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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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1. Like I mentioned on Daily Dose #1, silent comedians had to exaggerate their actions visually to make up for the lack of sound. I don't necessarily disagree with Canaby but is is comparing apples with oranges to an extent with all of the developments in comedy and filmmaking. Nostalgia for those who did it first is often rosy.

2. The scene could be claustrophobic in such a small place but Chaplin and the rest of the cast pull it off and make the gag effective and funny.

3. It is interesting to see those who did it first and compare it with all these who have done similar things subsequently. It was original and inventive but not necessarily superior to what happend later.

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Comedies are not melodramas, they do not require total immersion. In fact, the best type of gag-based comedy is the kind where reality is clearly thrown out the window. As a result, a flat, wide shot is the best way to convey the presence of the proverbial proscenium arch and make it known that this is a theatrical performance.

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I find it fascinating to think that advances in technology can actually create a worse product. I agree with the idea of cutting shots with reactions can actually take away from the simple humor of a film.

I have made such arguments before for other genres. I am sure that many have heard that hardships create a need for creativity. Many people say that the Star Wars Original Trilogy is better than the Prequels because the Prequels used new gimmicks such as CGI and let them take away from the pure story telling. Similarly, I have heard arguments recently that Marvel is doing so well now because they had to sell their top characters. This meant that they had to be more creative and bring new ideas to the table.

I think that new films have brought a lot to the table, but we cannot forget what works because of gimmicks and techniques.

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Just looking at the clip shows some very good editing that still maintains the simplicity of the premise with the exquisite timing in execution. The cuts back and forth between the dog and Syd played so beautifully with Charlie's slight of hand with the cakes. The comic tension that developes keeps the audience wondering how long this can possibly go on before Charlie is caught in action. The introduction of the cop really adds to the tension until it is released in laughter when the cop makes his move and ends up being smacked with a sausage by Syd as he finally makes his own move and only aids Charlie in his escape. Brilliant!

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I don't believe that this was done in "one take". To do this you would need multi cameras. Was that done in silent days? I don't think so. Starts with a wide shots then medium shot for the cart, then a shot of Charlie. Some close ups the dog, Syd and the cop. With one camera this takes changing the lens and moving the camera. Not one take.

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Canby is right about something missing in today's visual comedies compared to that of the silent classics.  In the silent classics, the "full-figure framing" increases the comic tension (as to what will happen next), and elicits one's complete focus or concentration on the gag(s).  Whereas, today's comic visuals have many distractions such as cutaways that may dissipate the focus from the build up to the gag(s).

 

In Chaplin's "A Dog's Life", 1918, everything (i.e. set design, costume, props, etc.) counted in the visual comedy.  The set design of the 'home' of the Chaplin's "Tramp" helped him in escaping the police.  Chaplin's "Tramp" dressed in over sized shoes, tight jacket, unkempt bowler hat and loose pants gave a hobo downtrodden effect.  Props such as the dog (or cane in other films) are usually used as devices to aid or add to the visual comedy.  In this film, Chaplin's "Tramp" acting as 'not doing anything' like stealing and eating the cakes increases the hilarity of the moment.  Also, the accompanying music is another element that heightens the comic visual.

 

The contribution that "A Dog's Life", 1918, makes to the history of slapstick comedy is immeasurable and original.  It continues to influence countless future comedians.

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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 think today's comedies rely more on jokes rather than physical comedy. It's not completely eradicated. The Naked Gun series comes to mind. It had jokes and physical comedy. In the silent movies they had to rely on visual comedy because there were no words except on the placards. Even though you might be able to predict what's going to happen it's still a surprise and still funny.

 

 

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 the fact that the cake stand owner has to turn his back on Chaplin gives him adequate opportunities to pilfer the cakes. The window is strategically placed also framing the police officers face perfectly to catch Chaplin in the act. The dog snagged the sausages. I had to watch it couple of times to see where he got them. The owner is standing above Chaplin giving him a quality of authority over Chaplin. All of these combine perfectly. But my question is how did he eat all those cakes so fast with nothing to drink?

