Grand Theft Jalopy

American women’s fashions in the 1910s were horrible, weren’t they? The pullover Edna Purviance wears in THE CHAMPION is the only thing she ever looked good in, that I can think of. In A JITNEY ELOPEMENT her frilly blouse makes her look like some kind of fancy pillow.

Still, she is Charlie’s darling, and when her father plans to wed her to some motheaten count, he personates said count (making him TRULY motheaten) to abscond with her. Leo White is the real count, of course — the fact that he looks like one may have been what suggested the film to Chaplin in the first place. His Little Fellow character would spend quite a lot of time personating dignitaries, starting with THE MASQUERADER, continuing through THE COUNT, and ending of course with his taking the place of the Phooey of Tomainia.

The name “Count Chloride de Lime” is moderately funny. Charlie trying to lord it up is amusing, but feels like it happens too soon in the story: we need to see him being himself a little more before we’re ready for this. Of course, we know what Charlie’s like as himself from other films, so the movie is maybe presuming on that familiarity, a sign of Chaplin’s increasing awareness of his success. I think the fact that he was so prolific in the early part of his year with Essanay (where he never felt quite at home) also suggests that he was trying to fulfill his contractual obligation as soon as he could, so he could be free to seek an even more rewarding deal elsewhere. So his sense that the Chaplin craze would be burned out within a year may have already been modified.

Edna’s dad performs a foul bit of expository mime for our benefit, pointing at Charlie then at his ring finger — yes, yes, we already know you want the Count to marry Edna, what do you think you’re playing at? I though Chaplin had eliminated this kind of laborious rigmarole when he left Keystone…

One way AJE improves on THE MASQUERADER is its simplicity. Whereas Keystone pics heap on plot wrinkles and complications, rarely resolving them with anything more satisfying than a tumble into standing water, the Essanay films allow Chaplin breathing room to play out simple situations. The set-up isn’t elaborate but the mucking about is.

Fun with bread! Charlie hasn’t got the idea of stealing the dance of the rolls from Fatty Arbuckle yet, but there’s a lovely bit where he distractedly tries to cut a slice from a loaf, slicing around in a long spiral rather than cutting through it, until he’s made a baked accordion of it. Best gag so far. Of course, in Charlie’s hands the loaf actually becomes a musical instrument.

Edna’s father is a very trusting man: he doesn’t wonder while Count Chloride is dressed like a tramp, nor why Edna is suddenly so keen on the fellow.

When a spoonful of beans is deposited on Charlie’s plate when he’s not looking, his surprise at finding it there is followed by a look skywards, as if it were birdshit — a gag repeated with a better choice of foodstuff in MODERN TIMES’ prison scene.

At 9:36 I think I can see Chaplin looking right at the camera and maybe saying “OK” or something. I don’t think he’s saying “cut” but I get the sense he’s breaking character.

Then a jalopy shows up, with Leo White in it. Leo seems to be the replacement for Ben Turpin as co-comedian. As Chaplin gained in confidence he would be less inclined to let anyone else be too funny, at least until the features. He was looking for a new Conklin at this point. White is obviously a different type from Chester and Ben, but he’s useful because of his toffee-nosed elegance. Charlie actually has the same air of gentility, but in his case it’s ironic. Leo is suavity in its natural colours.

This moment ought to create suspense, though there’s nothing formally to identify Leo as the Count. An intertitle could have cleared up any ambiguity, but Chaplin seems to be relying on the fact that Leo White couldn’t be called anything other than Count Chloride de Lime.

Charlie eats hot soup and blasts steam/smoke out his nostrils, a nifty special effect presumably achieved with the aid of a cigarette.

Upon Count Chloride presenting his card, Charlie is towed, naughty-boy, into the hall by his earlobe, where he fatalistically presents his behind for the customary boot. Which is delivered more in anger than sorrow. Charlie tips his hat meekly… then kicks his no-long-father-in-law-to-be in the guts, propelling him into the next set. By the time the old fellow has returned to the scene via the conventional Henry “Pathe” Lehrmann match cut on movement, Charlie has gone, which isn’t like him at all. I suspect missing footage. People never normally effect an exit in a Chaplin film without you getting to see it. The intertitle reading “Get out!” seems to have been spliced in to take care of this lacuna, but whether by Chaplin himself or later hands, I cannot say.

Edna receives the Count’s rather Italianate effusions with coldness, shaking her hand as if to cast off filthy droplets after he kisses it (but note: she shakes the wrong hand).

Edna, Pops and the Count go for an outing, and the deteriorated film stock gives this section a fogbound, Scottish look. Dank and dreary. It looks like David Hamilton’s been at the lens with his petroleum jelly. Pops, exhorting Edna to make nice with her creepy suitor, mimes another boot up the arse, but pulls his kick because leading ladies must not be treated so.

Edna’s revulsion at Leo’s advances is well-played, one of the few times Chaplin lets her be funny. Then she’s laughing at the holes in his trousers — he literally IS moth-eaten. Not clear why Edna’s dad is so keen on the match, the fiance being without finance. I guess he just likes titles.

