Archive for A Dog’s Life

Man and His Mut(t)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2021 by dcairns

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.

Man’s Beast Friend

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2021 by dcairns

On the subject of A DOG’S LIFE, Chaplin’s first film for First National, Walter Kerr (in The Silent Clowns) sagely notes ~

“The dirt floor of the vacant lot on which Charlie is discovered sleeping is now real dirt, hard, soiling, transparently uncomfortable. He will make nothing of this, or, rather, he will deflect attention from it with a gag without denying its presence. The board fence beside him is rickety, uneven at ground level, obviously no shelter from wind. The wind bothers him, a bit. He studies its cause. There is a small knothole in one board. He stuffs that with a piece of cloth and curls up to sleep again, reassured. The joke has had a double face: it is funny because closing off the least source of wind is preposterous in the circumstances; it also accentuates the circumstances. The comedy and a certain harshness of fact are being welded.

“When he goes to the tavern, The Green Lantern, the paint is peeling from the cement walls that frame its entrance, the sign promising Beer 5¢ is weathered almost to obliteration. The curbstone on which he sits is littered: there is garbage for him to probe in search of possible food. Compare the environment in which all of the spirited gagging takes place with that of the earlier Easy Street and the new texture becomes plain. Easy Street is a slum street, populated by bullies, drug addicts, impoverished women who must steal. But it is as clean as a drawing for a fairy tale. A Dog’s Life is not a picture of a place but a place. The “setting” as a thing closer to documentation is taking its place.”

Kerr’s observations are all the more astute because there’s no evidence he knew that the Chaplin unit had been joined by a new production designer, uncredited, in the person of Charles D. Hall. Hall would design every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES, while running the design department at Universal for the last few of those years. He’s a giant of cinema, giving us not just the clockwork innards Chaplin will reel through, iconically, but Castle Dracula, Frankenstein’s laboratory, the Bauhaus Satanism of THE BLACK CAT.

Hall was a companion from the Fred Karno days, but by the time he starts working with Chaplin he already has absorbed cinema’s need for close-up detail, as described in Kerr’s examples. It’s not clear whether he absorbed this working on earlier films or simply had his own ideas, or followed Chaplin’s orders. But he certainly brings a new reality to the films. If you’re wondering if a designer would really be responsible for the quality of dirt on the set in 1917, you can read my short bio in this month’s Sight & Sound but also read Tom Charity on Richard Sylbert in the same issue: Sylbert dictated that, since CHINATOWN was about a drought, he didn’t want to see a single cloud. He designed the SKY.

We can compare directly Chaplin waking up in EASY STREET and in A DOG’S LIFE:

In addition to the detail, the new film begins with a slow tilt down from ramshackle buildings, a movement that adds depth and solidity.

The new film benefits especially from the realistic textures because its gags are mostly about SURVIVAL. The addition of a dog is sympathetic but also holds a mirror up to Charlie, as Jackie Coogan would. Scraps is introduced as “a thoroughbred mongrel,” a contradictory statement that also applies to Charlie, a natural aristocrat, an indigent lord of the manner.

Scraps is played by Mut. Chaplin had been experimentally buying dogs, then giving them away to good homes when he judged them insufficiently cinematic. A dachshund, a pomeranian and a poodle preceded the final mutt, Mut. Obviously a mongrel was the way to go, but Chaplin liked to find things out by trial and error.

Class warfare: in Chaplin, the underdog is permitted to mistreat the upper crust silk hat fellow, since this qualifies as revenge on the persecutor, but he can also rob the honest salesman: in EASY STREET, Charlie as constable helps a woman load up with purloined groceries from a stall, and there’s no thought to how the poor stall-keeper is to survive. In THE KID, breaking the windows of the honest poor is permissible (windows are expensive).

A kop! No longer with the silly tit helmet, but with a dignified cap and an unblinking stare. Played not by a clown but by a regular actor, Tom Wilson, previously of Griffith and Pickford productions. But he has to get down and slapsticky with the rest of them, as Charlie uses the gap beneath the fence to roll back and forth and play merry hell with the kopper’s ankles.

Charlie now visits the Employment Office. Despite his offscreen British origins, queuing is not a natural activity for him. An ad for a brewery job provokes a near-riot, and despite his greater speed, Charlie suffers the inevitable consequence of being the smallest jobseeker. The fat jobseeker is the inevitable Henry Bergman, in the first of his inevitable two roles.

That other Henry, Henry Jaglom, was horrified to learn that Chaplin used gag writers. This seems to be true, but unlike with Keaton it seems we’re not allowed to know who they were. Vincent Bryan & Maverick Tyrrel (cool name) are listed by the IMDb as co-screenwriters of the Mutual films, but on what factual basis I don’t know. Bryan was also a songwriter, responsible for”In My Merry Oldsmobile” (?) No co-writers are given for subsequent Chaplins until we get Orson Welles supplying the story for MONSIEUR VERDOUX. But Glen David Gold’s well-researched novel Sunnyside gives Chaplin a gaggle of gagmen. Albert Austin and Henry Bergman are said to have contributed ideas, and so I suspect the stock company could be said to serve as co-authors, like the actors in Mike Leigh films, but the man in charge serves as filter of all suggestions.

