Archive for Ben Turpin

Studio Bound

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

As he had at Keystone (A FILM JOHNNIE, THE MASQUERADER) and Essanay (HIS NEW JOB), Chaplin made a behind-the-scenes comedy at Mutual, called BEHIND THE SCREEN. David Robinson regards this one as CC treading water, but a mild Mutual film is still ahead of all Keystones and 90% of Essanays. It’s very enjoyable.

I watched my DVD with the Carl Davis score, and also the restoration paid for by Michel Hazanavicius.

Like so many of us, Edna wants to be in pictures. This seems to have been difficult to accomplish even in 1916.

We follow this plot point with a naked statue gag, a staple of Chaplin’s comedy. The usual idea is to make fun of the Little Fellow’s lecherous hypocrisy as he studies a work of art from a pseudo-aesthetic standpoint, in reality just checking out the knockers. He started doing this at Keystone, and was still at it in CITY LIGHTS. But here we see him prudishly remove a male statue whose stance makes it seem like he’s ogling a female one. I suddenly flashed on the familiarity of the gag, and realised Rossellini had swiped it for ROME: OPEN CITY.

I mean, it’s exactly the same gag, though it serves a slightly different character purpose. Surprisingly, it works for RR in his very different context, just as well as it worked for CC. It even helps that the serious neorealism makes an unexpected setting for visual comedy (but consider De Sica and Fellini’s frequent recourse to the Chaplinesque). Does this brazen theft make you think any the less of RR?

Charlie and Eric Campbell, by now a near-inseparable team, are actually called David & Goliath in this one, although probably those aren’t their given names and the intertitles are just being funny.

The other filmmaker to have been influenced by this one is Polanski, whose early short THE FAT AND THE LEAN has a similar central dynamic, the big lazy guy who dominates the small, industrious one. Charlie is a hopelessly incompetent property man, but at least he puts in the hours. We can see the filmmaker being much more careful about character sympathy, basing a lot of the action of Charlie being put-upon, so that his little revenges can be cheered as well as laughed at. In fact, the set-up here reverses that of THE PROPERTY MAN, where Charlie was props man and bully, kicking his ancient assistant in the face, and received some criticism for the nastiness of his character.

Raymond Durgnat: “One could summarise a proletarian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being outtalked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted. Something like that.” (From here.)

There’s a running gag where Charlie fecklessly trips over and topples the camera tripod, on his way to or from one errand or the other. Fiona was horrified. She’s mindful of the equipment. It’s possible to read Charlie’s carelessness as a ruse, an attempt to get out of being given difficult work. If you’re proven to be incapably stupid, you don’t get the hard jobs, or you shouldn’t. Black audiences reportedly perceived Steppin Fetchit not as a racist caricature of shiftless imbecility, but as a smart Black man who had worked out that the pretense of listlessness and ignorance could protect him from being asked to do too much. Is my own incompetence at the endless paperwork my teaching job requires a subconscious defense? If so, (a) how would I know, if it’s subsconscious? and (b) it doesn’t work.

Chaplin also filmed another running gag, featured in Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin, but not included in the final short: a headsman’s axe toppled and misses the oblivious David/Charlie by inches. As with the impossible gags in THE FIREMAN, this was achieved by reversing the film so as not to risk severing either of cinema’s most celebrated Funny Feet.

Wrestling with big pillars provides some laughter. It’s a good situation where the suspense element means the longer it can be eked out, the better. Charlie had already done it with Ben Turpin in HIS NEW JOB, though. I feel for Henry Bergman as the long-suffering director — he has to absorb a lot of painful-looking abuse in this film, including Charlie standing on his ample bay window.

The other director (Lloyd Bacon) wears round shades, which puzzled Fiona until I reminded her about klieg eyes. Some filmmakers also carried a blue eyeglass which gave them a sense of how a scene would look in b&w — possibly the shades help with this also.

