The boy

Image_Hans Hofmann


Reflections on Charlie Chaplin's centenary film.

This will be a decade to celebrate many centenaries dear to cinema, a pretext to review films that we watch even without needing a pretext, but we found them to make new visits to the classics an obligation. Last year it was the turn of caligari, from Wiene, next year it will be the turn of Nosferatu, by Murnau. Caught between these two symphonies of horror, in 2021 we celebrate the centenary of The boy “a film with a smile – and maybe a tear” (the maybe is purely rhetorical, because the tear is sure).

The 1920s were definitive to show the artistic potential of this medium born in factories. Despite this, if there was anyone in the cinematographic universe who had already achieved the glory of the recognition of his artistic genius, that someone was Charles Chaplin.

For an academic like myself, the traits constituting Chaplin's genius were already everywhere in the theoretical and critical literature prior to The boy. Still, it's interesting to find The Photoplay a professor of psychology at Harvard University – therefore, a well-recognized intellectual among his peers – taking his first steps in cinema and already in 1915 – that is, in Chaplin’s second year as a film artist – recognizing the differential and superiority of this movie maker. As André Bazin pointed out decades after Munsterberg – author of The Photoplay –, without having read it, this is the period in Chaplin’s cinema of the great gags, but of a Carlitos still little developed in his psychology.

Carlitos' psychology develops in tandem with Chaplin's authorial self-assurance, each time he explores social and political contradictions with this dandy, half gentleman, half bum, as an actor. By the way, this feature of Chaplin as a director yielded a beautiful film revisiting Chaplin's work last year, Charlie Chaplin, the genius of freedom, by Yves Jeuland.

Not only did politics embody the persona of this creator's canvases, his biographical traits also helped to paint scenarios and situations, moving a Carlitos initially closer to luxury hotels to the poor neighborhoods and commercial centers of cities, places where a Tramp like him more and more he incorporated his role as a marginal ready to take the center of the action.

Like this The boy is usually remembered as this great play where social criticism and the biography of its director collude. Here is a good formula for justifying Chaplin as a Author, as later generations would insist. All titles are perfectly fair. The film has many themes, class struggle, motherhood, the role of state security, but it is also interesting to note the mastery of the treatment given to so many heavy subjects in a brief way that never sounds “pregatory”. On the contrary, the flow of the story bringing one event after another creates a continuing commotion that makes its themes a universal issue. We understand all shocks not because we understand them, but because we feel them, the understanding is for a later moment of debate on internet sites, in bar chairs, or in classroom debates.

Illustrative of all this is the beginning of the film, narrating the story that will lead to the abandonment of the child. The Mother, in a touching performance by Edna Purviance, appears first with her baby in her arms behind bars. She was not in prison and this is not a prison, but motherhood aimed at poor single women like her carries the atmosphere of a prison for delinquent women whose crime is motherhood. Passing in front of a church on an aimless pilgrimage, the Mother sees a party celebrating a marriage.

She is saddened by the scene, her gaze is analogous to that of paintings of saints, and this does not go unnoticed by Chaplin who assembles a composition showing, through the stained glass window of the church behind the Mother, her sanctity for the miracle of having brought life to the world. Does this last sentence sound too Christian? In fact, however, the use of Christian imagery will be recurrent in this film. One of the most famous is the cut between the Mother and a Christ carrying the cross, a sequence that we could point to as a predecessor to the cutting of the sheep/workers in Modern times, so often linked to Eisenstein's montage methods.

The story of a broken couple, whose love resulted in the child that the Mother is now carrying in her arms, is summarized by a few brief moments that do not give reasons for the couple to break up, but only demarcate feelings of a still existing passion kept in silence, followed by a melancholy feeling. The father is a poor painter, working in some dilapidated attic. He still keeps his wife's photo over the fireplace as a reminder of better times. Trying to light a smoke, he accidentally drops the photograph into the embers. The paper burns, the memory of passion has been tainted. As if there were no more precision for the present, as if memory itself had been extinguished by fire, the young painter throws the paper back into the flames so that this time it is actually consumed, returning to its present banality devoid of female presence.

I extend the contemplation of this couple's story because these moments mark Chaplin exercising his dramatic talent, which will be taken even further two years later, when he will launch A Woman of Paris (in Brazil released under the title wedding or luxury). The reasons for the union of these characters are almost nil. We understand them, off-screen, as a kind of extension of the author's representation of his parents. Also Chaplin's father and mother were artists, they didn't live together either. But in The boy, the abandonment of the baby entails a success with a bitter taste for both – and a hearty dish for psychoanalytic readings.

At a meeting of high society, at a later stage in the film, Chaplin makes these two characters meet. There are no accusations here, just regrets and longing. Questions arise in our onlooker's mind: did he know she was pregnant? Had he abandoned her because he knew she was pregnant? Had he refused to marry her? All questions are left to speculation. During the projection of the film, what serves us best is the dialogue of emotions between two characters who are so conflicted.

So, the Mother leaves the baby in a car in front of a mansion in the expectation that the rich residents of the place will take the child as their own. In a twist, two villains typical of Chaplin's films from the years of apprenticeship in Mack Sennett's studios, appear. They steal the car without realizing the presence of the child in the back seat. They stop in a poor neighborhood to smoke, when they hear the child crying coming from the car. This is one of those moments that justifies the change in terminology from “silent cinema” to “silent cinema”. Despite the crying not being heard by the audience, it is part of the sound-image, as Luiz Manzano would say. The cuts from the image of the child crying to the image of the bandits reacting to the crying adds an audio track to the film, even in the absence of gadgets to record the child's crying.