Chaplin brings the film to a stop while he rolls a cigarette. This is done largely without gags, at great length and with huge detail and precision… then the fag paper unwraps and the whole thing disintegrates in his face. Textbook.

Defeated — and glancing at us with embarrassment — “Did they notice anything?” — he simply eats a handful of tobacco. The following action, however, when he lights up an ordinary ciggie, is pure filler.

Now Charlie confronts Leo, and we get an ornate bout of squabbling and low-level slapstick abuse. Fast, inventive, adroit. Ending with Leo’s silk hat rammed down over his eyes and the man himself ejected by boot into Edna’s oblivious father. Great and protracted tumbling over a log bench. (The varieties of park furniture in this era seem endless.

Enter two cops, a moustache and a face-puller, both equally thick. They try to follow Charlie but he fools them by walking backwards. The constabulary are played by the same clowns who were dad’s butlers, Lloyd Bacon and Paddy McGuire.

Rough-and-tumble with Edna as Charlie tries to spoon with her on a branch. The leading ladies post-Keystone were rarely subjected to such bruising ordeals. I think it’s a mark of comic respect when they get to fall over.

Charlie now fights Leo, Edna’s dad, the two cops (felled with two handy bricks, of the kind you always find lying around in parks) and a big cop, the inevitable Bud Jamison. There follows a vaguely Griffith-style chase, unusual for Chaplin. Lots of skidding, though. Then the couple steal a jalopy, though whether it’s actually a jitney (hire-cab) is unclear to me. Charlie unscrews the radiator cap and drops a coin in to make it go.

The “bad guys” (the forces of order) steal a car of their own, beating up the owner in their zeal. We drive past a huge windmill, a moment of sightseeing and majestic scale highly untypical of Chaplin at this time. Something about the giant rotating arms seems to confuse the drivers, who throw their vehicles into meaningless spins, like spiders on LSD. At one point, a missing-frames jump cut makes a car vanish before our eyes, apported to Meliesville.

Chaplin doesn’t seem inspired to come up with any proper gags in this scenario, but he tries out traveling shots taken alongside his car, dynamic depth compositions with the autos passing a whisker’s breadth from the camera, and various other visual strategies that didn’t normally interest him.

Charlie stops to load up with bricks, then has engine trouble. His pursuers, mere seconds behind in the preceding shot, never arrive in this one. Fixing the motor, he cocks his snook at them, drives off, and then we see the enemy trailing behind him by the exact same margin they were at before.

The bricks come in handy, knocking Bud from his seat into the road. We pause for a jalopy duel in a really interesting neighbourhood. Apparently this is San Francisco, and when you know that, the vertical structures make a bit more sense, as does the foggy diffusion effect. Though it’s weird to see people building UP in a flat, open area of quasi-suburban sprawl.

Chaplin is often criticised for his lack of interest in scenic values, so enjoy the novelty while you can. It’s not clear to me that this fresh architecture adds anything really useful to his cinema, it’s just mildly interesting to see.

Finally, the pursuing car is nudged into the bay, and Edna laughs wickedly at what seems to be her father’s demise, then puckers up for a chaste kiss from her rescuer, interrupted by an abrupt cut to black.

Interesting to see Chaplin try the kind of car chase associated more with Keystone but which he didn’t really do when he was there. He missed the chance to be the first one to go up and down those wretched hills, though.

2 Responses to “Grand Theft Jalopy”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Since the Constitution makes no allowance for titles of nobility, status-hungry rich Americans sought out aristocratic sons-in-law. Threadbare gentry, genuine and otherwise, flocked to the land of opportunity to cash in. Comedians and cartoonists were milking the theme well before Chaplin arrived, so little elaboration was needed.

    Early on the dubious nobleman was a standard rival for comic heroes, combining the bluster of the bully with the arrogance of the rich man, and frequently being exposed as a fraud, cad, and/or thief in the bargain. The girl’s parents rarely cared so long as they were getting a title for their money.

    Charley Chase and Harold Lloyd both competed with Gentlemen. In fact, both also borrowed the idea of impersonating Gentlemen to gull rich parents. Reginald Denny’s 1924 comedy “The Reckless Age” involves a nobleman who takes out insurance against the cancellation of his wedding to an heiress. That worthy had evidently seen enough films to know the odds.

    The 1892 Sherlock Holmes story “The Noble Bachelor” centers on a Wild West heiress vanishing before her marriage to a sniffy lord. Charles Dana Gibson and other cartoonists served up effete foreigners pursuing or being pursued; it was explicitly about buying social status. And of course the patriarch of “Downton Abbey” sought out a wealthy American bride to keep the place up.

    And my own novel includes … (sounds of a scuffle and a door slamming)

  2. That all makes sense.

    It’s probably a mistake to have Count Chloride be threadbare here, though, it makes him too much like Charlie, an impoverished proponent of airs and graces. Charlie versus an actual toff is a better situation.

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