Carrying ten chairs slung over one arm, Charlie transforms, as both David Robinson and Fiona noticed, into a porcupine — or possibly a naval mine, as Fiona further reflected. Then he gives a scalp massage and hairdo to a bearskin rug. The first routine is just the nimble exploitation of a surprising physical possibility, with nothing in particular made of the bristling ball of chair legs — Tati would have had the thing somehow pay off, maybe by having the shape introduced into a movie setting where it could actually fulfill its newly suggested character. The second is funny just through the seriousness, concentration and precision Chaplin brings to it, as he gives the dead bear remnant a nice centre-parting.

The kick up the arse is still a constant — in THE PAWNSHOP it had become a form of communication in itself. Yet just one film from now a critic would complain that Charlie had dropped it and was set on becoming an ubermensch.

Another grim eating scene. PIES! and ONIONS! declare the intertitles, as Albert Austin munches raw spring onions and Charlie reels from the stench. Chaplin, having experienced real poverty and hunger, found food a constant inspiration. His underdog revenge here is to scrounge off Austin’s outsize chop, sandwiching the near end with two slices of bread (which are all he has in his lunchbox) so he can pursue a parasitic existence. Again, Austin’s great contribution is stillness, either gazing on with silent dismay or, as here, failing to notice Charlie’s gastronomic filching. Following the panto/Punch & Judy tradition of “It’s behind you!” this routine depends on the victim almost but not quite catching their foe at it. Chaplin’s finest treatment of the theme is played out with brother Syd in A DOG’S LIFE.

Meanwhile Big Eric consumes his weight in pies with Pantagruelian grotesquerie.

A strike breaks out, which, in its rapid progress towards outright terrorism, is a shameless steal from DOUGH AND DYNAMITE. As Eric/Goliath and Charlie/David both refuse to strike, and the campaigners try to blow up the studio, I have to say that Chaplin at this stage of his career does not seem markedly leftwing. This subplot, which barely impacts on Charlie at all, serves nevertheless as the film’s narrative spine, along with Edna’s occasional appearances.

Charlie is put in charge of trapdoor operations, which is a bad idea. Though in fairness, it’s not all his fault. Instructed to open the trap at the signal of a gunshot, he dutifully does so even when it’s obviously inappropriate. Is it time to mention Henri Bergson? Well, only if we don’t confuse him with Henry Bergman, who has a particularly uncomfortable-looking drop here.

The French philosopher Bergson theorised that comedy comes from people behaving in the inflexible manner of machines. Which doesn’t sound particularly funny in itself, and we can certainly come up with many examples that don’t tickle the ribs — Peter Weller’s performance as Robocop, robotics dancing, the Nuremberg rallies… But Chaplin, who gets so many of his effects by transposition, DOES do a lot of stuff where the line between the animate and the inert is crossed. Charlie is often the opposite of inflexible, though.

But here, Bergson’s ideas are followed. A gunshot means the trapdoor is to be activated, no matter who’s standing on it. And Charlie’s work with the lever is wonderful to behold. Each repositioning of the lever causes him to strike a fresh pose, and he obviously liked the effect because he does it all over again in MODERN TIMES when he runs amuck in the factory. As is quite common in Chaplin’s films, the two set-ups where the action is taking place have an ambiguous relation to one another: separate, but reasonably close; it’s not absolutely clear whether Charlie can see what’s happening over by the trap door, and if he can, whether the view is adequate.

It’s very dangerous to stage a stunt where anybody playing a significant role in it can’t see what’s going on, as you can learn by watching the BBC blow up Anthea Turner (she wasn’t seriously hurt, but SHIT).

In this case, things go wrong because the actor can’t get the gun to fire, even though it was working seconds ago. This is true to life. As every art dept. person knows, the one sure way to get a prop to stop working or fall apart is to hand it to an actor. As soon as it’s given to Eric, he gets it to fire, but nobody’s told him about it being a signal for the trapdoor, which he’s standing on. And Charlie just obeys the starting pistol like a good whippet.

