The Circus (1928)

Chalincircus2b.jpgCharlie Chaplin always puts his Tramp in very simple situations that also happen to reap marvelous results both in the realms of humor and heartfelt drama. He follows up The Kid and The Gold Rush with the next iteration in the Little Man’s adventures which find him unwittingly joining the circus.

Initially, he gets caught up with a pickpocket and policemen which provides him an opportunity to go flying through funhouses with halls of mirrors and the like, the perfect fodder for a string of his best gags. Most notably giving an impeccable imitation of a mechanical man to fool the police. But his last sprint to get away from the clutches of the law takes him to the center stage where he becomes a welcomed bit of life to a rather droll piece of entertainment after he bursts onto the scene as a fugitive from justice, crashing into the stands. An unenthused audience is instantly crippled with laughter by every one of his accidental foibles. If only they had seen what he had been up to previously.

His accidental knack as a real-life clown gets him a gig in the main ring of the circus under the tyrannical showrunner (Al Ernest Garcia) who’s constantly bossing around his workers and abusing his meek daughter Merna who is also a part of the act as a tutu-wearing barebacked rider. This is where the film comes to its main storyline with Chaplin looking to do a few unassuming deeds for this girl in her horrible predicament while he himself begins to train as a show clown. But he proves to be terribly unfunny when he tries to be and it looks like he’ll back out on the street.

The major discovery is that he’s only funny unconsciously and so the opportunistic Ring Master looks to channel his innate comedy by hiring him on as a mere stagehand who nevertheless becomes the show’s main attraction. When the Tramp finally figures out what a sensation he is things are better–life is bright and cheery. But when a new man comes into the picture, a handsome tightrope walker, the vagabond’s demeanor begins to sour.  Still, he willingly gives up his own little bit of happiness for the girl whom he still truthfully adores.

Though the ending has a touch of the bittersweet, Chaplin does a masterful job of drawing up a straightforward yet rivetingly poetic tale involving his greatest incarnation. The Tramp has us fully involved in his story because he really is a marvel. Even when we’re not in stitches, it’s difficult not to smile at his very image.

In front of the camera, in many ways, it feels like business as usual. The story has euphoric moments of energy and charm underlined by dips into the dejectedness of lost love and destitution. This was always the rhythm of Chaplin’s work, But outside of his on-camera perfectionism, Chaplin’s world was thrown into turmoil to put it lightly.

He had a recent run-in with the IRS, acrimonious divorce proceedings from his co-star in The Gold Rush Lita Grey, along with the death of his mother, and a vicious fire throwing yet another wrench into the film’s production schedule. All told, it was delayed about 8 months in production purgatory, his hair grayed even more and he suffered a bit of a nervous breakdown.

Still, the final product perfectly personifies the humor that Chaplin always tried to capture rather like lightning in a jar. It’s those moments of organic, unconscious humor that can be found in a simple action. What makes The Tramp such a hilarious character is the very fact that he never for an instant seems to actually be trying to be funny.

Certainly, he’s light-hearted and mischievous but there’s a general import to his demeanor. He takes himself seriously, tips his hat, and tries to hold himself to a certain respectability. But despite his best efforts he can’t help but let out little hiccups and belches of chaos. He gives someone who deserves it a swift kick in the behind, scrambles every which way to evade a bucking donkey or gets trapped in a cage with lions and tigers, oh my! He vies for the affection of a girl the best way he knows how topping the competition on the tightrope and simultaneously tries to please each boss he has to the best of his abilities. They are very human responses even if he does it in a way uniquely attributed to him.

It’s the serious being made silly — the tragedy that is imbued with a silver lining — that is what The Circus gets to the heart and soul of. Because this hardly feels like a happy ending but the Tramp has done his good deed and walks away from center stage ready for a new adventure. As it turned out, we’d find him in the big city a few years later and he proved to never lose his sensibility for helping the burdened and downtrodden–namely a blind girl.

That is yet another reason to love that little man. His heart is large. Others give out of their abundance, but he gives out of his poverty, often offering everything he has–all he has to live on–and he does it happily so. Especially if it’s a pretty girl.

4.5/5 Stars

Sons of the Desert (1933)

sons of the desert 1Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into. 

