Archive for the FILM Category

Chaplin Goes to Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2020 by dcairns

There’s more experimentation with Charlie Chaplin’s image in the early Keystones than I was led to believe. Since playing a drunken hobo in every film was going to start to seem unnecessarily limiting, even for Keystone, here they try him out as a drunken toff (Lord Helpus) with no bowler hat, no cane, and a more expansive moustache. Widescreen rather than pillarbox.

This movie was lost for fifty years and rediscovered in South America: Wikipedia is sparse on details. It’s directed by George Nichols & Mack Sennett — Sennett’s involvement may be evidence that Chaplin was being difficult. His first director, Henry “Pathé” Lehrman, had already walked out of Keystone because Sennett wouldn’t force Chaplin to obey orders. Since “Pathé’s” other nickname was “Mr. Suicide,” owing to his willingness to risk the lives and limbs of his cast, Chaplin and chums were probably not too sorry to see him go.

With its eavesdropping maid, comedy of misunderstanding, and drawing-room setting, this Keystone “farce comedy” does, for once, resemble a stage farce rather than crude slapstick. Chaplin had played a silly-ass villain in his very first film, here he’s a silly-ass stooge (we can’t really call him a hero). He’s at his most theatrical, a sort of Terry-Thomas figure.

The most “cinematic” moment is Helpus’s vision of the afterlife (after a work by Dante). All through this movie there are dancing snowballs of film damage, but when Helpus gets hysterical and starts reacting to an offscreen hallucination, it feels like he can see them too. “The spots!”

What kind of a proscenium does the cinema offer? Chaplin experiments with advancing into medium shot then staggering back into longshot.

Belatedly, I reach for my tattered copy of Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films (A Book) by Kalton C. Lahue and Terry Brewer. There’s a good line about Sennett believing that any gag worth doing ought to be set-up and paid-off inside twenty feet of film, whereas Chaplin might just be getting going at the end of a hundred feet. But it would be worth it. the question was, could he convince his boss and his colleagues of that?

I’m not clear, halfway through the film, if Edgar Kennedy’s laughing butler is laughing because he knows Lord Helpus hasn’t really been poisoned, or because he thinks he has. Is he a psychopath? Did the butler, for once, do it?

Is there a doctor in the film? A guy called Glen Cavender, in a big false medical-type beard, comes to the rescue. In my recent viewing of Anatole Litvak films, this guy turns up a lot in the Hollywood ones, still, thirty years after this, earning some kind of living as background mountebank along with old stagers like Creighton “I did not have sexual intercourse with that goat” Hale.

Trying to counteract the poison, Lord Helpus drinks a lot of milk, in the best Albert Hoffman tradition. It’s a good thing to do if you think you’ve been poisoned or have dosed yourself with what you then discover is LSD. A horsedrawn ambulance gallops to the rescue. There are fewer chases, but more fights, in Keystone shorts, than you’d think. There are more fights than you’d think possible.

Minta hurries to be with her poisoned lover by jalopy. Shades of Romeo and Juliet. I have to assume by now that, even if Edgar the butler knows his master isn’t fatally envenomed, he is a colossal bastard for not telling him. He’s just laughing his ass off. What a shit. Kennedy is going to spend the rest of his career paying for this.

Why does Helpus think he’s been poisoned, and why does his butler know different? “Screenwriter” Craig Hutchinson, who “wrote” all the early Chaplin shorts, doesn’t seem to have worked out any reason, and Keystone aren’t about to keep everyone on salary for months while they work it out, as Chaplin would later on CITY LIGHTS.

The two doctors, beard and no-beard, strangers to their respective Hippocratic oaths, laugh heartily at the “dying” Helpus, then give him the Heimlich manoeuvre, which had yet to be invented, for no reason. This may be the first screen iteration of the Choking Chaplin Meme.

Minta, the only character with a shred of human feeling, at last tells Helpus that he’s not doomed. Everybody starts fighting for no reason. An ecstatic clinch between Helpus and Minta.