 

 

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

 

No one who has seen it will forget it. It has elements of tricking someone plus Chaplin ate all those cakes without a glass of milk or water.

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1. I would agree as today in modern times we tend to utilize enhancing thee visual comedies with language at the same time, where in silent film it was truly all visual with a wee bit enhancement with the music that was utilized.  This clip is too funny and just keeps repeating and getting funnier each time.

2. The eyebrows of the cook are amazing and his timing to just miss catching Charlie Chaplin each time.  Also, the dog adds so much with his starting things off by eating the sausages and his licking his chops over and over again.  So seemingly simple, but brilliant!

3. I believe it took every day, innocent activities and made them special.  We didn't need big sets, fancy outfits and a bit introduction ...it just flowed.  It appealed to all, those dressed as Charlie Chaplin to the very rich and isn't that special to not be selective.

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With Daily Dose #2, can I just mention how much I LOVE Chaplin?  The "behind the back" move at the very end.... yeah.  I didn't even see that coming.  Clearly, this film and Chaplin are timeless classics.

 

1)  I completely agree with Canby.  Though there are a few scatterings of visual comedy bits in modern films, there is nothing like the reliance of visual comedy that is present in silent films.  The younger generations are missing out on good old-fashioned laughs that are overrun in a society that is full of quick comedic pay-offs that rely more on outdoing what has already been done and cheap shots rather than working to achieve that genuine laugh.

 

2) I think the acting itself plays a VERY large role in making this scene work as a visual comedy.  Chaplin's talent is painfully obvious with each film he touches, but even the acting of the shopkeeper in this clip.... Chaplin needs a strong support in order for his part to work in this scene.  The facial expressions and gestures express the shopkeepers obvious frustration and confusion.  Without this, Chaplin is simply a tramp stealing food, right?

 

3)  This scene and those like it build a strong foundation for the visual aspect of slapstick comedy.  The definition of slapstick includes that strong violent, over-the-top and exaggerated physical component.  Where better to begin developing that genre than in the exclusively visual silent film era?  The roots of slapstick are deeply seated in clips such as the one here in Dose of Doozy #2.

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1. Modern comedy has so many other props, music, sets, costumes, and the need for continuous narrative, but the rich narrative of the silent era were intense and brief. It also required viewers to watch very closely, and uninterrupted. After all, you can cut into an episode of Seinfeld and also check your mail or play Words with Friends. You cannot do that with Chaplin or Keaton. You must watch closely. Obviously, this was known to them consciously, so to keep viewers viewing, the very good actors and directors worked at creating scene, narrative, stunt/spectacle, and also appeals to emotion (love that sausage eating dog) to keep us interested for 6-12 minutes. 90 minute comedies have to keep the gags going. Also, in skit comedy, like SNL, where the skits can be short, we also know the skits are hit and miss, sometimes for seasons, and it's not until you get the right actors and writers together that it all works. After all, how many actors did these stunts silent film? We are only watching the best. Until we get to Groucho.

 

2. I believe in narrative. Narrative, that is fluid, recognizable, and comes to a natural conclusion is always pleasing. Also, the characterization of the Tramp is nice, even when he's doing naughty things. Plus there's a bit with the dog. I sort of felt a bit of sympathy for the food vendor. He's obviously not rich either. But it was great when the cop gets hit with the skillet, not Tramp. So, timing is also important in this scene. 

 

3. A "gag" like this, or I prefer the term "skit", informs future comedy in at least two ways. As I said before, even though this is quite short, there is a clear narrative with precise timing. As they say, timing is everything. In addition, there is a clear vision of characterization. So, often in our "modern" comedies, we have "stock" characters. The crazy but clueless dad, the moody teenager, the drunk party girl, the bachelor party, the bachelorette party, strangers thrown together to create a farce and they become a true family in the end. We can all think of many, many examples with these characters in them. So we don't have "the tramp", but all of can think of movies that have supposed "losers" who triumph in the end. Chaplin made the tramp a genius. But Louis CK, Homer Simpson, Tina Fey, all adapt personas that are very familiar to all who watch. CHaplin just did it first, and arguably, best. 

