Archive for A Countess from Hong Kong

The Whitsunday Intertitle: Tramp Steamer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2021 by dcairns

A mystery! There are two versions of a restored SHANGHAIED (1915) on YouTube, one with intertitles and one largely without. They don’t look like original intertitles but they do seem necessary to comprehension so I’m watching the version with.

Ship owner — a thin, wispy type — says something to captain — a moustache and eyebrows type — who then says something to first mate — a rough, Emmet Kelly painted stubble type. The intertitles have the ship owner proposing that the ship be destroyed for the insurance, and the captain agreeing (a unique case of two characters speaking in a single Chaplin intertitle), and then the captain telling the mate he’s going to find a crew. But by pantomime the captain is clearly telling the mate that the ship must be blown up (abrupt hand gesture; awed reaction from mate). So the titles don’t feel quite right, but they’re clearly necessary.

The captain fails to recruit some sea-scum for his doomed voyage. Naturally enough they’re played by seasoned Essanay co-stars Paddy McGuire, Leo White and Billy Armstrong, and silent clown make-up seems to dovetail nicely with salty sea-dog make-up.

The mate spots Charlie. So far this is the plot of Laurel & Hardy’s THE LIVE GHOST. I can imagine the idea was fairly popular. You could turn Harry Langdon loose in such a story. Harold Lloyd could do it, if you made clear he badly needed the money. With Charlie, badly needing money is a given, so he makes a ready recruit for a corrupt scheme.

But hold! First we see Charlie romancing Edna, the ship owner’s daughter, evidently an affair of longish standing. And Charlie’s not outfitted in his maximum filthiness — the waistcoat looks smart. The jacket elbows are dusty, but on the whole he’s not a hobo here. Nevertheless, the ship owner disapproves of the match, as we see when he interrupts the clinch.

The shipowner is future director Wesley Ruggles, enjoying a major promotion from his walk-on in THE BANK. His side-whiskers give him a monkey-like appearance. He’s certainly created a clearly-defined caricature.

Charlie, bereft, makes an easy recruit for the shanghai-ing scheme. The mate gives him a lug hammer for hammering the lugs. The Little Fellow has no scruples about fracturing skulls for profit. I’m not sure if the character ever really acquires scruples, he tends to fall in with any schemes proposed by larger men, but the plots in the mature period tend to avoid having him do anything really corrupt for anyone else. He always has a chivalric attitude towards pretty girls, or at least towards his leading lady (once he leaves his sex pest phase behind, as perhaps he now has).

Charlie is to hide in a barrel, like Jim lad, and wallop the sea-scum as they walk past the boat they don’t want to sail on. There’s a flaw here somewhere but the movie doesn’t admit it. It turns out the mate (regular heavy Bud Jamison) is going to lure each man into hammering range with a pantomimed offer of grog. Naturally, none of the three men is suspicious as their number dwindles by inevitable fatal mallet attrition. The promise of grog obliterates all suspicion.

Charlie does his part of the black bargain fairly efficiently, though he keeps snatching the grog. Which might be whisky, going by the bottle, but I like typing “grog”. The history of grog is quite interesting, but has nothing to do with this film.

Unless I’m misreading the signs, Paddy McGuire seems to be playing his sailor in a “Hello, sailor” caricature of pansy mincing. Just for the hell of it. It’s not really necessary to distinguish the three sailors, but why not do it if you can, I guess?

Chaplin seems to be throwing dummies on board the ship rather than requiring his actors to flop onto the deck from a great height, or hiring stuntmen. These clowns can certainly take falls, but it’s uncertain they could do what’s shown here without serious bruising at least. Tight cutting prevents the trick being obvious, for once.

The captain shows up and of course gets clonked too. IMDb insists on calling him the mate (Lawrence A. Bowes) and Bud Jamison the second mate, but in that case there’s no captain at all, which seems odd.

