Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pioneers Making History: Criterion's Release of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps & Chaplin's The Gold Rush

A few years ago, when I was working on my book Artificial Paradise, about the dark side of The Beatles' utopian dream, I was speaking to a friend who was a clerk in a Toronto music store. In the midst of our conversation about my work, he described to me his own experience hearing The Beatles' music. "The first album I really discovered was Revolver," he told me. "Then I went back to With The Beatles and later found Rubber Soul." What was jarring, of course, was that he began his quest with one of their later 1966 albums, arguably their best, before jumping back to their second record in 1963, a fiercely eclectic songbook primer of hard rock, balladry and R&B, before landing in 1965 on the band's most radical reinterpretation of American rhythm and blues and folk. What startled me most was his seemingly arbitrary dance through history. And it left me wondering how he could ever begin to make sense of it.

For me, I had heard those records as they were being released so the history was clear. I followed each new innovation as a daring, breathtaking leap into this future that was always in the process of being imagined. For him, being much younger, it was all about looking back. Therefore he had to create some new way to hear what that history was, maybe even figure out why it happened in the way it did, and perhaps discover his own way to understand why it mattered. What he did was create his own context for hearing the music, a means to escape the official history which had by then become received wisdom rather than fresh experience. By scrambling time, he made The Beatles music seem new again. He felt as if this great music had finally been freed from the pedigree of its own history.

Alfred Hitchcock directing The 39 Steps

Recently watching Alfred Hitchcock's cleverly entertaining and satisfying 1935 spy thriller The 39 Steps and Charlie Chaplin's comedic gem The Gold Rush (1925), newly re-released in sparkling remastered DVD prints by Criterion, I thought back on that conversation with the clerk. Like him with The Beatles, I didn't live through the era of Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin. Both artists were already legendary by the time I was old enough to even go to the movies. So how could I possibly experience their work as it was first seen by audiences? (A friend of mine once lamented that he regretted not being able to see Robert Altman's Nashville with fresh eyes. How could he, he complained, when he had already read all the many reviews that gave it a certain stature before he ever got to lay his own receptors on it?)  By the time I saw my first Hitchcock picture, he was already regarded as the Master of Suspense. Charlie Chaplin was firmly established as the personification of the Little Tramp, an iconic figure who was hanging on posters proudly in people's bedrooms. Their reputations seemed larger than the work they created.

Charlie Chaplin directing The Gold Rush

But watching these two early pictures, you can still catch a glimpse of their innocent sense of daring, combined with a cheeky desire to push audiences into new considerations of what the pleasures of discovery can truly be like. In part, their boldness grew out of working in the early years of the medium. Pioneers like Chaplin and Hitchcock were two of the first major directors to build bridges from the silent world into the early days of sound. So the stakes were already high even before they even had a chance to reconcile whether they were artists or commercial entertainers (or perhaps both). In The Gold Rush, Chaplin solidified the image of the Little Tramp in the public's imagination, but he also further developed that aspect of pathos that set him apart from his contemporaries. If Buster Keaton's genius lay in contrasting his physically robust comedy with that deadpan aplomb, Chaplin walked a more delicate tightrope between the cruelty of slapstick and pure expressions of human empathy. In his early years, he often played human weakness, but not as a display of self-pity. Chaplin made us laugh by showing us how to accept our basic vulnerabilities. He did so by contrasting those sensitivities with men who took refuge from vulnerability in their hulking physiques. (This is why Chaplin would be such a keen inspiration for Woody Allen in the late Sixties and early Seventies when Allen's shaggy comedy parodied the beefcake stereotypes that until then were seen to personify strength.)

Chaplin's shoes for dinner
In The Gold Rush, however, Chaplin positioned the harmless Tramp not only against the brutality of men, but also against the uncompromising elements. The story, inspired by the cannibalistic horrors of the Donner party, takes place during the viciously harsh Klondike Gold Rush where the fierce weather ultimately strands Chaplin in a remote cabin with another prospector Big Jim (the hulking Mack Swain) and an escaped fugitive (Tom Murray) who's fighting paranoia and cabin fever. When the fugitive departs, the Tramp and Big Jim fight hunger and the deep freeze just to stay alive. Those moments of desperation end up invoking a couple of the movie's most boldly funny scenes: in one, they are so starved that the Tramp boils his shoes to create leather steaks and turn his shoelaces into strands of spaghetti; the other, when Jim in a fit of starvation becomes so delusional he sees the hapless Tramp as a tasty fowl to be consumed. While the obvious comedy in those scenes come out of the stark contrast between the mammoth Jim and the diminutive Tramp, the deeper sources of humour come more from our recognition that the seemingly helpless Tramp has both the ingenuity to both fend off Jim, and the will to survive. His strength doesn't come from his size but rather from his smarts.

