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Daily Dose of Doozy #2: A Piece of Cake: Charlie Chaplin


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1. Similar to Agee and Youngson's perspective in Daily Dose #1, Canby makes a claim at the end of his analysis that there is something missing into today's visual comedies when compared to the silent classics. Do you agree or disagree with Canby?

 

Canby’s statement makes little sense to me.  In 1918 it was convenient, conventional, and cost effective to use the static camera setup that we see in this scene.  So you would invent a comic bit that would work well with this setup, and Chaplin did that.  So does that mean that we’ve found the “golden comedic formula” and that further experimentation with camera placement and movement, not to mention editing, is superfluous?  I think not.  Nor did filmmakers in 1918, for goodness sake.  By this time tracking shots, traveling shots, cross-cutting, etc., etc., were in common use.  This scene was simply one case where the old-school static setup worked well.

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DAILY DOOZY #2: A PIECE OF CAKE: CHARLIE CHAPLIN

 

1) Similar to Agee & Youngston's perspective in Daily Dose #1, Canby makes a claim at the end of his analysis that there is something missing into today's visual comedies when compared to the silent classics...Do you agree or disagree with Canby? I just have to disagree with that! Speaking in the time frame of the 80's you still had visual comedies (not in frequency but still being made). You had you National Lampoon movies, females were in force with 'Private Benjamin' & '9 to 5', teen comedies, the buddy pictures, etc. all big box office bonanza's and the masses going every weekend to see them. Granted the subject matters were quite different in the 80's to the early 1900's but you still had your 'set ups' and 'payoffs' in 80's comedies. The break out artists like: Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray (SNL Alumni), Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, (just to name a few) all top box office winners had visual routines in their movies which gave us your typical 'set up' & 'payoff' in slapstick comedy.  Now for today's comedies visualism STILL takes place. Adam Sadler, Melissa McCarthy and others put their whole bodies into making us the audience weep at their movies.

 

2) Beyond the placement of the camera in middle distance, what other elements (set design, costume, props, acting, etc) makes this gag effective as visual comedy? PROPS...the cupcakes & hot dog are keys to the scene. Chaplin feeding the dog & then himself and getting away with it (until the cop at the end) he uses them as the distractions of the cook who couldn't quite figure out what had happen to them.

 

3) What do you think a gag like this and its brilliant on-screen execution contributes to the history of slapstick comedy?  Two things that are consistent in comedies back then and today are "Set Ups" and "Payoffs". In the movie the "set up" was the cook putting the food out on the counter and then turning his back and the "payoff" being Chaplin stealing the food from the cook when the cook turned his back and eventual being caught by the policeman and Chaplin 'escaping'. 

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1.
"It also shows today's audiences how much we are missing in visual comedy when it's broken up into close-ups and cuts between images."

 

Yes, and No.  Depends, IMHO, on exactly what is trying to be conveyed.  "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World"  utilizes both full-figure framing as well as editing, and does so beautifully. Classic scene from the Wilder/Pryor film, "See No Evil, Hear No Evil," literally has the blind (Pryor) leading the blind.  It's a long shot (I believe I remember correctly), and although the camera follows along, we continually see everyone else's bewilderment. The camera eventually stops . . .hm, come to think of it, I would hate to spoil this for anyone who hasn't seen it. 

 

2.

Chaplin is one of a very rare few, who defy the old adage "you should never perform with kids or dogs."
However, Chaplin is rather magnanimous when it comes to his canine co-star, letting the dog set-up the gag before it is put out of the shot.

 

3.

The entire routine represents an evolution:  cerebral rather than physical, understated rather than exaggerated, realistic instead of make-believe . . .repetitive yes, but without the violence
 

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What's missing in today's comedies is the visual element entirely. Name one American comedian who is as graceful and skilled as Chaplin and could pull off that invisible fly fake-out while snagging a cake around the back. That was ballet, and Chaplin's brother was a masterful dance partner. The exaggerated movements, the cook's closeup looks at the ever-emptying plate, the jaw-grinding chews as Chaplin almost swallows each whole, all of these are precisely executed dance moves that further the story and hit the hilarious beats.