Then comes the inevitable betrayal — Charlie is ceremonially clonked and thrown aboard to share the voyage with the men he’s walloped, though at least he gets to keep the three bucks and at least the men don’t know he’s responsible for their abduction, unlike in THE LIVE GHOST (Stan Laurel was adept at making each situation the boys get into the absolute worst possible iteration of that scenario — “Oh no” is not an uncommon thing to find yourself saying in a Laurel & Hardy film. In this, Stan is arguably refining a technique introduced by his old colleague Chaplin.)

The four captives are awakened by water-pail and set to work, even though we don’t seem to be at sea yet. I would have thought, fractured skulls or not, they might climb back on land at this point. But we soon see the wisdom of the captain’s plan. As each man refuses to work, he is slapped into unconsciousness and dropped down into the hold, no doubt breaking his neck. Leo White is playing his tar VERY OBSTREPEROUS so he gets this treatment. Billy Armstrong and Charlie agree to work.

Charlie is considering rebelling against a whey-faced cabin boy, a pale, drippy Larry Semon sample of a man, but then the captain shows up with a whip and all thoughts of mutiny go the way of the rumble seat.

So far, Chaplin is following a good pattern, one he’s developed by trial and error: Charlie has a sympathetic yearning for Edna; he’s also an amusing rogue; and now he’s in a terrible situation, enslaved on a boat that is, if I’m any interpreter of expository hand gestures, due to be blown up. Sympathy, conflict, suspense, a situation which demands a dramatic resolution. It’s all there. If anything, there’s too much plot, since Charlie has had little room for his comic elaborations.

The ship sets sail, which we see because the set is on rockers. It takes me a while to figure out that the attractive abstract pattern painted on the back wall is the scenic artist’s attempt to suggest the interior of the ship’s bow.

The cabin boy type, the one character Charlie has decided he can bully (this aspect of the Tramp character dies hard, it seems) is Fred Goodwins, a fellow Londoner who would survive service in WWI only to die of bronchitis in London aged 32. He’s in a few Chaplin shorts and has a meaty juvenile role in AMARILLY OF CLOTHES-LINE ALLEY, and David Robinson quotes his contemporary account of Chaplin’s lambasting in the press for vulgarity, and his determination to serve up good clean fun.

Extended bit with winch — Charlie gets two men overboard and, in trying to rescue them, plunges a third into the brine. None of which is massively funny, oddly enough. A new big prop like this would usually bring out Chaplin’s best ideas, but possibly the struggle of filming at sea is interfering with the comic flow. It’s a bit rote on this boat.

Quite a good gag where Armstong, White and McGuire, attempting to haul the captain and mate and underling aboard with a rope, fall off the other side of the ship. Although I’d have had them all hanging onto the rope so you could have six men hanging over the sides, and Charlie could try to rescue them by cutting the rope.

The frantic sailor operating the winch is good — hard to work out from the cast list who he is, and he might be doubling for one of the men overboard… he moves so fast it’s hard to framegrab him without just getting blurry ectoplasm. This would be solved if I had the Blu-ray.

Wesley Ruggles reads a letter: Edna has stowed away on the doomed boat. Ah-ha! I was genuinely wondering how Chaplin would be able to involve Edna in the story beyond the intro. The closeup of the handwriting, oddly, seems completely unrestored — it has a dupey VHS quality. I’m really wondering about the history of this upload.

The shock sends dada beating his bruised and krovvy rookers against unfair Bog in His Heaven. Pardon my nadsat.

Given Charles Ruggles’ later fame, it is arguable that Chaplin has hired the wrong brother, but nothing about Wesley is inapt in this context.

And now we see Edna hiding in a sack, anticipating Marion Mack, and we see Ruggles setting off in a launch to save his daughter from Exploding At Sea.

And now Charlie is washing dishes with predictable efficiency — when he washes them they STAY washed and will never need washed again, in all their many fragments. Unfortunately he’s washing them in the captain’s soup. This kind of gross-out pollution gag isn’t new — indeed, Charlie let his mop drip in Billy Armstrong’s tin of whatever-it-was in his previous short, THE BANK, much to both men’s eventual disgust.