The film's introduction marks the power of montage in creating this story. Bad guys' heavy makeup, trying to create dark hollows in their faces, was a look employed by comics when putting such a type in movies. It so happens that the image of the bandits abandoning the child in any alley, far from the mother, amidst the garbage cans, is charged with an anguishing sense when following the images of the mother in despair, returning to retrieve the child left in the car and discovering that he was taken, that his whereabouts will never be found again.

Unlike what will happen as soon as the character of Carlitos is introduced, which will abolish this more direct use of montage, the dramatic introduction of The boy it is mainly based on the emotional dialogue between two poles. The arrival of Carlitos on the scene is the passage to the open plan, giving space for the composition of the frame and movement within the set. After all, Carlitos is a dancer.

The plan clearly shows a sordid alley, with dirt and rubbish on the ground. Introducing the dynamics of the danger of being out of frame, garbage falls from the top of the building towards the street. Carlitos sees what happened and walks around the newly formed pile of garbage, continuing the walk with all his grace. Unexpectedly for him, another window further ahead, also out of frame, will get rid of the daily rubbish throwing it into the street, now hitting our old acquaintance squarely. Standing among dumpsters, cleaning up the rubbish he was attacked with, the Tramp discovers an abandoned baby. The dynamics so far have been clear, the unexpected comes from above. So when Carlitos takes the baby in his arms he can't help but look up, as if someone had accidentally mixed the child with the garbage.

What to do with the child? The new Carlitos, of psychological depth and complexity, is not capable of simply leaving her where she found him. Looking for someone to leave it with, maybe someone who already has a baby. Maybe not. The force of the law in the figure of a tall and serious policeman who makes Carlitos take a step back is curiously what also leads him to resignation. He finds among the child's clothes the object that will serve as a link between past and present: a note written by the Mother saying that it is an orphan child. Understanding loneliness well, Carlitos welcomes the baby, taking him home. When questioned at the hovel door, he replies that the child's name is "John".

As the years pass, we see Vagabundo's treatment of the baby, his affection for the child, who, grown up, becomes his work partner in one of the best-remembered scenes in the history of cinema. The boy, now five years old, throws stones at residential windows. Lucky for chance, Carlitos is passing in front of the residences, being able to repair them immediately. Much has been written about the brilliance of the young Jackie Coogan playing the child, as well as much has been reported about the father-son relationship in the scene. Skipping steps, I arrive at the moment of the Mother's first reunion with the abandoned child.

It had already been shown how the passage of years did good to the social status of the Mother, now an artist of fame and fortune. But something weighs on her conscience, forcing her to return to the poor neighborhoods to do charity work. She gives toys to the children who crowd around her, bringing a hitherto unheard-of smile to her face. For another mother with a child in her arms, in addition to the toy, she also gives a coin. It is a very suffering part of the city, where people have to go out of their way to get food. To the gags de Carlitos and son clearly show how much creative effort is needed to get the currency that guarantees the day's dinner.

Pulled away from the children, Mother's smile fades. You don't need an assembly feature to indicate what's going on. She remembers her abandoned baby, probably wondering where he could be. In a beautiful painting composition, the Mother sits on a sidewalk at the door of house 69. As there is an extra step to enter the house, the door appears high behind the Mother. As she gets lost in her daydreams, the door opens and the lost boy sits right behind. That frame within a frame serves as a sort of balloon displaying thoughts. In a lyrical image worthy of what Bergman will do decades later in his experiences crossing worlds of dreams and memories, a tear is made in the fabric of time uniting Mother and son once more.

The encounter between the two is touching. The exchange of simple glances, the affection of the woman who seems to see something else in the child presented with toys, an unspeakable thing that continues to bother her. As she walks away from the meeting place, her reaction differs from the reaction she had previously when in the company of the other children, as if something that connected the two had sounded inside her, but the lack of motherhood exercise made it difficult to understand what it would be .

Activate me for a longer time to remember the moments when Carlitos is not on the scene, but which demonstrates the wisdom of its creator in the construction of composition and filmic narration. His ability to tell stories on film was so easy, even when he does not appear on the scene, that this film was certainly a milestone for his transition to another more daring work within his filmography, the aforementioned A Woman of Paris.

As a pantomime artist, Chaplin dominates the stage, achieving the perfection of the rhythm of the moments and movement along the scenery – let us remember the iconic sequence of the run across the roofs, honored by Manoel de Oliveira in Aniki Bobo. As a film director, Chaplin demonstrates his mastery of cutting, of the sequence of shots in simultaneous situations in different places, and of frame composition, recognizing the importance of doors and windows as a way of reframing certain characters. Still, he knows the importance of sound for cinema, seeing its presence even in this silent period, thus demonstrating the completeness of cinema, not a lack – hence his obstinacy in surrendering to sound cinema.

We return to the scenes with descriptions that are also elongated to create another feeling of revisiting this classic. It wasn't necessary, but since we're here, let's review The boy?

*Yves Sao Paulo is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at UFBA. He is editor of the magazine Sisyphus and author of the book The metaphysics of cinephilia (Publisher Fi).


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