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1. I would agree with the assessment that there is a visual component missing from today's comedies that were present in earlier comedies. Physicality in comedy has gone through a rigorous transformation, and I for one, miss that interactive physical comedies of the greats. You just don't see comic actors like Chaplin or the Marx Bros. in today's comedic offerings. Timing and pacing has undergone drastic changes in modern comedy and I think that is largely what is missing.

 

2. In addition to the camera placement in the middle distance, what also makes today's video effective as a visual comedy is the musical accompaniment. The music changes drastically from when the audience is introduced to the Little Tramp. That music changes the way we perceive Chaplin's character and almost acts as a character itself providing cues to the action on screen. 

 

3. A gag like this, with its brilliant on-screen execution, is essential to the history of slapstick comedy. With film at the beginning of the medium's history, it was necessary to film great gags like this and show the humor in the most basic of situations. There could be no jumping off point if it weren't for gags like this that show how to film comedic situations and how to execute physical comedy.

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

I finally figured out a way to watch the clips from home, and so I can now comment! 

I think the beauty of this early silent film scene was its pure simplicity.  Before sound and voices were added, the viewer had more connection with the characters, as they could imagine what was being said, and what the character might of sounded like.  Without voice, the viewer must give his/her full attention for risk of missing something.  Social issues of the time are evident even in this clip, just as social issues are a factor in today's comedies.  And the comedy reflects how much information and technology the viewers are exposed to.  What's missing in today's comedies is what's missing in the golden  classics - today our senses are bombarded, but then our senses could take in each moment.  Now, there is too much visual "noise." 

Only the essentials are used to convey the message in this clip.  There are no tongue-in-cheek add-ins, or secondary scenes going on.

Music is in sync with the plot, defining the mood of each moment.  It almost speaks saying: oh-oh or awe or yikes or shame-shame, etc. The clip starts out with fast-paced, "busy" music.  The music changes to violin and harp when the Tramp and his dog enter the scene.

The dog:  Why the dog?  The Tramp is stealing from the vendor and that should make him a bad character, but when I see that he has a dog and shows it affection, then I can't help but like the Tramp.  The close-up of the dog playing with his leash, reminds me of eating and hunger.  But the dog is not just a prop, he is a secondary character, the Tramp's friend.

The vendor seems like a hard-worker, trying to keep his business going.  He's not really the antagonist to me, but as there is conflict between the thieving Tramp and the cake-losing vendor, who shall I decide is the antagonist?  It is only when the vendor gives the poor dog a nasty look that I decide he is the antagonist.  Then, a third character appears - the cop who ups the stakes.

The pan:  It is almost always in the vendor's hand.  I see foreshadow - that the pan will be the prop used to hit the Tramp in the end.... but no..... all along, there is the swinging sausage, going tick-tock-tick-tock throughout the scene.  I am surprised then, when it is the sausage that the vendor grabs to hit the Tramp. 

There is a moment where all three characters (not dog) are in the frame, the cop in his own little frame in the background.  Like a scene looking in on a scene.

This scene is in itself has a beginning, a middle and an end.  The Tramp enters from the right and exits to his right... like in almost every movie, then end scene is where the beginning scene started.  Coming full circle kind of thing.  The action is physical, the need is defined (the hunger), the protagonist takes action, there's a confrontation, there's a resolution - just like Syd Field has defined in the Foundations of Screenwriting.  The formula is complete in this clip.

