Archive for Billy Armstrong

The Sunday Intertitle: Convict 999

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2021 by dcairns

POLICE was Chaplin’s last “real” film for Essanay, and they hung onto it for a few months, releasing it after THE FLOORWALKER, his first film at Mutual, in May 1916.

The cast list, which is a bit more fulsome than usual, gives us usual suspects Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, Billy Armstrong and John Rand, along with CC himself. Confusingly, Armstrong is listed as “The Miser” but no such character appears, I think it’s a typo for “The Minister.”

After two films where he’s played a relatively high-status character, Charlie starts this film being released from prison, and this is the first film to position him as a convict — in THE ADVENTURER and THE PILGRIM he’d play an escapee, and MODERN TIMES uses repeated arrests and releases as a structuring device (almost the only one it has, you might argue). The two Chaplins of THE GREAT DICTATOR exchange arrests, and MONSIEUR VERDOUX is caught, tried and executed.

The real Chaplin — or maybe I should say the real-world Chaplin, since I don’t think the Tramp is NOT real — would have his own legal troubles.

Two things: Charlie STRETCHES as he’s released, because prison is confining. It makes no logical sense but feels right. And it’s been raining, or, more likely, this being L.A., someone has hosed the sidewalk. To make the outside world seem more uninviting. The intertitle characterises the world as the sort of place people commit suicide out of.

A sinister personage is already watching our hero. Chaplin, who had played sinister personages with glee on stage and in a couple of early Keystones, gives him a great entrance:

This lurker proves to be a phony preacher who pretends to reform Charlie. Now, in THE TRAMP there was a minister too, and Charlie dropped a rotten egg in his Bible. This throwaway gag wasn’t ABOUT anything, but it did seem to express an unformed anti-clerical or anyhow disrespectful attitude. Here, Chaplin has actually worked out a philosophy. ..

The holy platitudes move Charlie to tears. True, he wipes his eyes with the minister’s (patently false) beard, but this is not conscious lack of respect, it’s just that people and objects are interchangeable to Charlie. Inspired by the good word, he passes up a golden opportunity to relieve a drunk of his fob watch. And then he discovers his pocket’s been picked and sees the crooked minister is rolling the drunk he’d spared. (I’ve been reading William Burroughs’ Junkie which is a magnificent primer on how to roll drunks, among other things. The minister’s technique lacks finesse, but he did manage to rob Charlie without any of us seeing it.) The next (apparently sincere) priest to attempt saving Charlie’s soul gets seen off with threats of violence.

Maybe Chaplin’s anti-clerical impulses already derive from leftist sympathies, I don’t know. But the message seems clear: there are honest and dishonest preachers in the world: avoid both kinds.

Determinedly pursuing the hapless cleric, Charlie collides with and bowls over John Rand as a kop, who does a great fall and then gives chase. Surprisingly, the chase fades out just as it’s getting started, and we next see Charlie checking into a flophouse for the night. This is footage taken from LIFE, the Essanay feature project Chaplin had begun and abandoned, thus proving that you don’t have to be Leo White to recycle Chaplin footage. It doesn’t even help to be Leo White.

The dosshouse tenants are an extraordinary bunch — the look like pirates who have come from an explosion. This kind of scene and setting are quite unusual for silent comedy, but Chaplin is trying to find the common ground. His later movies that delve into poverty would portray the world with a kind of slightly softened realism. Here, we’re almost in the Emmett Kelly “hobo clown” domain. One of these guys is Snub Pollard.

Leo White plays the landlord/proprietor as a Jewish emigré type in a filthy waistcoat. A hint of kindliness — he allows a consumptive customer to bed down free. Charlie, having been relieved of his change earlier, spontaneously acquires a racking cough. Leo boots him out, but not before Charlie has given his beard a cruel yank.

Another strange transition as Charlie provokes a policeman, starts a chase… and strolls into the next scene, apparently unpursued. Then he’s mugged at gunpoint but manages to stealthily rob the pinstriped goon that’s doing it. This is apparently Wesley Ruggles, unrecognisable from his bit as Edna’s dad in SHANGHAIED. Ruggles proves to be Charlie’s old cell mate, and enlists him in a burglary. Armed with pistol and fatal mallet, they approach the target house, and Chaplin throws in an expressionist touch, four years before German expressionism was a thing in movies ~

Well, if you have the most recognisable silhouette in movies, might as well use it.

Kop John Rand has overheard the criminous scheme and is keeping watch, in another remarkable shot:

Lots of creeping and lurking in this one, and it brings out Chaplin’s compositional ideas.

