The Cheat (1915) and The Story of Sessue Hayakawa

405px-The_Cheat_FilmPoster.jpegEast is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.

The cinema landscape was still in its utter infancy in 1915. Thus, beyond the monumental impact of D.W. Griffith, The Cheat is another subsequent landmark production for a couple of the talents it helped align.

There would be no Cecil B. DeMille without The Cheat. It was his coming-out party with the viewing public, slating him as a craftsman of delicious dramas gorging themselves on all sorts of sensual themes and pleasures. It meant bang-bang box office receipts and kept DeMille inexorably at the top of Hollywood for years to come.

Sessue Hayakawa must also receive a nod not only as a groundbreaking pioneer in an industry that still doesn’t boast too many Asian performers but also as one of the most important stars of his day. Period.

Simply comparing his style of acting with many of his peers during the silent era bears telling results. In an age, of not only discrimination and stereotypes but also extensive overacting for the camera, his parts are almost reserved in comparison. No doubt this understatement derived from the Japanese attempt to strive for the so-called absence of doing or “muga,” when it came to performances.

Because the teleplay on its own is fairly rudimentary. A well-off wife (Fannie Ward) is pouting because her husband (Jack Dean) won’t give her the funds for a new dress. He needs his investments to pay dividends first.

In being so impatient, she resolves to leverage the red cross funds she’s been entrusted with by her woman’s group  — $10,000 of assets — and hands it over to an acquaintance who promises a sure thing in return. Of course, no one needs to be told it doesn’t bode well and as a result, the wife is out $10,000. She’s willing to turn anywhere, even her regular companion the suave foreigner Prince Haka Arakau (Tori in the original release).

Although gentlemanly and innocent enough at first, the lascivious prince looks to press his advantage, agreeing to give her the money — with strings attached. Extramarital drama and blackmail ensue with the tyrant putting his literal stamp on her as a sign of ownership. It’s actually quite perturbing, especially in a modern world finally looking to cast light on the sexual predation of women.

Beyond this caveat, The Cheat no doubt accentuated contemporary fears of the Yellow Peril as much as it titillated with the handsomeness of its foreign star. So while it’s playing into the long-accepted narrative including diatribes against immigration, it’s also taking advantage of the situation for pure entertainment value. There’s little discounting the purpose.

There’s a shooting that the husband admits to and a subsequent court trial full of sordid scandal-worthy confessions. The problems are ultimately amended and a happy ending found, making for an abrupt denouement meant to satisfy the masses. Given the customary, even archetypal trails the story takes, it feels much more rewarding to consider The Cheat most specifically from its place as a crucial historical time capsule outside the realm of mere plot.

Accordingly, Sessue Hayakawa was such a lucrative star during the early 20th century, it’s almost ludicrous to consider. He was making millions of dollars a year as one of the highest-paid actors of the age to rival the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or even Charlie Chaplin!

The fact that he is barely known in this day and age is a shame though it makes some sense given the cultural climate then and now. He became a screen idol in an age wrought with racial discrimination. His place as a box office smash was based mostly on his foreign allure and attractiveness as a forbidden lover. He was the toast of the town with white audiences as a fantasy character though he was rarely ever allowed to break out of the mold created for him in films like The Cheat.

We are presented with this perplexing dichotomy of this world-renowned actor who feels like an outlier in a tradition that normally emasculated Asian characters, and yet there’s still problematic perpetuations in Hayakawa’s own characterizations. It’s a two-sided issue that, regardless, is nothing short of intriguing given how early in the nascent stages of film he became a star. Dig into his history even a little bit and you are met with a continually fascinating career. For one, he entered acting on a near fluke.

After arriving in Chicago to study to become a lawyer, he was waiting for a tanker to take him back to Japan from California only to bow out and take up with a local theater. He subsequently caught the acting bug. One of the crucial figures in his early breakout was fellow countrywoman and future wife (anti-miscegenation laws forbid cross-cultural marriages), Tsuru Aoki.

