Archive for September 29, 2020

Chaplin Goes to Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2020 by dcairns

There’s more experimentation with Charlie Chaplin’s image in the early Keystones than I was led to believe. Since playing a drunken hobo in every film was going to start to seem unnecessarily limiting, even for Keystone, here they try him out as a drunken toff (Lord Helpus) with no bowler hat, no cane, and a more expansive moustache. Widescreen rather than pillarbox.

This movie was lost for fifty years and rediscovered in South America: Wikipedia is sparse on details. It’s directed by George Nichols & Mack Sennett — Sennett’s involvement may be evidence that Chaplin was being difficult. His first director, Henry “Pathé” Lehrman, had already walked out of Keystone because Sennett wouldn’t force Chaplin to obey orders. Since “Pathé’s” other nickname was “Mr. Suicide,” owing to his willingness to risk the lives and limbs of his cast, Chaplin and chums were probably not too sorry to see him go.

With its eavesdropping maid, comedy of misunderstanding, and drawing-room setting, this Keystone “farce comedy” does, for once, resemble a stage farce rather than crude slapstick. Chaplin had played a silly-ass villain in his very first film, here he’s a silly-ass stooge (we can’t really call him a hero). He’s at his most theatrical, a sort of Terry-Thomas figure.

The most “cinematic” moment is Helpus’s vision of the afterlife (after a work by Dante). All through this movie there are dancing snowballs of film damage, but when Helpus gets hysterical and starts reacting to an offscreen hallucination, it feels like he can see them too. “The spots!”

What kind of a proscenium does the cinema offer? Chaplin experiments with advancing into medium shot then staggering back into longshot.

Belatedly, I reach for my tattered copy of Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films (A Book) by Kalton C. Lahue and Terry Brewer. There’s a good line about Sennett believing that any gag worth doing ought to be set-up and paid-off inside twenty feet of film, whereas Chaplin might just be getting going at the end of a hundred feet. But it would be worth it. the question was, could he convince his boss and his colleagues of that?

I’m not clear, halfway through the film, if Edgar Kennedy’s laughing butler is laughing because he knows Lord Helpus hasn’t really been poisoned, or because he thinks he has. Is he a psychopath? Did the butler, for once, do it?

Is there a doctor in the film? A guy called Glen Cavender, in a big false medical-type beard, comes to the rescue. In my recent viewing of Anatole Litvak films, this guy turns up a lot in the Hollywood ones, still, thirty years after this, earning some kind of living as background mountebank along with old stagers like Creighton “I did not have sexual intercourse with that goat” Hale.

Trying to counteract the poison, Lord Helpus drinks a lot of milk, in the best Albert Hoffman tradition. It’s a good thing to do if you think you’ve been poisoned or have dosed yourself with what you then discover is LSD. A horsedrawn ambulance gallops to the rescue. There are fewer chases, but more fights, in Keystone shorts, than you’d think. There are more fights than you’d think possible.

Minta hurries to be with her poisoned lover by jalopy. Shades of Romeo and Juliet. I have to assume by now that, even if Edgar the butler knows his master isn’t fatally envenomed, he is a colossal bastard for not telling him. He’s just laughing his ass off. What a shit. Kennedy is going to spend the rest of his career paying for this.

Why does Helpus think he’s been poisoned, and why does his butler know different? “Screenwriter” Craig Hutchinson, who “wrote” all the early Chaplin shorts, doesn’t seem to have worked out any reason, and Keystone aren’t about to keep everyone on salary for months while they work it out, as Chaplin would later on CITY LIGHTS.

The two doctors, beard and no-beard, strangers to their respective Hippocratic oaths, laugh heartily at the “dying” Helpus, then give him the Heimlich manoeuvre, which had yet to be invented, for no reason. This may be the first screen iteration of the Choking Chaplin Meme.

Minta, the only character with a shred of human feeling, at last tells Helpus that he’s not doomed. Everybody starts fighting for no reason. An ecstatic clinch between Helpus and Minta.

Lord Helpus is never seen again.