The Italians love clowns, and have always had their own cinematic breed of capering fool. A hundred years ago, when Chaplin ruled the earth, comics like Cretinetti, Polidor and Arthème (a.k.a. Dupin, a.k.a. Polycarpe, a.k.a. Ernest Servaès, his real name) held their own in Europe.
Early Chaplin looks pretty crude compared to late Chaplin. The French and Italians, with the elegant exception of the great Max Linder, are kind of crude by any standards. But worth seeing: these comics are vigorous, rambunctuous and inventive. They're even, sometimes, funny. But that's not the main attraction to me. The past isn't another country. It's another planet. Cinema is a space and time machine that gives us glimpses of distant worlds, impossible to reach by other means.
These buffoons had their heyday before the great war, but lingered on in spectral form afterwards. Polidor was remembered by Fellini and cast in Toby Dammit as an old actor receiving an award. Cretinetti (real name André Deed), who had acted for Méliès, wound up working as a warehouseman at the Pathé film studios at Joinville-le-Point. Arthème's clowning ended before the silent era but he mysteriously returned to direct a single feature in 1933, Mireille, a remake of his 1922 hit.
Arthème Swallows His Clarinet (1912) takes a simple but grotesque idea and spins it out for a few minutes, stopping precisely when the idea has run out of juice. It's also really unpleasant: the comedian doesn't swallow his woodwind instrument at all, he has it rammed into his mouth so that it juts from the back of his head, impaling his skull like a skewer. Like any good cartoon character, he can be put right by some strenuous remolding, and no harm done—but not until after we've enjoyed wincing at his impossible, ghastly mutilation.
The early European cinema audience must have been a robust breed.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
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