The Sunday Intertitle: Full and Fuller

THE ROUNDERS is mainly known to me for its closing shot, which introduced Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to me in Brownlow & Gill’s life-changing series Hollywood. (Me to Brownlow: Your series changed my life and made me become a filmmaker!” Brownlow to me: “You must be broke!” Me to Brownlow: “I am!”) Chaplin and Arbuckle, dead drunk, sinking underwater… one on his way to immortality, the other to obscurity.

A title identifies Charlie as “Mr. Full” — he’s doing the drunk act again, and also wearing a silk hat and an Inverness coat (swanky coat with built-in mini-cape) — so he’s not the Tramp. But he’s got the moustache, just like in ONE A.M. And the cane, and the disreputable boots (out of keeping with the rest). So I guess the walk has become central to Chaplin’s screen persona, even if the rest isn’t secured yet. It seems that it has not been definitely determined yet that the public wants to see Chaplin as a Tramp at all times. He would find that out later, and his experiments with departing from the familiar character would become very, very occasional.

I don’t know if Chaplin really felt the Tramp character limited him unduly. Looking at all he did with it, he would clearly have been WRONG to think so. I think perhaps he just felt that he SHOULD play other characters, because clearly he COULD, and he wanted the world to know it. I mean, he wanted to play Jesus Christ, for Chrissake.

Even though shitfaced, Mr. Full take it upon himself to twist his own ear and emit cigarette smoke from his mouth, as if his head were a contraption. Nobody is around. This little performance is executed for an audience of one: Mr. Full. He doesn’t seem to be aware of us watching, though with Chaplin that’s always a possibility. Chaplin never quite gave up on these little tricks performed for his own amusement, which are almost breaking character, but he did cut down on them as his character got more involved in the world of his stories. It’s possible, I suppose, that Mr. Full isn’t doing this as a conscious trick, but is so drunk his body has become alienated from him, and he feels he NEEDS to operate it like a machine to get results.

Now Mr. Full is staggering around a hotel lobby, just as the proto-Tramp did in his first appearance. Compelled to churn out films at an appalling rate, Chaplin seems to have grabbed at anything he’d already done for other directors, reworking it to suit himself.

Mr. Full seems to be a far less aggressive, more genteel inebriate than the predatory creep of MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT: bumping into a large man’s backside, he raises his hat politely to the backside, apologising to it, rather than its owner.

I’ve now picked up a second hand Chaplin, the biography by David Robinson, a book even better than its high reputation suggests. Not just a bio but an unbeatable critical study (superior even to Walter Kerr, so far as Chaplin goes). Here he is on the Chaplin hat-tip:

“The traditional historical explanation of Chaplin’s innovations at Keystone is that, despite the doubt and resistance of Sennett and the Keystone comedians, he succeeded in slowing down the helter-skelter pace, and introduced new subtlety to the gag comedy. This is true so far as it goes, but the difference lay deeper. Keystone comedy was created from without; anecdote and situations were explained in pantomime and gesture. Chaplin’s comedy was created from within. What the audience saw in him was the expression of thoughts and feelings, and the comedy lay in the relation of those thoughts and feelings to the situations around him. The crucial point of Chaplin’s comedy was not the comic occurrence itself, but Chaplin’s relationship and attitude to it. In the Keystone style, it was enough to bump into a tree to be funny. When Chaplin bumped into a tree, however, it was not the collision that was funny, but the fact that he raised his hat to the tree in a reflex gesture of apology. The essential difference between the Keystone style and Chaplin’s comedy is that one depends on exposition, the other on expression. While the exposition style may depend on such codes as the Keystone mime, the expressive style is instantly and universally understood; that was the essential factor in Chaplin’s almost instant and world-wide fame.”

Also in the lobby: future Keaton collaborator Eddie Cline. And in the next scene, the eternal bellhop Al St. John. St John, I must say, always catches the attention and holds it. He’s an unusual presence. His solo shorts may or may not be great but he justifies star billing by being TOO ATTRACTIVE TO THE EYE to really work in a bit part. How long before Chaplin gives him the elbow?