When I was a kid Laurel & Hardy were a mainstay of the local lending libraries and I viewed many of their pictures from Bonnie Scotland to Flying Deuces to Saps at Sea.  I’m not sure if I can make that point enough. I watched a lot of Laurel & Hardy and a lot of Road Movies with Hope and Crosby. Anyways, I thoroughly enjoyed those comedies which got played over and over in my household. But the point is you only see a limited number. That being said, I never got the opportunity to see of Sons of the Desert until a few years back and it’s yet another quality comedy in the Laurel & Hardy hall of fame.

The film opens with a powwow of the Sons of the Desert society with its many members waiting with baited breath for the proceedings before they are rudely interrupted by two malcontents. None other than our lovable heroes who sheepishly wade through the crowds. They’ve made their presence known and never let up from thenceforward.

But more importantly than their entrance is the solemn oath they take along with the legions of others, resolving to show up at the annual convention in Chicago no matter the obstacles in the way. For Stan and Ollie that’s means getting their wives to let them attend or better yet pulling the wool over their eyes because that’s a lot more entertaining from a comedic perspective.

Chance events like meeting relatives and sinking ocean liners are really inconsequential insertions into the already nonsensical storyline. After all, if something’s already absurd what’s the difference if it gets even crazier? The bottom line is that Sons of the Desert keeps Stan and Ollie at its center and they don’t disappoint getting into mess after mess as they always do.

In this particular iteration, a bit of the battle of the sexes is going on although there’s no way either of these men can dominate their wives and that’s the funny part. Ollie’s the instigator, blustering his way into the scenario with his typical overconfident ways, dragging Stan along with him and getting them both into a heap of trouble. They’re up on the roof in the rain without a paddle or any prayer of keeping dry. And in precisely these types of moments, you see the irony of Ollie’s catchphrase. Stan might unwittingly add to the chaos but Ollie is the instigator of every mess.

They try and exert their dominance and when that doesn’t work they try deception, putting on a false front for their spouses. And when that doesn’t work they run and hide, snivel and beg for forgiveness. Either that or get all the contents of the kitchen cabinets hurled their way. In the end, Stan has a fairly amiable homecoming but Ollie can’t say quite the same thing.

Some memorable moments involve Stan snacking on wax fruit and trying to string along some flimsy lies about how they “ship hiked” across the ocean, highlighting his perpetual struggle with the English language. Meanwhile, Ollie is trying his darndest to fake an illness with Stan’s help and the boys end up hiding out in the attic away from their wives before they’re forced to sneak down the drainpipe in the pouring rain. They can be conniving buffoons but there’s also very rarely a moment when we’re not on their sides.

As if having each other was not enough already, they always have the backing of the audience. They give us that same gift of Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd or The Marx Brothers or Tati or any of the other great comics. They give us laughter in droves. The mode isn’t all that important. It’s simply the fact that they too have a timeless ability for evoking giggles.

3.5/5 Stars

The Kid (1921)

The Kid 1“A picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear…”

In his earliest works The Tramp made a name mostly for his antics but here Chaplin shows an innate understanding of pathos which would become his main calling card throughout his illustrious career because it was never just about the jokes. Surely, the Tramp is a gloriously funny character time and time again but that would mean nothing without his tender heart and soul. The qualities that in one sense make him “a tramp” but also allow him to win over the masses because there are very few figures who have ever been so endearing. If anything The Kid shows that The Tramp could also make a sympathetic father.

Edna Purviance is cast as a Hester Prynne type heroine except she gives up her child, an ignominious reminder of her transgressions, only to regret the decision later on. Because she has fortune smile upon her and with her destitution gone all she can think of is the child who she left behind — the child she lost. It leads her to spend many of her waking hours in charity paying visits to the poorest of the town, unwittingly bringing her in contact with the very son she is looking for.

Except he has grown up in the stead of the lowly Tramp who found him discarded by a rubbish pile. Though he’s at a bit of a loss of what to do with a small infant initially, he uses his general ingenuity and natural affections to take on the paternal role. Jackie Coogan is the boy, and the cutest, pluckiest kid you’ve ever seen with a floppy mop of hair often kept in check by an equally floppy cap. And it’s fitting that he would be the most prominent child stars before Shirley Temple or Jackie Cooper and all the rest because his adopted father was the patriarch of Hollywood.

