Archive for the Sport Category

Charlie the Champion

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2021 by dcairns

So, Leo White just turned up in THE CHAMPION, playing the kind of mock-melodramatic villain Chaplin himself had essayed a few times at Keystone. He’s impressively sleekit. He went on to bit parts in feature films up until the forties, including MR. SKEFFINGTON and CASABLANCA (I guess everybody really DOES come to Rick’s). I imagine he’d changed his look by then.

Unusual to see three short people in a row: silent slapsticks thrived on physical contrasts. Also unusual: Edna gets a medium shot. It’s simply used as a cutaway, which is what Chaplin did with most of his closer angles.

The Snidely type offers Charlie five big ones to take a fall, wafting the notes under his nose until the bribee attempts to filch one with his teeth. An oft-repeated gag: Legree keeps slapping Charlie on the back, heartily, until he gets laid out with a retaliatory slap. Charlie then pockets the money — it’s not certain that he intends to take a dive, but he may not have the option.

On waking up, Dastardly actually says “Curses!” and gives a little invisible maracas-type wag of his fists. Never knowingly underplayed. He confronts Charlie. An essentially honest man, Charlie intends to simply keep the money and do nothing in return. He wrestles with his conscience — and wins. When Snidely Dastardly Legree follows him into the shower with a small pistol, he drenches the scoundrel.

The big night: Charlie’s dog, forgotten about for at least a reel, makes his return, watching as Charlie prepares for the match by slugging down beer (the thing he’s best at slugging). Charlie shakes the anonymous pooch’s paw before going to his doom. The dog’s expression, indeed its whole attitude, is pretty funny.

And “Broncho” Billy Anderson, Charlie’s employer at Essanay, makes a cameo in the front row of the audience. Simon Dick Whiplash has just sat down on him by mistake.

Moments later, Ben Turpin, sans cookie-duster, appears as a belligerent ringside vendor, clambering over the audience to deliver his wares.

In Charlie’s last fight, in THE KNOCKOUT, he was the referee, and had to compete for attention with a riot of other clowns. Here, even in a wide-shot, the action is arranged so he’s always the centre of attention.

Upon catching sight of his opponent, Charlie goes into a series of overlapping faints. He then rubs his tiny buttocks in the sandbox, like a dog dealing with a dag, until they are two white spots.

What follows seems every bit as choreographed as the fight in CITY LIGHTS, but there’s less attention to character, with Chaplin simply trying whatever seems funny in the moment. It’s very skilled, but there isn’t an overarching comic idea. Charlie as coward, Charlie as incompetent, Charlie fighting while concussed… it leaps from one inspiration to another. Charlie is suddenly good enough at boxing to knock the champ down. As in CITY LIGHTS and THE KNOCKOUT, the ref gets a drubbing. Charlie discovers that when a punch from the champ sends him into a stagger, a punch from himself can revive him. The gag of the ref trying to count out two dazed boxers at once, as they keep getting up and falling down, appears here for the first time. It’s a good one.

Repeating gags, like trying to use his opponent as a chair when he’s knocked over onto his shoulders with his ass up, allows Charlie to double the laughs (slower audience members only catching on the second time round) and to emphasise the resemblance to a dance, which is a gag in itself. Keaton, who never repeated a gag, was doing things the hard way, as always.

The dog gets a closeup. Charlie’s never had one.

The fight goes from round one to round twenty when Charlie flips the card. There have in fact been multiple rounds, we’ve seen the fighters return to their corners (Charlie’s trainers “revive” him more vigorously/brutally each time) but apparently the art dept. only had one card made.

Finally, appalled at the spectacle of his master’s pulverisation, the pooch enters the ring and takes hold of Bob Uppercut’s leotards. Broncho Billy performs an expository mime in the audience, repeatedly pointing at his own derriere. The dog is swung around by his jaws but does not release Bob’s seat. It’s pulled by the hind legs. He has a death grip. He’s trailing bonelessly from his rear end, a mere carcass, all his powers of concentration invested in his teeth. This ain’t exactly Queensberry Rules, but Charlie seizes the moment just as his dog has.

Charlie has forgotten to include any cutaways of Edna during the fight — apparently she wasn’t there, but she comes in handy as a fade-out shot. Taking the romance very slightly seriously allows the film to end on something other than the climax of a chase or battle, as if it actually meant something. Later, maybe it will.

