Man and His Mut(t)

A DOG’S LIFE, Reel #3. Now read on…

David Robinson’s ultradiligent Chaplin bio uncovers the purchase of some beer for Mut the dog in A DOG’S LIFE. Apparently it was necessary to get the young fellow drunk so Chaplin could use him as a pillow. Not the sort of thing one approves of, obviously, but not on the same level as tripping horses. They could have got a vet to etherise the pooch, but that would have been MORE risky.

Edna gets the boot from the Green Lantern. That job had no future anyway. She’s fired for not making nice with a rough customer, the sort of situation that would turn up in films back in the day without anyone thinking it was “dark” or “inappropriate for children.”

Charlie (Chaplin) is awoken by Scraps (Mut) kicking dirt in his face. But the day gets better: Scraps has dug up the bulging wallet given up to muggers by a drunken millionaire in the previous reel. Charlie is suddenly in funds.

Obeying a natural impulse, Charlie returns to the joint he was kicked out of the day before in order to swank it up. He rolls a cigarette singlehandedly while standing motionless on the crowded dance floor to display his cool. The fag disintegrates in his hand.

He finds Edna, her bag packed (she’s been LIVING in the Green Lantern?) and consoles her. He hi-hats the barman, flashing his new-found loot, still unwisely in the original wallet. The thieves, spotting this from a handy position above, maybe realise this fellow’s stolen their stealings, or maybe they just see money and do what they do: in the speed of the storytelling, one kind of assumes they recognize the billfold as their own ill-gotten gains. They wallop Charlie in the midst of his elaborate mime about settling down in the country.

Charlie is then ejected by the barman — he does an extraordinary unconscious tiptoe lope as he’s dragged by the collar. Edna comforts him outside, and Chaplin performs a recovering memory in great detail — you can see just where in the plot he’s got to, purely from his expressions.

With barely a pause, Charlie sets off to steal back the money he stole from the men who originally stole it. We don’t see how he manages to get back in, but we see him hold a finger to his lips to hush Edna, so it seems SNEAKING is involved.

The thugs are sitting in their upper booth, from where they snatched Charlie’s wad. There’s a convenient curtain with a convenient tear at eye level. Charlie has hold of a mallet (for uncorking casks). He crawls along behind the bar, beneath the distracted barman (it’s only the front door bit that’s conveniently ellided, the rest plays fair).

CLUNK! Charlie knocks Thug #1 unconscious with the hammer, a blow merely suggested, with Lubitschian delicacy, by the wafting of the curtain and the sudden poleaxed expression on Thug #1. He’s played by Albert Austin and this is his apotheosis. His signature role for Chaplin is staring blankly from just above a cookie-duster. So, playing eyes-open unblinking unconsciousness for a protracted spell is very much his forte.

This is a major stepiece for CC, maybe the best thing he’s done in his career to date. Inserting his arms under the stupefied Austin’s, Charlie IMPERSONATES HIS ARMS. It’s a great gag with an uncanny edge — so much so that Alejandro Jodorowsky (a mime director who worked with Marceau) was able to spin a whole movie out of it (padded out with an elephant’s funeral and the like). It inhabits a spectrum with the dance of the bread rolls in THE GOLD RUSH — a fantastic beast is created out of bits of human and/or other matter — the miracle of Frankenstein.

Coming up with the idea is impressive, but Chaplin also executes it with staggering skill. He has to make Austin seem plausibly alert and responsive — in his usual, zonked and glassy manner, anyway — using only his arms and hands. He succeeds in a thousand ways, all while his victim’s zombie gaze testifies mutely (how else?) to the absurdity of the proposition.

Many many variants are developed — see the comatose Austin clink glasses, drink (using Charlie’s mouth, chin propped on shoulder Red Queen style), decorously daub his lips with a kerchief which is then stashed, after fumbling attempts to blindly locate an inside pocket, under his jacket shoulder.

A lot of this performance is necessary to get Thug #2 to split the loot, and then to get both shares. As Thug #2, old favourite Bud Jamison, steps in to what would have been the late Eric Campbell’s role for the asking, bringing less menace but more dopey, inebriated gawping. He is convincingly the kind of person who would fall for all this.

According to Vonnegut, slapstick = grotesque situational poetry.

The callousness of reconcussing Austin when he threatens to come to is also commendable, and the funny pay-off when both dupes regain consciousness after Charlie’s departure puts the tin lid on it — Jamison wakes, and sees Austin sitting opposite with a broken beer bottle, and makes the inevitable assumption, so Austin gets thumped AGAIN.

Charlie is nabbed by that damn bartender and there’s a brilliant bit of wallet-snatching, as the barman (Dave Anderson, a tall Swede who seemingly worked as an assistant director as much as he acted) snatches the waller from Charlie, Thug #2 snatches it from him, Thug #1 snatches it from him, he snatches it back, the barman snatches it back from HIM and Charlie completes the loop by snatching it one last time and legging it.

