Archive for Alice Davenport

I’ll Bet You Five You’re Not Alive If You Were In This Film

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2021 by dcairns

It’s all go. In a shattering development, Uncle Donald, played by Charles “Oh Mr. Kane” Bennett, is discovered prone in the snow, apparently alive — well, it did seem a bit harsh to kill him off in a slapstick comedy. Not that we had particularly come to care about him or anything.

Tillie and Charlie, newlywed, move into Uncle Donald’s palatial estate. Chaplin had found the best way to get comedy business past the hyperactive Keystone cutters was to slip it in during entrances and exits, since for the sake of mere comprehensibility the editors couldn’t really get away with not showing characters appear in or leave a scene. But all bets are off now — Sennett wants six reels, so the frenetic pace of previous Keystones isn’t really being pursued. It’s a relief: we get to watch actors act.

This scene is a relief too, since we get a different shot size from the usual full-figure or occasional wide medium. Of course, head-to-toe is the ideal framing for Chaplinesque comedy, but some variety is also nice. A blast of grainy, monochrome oxygen is admitted into the film.

Chaplin gets some play out of treating the footmen as objects: hanging his hat and cane on one, even leaning on him as if he were a meat pillar. The Henri Bergson idea of comedy arising from the lines of separation between organic and mechanical do seem particularly relevant to Chaplin’s comedy. Probably more than anybody else’s.

Disturbingly, Tillie now becomes a domestic tyrant, browbeating and actual-beating the unoffending footmen.

Mabel gets herself hired as a maid, demonstrating her cute curtsey, which in those days served as a résumé.

Enter Conklin! Charlie and Tillie are throwing a ball. Conklin is described on the internet as playing “Mr. Whoozis,” but he doesn’t seem to have a name in this print. He’s wearing an even bigger version of his Mr. Walrus walrus moustache.

Another guest, this one a simpering fop. Charlie begins instinctively limbering up to kick him. This is undoubtedly a bit homophobic although, on the other hand, Charlie’s character is a blackguard and hound of the first water. Can’t identify the actor: the IMDb makes clear that Keystone thriftily recycled all the contract players from the restaurant, dressed up as party guests. We have familiar worthies like Hank Mann and Harry McCoy (who seems to have played a record nine roles in this), Alice Davenport and Glen Cavender, and of course token extraterrestrial Grover Ligon (that name!). Cautioned by Tillie against booting guests up the rear, Charlie settles for smacking a flunky, to which nobody could possibly object.

As predicted, Mabel makes an adorable maid. She sticks a finger in a creamy dessert, sampling it. Will she get to flinging pastries later? Sennett recalled, perhaps untruthfully, Mabel pie-ing Ben Turpin upon a random impulse (no such scene appears to exist): “She weighed and hefted the pastry in her right palm, considered it benevolently, balanced herself upon the balls of her feet, went into a wind-up like a big-league pitcher, and threw. Motion-picture history, millions of dollars, and a million laughs hung on her aim as the custard wobbled in a true curve and splashed with a dull explosion in Ben Turpin’s face.”

(Ben Turpin was at Essanay and wouldn’t come to Keystone until years later. But Wikipedia now credits him with receiving the first onscreen pie to the face in 1909, so Sennett was in a way right to give him credit. They also remark that Fred Karno sketches utilised the gag, so Chaplin would have come to Keystone familiar with it.)

I will be kind of disappointed if this party doesn’t turn into a pie fight, even though I rarely find them that funny. I also want a big chase. Ditto.

Mabel confronts Charlie, a spectre at the banquet. Then she retires to the kitchen to ladle booze into herself.

An interesting gaglet occurs when Charlie sneaks off to see Mabel. Tillie, thinking he’s still beside her, reaches over to squeeze his knee while laughing at Mr. Whoozis’s witticisms, or whoozisisms. So instead she’s squeezing a woman’s knee. She finds out her error and is embarrassed, apologises. Her victim goes from looking annoyed to acting forgiving, but as soon as Tillie turns her back the woman is sort of twisting away from her, giving her the fish-eye, a look that says “You’re a weird one, you are.” So is this a lesbian joke? Dressler is an intriguing choice to be doing it, given the rumours and claims.