There’s an inherent chemistry that just simply works between Chaplin and Coogan as they sit around their humble flat together eating pancakes or traipsing around town shattering/repairing window panes. Some of the street scenes especially share striking similarities to Chaplin’s Easy Street as he must face off against the town thug and authoritarian policemen while his son battles it out with a pint-sized bully. Both throw wickedly hilarious haymakers.

Strikingly, in this narrative, Chaplin leaves behind the more simplistic themes of his earlier shorts to go for more lofty territory and it pays heavy dividends. There’s also an indisputable spiritual undertone to the film that becomes evident through numerous allusions. First, with the women and making her into a sort of scandalized martyr. Going so far as to intercut her tragedy with an image of Christ carrying his cross up to Golgotha to give his life for all humanity. It’s certainly hyperbole but also an astute piece of storytelling. Because no matter your religious belief, there’s no doubt this parallel casts our heroine in a sympathetic light as well as Chaplin’s rather overt choice of placing her in front of a stain glass window giving her a makeshift halo.

In the film’s waning moments, the heavenly dreamscape of harps, angels, and yes even a few demons fill up the Tramp’s head and give Chaplin yet another creative avenue as his visions take him into a world rife with whimsical antics that signal a change. Whether or not the new heaven and earth are realistic is nominally beside the point because they suggest the joys that are ahead for the Tramp and his adopted child.

Fittingly he’s reunited with his son in the residence of the woman who welcomes them both in.The lost get found, the downtrodden get lifted up, and all can be redeemed. A fluffy conclusion, perhaps, but an enjoyable one nonetheless from one of the seminal masters of storytelling. You can make the argument that there were greater directors than Chaplin but he truly was second to none not only as an actor but in building a universal connection with his audience. A connection that still manages to reach out to us earnestly nearly a century later.

4.5/5 Stars

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Monsieur_verdoux57Prior to the making and release of Monsieur Verdoux Charlie Chaplin had undoubtedly hit the most turbulent patch in his historic career and not even he could come out of scandal and political upheaval unscathed. To put it lightly his stock in the United States plummeted.

You would think that he more than anyone would have been aware of his current state of affairs. It’s a plausible assumption and yet that’s precisely what makes the release of his latest film during that very climate all the more remarkable.

Chaplin always had a handle on emotional clout and he was the king of pathos but with time as film evolved he did evolve with it and it could easily be said that his sound pictures were imbued with much more prominent political overtones, most notably in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. The first was a blatant lambast of the world’s resident tyrannical dictator and his cronies with a tremendous bite that goes beyond simple comedy. The latter film takes a broader scope that’s not quite as evident at first.

It shares similarities with Shadow of a Doubt, Kind Hearts of Coronets, or even The Bigamist and it took inspiration from a passing whim of Orson Welles. But Chaplin plants his particular drama in the previous decade–the age of poverty and depression and that allows him to relate his protagonist once more to the plight of man as the Tramp did perennially. However, Chaplin’s latest incarnation is a far cry from the Tramp and no doubt on purpose. Chaplin had officially retired the character after Modern Times, but with the similarly depicted Jewish Barber in The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux was a character with no semblance of his predecessors.

For lack of a better term, he is a wife killer, a Bluebeard, a gentleman murderer and there’s no other way to put it. Yes, he began as a bank teller with an invalid wife and little boy who hit hard times following the crash. True, he maintains his pretenses at civility and yet here is a character so vastly different from all others because for once Chaplin is making his hero difficult for the audience to like. At the very least, he’s a conflicted hero and as such the contemporary viewer was not about to pity him given Chaplin’s already muddied reputation. This was another nail in the coffin and it’s probably part of the reason Verdoux was generally scorned by the American Public at the time. But now, with the clouds of the cultural moment dissipated we can look at Chaplin’s blackest of comedies without the established biases.

The narrative is comprised mostly of Verdoux cycling from wife to wife, town to town, identity to identity with such fluidity it’s mindboggling. Our only indication that he’s moved is the ubiquitous image of the locomotive always chugging along to the next destination. But we’re introduced to this whole charade through the most curmudgeon, bickering household ever known to man in the Courvais.

