Archive for December 23, 2020

Pathos and Pangs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2020 by dcairns
Transporter malfunction!

I wrote about THE NEW JANITOR very recently, before I decided to explore Chaplin’s Keystone period in sequence and in more depth than anyone wants. I was influenced by Craig Keller’s excellent series, but he kept things epigrammatic and stopped at 1914… I might keep going. This’ll be like Hitchcock Year all over again, but it’ll be 93 films long. Try and stop me.

What wasn’t obvious about TNJ on a cursory view was that its narrative stratagem — injecting Chaplin-as-Tramp into a perfectly serious little melodrama — was totally new for the comedian, and probably for the studio. And it paves the way for many future developments. Supporting comics in obvious fake whiskers playing supporting clown roles will decrease — only Chaplin is allowed to look midway between circus performer and real everyday dude — the stories will get serious with Chaplin being the means of injecting comedy. The stakes will be real, and the settings for naturalistic.

This one was spat out of the Keystone Komedy assembly line so fast (there are just nine set-ups, and eight of them have been used before the halfway mark) that Al St. John hasn’t had a chance to change out of his bellboy costume. Charlie is set up as the underdog victim of St John’s elevator prank. The building he’s working in has obvious backdrops of skyscrapers outside the windows — or maybe just painted ON the windows. But my one time inside a New York skyscraper the views looked just like that. Unreal.

Charlie’s specific kind of incompetence is well-painted-in too: he has remarkable physical dexterity, gratuitously juggling with props, but his mind lags far behind so he does stupid stuff like carrying a waste paper bin upside down so the contents spill out.

Charlie also gets a little romance, which is played seriously and though he’s not much a catch the film doesn’t emphasise any leering or gargoyleish or antisocial qualities to render this scenario grotesque. Simple and seemingly without ambition, the film, like the character, presages the character and his films’ later form.

Chaplin remarks in My Autobiography, “I was playing in a picture called The New Janitor, in a scene in which the manager of the office fires me. In pleading with him to take pity on me and let me retain my job, I started to pantomime appealingly that I had a large family of little children. Although I was enacting mock sentiment, Dorothy Davenport [sic], an old actress, was on the sidelines watching the scene, and during rehearsal I looked up and to my surprise found her in tears. ‘I know it’s supposed to be funny,’ she said. ‘but you just made me weep.’ She confirmed something I had already felt: I had the ability to evoke laughter as well as tears.”

1) I think he means Alice Davenport.

2) It would be a while — years — before Chaplin found a proper use for this secondary talent…

It’s Keystone but released by Mutual, for whom Chaplin would make his best shorts, later.

But in THOSE LOVE PANGS, released on my birthday fifty-three years before I was born — I am now fifty-three so there’s a kind of symmetry to this — Chaplin is back to playing a repellant sex pest, and is billed as The Masher. Suggesting that he wasn’t sure if THE NEW JANITOR represented the direction he wanted to go in. People seemed to like him as a repulsive lout. He should make more lout films, then?

Charlie and Chester Conklin are rivals in pursuit of their landlady (Helen Carruthers). Though we meet them at the tea-table, Charlie seems drunk, or perhaps just mentally enfeebled. Still, when Conklin usurps his place with the landlady, Charlie is quick to prong the offender’s rump with a suitably pointy utensil. As David Hemmings would later say in JUGGERNAUT, “I may be stupid, but I’m not… bloody stupid.”

Caught red-forked, Chaplin pretends he’s using the implement as a musical instrument — the thinking comedian at work. When Conklin attempts to lay down the law — an amusing idea even in sentence form — Charlie spits in his eye — the low comic at work. Still, Chester can count himself luck not to have received the fork in his eyeball. The lout is mellowing.

A bit of further delicacy: having taken Conklin’s place with the landlady (or is she a maid? I think she’s a bit young for property-owning), Charlie positions her to be the target of the avenging prongs of Conklin. But this won’t do. Conduct unbecoming. He swaps back. And duly gets a set of tines jabbed inches deep in his noble derriere. It actually takes an effort to wrench the steel free from his flesh. Dizzily relieved expression. But his strange spasms repel the object of his wooing.

Some very good, almost abstract dueling clown action between CC and CC, before they realize the bar is open. Making excellent use of his cane, Charlie drags Conklin by the neck to their appointed destination, but for once the opportunity for drink is refused, and the chance of a tussle with some swing doors passed up, as a passing floozy (Vivian Edwards) gives Charlie the wink.

Meanwhile, Chester also meets a seductress (women just can’t resist a comedy pornstache) — Cecile Arnold. She’d been in a few Chaplin shorts previously but makes a much bigger impression here with her unusual introductor closeup. You can see her lips saying “Chester.” I wish she’d call ME Chester.

Charlie flops with his girl (she has a bigger beau, one Fred Hibbard), then reacts extravagantly to the sight of Chester and his gal. Splitscreened by a big tree, the two clowns gesticulate extravagantly and it becomes a bit obscure. I don’t get what they’re each trying to mime. Earlier, facing off together, the comics were wonderfully in synch. Here, competing for our attention, they just make muddle.

But I get that Charlie is disgusted by his rival’s romantic success, so his half-hearted attempt at drowning himself makes sense. The cop who interrupts him is no clownish Kop, but a stern authority figure without walrus moustache decoration.

Then there’s a very good bit where the big beau tries to explain a plot to Charlie who keeps falling backwards towards the pond. The beau keeps rescuing him, then prodding him, or throttling him, because he’s not listening, causing him to fall backwards etc. The relationship seems classically Chapliesque: the big brute is not necessarily consciously the Little Fellow’s enemy, in terms of wishing him ill, but he is his NATURAL enemy because he is a big guy, and pushy, and wants Charlie to do something not in Charlie’s best interests or nature or skillset. He’s inherently a boss, in other words.

Anyway we don’t really find out what the guy wants — a storyline seems amputated, somewhere. Charlie eventually gets him in the water and kicks his forehead and leaves. That’s that dealt with.

Conklin is now romancing BOTH girls. Chester Conklin gets all the pussy. It’s the moustache, has to be. Good Conklin-Chaplin grudge match, with many unconventional moves, not all of them within the Queensberry Rules. In particular, when Charlie folds Chester up and uses him as a chair while going through his wallet, we may feel that a line had been crossed.

The girls are off to the Majestic Cinema to see HELEN’S STRATAGEM. Charlie’s stratagem is to pursue them.

Nice plotting: the big beau, emerging from Echo Lake in a sodden condition, wrings out his jacket over Conklin’s face, inadvertently reviving him. It’s quite a lot like when the fake bat pukes on Dracula’s ashes in SCARS OF DRACULA. But better, obviously, because Christopher Lee didn’t wear a moustache like Dracula does in the book. What kind of moustache? Wouldn’t it be amazing if Dracula had a Chester Conklin cookie-duster? All dripping with blood and everything.

Chaplin is now embracing both girlies in the front row of the Majestic, and since his arms are occupied he’s telling them stories using his legs to gesture with. A young Charley Chase is somewhere in the audience behind him, the third CC in this movie. Then his rivals, Chester and the big beau, arrive, and we find out why cinema seats these days are bolted to the floor, and then Charlie is thrown through the cinema screen and pelted with bricks The End.

The clear implication from this film’s eventful action is that CC and CC do this every day of their lives.