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1. I'm not sure if this is what Canby has in mind, but it seems to me that silent film in general demands a whole lot more attention from the audience. We are encouraged to look harder at the screen to follow what's going on and how the characters are feeling towards one another. In slapstick, this attention is rewarded by the climaxes of the gags. The greater investments in attention tend to yield bigger payoffs in humor. We feel the suspense of the scene even more keenly as the cook tries to catch the tramp in the act of stealing food. When we first glimpse the cop, we ourselves choke just a bit on that piece of cake the tramp has shoveled into his mouth a second before. Because our eyes are so glued on him, our gullets and our gut feelings are invested in him as well. Watching these movies is more visceral for me. And I think it's because of the concentration that they demand.

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As said by Vincent Canby, I agree that recent comedy movies depict comedy scenes with gruesome and violent antics which may deter us from watching the movies further. But, the Silent Movie comedies relied mostly on the body language and gestures of the actors and comedians. The set of the small pastry pavilion was the main element for this scene and the actors (Charlie Chaplin and his half brother Syd Chaplin) along with the cute dog were the main characters in the scene. This scene is well-known even today.

 

 

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Charlie is the  master.  Aside from the "heart" that Dr. Gehring mentions, Charlie has a fluidity of movement and a delicate touch that others seem to lack.  There is something lyrical about the way he moves. It just flows.  I am loving the rest:  Buster Keaton, W. C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and especially the Marx Brothers. But Charlie is in a class by himself.  

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I agree with Canby's point of view. As we can see on the selected clip, there are few editing cut points on the sequence. All the narrative perspective is based on a set where we can watch clearly all the elements we need in order to have an appropriate understanding of the gag. And it is just as funny as a 'modern' movie with a lot of cuts. Sometimes it feels that the lack of ability on today's comedians make them need to overcut the movie just to make thins work artificially.

 

Besides the middle-distance camera, we have all important elements placed near the center of the screen (the guy at the lunch-wagon, the cakes and even the mirror). So as spectators we watch all the action with no doubt on what we should look at. The acting is exaggerated from beggining to the end, from both characters (visual expressions, movements, etc). One last intersting aspect is that we have both characters in different levels. Chapllin is on the street, so the guy is almost a threatening authority once he looks him from the above all the time. Chaplin is here challenging his authority.

 

A gag so well-done like this one contributes greatly with slapstick comedy once the standards are much heightened from this point on. Chaplin's control of the character, the props, the situation and the general execution is nothing less than fantastic, and an inspiration for generations to come. The clip also shows us how it is possible to develop a relatively simple narrative with common elements, that do not demand great scenario like Keaton's movies, for example. The power of it is on actnig and constructing a efficient situation. Brilliant!

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1)To a certain extent, yes I agree. There is something universal about pantomime I think. You could show this same clip all over the world and have it completely understood. That being said, however, if you look at a screwball comedy like my man godfrey, there is value in the ability to use dialogue to really punch a comedic point. 

2)I thought syd chaplin's facial expressions were what really made the gag work. In a lot of comedy sequences, it's not just the comedian who matters. Particularly in a sequence like that, you needed his reactions to really put the scene in perspective.

3) It showed how simple you can go with a set up. Essentially you had two guys and a plate. They didn't need an out of control pie throwing contest or anything of that sort, just  a plate. 

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I know the hunger is part of the character, but I'm occupied with how much/long/often I've watched Chaplin try to score something to eat.  The handwork in the gag, reminiscent of a three-shell game, connotes the con and demonstrates how adept the Tramp is at stealing, but we can never fault him.  It's food, after all, and always from a bigger man with a bigger mustache.  

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I loved Chaplin's choreography of stealing-eating-hiding-pretending cake situation! Of course it was one of the primitive gags that made cinema history but I would like to add something here apart from comedy that was the built of the character. The character in this film was poor living in an urban environment and he was the "outcast" of a modern industrial society that was expanding. The people in general were a mass of moving figures that were hiding in the traffic of the streets, none knew them. All I'm trying to say is that Chaplin through the slapstick comedy gags he touched our inner souls and he showed us the other part of the city, the part where thieves, tramps, poor workers were fighting to make their livingunder the tall skysrapers of the big and steamy metropolis. The character here was starving, he didn't have the money to pay so he stole the food. It is comic but dramatic. Wonderful film!