Eventually, Hayakawa would emigrate back to Japan in the 1920s and slogged through WWII in occupied France of all places. After the war years, he experienced a resurgence and came to be known to a new generation of audiences for the likes of Tokyo Joe, Bridge on The River Kwai, and Hell to Eternity. For this body of work, he deserves an audience, even today, because there’s no discounting the crucial part he played, not simply in Asian representation, but in the very fabric of Hollywood history itself.

3.5/5 Stars

I Was Born But… (1932)

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What strikes me right away about Yasujiro Ozu’s silent classic is just how relatable it feels. Yes, this is a Japanese film and yes, it’s silent too but watching the scenarios play out on screen have an undoubted timelessness. This is decidedly fresh material that’s blessed with humor and grace like the best silent comedies.

It’s a narrative about two young boys who have moved with their family to the Tokyo suburbs. As is usually the case it’s brought on by their father’s work and the whole family must get used to it. For the boys specifically, that means a new school and getting to know the neighborhood kids with their carefully enacted social hierarchy. Simply put, the biggest kid rules the roost and the new kid on the block is always bound to get the worst of it.

So obviously we witness the ensuing verbal skirmishes and a few fistfights where the clogs come off and are brandished as built-in weaponry. That’s all part of the rite of passage where the brothers must prove themselves. If we learn anything from this comedy, again, it’s the fact that many things have not changed all that much. Boys haven’t changed that much. At least not in the core important things that still hold weight.

Certainly, this is a less organized and less done up exploration compared to Ozu’s later endeavors but that’s part of the charm. The comedy at times is so pure and simple it gives the sensation of some of the early kid comedies like Our Gang or Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). Watching the posse of boys scamper every which way necessitates no understanding of language or culture. Watch and you understand.

Sparrow’s eggs preclude the pumice stones in Ohayo (1959) decades later as the boy’s favorite keepsake. In this particular hierarchy, it buys them a coveted place at the house of the richest kid whose parents are showing off their home movies. It’s a novel thing for all the boys and they look on with baited breath.

As it turns out, the Yoshi boys’ father is a real cut up, a real funny man, and they couldn’t be more ashamed, from the self-deprecating performance he gives for the bosses camera. This is far more than a few images that garner a few laughs. This is an affront to their father’s character and subsequently their family honor. But this hardly ever feels like a Japanese cultural issue, this is an issue that arises in the hearts and minds of proud, naive boys.

It’s the colliding viewpoints of children and adults and rather surprisingly the film is willing to look at the perspective of the kids. If Ozu’s initial work shares any similarity with Ohayo many years later, it’s at this juncture. The boys decide to protest their father by keeping silent and not acknowledging his presence since he has wounded them so egregiously. They’ve mastered the scowl to perfection as they glower in the front yard eating their mother’s onigiri. It seems like they’ll never be able to face the other kids again and they’ll never forgive their father.

Those very themes alone make this universal storytelling and it’s easy to forget for even a moment that this is a film brought to us from 1930s Japan. Because there is something going on here that feels so real. Every young boy wants to think of their father as a big deal, the king of the hill, a big success, and when we are met with anything that seems to contradict that vision we have, it does hurt us.

Still, what the story does well is to find a resolution where the boys can still be content in who their father is, beginning to comprehend a little bit the situation he is in. Even as they get a little help from the local paperboy to vanquish the local bullies, they ultimately gain a small dose of sympathy for their dad. If they don’t quite understand why he has to say good morning to his boss every day and treat him with such deference, as they grow older they might start to appreciate him more.

However, it does seem like something is lost in the translation of this title for American audiences but the subtitle does suggest more meaning. This is an “Adult’s Picture Book View” so we are looking at a child’s world from an adult perspective and though it’s inherently funny we gain a greater respect for both children and parents.

4.5/5 Stars

Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail_1929_Poster.jpgIn one sense Blackmail proves to be a landmark in simple film history terms but it’s also a surprisingly frank picture that Hitchcock injects with his flourishing technical skills. It’s of the utmost importance to cinema itself because it literally stands at the crossroads of silent and talking pictures and holds the distinction of being one of Britain’s first talkies.

So close did it ride the lines, in fact, that two versions were released. It was initially supposed to be a full-fledged silent until it was requested that Hitchcock update the production to follow the tides of the times.