Lord Helpus is never seen again.

Noir is Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 28, 2020 by dcairns
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Two French crime stories. I first wrote about THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS, Costa-Gavras’ directorial debut, when it was only available to me as a pan-and-scan off-air recording from Scottish Television, dubbed into English. Now seeing it in widescreen and French and decent definition, its youthful vivacity combines nicely with its dark sensibility. But it’s far from nihilistic — Costa-Gavras clearly loves his naïve young couple, and his sniffle-afflicted detective (Yves Montand gets to be a handkerchief actor). It goes like a train. The novel by Sebastien Japrisot is also excellent but the solution to the mystery involves a fairly wild coincidence of murderers, if I recall it aright. CG changes the ending and it makes more sense. Probably his least political film for years but it does slip in some social comment, however maybe it’s highest achievement outside of the kinetic thriller dynamic is the miniature character portraits it offers en route.

RIFIFI is of course too famous to require comment on its spectacular cinematic merits, particularly the 45-minute (can this be right? It isn’t: see comments) silent heist. What makes it so tense and exhilarating IS the quietude. Director Jules Dassin’s European comeback after the blacklist, it shows his willingness to let the bad guy heroes BE bad guys, until the third act, when he gives anti-hero Jean Servais something noble to do, and includes a speech about how the real tough guys are those born to poverty who nevertheless go straight. He couldn’t help himself — Dassin needed some nobility to get behind.

Servais, visibly dying, is a magnificently raddled central figure (you can see him as a fresh-faced juvie lead in LES MISERABLES 20-something years earlier), shrivelled in his baggy suit. During the feverish final journey by convertible through Paris, he’s accompanied by a little boy with a toy cowboy pistol, draped in an adult coat to keep warm, who comes to seem like a crazy parody of him. Dassin, working with editor Roger Dwyre for the first time, creates a sequence of pure rhythm — from his very first short, Dassin has a heightened sense of visual and aural rhythm. If you start to notice it, even his supposed “worst” films become impressive.

The Sunday Intertitle: “He is a new one and deserves mention.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2020 by dcairns

So wrote a critic in Moving Picture World, singling Chaplin out as “the best one Mack Sennett has ever sprung on the public” — a sentiment with which few would now disagree. It wasn’t this review, however, which would rescue the star’s nascent career at Keystone, but the enthusiastic responses of exhibitors. More on that in a later post.

Motion Picture News (all this is via Wikipedia) added, “It is absolutely the funniest thing the Keystone Company has ever put out, and this is not written by a press agent.” Well, it probably was written by a press agent, then.

After his brief stint as a clean-shaven (though drunk) comic in TANGO TANGLES, Chaplin is back in familiar disguise here, and drunk again, suggesting that Keystone’s “plan” for the comic, insofar as one existed, may have been to keep him as a comedy drunk in every film. Chaplin is joined once more by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who likewise dons a down-and-out attire, looking incredibly seedy and somewhat tragic. But this is the first film to give the two most resourceful Keystone comedians any real extended interplay, so it’s of immediate and obvious interest.

Brief appearance by some guy painted up as Sammy Davis Jr, before it was popular or fashionable. You have to hand it to undistinguished director George Nichols for springing for shoe polish just to make future generations yet unborn uncomfortable and sad.

Customary byplay with Peggy “the Keystone girl” Pearce.

The semi-naturalistic detail of both Chaplin and Arbuckle’s costumes, the fact that nobody else wears fancy dress, the location filming, and the time lavished on just showing characters interacting rather than brawling, makes this feel like an unusually controlled Keystone “farce comedy,” rather than the usual three-ring circus. There’s no plot, admittedly, but the tighter focus helps everything.

Oh, here comes a typically expansive Edgar Kennedy as a barroom brawler, yegg or plug-ugly. He also is allowed a funny costume. The application of silly putty or mortician’s wax behind his ears allows them to stick out in a comic cauliflower fashion. It’s all in the detail, folks. When, by the way, and why, did the stripey jumper become inextricably linked with the low criminal type?