Charlie persuades Tillie to have a drink, to stop her bullying him, I think. But this is surely a recipe for disaster, or at least for another Highland fling, which is much the same thing. Indeed, soon Tillie has been bitten by a dancing bug, which necessitates for some reason changing from her current weird frilly pantsuit to another, different frilly pantsuit.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Chester start a fight, for no particular reason. This is kind of the problem with circus clowns (and Chester had been one): lack of narrative/character context for the funny business. They’re used to just prancing into the ring and acting up. Same thing with so much Keystone material. It’s just random mucking about, performed by skilled comedians but without any meaning and therefore of limited entertainment value. The triangle of Charlie, Marie and Mabel ought to be enough of a premise to develop some fun slapstick battling, but WHO IS WHOOZIS?

Charlie ejects Whoozis and makes nice with Mabel — demonstrating again his Richard III-type ability to seduce, enchant and befuddle.

Charles Bennett continues to recover from his mountain. A shaft of light pierces the smoky interior of his Alpine convalescence. The first deliberately place grace note of lighting in a Keystone picture, I’ll hazard. It’s placement, a luminous intrusion, is as odd and alien to the scheme of a Sennett picture as if a Dalek were to trundle onto the set.

Whoozis returns for more fighting. Charlie does sling some food at him. Additionally, the larger than usual rich guy sets allow for some unusual in-depth staging as Charlie drives Chester deeper and deeper into the background of shot. This doesn’t make things any funnier, but it’s an interesting variant.

END OF PART 5

PART 6

Tillie, newly attired, rampaged back into the party, making exotic Mata Hari arm movements. Theda Bara’s reaction is unrecorded. Lipreaders and other persons with eyesight may detect her yelling “CHARLIE!” from the top of the stairs.

AND NOW THEY TANGO. This is, admittedly, pretty good. Hippopotamus and stoat. And yet they’re so graceful in the water. In fact, they’re graceful here, it’s just that their grace includes tripping and falling.

Now here’s Harry McCoy, formerly a leading actor who Charlie supported, now got up as a pod person Ford Sterling,. Sterling had been the #1 Keystone star who had recently left to pursue a career elsewhere (he’d be back). I guess Sennett wanted to not only find roles for all his regular actors (but not Roscoe Arbuckle, for some reason), he wanted to create simulacra of those no longer under contract. Previously Chaplin had been tried in this role. McCoy, it must be said, is not markedly less appealing that the original, but it would be hard to surpass the lack of enthusiasm I feel about F.S.

While Charlie and Tillie are not so much cutting as lacerating a rug, Mabel gets into fights with random party guest and random footman. Finally, Tillie catches Mabel and Charlie canoodling. PIES ARE THROWN!

Then, surprisingly, Tillie draws a revolver (from nowhere — Mr. Chekhov was not consulted) and bullets are now substituted for pastries (incidentally I always felt a Peckinpahesque slomo pie fight would be worth attempting — Kubrick of course would have been the man to do it, in STRANGELOVE, but he apparently never thought of it).

As shooting sprees go, this is pretty amusing, with Charlie throwing himself into the other guests in his wild flight, creating well-dressed scrummages all over the dance floor. It’s funnier/less nauseating than the comparable scene in MEET THE FEEBLES. It’s comparable the way Tillie wants to shoot absolutely everyone, regardless of whether they’ve actually offended her.

Charlie hides in a huge, unconvincing urn that wasn’t there a minute ago. Mabel hides in a polar bear skin, a fetish object inside a furry. This chase is limited by the number of sets Sennett is prepared to pay for.

Smashing the urn, Tillie is about to, perhaps, tear Charlie’s head from his shoulders, when her not-dead uncle returns home. He throws everyone out. Charlie now has to choose between Mabel and his lawful wife, who is now not a desirable millionairess but a penniless hick in strange pajamas. He boots her in the gut and leaves.

For some reason, a footman calls the kops. I’m not quite clear on which crime is being reported. The kops come bumbling into the station house, falling over one another, a familiar bit of business I haven’t actually seen in many films.

Tillie now has her gun again, and it’s the kind that never needs reloading (funny how you can’t buy those anymore) and she chases Charlie and Mabel onto a pier. This is not the best place for them to have fled to, one senses. From Sennett’s viewpoint, though, it’s useful. Ducking his casts was a reliable way of ending a picture, though I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory in this case.