 

The lunch cart filled with items gives the cook plenty of business and distraction to expand the gag. There's enough going on in the scene that you don't need any fancy camerawork or editing to heighten or distract from that. Just allow the gag to play.

 

This contributes to the history of slapstick, because it's a perfect example of allowing a gag the time to breathe to hit every possible funny note. And, quite frankly, it's still funny, while some of the silent era comedy has either been lost in translation, been repeated ad nauseam to the point that the jokes have gotten tired and old, or the gags seem juvenile by today's standard. This bit works on all fronts, so it's a great illustration to get a new audience to enjoy silent comedy.

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1. Similar to Agee and Youngson's perspective in Daily Dose #1, Canby makes a claim at the end of his analysis that there is something missing into today's visual comedies when compared to the silent classics. Do you agree or disagree with Canby?:

 

I disagree. I think slapstick comedy, and comedy in general, flourished with the introduction of sound. Think of all we would be missing if all we watched were silent movies; The Marx Brothers, Looney Tunes, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest and his crew, Mel Brooks movies, The Jerk, etc. I think that hearkening back to another, distant era as the be-all-end-all is the hallmark of a small mind.

 

2. Beyond the placement of the camera in middle distance, what other elements (set design, costume, props, acting, etc) makes this gag effective as visual comedy?

 

The timing was superb. Think of how long they would've had to practice those gags! Turning around at just the right moment, Charlie taking his hand back at just the right instant... Awesome!

 

3. What do you think a gag like this and its brilliant on-screen execution contributes to the history of slapstick comedy?

 

I bet that this gag alone inspired many future comic actors to enter the world of comedy in the first place. This clip shows what is possible with visual comedy and a keen mind.

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Although movies have come along way in there inventiveness. I think there is a charm, elegance and almost ballet experience when watching the silent movie gags. It's funny to watch chaplain get more and more bold in stealing the cake. But it remains artfully done and almost charming. In that respect I think that is missing in the films today. A funny gag is a funny gag you can do it . But I do think it Misses or loses a certain charm and elegance. Apparently all of the word elegance.

Keeping the camera in that still shot. The medium shot that shows everything that's going on in the scene including the police officer and entering the end of the gag, indeed almost invites us into this little happening. No cuts no edits just our eyes view so to speak of this silly little guy getting his cake for the day. Chaplin is so smooth and funny. I love this scene.

I'm sure the scene is revered by our comics up today. Again it's almost ballet like movement from Chaplin is brilliant. It should inspire all that see it.

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1. I don't think anything is missing but something is certainly different: the pacing, for one. If this same scene were made in modern times the pace would be much faster, I think. The other difference is doing this in a single take (maybe two, since there is the cut-away to the dog). I can't see any modern comedian attempting to stuff all those cakes into his or her mouth one after another like that.

 

2. The set is deliberately small. A real food counter would have to be bigger to accommodate the necessary implements, cooking surfaces, etc. It was all designed to fit into the frame of the film. The little window in the back is set up so that the cop can be cleverly introduced into the scene. The frying pan prop that the cook holds is also relevant since I kept wondering if he would eventually clobber Chaplin with it. Never happened but the anticipation added to the scene for me.

 

3. Everyone who followed learned a lot from Chaplin about timing, pace, and careful editing from Chaplin. Chaplin really understood how film was different than the stage. It was no accident that there were many Chaplin imitators over the next decade and beyond.

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Regarding the silent to sound comparison we have been discussing, lets flip the script for a moment. The same creative arguments can and no doubt have been made to the end of Radio upon the popularization of TV. In radio, all you had was the dialog and sound effects and they would suggest that TV was less creative and perhaps low-brow as the visuals were a crutch. They were both brilliant in their own right and both took creativity and the limitations of their space and ran with it. Interesting that one of the most popular things done with early TV was Slapstick!