Phyllis Allen plays the scold, Mrs. Full, first seen alone, “nursing her wrath to keep it warm.” Mr. F. tries a winning smile on her. Twice. She’s having none of it. It’s a very Tam O’Shanter marital set-up with very clearly defined roles.

Meet Mr. Fuller: Arbuckle, of course. Equally paralytic in his drunkenness, he has an innocence about him that Chaplin hasn’t quite discovered. Children loved both Chaplin and Arbuckle because they’re both naughty boys. Arbuckle is basically a giant, polluted baby. He staggers into the lobby, mirroring Chaplin’s bit, but doing his own thing with the set-up.

Mrs. Fuller is Araminta Estelle “Minta” Durfee, with her huge wad of hair that seems to have fallen on her scalp like dough, who, as I perhaps haven’t previously remarked, was the real-life Mrs. Arbuckle. She’s bemoaning her husband’s alcoholism, which may have been Minta’s real-life situation.

Minta is mainly responsible for our knowing that Chaplin smelled bad (like Robert Pattinson and Michael Fassbender, allegedly). He had apparently embraced or invented a theory that one should wear a single set of clothes, unwashed, until they disintegrated out. This doesn’t seem to have any particular advantage over the more conventional, society-approved procedure of washing and changing. I guess you save on laundry bills and your clothes fall apart before the moths get ’em.

I don’t know when Chaplin stopped reeking, but his stinginess, embossed upon his psyche by childhood poverty, lasted. Nestor Almendros, filming an interview with C.C. at the end of his life, was appalled to hear him answer a question about whether he was happy with “God, yes. I’ve got money!” But if you grow up in extreme poverty, isn’t that understandable?

Mrs. Full uses the Chaplin cane to hook her husband by the neck: a rare occurrence. Charlie never normally allows anyone else to use his cane. It’s like a fifth limb.

Good bits: Arbuckle trying to pick up his topper, but kicking it away each time; Chaplin falling onto his bed and hooking his feet around the headboard so as to lock himself into a vulgar, arse-up, body-rictus. Minta unlocks him by thrashing his upturned posterior with the cane, which is now officially hers, it seems. A kind of marital emasculation.

Mr. Fuller is a bit rough to his missus, but Arbuckle’s performance makes clear that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing: any brutality is unconscious. As is he, practically, after Minta retaliates with roundhouse slaps to the spherical physog.

That’s all funny enough, but when Fuller starts strangling his wife it’s slightly less amusing. He’s strangling so loud, Mrs. Full can hear him clear across the hall. She sends Mr. Full to the rescue, a curiously futile idea. But it works! Full knocks down Fuller with the door upon entering, but then is set upon by Mrs. Fuller. How dare you prevent my husband strangling me? Then the formidable Mrs. Full counterattacks. How dare you assault my worthless drunk of a husband?

This is all good, well-observed stuff. If you allow that alcoholism and domestic abuse are suitable subjects for “farce comedy” — and on the one hand, this is a terrible, insensitive idea and on the other, they are IDEAL subjects, perhaps the ONLY subjects, for Keystone-type “farce comedy” — then what Chaplin and chums are doing is reasonably accurate knockabout satire.

Mr. Full now tries to extricate his wife from her battle with Mrs. Fuller, but gets knocked flying by a thrust of her pugilistic buttocks. So Mrs. Full is fighting to defend her husband, and thumping her husband at the same time. Because that’s her inalienable right, and no other woman is going to horn in on it. It all makes perfect sense, you see.

Rendered irrelevant to the hostilities they sparked off, Full & Fuller now recognize one another as brothers in inebriation, and sneak off, with Fuller using his cane to filch his wife’s handbag.

Hand-shaking now becomes a terrific bit of business — every time the boys look away, they forget the other is there, and so when they turn back it’s a surprised and they have to shake hands again.

