Archive for the Theatre Category

Bedtime for Tantalus

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2021 by dcairns

ONE A.M. is a wild experiment. Chaplin resuscitates his drunk act — he hasn’t been this hilariously incapable since the face on the barroom floor — and is the only one on screen for nine-tenths of the action. Poor Albert Austin is frozen like a wax dummy — I always found him uncanny and a bit disturbing as a kid — so he barely counts as co-star.

I invoke the mythical Tantalus because Chaplin plays a man tormented by his environment and its objects. All he wants is to go home and get into bed, but he’s so inebriated his home has become strange to him (he’s horrified by all his stuffed animals) and the furniture and architecture conspire to prevent him doing anything he tries. Even the matches in his pockets are useless to him since he can’t remember the simple sequence of actions that results in a smoke. Which may be for the best — his mishaps get more and more violent and he could easily set the whole hideous joint ablaze. And you can’t rely on the fire brigade in Chaplin World, as we’ve seen.

The struggle with the taxi door, which is milked for longer than you would think possible, a foretaste of tortures to come, is astounding. The bit that really got me hysterical was the attempt to put away his handkerchief in a pocket, but with his arm through the taxi door’s window, so that the door panel intervenes between hanky and trouser. Charlie — definitely not a hobo, he has usurped Leo White’s topper — finds himself vigorously wiping the door rather than pocketing his kerchief.

I watched my old DVD, then the restoration, which looks much, much better but lacks tinting, which I think we need for the opening exterior. It’s never going to look like night, it’s all too glaringly a bright Los Angeles day, but a hint of blue would at least suggest that’s what we should be imagining.

This is another film that seems to have entered Stan Laurel’s DNA, to emerge when needed. Charlie has lost his door key so goes in by the window. Then he finds his key, so he goes out the window again and comes in by the door. Echoed in THE MUSIC BOX’s broken logic when the boys discover the easy way up to Professor von Schwarzenhoffen’s house, and then redundantly use it. Just as the endless, repetitive journey up the stairs made by Chaplin, calculated to make the audience scream with frustration as well as laughter, is echoed by the struggles with the crated player piano.

The slippery floor, upon which the many little rugs glide like magic carpets, frequently sending Charlie tumbling, occasionally transmitting him to just where he wants to be, like Star Trek transporters, sets up another comparison, with Jerry Lewis’ insanely slidey psychiatrist’s office in CRACKING UP. Lewis was more of a Stan Laurel man, I guess, but he clearly absorbed a lot from Chaplin (including the pathos, which comes out funny when Jer tries it). I’d be fascinated to know what Chaplin thought of Lewis, but we already know he’s a better clown and filmmaker than he is a critic. He liked Benny Hill, if that helps.

The best bit of sliding may be the first, because Charlie is trying to steady himself on the door knob, which is attached to a door which is of course hinged, and swinging wildly, a very unsuitable object to steady yourself with, but all he’s got. A good metaphor for drunken stupor. Attempting to combat treachery from the floor leads you to struggle with treachery from the wall.

Every now and then it’s good to remember that Chaplin’s father died from the effects of alcoholism. It’s getting less and less acceptable to laugh at drunk routines, isn’t it? Back in the day, we weren’t supposed to regard drunks as tragic — the falling-down incompetent kind were funny in a way that disabled people weren’t, because it was a temporary, Tom & Jerry kind of physical handicap, and it was self-inflicted. The vicious treatment of the gouty in Chaplin’s films is similarly “justified” by the sufferer being responsible, it would seem, for his own condition.

Personally I’m very happy I wasn’t “protected” from this film as a child. And I have no problem with laughing at Chaplin’s skill (or Arthur Housman’s, or Foster Brooks‘) rather than laughing at alcoholics or alcoholism. But see also Nietzsche’s “A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion.” Chaplin is attempting to kill with laughter his most painful memories, and who has a better right?

Onwards, then, to the parade of stuffed animals. It is admittedly implausible, in literal terms, that our hero, who keeps a set of climbing gear and is therefore a traveler and presumably the man who bagged all these big cats, bear, ostrich etc, has forgotten all about this and is thus horrified at finding what he presumes to be his home occupied by wild animals. But there IS a metaphorical truth about the way familiar things can come alive and be uncanny at night. And so, though Chaplin is playing a drunk magnificently, maybe he’s also playing a child, as usual. Drunks don’t SEEM that much like children, but they have regressed to that stage where they don’t have control of their bodies of their emotions, so there’s a confluence.