The kops are in pursuit, naturally. The kop kar rear-ends Tillie and propels her, miraculously transfigured into a burly stuntman, into the sea. The salt water transforms her back into the likeness of Marie Dressler. Then the kop kar drives off the end of the pier, because all the kops are bumbling imbeciles. They turn into dummies as the kar goes over, but soon are themselves again, splashing about and hitting one another with rubber tyres. The transformative power of saline. Tillie is now attempting to spank an eel.

Mabel and Charlie having inexplicably failed to topple into the drink like civilised people, rush to a police call box (literally a small box with a phone in, an Officer Dibble not a TARDIS) and call the Water Police, which is where Al St. John gets into the picture, belatedly. It’s weird that Charlie and Mabel are now trying to get everyone rescued. Also, the water police are just as inept as the “regular” kops. It’s becoming a vision of hell. People are drowning and their lives are in the hands of physical incompetents.

The source play has been abandoned. Chaos reigns.

Tillie is finally dredged up, and returns Charlie’s ring to him. Mabel is supportive, rejects Charlie with a “We’re through!” gesture, and for a while it looks like Mabel and Tillie/Marie will walk off into the sunset, or up Sunset, together.

And in fact… Dressler embraces Normand, kisses her affectionately, and the curtain closes. Then she reemerges from behind it, bows to us, invites Mabel and Charlie (“CHARLIE!”) to join her. Chaplin does a very good impersonation of a man not acting, facing an audience instead of a camera crew. Then, as they prepare to bow, they are airlifted out of the film by Melesian jump-cut. Dressler looks to each side and does two double-takes (or one quadruple-take?) at finding them vanished.

Then she shrugs, confused.

“This film lark is a mystery to me…”

TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE stars Carlotta Vance; Adenoid Hynkel; Paddy, the Nickel Hopper; Robert Bunce; William Pitt; Sixth Member Ale and Quail Club; Charley – Son of the Desert from Texas; Josie Hunkapillar; Tarzan – Younger; Jane Porter; Detective Sweeney; Mrs Cohen; Al Cohen; Wizard of Oz; Fuzzy Jones; and Rear End of Horse.

Pathos and Pangs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2020 by dcairns
Transporter malfunction!

I wrote about THE NEW JANITOR very recently, before I decided to explore Chaplin’s Keystone period in sequence and in more depth than anyone wants. I was influenced by Craig Keller’s excellent series, but he kept things epigrammatic and stopped at 1914… I might keep going. This’ll be like Hitchcock Year all over again, but it’ll be 93 films long. Try and stop me.

What wasn’t obvious about TNJ on a cursory view was that its narrative stratagem — injecting Chaplin-as-Tramp into a perfectly serious little melodrama — was totally new for the comedian, and probably for the studio. And it paves the way for many future developments. Supporting comics in obvious fake whiskers playing supporting clown roles will decrease — only Chaplin is allowed to look midway between circus performer and real everyday dude — the stories will get serious with Chaplin being the means of injecting comedy. The stakes will be real, and the settings for naturalistic.

This one was spat out of the Keystone Komedy assembly line so fast (there are just nine set-ups, and eight of them have been used before the halfway mark) that Al St. John hasn’t had a chance to change out of his bellboy costume. Charlie is set up as the underdog victim of St John’s elevator prank. The building he’s working in has obvious backdrops of skyscrapers outside the windows — or maybe just painted ON the windows. But my one time inside a New York skyscraper the views looked just like that. Unreal.

Charlie’s specific kind of incompetence is well-painted-in too: he has remarkable physical dexterity, gratuitously juggling with props, but his mind lags far behind so he does stupid stuff like carrying a waste paper bin upside down so the contents spill out.

Charlie also gets a little romance, which is played seriously and though he’s not much a catch the film doesn’t emphasise any leering or gargoyleish or antisocial qualities to render this scenario grotesque. Simple and seemingly without ambition, the film, like the character, presages the character and his films’ later form.

