Bowler Hats: Chaplin and Bloom…Sally Bowles and Sabina

A few decades ago, I remember having to read a piece on “the sociology of clothing in the Victorian era.” The author’s intent was to show that fashion had a subtext. I remember clearly the argument about men’s hats. The thesis was that the height of a man’s hat in Victorian England was proportionate to his status on the social scale.  i.e. The society toffs wore tall top hats, the navvies and farmers wore flat caps.

I thought of this again after a conversation about “bowlers.” A friend and I had just finished reading Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and were commenting on the bowler hat that the character Sabina is attached to (it reminds her of her grandfather) and which she often wears during sex.

“It’s a silly hat,” my friend said. “There is really nothing sexy about it.”

Silly or sexy?  I’d state that both things are true, depending on who’s wearing it.

For Christmas this year, my young nephew gave me a tee-shirt imprinted with the text of Joyce’s Ulysses on it. The text is manipulated to depict Leopold Bloom’s mustache and bowler hat. (Though I argue that Bloom would never wear his hat tilted at such a jaunty angle.)

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Leopold Bloom t-shirt

Now, although the book ends with Bloom’s wife repeatedly affirming her husband’s worth (“yes,  yes I said yes I will Yes.”), throughout much of the novel, Bloom is a figure of ridicule.  And a bowler hat only underscores that. (In truth, those who most ridicule him wear flat caps or no hats at all.)

When I was little my parents enjoyed Laurel and Hardy. (How politically incorrect we all 354845-laurel-and-hardywere then: I didn’t know their names were “Laurel and Hardy” until much later. My mom had always called them “Fats and Skinny.”)  They both wore bowlers, doffing them in times of embarrassment or playing with them in times of nervousness.

Now, Chaplin’s bowler represents something else. As the Little Tramp, he is at the very bottom of the social scale, and yet his dignity, manners and goodheartedness far outshine those socially above him. Perhaps, it is that chiasmus between the tramp and gentle-behavior and “gentlemen” and their boorishness that the bowler suggests. It could also simply be that the “little tramp” is wearing whatever has been tossed aside.  Nevertheless, it is part of his comic ensemble. In the film Chaplin, there is a marvelous scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin, first puts together his iconic “Little Tramp” costume, beginning with the hat.

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But then you have the women. On the female, the bowler hat moves from an object of comedy or ridicule to something sexy, even forbidding.

It seems in every dance revue–whether a toddlers’ dance recital or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall–there is one number where the females are dressed in stockings and shorts, tux shirts and ties…and a bowler hat. The hat acts as a prop, an accessory and the dancers put them on and off, dance with them held in front or waving above their heads.

In the film Cabaret, Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli–perhaps the greatest role of her career. And while the film is certainly different than the play –and the novels from whichcabaret it was drawn–it is Minnelli that people most closely associate with Cabaret and Sally Bowles. Straddling a chair, her bowler hat rakishly tilted on her head, Bowles lustily sings and performs at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Third Reich begins its ascent. She–and the cabaret she works at–are the very symbols of the sexuality and decadence that the Nazi’s demonize in their rise to power, symbols of the “other” that the Nazis want to purge.

And in Minnelli’s performance, it is the bowler hat that represents this decadence–a symbol of transgression, of otherness, of living life as SHE wants it.

(Please note: I know that there have been extraordinary actresses who have taken on the role of Sally Bowles on the stage, from Julie Harris and Judi Dench to Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields to Emma Stone and Michelle Williams. But still it is Minnelli’s film version that has the most resonance with the most people.)

Just as Sally Bowles performs her cabaret in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, so too is Sabina creating her art as the Soviet Union crushes the Czech Spring in Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although we have moved from 1920 Berlin to 1960s Prague,  the same tensions exist–the forces of love, freedom, and humanity in opposition to the bureaucratic autocracy of the State. This time the state is the USSR.