One can sympathise with Charlie’s dismay at discovering this wretched undead Stouffer lurking at the foot of the stair. This film also features numerous examples of Charlie’s intimacy with the camera. A fresh taxidermic outrage… a wary glance to his chums in the audience — “Can you see it? Is it as bad as it feels?” Yes, Charlie. Yes, it is.

The sawdust atrocity comes into its own when Charlie kicks it and its curving body causes it to banana round and counter-attack. Brilliant comedy physics.

Then the rotating drinks table. A loooooong bit here. Brilliantly extended by having the victim recognise that his snagged cape is the trouble, then having him doff the cape, but tread in it, so his foot drags it along and it’s STILL snagged and so off we go again. I always assumed that Beckett’s Act Without Words and its sequels were primarily Keaton-derived, but a case could be made for Chaplin exerting an influence through this film, or at least mining similar terrain.

Fiona observed that a lot of what happens here would work well for Keaton, and is the kind of thing we associate more with him. Keaton, in fact, rarely played drunk, but in the thirties often was drunk. But he certainly struggled with objects which sometimes seemed imbued with a malign consciousness. The line between alive and inert is blurred, erased. Chaplin is usually more in command of this, can get away with treating people as objects, objects as people. Keaton transforms one thing into another without conscious choice, simply thinking with his body and adapting. Chaplin seems to generate a protean field around himself which allows things and people to swap qualities. A dangerous thing to mess around with — look what happens when he gets drunk.

“Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life.” William S. Burroughs.

And enjoy the sight of Charlie in tight trousers for once. The black-sheened spider legs become more expressive — the baggy pants actually robbed us of many possibilities, but gave us an indelible outline.

Failing to light cigarette after cigarette, or the same cigarette multiple times, leads Charlie to climb atop the spinning table and try to reach the chandelier, a doomed effort. A little later, it will turn out he has another match after all, which is the way of these things, isn’t it?

Incidentally, I don’t much like the intertitles, which try too hard to be “witty.” Replacing them with inarticulate grunts and swearing would emphasise the basic miserable reality of what we’re facing.

Now to the stairs. After throwing his silk hat onto a stuffed ostrich with perfect finesse — the hostile universe will allow Charlie the occasional, purely trivial triumph — our adventurer sets off upstairs. He’d used a wire to allow Eric Campbell to hold him aloft by the throat in THE FLOORWALKER and it’s possible he uses one to let him lean back at the top of the stairs, another to let him slide down feet first on his belly each time he loses his balance. The stairs look to be heavily padded, anyway, which is a kind of relief.

The further up he goes — in Freudian terms, into the higher conscious — the more vicious the house gets. The clock with the Poe-esque pendulum is completely impractical, a literal health and safety nightmare. It guards the bedroom door like Cerberus. Playing it safe, Charlie slides along the wall like Cesare the somnambulist and is biffed on the chin by the clock’s pugilistic upswing, sending him downstairs again.

Many, many attempts later, Charlie tries the other stair, is terrified by a stuffed bear, and eventually makes it — twice — using the coat stand which had proved useless for hanging coats but makes a neat if precarious climbing frame. A tussle with a stuffed bear, and he gains the bedroom, after adding concussion to inebriation via a round with the killer clock.

The Murphy bed is the boss villain of this fever-dream game. Fiona points out that no rich drunken hunter/mountaineer would have a Murphy bed, something Chaplin might have encountered in cheap rooming houses during his Karno tour of the States. Anyway, this bed is possessed. It’s main desire seems to be to prevent Charlie sleeping in it, or perhaps to destroy him. Starting gradually, it displays more and more independent action, and more complex movements, being able to flip like a YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN secret panel, lower like a drawbridge, then pull up from the head, reversing itself. It has the alarming, unnatural flexibility of Linda Blair’s neck.

Fiona, having laughed harder at this than anything in Chaplin apart from THE CIRCUS’ monkey attack, which reduced her to breathless narration, as if by describing what was happening she could lessen its side-splitting agony, began to grow tired of the bed, but then laughed when Charlie leapt onto it as it rose, ripping the bed from the frame.