Far from being hampered by the transition, Hitch takes everything in stride and delivers a story that is pure cinema. It means simply that the film functions as a visual narrative. Still partially silent, yet using dialogue, and utilizing all the tools at his disposal to develop the greatest impact to reach his audience.

The story is simple really, about a young woman named Alice (Anny Ondra, future wife of German boxing icon Max Schmeling) who’s having a bit of a rough time with her boyfriend who’s on the police force. Still, she’s trying to make it work but another man has taken her fancy. He’s an artist and he uses the excuse of showing her his work as a pretense to get her up in his room. We all have an inclination of what might happen next. She’s taken advantage of and Alice has no recourse but to defend herself.

A conniving low-level conman is looking for an easy bit of blackmail and the policeman goes to great lengths to protect his girl but she herself is struggling with her guilt with what happened. Her nerves cannot take the constant strain because she was never meant for such circumstances. She’s hardly a bad person. In fact, she has no reason to feel remorse because, in the film’s candid portrayal of the artist’s less than honorable intentions, it’s easy to sympathize with Alice.

What makes the picture extraordinarily refreshing is that Hitch never relies too heavily on dialogue although it was the newest technology. He seems to already have an intuitive sense of how it can be used in cadence with the moving image. He can still make a film that for sequences is much like a silent picture and far from detracting from the story he is developing it further. It only serves to bring out more of the story whether it be the atmosphere or certain amounts of character development.

The local gossip chattering on and on about the murder and how she would never use a knife no matter the provocation but we are also privy to the young woman’s reaction shots as the word “knife” reverberates through her consciousness. Even in that moment, the dialogue underlines her inherent guilt and the further moral dilemma she has been put in.

Hitchcock’s already resorting to using memorable locales, in this case, The British Museum to make his chase sequences pop with character. You might say this is even an obvious precursor to Vertigo (1958) with a chase sequence that takes off across the rooftops of the museum.

But the ending comes with a bit of fateful luck that’s simultaneously darkly comic in quintessential Hitchcock fashion. It’s the perfect punctuation on a film that spun on an unfortunate split second altercation and it just as easily fell back on track with another such moment of good fortune. It’s the director’s way of teasing his audience in a sense and he’s very good at it — mingling murder with wit.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog (1927)

The_Lodger_1927_Poster.jpgWhat’s striking about Alfred Hitchcock is the sheer breadth of his work and how his career managed to take him in so many directions as he continued to evolve and experiment with his craft from silent pictures, to talkies, then Hollywood, and all the way into the modern blockbuster age. And yet the very expansiveness of his oeuvre begs the question, where to begin with it all? Certainly, his lineup of masterpieces in the 1950s are a must.

But of his early silent pictures, The Lodger is the film that Hitchcock himself noted was really the beginning of his filmography as we know it and within its frames, there are some telling signs of an artist coming to grips with his craft.

His subject matter here is a bit of a Jack the Ripper-type tale set in London. A rash of murders has overtaken the town as coincidentally a new tenant with suspicious tendencies moves into the room of a local family. Their daughter does her best to make him feel welcome but her macho boyfriend, a member of the local police force, is skeptical of the competition. Especially since circumstance seems to point to the lodger’s guilt. So in this central conflict, we have a bit of the innocent man motif that Hitch would scrutinize and continue to tweak again and again.

Hitchcock already shows an immense aptitude for visual experimentation, utilizing his mise en scene in fascinating ways.  He makes great use of staircases whether he only shows a man’s hand as it slides along the banister or he sets up crucial moments along the expanses of the stairwell, characters slowly descending toward us being representative of innumerable tension.

We also unwittingly have one of Hitch’s first documented cameos and his assistant director on the picture is none other than his soon-to-be wife and lifelong collaborator, Alma Reville. That connection alone makes this production crucial to Hitchcock’s future career.

It’s easy to make the assertion that Hitchcock remained in the most basic sense a silent filmmaker his entire career and if we can count F.W. Murnau as one of his major influences from his time in Germany, you have that same sense of visuals over dialogue or even title cards. Some of his greatest scenes are in fact nearly silent. The crop dusting chase in North by Northwest (1959) or Norman Bates discarding the evidence in Psycho (1960) both spring to mind.

Though the parameters set up by the studio and expectations of his audience meant his leading man could not be found to be guilty, Hitch still manages to make the scenario as interesting as he possibly could — even if the degree of moral ambiguity wasn’t quite to his liking.

Consequently, in many ways, The Lodger also manages to be one of Hitchcock’s most tenderly romantic films. Because while his pictures have romance and passion they are more often than not subverted by the macabre, sensuality, or that notable dry wit. But here, the love story seems generally sincere.

Because there are tinges of true heartbreak here and the circumstances that bring the two lovers together are imbued with emotional consequence. Even the intricacies of a flashback and genuine interactions between two people who exude a certain chemistry make up for any overly theatrical moments courtesy of the tenderhearted heartthrob Ivor Novello.

But as he generally had a knack for doing Hitchcock also knows how to squeeze the most out of his ending sequences with the most satisfying spectacle. In this case, although the police have exonerated their suspect, the mob is after him and he flees them only to get caught on the iron works of a fence, his handcuffs leaving him dangling, vulnerable to the onslaught of humanity. He hangs there pitifully, at their mercy, a near Christ-like figure.

Perhaps the outcome was not quite what he wanted but the burgeoning master still manages a true Hitchcockian ending worthy of remembrance alongside some of his more championed pictures.

3.5/5 Stars

 

7th Heaven (1927)

Seventh_Heaven_19277th Heaven is one of those films that revels in classical storytelling where the drama is rich and deep; the score hits all the crescendos and fills them in with the sweetest of notes that are both beautiful and moving. The love scenes are rapturous in a way that makes us hold romance in a higher esteem than we did previously and the horrors of war abhorrently brutalize the world like never before. These are the kind of themes as old as storytelling itself.

Director Frank Borzage would play with these same themes time and time again. I say this with every film of his but it’s so inevitably true. There’s no denying it in any frame within his work. It’s just there and yet in Seventh Heaven, he delivers bar-none his greatest, most extraordinary outcome of his entire career, which must only be seen to be believed.

There has never been such an angelic, more serene and innocent face than Janet Gaynor’s or at least you’d be hard-pressed to find one. I became acquainted with her in F.W. Murnau’s masterful parable of love, Sunrise (1927), but here she is equally demure, reflecting all the many qualities of the most ingenuous of beings.

In this particular scenario, her life is horrible, lived out in utter poverty in France and what’s worse, she is abused and whipped by her tyrannical sister. For a silent film, it feels fairly graphic, and there’s little restraint in showing the sister’s uninhibited rage.

But Diane does find herself a savior or rather he finds her. His name is Chico a sewer worker who is promoted to being a street cleaner. Despite his lowly beginnings, his aspirations are high, constantly geared towards the stars, and he really is a strapping even remarkable fellow, if not simply for the fact that he believes in himself.

Though his most telling trait is his anger toward the Bon Dieu — The Good Lord — or in our common terms, God. As he sees it, he gave the Almighty a chance and look what it got him. Absolutely zilch. That’s why he’s an atheist. God owes him 10 francs.

However, in an individual moment of integrity, he speaks up on Diane’s behalf, taking some of her burden upon himself and claiming to be her husband. The act of charity is not lost on her. She’s grateful but now he’s in a bind. If the detectives call on him and find him unmarried, it’s the hoosegow for him. But being the generally sympathetic spirit that she is, Diane follows him back to his home and agrees to stand-in as his wife for a time. He, in turn, is grateful.

Soon he shares a little bit of his rooftop heaven with her along with some faux-marital bliss where they begin to truly enjoy each other’s company. In this mutually beneficial relationship, they find more than mere altruism. It’s in these interludes where true romance begins to bud between them.

It’s in this heaven above the chaos of the world where they begin to fall in love — it’s a reverie that picks them up and carries them away on clouds of peace, comfort, and contentment. Never before have we seen Diane so at ease and never before have we seen Chico so overjoyed.

But once more war tears apart the hearts of those in love. It’s most overtly reflected in the two scores that battle for supremacy. The passionate love theme playing over their embraces full of kisses and then the shrill call-to-arms playing down on the streets as men march off to battle. It’s the melodious juxtaposed with the harsh. That which is mellifluous clashing with these markers of chaos. Chico is finally called into battle but he is not going to leave his love without making a promise even if it’s in words alone.

Marriage once more is cast in this spiritual light ordained by God and some people would agree that it most certainly is but Borzage seems to take it nearly a step further in that it becomes its own religion — once more this rapturous experience to be undertaken as a form of worship. It’s accentuated by the fact that every day without fail at precisely 11 o’clock they both talk to each other, communing together, rather like a prayer, managing to keep them together wherever they might be from the trenches to the munition factory. Their universal union remains forever intact.

The war sequences are utter chaos for the sheer mass of humanity that is mobilized with dust whirling around, cars zooming down the road, and guns pointed in all directions. It’s a fairly impressive showing of cinematic tumult.

But the film’s ending is a sheer miracle of bright-eyed brilliance — a moment of resurrection that’s so powerful — only felt in a few other films so evocatively. Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) being one of the few examples that comes to mind although presently more titles elude me.

Seventh Heaven ends on yet another spiritual note much as it began. In these final moments, the epiphany is not only a miraculous apotheosis of sorts but the stirring realization that in this narrative the Bon Dieu was always working dynamically in Chico’s life — just not in the ways that he was expecting.

Every time he questioned God’s Will he was met with some sort of answer. One could bring into question if this is, in fact, a “Christian” film but it brings in a multitude of religious themes and readily positions itself as another impassioned depiction of love of the highest order as revealed by Frank Borzage.

4.5/5 Stars

It (1927)

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“IT is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With ‘It’ you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. ‘It’ can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.” ~ Elinor Glyn 

I was always under the impression that the It Girl was a concept that came out of this movie but little did I realize it was literally built into the very construct of the storyline. But that deserves a bit of elaboration.

There are really three figures of note in It (1927). We meet the bumbling playboy Monty first as he ushers in his buddy’s first day of managing a department store with some good luck flowers. He bums around for a moment before happening upon an article by columnist Elinor Glyn and immediately he is taken with this idea of “IT.” He tells his friend that they need to find girls with that very same quality.

It’s a rather staid and antiquated concept when you actually consider its implications. Men ogling women trying to pinpoint this elusive quality or trait that seems far more based on physical features and outward appearance than anything else. And all the pretty maids all lined up in a row welcome the attention from the two well-to-do bachelors. Though it’s important to note “It” can apply to men as well.

Still, perhaps regrettably the term has remained prevalent to label women and still maybe it’s morphed for the better into the calling card of anyone who has ever burst onto the center stage and become the next big thing. However, you could argue that said person becomes a bit of a commodity or a fad for the media.

Still, Clara Bow in her own right was indubitably an icon and it went beyond a gimmick or a plot device. In many peoples’ eyes, especially in hindsight, she represents the free-spirit and joy of The Roaring Twenties as one of the foremost sex symbols of that generation.

You get that sense of the eponymous “It” that goes beyond her so-called sex appeal. It’s that genuine winning charm when she peeks in on her friend’s baby and begins cracking him up with a barrage of funny faces. “It” is when she’s snipping away at her dress to get ready for a night of fine dining at the Ritz because that one dress is all she has to work with. It’s frowning when she’s trying to order off an elegant international dinner menu. Yes, it’s even playfully sliding up onto the bosses desk or posing on a yacht to try and win her man back.

But we also cheer for her because she cares about those who are down and out and maintains a certain level of moral restraint. In other words, she has boundaries and standards set up. She’s not about to let a man just have his way on the first date. She’s a take-charge kind of gal but also a proponent of traditional values. Women in the home and taking care of children. Though she shares some of the striking features of Louise Brooks, the makeup of their characters are very different — not to mention their hairstyles.

This silent romantic comedy like so many others in the storied tradition is made of moments of miscommunication. But Betty (Bow) is not about to let miscommunication get in her way. A pair of colliding boats leaves a soaking wet Clara Bow just waiting to be rescued right after she saves her fellow castaway. Not even the long-held blonde versus brunette conundrum can get in the way. In the end, there’s nothing quite so romantic as clinging to an anchor soaking wet with the love of your life.

Though not the same type of comedy, It (1927) is a rom-com that has some similar set pieces to Harold Lloyd’s pictures. Namely the fact that its protagonist is a sales clerk like Safety Last! and there’s an excursion to Coney Island rather like Speedy. By today’s standards, IT might seem like a mere trifle but there’s no denying the unquestionable impact of Clara Bow and the influence she still holds on our cultural lexicon even today.

3.5/5 Stars

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

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

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

 

Pandora’s Box (1929)

pandoras_box_filmThe Greek gods created a woman – Pandora. She was beautiful and charming and versed in the art of flattery. But the gods also gave her a box containing all the evils of the world. The heedless woman opened the box, and all evil was loosed upon us.

It’s often extraordinary the international platform that silent films afforded their stars. Pandora’s Box is one of the now lauded pinnacles of Weimar cinema and yet its main starlet — its acclaimed cover girl — was an American. With her bob hairstyle and vivacious sensuality, Lousie Brooks became synonymous with the Lulu character she portrayed in this film. It was this persona that caused her to rival other noteworthy contemporaries including Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.

Except she differed in that Hollywood was not her first choice. Hollywood was not what made her a star. In fact, she shied away from that route, instead opting for other avenues altogether. That’s how she wound up partnering with director G.W. Pabst in not only Pandora’s Box but another classic, Diary of a Lost Girl. Then when she had enough she retired from the trade allowing her legacy to be championed by film aficionados years later.

The film in itself is really a bit of a parable taking inspiration from Greek mythology and sectioned off into Acts like a stage play. Pandora’s Box, is of course, the titular object that released all the evils into the world leaving only hope behind. The parallels are planted early on as Lulu lives life with a flirtatious vitality but that’s precisely what leaves a wake of destruction in her path. She woos every man who comes her way, a dancer and performer for all who will lend an eye. As of right now, she is the mistress of a well-to-do businessman named Schlon but he realizes that he needs to protect his image.

He plans to marry another woman but Lulu finds a way to unwittingly needle her way back into his life forcing his hand and ultimately winning him over again. But the conquests that come her way never last and she truly is a destructive temptress — a landmark femme fatale — she cannot help but flaunt her sexuality. She’s energetic, pernicious, meretricious.

The turning point of the film comes at Lulu’s trial sequence for the deed that she unwittingly perpetrated. The prosecutor stands over her wagging his finger as she’s veiled in somber shades of black. Her journey could end there but instead, she is granted another reprieve and escapes with two companions to London.

Not being bogged down by Production Codes of any kind, Pandora’s Box plays with some surprisingly frank themes most obvious of those being Lulu’s overt sexuality as well as adultery, prostitution, scandal, and so many other taboos. However, what makes the film quake with emotion is the very fact that Lulu is hardly an evil individual. Misled, immoral, and destructive yes, but it’s easy to feel sorry for her. Hers is the ultimate tragic narrative because while she assuredly ruins other people, she’s only injuring herself even more so. She dredges up so much hurt and elicits so much violence. All her attempts at love are only met with brutality.

Through it all, we follow faithfully even though we know from the outset it’s all for naught. And that’s a credit to Louise Brooks’s portrayal because there’s no doubt that she has that special something that makes you turn an eye and look. Her performance runs the gamut of emotions so uninhibited, lively, and free. There’s a universal vim and vigor to her that still feels fresh to this day in an otherwise archaic mode of filmmaking.

The amazing thing is that she probably could have been a bigger star than she actually was. She never really realized the potential that she had like a Dietrich or a Garbo but that’s not what she wanted. Still, the notability came her way anyways. Sadly, real life and the cinematic seem closer than you might expect. Her life was hardly as tragic as a film but you wonder if she ever found love chasing after men as she did.

4.5/5 Stars