For the painter Sabina, her bowler is a sort of fetish–a memory of her grandfather and a quirk of her sexuality. It is very much a part of her.   Kundera describes Sabina’s hat as such:

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Thus the bowler hat has apotheosized from a mere garment and quirky accessory to something much more. And in the politically charged world of Prague in 1968, that tumblr_mdy9zuvYH01rhlu7wo1_500something more is crucial to life, to a sense of independence, to a sense of identity. And on Lena Olin, who played Sabina in the 1988 film version of the book, it also looks incredibly sexy.

So whether it accompanies John Cleese’s ungainly stride within the Ministry of Silly Walks or Lena Olin steaming up scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one finds that the bowler fills both extremes–from the ridiculous to the erotic.  That often seems to be the divide.

That is until you bring in Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And then it’s a whole different story…

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Movie Review: City Lights by Charlie Chaplin

I began showing City Lights to my students last week. It is for my “Literature and Film” class and while I don’t necessarily have a “literature” to couple with,  I think it is a film that everyone should see.

In fact, I believe it is one of the finest movies ever.

(The AFI ranks it as number 76 of the 100 best American movies of all time. Chaplain’s  The Gold Rush is ranked two slots before it at 74 and his Modern Times several below it at 81. Chaplin leads all directors with having three in the top 100.)

Yet art is not a contest. And City Lights is pure art.

Most of my students have never seen a movie in black-and-white! And they immediately say (and moan)  that they have never seen a silent movie. Yet, City Lights is not a silent movie. Chaplin made the movie well past the advent of the “talkies.” He chose silence for his “Little Tramp” because giving him a voice–and a language–would impair his universally beloved appeal. In speaking no language, the Little Tramp belonged to all languages. And so Chaplain dubbed City Lights a romantic pantomine.

But it is false to state that it is a silent movie.  There is a omnipresent score (written by Chaplin) as well as several moments of sound. In the boxing ring, the bell signalling the end of a round clangs time and time again–the rope pulling the bell is tied around the Little Tramp’s neck and every time he hits the floor the bell sounds. An opera singer’s performance at a high society party is disrupted by the piercing whistle that the Little Tramp has inadvertently swallowed. And perhaps the best of all is the nonsensical sounds that emit from the braying politician and socialite at the film’s beginning.  Chaplin did not suffer fools easily and pompous power brokers are a large and easy target. (There is a series of holiday Charlie Brown television specials here in the States and in them all the adults speak no language; they simply bray these “wah, wah, wah” sounds.  I have to wonder if they picked it up from Chaplin’s City Lights.)

Charlie first meets the blind flower girl

But aside from the superb technicalities, the dramatic lighting, and the slapstick choreography, what anchors the film and raises it above mere madcap film-making is the story itself.

The Little Tramp has fallen in love with a blind flower girl, and she with him, but she mistakenly believes he is a millionaire. (When we–and Charlie–first meet her, a fleet of fancy cars had just pulled up to where she sells her wares. She believes that Charlie belongs with them. Several other coincidences add more credence to her misunderstanding.) As the story moves forward,  Charlie goes to great lengths to get her money not only to avoid eviction but to take part in a experimental cure for blindness, and his efforts finally land him in jail.

By the time  he is released from prison, she is cured. She can see.  And yet the rich prince she had imagined as her benefactor is a far cry from the Little Tramp she notices at the end. The scene where this is discovered has been called one of the high points of movie making.  The acting is all in the face. It is subtle, internal and real. (see the picture at the top of the post, look at Chaplain’s eyes, imagine what he is thinking.) And it is very hard not to beome a little teary when viewing it. It is not cloyingly sentimental–and it very well could have been. It is perfect.

The Little Tramp was a masterful creation. Always gentle, polite, and kind, he often acted as a foil to the crassness and cold-heartedness of modern life. From his position at the bottom of the social ladder, the Little Tramp sweetly pointed out the foibles of those above him.

Here is a delightful clip from the movie Chaplin in which Chaplin (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) creates the character of “the Little Tramp.”  Enjoy.