Archive for June 19, 2021

Studio Bound

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2021 by dcairns

As he had at Keystone (A FILM JOHNNIE, THE MASQUERADER) and Essanay (HIS NEW JOB), Chaplin made a behind-the-scenes comedy at Mutual, called BEHIND THE SCREEN. David Robinson regards this one as CC treading water, but a mild Mutual film is still ahead of all Keystones and 90% of Essanays. It’s very enjoyable.

I watched my DVD with the Carl Davis score, and also the restoration paid for by Michel Hazanavicius.

Like so many of us, Edna wants to be in pictures. This seems to have been difficult to accomplish even in 1916.

We follow this plot point with a naked statue gag, a staple of Chaplin’s comedy. The usual idea is to make fun of the Little Fellow’s lecherous hypocrisy as he studies a work of art from a pseudo-aesthetic standpoint, in reality just checking out the knockers. He started doing this at Keystone, and was still at it in CITY LIGHTS. But here we see him prudishly remove a male statue whose stance makes it seem like he’s ogling a female one. I suddenly flashed on the familiarity of the gag, and realised Rossellini had swiped it for ROME: OPEN CITY.

I mean, it’s exactly the same gag, though it serves a slightly different character purpose. Surprisingly, it works for RR in his very different context, just as well as it worked for CC. It even helps that the serious neorealism makes an unexpected setting for visual comedy (but consider De Sica and Fellini’s frequent recourse to the Chaplinesque). Does this brazen theft make you think any the less of RR?

Charlie and Eric Campbell, by now a near-inseparable team, are actually called David & Goliath in this one, although probably those aren’t their given names and the intertitles are just being funny.

The other filmmaker to have been influenced by this one is Polanski, whose early short THE FAT AND THE LEAN has a similar central dynamic, the big lazy guy who dominates the small, industrious one. Charlie is a hopelessly incompetent property man, but at least he puts in the hours. We can see the filmmaker being much more careful about character sympathy, basing a lot of the action of Charlie being put-upon, so that his little revenges can be cheered as well as laughed at. In fact, the set-up here reverses that of THE PROPERTY MAN, where Charlie was props man and bully, kicking his ancient assistant in the face, and received some criticism for the nastiness of his character.

Raymond Durgnat: “One could summarise a proletarian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being outtalked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted. Something like that.” (From here.)

There’s a running gag where Charlie fecklessly trips over and topples the camera tripod, on his way to or from one errand or the other. Fiona was horrified. She’s mindful of the equipment. It’s possible to read Charlie’s carelessness as a ruse, an attempt to get out of being given difficult work. If you’re proven to be incapably stupid, you don’t get the hard jobs, or you shouldn’t. Black audiences reportedly perceived Steppin Fetchit not as a racist caricature of shiftless imbecility, but as a smart Black man who had worked out that the pretense of listlessness and ignorance could protect him from being asked to do too much. Is my own incompetence at the endless paperwork my teaching job requires a subconscious defense? If so, (a) how would I know, if it’s subsconscious? and (b) it doesn’t work.

Chaplin also filmed another running gag, featured in Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin, but not included in the final short: a headsman’s axe toppled and misses the oblivious David/Charlie by inches. As with the impossible gags in THE FIREMAN, this was achieved by reversing the film so as not to risk severing either of cinema’s most celebrated Funny Feet.

Wrestling with big pillars provides some laughter. It’s a good situation where the suspense element means the longer it can be eked out, the better. Charlie had already done it with Ben Turpin in HIS NEW JOB, though. I feel for Henry Bergman as the long-suffering director — he has to absorb a lot of painful-looking abuse in this film, including Charlie standing on his ample bay window.

The other director (Lloyd Bacon) wears round shades, which puzzled Fiona until I reminded her about klieg eyes. Some filmmakers also carried a blue eyeglass which gave them a sense of how a scene would look in b&w — possibly the shades help with this also.

Carrying ten chairs slung over one arm, Charlie transforms, as both David Robinson and Fiona noticed, into a porcupine — or possibly a naval mine, as Fiona further reflected. Then he gives a scalp massage and hairdo to a bearskin rug. The first routine is just the nimble exploitation of a surprising physical possibility, with nothing in particular made of the bristling ball of chair legs — Tati would have had the thing somehow pay off, maybe by having the shape introduced into a movie setting where it could actually fulfill its newly suggested character. The second is funny just through the seriousness, concentration and precision Chaplin brings to it, as he gives the dead bear remnant a nice centre-parting.