The only reason they matter for this story is that Verdoux has married their sister who has just recently taken all her money out of the bank and vanished. Only the culprit knows what happened but presently he busies himself with tidying up his affairs in one location so he can check in on his other “business endeavors.” To Annabelle (Martha Raye) he is a sea captain away months at a time which explains his frequent absences.

Consequently, his Pigeon also has to be one of the most annoying chatterboxes of all time. It makes sense he’s crafting a poison to kill her even if it’s not quite forgivable.  He also calls upon his second asset the rightfully suspicious Lydia while looking to woo the affluent Marie Grosnay who happens to be less of a boob than the rest of his conquests. Though he is a persistent devil. Soon enough wedding bells chime again and that becomes the fateful day when his many strands get tangled in one brief moment at his latest marriage ceremony.

If nothing else it suggests that the time is running out as global tensions rise and Verdoux finds his fortunes dwindle in the wake of his imprisonment. But now on trial, he’s allowed to be up on the stand and mount his final defense–his rebuttal against the indiscretions of mankind. Ultimately, it’s an invariably cynical take on the ways of the world comparing his spree of mass killing to the prospects of the very scientific mass destruction of the world at present. It’s all business, war and anything else you can imagine, merely profiteering endeavors to get ahead. As he walks off to the guillotine the Priest asks him if he has anything to confess and strikingly he asserts, “I am at peace with God, my conflict is with man.”

This is where we overtly see Chaplin’s stance once more as he stands up on his soapbox as it were but he gave us some indications earlier on as well. Verdoux’s most telling interactions come in the form of chance encounters with a particular young woman. At first, he sees her as a test case for his poison, but soon he’s taken with her words, the way she sees the world. It affects him deeply (You better go before your philosophy corrupts me ). And in a striking parallel to Limelight several years later, Chaplin’s character falls to his demise as this young woman’s fortunes increase. She doesn’t forget him. But the rest of the world isn’t quite so kind.

Monsieur Verdoux goes to the chopping block deservedly so as did Chaplin but the verdict’s still out on whether he deserved it all. Perhaps that’s what his film is getting at. He was full of faults as a human being but then again we all are. It makes sense that God is other, perfect, and outside of our messiness. It’s the rest of us that cause ruin, pain, and suffering. That’s where the blackness of this comedy finds its source and it’s something to ponder and then resolve to allay with doses of love and compassion.

4/5 Stars

Limelight (1952)

limelight 1The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth centers 

A story of a ballerina and a clown… 

In Limelight it quickly becomes evident that Charles Chaplin was well aware of his own legend and how couldn’t he be? For years he had been held in the highest regards, loved by the masses worldwide as one of Hollywood’s founding royalty. He was at the center of the universe and the limelight was burning brightly around him.

I’ve recently been reacquainting myself with Chaplin’s early works most notably those that paired him with the indelible Edna Purviance as well as the gargantuan behemoth of a bully Eric Campbell. But Limelight is a major flashforward in his career, really at the end of it all. By now Chaplin is in his twilight years.

In fact, Limelight is one of his last prominent roles and the feature where he audaciously placed everything in the public eye–a picture that is unequivocally autobiographical in nature, accented with Chaplin’s own romantic dealings and tumultuous history from his entire career up to that point. And yes, he faced scandal in his later years, not simply for his past indiscretions but also more overtly for his political affiliations which unquestionably must have made him an easy target during the supercharged age of McCarthyism.

Still, in a simple heartfelt narrative once more, for one last time, Charlie Chaplin captured his audience. The title card reads much like his old silents would have in setting the scene. It’s 1914, back in the days when he was probably just making it big in real life. However, as Calvero, Chaplin is a washed-up comedian prone to alcoholism with a career that has suffered dearly. But in a moment of action, he saves an aspiring dancer (Claire Bloom) from a self-attempted suicide and from then on becomes a sort of guardian angel for the girl.

Calvero heeds the doctor and allows the girl to stay in his flat, away from the trauma and although it receives the ire of their landlady, he calls Thereza his wife in order not to cause a local stir. It’s one half human drama, other half stage production because while he looks to lift her spirits in any manner possible, he daydreams of his past forays in comedy. He was the man who could pull off a whole gag with a pretense of performing fleas and he had wall to wall crowds.

limelight 2But now no one’s there. The seats are empty, the aisles quiet, and he sits with a dazed look in his flat the only recourse but to go back to bed. It’s as if the poster on the wall reading Calvero – Tramp Comedian is paying a bit of homage to his own legend but also the very reality of his waning, or at the very least, scandalized stardom. It adds insult to injury.