“Oh well, at least it can’t hurt him now,” she said, and on cue the bedframe viciously tripped its victim.

To the bathroom. The film MUST be ending soon. The attempt to fill a glass of water from the shower drew laughs of anticipation, then bigger laughs when the reaction to a drenching exceeded all anticipation, and when the shower’s exit could not be found, owing to the camera angle concealing it. Charlie performs a full circle of the interior without locating it, and so attempts to climb out…

Finally he beds down, sodden, in the bath, with a wet towel for a blanket, his deep stupor finally coming to his aid by making him oblivious of his miserable, wet, freezing, hard-surface discomfort. The End — of a comedy of frustration beyond even Bunuel.

Use the cuspidor, that’s what it’s for

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2021 by dcairns

There’s evidence that Chaplin was experiencing a bit of a creative crisis in his last days at Essanay. He started a film, LIFE, which was to be his most realistic depiction of poverty yet, but abandoned it. He adapted the Karno sketch Mummingbirds as A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, and then he did an elaborate parody of someone else’s film. He would never really work with direct parody again.

A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN — the parody of the film of the opera of the story — is not precisely a lost Chaplin film, but it’s one that was recut by Essanay after Chaplin’s departure at the end of 1915 (leading to various lawsuits, and to Chaplin ensuring he had total creative control on future projects). There doesn’t seem to be a director’s cut in existence. Essanay didn’t truncate the film, however, they extended it — former Chaplin second banana Leo White pulled in all the outtakes, shot a bunch of padding, and changed it from two reels to four.

All the versions that have circulated since seem to be at some distance from Chaplin’s intentions.

Short version (above). Long version (below).

On YouTube, Dave Glass has attempted to pull together every scrap of footage from four existing prints, to make a supercut which gives us the best version of what Chaplin and White SHOT, but leaves us with little idea of what Chaplin CUT — but that’s the best version we have. The more “official” versions are terribly jumpy, with Chaplin splinking all over the set. And the intertitles are drawn from Cecil B. DeMille’s feature film of CARMEN, word for word.

CARMEN was big — Raoul Walsh filmed it with Theda Bara, and DeMille with Geraldine Farrar. In just a few years, Lubitsch would do it again with Pola Negri, and so on. It’s POSSIBLE Chaplin would jot down the DeMille title cards and reuse them, as he had used the poem The Face on the Barroom Floor for bathetic, parodic purposes in his Keystone film of the same name. He has, after all, done his best to reproduce the set-ups, shot for shot, like Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO only with more pratfalls and a pantomime donkey. Chaplin’s main joke seems to be to present his film as a shoddy knock-off of DeMille’s. I wonder what old C.B. thought of it.

First off I’m going to watch the short version…

Chaplin is Don José, here called Darn Hosiery. Edna Purviance is “Carmen, the gypsy,” though ironically it may be Chaplin himself who had some Romany ancestry. Anyway, she’s pretty sexy in this, having escaped the horror of 1915 American fashions. Well, sexy in the way Margaret Dumont is sexy once you turn fifty. Edna has just turned twenty.

Darn Hosiery tries flirting with Edna, but May White takes her place while he’s not looking. Or at least, the person IMDb says is May White. Or one of them. This woman IS in Chaplin’s previous short as IMDb claims, but not playing the role cited, and she’s not in his Mutual shorts THE COUNT and THE ADVENTURER, so far as I can see — I think perhaps the snake charmer from A NIGHT IN THE SHOW is in those. This is the belly dancer. I still don’t discount the possibility that this is outsize comic Dee Lampton, regular Lonesome Luke co-star, in drag. I also think, given the name Dee is more usually female, Dee could have been a woman who played men. He certainly has the tits for it. Those who consider themselves experts in telling men from women are welcome to weigh in on this. (Note: Dee Lampton, unless he’s padded, seems to be fatter than this lady. He had a sister, but there’s no talk of her being in movies.)