It’s a lovely shot, too.

The iron shoe in the leather glove

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2021 by dcairns

Charlie Chaplin’s THE CHAMPION — the title surely chosen for alliterative value — Part Two. Charlie has unwisely volunteered to be sparring partner to Spike Dugan, but fortunately he has picked up a horseshoe en route. Now read on…

The third sacrificial victim is stretchered out of the gym, too limp to even prop on the bench, so they tip him on the ground at Charlie’s feet to sleep off his coma. Charlie motions for the stretcher-bearers to follow him in, saving a bit of time for them since he evidently expects to be socked into slumberland in an instant.

But the fight goes rather the other way — slugging Spike when he’s not expecting it, Charlie sends his body to the floor, rolling over itself from the force of the spinning wallop, whose force owes much to the ironware concealed in CC’s mitt.

Strolling out of the gym, Charlie wallops one of the barely-recovered sparring partners for good measure, not out of any cruelty, simply because when one has a weighted glove one naturally clouts whoever’s around. Production for use.

Dugan recovers quickly, gives chase, but then turns flee-er when Charlie hits him with the shoe-fist again and also kicks him a couple of times — arse, then face, like a gentleman. The attention of the cops — no longer costume-store kops but vaguely credible policemen with one vaguely credible moustache between them — sends Charlie back to the gym, where Spike’s former handlers are eager to put this mighty atom under contract. Good gag where they carry him aloft, he high-spiritedly thumps them, and everyone falls in a heap.

A fine example of 1915 photoshopping

Meet the champ: Bob Uppercut. Arguably he’s not as scary looking as Spike Dugan, and his name is less alarming, but on the other hand he’s big enough that he doesn’t need a small mattress tucked inside his top. See that? All muscle. And fat. For Chaplin is attempting to turn his new heavy, Bud Jamison, into a suitable Goliath, a figure he would finally discover in the form of fake Scotsman Eric Campbell.

Now we see Charlie in training: he has a stripey pullover, a jug of beer, and juggling clubs, with which he duly clubs himself. He picks a fight with another punchbag, as he did earlier in this film and earlier in his career in MABEL’S MARRIED LIFE. In an excellent chapter of Silent Film Comedy entitled Accelerated Bodies and Jumping Jacks: Automata, Mannequins and Toys in the Films of Charlie Chaplin, Alan Bilton remarks upon Chaplin’s ability, indeed, compulsion, to impart life to dummies by his interactions with them. True to Bergson’s thesis about the confusion of subject and object, organic and mechanical, being key to comedy — and true to Marx’s view that capitalism stirs up the same confusion, Charlie makes an enemy of the world.

Some business with giant barbells, Charlie knocking a fellow athlete repeatedly on the head with one of the two great cannonball spheres — just a variant on the kind of business regularly conducted by silent clowns with planks. Walter Kerr remarks on Charlie’s daubing himself with beer, evidently an attempt at personal hygiene and niceness. “The presence of Edna Purviance may have had something to do with an emerging gentility.” This quality had always been present, implied, in the “shabby-genteel” costume. and we’ve seen it emerge in odd moments at Keystone. The fundamental funny thing about Chaplin’s persona may be just this unlikely combination of violence, scruffiness, poverty and ignorance, with grace, delicacy, and fine feelings. When these attributes are balanced, Chaplin can do Keystone style knockabout with a particular attitude that elevates it above mere hooliganism.

Say, where is Edna? We’re almost halfway.

Ah-hah! As “Edna, the trainer’s daughter,” she’s fetchingly dressed in a pugilist’s cap and jumper, a more appealing and shapely look than most of the frumpy frocks she usually gets (women’s clothing in American films of the teens, if you weren’t Theda Bara, were generally wretched).

Charlie starts training very hard to impress Edna, and is soon flirting intently. The unvarying wide shot allows us to see him scratching his arse while doing so, then polishing one boot on the back of the adjacent calf. Edna’s dad intervenes as Charlie is tickling her under the chins. Still, after a spot of running (the Chaplin walk becomes virtually a limp when accelerated), she’s hugging and kissing him. A pair of fast workers.

