Archive for May 16, 2021

The Sunday Intertitle: Promising a Young Woman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2021 by dcairns

A WOMAN was Charlie’s last drag act, building on earlier entries at Keystone. The versions on YouTube are sadly defective — the restored version is there with annoying pop-ups, and my internet connection was playing up, making the action herky-jerky, ruining the smooth movement. The unrestored one is missing the sarcastic opening intertitle. Still, proper movement is essential, so I watched that one. I should really have bought the box set for this project… maybe I will for the Mutual films.

Edna Purviance is in the park with her folks, silk-hatted swell Charles Inslee (the boss in WORK) whose moustache has a remarkable wingspan, and Marta Golden (the deshabille housewife, also in WORK). The parents are snoring unattractively until Inslee spies a floozy (Margie Reiger) and sneaks off to woo her.

The park this time is Lincoln Park, LA. Chaplin now has a new studio, Majestic, nearishby on Fairview Avenue. Seems to be less draughty.

Here comes Charlie now — backlit, seen through the haze of a lawn sprinkler, the sun eating away at his familiar silhouette to make it strange, spidery. It suddenly doesn’t feel like him.

Then he’s flirting rather creepily with Reiger and, yes, that’s Charlie all right. His cane has a life of its own, snagging her ankle and dragging her off the bench, tripping him at the same time.

Inslee, barging in, jealously brains the Little Fellow with a bottle and Charlie stiffens into rigor mortis, with the odd inverted spasm thrown in. Slowly crawling back to consciousness, he’s joined on the bench by two more twerps in toppers, regular co-stars Leo White and Billy Armstrong (puffing out his chest to create a very particular type). Leo has no reason to be in the film at all, but he was a valued co-star, so Chaplin tries to find him some work.

More bottle-smashing on the noggins. Sugar glass seems to be a new discovery for CC — at least I HOPE it’s sugar glass — maybe it was something Majestic Studios made on-site?

Charlie’s first female impersonation in the film comes here — Inslee is playing blind-man’s-bluff with Eiger, who’s wandered off, and when Charlie steals his (root?) beer, he thinks its her.

Charlie now follows the dictum about revenge being a dish best served cold: he leads Inslee by the crook of his cane up to a pond, testing the water to make sure it’s deep enough… at a carefully planned moment he lets CI remove his eye-mask, then smashes him with his own bottle and kicks him into the drink. He doesn’t mess about… except in the sense that everything he does is messing about.

A kop shows up, doing the dramatic knee-bend thing that British bobbies are famed for. Never seen it in a US film (and never understood its meaning). Did Charlie instruct him in this? Neither IMDb nor Wiki seem to have identified this actor. It’s not Paddy McGuire and I don’t think it’s Lloyd Bacon. Obviously a good trick falls man by the way Charlie judo-throws him into the pond after Inslee.

As for Reiger, Wiki says: “Margie Reiger, the youthful actress who played the pretty girl in the park, is a bit of a mystery. Her acting credits show 13 appearances in silent films—all in 1915. Why her career suddenly ended and what became of her is unknown. Furthermore, no researcher has been able to find a date of birth or death for her.”

The mystery would be accounted for, but not dispelled, by the use of a stage name.

Note that when Charlie throws the kop into the water, his derby follows — clearly unplanned. But Chaplin makes a bit of business of it, rescuing the hat with a deft swipe of his cane. Who wants to wait around while your supporting cast dry out for a retake? Just plough through it, it’ll work.

Mystery solved, I think: when the cop staggers out of the lake, he has Billy Armstrong’s face. Armstrong playing two roles, kop and souse in topper? With almost the same moustache?

Charlie is now flirting with Marta Golden, but mainly, one suspects, so that he can subcontract his flirting in Edna’s direction, Humber Humbert fashion. Despite his appearance, it seems we’re not meant to see him as a tramp here, since the women seem flattered by his attentions, which tends not to happen if you’re a tramp, even an unusually pixieish one. Now that I get a better look at him, Charlie is smarter than usual — same basic costume, just neater, less ragged versions of the familiar baggy pants etc.

The girls invite Charlie home. Odd. But who are we to judge? Let him that is without sin cast the first cream pie. Elaborate flirtation: a doughnut briefly becomes a wedding ring.

