Archive for charles chaplin

Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , on July 11, 2009 by leclisse

Insert poster for Daddy Long Legs (1919) Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) is a delight from start to finish.  The film came at a propitious moment in Mary Pickford’s career; tired of the bullying tactics resorted to by the studios through block booking, Mary, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin would soon break away from this control and engineer the creation of United Artists in 1920.  Although Daddy-Long-Legs was released through First National, it was the first picture on which Mary acted completely independently as producer.

Daddy-Long-Legs is the story of an orphaned baby, Jerusha “Judy” Abbott (Pickford), who is found in a trashcan swaddled in newspaper.  She is brought to a spartan orphanage that is run by Mrs. Lippett (Milla Davenport), a shrewish woman with sadist tendencies that are reminiscent of Valeska Gert’s matron in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).  In one scene, she reprimands the mischevious Judy for an infraction by scorching her finger on a hot stove.  She admonishes Judy with “God will punish little girls who steal; He will send them into a burning hot hell….”  All this seriousness is outweighed by Pickford’s comic antics.  Judy joins forces with a fellow orphan and declares the “Great Prune Strike.”  Mrs. Lippett is not amused.  Ordered outside with no supper, the two are fed by some sacks of food and a jug of hard cider that is thrown over the wall by someone outside.  This scene reaches slapstick proportions when both Judy and her co-conspirator, clearly intoxicated, stumble back inside the orphanage, leaving the remaining contents of the jug overturned.  An unsuspecting dog feeds his curiosity, and in the next shot we see it walking on two legs, trying to maintain its balance against the wall of the orphanage.  These comic vignettes are balanced by some very poignant scenes, especially when Judy is shown tending to some of the children who are too ill to join the others.  One little girl even dies in her arms; the tragedy inherent in scenes such as this serve to showcase the brilliant range of Pickford as an actress, as well as lending her adolescent characters a very adult capacity for sorrow.

Mary PickfordThe film follows Judy through the rest of her childhood and moves into her young adult life.  She is given a college education, financed by a mystery benefactor, whom Judy calls her “Daddy Long Legs.”  She has no idea who the man is, but faithfully writes him of her progress throughout the ensuing four years.  Director Marshall Neilan makes an appearance as the amorous Jimmie McBride, who competes with the much older Jarvis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton) for Judy’s affections.  Neilan was said to have been Pickford’s favorite director, and his skill in bringing out the best in her work is evident in every inch of this film.  Mary’s ability to move from childhood to maturity not only displays her comedic brilliance, but also shows her to stunning physical advantage.  Her famous curls are abundantly displayed, framing her face in a lustrous halo.

At the time of its release, Daddy-Long-Legs was a smash hit at the box office.  Mary knew she could not go wrong with such material; the public clamored for her in these well-loved roles from children’s literature, and her uncanny ability to play children has hardly been matched by any actress since.  Pickford’s collaboration with director Neilan delivers a film that is all at once sweet, disarming, narratively fluid from beginning to end.  This is probably my favorite Pickford film to date.

Limelight (1952)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , on May 12, 2009 by leclisse

Limelight (1952)I recently caught the middle 30 minutes or so of Limelight (1952) on TCM and was intrigued enough to track down a copy at the local library.

Limelight is one of those films that I can say I genuinely liked, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it great.  It seemed to me that Chaplin tends to become excessively verbose on more than one occasion, and tends to direct his speeches toward a melodramatic flourish, especially in the scenes where he is trying to lift the depondent Terry (Claire Bloom) out of her suicidal rut.  Despite this tendency, I thought that a good deal of the dialogue was some of the most beautiful that I have heard in any film.

The mood of Limelight unapologetically melancholic, but that’s the point of the story.  Chaplin’s Calvero, the once great comedian of the English stage, has become in life what he was in pantomime: a tramp, and a drunk one at that.  I don’t know much about Chaplin’s private life, but it’s my understanding that his career had never recovered since the switch from silent to sound cinema.  Indeed, Chaplin refused to incorporate sound into his films until 1936’s Modern Times, and then it was only the machine in the film which had a voice.  Calvero echoes this refusal to change with the times in his comedy routines.  The charm of his comedy act never leaves the late 1890’s and early 1900’s when it was in its prime, even though the audience has (literally) walked out on that sort of slapstick vaudeville.  By 1952, the age of silent film had been dead for some time (but would soon have a “resurrection”), but Chaplin still holds on through his frequent use of broad gestures, pantomime, and choreographed movements.

The highlight of the film comes in the final scene when Calvero teams up with Buster Keaton (who is, however, without a name and relegated to the role of Calvero’s partner).  I’m not usually a fan of slapstick comedy, but this scene really works.  The contrast between Keaton’s frazzled seriousness and Chaplin’s impish clumsiness plays out marvelously, and one can easily speculate how incredible a collaboration would have been during their heyday in the 1920’s.

Claire Bloom and Charles ChaplinClaire Bloom fell a little flat for me.  I know Limelight was one of her first major acting roles, but she lacks the charming immaturity of, say, Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.  These are two very different roles, of course, but I couldn’t quite see any depth to her artistry.  She often struck me as a little whiny.  She certainly didn’t come across as a “true artist,” as Calvero claims she is with his dying breath.  What I felt for her character was very similar to how I reacted to Katharine Houghton’s Joey in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  For the life of me, I could not see what Sidney Poitier, a brilliant doctor,  saw in her vapid girlishness.