Stage 6: Random ancillary academic treatises

I know a fair few of my readers are LGBT allies and/or queer culture critics, so I thought I'd have a go at covering this.

Chaplin gets a mention in a lot of early histories of queer cinema just for the fact that he was writing gags that turned on implied homosexuality back in the nineteen-teens, before such things were commonly committed to film. Then he gets another one for being one of the few writers who didn't end them all with someone asserting the status quo by beating the tar out of the sissyboy. There are dozens and dozens of these things that I still haven't seen, but the ones I've caught so far are based on the general principle of "humans do some damn stupid things sometimes" and not particularly any more disparaging or insulting than any of the gags based on people doing damn stupid heterosexual things, which are basically all of them.

One may ask if perhaps Chaplin decided to start writing these particular gags into his shorts in order to scandalize people. One may rest assured that if Chaplin were attempting to piss someone off, one would not need to ask. Nobody ever has to inquire about, say, The Great Dictator, which was specifically meant to poke Hitler right in the eye, or Monsieur Verdoux, which was evidently Chaplin's effort to start every conceivable stupid argument with the censor board and win. His subtlety was reserved for his actual acting. If he wrote it into a scene, it's there first and foremost because he thought it was funny. Studios did not take out things he put in -- nor put back in things he took out, particularly after the time one of them decided to re-cut one of Chaplin's films after he left them, and he was so absolutely apoplectic about them touching one of his babies that he managed to make his displeasure known immediately, despite being two or three states away at the time.

I mentioned one of the gags before, from a 1916 short called "A Woman":

Starts about halfway through, when the tramp parts ways with his trousers and flees upstairs.

This actually caught my attention at the time primarily because I thought it was hilarious. I don't normally. Bloke-in-a-dress isn't inherently funny to me, as it apparently is to many people -- guys-fall-for-bloke-in-a-dress isn't either, primarily because usually said bloke makes such a(n intentionally) hideous girl that the joke essentially becomes "men are indiscriminately horny morons". Humor-wise, this is about on par with "women and shopping, amirite?" and observations on the quality of airline food.

In this case, the gag starts veering right around the time the tramp starts eyeing the dress and looks like he thinks this might be a good idea after all. It's not a case of having to put on something because it's an emergency and he can't flee the house in his underpants -- nobody followed him upstairs, and there are other rooms he could look in. Wrestling with the damn thing is funny because hell, I think women's clothes are full of inscrutable hidden hooks and fasteners, and I wear them daily. (The thing he pads the front with is a pincushion -- probably not obvious to people who don't embroider.) And it really takes an unusual turn when the girl he's sweet on sees him out in the hallway. She's surprised but not horrified -- traditionally, whoever finds the hero in drag either freaks out, because bloke in a dress!, or if the script is particularly stupid mistakes him for a strange woman who has mysteriously appeared in the house -- and the two of them actually play with it for a bit before she offers to help him by finding him some nicer shoes.

I would find this gag much funnier if it went this way more often. Honestly.

Customarily, whoever gets stuffed into a dress for this is supposed to wear it incredibly badly, to the point where whoever ends up chasing him around the table is clearly in desperate need of eyeglasses, haw haw haw. I would like to point out here that, by panto standards, the tramp actually passes exceedingly well, once he gets rid of the moustache. Traditional pantomime has a lot of strictly-gendered movement cues, which came about historically because it was illegal to put women on the stage (long story. long stupid story.) and the actors needed a quick way to tell an entire theater full of people which of the company's teenage boys were playing the female parts, and which ones were playing teenage boys. At first, the tramp shuffles along in his usual way, or as close to it as he can get in a hobble skirt, but once he comes down the stairs and is genuinely trying to fool someone, his movements are full-on panto-lady. Come into the action part way through and it is not particularly obvious that there is a bloke in the dress. The main giveaway is that some of the gags involve moments of physical indignity that a director of the day would not have asked of an actual actress.

At the end, the tramp has clearly won the heart of the lady who actually owns the dress he's in, but her father chucks him out of the house, livid over being fooled. A pretty typical ending for these; occasionally the tramp gets the girl, but mostly he ends up chased out of town, a prototypical case of the "status quo is God" format of a lot of modern sitcoms.

Another one mentioned in a couple of references is "Behind the Screen" (1916):

The basic plot is that Edna, the heroine, is so desperate for work she disguises herself as a boy and gets hired at the movie studio where the tramp works. Various shenanigans ensue. She makes a reasonably convincing young man in panto terms; she remembers to plod instead of mince. Around the 13:30 mark, Edna-the-boy sits down backstage and starts plonking on a guitar, and the tramp, hanging around the background, perks up and starts paying "him" an awful lot of attention. She makes the mistake of powdering her face a few moments later and the tramp notices -- ambiguously, either he concludes she's a she and starts flirting with her, or concludes that "he's" strikingly effeminate and starts either flirting or teasing "him" about it.

When her hair falls out from under her hat -- traditional panto-code for "girl! girl right here! girl in disguise!" going all the way back to Shakespeare and probably further -- he definitely realizes that she's a she, and starts stealing kisses. (Side note: That's a lot of kisses for 1916. Chaplin and the lady, Edna Purviance, were getting involved IRL, which is probably why.) When the chief stagehand finds them, he starts up what looks remarkably like Homer Simpson's hand-flapping mocking-things dance. Usually these sorts of things end with someone getting the snot beat out of them for the misunderstanding. This one ends when the tramp boots him in the backside -- shorthand for "tramp: 1; supporting character: 0" in these things, there being no really good way to get a last word in, in a silent film. He doesn't do any jabbering or arm waving indicating an attempt to explain that she's a girl; he's just tired of the blithering.

What Chaplin thought about any of this personally is lost to history. I can't find any record of anyone asking him, nor of anyone asking his kids about it. The fact that it wound up in his films says that he thought it wasn't so verboten a topic he couldn't joke about it, and the fact that the implication of homosexuality wasn't automatically answered with a beating suggests that it didn't strike him as something that had to always be punished on-screen to make a point. There is no mention of any opinion on the topic in his autobiography. This doesn't necessarily mean he didn't have one; 1964 was late enough for him to vent about fascism and the Red Scare, but not quite late enough that you could talk about gay people above a whisper or in polite company. Errol Flynn ventured an opinion in his book -- IIRC, it was roughly that as long as you didn't try to get him involved, he didn't care -- but he's the only one I've seen write anything about homosexuality that wasn't condemning it, or at least making fun of it, before probably the 1980s.

[There's not much mention of his own love life either, for that matter. At one point he actually breaks off to give an aside to the effect of 'I understand many of you are waiting for that part of the autobiography wherein I talk about sex. Tough. It's my book and there are about nine million other things I find much more interesting to write about. Assume I've had some and I'm going to go back to talking about movies.' I thought this was beyond hilarious, and kind of charmingly cantankerous.]

It's possible that Chaplin had some strong opinions in defense of the gay community that he just didn't think he could get away with printing, but I think it's more likely it just never really occurred to him to think about it at all. He was, in general, a very big fan of telling both the Nazis and the HUAC to take their manifestos and stow them in some anatomically-unlikely locations. I do know that the answer he gave when people asked him about being a Jew or a Communist was something a lot like, 'I'm not -- which you would know if you paid attention for two whole seconds -- and I still don't understand why you think this is an acceptable reason to be brutal to other people.'