Archive for June 6, 2021

The Sunday Intertitle: Convict 999

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2021 by dcairns

POLICE was Chaplin’s last “real” film for Essanay, and they hung onto it for a few months, releasing it after THE FLOORWALKER, his first film at Mutual, in May 1916.

The cast list, which is a bit more fulsome than usual, gives us usual suspects Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, Billy Armstrong and John Rand, along with CC himself. Confusingly, Armstrong is listed as “The Miser” but no such character appears, I think it’s a typo for “The Minister.”

After two films where he’s played a relatively high-status character, Charlie starts this film being released from prison, and this is the first film to position him as a convict — in THE ADVENTURER and THE PILGRIM he’d play an escapee, and MODERN TIMES uses repeated arrests and releases as a structuring device (almost the only one it has, you might argue). The two Chaplins of THE GREAT DICTATOR exchange arrests, and MONSIEUR VERDOUX is caught, tried and executed.

The real Chaplin — or maybe I should say the real-world Chaplin, since I don’t think the Tramp is NOT real — would have his own legal troubles.

Two things: Charlie STRETCHES as he’s released, because prison is confining. It makes no logical sense but feels right. And it’s been raining, or, more likely, this being L.A., someone has hosed the sidewalk. To make the outside world seem more uninviting. The intertitle characterises the world as the sort of place people commit suicide out of.

A sinister personage is already watching our hero. Chaplin, who had played sinister personages with glee on stage and in a couple of early Keystones, gives him a great entrance:

This lurker proves to be a phony preacher who pretends to reform Charlie. Now, in THE TRAMP there was a minister too, and Charlie dropped a rotten egg in his Bible. This throwaway gag wasn’t ABOUT anything, but it did seem to express an unformed anti-clerical or anyhow disrespectful attitude. Here, Chaplin has actually worked out a philosophy. ..

The holy platitudes move Charlie to tears. True, he wipes his eyes with the minister’s (patently false) beard, but this is not conscious lack of respect, it’s just that people and objects are interchangeable to Charlie. Inspired by the good word, he passes up a golden opportunity to relieve a drunk of his fob watch. And then he discovers his pocket’s been picked and sees the crooked minister is rolling the drunk he’d spared. (I’ve been reading William Burroughs’ Junkie which is a magnificent primer on how to roll drunks, among other things. The minister’s technique lacks finesse, but he did manage to rob Charlie without any of us seeing it.) The next (apparently sincere) priest to attempt saving Charlie’s soul gets seen off with threats of violence.

Maybe Chaplin’s anti-clerical impulses already derive from leftist sympathies, I don’t know. But the message seems clear: there are honest and dishonest preachers in the world: avoid both kinds.

Determinedly pursuing the hapless cleric, Charlie collides with and bowls over John Rand as a kop, who does a great fall and then gives chase. Surprisingly, the chase fades out just as it’s getting started, and we next see Charlie checking into a flophouse for the night. This is footage taken from LIFE, the Essanay feature project Chaplin had begun and abandoned, thus proving that you don’t have to be Leo White to recycle Chaplin footage. It doesn’t even help to be Leo White.

The dosshouse tenants are an extraordinary bunch — the look like pirates who have come from an explosion. This kind of scene and setting are quite unusual for silent comedy, but Chaplin is trying to find the common ground. His later movies that delve into poverty would portray the world with a kind of slightly softened realism. Here, we’re almost in the Emmett Kelly “hobo clown” domain. One of these guys is Snub Pollard.

Leo White plays the landlord/proprietor as a Jewish emigré type in a filthy waistcoat. A hint of kindliness — he allows a consumptive customer to bed down free. Charlie, having been relieved of his change earlier, spontaneously acquires a racking cough. Leo boots him out, but not before Charlie has given his beard a cruel yank.

Another strange transition as Charlie provokes a policeman, starts a chase… and strolls into the next scene, apparently unpursued. Then he’s mugged at gunpoint but manages to stealthily rob the pinstriped goon that’s doing it. This is apparently Wesley Ruggles, unrecognisable from his bit as Edna’s dad in SHANGHAIED. Ruggles proves to be Charlie’s old cell mate, and enlists him in a burglary. Armed with pistol and fatal mallet, they approach the target house, and Chaplin throws in an expressionist touch, four years before German expressionism was a thing in movies ~

Well, if you have the most recognisable silhouette in movies, might as well use it.