Anyway, discovering he’s been wasting his affections on a fat chick, or possibly bloke, Darn Hosiery propels her/him/them from the frame with a sideways butt-nudge. That’s the level we’re at. Then Edna starts flirting with Leo White — the film’s future inheritor — and so Hosiery burns her with his cigarette end. Which isn’t too funny. She retaliates under cover of jump cut, cramming the rose that was, one frame before, clasped in her teeth, into the Darn’s mouth, choking him. Leo laughs long and hard at this, and so of course gets the rose, damp with Chaplin spittle, shoved into his own mirthful features. From single rose to superspreader event.

Lots more close and medium shots here, which I guess is Chaplin aping DeMille. “DeMille started with great promise,” wrote Chaplin in My Autobiography, “with The Whispering Chorus and a version of Carmen, but after Male and Female his work never went beyond the chemise and the boudoir.” So this movie was born out of respect. Maybe the last time a DeMille spoof was inspired by that. Incidentally, Chaplin is fairly unbearable when he tries to be a high-flown critic.

The gag with Chaplin getting a fake spider stuck under his helmet seems pretty random — I looked to the original movie for an explanation, but without success. I guess Chaplin just thought it would be a funny way to ruin a love scene.

DeMille does play close to a third of his film in front of a single broken wall. Chaplin goes one better.

John Rand is, apparently, Escamillo the Toreador. Thinking up a comedy name for him seems to have defeated everybody. A shame, because Darn Hosiery is the gift that keeps on giving.

Don Hosiery and Escamillo square off, mortal rivals.

Edna appears atop a landing, gesturing to the boys. Nothing can convince me she’s somewhere off the top left of frame, rather than merely in a different set-up at ground level. The eyelines and architecture are all wrong. The main joke of A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN may be that if Chaplin made his own CARMEN it would be crap, but I don’t believe this is a deliberate mistake.

Edna descends the stairs and continues looking screen screen left, while those looking at her, supposedly, are also looking screen left. I’ll be interested to see if the extended cut solves any of this. Chaplin is usually reliable on screen direction (but see SHANGHAIED for more confusion, some of it maybe not his fault).

Carmen is required to dance on a table, and Chaplin is ungentlemanly enough to make a joke about him not being able to lift Edna up there. John Rand obliges. Edna’s vamp act is vaguely terrifying but at least its more interesting than an insipid romantic part.

From the way Don Hosiery bullies his underling, the Leo White character, it’s tempting to imaging the recutting of this film as Leo’s revenge, but I’m sure it was basically a commercial undertaking. White also recut some Chaplin fragments into something called TRIPLE TROUBLE, which I’ll also be looking at. Warily.

Chaplin finds a lot of uses for the big brush on his hat, but maybe the problem is we’re not sure if this is the familiar Charlie PLAYING Don Hosiery in some kind of road company version of DeMille’s CARMEN, or if Don Hosiery is a new character with his own personality. I may be overthinking it.

Endless byplay with Edna. Some shots Chaplin seems to be not in character, conversing or directing — just for moments. It’s very jumpy and bitty. The notion that Leo White grabbed every stray moment he could find from the trim bins and crammed them in is irresistible. The whole thing is far less professional than we’re used to from Chaplin.

There’s a catfight between Carmen and the big lady, Frasquita, who falls down in a faint. Various bit players tend to the fallen woman — they brush her hair back — and it doesn’t seem like a wig. So probably this is a real lady, and not Dee Lampton. But not May White either. It’s sad we can’t know who this is.

Big fight with Darn Hosiery and Leo White, whoever he’s meant to be. Oh yes, Corporal Morales. And Chaplin tracks back! Very rare move for him, he hasn’t done this since HIS NEW JOB. Again, it seems a little distracting, not helpful or necessary, and probably helped Chaplin decide he wasn’t too interested in camera movement.

This is probably the longest duel anyone had ever shot at this time. It’s up there with SCARAMOUCHE. Again, some of this material could easily be Chaplin just rehearsing on film. It’s not very coherent.

All through this, the guards are trying to break the door in and the gypsies are trying to hold them back, so the two groups just push the door in and out. One of the guards is a little guy, presumably “Dot” from A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, another unidentified thesp.

Darn Hosiery eventually KILLS Corporal Morales, and Chaplin attempts some mock-tragic playing. It’s not a familiar mode for him and it most resembles Adenoid Hynkel in his madder moments. Then he runs off to the gypsy camp. One of my few laughs comes from Chaplin in a poncho pretending to be a dwarf for no reason.