Despite his prior conviction, whatever it may have been for, Charlie is a rank amateur at b&e, more liable to damage Wesley Ruggles than the window he’s charged with jimmying. Never ask a Charlie to jimmy for you, or vice versa. Now Rand’s kop pounced, and there’s one of those slow-burn things where Charlie doesn’t seem to have recognised he’s about to be arrested, until suddenly he wallops Rand with the fatal m. and Rand does a great stiffen-and-collapse, legs flying up as he hits the ground flat (a good friend knows how to do this and it’s a regret that I’ve never asked him to teach me. But I would be rubbish at it and smash my skull in).

Jimmying has no effect on this window, but luckily the door was open all along. Sophisticated bit of cutting inside — the two crooks creep to a curtain — Chaplin cuts to a wide of the room beyond, with Charlie peering into it, then back to the hall as Ruggles bumps into Charlie, then back to the big room as they burst into it. We haven’t seen that kind of cutting in Chaplin before, I don’t think. The days when each room was a single shot have imperceptibly faded away to a new kind of fluid treatment of space.

Of course we probably all guess this was going to be Edna’s house, and here she comes now, awakened by Charlie accidentally pulling over a unit full of metallic ornaments with his cane (startled, he dives under a rug, which becomes a bedsheet from which he says his prayers).

Ruggles produces a drill from somewhere. These two incompetents don’t have a toolkit or a swag bag, but it seems not to matter because Ruggles has, it seems, extraordinarily capacious pockets. I bet Charlie does too, judging from his pants. Charlie attempts to drill his way into the piano, for reasons unknown. If you were going burgling and you had the choice of Charlie or Harpo… well, probably going it alone would be your best option.

Edna calls the kops, who are all daintily drinking tea, a nice, strange touch.

This whole situation is great: Charlie is stuck in a situation demanding stealth, wile and ruthlessness, but all he can offer is inane fumbling. A bungler not a burglar. Plus he has a short-tempered associate more competent but also more dangerous than he, to intimidate and shove him about. This kind of thing would become standard for CC.

Lots of mileage is gotten from unlikely objects. He falls in a wicker basket and it becomes momentarily a turtle’s shell, then he steps in it, and simply by raising the wrong foot to get free, traps himself in a deteriorating spiral, leglocked and disorientated.

Using elaborate safecracker pantomime, Charlie breaks into the icebox. It’s not even certain if this is a mistake or mere whimsy. Objects are so easily transposed, there’s really only one all-purpose object in the world, and it’s all people and animals too.

Nonsensically, Charlie steals an alarm clock, and moments later Chaplin offers us the first ever view INSIDE the baggy pants, as the clock goes off. This provokes a frantic, electroconvulsive dance from Charlie, surely an exaggeration. Handed the basket, Charlie fills it with flowers and discards the valuable containers.

Sixteen mintes into a twenty-six minute film, Charlie runs into Edna, and immediately flees, leaping into Ruggles’ arms and then surrendering to an empty room. Ruggles covers Edna with his revolver, but she’s made of sterner stuff. She tells Ruggles to be quiet as her father is very ill. She invites them to dine — she knows the kops are coming — like men in a dream, the housebreakers fall in with their hostess’ request.

Chaplin has fun with the domesticity of the kops too. While they are indeed motoring at speed to the rescue, they’re also smoking cigars and looking very relaxed about it. This is much more characterful clowning than the Keystone variety of frenetic stagger, which does have character in it but, through its rampant disunity and hyperactivity, presents a singular aspect of chaos rather than individual reactions.

This short has more stylistic devices and sheer filmmaking imagination than Chaplin’s whole career to date! A sudden Sergio Leone closeup (but in vignette) shows Ruggles reacting to Edna’s jewellery. We tilt suspensefully up from her beringed fingers to her anxious face.

While Ruggles is off burglarizing, Charlie again shows himself a sucker for reformists, as Edna sweet-talks him into yielding to his better side. Priests is one thing, pretty girls another. But when she utters the exact same words as the film’s opening man of the cloth, Charlie checks his pockets. Good stuff — sentimentality at this stage of Chaplin’s career is mainly a set-up for a deflating punchline, it’s a spice that adds flavour.

Laden with Edna’s property, Charlie tips his hat and shakes hands as he and Ruggles prepare to make their getaway. Charlie has mostly grabbed not particularly valuable furnishings and impedimenta. But Ruggles still wants to try upstairs — Edna protests — now it’s her mother who’s sick — a struggle, as they say, ensues. Charlie is impatient with this sort of ungentlemanliness, and when Ruggles makes to haul off and slap Edna, he instinctively comes to her defence. Like a Jean-Pierre Melville heister, he has a code of honour which does not, however, prevent him from kicking Ruggles in the breadbasket when his dander us up. Ruggles throughout has a small, distracting tear in the seta of his pants, which now enlarges like an iris.

