A little over a week until the blogathon, folks! I’m getting more excited by the day–in fact, right now I am this excited:
What? This is Buster when he’s really, really excited.
Just over 30 bloggers have signed up to write about our deadpan comedian and it’s fabulous to see what a variety of films and creative topics everyone’s chosen. Come Feb. 8th and 9th we’re going to be covering everything from Keaton’s time in vaudeville to his chop suey recipe.
Buster can hardly contain himself.
So here’s the official roster so far (and if you’re a Keaton-loving blogger who’s just hearing about all this, you’re still welcome to join!). Please let me know if I slipped up and left anyone out. I’ve decided that instead of scheduling you guys I’m going to keep it simple. When Feb. 8 and 9 arrive, simply send me the link to your post…
Most of the time, Chaplin’s Tramp appeals to me because he manages to hold his own in a world that couldn’t care less about him. Paradoxically, City Lights works so beautifully because in it, the harder the Tramp tries, the harder he gets knocked down. Usually, Chaplin manages just the right amount of pathos, so that it doesn’t seem overdone. Here, it’s nothing but overdone – and you can’t help responding to it.
That’s certainly not to say that the movie is without its laughs. It starts right off with Chaplin figuratively doing what he’d had to do literally for the previous two years: Battle the talkies. He had started filming City Lights when the talking-film revolution took hold. But Chaplin had the clout to remain Hollywood’s sole holdout – he would continue making the movie as a silent picture. And the movie’s opening scene shows him thumbing his nose (literally, at one point as the Tramp) at sound, as some city officials unveil a statue, but not before making a pompous speech to the soundtrack accompaniment of withering kazoos. When the statue is unveiled, it holds the Tramp in its arms – he was just looking for a place to sleep.
Eventually, the Tramp comes across a blind flower vendor (Virginia Cherrill) and is entranced enough by her to return as a regular customer. The Tramp also has the good/bad luck of coming upon a drunken rich man (Harry Myers) who is attempting suicide at the nearby river after his wife has left him. The Tramp talks him out of it (but not before the two of them get dunked a couple of times), and the rich man declares the Tramp as his lifelong friend. Trouble is, the eternal friendship lasts only until the rich man’s alcoholic buzz wears off, at which time he forgets he ever knew him. What’s a tramp to do?
I will surely earn the enmity of Chaplin buffs by saying this, but as much as I enjoy this movie, I don’t find it flawless. I have trouble with a couple of the movie’s elements. First – and I’m sure this will sound too persnickety for words – I think Chaplin is too heavily made-up in this movie. We’re all familiar with the Tramp’s iconic big eyebrows; here, they’re way overdone, and Chaplin’s eyes are overly mascara’d. It’s as though he’s going out of his way to hedge his bets in winning sympathy for the Tramp as a pathetic figure. (If you doubt me, check out Chaplin’s close-ups in the party scene at the rich man’s home.)
The biggest problem I have with this movie is that I have to stretch credulity a long, long way to believe that this rich man wouldn’t have any recollection of the Tramp once he’s sober, and then he’d instantly recognize him again the next time he gets drunk. I’ve had my share of plastered moments, so I know that memory loss is quite plausible. But to not remember the guy who saved you from killing yourself? the guy you went out partying with every time you tied one on? There are worse leaps of logic in the history of cinema, to be sure, but in Chaplin’s case, this is a pretty wide berth.
But if you can get past those two formalities – and generations of filmgoers have certainly had no problem doing so – you’ll be treated to one of moviedom’s finest pleasures. And after three-quarters of a century, that stripped-to-the-core acting between Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill at movie’s end still leaves viewers at least wide- , if not teary-eyed. (The marvelous documentary Unknown Chaplin explicitly details how exasperated Chaplin was in trying to get a decent performance out of Cherrill. You’d never know it from the final product.)
Sometimes you just want that all-out sentiment, like a good ballad or tearjerker. City Lights is surely what Woody Allen meant when he referred to “the good sentimental.”
The other day, I was web-surfing headlines about the big Nor’easter storm that hit earlier this week, and much to my delight, I came across a photo of this woman, whom I’d never seen or heard of before.
Meet Tara Hastings, meteorologist for WDTN-Channel 2 in Dayton, Ohio. If you find this photo montage of Tara as eye-bathing as I do, feel free to visit the Facebook “Weather Goddess Tara Hastings” at https://www.facebook.com/groups/804167179655212/?fref=ts
I will make no further comment, as I believe the pictures speak for themselves…
Happy Jane Russell Friday! Seeing as Super Bowl Sunday is but two days away, I tried to find a football-themed photo of Janie. The best I could do was this photo of Jane with her first husband, Bob Waterfield, who was a defensive back for the Cleveland and Los Angeles Rams from 1945 to 1952. Gotta say, Janie looks pretty sexy even when she’s just holding a football. (If only I could have found a way to Photoshop Bob Waterfield outta the photo…)
From Charlie Chaplin in Laughing Gas (1914) to Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), for decades movie comedians have known that you can’t go wrong exploiting comedy from people’s fear of dentists. It was inevitable that Laurel & Hardy would try their hand at it, and that the results would be as funny as Leave ‘Em Laughing.
Once their characterizations were firmly grounded, L&H’s best format was the three-parter. Here, the three settings are: their apartment (where Ollie tries to nurse Stan through a painful toothache); the dentist’s office (where both Stan and Ollie get overcome with laughing gas); and the city streets (where L&H disrupt cause a traffic jam and ruin the day of a traffic cop [Edgar Kennedy]).
It’s a simple set-up, to be sure, but the gags pay off due to L&H’s solid characterizations. There’s the scene where Ollie offers Stan a hot-water bottle to ease his pain, but Stan falls asleep and lets the bottle leak into the bed, causing Ollie to think that Stan has a control problem bigger than his toothache. Or witness Ollie’s glorious minute of screen time when he wakes up in the dentist’s chair to discover that his tooth was pulled instead of Stan’s.