The action relocates to Seville. DeMille has a better intertitle (above). There’s a cart drawn by a horse and a burro, and I can’t see logically why these animals are real when the smugglers had a fake donkey played by actors in a costume. Show some consistency man. I’m hoping at least the bull will be fake.

I don’t believe “saluno” is proper Spanish

Darn Hosiery, now AWOL and a murderer, arrives in Seville disguised as… Charlie Chaplin? He’s acquired the bowler hat. Was Darn Hosiery always the Tramp character (he didn’t really act like him) or has be become him, or is this just dress-up?

As if to baffle everyone to the max, Chaplin and Purviance play the last scene absolutely straight. He kills her and then himself. Then they get up, he demonstrates the trick knife, and they both laugh. Iris in, the end.

OK, now for Dave Glass’ supercut. It begins with Ben Turpin in a rowboat coming ashore and meeting the gypsy smugglers with their pantomime donkey. I suspect everything involving the donkey in any version of the film is probably material shot by Leo White after Chaplin’s departure. I don’t believe the donkey interacts with Chaplin and, though the fake quadruped is a British comedy tradition, it doesn’t seem very Chaplinesque. But then, so little in this film does.

The intertitles Glass has added do feel a lot more organic. The command “Kill that rock!” issued by Darn Hosiery after he repeatedly trips over a protruding stone, is necessary for the gag of the riflemen opening fire on it. The stumble is very Hynkelesque, by the way. There are signs that Chaplin could have fun playing a military leader, but he hasn’t quite decided to do so.

There’s a reason Ben Turpin never meets Chaplin’s character, beyond Turpin disliking Chaplin’s endless retakes — the entirety of the Turpin role was added by Leo White after Chaplin left Essanay. He’s like Raymond Burr in GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS, only thinner and cross-eyed. Nevertheless, Dave Glass’s version of the film, complete with Turpin, feels closer to a film that actually came out, in 1916 if not 1915, than the pared-down version with the White/Turpin interpolations removed.

The pantomime donkey gets lots more to do in the long version. Nothing funny, mind you. Its brief appearance in the two-reel re/deconstruction doesn’t really justify its presence. However, Jack Henderson as Pastia walks out of a shot with Chaplin and into a shot with the donkey, making the fake beast seem more closely related to the diegesis than Ben Turpin has been. So I’m undecided if the donkey was part of Chaplin’s original “vision” of the movie, or just something Leo White stuck in as stupid filler.

I guess the fake spider that gets inside the plumed helmet of Darn Hosiery — or Don José as Glass quaintly calls him — is in keeping with the fake donkey, so maybe these are theatrical touches intended by Chaplin to evoke the burlesque aspect he was going for. As parodists go, he’s no Mel Brooks. On the other hand, he did a better Hitler. The spider seems random but it does allow the use of a sugar glass bottle of cerveza, an Essanay specialty. I’m thinking the reason Essanay were seemingly ahead of Keystone in the glassware department is that they made a lot of WESTERNS.

One notices that Leo White’s material doesn’t add much in the way of gags, and when it does, it heavily recycles Chaplin’s, as when Turpin trips on that same damn rock (or its body double). Henry Jaglom was disenchanted when Orson Welles told him about Chaplin using gag writers, but if he had any at Essanay and left any of them behind, they weren’t up to much without him.

The eyelines when Edna’s on the landing are still all skew-whiff. But the cutaways added by White match perfectly — the most exciting bit is when the Don kicks Escamilo out of frame and he collides with Ben Turpin on another set months later. Comrade Kuleshov take note.

Ben Turpin turns up in a surprisingly close approximation of the “breach in the wall” setting Chaplin uses.

Closer views reveal it to be a substantially different structure when Ben Turpin is in front of it than when Chaplin is. And it’s not just the texture of the film that’s different. Chaplin has a three-dimensional wall two blocks thick, whereas Turpin’s looks like little more than a painted flat. Some critics have claimed that Chaplin didn’t care about sets, or even that he WANTED flat, undetailed and unconvincing settings for his comedy to stand out against. Not so: I think he was always looking to improve things until he reconnected with a Karno pal, Charles D. Hall, in 1918, and that leads to the most solid and well-thought-out sets in comedies of that time.