The kick up the arse is still a constant — in THE PAWNSHOP it had become a form of communication in itself. Yet just one film from now a critic would complain that Charlie had dropped it and was set on becoming an ubermensch.

Another grim eating scene. PIES! and ONIONS! declare the intertitles, as Albert Austin munches raw spring onions and Charlie reels from the stench. Chaplin, having experienced real poverty and hunger, found food a constant inspiration. His underdog revenge here is to scrounge off Austin’s outsize chop, sandwiching the near end with two slices of bread (which are all he has in his lunchbox) so he can pursue a parasitic existence. Again, Austin’s great contribution is stillness, either gazing on with silent dismay or, as here, failing to notice Charlie’s gastronomic filching. Following the panto/Punch & Judy tradition of “It’s behind you!” this routine depends on the victim almost but not quite catching their foe at it. Chaplin’s finest treatment of the theme is played out with brother Syd in A DOG’S LIFE.

Meanwhile Big Eric consumes his weight in pies with Pantagruelian grotesquerie.

A strike breaks out, which, in its rapid progress towards outright terrorism, is a shameless steal from DOUGH AND DYNAMITE. As Eric/Goliath and Charlie/David both refuse to strike, and the campaigners try to blow up the studio, I have to say that Chaplin at this stage of his career does not seem markedly leftwing. This subplot, which barely impacts on Charlie at all, serves nevertheless as the film’s narrative spine, along with Edna’s occasional appearances.

Charlie is put in charge of trapdoor operations, which is a bad idea. Though in fairness, it’s not all his fault. Instructed to open the trap at the signal of a gunshot, he dutifully does so even when it’s obviously inappropriate. Is it time to mention Henri Bergson? Well, only if we don’t confuse him with Henry Bergman, who has a particularly uncomfortable-looking drop here.

The French philosopher Bergson theorised that comedy comes from people behaving in the inflexible manner of machines. Which doesn’t sound particularly funny in itself, and we can certainly come up with many examples that don’t tickle the ribs — Peter Weller’s performance as Robocop, robotics dancing, the Nuremberg rallies… But Chaplin, who gets so many of his effects by transposition, DOES do a lot of stuff where the line between the animate and the inert is crossed. Charlie is often the opposite of inflexible, though.

But here, Bergson’s ideas are followed. A gunshot means the trapdoor is to be activated, no matter who’s standing on it. And Charlie’s work with the lever is wonderful to behold. Each repositioning of the lever causes him to strike a fresh pose, and he obviously liked the effect because he does it all over again in MODERN TIMES when he runs amuck in the factory. As is quite common in Chaplin’s films, the two set-ups where the action is taking place have an ambiguous relation to one another: separate, but reasonably close; it’s not absolutely clear whether Charlie can see what’s happening over by the trap door, and if he can, whether the view is adequate.

It’s very dangerous to stage a stunt where anybody playing a significant role in it can’t see what’s going on, as you can learn by watching the BBC blow up Anthea Turner (she wasn’t seriously hurt, but SHIT).

In this case, things go wrong because the actor can’t get the gun to fire, even though it was working seconds ago. This is true to life. As every art dept. person knows, the one sure way to get a prop to stop working or fall apart is to hand it to an actor. As soon as it’s given to Eric, he gets it to fire, but nobody’s told him about it being a signal for the trapdoor, which he’s standing on. And Charlie just obeys the starting pistol like a good whippet.

Still, Charlie compounds the problem: having dropped Eric, he then traps his huge neck in the trapdoor, an uncomfortable image prefiguring Ollie’s cartoonish neck-stretching in WAY OUT WEST, which freaked me out as a kid.

Vicious fun with a whole series of unoffending characters being given the drop, including an actress. The leading man is increasingly battered and blackeyed. Henry Bergman’s fall is… ouch.

Pausing amid the mayhem to oil the lever, Charlie also oils himself, Tin Woodsman style, no doubt giving M. Bergson a warm glow of satisfaction.