This was also the first movie where L&H milked laughs from simply laughing their heads off. (Later examples occur in Fra Diavolo and Way Out West.) Funny thing, though, about the doctors in L&H movies–in this one and County Hospital, doctors let Stan and Ollie get back on the street under the influence of mind-numbing drugs with nary a shrug. If medicos really were that cavalier back then, no wonder the litigation industry is the giant that it is today.
According to Laurel & Hardy biographer Randy Skretvedt, Liberty was conceived when an ongoing joke from L&H’s previous film had to be cut. The joke involved Stan and Ollie pulling on each other’s trousers by mistake, and then having continual embarrassment when they are caught trying to exchange their pants.
Well, heaven knows, the joke is played out here for all it’s worth. The gimmick which brings them to this joke is that Stan and Ollie are prison escapees who were provided their old clothes by some civilian pals. They have to get the clothes on a hurry, and of course you know what happens. The amazing thing is how much some innocent bystanders don’t know. For a comedy duo that rarely dealt in double-entendres, it’s rather startling to see the stares that the pair received (in a 1929 movie) from passersby who obviously think they’ve caught Stan and Ollie in the love that dares not speak its name.
After all of that, the Harold Lloyd-like skyscraper routine — which was supposed to be the real draw of the movie — is almost an (pardon me) anti-climax. When Stan and Ollie finally find a place to exchange their clothes in private, it’s in a makeshift elevator for a skyscraper in progress. By the time they (in their usual slowness) realize what they’ve done and where they are, the elevator has already gone back to the ground, and they’re left to fend for themselves more than a few stories above Los Angeles.
Although Skretvedt confirms that filming was fairly safe (except for a minor scrape when Babe fell through a platform that wasn’t as secure as he thought), the skyscraper footage remains quite convincing. However, as with the best of L&H movies, the comedy comes not just from the thrills but from the characterizations: Stan skittering from spot to spot like an errant bowling pin, Ollie trying to help Stan while making sure he’s quite secure himself.
After latent homosexuality and cliff-hanging chills, the patented freak ending — in which the elevator smashes a cop down to midget size — is almost as welcome a relief as the pedantic psychiatrist droning on at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Popeye comes to Olive Oyl’s apartment and gives her the “important news” that he’s going to let her “axe” him to marry her. As difficult as it would be to turn down such a romantic proposal, Olive tells Popeye she has fallen for “Barnacle Bill, the Sailor” (Bluto by any other name), giving Popeye and Olive an excuse to sing the old song about the two-faced old sailor.
Bluto shows up to take Olive away, but he barely gets out his usual blustery greetings before Popeye knocks him into the ocean. Olive quickly concludes, “Popeye dear, I love you best,” but for once Popeye is having none of it. He declares all women unfaithful and storms out of the apartment. Sure enough, Olive cries that “the Navy” has left her behind…”but still, there’s the Army!”
On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon:
Happy Jane Russell Friday! In her autobiography, Jane claimed that for her movie The French Line, her dance costume initially consisted of only a bikini (a bathing suit new to America at the time). Jane said that when she displayed herself in the bikini, she felt embarrassed standing “before my mortified [movie] crew, feeling very naked.”
Here is a photo of Jane in a bikini. Does this woman look embarrassed to you?
How is it that in a huge city, Popeye’s and Bluto’s businesses always end up right next to each other? Here, it’s The Boys working rivaling penny arcades. What’s worse, whoever’s doing Bluto’s voice sounds as though he’s trying to imitate Popeye instead.
Wimpy, sans hamburger for a change, is unfortunate enough to be The Boys’ only interested patron. All three parties get ripped off. Wimpy keeps borrowing pennies from The Boys to watch their own movies, which are the same at each arcade and are clips from Let’s Get Movin’ and The Twisker Pitcher, making this a “cheater” cartoon in every sense of the word.
(Oh, and you gotta love the nickelodeon that advertises “Bluto in Never Kick a Woman,” a Popeye cartoon in which he never appeared. Call the Better Business Bureau!)
Best gag is the closing one, where Wimpy makes money selling tickets to Popeye and Bluto’s inevitable grudge-match.
On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon:
This cartoon takes skyscraper-climbing to heights even Harold Lloyd wouldn’t have dreamed up.
It begins with Bluto as a window-washer, albeit in his typically sleazy style. In order to “drum up some business,” he uses a hose to spray muddy water onto some windows across the street from his office. Then, his idea of cleaning the windows is to throw some soap on them and then scrape them in an “X” motion, not even removing all of the soap. But then, who has the nerve to question Bluto about his methods?
Well, maybe one person will. Popeye happily cleans the windows in the office of “Olive Oyl, Public Stenographer.” (She does her job well, too, considering the carriage of her typewriter nearly flies out the window after each line.) On a ledge far above the city, Popeye happily one-ups Bluto by dancing and shaking his fanny, while he not so much cleans a window as shaves it. Bluto thinks he’s hot when he’s hanging off a flagpole to reach one window after another, but then Popeye hangs by his suspenders from Olive’s window and makes like a human fly all over the building.
Popeye and Bluto get into the inevitable fight, only this time they’re bouncing from building to building as they do it. Bluto tries to literally hang Popeye out to dry (from a flagpole), until Popeye makes with the spinach (because he hadn’t been able to bounce around 20 stories of building very well before that).
This short is just breathtaking, with perspectives amazing enough that you have to pinch yourself to realize you’re just watching a cartoon. And you keep wondering what further heights Popeye and Bluto will set their sights on just to show how macho they are.
On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: