Chaplin Goes to Hell

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.

6 Responses to “Chaplin Goes to Hell”

  1. basic question but I’ve always wondered: with Chaplin’s silent films during dialogue scenes, are the actors actually speaking words or are they just miming the act of speaking?

    because Chaplin was very strong art of mime, the idea of mimicking speech without actually saying anything, and perhaps if you are doing a silent slapstick scene, having to say actual dialogue would just distract.

  2. In most cases the actors would speak, and either deliver scripted dialogue, the same as appears in intertitles (if any), or elaborating on it. Certainly in the Keystones you can be sure they’re speaking because they’re talking far more than necessary. In some of the less lucid bits of mime, they do a lot of gesturing towards offscreen characters and talking at the camera. No sense in doing that mutely, though it’s of questionable value even with words.

    Later, Chaplin cut right down on the amount of talking scenes, used gestures instead whenever he could. But I think for those short exchanges, ie the end of City Lights, they would say the lines.

    You hear about unusual cases like Lillian Gish speaking English and Lars Hanson replying in Swedish, but that just proves they were acting it out aloud like any other kind of scene, except they had the luxury of knowing nobody could hear them.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    I’m going to venture that a scene was shot, or at least scripted, of Chaplin demanding poison from Kennedy. Kennedy, amused or annoyed at his expressions of heartbreak, gives him plain water.

    It’s said — maybe in Kops and Custard? — that Sennett got ticked off when, after lending films to a school for the deaf, he got complaints that they could lip-read obscenities onscreen. Elsewhere read that dialogue was at least roughly scripted, so facial movements just before and after an intertitle looked plausible.

    Hal Roach attended a foreign showing of a Laurel and Hardy short — Germany, I think — and noticed that the intertitles, in quantity and volume of text, seemed off. He got a translator and discovered the local distributor was “improving” them by adding jokes, some of them off-color.

    Random thought: Kung Fu Keystone. What if some non-comedy director took it into his head to stage a fight with airborne kicks and acrobatic falls instead of the usual modified boxing match?

  4. Yes, I think given this film’s status as a lost-and-found item, some missing footage is likely. Most of the Keystones seem a little truncated at the ends.

    Walsh’s What Price Glory? got an outraged reaction from lipreaders for its swearing, and the first talkie sequel has a bit of business about the armed forces being issued with alternative swearwords so as not to offend civilians: Edmund Lowe proceeds to call Victor McLaglan a “quint” for the rest of the film.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Trying to post about anything other than Trump vs. Everybody.

    Film in bad condition evokes distant memories. In my early 60s childhood what little silent comedy I saw was coarsened in transmission to a portable B&W TV, or only slightly clearer when projected from an 8mm projector. About what I later grew resigned to on dollar VHS tapes. Now, thanks to DVD, I own amazing restored versions of stuff I once despaired of seeing at all. I can see facial expressions in long shots! Background detail in Max Fleischer cartoons!

    Some decades hence I snapped up the restored Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock films. Objective pleasure was mixed with subjective nostalgia throughout, but what really took me back was a washed-out pre-restoration clip. With alarming vividness I was again tuning in a distant UHF station in the middle of the night, volume low and face too close to the screen.

    Anyway, that lower-tech experience lives on with a lot of vintage stuff on youtube.

  6. It sure does! I even feel nostalgic for the granular look of high-contrast prints of b&w films recorded off-air on VHS. That look is actually quite nice, I’d argue… though nothing like a restored Mildred Pierce or whatever. For some reason, 40s WB is the best cinema to watch on VHS, if you have to do it at all…

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