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It's funny, but I never realized before how often Chaplin made the simple act of eating into a "bit."  Watching him eat all those cakes made me feel a bit queasy, and I remember reading somewhere how sick Chaplin became of eating liquorice in the boot-eating scene in "The Gold Rush."  But I think this kind of gag survives into the modern age too.  Lucy at the chocolate factory leaps to mind first, but I'm sure there are many, many others.  With Chaplin it was kind of ironic though as there were times when he was very hungry as a child.  Still, I hope those cakes were made of meringue or something that melted in the mouth quite quickly.  Still wouldn't want to eat so many of them so quickly!

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Perhaps the missing component in today's comedy, as a few others have suggested, is the timing.  Chaplin is willing to let the gag play out without rushing it or being frenzied.  There are later artists who managed this as well; Jerry Lewis comes to mind.

 

I believe the effectiveness of this gag comes from (1)the poor man identifying with the dog;  they are both society outcasts trying to get something to eat and (2) the choreography between the man behind the counter and the tramp.  Truly perfect precision!

 

This gag contributes to slapstick history as a prime example of what can be said without words! 

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This was a great scene and would even be funnier if his canine friend was also given a piece of the cake action!

 

The dog snagged two sausages at the beginning. That started the crime wave. :) Looks like Charlie made a halfhearted attempt to return the purloined wursts but faliled, and then got the idea to go for the cakes. Nice little intro to the main gag.

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1. Similar to Agee and Youngson's perspective in Daily Dose #1, Canby makes a claim at the end of his analysis that there is something missing into today's visual comedies when compared to the silent classics. Do you agree or disagree with Canby?

 

It is difficult to agree or disagree with Canby's blanket statement because he gives no example of a then-modern comedy gag in a film that is broken up by editing such that the editing detracts from the audiences' understanding of just what the director is trying to convey.  

 

Without understanding what Canby is referring to, we just have to accept his unsupported premise because he was the great film reviewer for the NYT. I do accept that he saw many more modern physical comedy gags than I have, but I can't think of anything that jumps to mind to support his opinion. It seems to me that he has a few variables to take into consideration when announcing such an opinion, not the least of which is what the writer/director is trying to communicate to the audience. Without that we don't really know how the filmmaker failed.

 

2. Beyond the placement of the camera in middle distance, what other elements (set design, costume, props, acting, etc) makes this gag effective as visual comedy?

 

I think this scene actually demonstrates silent film's failure to communicate fully the exact setting of the gag.

 

Canby calls the setting an "outdoor cake stand." The TCM caption of the clip calls it a "lunch wagon." Based on the sausages cooked and served in a skillet, it seems clear that TCM is correct. But, if Vincent Canby can't correctly identify the action, how much of Chaplin's ideas are being communicated, despite the full screen view of the wagon activity?  it is also possible to read too much into an amusing sketch.

 

First of all, other than hitting the cop with the salami, I didn't see much slapstick in the scene. The gag merely focuses on Chaplin's ability to filch a food purveyor's wares right under his nose with very little consequence.

 

Chaplin is funny and sympathetic because he is dressed so poorly, and his doggy is so adorable, and they are both so hungry. The audience is actually glad they are both getting something to eat. But we also feel for the lunch wagon proprietor.

 

He is trying to make an honest living, and obviously works hard. He is trusting his customers to observe his lunch offerings and buy them, not steal them. But he is so obtuse in not realizing that Chaplin is eating everything, despite the fact that the proprietor cannot catch Chaplin actually putting the cake in his mouth, the audience thinks that if he is that dense, maybe he deserves to be robbed of his wares.

 

As in the previous Chaplin clip, where he eludes two cops by rolling under a fence, here Chaplin also avoids paying the consequences of his theft by adroitly getting his two antagonists, the lunch wagon owner and the cop, to collide with each other. It is basically the same gag as the two cops and the fence. 

 

 

3. What do you think a gag like this and its brilliant on-screen execution contributes to the history of slapstick comedy?

 

Since it is in effect the same gag, slightly restaged in the same film, and there is very little real slapstick in it, I don't think it contributes much to the art of slapstick.

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It's funny, but I never realized before how often Chaplin made the simple act of eating into a "bit."  Watching him eat all those cakes made me feel a bit queasy, and I remember reading somewhere how sick Chaplin became of eating liquorice in the boot-eating scene in "The Gold Rush."  But I think this kind of gag survives into the modern age too.  Lucy at the chocolate factory leaps to mind first, but I'm sure there are many, many others.  With Chaplin it was kind of ironic though as there were times when he was very hungry as a child.  Still, I hope those cakes were made of meringue or something that melted in the mouth quite quickly.  Still wouldn't want to eat so many of them so quickly!

 

I wonder if any comedians today would endure any sort of physical discomfort or even risk to perform funny scenes. Even if they wanted to, studio rules, insurance and liability considerations etc wouldn't allow it, I'm sure. And we have stuntpeople to do the extreme physical acting.

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1. I agree the gag is simple man is hungry swipes cake when propietor isn,t looking How many times can he swipe before he is caught.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                2. the small stand Chaplin doesn,t give us much to be distracted by.the whole scene is focused on the stand and the tramp with the dog so our focus is the same.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       3. Its simplicity you don,t need a whole lot to make people laugh and smile Chaplin did it with just a food stand and a dog

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I don't necessarily agree or disagree, I don't really think anything is missing in today's comedies as far as the aspect of visual comedy. I just think it is a little less pronounced than in silent films.In the silent films vs talkies you had to over exaggerate due to the fact that you could not verbalize your joke or gag.

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1. When comedy is broken up to close-ups and camera cut you are forced to laugh at something  specific, something predetermined, for you and then you don't see the total humor of the situation or what else is going on in the shot.  I prefer to find the hidden gems in a scene that are left for you, that add to the broad humor and increase your movie awareness.

2. The timing of this entire scene is exquisite! We as viewers know what is going on, but the proprietor does not, so in essence we become "actors" in the scene as well, keeping the secret from him as well.  The fact that hunger is used as a catalyst is also essential as it is a know universal feeling. If the proprietor's Mercedes Benz were stolen, for example, few of us know what that kind of thievery feels like.  But we have all known hunger of some sort, so this adds to the totality and understanding of this scene.

3. The subtle nature of this scene is far more beautiful than an out and out pie in the face sort of scene.  While I do love broad humor as well, Chaplin's pathos and plaintive looks make this scene work so completely and slyly.

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Filmmakers use camera movement and editing to direct our eye, to guide us through the scene. Without it, it's completely up to the actors to make the scene flow. With their perfectly timed choreography the brothers Chaplin carried it off splendidly.

 

I like the little elements of surprise in Syd's unpredictable reaction times - once he spins around in a split-second, next time it's a leisurely turn that allows Charlie to snag two pieces. Charlie uses the magician's technique of diverting Syd's attention, first eying the dog as a possible suspect, and later looking for imaginary mice or ants on the countertop who must have have carried off the cake!

 

Looking forward to the whole film.

 

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I am really unable to relate to Canby's comment "there is something missing in today's visual comedies when compared to the silent classics".  I enjoy slapstick when the movie is silent and I enjoy slapstick when it's coupled with words that can be heard. 

 

I think the fact that it's the little guy pulling the wool over the restaurateur that adds a positive emotional component where the viewer actually starts cheering for him to get away with as much as he can.

 

It's a remarkable piece of art, quite exquisite and it appeals to "Everyman" as a contribution to the history of slapstick comedy.

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1. I agree that something is missing in today's visual comedies - they allow for the inactive viewer.  I tell my students that they don't pay attention to everything on the screen - in essence they aren't truly watching the film.  In the days of Chaplin and the others you had to watch everything - a subtle move of an arm set up the gag - not so today.  Also today's visual is on sexist or stupid concepts -that only morons (sorry, but true) wouldn't get the joke.  Visual comedy back then was pleasing to the eye and required a more advanced concept.

 

2.We can all think of animals and they're wanting of food and how the dog is the perfect foil to Chaplin. But also the idea of hunger and how people will do anything for food.  Finally, the timing is perfect between the owner and Chaplin.

 

3.I beliieve it can relate to everyone because hunger is universal, animals are known for stealing food and everyone tries to get away with a little something from others -if they can.

 

 

 

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1. I agree that something is missing in today's visual comedies - they allow for the inactive viewer.  I tell my students that they don't pay attention to everything on the screen - in essence they aren't truly watching the film.  In the days of Chaplin and the others you had to watch everything - a subtle move of an arm set up the gag - not so today.  Also today's visual is on sexist or stupid concepts -that only morons (sorry, but true) wouldn't get the joke.  Visual comedy back then was pleasing to the eye and required a more advanced concept.

 

2.We can all think of animals and they're wanting of food and how the dog is the perfect foil to Chaplin. But also the idea of hunger and how people will do anything for food.  Finally, the timing is perfect between the owner and Chaplin.

 

3.I beliieve it can relate to everyone because hunger is universal, animals are known for stealing food and everyone tries to get away with a little something from others -if they can.

 

 

 

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Full screen shots leave it up to the viewer on what to focus on.  So many elements go in to making this sketch.   Close ups leave less room for the viewer to be able to choose what he wants to see and leave out so many elements crucial to making the  whole scene work.  A Piece of Cake is awesome as all the elements contributing to this slapstick are able to be viewed at once.

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I don’t think this could be carried off with a close up. With a medium shot we barely get an idea that Chaplin is swallowing or chewing, which makes the effect of his “eating” the cakes so much more comic, especially considering the enormous amount that enters his mouth in such a short space of time. You merely get the sense that he’s stuffing them into his gullet, something like a Christmas goose. And Syd knows something is going on, but if there were any telltale signs of “eating” he’d be more than simply suspicious. That’s where the real humor comes in. When today’s directors—perhaps often at the urging of actors—zoom in, you do often lose the large take of what going on in the scene, at least for a moment, and that moment can be critical. But today’s audience is prepared for that moment’s lapse, I think, where yesterday’s was not. Perhaps. It is hard to say. It is an intellectual gap, not a cultural one, and not everyone can fill it in. Once again, more than anything else I think this skit is a masterpiece of timing.

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I agree with Cady. The silent comedies were simple and the viewer could concentrate on one thing. In this case it was Chaplin pulling a fast one by sneaking cake. Today's comedies usually have more than one thing going on in a scene, cut to other views or there is some sort of special effect. I enjoy slapstick both silent and sound but the simplicity makes it funnier.

 

The placement of the camera in the middle did a lot for the scene. We didn't need close-ups of the dog or Sid to know what was going on but an overall picture. The props weren't over the top to add to the simplicity and Chaplin's costume fits the mood on why he is stealing cake.

 

Chaplin was a master of slapstick as was Keaton and Lloyd. The slapstick that has followed since is a proof of it by others copying the art of it. The gags may have changed but the original premise is there.

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A comment and a question:

 

Relative to the second question posed with this clip, one of the elements of this gag that makes it funny to me is the fact that it crosses into the absurd: the hot dog vendor in the real world would have suspected and thrown Charlie out long before his entire plate of muffins (or cookies or whatever they are) is consumed. Similarly, anyone real trying to surreptitiously sneak a cookie or two would not have the gumption to continue to push his luck with eating cookie after cookie. The exaggeration and absurd set-up are an important part of Chaplin's and also Keaton's humor I believe.

 

This raises a question for me--clearly this is physical comedy. But is it slapstick? It is missing the element of violence. (Although it seems to have the other elements). If not slapstick, what is it?

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