Still, in real life and on celluloid he put up the front of respectability for people. Although he went through 5 wives and now has a young woman living in his home less than half his age, he believes that after all his years of experience, “a platonic friendship can be sustained on the highest moral plane” as he puts it.

And it’s true Calvero is perfectly civil. This isn’t some passionate romance though he does try and call Terry to action in other ways. Chaplin composed his scripts of many great lines, monologues and sonnets where he himself gets to deliver beautiful rhetoric and impassioned rallying cries of truth to anyone who is listening. In this case, it’s the girl who sits despairingly in her bed but it’s for everyone else too. It’s like he took the stalwart speech from The Great Dictator and economized it into smaller bite sized pieces (That’s the problem with the world. We all despise ourselves, There’s something just as inevitable as death. Life! Life! Life!).

But there is something rather tragically demoralizing about watching crowds walk out on Chaplin even if it’s his fictional alter ego because you get the sense that his once faithful viewing public undoubtedly did the same thing–driven by the tides of the times and their own fickle ways.

But even as his fictional self fades, he watches Thereza ascend to the top of the dancing world as a prima ballerina and she looks to take her beloved Calvero along with her. There’s a necessity in life to never subsist, never cease fighting that she learns from him and takes to heart. So the second half is the role reversal. He began as her good samaritan and now in her bounty, she looks to take care of him going so far as professing her love for him and her desire to get married.

limelight 3It’s important to know that he writes off such an assertion as nonsense and one can question whether this is Chaplin’s chance at revisionist history or more so an affirmation of his life’s actual trajectory–working through his current reality that the world questions (IE. Marrying a woman much younger than himself in Oona O’Neil who he nevertheless dearly loved).

It’s ingenious really because there’s positively no way not to empathize with him, no matter our position and as he always was a premier master at, Chaplin once more tugs at our heartstrings in a very personal way–pathos overflowing from his performance one last time. He casts himself as the great sacrificial martyr and stepping down from his post as one of the luminaries of the cinema, his legacy burning brightly in his wake.

It’s also easy to suspect the tragedy of the Blue Angel or the madness of The Red Shoes displayed for all to see on the center stage will reveal itself in due time but Chaplin allows himself go out on his own terms since he’s a master of his own fate, in the film at least.

He’s reflected on his life and deemed it as about as good as it can be. That’s enough. Whether it’s his earlier marital troubles, his current marriage, the criticisms of the public, or even a real or fabricated feud between himself and Buster Keaton if there ever was such a thing. It is all laid to rest. It’s like old times even as the new age begins.

4/5 Stars

 

Girl Shy (1924)

girlshy1Harold Lloyd’s feature Girl Shy is not so much a comic gag reel as a character-driven story. The first type I would equate more with Keaton, the second feels more like the sentiment of Chaplin. Lloyd does both very well and in this case, he plays Harold, a tailor’s apprentice with a stuttering problem — which actually is very pronounced — despite the lack of sound. Of course, his nervous bouts only come along when he has the harrowing experience of interacting with the opposite sex.

Instead of attending a town-wide dance in Little Bend, Harold resolves instead to stay in his basement and type away at the novel he’s writing. It’s called “The Secret of Making Love” and it’s his manifesto for all the boys who don’t quite know how to act around girls. Really, he’s penning it for himself and within its pages, he details how to win over anyone from a vampire to the flapper. To him, it’s going to be the next great thing and we cannot help but admire his ambition — misguided as it may seem.

Aboard the local train he helps a pretty young woman (Jobyna Ralston) stowaway her dog from the conductor, and then he excitedly regales her with his book, when he’s not shaking. The lovely time is broken up when they reach their final destination, but as parting gifts, they trade a box of dog biscuits for a pack of cracker jacks. Perhaps not the most romantic of gestures, but neither one cares. In fact, Mary detours through Little Bend several more times until she finally runs into Mr. Meadows again. They sit by a pond where Harold mistakes a tortoise for a rock and gets in a bit of a sticky situation. However, the gags do not overshadow the human aspect, which is still at the forefront of our tale.