With the wives arguing in the Fuller rooms, the husbands ransack the Full household: the second cane and hat are fetched and the second purse is pilfered. Now as synchronized as Siamese twins, the two freshly-moneyed gentlemen stagger off in search of booze. It’s interesting to see that film grammar of the day requires us to see them pass through the lobby on their way out, even though nothing happens during this part of the voyage. Al St John is placed in the lobby, just for continuity’s sake — he’s got to be in the hotel somewhere, so why not here? — but gets nothing to do.

The wives discover the theft(s) and console one another. Sisterhood! They set off to find, and possibly assassinate, their errant spouses.

Arbuckle hauls Chaplin to “Smith’s Cafe,” which, like all the best establishments, had a doorman in blackface. This is Billy Gilbert, but not the later Laurel & Hardy co-star, Joe Pettibone in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Herring in THE GREAT DICTATOR. I presume Chaplin knew he was hiring a different Billy Gilbert on that occasion: clearly, Herring/Goering needed to be fat.

Arbuckle and Chaplin abuse the blackface guy just for the hell of it, which makes an already uncomfortable situation even more uncomfortable. “They have suffered too much ever to be funny to me,” Chaplin later said of African Americans. But blackface comedians are fair game.

(Sidebar: King Vidor, talking of the difficulty he had getting HALLULUJAH! made in 1929, said that even the success of Al Jolson didn’t help, a clear and clueless case of category error if I ever heard one. God bless him.)

During this whole segment of the film, Chaplin’s Mr. Full has gone from falling-down drunk to the next level, fallen-down drunk, and is reduced to the status of carry-on prop for Arbuckle. Hauled lifeless into the presence of table service, however, he revives enough to light a match on a bald man’s scalp. We then get a little tour-de-force on the myriad offensive uses a stranger’s head may be turned to.

These two barbarians are pretty great together, if you can get behind the Marxian project of destroying all rational thought and civilized behaviour. Arbuckle uses the tablecloth as a bedsheet, putting his feet up in a winestand and attempting slumber. Chaplin begins to undress. Assailed by waiters, they turn pugnacious. But then the wives arrive like the Seventh Cavalry (not to rescue but to massacre). Their attempts to clobber their befuddled consorts are frustrated somewhat by the men’s inability to stand in place, or even stand at all. One feels that Dante missed a trick by not placing in his inferno a wife attempting eternally to batter her better half who keeps falling on his keister before she can lamp him one.

The husbands flee into the inevitable park. The situation is too urgent even to allow them to pause and abuse the doorman. Strictly speaking, introducing a whole new location, previous unprepared-for, is poor structure, but the appearance of Westlake Park in a Keystone short is so inevitable that one feels no dereliction by the scenarist in resorting to it.

Fleeing their fate, Chaplin and Arbuckle run smack into it — a watery appointment in Samarra — the short film collides with the famous excerpt. Launching themselves in a leaky vessel, and apparently drowning two innocent bystanders, our shitfaced heroes fall asleep as the waters of the fatal pond gradually creep up to absorb them. Arbuckle’s abdomen, a waistcoated Atlantis, remains for a moment after the rest of him has gone, and then all that remains is a top hat.

It’s not markedly more “sophisticated” than previous Chaplin endings (everyone is knocked unconscious or into Echo Park Lake), but it feels much more like a proper ending. Some care (and discomfort) has been put into it. An ending, the Coen Brothers have claimed, is just a bunch of things that, when put together, feel like an ending. But surely a certain compositional shape or attitude is also required. THE ROUNDERS, for maybe the first time in Chaplin’s directorial career, achieves this. And by cutting out extraneous business and characters (even the meaningless drowning couple are there to provide a boat), and focussing on what we might even term an over-arching THEME — the Dysfunctional Relationships of Hotel-Dwelling Drunks — it actually feels like a little story. Without being as funny as THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR, it builds on that film’s sense of shape and purpose.

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