We end this post on a close-up which is Absolutely Mysterious: its positioning between scenes of Charlie and Bob Uppercut makes it initially impossible to tell what this whosis is spying on…

TO BE CONTINUED

The Sunday Intertitle: Sausage, Dog, Boxer, Pug

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , on March 7, 2021 by dcairns

I’ve written a little about Chaplin’s 1915 boxing romp THE CHAMPION before. The two main points I made back in 2014 were, I think, key — Chaplin is starting to work on our sympathy, this is a dry run for the big fight in CITY LIGHTS, and he has a dog, anticipating A DOG’S LIFE. “Give the hero a dog” is time-honoured screenwriting wisdom if you want to create easy sympathy — whether Chaplin had heard this or just came up with it himself is unknown to me.

THE TRAMP, considered Chaplin’s first conscious attempt at pathos, is still a couple of films away — though he seems to have settled on making the Little Fellow at least less of a thug than in his Keystone days. Even as a drunken lout in A NIGHT OUT he’s disagreeable but not quite vicious. Starting this one by offering his last hot dog to his not-so-hot dog companion makes him a nice guy in our eyes. He even sprinkles some salt, mysteriously produced from his inside jacket pocket (maybe it’s lint) on the commestible to make it more appetising. The dog cannot be convinced to eat: maybe this is take thirty and he’s stuffed full of sausage by now. He does look stuffed full of sausage.

Enter Spike Dugan, a pugilist (Ernest Van Pelt), stuffed full of sausage also — a proper Goliath-type foe for our man. Not quite an Eric Campbell man-mountain, but BIG and muscular, looking quite capable of disassembling the star in a set-to.

Charlie’s way of making his nameless dog “heel” is striking — reaching behind himself with his cane, he nudges the canine hindquarters with the tip. Every few paces. The next shot is presumably an early take: the dog pauses to cock a leg and mark his territory at Spike Dugan’s Training Quarters. Charlie is going to reject this job prospect (The Hero’s Mythic Journey: The Quest Refused) but finds a horseshoe at the door, a clear invitation from Lady Luck.

The usual trouble with one of those swaying Weeble punchbag dummies, which keeps bashing into Charlie because he keeps bashing into it. Next, Charlie finds himself sat next to a punchy pug constantly shadowboxing an invisible opponent. Charlie’s look of “I might be in trouble here” is very characteristic, and I think somewhat new to the character. We’ll see it a lot in the future whenever he meets someone who seems likely to cause problems, or someone crazy, which can be the same thing. Fascinated by his benchfellow’s feints, Charlie studies the one-sided bout until, like the great mime he is, he too can see the imaginary welterweight, and counts him out. Infectious insanity.

Spike Dugan, we discover, is wearing a small mattress under his pullover. No idea if this was a fashion among pugilists in 1915 or if it’s padding to allow for a forthcoming stunt. It’s not exactly invisible.

I’m wondering who was on intertitle duty on this one: it’s good and slangy. Chaplin, despite being a silent comedian, did have a strong appreciation of language. Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside has him memorising a new word from the dictionary every day — no idea if that’s true, but it feels truthful.

The mutability of objects: having been rendered punch-drunk by a little warm-up with Dugan, Charlie returns to the bench and is handed a set of gloves. He immediately puts one to his forehead, transforming it into an ice-bag for just long enough for him to discover it isn’t cold.

I note that few of the sparring partners (one of whom is future director Lloyd Bacon) actually spar. Mostly they just stand there, sacrificial hams, waiting to be laid out. Dugan uses them as human punchbags. Their prone forms are soon heaped up on the bench, crowding in on Charlie and his thoughts.

See how much Chaplin can cram into a single moment. When the last sparring partner goes off to be slaughtered, Charlie’s features cycle through the following: watching the other fellow go, upper lip curled with sickly dread; eyes close in a philosophical sigh at the tragedy of it all; a despairing inspection of the comatose slugger to his immediate left; turning away in nauseated horror; a little pout of distaste; foot-tapping impatience (displacement activity for the urge to flee); an attempt at a carefree whistle to soothe the nerves; it turns into a cough. This little masterclass is delivered in about eight seconds. Even allowing for undercranked acceleration, that’s impressive. And is precisely the sort of end-of-shot business the Keystone editors would have lopped off.

The film’s been going for just over six minutes and we’ve had our money’s worth right there.

TO BE CONTINUED