The guard with elaborate moustaches walks through the background of a Chaplin shot and emerges in a Turpin shot, but although the motion is perfect, his epaulettes have teleported off his shoulders in the splice.

Since there are never enough rabbit holes for a man to go down, I start looking up 1916 productions to see who’s got all the epaulettes that year. Another unsolved mystery. Maybe the solution is that Leo White just couldn’t be bothered. No Stroheim, he.

Chaplin duelling with White takes on an extratextual layer… I now identify part of my problem with the film: earlier, Don José/Hosiery was a dorky character, forever tripping or getting spiders in his helmet. Now he’s a pastiche Fairbanks, brushing his moustache while he fences with Morales/White. He’s a super-suave swashbuckler. So, even before Essanay made mincemeat of the film, it had an in-built incoherence. Chaplin knew WHAT he was spoofing but not HOW.

But we do get a bit of Charlie’s protean powers during the swordfight, as he changes it into a pool game, “sharpening” his sabre tip on the last in a string of hanging onions, and then into a dance. This is one of the things CC is best at… Even when the struggle is not literally a jog, it has choreographic elements, and sometimes Chaplin tries to get laughs purely from rhythm and repetition.

Bizarre cutaways of Edna with livid scratches on her face (presumably from the earlier catfight) exhorting her rival lovers on, and a weird gag where Don/Darn rips hunks of hair from his opponent’s scalp and pelts him with the tufts. One problem with assessing this film is that not only does it have additional sequences not made by Chaplin, but all his bits have been extended as far as they’ll go, and we have no definite knowledge of which stuff he originally cut out for the two-reel version. It seems obvious this sequence would have been a good bit shorter in Chaplin’s original.

There’s no way to connect Ben Turpin to it so they just keep him off to one side.

When the characters depart for Seville, Ben Turpin simply disappears, having never developed anything like his own subplot. I suppose he ends up with Frasquita.

Weird that White didn’t stage a bullfight with a pantomime bull, since that’s something that could be legitimately added to the story and wouldn’t have involved Chaplin’s character. Most of the film’s publicity material features bulls, in fact:

Chaplin poses with dead Leo and dead bull. Comedy tonight!

It’s disconcerting to see Charlie Chaplin straight-up murder somebody, so many years before MONSIEUR VERDOUX. The fact that he’s trying to cram a soft, bendy blade into the prone White almost but not quite takes the curse off it. The chap’s still DEAD. And then the Don murders Carmen and commits suicide, for none of which Chaplin seems to have devised a comedic exit strategy — until the business with the resurrection and the trick dagger. Carmen and Don J are transformed back into Edna and Charlie and have a laugh about the scene they just played. A bit of Pirandellian fancy, rather than burlesque.

There’s yet another version of the film — narrated by Peter Sellers. Not as funny as you might expect, in fact utterly lacking in any comedic qualities whatsoever. The commentary kills every joke in the film, and kills its own additional “jokes” too, and may make you reconsider Sellers’ reputation as a master of accents. He only does one here, and it’s terrible.

As with Chaplin, best look elsewhere for proof of Sellers’ genius.

When Chaplin found out Essanay had inflated his two-reeler to a four-reeler, he went to bed for two days. After watching these edits, I feel like doing the same.

This whole film is a pretty mysterious garden of forking paths. Still, this is only the Essanay Ulysses. TRIPLE TROUBLE, assembled by White from fragments of an uncompleted Chaplin project and various complete ones, together with new footage, will be the Finnegan’s Wake.

The Sunday Intertitle: Mr Rowdy & Mr Pest

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin on screen is nearly always some version of The Tramp (who isn’t always a tramp), apart from in the early Keystone days. But he had a few names over the years, as we’ve seen — Mr. Wow-Wow, Mr Sniffels, Weakchin… But A NIGHT IN THE SHOW is unique since he plays two characters, Mr. Pest and Mr. Rowdy.

This is an adaptation of the Karno Company stage play that got Chaplin his Keystone offer. Mack Sennett was impressed by his drunk act. David Robinson remarks that Karno was known to be quite litigious, but Chaplin appears to have used the play without any official agreement… He padded it out by inventing his second character. This may have influenced Buster Keaton’s backstage comedy THE PLAYHOUSE, which opens with a dream in which Keaton plays EVERYBODY.