Is it arguably a weakness that Scraps, let a lone Edna, has nothing much to do during the climax? Doesn’t matter.

The chase leads back to Syd’s lunch wagon, and a brilliant bit of poetic transfiguration transforms this into a shooting gallery, with the Brothers Chaplin as moving targets and a china plate getting somehow bullet-ridden so Charlie can use it as a kind of mask, peering through the perforations.

For once, the kops (more and more like actual cops, less like comedy devices — grim facts of life) actually make things better, grabbing the bad guys while Charlie, Edna and Scraps flee to the safety of the epilogue.

But not before Chaplin has shown us, gleefully, that the unoffending Syd character is a ruined man.

Chaplin can be cruel.

But he treats himself and his family unit to a bucolic finale, as he plants seeds in his own rather laborious manner, and Scraps, visibly male throughout, miraculously blesses the little home with a litter of pinto pups.

***

Unhappy aftermaths:

Would Mut/Scraps have continued as Charlie’s boon companion, or made further cameo appearances when the plot demanded it? Probably not, but he didn’t have the chance, poor fellow, because when Chaplin went on a well-earned vacation after completing this short, Mut pined away and died. It seems he was so used to Chaplin’s daily attention on the shoot, he couldn’t do without it.

Syd’s acting career went in fits and starts, as he spent a lot of time managing Chaplin’s business affairs, which he seems to have done shrewdly — fortunes were made. But he made a few features as star — a version of CHARLEY’S AUNT, and THE MAN ON THE BOX, which is not bad. He made a couple in Britain, too, which is where he raped and mutilated a co-star called Molly Wright, and fled the country to escape the consequences. British International Pictures settled out of court, which tends to suggest Syd was guilty, and Wright certainly didn’t bite her own nipple off. Horrifyingly, Syd apparently joked about the incident later. (Also horribly, the documentary Sydney, the Other Chaplin, while not denying his guilt, tries to shrug off this assault. Syd’s biographer, Lisa Haven, says that nobody’s ever heard of Molly Wright, she didn’t do anything else, so… SO?)

I guess Charlie believed Syd’s protests of innocence, or else Syd was such an essential companion (not just the bonds of [half]blood, but a fellow survivor of that awful Victorian childhood) that he couldn’t part with him. It still gives me the creeps.

5 Responses to “Man and His Mut(t)”

  1. Grant Skene Says:

    That scene with Charlie as Albert Austin’s hands cracks me up every time. The variety of gestures that Chaplin comes up with… genius.

  2. Charley Chase was clearly inspired by the scene with Albert Austin in the booth when he made Fluttering Hearts, which has a hilarious scene with Chase, Oliver Hardy, and a mannequin.

  3. Charlie Chase (with Leo McCarey) also made All Wet, where he’s forced to perform underwater car repair; we only see his hand (we assume it’s Charlie’s anyway) occasionally emerging from the puddle to ask for another tool, and it’s priceless.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    Lucille Ball had a variation: She got one of guest star Elizabeth Taylor’s fabled diamonds stuck on her finger, and said diamond was to be showcased at a society event hosted by Taylor and Burton. So the couple stood against a curtain with Lucy’s diamonded arm subbing for Liz’s, fluttering about, taking a drink when Liz already had one in her other hand (Burton: “And they call me a two-fisted drinker.”), elaborately offering the hand to be kissed, and frequently drifting over to fondle Burton’s face as Liz tried to control her. She had a similar bit years earlier, providing a bowing arm for an injured violinist in concert.

    Collateral damage in comedy can be troublesome. In certain situations we can laugh at, say, W.C. Fields fleecing an innocent. Or Laurel and Hardy delicately destroying everything from strangers’ clothes to houses. But Stan and Ollie got as good as they gave, and Fields (like many others) usually took a moment to make his victims somehow deserving, or at least easier to dismiss (such as rich people who can clearly afford to clean up the wreckage).

    One observation is that an angry, outraged victim is always funnier than one saddened or upset — unless you’re doing a very precise kind of dark comedy (the man whose house burns down in “The Firemen’s Ball”). Perhaps a more experienced Chaplin would have shown Syd flinging his hat on the ground and stomping in rage, or even set him up as one of Mut’s human tormentors.

  5. Richard Burton writes acidly of the Lucy show experience in his diaries.

    Chaplin subjects a sad-faced Conklin to numerous torments in Modern Times, showing that tendency was still there. But Charlie isn’t intentionally cruel, it’s just his usual workplace incompetence.

    The Fireman’s Ball is hilarious, but we’re laughing at the surrounding characters’ futile attempts to be considerate. “He’s cold, sit him close to the fire.” “Don’t make him watch his house burn down. Turn him around.” The man isn’t TOO distressed, importantly, so that his attitude is slightly funny also.

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