The Further Adventures of Commodore Slick

Last we saw, Charlie was waking up in a strange bed. “This is not my beautiful house,” sings David Byrne in the movie trailer. (Why do trailer editors keep doing that?)

We’re at about 11.30 in the above.

Albert Austin, with his upper lip uncharacteristically nude, enters as a butler. Charlie receives fine clothes. Impostures and mistaken identities are as central to Chaplin’s work as they are to Wodehouse’s. Wodehouse may have felt like an imposter in the upper class scenes he described. Chaplin surely must have sometimes felt he didn’t belong amid the riches of Hollywood. And, though his screen character had a magical transformative power — he becomes a lampstand in this one — the comedy demands that he should struggle to adapt his behaviour to such settings.

Eric is flirting with Edna, but his hideous bifurcated beard is tickling her bare arm. The conjoined beard makes him look like two Rasputins standing close together, (each with one eye closed). A hopeless romantic prospect in any sane world.

Attired in a tux, but with giant flapshoe boots, our man descends to join the other guests. The name’s Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie has the same approach as me when it comes to free drink. When there’s free drink, one should attempt to drink all of it, because later there will be no free drink. This approach has a flaw in it somewhere, but looking at it in black and white (or white and black) I’m not sure just what it is.

Albert Austin’s role here, as ever, is to stand by looking vaguely appalled. He’s great at it. Chaplin relies a little less on a stock company from here on, or at least he mixes things up more, but Austin will still be around.

Edna welcomes Charlie eagerly — he’s rescued her from drowning and now he’s rescuing her from a tickly beard. Eric and Charlie square off. We get another iteration of Chaplin’s cigar-burn gag, a rather ouchy piece of supposed slapstick that’s fallen well out of favour today. The last comic cigar burn I recall was in TIME BANDITS, and there David Rappaport merely singed little Craig Warnock’s hair by mistake, and apologised afterwards.

A bit of arse-kicking here, which is funnier because it’s being done covertly. A curtain is introduced so the men can boot each other from adjoining rooms. Since Chaplin gets many effects using contrast, his traditional arse-kick gets funnier when performed in polite circles, discreetly between pleasantries. Also, an innocent party gets kicked, by Eric, naturally.

Henry Bergman is Edna’s dad, his second role in this one. Usually if he’s doubling up, one role will be in drag, but only social class and an inextinguishable pipe separate his twin characters here.

Eric discovers Charlie’s secret: the newspaper carries a story on the recent escapee, complete with incriminating mug shot. Note that Chaplin is quite keen to keep his character nameless. Here, he’s Convict 23, alias “The Eel,” and at the party he’s assumed the pseudonym of Commodore Slick.

Eric resolves to expose his rival, but foolishly leaves Charlie alone with the newspaper. When he presents it, triumphantly, to his fellow guests, it’s been cunningly altered.

Hilariously, the beard is clearly not drawn on to the photograph: Chaplin has had two photos taken and printed up as two newspapers, only in one of them he’s wearing Campbell’s beard.

Unlike in most Hollywood movies, the full text of the news article seems to have been typed out — it doesn’t turn into Latin when the print gets small, it doesn’t turn into a completely unrelated story. “Officials Completely Baffled.” Chaplin has anticipated that I will be freezeframing his work 105 years later. Further evidence of time travel to compliment that woman with the cell phone.

The threat seemingly defused, “Commodore Slick” mingles, continuing to soak up all the free drink he can swipe, even tipping the contents of Loyal Underwood’s glass into his own.

Meanwhile, one of the prison guards from reel one is being entertained by the cook. This twist is borrowed from POLICE and THE COUNT — cooks may be relied upon to entertain kops and the like, bringing fresh jeopardy into the scenario. It’s hardly necessary here. But since the guard is an interloper it not only adds jeopardy, it produces the irony of the guard hiding from Charlie rather than the other way around. The natural order is subverted. We’re through the looking glass here, folks.

Charlie is left on edge. This guard is prowling around the house. Every champagne cork is now a threatening shotgun. With relief, he allows himself to be escorted upstairs to the ballroom by Edna.

Unknown Chaplin reveals that the director considered two added elements for the ballroom, but deleted both. There was to be a sexy Spanish dancer, and a malfunctioning radiator. Charlie would find himself getting hot under the collar, think it’s the result of the tarantella lady, then discover he’s sat next to the radiator which is spurting steam up him. You can still see the radiator, but he deleted this curious gag.

Instead, he disinterestedly contemplates sticking a pin in a big lady’s backside, but doesn’t, only because Edna’s watching. We’re all glad he restrained himself. This kind of active malice is being eliminated.

Meanwhile, Eric phones the prison with a tip-off.

The ballroom has provided only spot gags, but a more promising invention is the balcony/ice cream gag. Chaplin wrote a fairly long analysis of this for the press, emphasising that dropping ice cream down the back of a fat lady’s dress works on TWO LEVELS.