Still, Charlie compounds the problem: having dropped Eric, he then traps his huge neck in the trapdoor, an uncomfortable image prefiguring Ollie’s cartoonish neck-stretching in WAY OUT WEST, which freaked me out as a kid.

Vicious fun with a whole series of unoffending characters being given the drop, including an actress. The leading man is increasingly battered and blackeyed. Henry Bergman’s fall is… ouch.

Pausing amid the mayhem to oil the lever, Charlie also oils himself, Tin Woodsman style, no doubt giving M. Bergson a warm glow of satisfaction.

Here’s Edna, disguising herself as a boy, which leads to some weirdly playful queerbaiting first from Charlie, who somehow finds Edna’s guitar-playing excessively feminine for a lad in dungarees, then from Eric, who catches Charlie and Edna kissing. (The romance element in this one is arbitrary and undercooked — it plays ALMOST as if Charlie is blackmailing Edna into amorous contact by threatening to expose her girlhood or girlishness — but it’s NOT that. It’s not anything else that holds up under examination either.)

Eric’s mincing and flouncing is rather a delight. He’s an incredibly graceful performer, which of course creates a humorous incongruity. Oliver Hardy’s poise is often noted, but Eric is usually just categorized as a suitable figure for Charlie to (sometimes literally) bounce off of, and his comic skill and elegance get short shrift.

David Robinson calls this scene the most overt screen treatment of homosexuality before 1950, which is debatable. I guess one character is imagining he’s seeing two young men kiss romantically. Mainstream movies didn’t show that sort of thing, although a case like WINGS is on the verge. But even excluding hardcore porn, which was being produced at this time and seems to have been surprisingly bisexual in its interests, we have things like DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS. It depends on how you define “overt” and whether you require anyone onscreen to actually be gay.

Chaplin on filmmaking always has some non-comedic interest too, as a portrait of cinematic practice in his time. Here, he makes fun of the practice of shooting multiple movies in the same space, which I don’t know that he’d ever had to deal with professionally, but which is rich material. He has a lot of fun with the slapstick pie fight (the longest and most elaborate until Laurel & Hardy’s ne plus ultra BATTLE OF THE CENTURY) breaking up the period movie next door. In a way it’s a forerunner of the western crashing into the Buddy Bizarre musical in BLAZING SADDLES.

The pie scene is introduced by this title —

The question has been asked, given the rarity of actual pie-fights in silent screen comedy, is this intertitle being ironic or perfectly straightfaced? I’d plump for the latter, since Chaplin often sought to get laughs with titles while using them for expositional/informational purposes at the same time. And I think pies had probably been used onstage before they got into films. The only pastry action in previous Chaplin films is DOUGH AND DYNAMITE and A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, I think. Here, Chaplin seems to introduce the idea of the pie fight as full-on battle.

Charlie and Eric approached to replace an actor who can’t throw and one who considers slapstick too highbrow — which again suggests that Chaplin is trying to put ironic quotes around his recourse to a tired old routine. Charlie is initially keen about throwing a pie at his boss, but rebels when it’s explained that he’s to miss. Once “Action!”is yelled, he abandons the unwritten script and starts pelting Eric with more pies than he previously consumed. Instead of a sling, David wields a mean custard cream.

The secret of reinvigorating hoary material may lie in rediscovering what made it work in the first place and attaining that effect through new additions. The first use of a pie as weapon must have had a deliciously shocking incongruousness — to think! a pie can become a weapon! Chaplin reconnects with the source of the comedy in a couple of ways. First, by inflating the number of pies thrown. Laurel & Hardy would top this in BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, and Blake Edwards would try in THE GREAT RACE, but found the upper limit had been reached.