Chaplin remarks in My Autobiography, “I was playing in a picture called The New Janitor, in a scene in which the manager of the office fires me. In pleading with him to take pity on me and let me retain my job, I started to pantomime appealingly that I had a large family of little children. Although I was enacting mock sentiment, Dorothy Davenport [sic], an old actress, was on the sidelines watching the scene, and during rehearsal I looked up and to my surprise found her in tears. ‘I know it’s supposed to be funny,’ she said. ‘but you just made me weep.’ She confirmed something I had already felt: I had the ability to evoke laughter as well as tears.”

1) I think he means Alice Davenport.

2) It would be a while — years — before Chaplin found a proper use for this secondary talent…

It’s Keystone but released by Mutual, for whom Chaplin would make his best shorts, later.

But in THOSE LOVE PANGS, released on my birthday fifty-three years before I was born — I am now fifty-three so there’s a kind of symmetry to this — Chaplin is back to playing a repellant sex pest, and is billed as The Masher. Suggesting that he wasn’t sure if THE NEW JANITOR represented the direction he wanted to go in. People seemed to like him as a repulsive lout. He should make more lout films, then?

Charlie and Chester Conklin are rivals in pursuit of their landlady (Helen Carruthers). Though we meet them at the tea-table, Charlie seems drunk, or perhaps just mentally enfeebled. Still, when Conklin usurps his place with the landlady, Charlie is quick to prong the offender’s rump with a suitably pointy utensil. As David Hemmings would later say in JUGGERNAUT, “I may be stupid, but I’m not… bloody stupid.”

Caught red-forked, Chaplin pretends he’s using the implement as a musical instrument — the thinking comedian at work. When Conklin attempts to lay down the law — an amusing idea even in sentence form — Charlie spits in his eye — the low comic at work. Still, Chester can count himself luck not to have received the fork in his eyeball. The lout is mellowing.

A bit of further delicacy: having taken Conklin’s place with the landlady (or is she a maid? I think she’s a bit young for property-owning), Charlie positions her to be the target of the avenging prongs of Conklin. But this won’t do. Conduct unbecoming. He swaps back. And duly gets a set of tines jabbed inches deep in his noble derriere. It actually takes an effort to wrench the steel free from his flesh. Dizzily relieved expression. But his strange spasms repel the object of his wooing.

Some very good, almost abstract dueling clown action between CC and CC, before they realize the bar is open. Making excellent use of his cane, Charlie drags Conklin by the neck to their appointed destination, but for once the opportunity for drink is refused, and the chance of a tussle with some swing doors passed up, as a passing floozy (Vivian Edwards) gives Charlie the wink.

Meanwhile, Chester also meets a seductress (women just can’t resist a comedy pornstache) — Cecile Arnold. She’d been in a few Chaplin shorts previously but makes a much bigger impression here with her unusual introductor closeup. You can see her lips saying “Chester.” I wish she’d call ME Chester.

Charlie flops with his girl (she has a bigger beau, one Fred Hibbard), then reacts extravagantly to the sight of Chester and his gal. Splitscreened by a big tree, the two clowns gesticulate extravagantly and it becomes a bit obscure. I don’t get what they’re each trying to mime. Earlier, facing off together, the comics were wonderfully in synch. Here, competing for our attention, they just make muddle.

But I get that Charlie is disgusted by his rival’s romantic success, so his half-hearted attempt at drowning himself makes sense. The cop who interrupts him is no clownish Kop, but a stern authority figure without walrus moustache decoration.

Then there’s a very good bit where the big beau tries to explain a plot to Charlie who keeps falling backwards towards the pond. The beau keeps rescuing him, then prodding him, or throttling him, because he’s not listening, causing him to fall backwards etc. The relationship seems classically Chapliesque: the big brute is not necessarily consciously the Little Fellow’s enemy, in terms of wishing him ill, but he is his NATURAL enemy because he is a big guy, and pushy, and wants Charlie to do something not in Charlie’s best interests or nature or skillset. He’s inherently a boss, in other words.

Anyway we don’t really find out what the guy wants — a storyline seems amputated, somewhere. Charlie eventually gets him in the water and kicks his forehead and leaves. That’s that dealt with.

Conklin is now romancing BOTH girls. Chester Conklin gets all the pussy. It’s the moustache, has to be. Good Conklin-Chaplin grudge match, with many unconventional moves, not all of them within the Queensberry Rules. In particular, when Charlie folds Chester up and uses him as a chair while going through his wallet, we may feel that a line had been crossed.

