There is a wonderful scene in Modern Times that I had forgotten. Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Godard are sitting on a lawn outside the house of a suburban middle class family. The husband leaves for work, and is farewelled by his loving, apron-clad wife. Charlie turns to Paulette: Can you imagine us in a little home like that? And they proceed to fantasise in unison. They are now inside the house. He, the industrious husband, plucks an orange from a tree branch that reaches through the open window, then proceeds to wipe his hands on the curtains. She, the proud housewife, is cooking a roast. They need milk, so Charlie hails a cow through the back door of the house and motions it to express some in a jug that he has placed on the doorstep. While he waits, patting the cow affectionately on the back, he plucks grapes from a vine. Then they sit to have dinner, and the film cuts back to the lawn and a famished Godard, for imagination stops short of filling the stomach. For good measure a policeman intervenes, shooing them off the lawn.
The point of the vignette is to show that the two characters are so poor they cannot fathom what bourgeois life actually looks like. They don’t know how food gets on the table of the affluent, so they speculate that it must be nature bowing to their needs, as if they possessed a secret code or language from which the street and the factory had alienated the poor.
What rekindled this is that lately in the family we’ve taken to watching old films over the weekends. I figured our eldest, who’s ten years old and into history, might take something of an antiquarian interest in them, but I didn’t anticipate how much he would enjoy them, nor that our youngest, who’s four and primarily into cars and running headfirst into people and furniture, would also find them absorbing. The day after we watched Modern Times he – the youngest – asked to see it again, and later, when we moved on to the Marx Brothers, he took an instant liking to Harpo. Much as I’m tempted to take pride in the progeny (budding cinephiles, in this very home!), the more useful hypothesis is that there is something that connects the particular films we chose – Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers – with the ones on which our children have formed their taste and their understanding of how cinema works; something that connects silent comedies with contemporary cartoon slapstick, as well as roughly comparable modes of storytelling, and that this is enough to make up for what is more outdated and less likely to appeal – including the vast differences of social and political milieu, or historical context. For instance: it may be difficult to imagine Modern Times’ ‘little home’ dream sequence in a contemporary mainstream comedy pitched at adults, but arguably less so in a Pixar film. That particular style of manipulating expectations and dealing in absurdity hasn’t disappeared altogether, and we are reminded of its lineage.
Watching old films, at almost any age, is a way of recovering a history of seeing. I don’t know if the audience at that early Lumiere screening really did run away screaming as the train pulled into the station or if the story is apocryphal, but I do know this: that when I saw Ghostbusters, in 1984, the digital monsters that now look to me like they were drawn with felt pens directly onto the stock seemed utterly believable and photorealistic. I was wowed back then, yet I cannot recapture that feeling or restore that belief now. As the representational benchmark of what counts as realism shifts, it seems that the mind – mine at least – updates its expectations.
Modern Times (1936) – a silent film released nearly a decade after the first talkie – must have seemed incongruous to its contemporary audiences, underscoring the point that these histories are seldom linear. However The Great Dictator (1940), of the ones the family has seen so far, is the film that signals the greatest departure from expectation and norm. That Chaplin reinvented his Little Tramp as a German Jewish barber would have been enough of a challenge to his public, but the balancing of comedy and drama is so much more subtle, so much more daring than anything I’ve seen since. The scuffles between Chaplin and the German police in the ghetto are played on a knife’s edge, always seemingly about to tip into the comedic.
Then suddenly, he’s about to be summarily hanged.
The film’s final sequences, and the barber’s impromptu speech to a crowd that thinks he is Hitler, point to a different conception of the social and political value of cinema altogether; an attempt to intervene directly into history, perhaps. This is Chaplin as Hynkel/Hitler.
This is the barber speaking to the crowd.
And this is Chaplin two years later, in 1942, urging Americans to donate to the Russian War Relief fund, a spilling over of his role in The Great Dictator that would make him a subject of investigation for un-American activities after the war.
Another image from his films springs to mind in this regard: it’s from Modern Times, when the Little Tramp – storming down the road after losing his job – accidentally joins a communist demonstration, of which he remains unaware until the police arrives to break it up and he is arrested for sedition.
To see a march of this kind and the ensuing repression in a comedy, and not as objects of mockery, is something we might not expect nowadays. Nor I think is it any longer common to see poverty portrayed as the default condition of the comic character, as it had been at least since Commedia dell’arte. Ours isn’t a broad and systematic survey, just a very small sample, and from a single national cinema, yet it has been, well, interesting and different to see society portrayed from below, and poverty as a lived condition as opposed to a curiosity. Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton: they all have this in common. It would make no sense for the Marx Brothers – even Groucho – to be anything but poor, for their world of dumb play needs poverty as a moral justification. (There is nothing terribly subversive about Harpo’s mischief; but if he weren’t destitute, he would be evil.) For Keaton too a dignified poverty is the point of departure:
I always enjoy going back to Keaton the most. There is something about his invention that to me is the definition of pure cinema. Something as simple as the cannon scene in The General (1926), or as contrived and elaborate as the gag in Sherlock Jr (1924) where he jumps through a window and comes out the other side wearing a woman’s dress – that he did this without trickery, and yet was fully prepared to be the trickster, to use the medium to its fullest capacity to deceive.
Sherlock Jr did that thing that nobody since, least of all Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese, has quite been able to replicate with as much grace: the doubling of the film upon itself, creating two levels of reality for the lead character to inhabit. It is and will likely remain unsurpassed, if only because he did it first.
That too is a part of a history of seeing: the sense that cinema back then might have been open to different possibilities, to alternative futures that didn’t play out. It certainly pays not to harbour too many romantic notions about how the industry operated in the twenties or thirties: it was every bit as ruthless, every bit as profit-driven, as the careers of the artists we’re revisiting on our Saturdays and Sundays illustrate. But I still get the feeling when I watch that some of those problems, not just of how to set the scene but also of how to surprise and entertain, were being faced for the first time, and that this came through into the final product as a quality that cannot quite be replicated. I very much hesitate to call it innocence. Sometimes it was just bad cinema.
We could sit in front of the mirror sequence in the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) and successfully argue that it is poorly constructed, and that no modern viewer would buy its premise; that it is unaccountably static, a gag transposed as opposed to adapted from the stage. But it’s just so bloody funny, and whilst being so funny, almost casually, it tells you the story of a man who (rightly) distrusts his reflection. You try putting that into clever words, or a better scene.