Today in Movie History: January 30

Charlie Chaplin has been on our minds a lot of late, and today saw the release of one of his masterpiece: City Lights, the story of Chaplin’s ubiquitous Little Tramp and the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who falls in love with him. It’s vintage Chaplin at its finest, and if you don’t get a little misty-eyed at the finale, you might not actually possess a soul. City Lights opened today in 1931.

Way, way WAY down the totem pole, we find a couple of decidedly scruffier movies that nonetheless hold plenty of guilty pleasures. We’ll start with Taken, Pierre Morel’s reactionary revenge piece that benefits immeasurably from Liam Neeson’s steely hero. (It gave the actor a signature catch phrase in the bargain.) It opened today in 2009.

The other movie was Deep Rising, Stephen Sommer’s glorious monster mash in which a Lovecraftian horror attacks a luxury cruise liner. It doesn’t trade in the uglier stereotypes of Taken and — while goofy in the extreme — makes for a much more enjoyable experience overall. It opened today in 1998.

(Incidentally, both of the above movies featured Famke Janssen… just one of the reasons why we love her.)

 

Movies for the Resistance: The Great Dictator

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell and Pauletta Goddard
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Running time: 125 minutes
Rating: NR
Year of release: 1940

The days after Trump’s election prompted a serious discussion about the role of comedy in our civic discourse. Can one laugh about a functionally insane con artist in the White House? Thankfully, consensus rapidly settled around the obvious position: far from making light of a grim situation, humor serves as a potent weapon to denude, irritate and perhaps even help unseat our manifestly unfit “leader.” Social media outlets like Twitter – Trump’s weapon of choice against his enemies – have proven equally adept at delivering potent zingers in the other direction. Ordinary people take their shots at him every day, alongside more notable figures from political opponents to celebrities. That comes on top of a host of traditional forms of satire… topped, perhaps, by Melissa McCarthy’s merciless SNL takedown of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

Trump’s thin-skinned seething over such perceived slights leaves no doubt as to their effectiveness: laugh at the bully and he never seems quite so frightening again. But the blueprint for such attacks lies not in the present, but 75 years in the past… with Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Chaplin invested a considerable amount of his own money, as well as a large part of his reputation, in the project. It succeeded critically and financially, but at great cost to its creator, and essentially marked his swan song as an onscreen presence. He acted in only four movies after that – never as the Tramp – and directed only five before his death 37 years later. One presumes that the effort was worth it.

Certainly, there’s no question as to the target. He plays dual roles in the film: fascist dictator Adenoid Hinkel ruling over the thinly disguised version of Nazi Germany, and a lowly unnamed Jewish barber (essentially the Tramp) living in the ghetto after fighting in the Great War. Chaplin used his first sound film to mock anything and everything about Hitler’s regime, from his apoplectic speeches to his overt yearning for ever larger conquests. It finds a high point in an entrancing (and quietly terrifying) dance around a balloon shaped like a globe, but the director’s instincts find potent ground at practically every turn.

He shifts back and forth between Hinkel and the barber, the latter acting as a release valve for the darker, more potent jabs at the former. Critics disagree whether the barber is “pure” Tramp, a debate rendered ridiculous once Chaplin shows up in his famous derby-and-cane ensemble. Regardless, the barber’s antics hearken back to his silent days: sight gags involving shaving, passing food back and forth, and scuffles with authority figures in which his delicate acrobatics save the day.

The lighter stuff gives us time to breathe during the more chilling humor of the Hinkel scenes, though Chaplin never forgets the stakes. The sight of him facing down a horde of policemen becomes all the more unsettling for the armbands on the goons’ sleeves, and he doesn’t pussy-foot around when it comes to the nature of Hinkel’s targets.

It makes the film a bit of a mess structurally, though plot and narrative really aren’t the point. With a target he clearly despises and decades of filmmaking experience at his disposal, Chaplin wants us to understand the horrors of fascism without lending too much credit to the scuttling toads responsible. It takes a great deal to retain that balance, and even the greatest comedian of the 20th Century struggles to maintain it. At times, Hinkel comes across as more buffoonish than horrible, and the icy brilliance of the globe scene often gives way to easier “look at the clown” jabs. They work in a generic context – akin to, say, a Warner Bros. cartoon on the same subject – but can’t maintain the bite that other scenes deliver with such grace.

Granted, that’s holding him to an impossibly high bar. No one else could come close to the artful juggling of emotions on display here and the fact that he succeeds so often speaks to his unparalleled genius. Indeed, avoiding all the pitfalls may have required him to see the future, since the worst was yet to come at the time of the film’s release. (He later said that if he had known about the Final Solution before shooting, he never could have proceeded.)

Beyond that, it took courage to do something like this at a time when the U.S. viewed Russia with more skepticism than Germany and criticizing Hitler was far from universally acceptable. The Great Dictator enjoyed critical and commercial success, but it came with a huge amount of controversy, fueling the later paternity suit and FBI smearing that drove him from the country. He certainly knew the risks when he undertook the project and he forged ahead anyway. It was that important to him.