The kop, John Rand, now shows himself to be a subject worthy of continued study, as he awakens from his earlier concussion at the front door, enters the fray, and is at once reconcussed by a swung swag bag not even aimed at him. Staggering out again, he makes an “Oh sod it” gesture and lies down as if to sleep, then as an afterthought sits up and loudly mouths “Help! Help!” then lies back down again, so far as he’s concerned, unconscious.

Fiona asks is this is a Rand improv or if he’s following direction. We can’t know. All we can say is that Chaplin liked it enough to include it when he could have cut it. Rand was an ex-circus clown and presumably had considerable experience working up comedy business. I wasn’t really familiar with him before this trawl through the Essanays, but Chaplin kept him around for decades — I’d seen him a lot without knowing it.

The rescuing kops now arrive. Ruggles exudes via the back window. Rand runs behind the house and Charlie rereconcusses him with his own truncheon. Grabbed by the fuzz, he’s saved by Edna pretending he’s her husband. The following routine was hugely admired by Walter Kerr, who wrote:

“It is at this point that a virtual miracle takes place. With no transition at all, Charlie becomes Edna’s husband. Affable, outgoing, utterly at home, digging his hands into his pockets and flexing his knees as though he were master of his own domain and ready to get out the humidor, he is all bourgeoise bonhomie, the host par excellence, eager to show his guests about and have them back again soon. Nobody has ever been more completely the confident man of the house.

“The impersonation lasts only for a moment or two, but, for me, its implications are immense. It is entirely clear that Charlie could have been this man at any time he chose to adopt the role. He is no born underdog, deprived of opportunity by an unfeeling society. He is not inept, uneducated, uninformed, socially unacceptable. There is nothing in his natural equipment or in his background, nothing cruelly unjust in the society around him to keep him from most acceptably playing for a full twenty-four hours a day the part he is playing now. He might have married Edna, might have run a house, might have had children, might have gone to church, might have worked and become rich, might have done anything he cared to put his mind to. The competence is there, in plain view. The posture is believed in, even by the police. Nothing stands between his talents and the assumption of a role in which they might be exercised. He is no natural tramp.”

Of course the great Kerr is never wrong, but here he may be slightly wrong. Maybe he’s influenced by a greater belief in the American success story than I enjoy. In my estimation, Chaplin himself, who was the supreme example of the American success story, didn’t much believe in it either. Look at him looking at Lady Liberty askance in THE IMMIGRANT. His success was too freakish and tremendous to be believed in. So I think the tramp is (a) a natural aristocrat trapped in a tramp’s trappings, and (b) most definitely imprisoned by an unfeeling society, often literally. The reason he can’t become what he’s clearly capable of, respectable, is the way society is constructed.

I note also that Charlie’s hubby act enables him to bite off the end of a cigar and spit it in a kop’s eye.

Kerr is correct to state that there’s no visible transition, Charlie doesn’t even have to think. He’s a frozen culprit, and when he unfreezes he’s the householder. Charlie is always liquid, he fills whatever mould you put him in. The reason he’s not a homeowner the rest of the time is he doesn’t get put in that situation.

The kops, incidentally, are Leo White again, George Cleethorpe and Fred Goodwins.

Chaplin makes a mistake — the Little Fellow is gifted a coin by Edna — she apparently sleeps with lucre in her stockings — and he bites it to be sure it’s legit. Then he exits, and bites it again. I think either one is a good laugh, but the first one invalidates the second.

But then we’re into a classic closing shot, the long road, and Charlie walking off, this time with many a sidelong glance at the noble woman he’s leaving behind. And then, in a superb touch, he stretches again — a callback to the opening shot.

POLICE is a fitting climax to the Essanay period, probably Chaplin’s most achieved and interesting film to date.

And then, wait! Topping the topped, a furious Officer Rand enters frame and chases Charlie back past the camera.

The Whitsunday Intertitle: Tramp Steamer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bin Dreams

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin is working in a bank in THE BANK, a variant on THE NEW JANITOR, a Keystone one-reeler that looks now like an early clue to the new direction — the Little Fellow as sympathetic underling, dreaming of greater things. In THE BANK, the more exciting part of the plot really IS a dream.

