Cade Snyder and His Grad School Adventures - Week 22
In Which Clothes Make The Man in The Gold Rush and The General, and I See Some New Movies Too
Well, I’m back on that graduate school grind. I’m in my sixth class, so including this one, there’s only five to go until I’m done. And technically, I think the last one is entirely focused on making one paper scholarly-journal ready, so really it’s like there’s only four real classes left. For July, I’m taking “Film History: American Film.” The same professor that taught my Silent Film class is also teaching this one, so not too surprisingly, he started this class with discussion of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton too, only this time he went with two different films: The Gold Rush and The General. I’d seen both films before, but never watched them in comparison with one another. Doing so this time made me notice that both share the unusual quality of having costuming as an active part of the development of the story and characters. Costuming always plays an important role in any film, of course, as does any visual element, but that role is usually a passive one, where the clothing may help establish a character’s personality or social standing or the cultural context of the setting or time the film takes place in, but doesn’t directly affect what is happening in the plot. In both The Gold Rush and The General, the protagonists’ clothing become active participants in the film.
With Chaplin, the idea of costume is always somewhat important, because the character of The Tramp has a signature, well-established costume which always defines the character as a man aspiring to greatness and respectability in his formal, gentlemanly clothing (suit clothes, bowler hat, cane) but the ill-fitting nature of his clothes, variously too big or too small, show that he is a member of the lower class. This is particularly important in The Gold Rush, a film in which, as the title suggests, everyone in the film is especially concerned with money and materialism. The Tramp’s outfit makes him stand out as strange, either as poorly dressed for prospecting in the cold mountains or simultaneously overdressed and shabbily dressed for the dance hall in town. The clothes establish him as an outsider amongst these wealth-obsessed people. Of course, this is all still costuming working in the passive sense. It takes on an active role when The Tramp has to resort to boiling and eating his own shoe for sustenance, which gives his clothes an added life-saving power and makes literal the intimate connection between The Tramp and his trademark outfit. The clothing becomes active once again in the final scene on the ocean liner when, after The Tramp has become a millionaire and been given a sharp, well-tailored suit, a photographer asks him to put on his “old prospecting clothes,” recognizing that his old clothes better represent his character and personality. It is this outfit that Georgia (Georgia Hale) sees him in and assumes he is still poor and a stowaway on the ship, and so tries to hide him from being discovered. This simple act helps prove that Georgia doesn’t just care for him because of his money, and gives the impression that she deserves The Tramp’s affections even after her questionable attitude towards him earlier in the film. As such, his clothing plays a key role in tying up the film’s romantic plot.
Buster Keaton doesn’t have a signature costume in quite the same way Chaplin does, and his one definite signature item of clothing, his pork pie hat, is absent in The General. Still, the clothing in The General plays just as active a role, and in fact, even more so than The Gold Rush. Keaton’s costuming in The General as young engineer Johnnie Gray changes at key points in the development of the plot and the character. The importance of clothing in the film is made explicitly clear when Annabelle (Marion Mack) tells Johnnie not to speak to her again until he is in uniform. Johnnie starts the film in a standard train engineer’s uniform, an outfit lacking the prestige of a soldier’s uniform (even though he is denied enlistment because he is more important to the war effort as an engineer). After Annabelle and the General are kidnapped, Johnnie gives chase. At the end of this chase, he makes his first costume change into a Union uniform. From there, he makes subsequent changes that increase his status as a noble hero - after rescuing Annabelle and taking the General back to friendly Southern territory, he puts on a Confederate soldier’s uniform (a more honorable outfit in the context of the film, which tells the story from the Southern perspective), and then after warning of the coming attack and helping to fend off that attack, Johnnie is given an officer’s uniform, at which point he has completely won Annabelle’s respect and love. This makes for an interesting contrast with The Gold Rush; in Chaplin’s film, the hero ends the film in his original clothes, a sign that he has not changed who he is and that wealth and social status is not what he needs to be happy, while in Keaton’s film, the uniform is what defines the hero, and the impression is that he did need the new clothing and increased social position to be happy and to win Annabelle’s love. This difference speaks to what Robert Sklar notes in Movie-Made America (our main book for the class and a pretty great read if you’re interested in the development of cinema and Hollywood) as the difference between Chaplin’s British, working-class sensibilities and Keaton’s American middle-class sensibilities.
Oh, wow. That ended up being a lot longer than I meant it to be. Whoops. Good thing we only had the one assignment, being that it was the first week. That’s it for school talk this week, but I do have a couple newer films to quickly discuss. The first one is 22 Jump Street, which was at least as funny as the first film and keeps up the great streak of work by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Ultimately, the film is a parody of the conventions of action films and buddy cop films as well as the conventions of sequels and franchises in general, and it succeeds at making fun of those conventions and being entertaining in its own right. Really not much else I feel I need to say about it. The second film is Obvious Child, which is fantastic and definitely at or near the top of my list of favorite films this year. The writing, the acting, the music, the cinematography, the humor, the drama, everything worked for me. It does make me sad that so many criticisms I’ve seen have placed it directly at odds with Juno and Knocked Up as a better depiction of abortion, just because that seems a little unfair, because neither of those films are about abortion, so neither film works unless the characters decide not to get them (which, just to be clear, is an okay choice, too; judging a character for not getting an abortion seems very problematic to me, which is something I’ve read in reference to Knocked Up) and neither makes abortion seem any more scary than Obvious Child. In fact, I feel like most of what I’ve read about Obvious Child has underplayed how scary and nerve-wracking waiting for the abortion is for Jenny Slate’s character, which is very key to the film’s drama and realism. It is a medical procedure, after all, and one that is particularly emotionally charged thanks to society’s constant debates over it, so it’s good for the film to show that aspect of it, just as it’s good that it presents the actual facts of the procedure and how safe and relatively routine it is. Anyway, it’s a great movie, so go see it.
Okay, this post is getting longer than I expected, so I’m going to call it a wrap now. Until next time, be good, everyone.