Which leads us to The Great Dictator’s finale (Spoiler Alert, yada-yada) in which the barber, having taken Hinkel’s place, admonishes the world to fight for liberty, democracy and the common good. It stands in marked contrast to the rest of the film, and has been criticized by a number of notables for dropping the pretense of the story and simply delivering a manifesto. (One wonders whether Chaplin would have felt the need to include it had he a blog or Twitter account to express it separately.) Such criticism often stemmed from easier times when danger seemed less dire… or in the case of the film’s initial release, from the controversy of contemporary politics.

Certainly, the speech stems from an immense ego – three-and-a-half uncut minutes of Chaplin alone onscreen – and the lack of subtlety stands in contrast to the comedic grace that preceded it. But his words become far more powerful in moments of crisis, when the institutions we all took for granted suddenly feel as fragile as origami flowers and the prospect of real, lasting damage to the better angels of our nature demands a swift and unequivocal response.

Chaplin likely understood this too, and having already devoted his most beloved creation to the endeavor, saw no reason not to go for broke. It’s an astonishing capper to his career, and there was certainly no greater cause to break his rule of never hearing the Tramp’s voice. The speech bolsters the humor: directly and bluntly, but with power all its own. When the film came out, Paris had fallen, the Blitz raged over London, and America sat on its hands wondering whether even sending weapons to the Allies was a good idea. It was not a time for subtlety, and Chaplin had no intention of holding anything back.

77 years later, the lessons remain, and the strength of his statement still inspires his descendants – professional or otherwise – to follow his example. The situation is less dire, of course, but we stand but a few feet back from the abyss that Chaplin stared into without flinching. Humor takes courage when speaking truth to power, and given Trump’s fondness for throwing his weight around (to say nothing of his howling mob of followers), criticism of any sort comes with the promise of backlash. Kudos to anyone – prince and pauper alike – who sees that charging bull and resolves to toss a few banana peels in his path. You’re in very good company.

 

Meet the Hero

In The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell posited two poles of human perception. At one end sits waking, conscious life, which is mainly taken up by the necessities of existence: jobs, bills, children, family, chores. At the other sits deep sleep – sleep without dreams – in which we commune with whatever cosmic forces lie beyond this level of existence. We do not know what we are shown in that state – we don’t get to look behind the curtain when we’re awake – but we lie blissfully and at absolute peace while we do so.

In between those two extremes sit our dreams, our fantasies and our expressions of creativity. Dreams are our way of interpreting what we perceive in deep sleep. They come from the source of all stories, all music, all paintings, all art. They’re messages from that cosmic wellspring, whether you want to call it God, Allah, the Force or whatever term feels right for you. The exaggeration brought by our imagination – the distortion and extremities that define creative expression – are attempts to raise those messages above the mundane trivialities of living. It lets us identify them more readily when the light fails and the path becomes unclear. That’s why we learn them first as children – via fairy tales, comic books, and stories of monsters and magic – when we’re more open to their truths.

The messages are never hateful. They are never cruel. They speak to a moral life: to making this world a better place for everyone. And they never diminish. They’ve been with us since we told stories by firelight in caves and they’ll be with us as long as our species continues its struggle.

That’s why tyrants try to stifle free expression. That’s why creativity and the arts are the first to be attacked when oppressors seek power for its own sake. They want those lessons to be silenced… and because they cannot challenge the forces that send them to us, they tell us to forget them or relegate them to unimportance. They want you to feel ashamed of them. They want you to think you’re an infant for believing in them. That you’re deluded. That you’re not worth listening to.

We sometimes help them with that vile task without even thinking about it. As we grow up, we lose sight of the lessons or worse: dismiss them as childish. We focus on the surface details of the stories we loved and use that to obfuscate the wisdom we should be striving to embody in our world. Silly costumes. Super powers. Spaceships, aliens, monsters, kung fu.

It’s not about any of those things. Those are just trappings to draw our eye. The philosophies beneath them are as real as the headlines, and apply to us every time we walk out our front doors. Strip away the superhero capes and the lightsabers and the licenses to kill, and the struggle is no different. The stakes are no less important. And our strengths are no less amazing when we channel them to defend the things worth protecting.

People sometimes ask why I love the movies so much. There are a lot of reasons, but it boils down to this: they are dreams brought to life. They are lightning in a bottle. They capture the messages from our subconscious and display them for all the world to see. They let us share those messages with others, to experience those profound and vital signals as a community instead of isolated individuals.

We are the heroes of our own lives. The demons we face are no less frightening than the monsters who terrorized us from the pages of a book or the screen of a movie theater. But our ability to stand against them is no less powerful. We know how to perceive right and wrong in the starkest possible terms and to defend what matters with power that can astonish.