I’m uncertain about Chaplin’s frequent recourse to the dream narrative: in a bittersweet way, it can add a sting of pathos to a story, as in the New Year’s party in THE GOLD RUSH. When the dream eats up the whole movie, you feel a little short-changed, since nothing has really “happened” in the story. When you know it’s a dream, as in THE KID, there’s a danger of the fantasy going on too long, so that you’re looking at a scenario where nothing’s at stake. In that film, the dream really goes on about four times longer than I’d like, it’s a colossal misstep, and the film isn’t wrecked by it only because the rest is so brilliant it resists wrecking.

According to Ben Urwand’s deeply flawed book The Collaboration, Chaplin originally planned for the ending of THE GREAT DICTATOR to turn out to be all a dream, with the Jewish barber waking up from his Hynkel impersonation to find himself back in a concentration camp. That would have been bloody depressing and bloody strong. But I love how the film ends now, with an unformulated question. What does fake Hynkel do next? What will he be allowed to do?

THE BANK begins with Charlie coming to work. Big build-up to him getting his janitor’s uniform from the safe, which isn’t really a great pay-off since his usual costume prohibits us from suspecting he’s the manager. But this halfhearted gag allows Chaplin to set up most of the film’s spaces and their relationships to one another.

This is the most impressive set we’ve seen in a Chaplin film — genuinely large, imposing, convincing. For the last couple of pictures, the domestic environments have been more detailed and solid than you tended to get at Keystone, but this is actually grand.

Charlie’s character — and he’s called Charlie in this one — is not quite settled, so in this picture he can be spectacularly stupid. He doesn’t even know how to carry a mop without mishaps. A lot of the work-based slapstick is very much out of THE NEW JANITOR, as when he lifts a waste-basket upside-down and is surprised when it empties all over the office.

Edna works at the bank. By some quirk of nineteenteens fashion, her office clothes are reasonably fetching — at least they give her a waistline — whereas her leisure clothes in every other film save THE CHAMPION (sexy pullover) are hideously disfiguring. I suppose that by disguising her shape they make it possible for us to imagine she’s a thin girl unflatteringly dressed, instead of a slightly rounder girl unflatteringly dressed. She is a bit rounder than the current fashion, or indeed the nineteenteens fashion, comparing her to the other actresses in Chaplin films.

Anyway, her role here is interesting…

Billy Armstrong is Charlie’s co-worker, a subgump idiot who’s somehow more efficient at his job than Charlie, despite his glazed look. Armstrong has a very thick head of hair (and a very thick head, in this), and I believe he may have reinforced it with some product or produce to make it rise up like a wall of brown flame. He’s also grouchoed his eyebrows very severely. My favourite business involving him is his attempt to speak to Charlie through half a doorstop sandwich he’s crammed into his face. Charlie pauses his discourse and excavates the pulped bread from his maw with a pencil, prying loose doughy wads until Armstrong’s only barrier to fluency is his cookie-duster.

The loose opening of the film sets up these characters and also a bank teller, the president, and a disgruntled customer in silk hat and guyliner, all of whom are important for the upcoming dream.

But before that, pathos. The surly, lazy and mentally disorientated Charlie of this film seems an unlikely subject for pathos, but he’s not quite as obnoxious as the version of the character seen in THE TRAMP. Chaplin is slowly working out how to get the rambunctious knockabout stuff to play along with, around and maybe even THROUGH the sentiment. Charlie is generally rough with his co-workers — he tends to see himself as a superior sort of person, there’s certainly no collegial spirit. But he’s not bullying Armstrong, as he does with Paddy McGuire in THE TRAMP or his wretched old underling in THE PROPERTY MAN. He and Armstrong are just scrapping, and neither one has the upper hand for very long.

In the farce tradition, a misunderstanding is contrived. Edna is sweet on a bank teller, also called Charles. Chaplin seems to have been uninterested in seeing Edna share scenes with a conventional leading man type, since Charles is played by CARLTON STOCKDALE, a kind of jug-eared camel type. Stockdale came from Broncho Billy’s stock company at Essanay, and is otherwise best remembered for providing an alibi for Mary Miles Minter’s mom in the William Desmond Taylor shooting. He went on to join Griffith’s group and was a busy bit-player until 1943.

Edna prepares a gift of a necktie for this other Charles, with a loving note. Charlie sees this on her desk and thinks she loves him. He gets her a couple of measly roses and writes a note of his own. His spelling and handwriting have improved since THE TRAMP, at least.

Edna initially thinks the flowers are from Stockdale. There would be room here for farcical misunderstandings to multiply and complicate, but Chaplin isn’t interested in that. Edna realises the roses are from Charlie and bins them. Then she tears up his note. Then she sees him looking heartbroken and SNEERS. Edna is a right cow in this.