When Harold finally has his date with the publisher everyone laughs at his joke-of-a-book. It dashes all his dreams and he knows he cannot get Mary now. So he puts up a false front, not wanting to string her along, and so, of course, the heartbroken girl goes to the only other person she can. The token rich middle-aged suitor, who is stuffy and boring.

But on the advice of a proofreader, the publishers decide to spin Harold’s book as a humorous read and unbeknownst to him a check comes in the mail. He’s dejected at first because these aren’t the terms he wanted, but then he remembers Mary, and upon seeing news of her marriage, he rushes to stop the impending wedding.

girlshy2At this point Girl Shy loses its heartfelt narrative thread in favor of Lloydian acrobatics, a la Speedy, but don’t get me wrong, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable watching Lloyd frantically try to hitch a ride to the wedding by any means possible. I was half surprised he didn’t try to pull a little girl’s bike away from her because he tried about everything else imaginable. In case you hadn’t guessed, he gets the girl in the end.

Going back to Chaplin, I think he tugs at the part of our hearts that feels sympathy for the poor and unfortunate masses. Lloyd on the other hand channels a different vein, relatable to all those who have ever been rejected or made fun of for being awkward and uncool. He suggests that there is still hope for those people. I relate to the quiet stoicism of Keaton certainly, but the nerdish charm of Lloyd hits home too. I think a lot of us can relate to Girl Shy.

4/5 Star

Kid Brother (1927)

kidbrother1Kid Brother is a departure for Lloyd from the general hubbub of urban life as he finds himself on a ranch, living with his two older brothers and his father, who is the local sheriff. His surname this time around is Hickory an aptly brawny moniker for a frontiersman, except he’s hardly the physical specimen of his father and brothers. They spend their days chopping down timber and hoisting logs on their broad shoulders. Harold does his daily work collecting the laundry and ultimately chasing after it when it blows away.

He unwittingly gets himself into a jam when he puts on his father’s sheriff garb and is approached by a traveling medicine show looking for a permit to perform in the local town. Not wanting to lose face he plays the role and lets them have their show. When father catches wind he’s not very happy and sends young Harold to end the show, but he’s not much at laying down the law. Instead, they make a mockery of him, and he is truly a pitiful figure hanging helplessly by his arms at the road show.

kidbrother2But there is one person who likes him a lot. Mary, who is part of the traveling show. And Harold does a seemingly unheard of thing of inviting her to spend the night at his family residence. She does something even more unthinkable and accepts. It’s probably the happiest Harold has been in a long time, and it spells a turning point for him. Mary winds up staying somewhere else as not to cause a scandal, but nevertheless, Harold’s ego is boosted.

After his father is accused of stealing a large sum of money, the town is in an uproar. All three sons go out to try and clear his name by bringing back the culprits. Of course, it is brother # 3 who is on the right path and finds the shady members of the traveling show hiding out on a boat. This ending set piece in some ways hearkens back to Keaton’s The Navigator and Lloyd rather ingeniously subdues his foe, although he seems woefully outmatched.

He regains the family honor and earns the commendation of his family. Most importantly Harold Hickory walks off into the sunset, love in arm, rather like Chaplin, but there’s no doubt Lloyd is his own man. He wears glasses, and he’s most certainly his own creation.

In fact, it brought to mind Woody Allen’s Love and Death. Harold Lloyd makes as good a pioneer as Woody Allen makes a Russian, but then there is a great deal of comedy from appearances alone. Their personas are at odds with the worlds that they place themselves in. However, while Woody Allen is always weighed down by cynicism and fatalistic thoughts, Lloyd’s glasses character has not been besmirched by the ways of the world. He maintains his sense of innocence and hope throughout his journey. That’s what allows him to get the girl and conquer all obstacles, winning his audience over in the process. His outlook is summed up by the intertitle, “no matter what anybody else thinks, have confidence in yourself and you can’t lose.” Perhaps it’s idealistic stuff of the past, but then again 90 years ago is in the past. Maybe even today there’s at least a bit of truth we can glean from it.

4/5 Stars

Speedy (1928)

speedy1It’s hard not to appreciate Harold Lloyd. His life was less tumultuous than Buster Keaton and during the 1920s he was more prolific than Charlie Chaplin. So if you look back at his career you can easily argue that he was not playing third fiddle to the other silent titans. He was their equal in many respects, and it’s only over the years that he’s fallen behind the others. But he deserves acknowledgment at the very least and his comedies such as Speedy make his case with rousing gimmicks and gags aplenty.