Meet papa: Charlie’s double-take when he realises Edna’s dad is the bloke he kicked backwards into a duck pond is a form of comedy we don’t generally see him do. His features are more antically mobile in these early shorts, but this is a real gawp, the jaw dropping as the blood rushes from his face and then his knees go noodle-limp…

FIGHT! Charlie is literally flung about by his face, then goes into the strangling routine he’d refine to whiplash-perfection later with Eric Campbell. He retaliates with condiments. Armstrong joins the fray and Charlie loses his trousers.

I definitely never imagined his underwear looking like THAT. I mean, I hadn’t given the matter much thought, but I suppose if I’d had to write a piece o speculative slash fiction I’d have gone for boxer shorts with a polka dot motif. Something generic. There are… weird. Long johns with big baggy underpants worn over them? Maybe the pants are a bathing costume? But they’re pinned to his thighs, somehow?

So now Charlie has simply no choice but to drag up. Of course.

“Censors initially refused permission for A Woman to be shown in Great Britain. The reason is not entirely clear, but it could have been because a married man is trying to seduce a much younger woman or because of the transvestitism hinted at by Charlie disguising himself as a female. The ban on the film was lifted in 1916.”

Given the nature of the British music hall, the British panto, and British life in general, the idea that Charlie’s innocuous drag act got the film banned seems preposterous. I think his peculiar taste in underthings is a better explanation. Although the scene where he undresses a tailor’s mannequin (having first started in alarm at the headless apparition) with the sleazy delicacy of a seasoned seducer does seem rather censorable. Charlie makes people into objects and objects into other objects or else people, and so we can SEE the imaginary girl he’s denuding here. Suggestive mime.

Charlie in full femme costume WITH toothbrush ‘tache IS rather subversive and scandalous, unexpectedly. Ron Mael solemnity. His unique walk acquires a wiggle. But it’s the same walk, now rendered feminine and sexy. Luckily for him, the first member of the household to see him is Edna, who laughs herself sick (good mime from E.P.) She advises him to shave off the crepe.

After a couple of awkward cutaways of the kind he used whenever a sequence needed an excuse to be shorter, Charlie is now transformed into Anita Loos as Prince, and is so gorgeous he has to give himself a rare closeup to exploit it. If this is the reason for the UK ban, it says a lot about how uncomfortable Charlie’s feminine side made the bluenose brigade.

Charlie, who had been barely competent when male — unable to operate simple objects like soda syphons without dousing himself, now becomes elegant, chic. True, he can’t walk in heels, but he makes not being able to walk look good.

More transgression — he gets Edna to kiss him, and they dissolve in sapphic giggles, two schoolgirls experiencing their first “pash”.

Now Charlie’s flirting with Edna’s dad. Is this what TEOREMA is like?

Now Billy Armstrong is also smitten. Chaplin comes from the same music hall tradition that leads to the CARRY ON films, where an ugly man dresses up as a woman and all the men fancy him. It’s stupid comedy about male stupidity. But how does it work when the man is beautiful, but disguised to look less so, and then when he’s a woman he’s REALLY beautiful? It’s a lot less silly.

The loveplay with Armstrong alternates endearments from BA and violent, Miss Piggy type thumps from she-Charlie. And Armstrong kisses Charlie, which one can imagine the bluenoses getting flustered about. But you’d think they’d snip the shot — so it can wind up on Philippe Noiret’s outtakes reel — rather than outlawing the whole movie.

Can I just ask who Charlie’s dress originally belonged to? He’s half the thickness of Edna and a third that of her mum…

Charlie’s skirt falls down and somehow Edna’s dad realises he’s a man. Because those are men’s pants? But are they? They don’t even look human to me.

The film now plunges into a strange section where Charlie attempts to unite the feuding family, get everyone’s forgiveness, and ask Edna’s hand in marriage. Father is flabbergasted or fathergasted, but eventually yields, showing that he can take a joke. He offers Charlie his hand in friendship. Then, after stretching this fake-out just past the point where you suspect anything, Chaplin has dad kick him up the arse, deliver a fantastic roundhouse slap to his face, and boot him out into the street, where he joins the previously ejected Armstrong.

This is one of my favourite endings to date. The structure and plausibility of the films to date is erratic enough that the idea of dad welcoming Charlie into the bosom of the family is just about believable as an unbelievable ending Chaplin might have gone for, so the surprise really works. And we’re not emotionally invested enough in the romance for it to matter that things don’t pan out between Edna and her skeezy, cross-dressing beau. A lot of the earlier films, especially the early Keystones, just end on a random gag, as if anything that gets a laugh will do as resolution, but this one genuinely finishes the film off. Chaplin has begun to understand and care about structure.

Now to see what he can do with it.