The Sunday Intertitle: Cocking His Snook

Maybe if I look at all of Chaplin’s “park, pretty girl and policeman” shorts from his Keystone period, I’ll find the bit with the flower mentioned by Schulberg/Fitzgerald in The Disenchanted. Or maybe it doesn’t exist.

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RECREATION (1914) begins with a penniless Charlie trying to throw himself to his death. So we know it’s a comedy alright. To accomplish the fatal act, he has to get over a fence. He performs a gag later used by Keaton on TV, hoisting one leg up and resting it on the crossbar, then hoisting up the other leg, leaving him momentarily unsupported in mid-air before gravity reasserts itself and he crashes to earth. Keaton’s version was better, more uncanny, but Chaplin is indisputably there first.

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When Helen Carruthers walks by, Charlie forgets all about suicide and becomes a sex pest. As his career went on, his pursuit of the leading lady gradually became more courtly, less lecherous, until there’s no sense of sexuality about his character at all, just the abstraction of Romance.

Helen’s beau is a violently inclined sailor, and so soon he and Charlie are lobbing bricks at one another. There’s a lot of this in early Chaplin, and it’s never terribly funny. All the later traditions of the custard pie fight are upheld — a few direct hits are followed, for variety, by a miss which clobbers a copper instead. But the projectiles are rather painfully serious rather than silly, undignfied and comic like the cream pie, which had to be discovered (by Mabel Normand, it seems) a little later.

Charlie claimed he learned about screen direction from Henry “PathĂ©” Lehrmann — you exit screen left, then enter screen right. And it’s very important that if you throw a brick off the left side of frame, it should enter the next shot from the right so it feels like it’s a continuous movement in one direction. But there’s an oddity here: the brick that misses travels left from Chaplin’s hand, left past the sailor, and left into a third shot where it hits the cop.

The cop then appears behind Charlie from the RIGHT, as if the universe were a short circle composed of three shots. It’s hard to work out the physical geography that could cause the policeman to take a circuitous path that avoided the sailor and arrived behind Charlie. He does so purely for the suspense value and dramatic irony of Charlie winding up to throw a brick, all unawares that he’s under the watchful eye of the law. A familiar panto technique.

Caught with the brick in his hand, Charlie shows why he’s a more interesting clown than his contemporaries by dusting it off. A bit of mime intended to prove that he was never intending to hurl it, he just thought it could use a clean.

Ah-hah! There are TWO policemen. That explains it. They have different hats, but I missed this important fact because the surviving print has been horribly cropped. Everyone’s missing the top of their head, which may be why they’re behaving so rambunctiously. Note that Chaplin hasn’t hit on the idea of the gigantic antagonist yet, a lucky thing since an Eric Campbell figure would be cut off at the nipples by this misframing.

Abruptly, for the film’s last two minutes, another source has become available and the image quality improves a thousandfold and we get luminous you-are-there clarity, time-traveling a hundred-plus years, a wrenching shock that takes a while to recover from.

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As Charlie flirts with Helen, a row-boat ponderously and distractingly edges into frame. Is it going to be significant? No, it’s just an indication that there was no A.D. on crowd control. A quick cutaway later and it’s gone. Nobody considered a retake worth their while to solve the continuity issue.

Conclusion: the film lurches back into grainy, smudgy, misframed ugliness and everyone winds up in the water. Right, that’s that dealt with.

Charlie does not seize a flower as described in The Disenchanted. Let’s keep looking.

 

7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Cocking His Snook”

  1. Keaton also did the gag in “The Butcher Boy” from 1917.

  2. I was trying to remember if he did it in the short or only in his TV remake… my (admittedly unreliable) memory says it was a late addition.

  3. Grant Skene Says:

    Buster does a great version of the gag in his segment of Hollywood Revue of 1929.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    The DVD “Industrial Strength Keaton” shows him doing the “Butcher Boy” routine on three different TV shows. In “Silent Clowns” Kerr describes seeing Keaton in a 1950s play, where he incorporated the bit and took the fall every performance.

    Meanwhile: Bricks.

    An ancient Punch cartoon illustrated “North Country Hospitality” with two rough locals eying a touristy stranger, and deciding to chuck only half a brick at him. Otto Soglow in the New Yorker had a wealthy May Day supporter arrive in a limo, formally toss one brink in the direction of the demonstration, and calmly exit. In “Mutt and Jeff”, a groaner punchline from Jeff was sometimes followed by a brick, presumably hurled by out-of-panel Mutt. In “Krazy Kat”, the brick and the tossing thereof was of mythic and mystical import.

    Bricks were firmly established as projectiles, for personal and political use, among the coarser classes in general and the Irish in particular, the latter also typed as hod carriers (the laborers who hauled bricks up to bricklayers on upper floors). A Stan Laurel comedy, “Near Dublin”, is set in Ireland and builds to a brick-centric climax. A 1941 Warner toon, “Rhapsody in Rivets”, offers an Irish caricature carrying a hod.

    Some years back somebody marketed a realistic foam rubber brick. It was intended to be thrown at one’s television screen when it riled one, providing catharsis without repair bills.

    Pies and other messy missiles ultimately proved far more popular than bricks. Not so much because they were less lethal — although that was a factor — but because they deflated dignity and to some extent social order. The Marx Brothers would never hit Margaret Dumont with a brick, but they would assail her with a buffet at the end of “Duck Soup”.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Slightly misremembered the Punch cartoon:
    https://punch.photoshelter.com/image/I0000JTV6wQYDeOw

  6. Simon Kane Says:

    That second brick to the face just as Charlie was getting up from the first did make me laugh out loud. And I was also very excited to see the seeds of Kazy Kat (kop inkluded). One of the reasons Buster’s take is funnier is that he actually had a reason to pulling both his feet from the ground, although the idea Chaplin’s simply forgotten how to climb over something isn’t unfunny.

  7. I also intended to mention him cocking his snook at… the idea of suicide? It’s a bit of business which, like the unfooting gag, is just Chaplin trying to create entertainment out of thin air.

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