Oh wow! Chaplin’s reaction to be slapped on the back by a hearty Kennedy! The first real inkling of the gentleman tramp. His expressions clearly convey a feeling of “I am too refined for this rough company.” I’m telling you, this is it. from 4:03 until 4:08, that’s the bit you need to watch. The Tramp, nature’s gentleman, lowly of status but with an inbuilt sense of superiority to his surroundings, appears. Then disappears, for several films to come.

(I believe Chaplin had, and cultivated, a sense of himself as just such a “natural-born gentleman.” Born into the wrong end of a rigid class system, he noticed his own sensitivity — his overwhelming response to hearing someone sing “I am the honeysuckle, you are the bee” — catnip to the orally-fixated and half-starved boy — and, while attempting to adopt the style and speech patterns of the rich, he also, I think, saw himself as inherently above his surroundings — and I don’t blame him, EVERYONE should be considered above poverty and the workhouse — and it comes out in his characters.)

Chaplin’s reaction to the burnt cork negro mockery in the men’s room is… interesting. He’s as surprised as we are. Like he can tell, even in his stupor, that something is very wrong here. So he’s superior not just to the characters around him, but the film too. Superior, in fact, to Keystone.

Another blackface character, a maid, appears at 5:07. Collect them all. Helen Carruthers, supposedly, having the decency to look embarrassed. She probably signed up to be a bathing beauty, and now this. But she’ll become quite a good leading lady for CC soon.

Given the perfect opportunity to kick a man up the arse, Chaplin instead whacks him across the cheeks with his cane like the public schoolboy he never was. Then he wipes his boots with a towel, before offering it to the guy to wipe his face with. Lo, blackface! Now we see the reason for the other minstrel characters. In a world where black people are merely white people with coal on, a fellow with a dirty face is immediately a second-class citizen. But the movie makes nothing of this interesting but unpleasant idea.

It does look like, when the guy realizes what’s happened, at 5.46, he says “SHIT!” but I’m probably mistaken.

Chaplin is having his usual trouble with swing doors. Never let a swing door go to waste. That goes double for spitoons. (Spitoons! Ugh! And calling them cuspidors does nothing to help. People in 1914 were disgusting.)

The exterior of the bar looks more like a building society to me but I’m not from 1914.

It is kind of strange to me, seeing Charlie on a street with palm trees. In the more mature Chaplin films, he uses studio/backlot streets whenever possible, and creates something a bit more like Victorian London. He’s at home in parks, also. But not in anything that’s too L.A.

Chaplin hanging onto the outside of a streetcar — maybe the first really dangerous thing he’s been asked to do. In the Fred Karno troupe all you had to do was take a fall. Movies happen outdoors in the real world with all its lethal moving parts, and Keystone films are expected to maintain constant frenetic motion, and if somebody gets hurt you just hire a replacement.

Chaplin now stages a drunken home invasion at the Keystone girl’s place, which quickly becomes a dress rehearsal for ONE A.M. A hopeless intoxicated idiot fails to negotiate basic furniture. Chaplin probably knew already he could get a whole two-reeler out of this schtick, and here he is, compelled to shoehorn it into one set-up at the far-end of a 12-min short.

Miscegenation humour! CC mistakes maid for mistress and the dusky Carruthers beats the shit out of him. But for some reason doesn’t throw him out, just leaving him dazed in the drawing room.

Charlie’s necktie is stripy. That’s wrong.

The End: camera lingers on CC in medium shot, waiting for him to do something funny that will conclude the romp. He apparently can’t think of anything. He wanders off. The editor, who perhaps has ADHD, cuts before he’s left frame.

NB: There are no intertitles so my title is a lie. And there are roughly seventeen camera set-ups, all of them repeated several times. Each room/space is one set-up. This hasn’t seemed so striking in earlier films–is HIS FAVORITE PASTIME old-fashioned even for 1914?