Sunday, June 9, 2013
Chaplin Ascendant; Chaplin Ascending
This is the 1942 re-edited version, with narration by Chaplin replacing the title cards. Chaplin's re-edit trimmed about ten minutes from the original. Eliminating title cards eliminated another ten minutes! So you get a 72-minute, trimmed-to-the-bone piece of Chaplin. Unfortunately, Chaplin's tendency to the maudlin and the over-stated overpowers some of the narration. He also has a tendency to tell you basic things that you can already see on the screen.
But the monumental nature of the comic set-pieces here still charms and amazes and amuses. Chaplin wasn't great at exploiting the filmic aspects of film as Buster Keaton was: editing and camera movement are not his stock in trade. But he knew how to fill a shot and stage a scene. His command of motion and of mise-en-scene was top-notch. I also always get a kick out of the cabin perched on the edge of an abyss. Easily one of the hundred finest English-language movies ever made. Highest recommendation.
The top-billed star, though, is Cobourg, Ontario's own Marie Dressler. Dressler was already 46 when this movie was released, and her career would decline up until the introduction of sound into film. Then she would undergo an amazing renaissance while in her sixties, winning a Best Actress Oscar and being named the top female box-office draw for three straight years before dying of cancer at the age of 66 in 1934. Her girl-hood home is a historical site in Cobourg.
There's lots of fairly basic slapstick here, much of it literally involving slapping, hitting, punching, and kicking. The rudimentary plot involves Chaplin's stranger eloping with rural naif Dressler in order to steal her money. Hijinks ensue, and the Keystone Cops make a late-movie appearance.
Sennett was not the man to discover any of the possibilities of the camera. Most shots are static, proscenium-arch set-ups from roughly the same vantage point in relation to the characters in the shot. Editing is rudimentary, and in-shot camera movement non-existent. There are a few close-ups, if you're counting, but not many.
The static camera will begin to wear on one after awhile, as will the haphazard relation of the locations of one shot to the next. The rules of Classic Hollywood shot-to-shot geography and geometry were just at the start of being formulated; get ready for characters to seemingly run the wrong way out of one shot and into the next. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it.
Chaplin is as good as possible with what he has to work with, as is Dressler -- they're both gifted physical comedians. If you're going to watch this, you may want to do so in two or three sittings. At 70 minutes, it feels awfully long. Recommended.