Firstly, the audience is familiar with the cold wetness of ice cream, so they can relate to the gag on a tactile level. He compares this to the gooeyness of the cream pies of yore, harking back to some mythical, prelapsarian age of incessant pie throwing which seems to have been a dim cinematic memory even in 1917. Which is curious, because film historians have found no evidence that it ever really happened.

Secondly, dignified fat rich ladies are fair game. Like rich men in silk hats, the exaggerated dignity of the dowager demands to be taken down a peg or three. So the gag combines, in dynamic tension, the opposite qualities of empathy and alienation. Surprise and not-me.

(All explanations of comedy are only partial at best, and so the one devised by the desensitized dystopia-dwellers of Nigel Kneale’s TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics is as good as any: a gag must be surprising, and it must be befalling someone else.)

But what makes the ice cream gag funny in this case, is its effect on Eric Campbell. He’s just teased the dowager with his ice cream spoon on her bare back, and been gently scolded, but it’s all in good fun.

Then Charlie has an ice cream accident, depositing the whole of his dessert down the front of his trousers. This is traumatic enough to provoke a sympathy-seeking glance at his chums in the audience ~

The ice cream globule completes a shiversome odyssey down the baggy pants leg, and is chuted out by trouser cuff over the edge of the balcony — SPLAT!

The poor lady gets the dairy bombshell down her dress, and Eric gets the blame. “You’ve gone too far this time, Campbell!” His shamed squirming is very funny, and he’s a much more deserving victim than the lady. She’s just collateral damage. His attempts to help out, rolling up a sleeve to retrieve the offending item like some dapper veterinary surgeon, get him deeper into social disgrace.

Very funny reaction when she sits down. You can tell exactly where the melting ice cream has gotten to, just from her acting.

And this is the same woman Eric kicked earlier, doubling his disgrace.

But who is it? The IMDb has May White, the big lady from A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, in this, but she’s not. But the IMDb is fatally confused about White, misattributing one of her roles in A NIGHT IN THE SHOW. I *think* this is Marta Golden, playing Edna’s mother, in which case it’s quite strong mistreatment for a heroine’s mother. But Chaplin could be like that.

Edna, incidentally, has not much of a role in this one — the romance doesn’t really develop into anything we care about, maybe because Chaplin knew he was going to end it by running away.

Nicely judged aftermath to the ice cream incident. Charlie hastily leads Edna back into the ballroom, Loyal Underwood innocently wanders out onto the balcony, and Edna’s dad comes up and assaults him in vengeance for the ice cream drop. Charlie watches nervously — NOT gleefully, as he had as recently as THE RINK, when someone else gets the blame for his blunders. The character, and Chaplin’s grasp of him, keeps improving.

Frank Coleman and his prison guards turn up en masse. An absolutely brilliant chase ensues — it’s the opening pursuit restaged for a house. Suddenly all the features of the home reveal themselves as having been chase-landscape-in-waiting. The staircase allows Charlie to run up, vault off, and hide under the grand piano while his persecutors pursue thin air. The lampshade can be placed over his head as a cunning disguise (the first time this was done?). The balcony can be leapt off of, Fairbanks-fashion.

A chaste kiss on Edna’s cheek is a nod to romance. Then Eric, throwing off the shackles of civilisation amid the melee, attempts to seize Edna, so Charlie lays him out with arse-kick, lampshade over head, and a slug to the massive gut that makes the antagonist collapse like a dynamited tower block.

Charlie makes some noble and romantic declarations to Edna — think of the lines Chaplin overdubbed on THE GOLD RUSH if you like: “I am going, but when I return, I shall come back again.”

He flees, taking the lampshade with him.

But we’re not done. Coleman chases Charlie back upstairs, and the ballroom’s sliding doors are turned to Charlie’s advantage. The best architecture-as-gag yet. It builds fast and brilliantly. The doors, refusing to behave like normal doors (Charlie’s only just gotten used to hinges) are at first a menace, then a weapon. By the time our hero has used Coleman’s stolen handcuffs to trap both a revived Eric and Coleman himself, a disembodied head and a matching headless body, things have reached an intense pitch of invention, panic and hilarity. It takes less than a minute but it’s absolutely perfect.

There’s only one more gag. Edna spurns Commodore Slick, who is now unmasked as the mere Eel. No time for pathos, though. Collared by Coleman, Charlie uses the airs and graces of the class system to make his escape: formally introduced to Edna, Coleman has no choice but to take her hand, at which point our man legs it.

You could make a case that having Edna play a more active, willed role in Charlie’s escape would be much better from a character arc viewpoint. Instead, Charlie/Chaplin kind of reduces her to another prop.

The abrupt fadeout leaves us laughing, though I could probably do with a shot of Convict 23 on the open road, heading for the sunset. But there’ll be time for that later.

2 Responses to “The Further Adventures of Commodore Slick”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Chaplin’s brand of pathos is fascinating. He’s always on the edge of abjection but never tips over into it.

  2. He’s not usually self-pitying. When he appears to be, as in a superb gag I attempted to plagiarise from The Idle Class, it’ll actually be the set-up for a gag.

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