Here’s Edna, disguising herself as a boy, which leads to some weirdly playful queerbaiting first from Charlie, who somehow finds Edna’s guitar-playing excessively feminine for a lad in dungarees, then from Eric, who catches Charlie and Edna kissing. (The romance element in this one is arbitrary and undercooked — it plays ALMOST as if Charlie is blackmailing Edna into amorous contact by threatening to expose her girlhood or girlishness — but it’s NOT that. It’s not anything else that holds up under examination either.)

Eric’s mincing and flouncing is rather a delight. He’s an incredibly graceful performer, which of course creates a humorous incongruity. Oliver Hardy’s poise is often noted, but Eric is usually just categorized as a suitable figure for Charlie to (sometimes literally) bounce off of, and his comic skill and elegance get short shrift.

David Robinson calls this scene the most overt screen treatment of homosexuality before 1950, which is debatable. I guess one character is imagining he’s seeing two young men kiss romantically. Mainstream movies didn’t show that sort of thing, although a case like WINGS is on the verge. But even excluding hardcore porn, which was being produced at this time and seems to have been surprisingly bisexual in its interests, we have things like DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS. It depends on how you define “overt” and whether you require anyone onscreen to actually be gay.

Chaplin on filmmaking always has some non-comedic interest too, as a portrait of cinematic practice in his time. Here, he makes fun of the practice of shooting multiple movies in the same space, which I don’t know that he’d ever had to deal with professionally, but which is rich material. He has a lot of fun with the slapstick pie fight (the longest and most elaborate until Laurel & Hardy’s ne plus ultra BATTLE OF THE CENTURY) breaking up the period movie next door. In a way it’s a forerunner of the western crashing into the Buddy Bizarre musical in BLAZING SADDLES.

The pie scene is introduced by this title —

The question has been asked, given the rarity of actual pie-fights in silent screen comedy, is this intertitle being ironic or perfectly straightfaced? I’d plump for the latter, since Chaplin often sought to get laughs with titles while using them for expositional/informational purposes at the same time. And I think pies had probably been used onstage before they got into films. The only pastry action in previous Chaplin films is DOUGH AND DYNAMITE and A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, I think. Here, Chaplin seems to introduce the idea of the pie fight as full-on battle.

Charlie and Eric approached to replace an actor who can’t throw and one who considers slapstick too highbrow — which again suggests that Chaplin is trying to put ironic quotes around his recourse to a tired old routine. Charlie is initially keen about throwing a pie at his boss, but rebels when it’s explained that he’s to miss. Once “Action!”is yelled, he abandons the unwritten script and starts pelting Eric with more pies than he previously consumed. Instead of a sling, David wields a mean custard cream.

The secret of reinvigorating hoary material may lie in rediscovering what made it work in the first place and attaining that effect through new additions. The first use of a pie as weapon must have had a deliciously shocking incongruousness — to think! a pie can become a weapon! Chaplin reconnects with the source of the comedy in a couple of ways. First, by inflating the number of pies thrown. Laurel & Hardy would top this in BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, and Blake Edwards would try in THE GREAT RACE, but found the upper limit had been reached.

But Charlie also heaps on incongruity by having Eric’s misses strike the period movie next door. Chaplin breaks not only the fourth wall in this movie, but also the first and third. The pies are not just transforming from food into ballistic weapons, a change which has ceased to startle and is perfectly normal in the context of a silent film studio, but they’re also traveling through time, appearing anachronistically and violating the laws of genre. It’s not certain if this constitutes what Chaplin called “the best idea I’ve ever had,” while requesting an extra two weeks’ shooting time, but it could be.

Meanwhile the dynamite plotters prepare to blow up the whole unnamed studio. Edna comes to the rescue with a handy claw hammer (Albert Austin is clonked on the noggin for the second time in two films running) but is overpowered by a second striker. Sheer chance causes Charlie to be punched into frame, triggering the trapdoor which swallows Eric, and positioning him to rescue Edna. But, rather than having him save the day, it’s more amusing to blow the studio up — a convincing jump cut blasts Eric to smithereens, and we get a final clinch. It’s not an entirely satisfactory narrative arc, but it has the right movie ingredients — villain vanquished, boy gets girl, property is destroyed.

And that, as they say, is entertainment.