After being roundly defeated in the Job Centre — even the tiniest jobseekers somehow arrive at the service window before him — the problem is there are TWO –Charlie rescues Scraps from bigger dogs: the parallel with his own scrappy existence is clear. He at once becomes surrogate bitch to the pup, helping access the dregs of a milk bottle using Scraps’ own tail as a kind of milk-sop. Probably THE KID has a better origin story, with Charlie simply forced into partnership with a baby, much against his wishes. But this is fine, and sweet.

Attention to set detail is complimented by attention to extras once we relocate to the Green Lantern bar, a low dive full of low characters. Chaplin invents bits of business for the local colour. But he’s cutting ahead if the plot here — nothing happens in the bar/dance hall this time round. He just needed a cutaway.

Sydney! Chaplin’s half-brother last shared a screen with him in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, Chaplin’s last Keystone film and Sydney’s first. Since then, Syd had made a number of shorts using his “Gussle” character, sometimes called a Chaplin impersonation but not really. Syd was less handsome than Charlie and his characters usually up the grotesquerie factor.There are at a couple of features where he bares his face and looks natural, but he retreats behind makeup and cookieduster again for THE BETTER ‘OLE, the better to resemble the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon the film takes its title from.

I can only hate Syd as a human being, but he’s another comic who, not surprisingly, has fantastic timing with his brother. Like Conklin and Turpin. This is their probably their best bit together, but I’ll be watching out for his subsequent appearances.

The basis of this routine is Charlie and scraps stealing from Syd’s lunch counter. Scraps cleans up a string of sausages in time-honoured fashion. Charlie eats all the pies. It is incredible to see him cram those things into his skinny face. He’s like Paul Newman with the hardboiled eggs. I think they must have made nearly-empty pies, but then again, his face looks pretty full. Syd tries to catch him at it. This becomes very funny indeed, since by the diminishing number of pies and Charlie’s proximity to the dish, his guilt is transparent. But Syd is determined to catch him in flagrante. Circumstantial evidence is insufficient for this stickler. The variety of ways Charlie gets the better of him is dazzling, and a lot of it is played out in unbroken master shots so you can see the interplay in real time. There are cutaways to the dog and closeups, maybe so Chaplin can run off and be sick. But the bulk of the action is in wides of twenty seconds and a minute ten.

The arrival of that kop, whose sinister gaze Charlie meets just as he’s lifting another pie to his gob, breaks up the skit — Charlie flees and the kop gets hit with the colossal sausage intended for him.

Stuffed with meat, Charlie and Scraps enter the Green Lantern and the first thing that can be called plot occurs (I may be being over-strict, but I think the meeting with Edna is the first thing in the film that leads to something else).

Rejected from the joint for having a dog with him, Charlie stuffs Scraps down his baggy pants, which at last have a use. The dog is somewhat large for this role, which may have looked more realistic on paper. Special effects will be used to basically shrink him: once he’s inside, Charlie looks normal-ish, no longer bulging fantastically, but with a wagging tail protruding from his trousers. The seat was torn earlier, when Charlie rescued Scraps from the bigger dogs, so this is unusually logical.

Various barflies and one drummer are freaked out by Charlie’s tail. Mut seems very contented in those pants, whenever we cut to a medium-shot and we see his face.

Edna is a singer in this joint. She sings a sad song — cutaways of various plug uglies weeping into their beer. Henry Bergman, in his inevitable second inevitably drag appearance, cries clown tears, but instead of spurting like water pistols his eyes just dribble in cataracts down his big face upon the place beneath, where Charlie happens to be sitting.

You have to see this one with Chaplin’s score — I guess this is the earliest Chaplin film with his own music accompanying it. He couldn’t write music but he would whistle or hum it for a composer to transcribe. I gather sometimes what he whistled wasn”t entirely original, but his films are full of cute tunes, and Nino Rota’s collaboration with Fellini is impossible to imagine without C.C. Here, Edna’s lament is preceded and followed by a very vigorous and zaftig dancer, and the contrast in style and dignity is very funny.

Syd’s then-wife Minnie is credited as “Dance hall dramatic lady” on the IMDb. Does that make her the dancer? It’s a bit strange.

Fiona likes Edna’s incompetent flirting. It’s one of the few Edna roles where she gets to transform pathos — her bully of a boss demands she flirt with customers — with comedy — she’s so innocent she has no idea how to do it. She looks like she’s having a fit. Charlie, the customer she tries it on, is baffled until she provides an explanatory title card. Such visual cues would be useful in real life.

At attempt to dance with a dog in tow looks forward to the improvised dog leash belt in THE GOLD RUSH. It looks pretty uncomfortable. Charlie is just sitting down to a (leftover) half drink with Edna when the bartended unreasonably demands he buy something for her. He gives her the drink. The bartender starts to eject him so he grabs it back and downs it on his way out.

Charlie and Scraps get the bum’s rush. Meanwhile, a rich drunk is rolled for his bulging wallet. This tipsy walk-on clearly would be given to an experienced comic, but the IMDb offers no clue as to who it is and I don’t recognise him. There’s a nice “mercy shot” after he’s dragged offscreen by thugs and relieved of his loot — he staggers back into view, dazed but unperturbed, and staggers off back the way he came.

Kops chase robbers, and the purloined wad is buried where Scraps can easily find it, providing the ensuing complications of Reel #3 and Day #2 (or is it #3?) of this film.

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