Archive for A Dog’s Life

Charlie’s Day Out

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2021 by dcairns

Legend has it that MGM changed the title of its 1927 Anna Karenina adaptation from HEAT to LOVE, because a prospective marquee reading “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Heat” would have been comical, bit “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love” would be commercially appealing. With that in mind, the title card “Charlie Chaplin in A Day’s Pleasure with Edna Purviance” may be thought unfortunate.

“Music by Charlie Chaplin” — the fact that it doesn’t say “Charles” makes me wonder if these titles are director-approved. The rambunctiousness of the score may be explained by the fact that the person Chaplin is humming the tunes to is Eric Rogers, of Carry On film fame, rather than the more artful David Raksin. The tunes are as catchy but the tone is different depending on the personality of the notator-orchestrator.

The premise of this one was later used by Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and no doubt a gaggle of others. A family outing. Edna, tow Charlie mini-mes, and the man himself emerge in turn from a respectable Los Angeles bungalow. It’s a very L&H style sunblasted suburban sprawl setting. The idea of Chaplin kids dressed as smaller versions of the man himself had been tried out in a deleted scene from SHOULDER ARMS, which may be an early clue that inspiration is a bit dry.

In fact, this film was begun as CHARLIE’S PICNIC, a follow-up to SUNNYSIDE, which was shut down after the same creative problems caused production to grind to a halt. Then Chaplin discovered Jackie Coogan, started THE KID, and inspiration once more began flowing freely. But partway through shooting that film, Chaplin realised it was going to be bigger and more complex than anything he’d attempted before, and he had First National breathing down his neck. So he dug out the shelved footage from the picnic film and very quickly, by his standards, shot material to complete it. Although the mental logjam apparently triggered by his miserable marriage had broken, working at this speed had never really suited Chaplin and he’d gotten used to the luxury of time. So A DAY’S PLEASURE bears the signs of haste.

Charlie is swathed in a greatcoat, marking the character as more settled and respectable than usual. He cranks the boneshaker into violent motion, but the motor keeps dying just as he steps onto the running board. I suspect the presence of hefty stagehands shaking the vehicle from the lee side.

The jalopy is abandoned almost as soon as it appears, as this is to be a boat ride. Maybe some memory of the outing to Southampton Charlie experienced with Hannah and Syd when a boy. Standard fat lady humour: when a big woman misses the boat and ends up stretched between it and the dock, Charlie, also late, is able to use her as a human bridge. Then, when she’s dangling from the starboard, he tries pulling her aboard with a dangerously spikey looking boathook. Mercifully, the victim appears to be a large man in drag (Tom Wood? The fat peoples’ credits on Chaplin films at the IMDb are very confusing). David Robinson suggests she’s a woman, Babe London.

The rocking boat allows Rollie Totheroh to get his camera gimbal out again, but a dance floor sequence on deck produces no real gags. The black jazz quartet accompanying the hectic jig escapes too much racial mockery until the intertitle “Three minds with but a single thought” gratuitously ruins things, and also gets the number of musicians wrong. “They have suffered too much ever to be funny to me,” Chaplin would later say, but when the comic muse is AWOL, low-hanging (strange) fruit is duly plucked.

The inevitable mal de mer business ticked off, Charlie entangles himself in a complex deckchair which resolutely fails to come alive the way ONE A.M.s Murphy bed had. And the violent rocking of the camera really gets in the way here. Chaplin is going through the motions in an unsuitable sitcom scenario about bourgeoise family problems, something he has no feeling for nor experience of. Still, it’s only a two-reeler and I’ve never seen it before so at least it’s short and new.

Through convoluted means, Charlie, so seasick he’s coming off as inebriated, collapses across the lap of another stout lady, and is covered with a blanket by an attendant. When the woman’s husband arrives with refreshments, Charlie’s waving hand, emerging from under the blanket, is mistaken for the woman’s. A dim echo of the brilliant alien hands routine from A DOG’S LIFE. It’s unconvincing spatially: I would have thought the bodies and limbs could have been arranged to make it work better. For a better example of the same kind of thing, see Lorelei Lee and Mr. Spofford in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, arranged around a porthole. (“Quit it.”)

This leads to a fight with the husband (burly ex-boxer Tom Wilson, rather a colourless antagonist), interrupted by seasickness — as the husband leans over the side, Chaplin rains kicks and punches on his upthrust buttocks. A coward at heart, Charlie always waxes belligerent when his opponent is handicapped in any way. One of his less attractive qualities — which always seem to emerge when he’s feeling hurried or uninspired.

Still, he disembarks victorious. Which is a problem for me, because the loose structuring device of these kind of comedies is “a series of disasters/frustrations/mishaps”. Certainly the film tries to evoke that notion with the next bit of action, introduced flatly as “The hold-up at the crossroads.” Actually it’s the most inventive sequence.

Charlie manages to upset a traffic cop, tiny, obstreperous Loyal Underwood and his womenfolk, a haulage firm, Henry Bergman as two separate men, Toraichi Kono his chauffeur in real life (Mrs Kono apparently objected to his earlier appearance in THE ADVENTURER, feeling that acting was beneath a respectable driver’s dignity, but here he is again), and a couple of tar-spreaders and their vat, which is quite literally upset.

When Charlie and Bergman (in his second guise, as a second cop or kop) both get their feet stuck in the tar while arguing, the film actually threatens to become amusing. Charlie leans forwards at a super-Hulot ankle-straining angle, then pulls himself erect by the seat of his pants, a good piece of comedy physics.

Leaving his flap-shoes and both kops hopelessly sunk in bitumen, Charlie escapes using a policeman’s cap as stepping stone, making the film’s title, and the final intertitle “The end of a perfect day,” oddly UN-ironic.

Chaplin was still stuck in a disappointing marriage, and partway through production became father to Norman Spencer Chaplin, born incomplete — mostly missing his brain. The child died after a few days.

Victims of such birth defects are not usually viable, though I was once told by a nurse that the custom is to starve them so they die as quickly as possible. Glen David Gold gets quite a bit of high drama out of this tragedy in his novel Sunnyside, concluding with the horrific moment at the funeral when Chaplin sees that the mortician has arranged his son’s features into a grotesque SMILE in the tiny coffin. True.

Are we having fun yet?

Chaplin managed only two shorts in 1920, neither of them up to his exacting standards. ADP was released in December, and he didn’t manage to get another film in cinemas all through the following year. But when THE KID appeared in February 1921 (this is its centenary!) any suspicions of creative bankruptcy would be utterly dispelled.

It’s masterpiece time.

The Sunday Intertitle: Kid Kaiser

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2021 by dcairns

THE BOND is sometimes not even counted as a proper Chaplin film and I’d only ever seen a few seconds of it. I didn’t realise it was such a substantial piece. True, it’s basically an advertisement — selling war bonds. Chaplin was somewhat obligated to make it as he was receiving a lot of criticism for not being in uniform and dying in a ditch, which is apparently what we want from our geniuses.

Some evidence suggests that the film was not his top priority — he made it in just a week, shutting down production on A DOG’S LIFE SHOULDER ARMS when he was reminded he was supposed to be doing this. The sets are, uniquely for Chaplin, simple white line drawings on a black background. If he was providing this thing free for the war effort, he’d be damned if he’d spend a lot of money on it.

But THE BOND is really good! The sets — presumably by Charles D. Hall, drawing (literally) on his Karno stage experience, are striking and delightful. It would have been interesting to see CC experiment more in this mode, maybe for one of his numerous dream sequences. Some critics have admitted the cheapness of Chaplin’s sets and argued that this was a shrewd choice, as Chaplin didn’t want to the backgrounds to upstage him. I, on the other hand, deny that the sets are cheap, except in the very early films — but these graphic jobs could be used to justify the argument.

The film has a simple, effective structure: we’re taken through a variety of bonds: the bond of friendship, the bond of love, the bond of marriage, leading up to the liberty bond. What’s striking is the film’s cynical attitude to the first three types of bond. Albert Austin as the friend bores Charlie with a supposedly funny story, then hits him up for a loan. Like a lot of rich people, and especially those who have been poor, Charlie was known to be somewhat tightfisted, and probably he’d been plagued by hand-out seekers once his success was known. As the embodiment of love, Edna flirts outrageously, showing an ankle the saucy minx, so that what we’re seeing is clearly pure, or impure, lust. Marriage is shown as another grift, a means of parting the poor groom from his money. This is all fascinating since Chaplin, on the rebound from Edna, was to marry Mildred Harris in October 1918. David Robinson pretty much implies that teenage actress Mildred was on the make, hoping to advance her acting career and profit financially from a union with the insanely famous comic.

The film does not satirically undercut the bonds it’s supposed to be selling… that would be going too far. But the scathing depiction of other bonds does rather make one wonder.

As he would again in SHOULDER ARMS, Syd Chaplin plays the Kaiser, advancing lecherously upon Lady Liberty (Edna again), as he would upon Molly Wright necessitating his flight from the UK some years later. It’s a little uncomfortable to see him being so much himself. This of course is Liberty’s second appearance in a Chaplin film, after the notably astringent depiction in THE IMMIGRANT.

Walloping Syd/Kaiser Bill with a very large mallet, the only bit I’d seen before, is good, cartoonish fun, and the fact that he takes so long to fall down, legs getting more rubbery, manner more crosseyed and dazed with each Whack-a-mole smack, is extremely amusing to me. Syd was a talented performer, curse him.

The creepy lunar Cupid is played by four-year-old Joan Marsh, later a platinum bombshell in pre-codes. Albert Austin doubles up as Brummie Uncle Sam.

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.