Charlie seems to breaking the basic rules of screen direction by exiting the kitchen from the left and entering the mess also from the left. We seem to be missing a shot taken on deck where he appears from the kitchen and turns to enter another door in the same wall — whether this shot was deleted for pace reasons, lost, or was never shot, I don’t know. It seems unlikely that Chaplin would rely on what’s effectively a jump-cut to speed the film along, he’s always very meticulous about continuity and screen direction, and often shows himself walking through a set just to get to the next scene. He can generally add a bit of business to make the interim action entertaining.

The captain and mate, rocked back and forth (cameraman Harry Ensign devised a gimbal thing to sway the camera) in a medium shot, laugh about their successful shanghai-ing to remind us to hate them so we can enjoy them being sickened by washing-up soup, and Charlie builds in some good expense before the stricken reactions:

Of course it’s the poor cook (John Rand) who gets arse-kicked for it. Charlie attempts (a) to maintain a low profile (b) to ready a meat cleaver in self-defense (c) to look like an innocent skivvy. He escapes punishment from the captain but then the cook starts a fight, understandably enough. And now it seems that the captain’s mess is screen right, so that Charlie’s reaching it by exiting left was a bit of movie magic/a mistake. And now Charlie exits the kitchen screen right and emerges on deck, without passing through the mess. Who was the S.S. Vaquero’s boatwright, MC Escher?

Incidentally I wrote about all this in 2015, if you want to read the same stuff in different, possibly better, words.

Purely, it seems, to reestablish screen geography, Charlie walks all the way round the deck and enters every door, so we learn that the kitchen is IN FRONT OF the mess, both reached from the deck by going left to right, and so it should be impossible to walk through the kitchen to the mess. But actually, if we assume the kitchen is narrower and the mess is deeper, there just might be a way. But something is still out of wack here as far as I’m concerned.

Things aren’t helped when the ship/set/camera starts rocking violently, and bits of film start to go missing, splinking Charlie around so that he seems to exit right and emerge left, which we KNOW should be impossible. And now I can actually figure something out at last: somebody has flipped a shot, since the lifeboat that previously said L.A. now seems to say A.J. And when we saw this side of the deck previously, we were looking at the BACK of a lifeboat. So somewhere in the restoration a blunder has occurred. I think there’s quite a bit of this goes on at Lobster, sad to say.

And now Charlie enters the mess from the RIGHT… so maybe it was Chaplin who flipped the shot, to cover a mistake, accepting that he’d have to perform at least one spacetime violation since he didn’t have an exit/entrance shot taken on the right side of the boat.

And now he passes from one deck to the other (I believe port and starboard are the accepted terms but I don’t know which is which and this may be the wrong film to attempt to learn from) without passing through the rooms between, as if via wormhole. The nouvelle vague has nothing on this. I wonder if the various pieces of film could be unflipped and reordered in a way that makes sense?

In fairness, matching screen direction on a boat once caused the great Angela Allen, goaded by nonsensical questions from John Huston, to blow a microchip and throw her notes in the air (but NOT, she emphasises, over the side).

Now seated for his own meal, Chaplin is overcome by mal de mer. David Robinson points out the persistence of this routine in Chaplin’s work, developed through THE IMMIGRANT and appearing even during his last screen appearance in A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG. Comedy is very biological, especially visual comedy, but there were constraints on which functions could be shown or even implied. Nausea was acceptable.

Fleeing the food, Chaplin executes, and just about gets away with, another line-cross, then tumbles below-decks, where he must surely discover Edna who has only been in two shots thus far, for probably about a minute’s screen-time. Yes, the walking sack is Edna, as usual (though her 1915 fashions in this are slightly better than usual). She’s apparently discovered the dynamite plot, and the crate of dynamite has somehow moved into a prominent position on this set — perhaps there’s a lost scene where we see the captain and mate setting it up, and Edna overhearing them.

This unrestored version, seemingly dug up from somebody’s garden, is missing most of the geographical snafus but a lot of other material is gone too, including the intertitles.

Now the fuse is lit — the third act begins in earnest — Chaplin provides unusually dramatic suspense shots —

Disconnecting the fuse is intellectually beyond Charlie and Edna so he lugs the crate on deck and, in a piece of footage simply beyond all restoration — if you painted out the scratches you’d have Robert Ryan’s famous all-white painting, appropriately enough in this context entitled Bridge.