But Charlie also heaps on incongruity by having Eric’s misses strike the period movie next door. Chaplin breaks not only the fourth wall in this movie, but also the first and third. The pies are not just transforming from food into ballistic weapons, a change which has ceased to startle and is perfectly normal in the context of a silent film studio, but they’re also traveling through time, appearing anachronistically and violating the laws of genre. It’s not certain if this constitutes what Chaplin called “the best idea I’ve ever had,” while requesting an extra two weeks’ shooting time, but it could be.

Meanwhile the dynamite plotters prepare to blow up the whole unnamed studio. Edna comes to the rescue with a handy claw hammer (Albert Austin is clonked on the noggin for the second time in two films running) but is overpowered by a second striker. Sheer chance causes Charlie to be punched into frame, triggering the trapdoor which swallows Eric, and positioning him to rescue Edna. But, rather than having him save the day, it’s more amusing to blow the studio up — a convincing jump cut blasts Eric to smithereens, and we get a final clinch. It’s not an entirely satisfactory narrative arc, but it has the right movie ingredients — villain vanquished, boy gets girl, property is destroyed.

And that, as they say, is entertainment.

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.

On the Tiles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2021 by dcairns

For his second Essanay film, Chaplin upped sticks and left Chicago to Oscar Micheaux, decamping to Niles, California and taking Ben Turpin with him. There, he encountered the uneuphoniously-named Edna Purviance who became a fixture in his films until 1922, and who he would keep under contract for years and years, and who he would attempt to turn into an independent star by having Josef Von Sternberg direct her in A WOMAN OF THE SEA, a film which he subsequently shelved for unknown reasons and then seemingly destroyed for tax purposes.

Edna was characterised by a so-called friend as “a docile creature” and we perhaps see a bit of this in Chaplin’s anecdote about hypnotizing her at a party. Having bragged that he could put anyone under the influence, he leaned in close and whispered to her, “Fake it!” A good sport, she complied, and the bond was forged.

Edna is just one of a couple of girls Charlie flirts with during his drunken debauch here. There are also a lot of men in false beards, some of which disguise the thrifty repurposing of cast members (you pay your actors by the day, not the role, so work them, damnit). The “plot” is just Charlie & Ben on the razzle, but then a farce situation develops when Edna innocently finds herself in a compromising situation (in her pajamas in Charlie’s hotel room) after trying to retrieve her dog. Mabel Normand had played this exact situation the previous year in CAUGHT IN THE RAIN. But this is a better film.

Turpin continues to be an aggressive near-equal in screen time. The knockabout teamwork is at least as good as the taut routines Chaplin had worked out with Chester Conklin, so it’s a shame BT didn’t get a later cameo the way CC did in MODERN TIMES. David Robinson describes him as “one of the best comedy partners Chaplin ever found,” while describing him as resembling a prematurely hatched bird. But a feisty one! Chaplin used faint praise: his “stooge” “seemed to know the ropes.” It’s said the two didn’t get on, with Turpin impatient with Chaplin’s methods. Still, there’s more to Turpin than strabismus: Chaplin rarely gives anyone but the leading lady a close-up, so Turpin has to depend on his considerable physical skills to get the laughs, rather than falling back on his crossed eyes (ouch).

Bud Jamison, who had also come from the Chicago branch, is an effective heavy, playing the first insanely violent headwaiter in the Chaplinverse, anticipating Eric Campbell’s terrifying brute in THE IMMIGRANT. Having him turn up later as a jealous husband is smart plotting.

The bit that actually made me laugh out loud is Charlie trying to get toothpaste on his brush, and then forgetting why he’s doing it, while paralytically drunk. I say it again — Chaplin’s father was killed by his alcoholism — and his early comedy depends disproportionately on wringing comedy from abject inebriation.

I realize this isn’t as in-depth as previous posts. But I think I’ll go back to this film for more — especially as I am shocked — shocked! — to discover that my sepia DVD version has, unlike the more pristine YouTube print, actual intertitles!