Our heroes live in us. In you. In me. In everyone. Every day. All we have to do is listen to what they’re saying.

I believe you are capable of wonders.

Now more than ever.

When times are dark.

When too many of our fellows choose the quick and easy path.

When tyrants order us to deny what the universe tells us every night as we sleep.

And if you ever struggle to remember that – if you ever question your own eyes, or labor under the burdens of resistance, or forget those hidden lessons that make life worth fighting for – help is just a “once upon a time” away.

(Thanks to CLS Videos for the inspiring montage.)

The Kid Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Review

Review by Robert T. Trate

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance, Carl Miller

Directed by: Charlie Chaplin

Running time: 53 minutes

Year of release: 1921

Rating: NR

 Spine #799

When the Kid (Jackie Coogan) reaches out for the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin), as he is about to be taken away to an orphanage, you can feel it. There is something magical that transpires on screen, in that moment, that captures pure cinema at its finest. Whether it is Coogan and Chaplin or the the Kid and the Tramp (the line between the two has become blurred over time), we feel their heart wrenching sorrow as they are about to be torn apart forever. It is this moment that allows The Kid to endure to this day.

Charlie Chaplin, up to this point in his motion picture career, had only made shorts. They were quick, cheap and thus easy to turn over for a profit. Chaplin wanted to do something bigger and with heart. His studio, for which he was under contract, only wanted light and funny. This turn of events made one of the most popular stars in the world into one of the biggest. Chaplin went out on his own and crafted the story for The Kid in the wake of the death of his own first born child. Criterion Collection has selected it for its 799th film and released a new Blu-ray with bells and whistles that will make any film aficionado open his/her wallet.

The Kid is a classic. In fact, in many respects, it is the very definition of a classic film. Chaplin spent over a year on the film, refining and tuning it to find the perfect balance between comedy and drama. This process would reflect in all of his features from this point on. So much so that he re-visited the film in 1972 for a re-release. The Tramp finds a newborn baby boy in an alley. After trying to find it a home more suitable than one can provide, the Tramp finds a note pinned to the baby that asks to please take care of the child. At that moment, he is hooked and 5 years later we see the Tramp making do and being the best father possible.

What works so well in The Kid is the chemistry between Jackie Coogan and Chaplin. The Kid is almost a cherub-like version of the Tramp, only with baggie clothes and an oversized cap instead of a suit and bowler. The two are a formidable team as they con the residents of the town with their game of window installer and vandal. Outside of that, again, we see two actors that convey so much with just their eyes and body language. In the era of silent pictures, this was the key to making and having an impression with the audience.

With a film such as this, there is so much history and ground breaking techniques that the industry has copied it or imitated it for nearly a century. The Criterion Collection release is packed with a plethora of special features that enlighten and entertain. The history of the film is one thing, but to learn that Jackie Coogan’s career would not only lead him to play Uncle Fester on The Addams Family, but shape the future of child actors everywhere, is amazing. Sadly, the man was also surrounded by so much tragedy.

Deleted scenes are always a great hook for a film lover and Criterion enclosed three deleted scenes, completely restored for The Kid. We see what brings the Woman (Edna Purviance) to abandon her baby to begin with. Not necessary for the story, but Chaplin frames the scene so that it may have been shot to help the audience sympathize more with the Woman. Why did she go back for her baby, outside of the obvious? Chaplin shot another scene that really guilts the Woman, thus getting her to return to the baby. Finally, the third scene allows the Man (Carl Miller) to have more of a presence in the film. You can see why it is cut, but one has to wonder if the Woman and the Man may have reconciled and been married. Who was she living with at the end?

Criterion Blu-rays are well worth the price, but I will be honest in saying I always do keep my eye open for the sales on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble. This release of The Kid is stunning with the clarity and precision. It is a film that has never looked better. How many films can you say that about that are nearly 100 years old?

 

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
• New 4K digital restoration of Charlie Chaplin’s 1972 rerelease version of the film, featuring an original score by Chaplin, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
• New audio commentary featuring Chaplin historian Charles Maland
• Jackie Coogan: The First Child Star, a new video essay by Chaplin historian Lisa Haven
• A Study in Undercranking, a new piece featuring silent-film specialist Ben Model
• Interviews with Coogan and actor Lita Grey Chaplin
• Excerpted audio interviews with cinematographer Rollie Totheroh and film distributor Mo Rothman
• Deleted scenes and titles from the original 1921 version of The Kid
• “Charlie” on the Ocean, a 1921 newsreel documenting Chaplin’s first return trip to Europe
• Footage of Chaplin conducting his score for The Kid
• Nice and Friendly, a 1922 silent short featuring Chaplin and Coogan, presented with a new score by composer Timothy Brock
• Trailers
• PLUS: An essay by film historian Tom Gunning
1921/1972 • 52 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNseEVlaCl4