Tuesday, June 26, 2012
I first saw this in 1972 on a rerelease that was most likely predicated on Chaplin winning one of those put-up-job Oscars, in this case for his score for Limelight, a 1952 picture for which he was somehow eligible that year. I was an angry teen on a bored Sunday moping around the house. My dad piled me into the car and dropped me at the theater. I thought it might have been the most ridiculous thing he had ever done for me—done to me, actually, I probably thought.
It turned out to be one of the best. Phil has been talking recently about the paucity of comedies on his list. I may (or may not) have a few more than him, but I know this. Most comedy classics of the period between the world wars are mostly lost on me: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, even the Marx Brothers. In company with others, especially on the rare occasions when I can find a packed theater, I laugh right along with everybody else—I love to be with people who are laughing; it's infectious. Alone, however, I barely crack a smile, and I'm more often just bored and restless. I understand this is entirely my own loss.
With Chaplin, however, it's another story. The pleasures I get from the best of his work are independent of circumstances and I haven't seen reason yet to suspect I will ever tire of them. The physical comedy is one thing. With the possible exception of Buster Keaton, no screen comic's set pieces have ever been so artfully constructed. In Modern Times, the roller-skating sequence, in the clip at the first link below, is as nerve-wracking as it is beautiful as it is funny. And all the factory scenes in Modern Times are elaborate, rhythmic, and lovely before they are anything else, but they are almost always funny too.
Then there are the storylines, typically derided as sentimental. It's true that Chaplin's Little Tramp and the various characters he pulls into his orbit, often orphans, have a kind of saccharine quality to them and their escapades. But I find it more than effectively countered by the dreary circumstances of their lives, which are never glossed, to the point that where others see "sentimentalism" I see "optimism," which I don't find particularly unrealistic or anyway useless, even as a fantasy.
The clip at the second link is an example of Chaplin's casual worldliness, incorporating what seems now such a blatantly obvious reference to drug use that I'm just not sure how he got past censors of the time. If anything, it shows how little I understand about the Hays Code era. But the scene still astonishes (and amuses) me.
"'Look! I can do it blindfolded!'"
"Searching for smuggled 'nose-powder.'"
Phil #29: Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) (scroll down)
Steven #29: A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)
It's not easy to admit my blindness in the area of classic comedy cinema and I haven't given up yet. I watched Duck Soup (again) the other day and there was actually a scene that cracked me up, laughing out loud and everything, which was a novel experience with a Marx brothers movie all by myself. I'm still worried that I may not actually have a sense of humor.
I keep meaning to see Carrie again and/or make a project of De Palma one of these fine days. I recall liking Carrie quite a bit and every six months or so I seem to be looking at one or another De Palma and usually liking it way more than I thought I would: Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Casualties of War, Carlito's Way, Femme Fatale, etc. I like John Woo a lot but have a harder time seeing some of his titles because Netflix doesn't currently carry that many of them and I'm lazy. I just obtained copies of A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head, the latter of which I have seen and remembering liking quite a bit.