Chaplin the chicken as food for Big Jim

Chaplin's romantic sense is also more sweetly distilled and more touchingly unassuming in The Gold Rush than it would be later in his career. The Tramp falls in love with Georgia (Georgia Hale) a dance hall singer who already has a boyfriend, Jack Cameron (Malcolm Waite), but her man is largely a macho pain. Again, the Tramp barely measures up to Jack physically, but he woes Georgia away with his silly charm. In Chaplin's skilful hands, comedy doesn't just deliver laughs but also reveals hidden shadings of romantic pining expressed in a soft-shoe style. (The Gold Rush also contains numerous examples of ingenious comedy  from the famous dance of the dinner rolls to the see-saw cabin on the edge of a cliff  and affecting moments such as the Tramp and Georgia dancing in the bar with only a rope to hold the Tramp's pants up; the rope, of course, also being a leash attached to a huge dog that reluctantly spins with the couple.)

The concluding kiss in the 1925 The Gold Rush
While the story's end brings the Tramp his first touch of wealth, where he can finally shed his trademark hobo clothes for fancier duds, it's clear that his real treasure is Georgia. On a ship with Big Jim and Georgia, the Tramp takes her up on the bow where two photographers wish to take a picture of them kissing. Besides the inspiring touch of the moment, a tender reckoning of romantic fulfilment, what the ending also reveals is a wistfully funny look at the passing of an old technology and the emergence of a new one. When the photographers attempt to take their prize shot, they fail to get the picture in a moment of slapstick clumsiness. So they try again. But the Tramp waves his hand towards them, swooshing them away, as he continues to embrace and kiss his true love. It's the movie camera that captures the moment, not the photographers. In that scene, Chaplin seems to be saying that it's the movies, this new emerging art, that will capture the romantic hearts of moviegoers in ways that a photograph just can't express.

One of the sheer joys of the complete restored version of the 1925 version of The Gold Rush (originally done with painstaking skill in 1990 by Kevin Brownlow and Dave Gill and now undertaken by the Criterion Collection with Cineteca Bologna's L'Immagine Ritrovata) is that it finally renders Chaplin's 1942 version (with his added narration and unfortunate cuts to the story) as superfluous. (The DVD however contains both the 1925 and the 1942 versions.) I'm sure that Chaplin's desire to re-release The Gold Rush in 1942 to a new audience in the era of sound was done with good intentions. After all, he was seeing if his silent classic could still be relevant to a then contemporary audience. But Chaplin was no longer the comic genius he was in 1925. Once Chaplin learned to talk in sound movies, many of his pictures (Limelight, The Great Dictator) became increasingly chatty and cultivated moral tales. More often than not, they also dripped with morose sentimentality (and self-pity). While the 1942 The Gold Rush still contains many of the great scenes of the original (and it's finally projected at the proper speed), the narration unfortunately steals away the nuances of desperation that underlined the original. More significantly, Chaplin also removed the final scene of the kiss which douses the romantic spirit that The Gold Rush was always celebrated for.

Madeleine Carroll & Robert Donat chained together
Recently screenwriter/director Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo, Personal Best) told film critic Michael Sragow that "all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps.” While in very basic terms that may be true, Towne elaborated even further. "[M]ost ‘pure’ movie thrillers, especially when you think of Hitchcock, are either fantasies fulfilled or anxieties purged," he explained. "The 39 Steps is one of the few, if not the only one, that does both at the same time. He puts you into this paranoid fantasy of being accused of murder and being shackled to a beautiful girl – of escaping from all kinds of harm, and at the same time trying to save your country, really. A Hitchcock film like Psycho is strictly an anxiety purge. The 39 Steps gives you that and the fantasy fulfilled. It’s kind of a neat trick, really.”

The 39 Steps turns out indeed to be something of a pretty neat trick because what it also does is completely overturn our chief attraction to espionage fiction: the more we know, the more we'll figure out the solution to the mystery. Although Hitchcock does give you plenty of plot in this ingenious thriller, it doesn't come from any basic desire (like most spy thrillers) to solve it. In fact, you barely remember what the fuss was all about when it's over. We remember instead the excitement of the chase, the wit of the suspense, the sexual allure of the lead characters. What was perhaps shocking and bold about Hitchcock's approach to this material was how he used the plot merely as a frame from within which he could turn our expectations inside out. (This may be one reason why he departed from John Buchan's novel substantially in a number of ways. What the actual 39 Steps are, which is explained quite explicitly in the book, is never indicated in the film; only the clandestine organization behind it is ever mentioned. And barely mentioned at that.)

