Archive for June 9, 2021

Clip Joint

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2021 by dcairns

Essanay released TRIPLE TROUBLE in 1918, over two years after Chaplin had left the studio, and they claimed in advertisements that it was a complete Chaplin film they’d been hanging on to. In fact, it’s a couple of sequences from the abandoned feature LIFE, a few bits of POLICE, and the last shot of WORK, patched together with new footage specially filmed by Leo White.

Chaplin sued, arguing that this fraudulent Frankenstein of a film would damage his professional standing. Essanay successfully argued that critics, many of whom reviewed the film favourably, couldn’t tell the difference, and so neither could the public. So much for newspaper reviewers.

I’m writing about the film now since all the Chaplin footage in it was shot in 1915. I’m writing about it at all because it does include material, the LIFE outtakes, which is not available elsewhere. (Cutting together the scenes Chaplin himself repurposed for POLICE with the scenes here would give us a stronger idea of the unfinished movie’s narrative.)

The film begins with a chaotic series of random shots of context-free characters — a mad scientist, a count, a butler, a cook, Charlie and Edna as a skivvies. Which is pretty much how it continues. In the fuzzy print on YouTube, few intertitles seem to survive, so White’s plan, if he had one, is obscured. He himself is playing a count, though, and he’s trying to buy the radio-controlled explosives from the scientist. The scientist is refusing — we can imagine him saying “I intended my radio-controlled explosive to be used for peaceful means!” (credit to Simon Kane for this joke) — and so White seems to send hired thug Wesley Ruggles to achieve something or other.

As David Robinson says, some of White’s scene matching is quite clever — Charlie exits carrying a bin, and White cuts to new footage of himself in typical silk hat mode, walking down the street, only for the bin to rise over a high fence and tip its contents over him. The montage makes us believe Charlie is wielding the second bin, and that there’s in fact only one bin. As with his mangling of A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, White is also reasonably adept at match-cutting entrances and exits filmed some time (two years?) apart. He doesn’t have much of the original cast to play with, but Billy Armstrong, extravagantly moustached, matches his own exits with new entrances and ties the various separately-shot sequences together, bodily. The trouble is, White — as we know from ABOC, is really shit at narrative.

Oh, he’s helped by something else — Wesley Ruggles apparently was to appear in LIFE as a thug, wearing the same costume he has on in POLICE, but with bigger fake eyebrows. And his trousers don’t seem to be torn yet in LIFE. Curiously, Chaplin shelved all the Ruggles material from LIFE, but kept other footage for use in POLICE, along with Ruggles and his pinstripes. So White is able to use film of Ruggles in both LIFE and POLICE (optically flipping the latter into Looking Glass Land, which shows a certain scrupulousness about disguising his perfidy) along with new material of Ruggles running around firing his gun indoors, which he cuts together with Charlie reacting in unflipped POLICE shots.

Actually, this may not even be Ruggles in the LIFE footage, just a guy wearing his suit.

None of this micro-cunning matters because on a macro level the film is a mess. But let’s look at the Chaplin bits.

The stuff in the house which isn’t from POLICE shows Charlie being incompetent with a bin, which he tips on Edna through carelessness. It’s not particularly inspired, and is interestingly mainly because we discover that, in LIFE, Charlie was to have worn a top with striped sleeves, revealed whenever he removed his tiny jacket. Why this insignificant change in the customary costume? We may never know.

The flophouse scenes, a different batch from POLICE’s, are much more interesting. In LIFE, there were apparently to have been two flophouse nights, a contrasting set. TT uses the second sequence, in which Charlie arrives with a cigar, probably filched from his new employer. He was penniless in the scene that appeared in POLICE, now he has money to hide from a thief who’s robbing the snoring schnorrers.

The IMDb mentions Snub Pollard, who’s evidently too well-disguised for me to identify, and also Albert Austin, in what would be his only Chaplin Essanay appearance, as “man.” Didn’t clock him either.

Ruggles’ motivation here is opaque, but he’s evidently a bad guy. No sympathetic character could sport such caterpillarish eyebrows.

Charlie is pretty nasty too, using one drunk’s mouth as an ashtray, and later silencing the fellow with one of Essanay’s sugar-glass beer bottles. It’s a return to the viciousness of THE PROPERTY MAN — interestingly, both derive from Chaplin’s early life experiences — the workhouse dormitory and backstage life. This seems to bring out his sadism.

“A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion” ~ Nietzsche.

“Chaplin is a very simple case. He is compelled to endlessly reenact the humiliations of poverty” ~ Freud.

There are more extravagantly outlandish rags being worn in this sequence — Chaplin could give Terry Gilliam a run for his money when it comes to using the homeless as set decoration.

I’m not 100% sure than Chaplin intended LIFE to be a feature, but that’s what the sources say. What survives looks like maybe half a two-reeler. Charlie struggles to get a place in the flophouse, then gets a job emptying bins at a house where Mabel works, returns to the flophouse (comparatively) flush with money.

The scientist thing is entirely White’s invention, but forms an interesting antecedent to Laurel & Hardy’s DIRTY WORK, where the boys are chimney cleaners arriving at the home of a mad scientist, an odd juxtaposition of story elements which may have been inspired by White’s desperately improvisations here.

The scientist’s invention is accidentally detanated at the “climax” of TRIPLE TROUBLE, a sequence which, for obvious reasons, barely involves Charlie. The most interesting shot in the film shows the kops (of course there are kops) apparently tumbling through the air, having been blasted skywards by the almighty boom. The crummy print and video interlacing render the image almost incoherent, but it seems like an interesting effect.

And then Charlie pokes his head from an oven, stolen from the end of WORK. Ruggles, in a new shot, lobs a brick at him — a callback to Keystone days — White cuts back to Charlie reacting to random rubble in WORK, and the thing ends.

I find repurposed footage movies sort of interesting, from WHAT’S NEW, TIGER LILY? to HERCULES UNCHAINED to DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID and TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER. They never really work, though. You would think that those which have the luxury of being able to shoot new material with some of the same actors would be the most coherent, but Blake Edwards and Leo White can prove the contrary.

On Sunday, we begin Chaplin’s Mutual period — I’m excited! These are the Charlie Chaplin films I grew up with, or failed to grow up with, on BBC2, accompanied by the Goed Nieuws Orkest. Alas, their lovely Chaplin violin theme is nowhere to be found today…