Tag Archives: chaplin

The Silent Treatment

“The American silent cinema of the 1920s gave us three great comedians,” wrote Dave Kehr in last week’s Times, “Harold Lloyd, whose hyperkinetic optimism seemed the perfect embodiment of his epoch; Charles Chaplin, whose Victorian sentimentality was just a touching bit behind it; and Buster Keaton, who was so far ahead of his time that we’re still running to catch up with him.”

What is it about this period in film history that invites such useless debate? You never hear anyone debating Cary Grant vs. Humphrey Bogart, or Howard Hawks vs. Alfred Hitchcock. But when it comes to Chaplin and Keaton, it always gets hot. Why?

Don’t get me wrong. I love heat. Crave it. But where there’s smoke there’s not always fire. Exhibit A: Dave Kehr. Is Lloyd’s hyperkinetic optimism relevant only to his epoch? Is Chaplin’s Victorian sentimentality really his defining characteristic?

To those who have seen Speedy and Safety Last, the ridiculousness of the Lloyd remark is self-evident. The famous scene of Lloyd slipping from the hands of a giant clock ticking a hundred stories above the pavement is simply ageless. Comedy – silent or otherwise – has hardly produced a more eloquent expression of our most basic fear. Lloyd’s films were time and technology obsessed, slapstick comedies à la Dziga Vertov. Nothing could be more modern.

Now for Chaplin.

When oh when oh when can we retire the Chaplin/Sentimental polemic? What good has it done us? (I find it curious, by the way, that Chaplin’s team has not devised a counterattack. You never hear them nail Buster Keaton for, say, his simplicity. Like the Los Angelenos in the L.A./N.Y. debate, they are rarely on offense.) Taking this angle with Chaplin is as fruitless as condemning Billy Wilder for being cynical. It is merely a fact of his sensibility and speaks neither for or against his genius.

It is fashionable for “serious” film scholars – often highly analytic types who eschew sentiment – to raise themselves above the Chaplinesque masses by way of extolling Keaton’s craft. There is a utilitarian function to this; not only is “craft” the domain of the educated elite, it’s a hell of a lot easier to write about. Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect to Keaton – only to those who champion him at The Tramp’s expense. They have obviously never stopped to marvel at the mind that made dancing feet out of two bread rolls. Sentimental? I call that surrealism.

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Movies at The Mansion: Part I

When I found out that my friend, film historian Jeremy Arnold, was a regular at The Playboy Mansion’s storied movie nights, I very calmly flipped out. (What follows is the first part of a two-part blog.)

Me: How did this happen?

Jeremy: I became friends with Hef eight years ago when I interviewed him for Premiere Magazine. We hit it off. He saw me as a fellow romantic about the old movies and old music, and he ended up liking my article, and invited me into his circle of friends. I’ve been going up there for movie nights almost every weekend since.

Me: What films have you seen? What were Hef’s reactions?

Jeremy: Fridays and Saturdays are classics; Sundays are new movies. Hef programs everything personally. Fridays are the more festive classic nights because Hef reads a five or ten minute introduction comprised mostly of comments about film history. One of his friends prepares research notes for him, and Hef goes through those notes and combines them with his own thoughts or knowledge to come up with the final version, which he handwrites on legal paper. Saturdays we just watch the movie sans intro. (Sometimes on Saturday we’ll watch a boxing match afterwards, if there’s a good one scheduled that evening.) Some recent weekends, Hef showed Sullivan’s Travels and High Sierra, The Third Man and Cry Danger, House of Rothschild and Rasputin and the Empress. Two weeks ago he ran Chaplin on Friday and Modern Times on Saturday. Last weekend was his birthday, and we had an annual showing of Casablanca, his favorite movie, followed by caviar and champagne in “Rick’s Café” across the hall. (The dining room was decorated for the event.)  For that one we all wore white dinner jackets, and the ladies wore vintage dresses. Generally movies will show up on the schedule again after 4 or 5 years. There are often “new” old movies that pop up, but many of the most famous classics – especially the vintage Warner Bros films, and Astaire-Rogers films – pop up pretty regularly.