Kop John Rand has overheard the criminous scheme and is keeping watch, in another remarkable shot:

Lots of creeping and lurking in this one, and it brings out Chaplin’s compositional ideas.

Despite his prior conviction, whatever it may have been for, Charlie is a rank amateur at b&e, more liable to damage Wesley Ruggles than the window he’s charged with jimmying. Never ask a Charlie to jimmy for you, or vice versa. Now Rand’s kop pounced, and there’s one of those slow-burn things where Charlie doesn’t seem to have recognised he’s about to be arrested, until suddenly he wallops Rand with the fatal m. and Rand does a great stiffen-and-collapse, legs flying up as he hits the ground flat (a good friend knows how to do this and it’s a regret that I’ve never asked him to teach me. But I would be rubbish at it and smash my skull in).

Jimmying has no effect on this window, but luckily the door was open all along. Sophisticated bit of cutting inside — the two crooks creep to a curtain — Chaplin cuts to a wide of the room beyond, with Charlie peering into it, then back to the hall as Ruggles bumps into Charlie, then back to the big room as they burst into it. We haven’t seen that kind of cutting in Chaplin before, I don’t think. The days when each room was a single shot have imperceptibly faded away to a new kind of fluid treatment of space.

Of course we probably all guess this was going to be Edna’s house, and here she comes now, awakened by Charlie accidentally pulling over a unit full of metallic ornaments with his cane (startled, he dives under a rug, which becomes a bedsheet from which he says his prayers).

Ruggles produces a drill from somewhere. These two incompetents don’t have a toolkit or a swag bag, but it seems not to matter because Ruggles has, it seems, extraordinarily capacious pockets. I bet Charlie does too, judging from his pants. Charlie attempts to drill his way into the piano, for reasons unknown. If you were going burgling and you had the choice of Charlie or Harpo… well, probably going it alone would be your best option.

Edna calls the kops, who are all daintily drinking tea, a nice, strange touch.

This whole situation is great: Charlie is stuck in a situation demanding stealth, wile and ruthlessness, but all he can offer is inane fumbling. A bungler not a burglar. Plus he has a short-tempered associate more competent but also more dangerous than he, to intimidate and shove him about. This kind of thing would become standard for CC.

Lots of mileage is gotten from unlikely objects. He falls in a wicker basket and it becomes momentarily a turtle’s shell, then he steps in it, and simply by raising the wrong foot to get free, traps himself in a deteriorating spiral, leglocked and disorientated.

Using elaborate safecracker pantomime, Charlie breaks into the icebox. It’s not even certain if this is a mistake or mere whimsy. Objects are so easily transposed, there’s really only one all-purpose object in the world, and it’s all people and animals too.

Nonsensically, Charlie steals an alarm clock, and moments later Chaplin offers us the first ever view INSIDE the baggy pants, as the clock goes off. This provokes a frantic, electroconvulsive dance from Charlie, surely an exaggeration. Handed the basket, Charlie fills it with flowers and discards the valuable containers.

Sixteen mintes into a twenty-six minute film, Charlie runs into Edna, and immediately flees, leaping into Ruggles’ arms and then surrendering to an empty room. Ruggles covers Edna with his revolver, but she’s made of sterner stuff. She tells Ruggles to be quiet as her father is very ill. She invites them to dine — she knows the kops are coming — like men in a dream, the housebreakers fall in with their hostess’ request.

Chaplin has fun with the domesticity of the kops too. While they are indeed motoring at speed to the rescue, they’re also smoking cigars and looking very relaxed about it. This is much more characterful clowning than the Keystone variety of frenetic stagger, which does have character in it but, through its rampant disunity and hyperactivity, presents a singular aspect of chaos rather than individual reactions.

This short has more stylistic devices and sheer filmmaking imagination than Chaplin’s whole career to date! A sudden Sergio Leone closeup (but in vignette) shows Ruggles reacting to Edna’s jewellery. We tilt suspensefully up from her beringed fingers to her anxious face.

While Ruggles is off burglarizing, Charlie again shows himself a sucker for reformists, as Edna sweet-talks him into yielding to his better side. Priests is one thing, pretty girls another. But when she utters the exact same words as the film’s opening man of the cloth, Charlie checks his pockets. Good stuff — sentimentality at this stage of Chaplin’s career is mainly a set-up for a deflating punchline, it’s a spice that adds flavour.