The girls are off to the Majestic Cinema to see HELEN’S STRATAGEM. Charlie’s stratagem is to pursue them.

Nice plotting: the big beau, emerging from Echo Lake in a sodden condition, wrings out his jacket over Conklin’s face, inadvertently reviving him. It’s quite a lot like when the fake bat pukes on Dracula’s ashes in SCARS OF DRACULA. But better, obviously, because Christopher Lee didn’t wear a moustache like Dracula does in the book. What kind of moustache? Wouldn’t it be amazing if Dracula had a Chester Conklin cookie-duster? All dripping with blood and everything.

Chaplin is now embracing both girlies in the front row of the Majestic, and since his arms are occupied he’s telling them stories using his legs to gesture with. A young Charley Chase is somewhere in the audience behind him, the third CC in this movie. Then his rivals, Chester and the big beau, arrive, and we find out why cinema seats these days are bolted to the floor, and then Charlie is thrown through the cinema screen and pelted with bricks The End.

The clear implication from this film’s eventful action is that CC and CC do this every day of their lives.

The Sunday Intertitle: Lady for a Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 8, 2020 by dcairns

Chaplin’s star was rising, but how to build the brand? He never quite gave up the desire to break away from the Tramp character, but it’s interesting to see him trying it when he’s only been in movies for a few months, has just started directing, etc. So here’s A BUSY DAY, one of Keystone’s “occasional films” where they’d shoot documentary footage of some real LA event (free productions values) and then shoot inserts of one or two comedians to drop into it — KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE being the most famous example. Mack Sennett liked to say he started filming a Shriner parade as soon as he got off the train in Hollywood… And Chaplin is in drag. And married to Mack Swain.

A lot of chin-jutting and chuntering — it feels like one of the Northern English comics — but Norman Evans was 14 at this time, and the comics he inspired — Les Dawson and Roy Baraclough’s Cissy and Ada — were far in the future. But surely Chaplin would have seen their music hall precursors on the London stage. Drag had presumably invaded that weird British phenomenon, the Christmas panto?

Part of this particular brand of female impersonation is to kind of reveal the artifice: a later drag genius, Paul O’Grady said he didn’t like these acts because they were always “fiddling with their boobs” — adjusting the falsies, playing with giving the game away without quite doing it, admitting what we already know.

Chaplin immediately starts wiping his eyes with his skirt, exposing his bloomers, a bit of vulgarity that might be frowned upon from a female comic. He also plays it very aggressive — I’ve seen him do more feminine acting, but this is broad stuff, he’s not really trying to fool us. He’s not wearing his tramp boots but I think he’s in flap shoes. He got the costume, we’re told, from frequent co-star Helen Davenport.

A routine jealousy plot kicks off, and we’re back in KID AUTO territory as Mrs. Charlie runs afoul of a newsreel crew in the command of Mack Sennett himself.

How long can the film simply pull (slight) variations on Chaplin and various Kops kicking one another through frame? Quite a while. This bruising action is fairly impressive and mildly amusing, and would probably start a riot if you had an audience of kids.

Eventually, we leave the costly free extras and the fleeting spectacle of the parade for some nondescript dockland setting where Mrs. Chaplin catches Mack Swain with another woman (Phyllis Allen). And then everyone starts kicking each other again. OK, this is pretty good. I’m sold. An entirely kicking-based narrative. It may have less to do with the English music hall and more with Punch and Judy, only here it’s Judy who’s the psychopathic dervish.

Finally, Mrs. Charlie makes the mistake of setting upon Mack on the edge of the pier. He shoves her into the sea. She drowns. The end.

OK, not too much ambition here, except to show versatility, but seriously, a ferocious, pathologically malign and horrible violent little woman was probably not going to become a legendary comedy character, and Chaplin probably knew this, which is why he sent her to a watery grave after (checks video) six minutes of rampantly repetitive action.

Chaplin had been hired because Sennett liked his drunk act, and at this point the Tramp/Little Fellow is, in fact, a comic inebriate who has to get smashed in every picture. Chaplin may well have been wondering, How long can I milk this? Time would tell.

A BUSY DAY stars Adenoid Hynckel; Ambrose; Fatty’s Mother-in-Law; Mabel’s true love; Mabel’s Father; and First Cop.