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3. What do you think a gag like this and its brilliant on-screen execution contributes to the history of slapstick comedy? You have to look at all that went into this performance. How many takes did it take to get it right? How many cakes did Chaplin actually ingest? Was the timing between Chaplin and the chef always spot on? It's perfection because it appears flawless and all in one take. Actors today have the luxury of many takes and filming from different angles. I think that luxury though robs them of the incredibly difficult task of conquering comedic timing. I think comedic timing is harder to master than dramatic acting

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I did not feel this bit was that funny. It seemed too long. I can tell this was during Chaplin's Sennet days. He had yet to fully develop his style.

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    In 1989, Vincent Canby, in a  New York Times  tribute to Chaplin, wrote the following about this scene from the movie, “A Dog’s Life” (1918):

 

      “Charlie’s camera sits unmoving, . . . in the middle distance at an outdoor cake stand.  The camera does not cut away.  [by this] Chaplin is not intending to instruct the audience on the benefits of a full-figure framing . . . [it] came naturally to a performer in Music Hall . . . 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.”

 

      I agree, in general, that the cinematic simplicity of early movies is preferable to the modern-day approach of frequent, almost frenetic, changing of camera position, focus and angle.   That said, Canby seems to mis-characterize the nature of the camera work in this clip.  The middle distance shots may be static, but there are seven cuts to close-ups in less than three minutes.  Several of them cut between the dog (Scraps) and the proprietor (Sydney Chaplin) to great effect.  At any given point, the camera is static , but overall, the camerawork is more dynamic than Canby claims.  ”Hoosierwood made this point in an earlier post (10 Sept 2016):    “I don't believe that this was done in ‘one take’. To do this you would need multi (sic) cameras. Was that done in silent days? I don't think so. Starts with a wide shots then medium shot for the cart, then a shot of Charlie. Some close ups the dog, Syd and the cop. With one camera this takes changing the lens and moving the camera. Not one take.”  Canby’s ultimate point is well taken, but his argument is hyperbolic.

 

     Beyond the middle-distance camera, several elements add to the effectiveness of the visual comedy in this scene.  The set design, using the cart to elevate the Proprietor (Syd Chaplin) above the level of the Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin), emphasizes the social difference between them.  The open window in back of the cart that the cop looks through is effectively placed.  The costume of the Little Tramp labels him a pauper and further emphasizes the social gap between them.  His outfit announces his poverty and probable starvation, thus explaining or “justifying” his theft.  Syd Chaplin’s acting (and mugging for the camera) heightens the humor of the scene.  His  use of the frying pan throughout the scene, and his surprise choice of the large sausage as a “weapon” that he uses to mistakenly hit the cop show how props can add to a gag.  And, perhaps the most important prop/actor is the dog (Scraps).  The Little Tramp’s association with the dog, further softens his character and makes him more sympathetic, even as he commits petty theft.

As an aside, this kind of emotional manipulation of the audience (the use of dogs and children) so irritated W. C. Fields that he made sure his many screen personas declared their hatred of both dogs and children.

 

     A gag like this made a significant contribution to the history of slapstick comedy by presenting a study in the importance of comedic timing:  Though the basic premise is simple, the gag is extended and made more complicated through the precise choreography of the Chaplin brothers working in opposition to each other.  Their timing is perfect; every time Syd looks away, Charlie steals another cake.  As the gag progresses, the oppositional dance becomes more involved.  This kind of scene demonstrated that comedy did not have to be limited to quick, isolated gags; It could be extended through time and integrated into the context of a story.

                                                                         

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What a grub! It's funny but it's also rude. I love it. Like you see the contrast between the Tramp and the busy chef cooking but what about the poor hungry dog? Doesn't he get a bite to eat too?

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