Archive for November 25, 2020

Teeth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 25, 2020 by dcairns

LAUGHING GAS — the Chaplin short, not the Wodehouse novel, starts off very nicely indeed — it’s a good print, and it’s refreshing to find Chaplin in a cheaply-built representation of, if not opulence, at least class: a dentist’s waiting room, where he is employed on spitoon duty. (Blargh, spitoons again!)

The dentist’s assistant, Charlie’s immediate superior, is tiny: he looks like a child wearing false face-fuzz, something out of Vigo. Lots of nice, measured interplay with lashings of violence. Charlie explains by elaborate pantomime that I’m bigger than you, you can’t push me around, it would go badly for you, then the pint-sized fellow hauls off and knocks him down with a colossal slap, and then they shake hands in a formal acknowledgment of their places in life. The handshake after a punch or a kick up the arse becomes a regular Chaplin moment for the next few years. I picture a scholarly study called Ritualism in Knockabout.

The moment tich’s back is turned, Chaplin delivers an unsportsmanlike smack to the dome and then legs it.

Chaplin is a deplorable bully here, kicking the dwarf and smacking the customers with their under-the-jaw bandages and bulging cheeks. It’s not the most welcome development but is probably a necessary one as he gradually becomes a spirit of misrule, a human spanner in society’s works.

Directorially, it’s very largely one shot per room, but he’s using the depth of his painted sets more, he has a door at the side AND a door at the back of the waiting room, opening on to distinct rooms/shots. A more sophisticated primitiveness than we’ve seen.

Atypically, Chaplin offers a scene without himself as performer, where Dr. Pain, whose beard actually looks maybe-real, and whose performance passes as naturalistic, if we imagine he has Italian blood, gives the titular gas to a gesticulating grotesque.

Chaplin’s feuding with a fellow underling while working for a stern but sensible boss makes me think ahead to THE PAWNSHOP, but uh-oh, the gangling patient won’t revive. He’s either sleeping, laughing, or both. Chaplin is dispatched to obtain a cure — pausing to slap most of the supporting cast, he hurries off on his mission of mercy.

Before he even enters the pharmacy (a nice location) he picks a fight with Mack Swain, performing various tricks with his by way of abstract threats. Chaplin the performer who keeps showing off, shoehorning in bits of business unrelated to the scene, is something we’ve seen traces off from early on, but it’s becoming more a part of this character, even if its defining quality is that it has nothing much to do with either character or situation.

Within seconds he’s kicked Swain in the guts and ripped some woman’s skirt off (uh-oh, it’s Mrs. Pain). Then we get to the real business: slinging bricks at people.

This is could almost be the dental equivalent of the glazing business Charlie sets up in THE KID. First, generate the need: either by smashing windows, or, here, teeth. The violence definitely doesn’t get funnier when we see it causing physical harm. Soon, various bit-players are spitting teeth out (what did they use? hard candy, perhaps?) and seeking the ministrations or Dr. Pain.

The intercutting of various bits of action now assumes frenzied proportions. Dr. P. rushes home after the maid telephones to say his wife has had an accident. He’s not told until he arrives that it was a skirt-related accident. The man who won’t wake up, wakes up, disgusted to find his toothache is no better (looks like Pain pulled the wrong tooth — nobody gets any help for any of their suffering in this film — those were harsher times in many ways).

With Pain out of the way, Charlie decides to operate. And what an operator. There is an attractive girl patient. Perfect. Uncertain of the rudiments, he attempts to shine her shoes. No, wrong end, silly of me. They laugh. He throws his leg across her lap — second time he’s done this in his Keystone career, is Harpo in the audience, taking notes?

Some splices, then Charlie using pliers as an instrument of wooing. Odd, but we’ll let it go.

Suspense! Swain is in the waiting room, and tumbles to the fact that the dentist is the one who knocked his teeth out. He interrupts the fiend performing hideous mouth-torture on some other unoffending patient.

Everybody gets knocked down, the end.

Well — the dentist setting makes this comparatively high concept. It’s not just random things happening in a park. It’s still fairly random, though this develops naturally from his character being a sociopathically violent sod, and it’s tied together by the setting of a dental surgery. This kind of idea, slight as it is, would become a very productive approach for Chaplin. Build a specific set, and then come up with comedy business related to it. When he left Keystone and made THE FLOORWALKER, Sennett saw it and cried, “Why didn’t we think of an escalator?” The answer, I’m afraid, is “Because you couldn’t.”