The lobby scene — Scene One — is an addition. Charlie as a top-hatted drunk would recur in the celebrated near-one-man show ONE A.M.

Mr. Rowdy is a fascinating creation, initially — Chaplin changes his simple makeup, compresses his face into a different formation, and is UNRECOGNISABLE. Suggesting that if the tramp character hadn’t hit it big, he would have been quite successful being different from film to film. But probably not THAT successful — it just so happened that his genius for cinematic clowning combined with him inventing a very recognisable silhouette, and that recognition factor was crucial.

Camera angles! The side-views of Mr. Pest amid the seating seem radical — Keystone audiences were always filmed from front or back, favouring either the faces of the crowd or the action onstage. And here comes Leo White in toff mode, which is how I like to see him best.

Well-timed business with the tuba player (James T. Kelley). Charlie uses the player’s bald head to light a match — he’s already mistaken a statue for a person. His drunkenness enables the confusion of people and objects to be taken to extremes. Then he has trouble finding his mouth with his cigarette, just like Peter Weller in NAKED LUNCH, a detail attested to as accurate by actual addicts.

For some reason Pest’s terror at the scary woman with the lorgnette strikes me as cruel, but his picking up the palsied trombonist’s tremor cracks me up. Both are evil. I suppose the defence, if there is one, is that we’re not mocking the afflicted, we’re laughing at Pest’s social ineptitude, his inability to act unfazed. Maybe.

The conductor accidentally lashing Pest in the face with his baton is wince-making, but he does deserve it. Maybe it’s wrong to have Pest actually struck — the jokes so far have been about HIM being wrong. If he’s whipped across the mouth he’s kind of justified in slapping back.

I don’t understand how the conductor can roll onto a chair so he’s upside down and then make it topple over without at least risking spinal injury.

In the ensuing skirmish, Chaplin cuts to a slightly closer view, with perfect continuity from about twenty-five actors and extras, so I’m assuming this is a single take shot with two cameras, Harry Ensign handing over to Rollie Totheroh, who would shoot almost all Chaplin’s stuff after the Essanay phase.

Fight over piece of trombone. Fat lady knocked into ornamental fountain. Chaplin seems fond of ornamental fountains — a useful way to have people fall in the water while indoors.

Good detail work as the eternal problem of the elbow rest is gone into. OBVIOUSLY theatre seats shouldn’t have conjoined elbow rests. Everybody should have a place for their elbows, if they have elbows. That’s democracy.

Edna laughs from a distance. Will she still be laughing when Mr. Pest gets in the same frame as her? That’s the Pest Test.

No, she’s very much not laughing now.

Ah good, here’s Mr. Rowdy again and he’s brought a bottle. I’m a bit distracted by the bloke in drag with a baby to the right of him. The IMDb doesn’t know who this is, but I suspect it’s somebody in a dual role. The guy to the left seems like a horrible ham, he’s assumed a permanent rictus to disguise his face so I assume he can be found elsewhere, playing elsewho, in the Mr. Pest segment of the movie. Here I get a vague impression that he’s aiming for a Semitic look.

The two Charlies interact without the use of splitscreen — just straight cutting between balcony and stalls. Chaplin wouldn’t really get into special effects until, I think THE GOLD RUSH.

The show begins! The first act is, rather obviously, the fat lady who fell in the fountain, May White, now playing a belly dancer. She doesn’t seem to be related to Leo White. She trips over — which should be pest’s fault but doesn’t seem to be motivated at all — and becomes unconscious. Or possibly dead. Pest jumps on stage to help out. So it’s a weak set-up to the business of Pest trying to lift a big woman onto her feet, which he then doesn’t make as much of as he could.

Now a fat boy arrives, and at first I thought this was May White yet again, in drag, but it’s Dee Lampton. He’d star in his own series of short films in 1917 as Schemer Skinny, then was relegated to roles like “Fat Man on Bench,” “Fat Rival” and “Fat Butler.” He was dead at twenty.

The business with Mr. Rowdy seems mainly to have been conceived to give something for Chaplin to cut to. A shame, because it’s fascinating to see him play someone else, even someone as unpleasant as this. Rowdy amuses himself by kicking the woman with the baby in the face. Which is why, I guess, it’s essential the she be played by a man. The unreality of the situation must be plain.

