Monday, 23 July 2012

Burlesque on Carmen

Charlie Chaplin’s 13th Essanay film is loosely based on Georges Bizet’s famous opera Carmen and stars Chaplin as Darn Hosiery, a Spanish Officer on watch at a popular smuggling point. Local barman Lillas Pastia (Jack Henderson) persuades an attractive gypsy girl, Carmen (Edna Purviance) to distract the guard while they smuggle their goods. Despite having no interest in the man Carmen uses her charms to distract Hosiery who ends up in a love quartet for the gypsy’s heart.

Burlesque on Carmen is an above average Essanay picture and features some nice subtle comedy as well as the usual trips, kicks and pokes. It also features the first noticeably decent performance from Chaplin regular Edna Purviance.

Purviance who appeared in every one of Chaplin’s Essanay films and went on to appear in over thirty with the comedian over an eight year period had up to now, in my opinion, merely been a background prop for Chaplin to move about and turn his attention to when necessary. Often, through no fault of her own she would play characters with names such as ‘A Woman’, ‘Girl’ or ‘Maid’ but here as Carmen, with a proper fleshed out character, she shines. She is saucy and flirty yet firm and strong headed and is at the forefront of the story. It’s nice to see her finally come into her own.

What’s also nice is for Chaplin to take the action away from his traditional locations such as a house or park and transplant the plot to Spain. This gives him the excuse to try different sets and costumes, many of which add to the humour. He has great fun with a rather bushy military moustache and finds humour in his Uniform. The imagined heat of the Spanish sun also gives Edna Purviance a chance to show her face (and body), often hidden under bonnets and shawls. This is the first instance where I actually noticed the lightness of her hair as it is so often hidden from view. As I mentioned at the top there is a fair bit of subtle humour here to go along with the more obvious attempts. I loved how Chaplin slyly stole a beer and the looks he gave his fellow officer when trying to get ‘time alone’ with Purviance were fantastic.

For me the biggest laugh came when Chaplin is annoyed at a man blowing a horn. He carefully positions himself behind the man, lifts up the back of his tunic, unsheathes his sword, sharpens it, raises it above his head and then kicks him up the arse before returning the sword to its sheath. I loved the misdirection and patience of the joke. Overall I laughed out loud around five or six times which puts it towards the top of the Essanay films in that respect.  

The final few minutes are surprisingly dark, even for a comedian famed for his pathos. I was totally shocked by just how grim it was and was glad for the final reveal even if the relationship didn’t make much sense.     


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