right of him– into the midst of Chinatown strode Harold Bledsoe.”

The first cut that Harold initially previewed was almost 3 hours. The response was enthusiastic, but then the more times he cut it down the worse it got. He finally got it down to just under two hours– still too long by comedy standards– before converting it into the film we know today. Nevertheless, the foreign market– as well as American theatres not yet equiped for sound– did get the silent version of the film.

In Harold Lloyd: Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses, author Annette D’Agostino Lloyd writes, “Mind you, the original, complete silent version is not known to survive to this day, but fragments do– the original picture negative was missing the first reel, but the dupe picture negative was used to fill in that missing reel and other segments. These fragments comprise a mock ‘restored silent version’ that has screened in some archive theatres. Actually, on August 13, 2008, UCLA’s film archive screened both versions of Welcome Danger– the silent and the sound– on the same evening. The response to the ‘new’ silent has been overwhelming– mirroring the curiosity and enthusiasm of 1929 audiences. According to UCLA film archive preservationist Jere Guldin, ‘After we screened it, I believe it played for five days at the Film Forum [in New York]. They sold out the shows every day.'”

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This UCLA version quoted above was mostly a mute print of the talking Welcome Danger with intertitles. There are some key differences between them. However, it is important to stress that the St. Clair version does not exist.

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For more rare images, including stills from the deleted scenes of the silent version, please visit our photo gallery in the Legends of Laughter movie group on Facebook.

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City Lights by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 22, 2011 by mchoffman

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City Lights is more than a movie; it’s a special place that reminds us of our humanity and the poetry of cinema. It’s a place many today have never seen, and that’s a shame because eighty years after its premiere the brilliance of City Lights has not dimmed. It’s the film that summarizes all the elements of performance that define Chaplin and show off his great range: the graceful pantomime, the acrobatics, and the pathos punctuated by the gentle touch of slapstick.

It is a simple story of lost souls who find each other in an instable world: the gentleman tramp who aids a blind flower girl. Its simplicity in structure masks the fact that this was Chaplin’s most difficult film, taking over two years to complete. The end result is a film that fits together as easily as a jigsaw puzzle; the pieces could not have fit any other way. Chaplin’s original idea was to tell a story of a blind clown. He kept this theme of blindness through the various story incarnations, but he always had a sense of the story’s final destination. Having a blind girl as the heroine recalls The Strong Man from 1926. This is considered Harry Langdon’s best film, which was directed by Frank Capra. Langdon has often been considered the fourth genius of silent comedy.

Chaplin cast Chicago socialite and recent divorcee Virginia Cherrill in the role of the flower girl. According to one version, he had met her ringside at a prizefight. Cherrill had no previous acting experience, and it is possible this deficiency actually helped her to be convincing in the role and to appear blind without seeming to over-act. Chaplin’s advice to her was simply to look at him but “to look inwardly and not to see me.” Their working relationship, however, was strained from the beginning. Perhaps it was her boredom derived from production delays and inactivity, but she never fueled his enthusiasm. Things deteriorated when Virginia asked to leave the set for a hair appointment. Chaplin fired her immediately.

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She was not the only one to have been fired from this production. Australian artist Henry Clive had originally been cast as the suicidal millionaire, but when he refused to jump into the pool on the third day of filming he was let go and replaced by Harry Myers, who is terrific in the role. Charlie replaced Virginia with his Gold Rush co-star, Georgia Hale. (There is a fascinating screen test of Hale which can be found on the dvd.) But the reality for Chaplin was that too much of City Lights had already been completed with Virginia. He was forced to bring her back after he acquiesced to her new contract demands.

Chaplin had said that he worked himself up into what he called a neurotic state of wanting perfection. Most likely the stress and anxiety of making a silent movie in the sound era brought about this state. Charlie’s first meeting with the flower girl was shot over 300 times, marking what would become a Guinness World Record for retakes. In Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, silent film historian Jeffrey Vance writes, “He would not hesitate to retake a scene if he felt she was holding a flower improperly, if the timing of her movement was off, if she was not completely concentrating on the scene, or even if she spoke the line of dialogue, ‘flower, sir?’—which no one would hear in the finished film—incorrectly.”

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A silent movie in 1931 was an anachronism, but Chaplin felt there was no way he should make his most famous character speak. Before sound shattered the silence around him, the Little Tramp had become a universal figure recognized in every culture. Speaking would’ve robbed him of his connection to a large section of the global audience. The Tramp never did speak dialogue, and when forced to finally utter something in Modern Times, Chaplin found a clever way around it.  

When the sound revolution came, many of the early talkies were stagey and visually-dull affairs. Films had lost their cinematic technique. But City Lights—a deliberate, conscious throwback to the world of silent cinema—could speak to us with the power of the image. The fabled city of the Little Tramp and the flower girl was a world where emotion could be conveyed through the power of pantomime. “Everything I do is a dance,” Chaplin had said of his process. “I think in terms of dance. I think more so in City Lights. The blind girl—beautiful dance there. I call it a dance. Just purely pantomime.” Charlie Chaplin was cinema’s greatest mime and a wizard of storytelling who knew how to reach every culture in the world.

Chaplin had, in his own unique way, turned slapstick itself into a dance. It is a style of filmmaking removed from the broad knockabout most people associate with silent comedies. There are no Keystone Kops in Legends of Laughter. No pie fights. Nothing of that sort. Those early, primitive images in the comedy timeline are best left for the archeologists of cinema. My goal has been to show audiences only the high points of the silent film tradition.

City Lights does have a musical score composed by Chaplin himself as well as an interesting use of synchronized sound effects, most notably the use of kazoos to speak for the politicians in the opening scene. It’s been suggested that this was Chaplin’s dig at movie dialogue. He shows us the irrelevance of words. Fittingly, they are coming out of the mouths of politicians. Modern audiences are trained to accept sound and the spoken word. They need it as badly as they do color, but these elements are no guarantees of a better film. Sound and color enhance reality, but the silent clowns existed in a world of exaggeration.

Few films of its time had the freedom of movement and pace of City Lights. Faster and more exciting than anything around it, the film moves with an ease and grace in which every scene is loaded with ingenious gags. Every scene is inspired– none more so than the final moments.  

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The final sequence is one of the great emotional scenes of cinema. I stress emotional rather than cinematic. It’s a very simple camera set-up and it’s easy to spot the continuity errors—a viewer will notice how the flower Chaplin is holding seems to move as we cut back and forth between him and the girl. But all that is irrelevant because it is a moment of great emotional power—the power of performance—and that to Chaplin had always been more important than any technical incongruities.

In later years Chaplin said, “I had one close-up once, in City Lights, just the last scene. One could have gone overboard… I was looking more at her and interested in her, and I detached myself in a way that gives a beautiful sensation. I’m not acting… almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking, studying her reactions and being slightly embarrassed about it. And it came off. It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted.”

We don’t even need the inter-titles to understand it because it’s all there visually. Critic James Agee, the author of the essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” said of the film’s ending, “It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

A viewer recently commented to me that she thought the music in this final scene was too sad, too sombre for a “happy” ending. Though it’s the ending we had hoped for, can the Tramp ever really find happiness and love– or will he forever be on that road alone? Chaplin was too smart a filmmaker to use music cues that would hit audiences over the head. There is a reason this moment is so iconic the way it is, and the music– in keeping with the tone of the earlier themes– makes it so.

This past Saturday Chaplin would’ve been 122 years old. Perhaps I should say he is 122 because he is still with us now—still living on the screen like the immortal he is. He is still making news, we are still learning about him, and he is still inspiring us with the magic silence of City Lights.

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