Lampton’s knickerbockered prankster has brought cream pies to the theatre, which Pest keeps putting his hand in. Losing patience, he swipes the pie at Lampton and hits the parent or guardian. So, are we to take it that Fred Karno was doing pie-in-face action before the movies got ahold of the gag? Ben Turpin, as we have seen, appears to have thrown cinema’s first pastry.

Now a snake charmer appears — IMDb has this as May White also, but I think that’s wrong. This character isn’t a comedic fat lady, just zaftig in a way that was considered attractive rather than funny in 1915. Although there’s a crossover — she and the belly dancer are treated both as potentially erotic (a lady drags her husband away because he enjoys the belly dancer too much) and also as suitable butts for crude gags — as when Mr. Pest lights a match on the snake charmer’s bare sole. She must have really calloused feet.

She also has a whole urn full of serpents. Another reason she’s not May White (unless the fat lady isn’t May White and she is) — she’s prepared to handle snakes, and is therefore probably a specialty act. I’m starting to think that maybe the fat lady and the belly dancer are both Dee Lampton in drag, or one of them is, or something. Whatever way, the Inaccurate Movie Database is living up to its name.

Snakes in an orchestra pit! Where’s Sam Jackson when you need him? “I have had it with etc.” The python in the tuba is an oddly uncomfortable gag.

Now I’ve noticed Leo White in blackface up in the gallery behind Mr. Rowdy and I can’t unsee that. It does at least confirm that probably everybody up there — the idiot children of paradise — is a disguised cast member from elsehwre in the film.

It occurs to me that in dividing himself in twain, Chaplin has given his derby to Mr. Rowdy and his moustache to Mr. Pest. Rowdy gets a good bit of business lifting his bushy ‘tache up so he can drink. The little toothbrish job was chosen to make Chaplin look older while not concealing his facial expressions, and we can see the wisdom of this, as Mr. Rowdy basically only has one expression, since Chaplin is holding his face in a different formation to make the character distinct. How to describe that expression? It seems to me tipsy, stupid, and very open and very psychopathic at the same time.

Dot and Dash — Bud Jamison and a little person the IMDb OUGHT to be able to identify but has not. Surely we’ll see this guy in other films from the period. Anyway, they sing badly, it seems, and are pelted with fruit. Inevitably, Mr. Pest sees a use for Dee Lampton’s other pie. Rather than throw it, sportsmanlike, however, he creeps on stage to deliver it at close quarters into the musical face of the anonymous achondroplasiac. This is done. There is no twist, no joke, really, just a short guy pieing the face of an even shorter guy. And then kicking him up the arse. Mr. Pest/Chaplin seems to be sadistically amused by this, and the audience goes wild, and I’m left rather cold.

Dutifully, Dot and Dash come back for a curtain call and more abuse.

The audience is now wildly applauding Mr. Pest for his nastiness. It would seem that Chaplin had some reservations about the kind of comedy he was doing — he would later say so, anyway — and so it makes sense that he’d have an ambivalent attitude to the people who loved him.

Next stop: Hell. “Professor Nix, the fire eater” performs in a volcanic cavern set, wearing horns. Mr. Pest is rightly alarmed. Chaplin’s last encounter with the flames of Hades was in THOSE LOVE PANGS. Other than the heavenly dream sequence of THE KID, I’m not sure he was particularly inspired by the afterlife again. Prof. Nix is really good, though — he uses Melesian jump-cuts, not something we’d have seen in the Karno production.

Pearls before swine: Mr. Rowdy panics and turns on the firehose, much as in THE PROPERTY MAN. Chaplin gets to show his resentment of the audience. But he ends on Mr Rowdy squirting Mr Pest from above — a close-up of a sodden Chaplin being a standard full stop at Keystone, but somewhat lacking for the more structured Essanay shorts.

I feel the main value here is the glimpse we get of Karno komedy, but it’s a distorted glimpse, since Chaplin is adapting everything for the cinema and extending it to make a two-reeler. We still can’t know what it was really like to see Chaplin on the stage. But clues are good.

I’m kind of excited about A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, which is next. Hoping I can see the original two-reel cut AND Leo White’s four-reel travesty.