Hard to tell if the backlighting is a help or a hindrance to visual comprehension here.

Of course the dynamite somehow lands in the lifeboat with the captain and mate, and they explode. I laughed darkly at Charlie trying to explain his mistake to, presumably, a lot of reddish fragments littering the ocean like the remains of Bruce the shark after he ate something that disagreed with him.

Our lovers disembark onto dad’s launch. Dad, who is morally responsible for this criminal enterprise which has resulted in two fatalities.

A “mercy shot” shows the captain and mate alive and intact, but then shows them sinking from view. So they ARE dead.

The stage is now set for Charlie to be allowed to marry Edna, but her dad, who is after all a bastard, still refuses. Charlie prepares to drown himself. Edna, reunited with dad, is oblivious. He jumps. NOW she notices him.

Charlie manages to climb aboard and kick dad in the pants, dunking him. Charlie and Edna motor off leaving Wesley Ruggles to drown as they laugh in psychopathic glee, and ending Chaplin had previously applied to A JITNEY ELOPMENT. And then, without even an END title or Essanay’s Indian profile, it stops.

And Still They Dance, To The End of Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2012 by dcairns

NOTE: The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon is not over — as befits its title, I accept (nay, welcome!) late entries, and have a few of my own lined up. Starting here:

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I sort of recommend watching A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG on a double bill with THE SHINING. As Kubrick’s spooky hotel seems time-warped back to the twenties, housing a whole temporally displaced dead population from that era, who eternally party, so Chaplin’s tuxedoed waltzers at the start and finish titles seem like refugees from the past — Chaplin wrote the treatment in the thirties as a vehicle for then-squeeze Paulette Goddard — presumably with himself in the Brando role. Now Sophia Loren is the Countess and times have changed, or have they?

Intermittently mildly funny, but mostly just damned odd, this isn’t, to me, an unpleasant watch, but it’s a very queer one. Brando seems to have entered the picture with high hopes that this would finally be his successful comedy (with a master like Chaplin in charge, how could it not?). In fact, he’s funnier in BEDTIME STORY — also, Brando’s sense of humour is that he’s a goof, a face-puller, a prankster. Deadpan sophisticated farce isn’t quite his thing, but he enjoys his few moments of silliness — panicking at the door buzzer every five minutes — and the brazen vulgarity, of which there is much — belching, gargling, sea-sickness, and the unspeakable threat of toilet noises.

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Loren, who can do anything and is VERY funny in YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW, is similarly patchy, managing some good physical stuff in a succession of outsized pajamas and dresses which deliberately recall her director’s baggy pants. But the film also veers into melancholy melodrama and she seems slightly more comfortable there.

Brando apparently grew to hate his director, focussing his outrage on Chaplin’s perceived mistreatment of son Sydney, who’s quite good in an undercharacterized supporting role. Syd didn’t feel bullied at all, and thought Dad was just trying to help him be good. It feels like Brando withdraws a bit as the film goes on: he did have a tendency to stop trying when he didn’t feel appreciated or lost enthusiasm for a project.

The same can’t be said for the magnificent Angela Scoular, who is consistently funny regardless of whether she has any comedy material to work with. Sadly, she only makes three little appearances and her role goes nowhere, plotwise. It’s Chaplin’s last film but her first, proving his eye for talent (and the ladies) had not deserted him. Also present, supporting Margaret Rutherford’s all-too brief turn, are Monty Python muse Carol Cleveland and a trio of Chaplin daughters, including Geraldine, who nails her cameo and gets a laugh with a lot less obvious caricature than the ebullient Scoular.

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(Scoular could and should have been the sexy version of Joyce Grenfell.)

The movie isn’t spooky like THE SHINING but there is something a bit disconcerting about its time-warped wrongness. It feels a little like a tribute to TRADE WINDS, the film Tay Garnett was shooting location stuff for when he bumped into the Chaplins in Hong Kong. I’m almost convinced Garnett blabbed about his plot and Chaplin made a mental note to swipe it. By the time he got around to it, the story had moved on but so had the world, and in opposite directions.