Lucie Mannheim & Robert Donat

The story begins with Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian having a night out in a British music hall where the photographic powers of "Mr. Memory" (Wylie Watson) are being demonstrated from the stage. "Mr. Memory" can answer any question posed to him from the audience including, as it turns out, information deemed to be kept secret. After a fight breaks out and shots are fired, Hannay meets Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) in the aftermath of the panic while everyone is scrambling to get out. She tells him that she is a spy being chased by a group of assassins who know that she's uncovered a plot to steal military secrets. Their mastermind is a Professor Jordan (Godfrey Teale) who is located in the hills of Scotland and can be recognized by the top joint missing from one of his fingers. While she tells him of "the 39 steps," she doesn't tell him what it is. To protect her, he has her stay the night at his place, but she turns up dead by morning and he is on the run as the suspect in her murder. 

Donat, John Laurie & Peggy Ashcroft
When Hitchcock made The 39 Steps he talked about providing "good healthy, mental shake-ups" for audiences through "artificial means." But if the means were artificial, the shake-ups are real. They were also filled with the perverse fun of continually having the rug pulled out from under the need to have answers. (I have yet to find anyone able to explain credibly how the spies actually got into Hannay's apartment to kill Annabella. But who cares?) By the time Hannay is literally handcuffed to Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), yet another innocent bystander who ultimately comes to fall in love with him, we have pretty much forgotten the significance of "Mr Memory." Information isn't knowledge. What does linger as something approaching dramatic depth, however, is Hitchcock's portrayal of the Scottish farming couple that Hannay hides with before being chained to Pamela. The farmer (John Laurie), and his younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft) who hide him, are more deeply misbegotten than the contrived pairing of Hannay and Pamela. When the wife speaks to Richard of the world outside and what freedom there is to find, she speaks from a jail cell of the spirit from which she knows she'll never be free. (The farm couple here create reverberating echoes of a similar pairing later of R.G. Armstrong's Joshua Knudsen and his daughter Elsa played by Mariette Hartley in Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country where the dynamic was also filled with a Biblical retribution.) 

Of course, you can see elements of The 39 Steps in many other Hitchcock films to follow from the inferior Saboteur (1942) to the entertaining North by Northwest (1959). But The 39 Steps has a freshness all its own because it hasn't turned into its own formula yet. Hitchcock's impulses in this movie feel both impudent and intuitive as if he had yet to become a master at his own game. He was still in the process of discovering it. Both Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin would cast large shadows across film history, in many ways, due to the high quality of these two pictures. Watching them again, you can feel the excitement of territory opening up to many possible frontiers. But the price of that acclaim also made it impossible for both men to truly escape their own shadow.

(*The Gold Rush comes in a special two-DVD special edition. Disc one has a new high definition restoration of the 1942 version, plus the reconstructed original 1925 film in 5.1 surround sound. It also uses a newly recorded adaptation of Chaplin's original score from the 1942 picture. There's a new audio commentary for the 1925 film by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. Disc two features three engaging programs including Presenting The Gold Rush which has filmmaker Kevin Brownlow and Jeffrey Vance discussing the restoration of the 1925 original; A Time of Innovation: Visual Effects in The Gold Rush with effects specialist Craig Barron and Chaplin cinematographer Roland Totheroh; and Music by Charles Chaplin, featuring conductor and composer Timothy Brock; Chaplin Today: The Gold Rush is a short documentary by filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo. The Gold Rush DVD also contains a new essay on the film by critic Luc Sante as well as James Agee's review in The Nation of the 1942 release.*)

(*The 39 Steps simply shimmers in its new high-definition digital restoration. The disc also includes audio commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane. There's a 2000 documentary, Hitchcock: The Early Years, which covers his prewar career in Britain, plus a fascinating interview with Hitchcock from a 1966 television program conducted by British broadcaster Mike Scott. You can hear the complete 1937 broadcast of The 39 Steps starring Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino which was done for the Lux Radio Theatre and there are also audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut's 1962 interviews with Hitchcock. The disc also contains a lively and insightful essay on the film by Scottish writer and filmmaker David Cairns.*)

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.       

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