Me: What does the place look like?

Jeremy: It’s a giant living room that has a movie screen that rolls down from the ceiling at one end. Hef and his girls sit on the closest leather couch. There’s another leather couch behind it, then a row of armchairs, then a few rows of padded folding chairs, plus various other chairs around the side of the room. In front of Hef’s couch are dozens of cushions which are usually occupied by playmates or other girls that are testing for Playboy and staying at the mansion for the weekend, etc. Some of them don’t make it all the way through the classic titles, but others do. On a side table are little wooden bowls of popcorn for people to take, and in the back are some bowls of M&Ms, chocolate-covered raisins and peanuts, etc., for people to partake of during the screening.  Most of the classic are shown on DVD or Blu-Ray with a state of the art DVD projector. The image is excellent.  All Sunday movies, and the occasional classic movie, are shown on 35mm. There’s a dual-projector booth in the back and a union projectionist when needed.

Jeremy Arnold will be introducing a screening of Ladies of Leisure at Cinefamily (aka the Silent Movie Theater), next Friday 4/23 at 8pm. He writes for tcm.com and is working on a book about underrated classic movies.

(Movies at the Mansion: Part II will contain the implication of nudity.)

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The Arthurian Romance

Well, it had to happen. They’re remaking Arthur. With Russell Brand.

The original Arthur, written and directed by Steve Gordon, and starring Dudley Moore in the title role, is one of those almost-great movies with so much great and non-great in it, it’s hard to not not watch all of it, over and over again.

What it has is a sensational first half, loaded with rapid-fire one-liners so well-crafted, rhythmically attuned, and deliciously delivered (by Moore, of course), one can’t help but compare the high points of the film to Noel Coward’s best moments. The difficult thing about one-liners, as low-level productions of Coward and Wilde have famously shown, is that, when mishandled, they can come off as arch, or improbable to the point of distancing the players from the play. They can sound like spoken literature, not dialogue.

In Arthur (and while we’re at it, Arthur 2: On the Rocks), Dudley Moore surmounts the challenge by speaking his lines not to declaim the joke, but as if to entertain himself. And only himself. Watching Moore, we understand that Arthur, who laughs sometimes just to laugh, is an unyielding, almost compulsive hedonist of humor. He even finds his own laughter funny, which is funny. In fact, Arthur gets such a kick out of Arthur, he doesn’t seem to care that no one else does. That makes him a kind of stand-up deposed, and creates a pathos lacking in most contemporary interpretations of Coward, or Wilde, or even Preston Sturges, who often hurries his jokes on through without stopping for a moment to ask why.

It means that Moore’s Arthur, for all of his frivolous whimsy, is absolutely real. Chaplin had that too.

The first twenty minutes of Arthur are among the funniest twenty minutes of film ever shot. Then Steve Gordon lets it get sentimental, he pushes Moore to mush, and before our very eyes, Liza Minnelli (oh yes, she’s in it too) seems to shove a pluck-filled hypodermic needled into her best vein and overdose for two hours. It’s a shame. But that makes it good fodder for a remake.

If there is one thing in Arthur that never flags, it’s John Gielgud. As Arthur’s butler/nanny, Gielgud is unspeakably gud. Like all brilliant actors, Sir John had the rare ability to fuse one attitude with its opposite, and linger, somehow, in the gulf. To observe him negotiate irritation and devotion is to witness a lifetime’s accumulation of skill distilled into a single performance. And as a former Cowardian, and onetime muse to Coward himself, Gielgud knows his way around a bon mot. Tynan described the actor’s technique as a feat of nimble grace. In 1953, he wrote, “Gielgud, seizing a parasol, crosses by tightrope.”

As I write this, I see that Meryl Streep is rumored to take on the Gielgud part. I’ll alert the media.