Laden with Edna’s property, Charlie tips his hat and shakes hands as he and Ruggles prepare to make their getaway. Charlie has mostly grabbed not particularly valuable furnishings and impedimenta. But Ruggles still wants to try upstairs — Edna protests — now it’s her mother who’s sick — a struggle, as they say, ensues. Charlie is impatient with this sort of ungentlemanliness, and when Ruggles makes to haul off and slap Edna, he instinctively comes to her defence. Like a Jean-Pierre Melville heister, he has a code of honour which does not, however, prevent him from kicking Ruggles in the breadbasket when his dander us up. Ruggles throughout has a small, distracting tear in the seta of his pants, which now enlarges like an iris.

The kop, John Rand, now shows himself to be a subject worthy of continued study, as he awakens from his earlier concussion at the front door, enters the fray, and is at once reconcussed by a swung swag bag not even aimed at him. Staggering out again, he makes an “Oh sod it” gesture and lies down as if to sleep, then as an afterthought sits up and loudly mouths “Help! Help!” then lies back down again, so far as he’s concerned, unconscious.

Fiona asks is this is a Rand improv or if he’s following direction. We can’t know. All we can say is that Chaplin liked it enough to include it when he could have cut it. Rand was an ex-circus clown and presumably had considerable experience working up comedy business. I wasn’t really familiar with him before this trawl through the Essanays, but Chaplin kept him around for decades — I’d seen him a lot without knowing it.

The rescuing kops now arrive. Ruggles exudes via the back window. Rand runs behind the house and Charlie rereconcusses him with his own truncheon. Grabbed by the fuzz, he’s saved by Edna pretending he’s her husband. The following routine was hugely admired by Walter Kerr, who wrote:

“It is at this point that a virtual miracle takes place. With no transition at all, Charlie becomes Edna’s husband. Affable, outgoing, utterly at home, digging his hands into his pockets and flexing his knees as though he were master of his own domain and ready to get out the humidor, he is all bourgeoise bonhomie, the host par excellence, eager to show his guests about and have them back again soon. Nobody has ever been more completely the confident man of the house.

“The impersonation lasts only for a moment or two, but, for me, its implications are immense. It is entirely clear that Charlie could have been this man at any time he chose to adopt the role. He is no born underdog, deprived of opportunity by an unfeeling society. He is not inept, uneducated, uninformed, socially unacceptable. There is nothing in his natural equipment or in his background, nothing cruelly unjust in the society around him to keep him from most acceptably playing for a full twenty-four hours a day the part he is playing now. He might have married Edna, might have run a house, might have had children, might have gone to church, might have worked and become rich, might have done anything he cared to put his mind to. The competence is there, in plain view. The posture is believed in, even by the police. Nothing stands between his talents and the assumption of a role in which they might be exercised. He is no natural tramp.”

Of course the great Kerr is never wrong, but here he may be slightly wrong. Maybe he’s influenced by a greater belief in the American success story than I enjoy. In my estimation, Chaplin himself, who was the supreme example of the American success story, didn’t much believe in it either. Look at him looking at Lady Liberty askance in THE IMMIGRANT. His success was too freakish and tremendous to be believed in. So I think the tramp is (a) a natural aristocrat trapped in a tramp’s trappings, and (b) most definitely imprisoned by an unfeeling society, often literally. The reason he can’t become what he’s clearly capable of, respectable, is the way society is constructed.

I note also that Charlie’s hubby act enables him to bite off the end of a cigar and spit it in a kop’s eye.

Kerr is correct to state that there’s no visible transition, Charlie doesn’t even have to think. He’s a frozen culprit, and when he unfreezes he’s the householder. Charlie is always liquid, he fills whatever mould you put him in. The reason he’s not a homeowner the rest of the time is he doesn’t get put in that situation.

The kops, incidentally, are Leo White again, George Cleethorpe and Fred Goodwins.

Chaplin makes a mistake — the Little Fellow is gifted a coin by Edna — she apparently sleeps with lucre in her stockings — and he bites it to be sure it’s legit. Then he exits, and bites it again. I think either one is a good laugh, but the first one invalidates the second.

But then we’re into a classic closing shot, the long road, and Charlie walking off, this time with many a sidelong glance at the noble woman he’s leaving behind. And then, in a superb touch, he stretches again — a callback to the opening shot.

POLICE is a fitting climax to the Essanay period, probably Chaplin’s most achieved and interesting film to date.

And then, wait! Topping the topped, a furious Officer Rand enters frame and chases Charlie back past the camera.