The film opens with Pop Dillon, the last of the horse-drawn streetcar drivers. He’s a kindly old man who lives with his radiant granddaughter Jane, who is faithfully by his side. But a corrupt railroad magnate is trying to buy him out, and he’s ready to go to great lengths to get what he wants. It’s about what we expect to happen, so the real entertainment factor comes with how we get there.

Enter Speedy (Harold Lloyd) a baseball-loving soda-jerk turned crazy cab driver and the sweetheart of Jane. It’s true that he starts out working the coffee counter with great dexterity while keeping up to date with the latest box scores of Murder’s Row. However, after a major blunder, he knows he won’t have a job when he gets back. Rather than stew in his misfortune, Speedy heads out on a Sunday afternoon in Coney Island with Jane. This proves to be a wonderful aside rather like in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and there are a lot of great little gags being pulled by Lloyd, and others occur unwittingly. He tricks a myriad of folks with a dollar bill on a string and a crab in the pocket causes a lot of chaos. He even picks up a new unwanted friend in a hungry dog. But perhaps most of all the sequence is a fun nostalgia trip to the fair, showing off all the attractions circa 1928. It’s an eye-opening experience, and it still looks like quite a lot of fun.

speedy3The other section of the story begins with Speedy garnering a job as a cab driver, but he has an unfortunate aptness for picking up tickets. He does, however, pick up some precious cargo in Babe Ruth (playing himself) and it leads to a wonderfully raucous ride to Yankee Stadium courtesy of Speedy’s crazy maneuvering through the streets of New York. Even Lou Gehrig sneaks in on the fun with a wry grin.

As the last order of business Speedy must save Pop’s cart from utter extinction and what follows is a rip-roaring brawl in the streets between the young thugs and the old-timers. Instead of being suspended from a clock, Lloyd must race against it to get Pop’s stolen livelihood back to its track in time. Once more he puts his madcap driving to good use.

Speedy lives up to its name and certainly justifies the popularity of Harold Lloyd. Its strengths include a plethora of sight gags that play off the audience’s sense of dramatic irony. Put them in the hands of such a nerdish icon and it spells true comedic gold. It’s Lou Gehrig approved no less.

4/5 Stars

Metropolis (1927)

MetropolisposterFritz Lang’s archetypal sci-fi epic is steeped in politics, religion, and humanity, but above all, it is a true cinematic experience. It is visually arresting, and it still causes us to marvel with set-pieces that remain extraordinary. How did Fritz Lang piece together such a gargantuan accomplishment? Maybe even equally extraordinary, how was I able to see almost a complete cut of this film, which was at different times thought to be lost, incomplete, and ruined?

Metropolis really feels like one of the earliest blockbusters, although I would have to further substantiate that. Still, it’s basic story is generally captivating following a young man named Freder from the upper echelon of society with a father who runs things. This young man is really in the perfect position to succeed, the way society is set up. He even goes to the preeminent school where all the boys are dressed in white. Little does he know in the lower depths the beleaguered, grungy, weary masses in black are slowly killing themselves with work. The machine that drives this society is never satisfied, always desiring to be fed more and more and more.

When the boy finally sees the reality of the infrastructure his paradise is built upon, he cries out in horror. This is not the way things are supposed to be. He eventually switches places with one of these workers and attends a meeting deep in the catacombs (an allusion to the early Christians), where the pure goddess Maria lifts the spirits of her fellow man. But of course, the evil inventor Rotwang is enlisted by Freder’s father Joh Frederson. Their own relationship is marred by conflict over a woman they both loved. Freder’s dead mother. And so the scientist looks to resurrect his long lost love, and he needs Maria to develop his plan. He kidnaps her and from her likeness creates a double, who goes out to wreak havoc on all of Metropolis. The apocalyptic words of the Book of Revelation ring true as the whore of Babylon deceives the masses and leads them to destruction.

But Freder is the Mediator, he is the Savior of his people, and he is necessary to bring peace and tranquility to a world that has descended into such brokenness. So Metropolis is certainly a film full of symbolic touches, religious connotations, and political commentary, but all of this is developed by Fritz Lang through an archetypal hero’s narrative.