Usually in this kind of comic romance, the comedian has to find a way to keep the object of his desire sympathetic, even as she temporarily snubs him. But Chaplin is shrewd enough to know that this time it doesn’t actually matter, so he just plays it to the hilt.

Charlie retrieves the roses and stuffs them up his janitor’s jacket, next to his bosom, a bit of romantic masochism like the bloke in MANON DE SOURCE.

Charlie’s brokenheartedness threatens to rupture the tone, as his getting shot in THE TRAMP does, but he modulates it. Seeing Billy Armstrong preening into a hand mirror, Charlie kicks him out of frame out of sheer spite. But even this simple proven remedy does not relieve his melancholia. He sits on his bench, defeated.

The transition to dream sequence is managed quite smoothly, and probably might still fool people. True, the movie immediately turns into DIE HARD, but that sort of genre-fluidity was common in 1915. Robbers take over the bank. One of them is the disgruntled customer (John Rand, who would keep appearing in Chaplins up until MODERN TIMES), which helps tie things together. It’s a grace note — it’s not essential to set up a bankrobber outside the dream, but it makes things neater.

One of the robbers is herr future film director Lloyd Bacon, a regular, but a bank customer is played by another herr future film director, joining us for the first time, Wesley Ruggles. Makes sense that he was an actor, since his brother is Charlie Ruggles (a thing I never knew until very recently).

So, these bank robbers come pigalleying into the bank, and, hilariously, Stockdale panics and flees, shoving Edna in his craven terror. She falls, is grabbed by the robbers, struggling desperately. She’s been such a bitch it’s hard not to experience a warm glow of schadenfreude. Edna really throws herself into the melodrama here. Feels like every short Chaplin makes requires her to extend herself, and she always does. I think I’d seen her as a bit of a lump before, but watching the films in sequence brings out her range.

Charlie leaps into action, deploying his full range of martial-arts moves: the arse-kick, the roundhouse face slap, and the flying drop-kick to the sternum. He not only propels two of the robbers into the walk-in safe, he slams both the barred gate and the big safe door, spinning the wheel lock and twisting the combination dial. Those guys better hope that thing’s not time-locked. If it is, they better hope Jimmy Valentine’s in the area.

Edna has now swooned, so Charlie hefts her on his shoulder, not, it must be said, without a certain difficulty. Kind of a worker ant scenario going on. Picking up a robber’s fallen pistol while carrying Edna really puts the strain on. Charlie is striking a balance, I’d say, between getting the available comedy out of the situ, and fat-shaming his leading lady. It’s not offensive, just honest.

The remaining heisters are subdued with similar efficiency — Edna actually comes to the rescue when Charlie is at a loss. By the end of this, Charlie is proper knackered. I did one of my bigger lols when he sat on a fallen robber’s head to call the kops. Now the cowardly cur Stockdale is found cowering under a desk, and summarily dismissed. The wretch. Edna is ashamed of ever having fancied the man-camel, as well she should be. Her affections turn to the mentally incompetent janitor. This is the point where it really does feel like a dream sequence. I’m curious to see how Chaplin’s going to handle the romance in later Purviance co-starrers, because there seems no way to make it plausible. I really can’t remember how he works it. He’s going to have to get less stupid, and the social distance between them will have to be reduced if there’s going to be any future in it.

Is Edna thinking, “Well, he possibly saved my life, and the bank, and he fancies me, so I suppose I owe him at least a quick fumble”? Retrieving his roses from the waste paper basket where he’s just re-dropped them, she nestles her head on his chest while he stares at us in wonderment —

— and wakes up cuddling his mop. That mop’s been a very useful prop, but this is its finest moment. Palpable disappointment at the return to reality. Prefiguring the audience’s own literal disenchantment when the illusion of this film is over. Even the film stock deteriorates at this point, which seems perfect in a way.

Edna is back with the repulsive Stockdale. It may be unfair, but I can’t find it in myself to forgive him for his caddish behaviour in Charlie’s dream.

Charlie throws away the flowers, with accompanying back-kick. This is not so much pathos as bitterness, actually. He turns to walk away, tries to switch from mopish to upbeat, but doesn’t seem to have built the set big enough to pull it off — the open road is better suited to this — and then the film is cut off — probably at least a second or two missing, and it could make all the difference.

A step forward! The pathos is integrated into the tone, and ameliorated with comedy so it goes down smooth. The Essanay phase is beginning to build towards the maturity of Mutual, but a couple of stumbles lie ahead — not really Chaplin’s, more Essanay and Leo White’s…