Hollywood has become an industry seemingly so obsessed with story, screenplays, plots. Certainly, a film like Metropolis is at least adequate in that area alone, but what really sets a film such as this apart is its cinematic scope. The sheer vast expanses it fills. The scope it creates through its plethora of extras and encompassing sets is hard to downplay. How to describe scenes where water is literally breaking down walls and covering masses of fleeing children? Or smokestacks spewing out refuse while trains, planes, and automobiles pass by in every direction. People scattering this way and that, following the false Maria in a chaotic frenzy. It reminds us what the motion picture, the moving picture, is all about. The images that are brought before us lead to a suspension of disbelief because more importantly they are incredibly affecting. At the atypical 20 frames per second, they are images full of tension, full of energy, and full of life.

Metropolis-new-tower-of-babelIn a sense, with Metropolis, we can easily see a precursor to Chaplin’s Modern Times a decade later. There is a general apprehension of the machine and the impact of a true industrial revolution. There is a fear that there are more positives than negatives. That machines will take over and man will become outdated. Perhaps someday our creation will destroy us. By today’s standards, such notions seem archaic, but are they? We still live in a society ever more obsessed with advancement, technology, and all the things that come with that. However outdated some of Metropolis might feel, and there are numerous such moments, at its core is the final resolution that between the body and the mind there must be a heart to regulate. We are not simply animals with bodies or rational machines with minds, but the beauty of humanity is that we have a heart, pulsing with life and vitality. That is something to be grateful for and never lose sight of.

5/5 Stars

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

sherlockjr1When I was just learning about silent comedy I would have said that it started and ended with Charlie Chaplin no questions asked. And it’s true that he most certainly is a starting point, but if you want to get even a small understanding of comedy you have to look at Buster Keaton (as well as Harold Lloyd). I’m not claiming a great deal of knowledge about silent films (I still have much to see and learn), but Keaton astounded me with his prolific output during the 1920s and his physical prowess. I did not appreciate The General (1926) that much the first time around, however, by the time I got to Our Hospitality (1923), Seven Chances (1925), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), The Navigator (1924), and of course this film, I completely changed my initial evaluation.

Since Sherlock Jr. is shorter than most of his other features it’s almost like Keaton cut out all the dross and what we are left with are sequences of cinematic gold. In this story about a projectionist obsessed with being a detective, there is surprising depth and inventiveness that is still magical today. The plot really is a film within a film, starting with Sherlock Jr. trying to win over the affections of his love (Kathryn McGuire) with a box of chocolates. But his rival (Ward Crane) does the same by more shady means and pins his dastardly deed on Jr. Now our hero is banished from the house and resigns himself to his projection room where he enters into a dream-filled sleep. It mirrors the film that is playing on the screen as he enters this world as a detective and fills it with all his real-life acquaintances. The fact that the girl comes back to him at the end feels rather superfluous because we automatically assume that is the case. It’s how Keaton gets there that’s ingenious

sherlockjr2It easy to marvel at some of the visuals as Buster Keaton literally leaves his body and walks onto the screen, shifting between an array of backdrops in a thoroughly entertaining sequence. He’s pulling crazy stunts without CGI mind you, and many of them put his life and welfare on the line. He tries his hand at pool with impressive skill and pulls off some amazing parlor tricks including a disappearing act that not only stumps the thugs pursuing him but the audience as well.

Even after reading a full breakdown of how he was able to literally vanish into thin air I’m still utterly baffled. Every time it causes me do a double take. Then, of course, there’s his wild ride on the handlebars of the motorcycle, which has some beautifully comic stunt work. It’s stuff you certainly would not want to try at home and it would be unthinkable today, but that was the brilliance of “The Great Stone Face.” He was literally willing to put his life on the line, and whereas Chaplin was adept at pulling at our heartstrings, the often emotionless Keaton does not try that. He wins us over with his resilience. In him, I find a figure of a very relatable temperament although he was more of a daredevil than I could hope (or want) to be. That just makes me respect and marvel at what he can do. If you want to see slapstick and sight gags at their zenith then take a look at Buster Keaton. Sherlock Jr. is always a good starting point.

5/5 Stars