Archive for Brute Force

Hobo Erectus

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2021 by dcairns

Though GETTING ACQUAINTED is Chaplin’s Keystone farewell to most of his favourite co-stars and the last real park film made with Sennett, HIS PREHISTORIC PAST has tramp-in-park bookends, so it’s a goodbye to the studio.

All the major silent comedians made stone age comedies — Keaton did THE THREE AGES, Laurel & Hardy did FLYING ELEPHANTS, Harold Lloyd, in his Lonesome Luke phase, did CLUBS ARE TRUMP. Although I’m being ahistorical as well as prehistorical, since when Lloyd and L&H made their entries, they were not yet among the greats, certainly lower echelon than Arbuckle in his pomp.

Chaplin was first — his HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, set up as a dream sequence with the Tramp settling down to sleep on a park bench, the entire story sandwiched, Cocteau-like, between the onset of unconsciousness and the inevitable shaking awake by Kop Syd Chaplin (his half-brother, who had just joined the company as Charlie was leaving), is a straight parody of D.W. Griffith’s BRUTE FORCE, released the same year. That film cast Bobby Harron as Weakhands (Griffith liked his heroes to have parable-type names), this one casts Charlie as Weakchin. There’s some question about whether the name was in Chaplin’s original release cut, because brother Sidney, the noted cannibal rapist, rewrote most of Chaplin’s intertitles after he left Keystone. But given the connection to Griffith’s film, and the fact that playing that up in 1914 makes more sense than doing it later, I feel it was probably part of Charlie’s original scenario.

David Robinson points out that the “discovery” of the Piltdown man in 1912 doubtless kicked off the movies’ brief caveman craze. Piltdown man was a phony, an anthropocene Princess Anastasia, but he caught the public’s eye much as Charlie’s phony hobo would.

This high-concept parody approach is a new wrinkle for Chaplin and probably for Keystone. He wouldn’t return to it. It seems like a lot of effort (costumes, props) for relatively little reward.

Mack Swain is King Lowbrow, identified by title as King of Waikiki Beach. And I feel this may be an unfortunate Sydney interpolated intertitle. The movie was later retitled THE HULA HULA MAN in some territories, clearly an act of madness, as Howard Beale would say. This all seems to be riffing off the primitive ritual dance which opens the caveman section, which has a Hawaiian aspect to it. If Chaplin had known the trouble this would cause, he might have asked for different moves to entertain his terpsichorean tyrant.

Some of the cavegirls wear grass skirts, that’s another reason for the mix-up, I expect.

Enter Charlie from behind a tree, clad in off-the-shoulder fur number, but with familiar hat, cane, toothbrush ‘tache and boots. This is either a good gag or a damaging anachronism. For a short fantasy it seems fine. And Chaplin is now well-identified with these items of costume, they’re not optional. A fur derby and baggy furry pants might have been an idea. A club which can be used like a cane could have worked. But this seems like a decent surreal image.

Charlie then plucks some fur from the arse of his coat, stuffs it into his pipe (he has a pipe again! But a different one from THE PROPERTY MAN) and lights it with a flint struck on his leg which doesn’t produce a spark the way a flint would, but instead catches fire at one end, the way a flint wouldn’t. All of this is just conjured from nowhere with a few props, and would have been cut if anyone at Keystone other than Chaplin had been in charge. It’s not ACTION (the Keystone stock-in-trade). It’s BEHAVIOUR (Chaplin’s forte).

Other cave-persons: May Wallace (cavewoman queen), Gene Marsh (sexy cavegirl), Fritz Schade (Caveman medicine man), Al St John, Vivian Edwards (teenage cavegirl). Grover Ligon (spaceman caveman).

Chaplin starts wooing, but his big club is just for show: he prefers more modern flirting. Sidenote: his legs at this point are very skinny. Amazing they didn’t just slice clean through the baggy pants and leave them standing in his thin wake. Maybe they did, and that’s why he’s making this film panstless.

The medicine man, catching Charlie in flagrante predelecto, shoots him in the bum with an arrow. “He had the obscure feeling someone was trying to give him a present” (William Golding, The Inheritors). Charlie retaliates by slinging a rock, which Kuleshovs through frame in the time-honoured manner and beans the King. Actually, it misses him, but Sennett didn’t believe in retakes. Swain gamely acts as if the royal noggin has been struck.

Swain and the medicine man take turns chasing the ragged rascal round and round a rugged rock. An early who’s-following-who routine. Look at those cavemen go!

“They exchange cards,” says an intertitle, ruining the joke in advance. But the joke isn’t clear wthout explanation. The piece of pelt Charlie hands over isn’t enough like a card. If we got a closeup and it had writing, or cave-art style pictograms on it, it might work. But I think ideally it should be a tiny stone tablet. Or, given the bowler and cane, it could just be a business card. This Flinstones world isn’t really Chaplin’s natural habitat. Though the casual brutality does make it a logical extension of the Keystone universe. Here’s Walter Kerr:

“Silent film comedy begins as though comedy had never existed, as though Aristophanes had never existed, as though sophistication of the same materials had never been achieved. A completely new form seems to take man back to his dawn, to revive and repeat an entire cycle of race-memories picked up along the evolutionary path, to start as primitively as if the Neanderthals were still a threat, and to probe toward the future with the weapons and level of wit of cavemen.

“In fact, the most apt description of these first screen comedies appears in a book about chimpanzees, Jane Van Lawick-Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man. ‘Young chimps,’ the author comments, ‘like to play with each other, chasing round a tree trunk, leaping one after the other through the treetops, dangling, each from one hand, while they spar and hit each other…'”

Unfortunately, too, Charlie does not seem to have outfitted himself with a fake club, so that when he clobbers foes or friends or mere passers-by, as he does frequently and at random, he has to “pull his punches” with the hefty bludgeon, which destroys even the witless level of comedy being attempted. I wouldn’t mind seeing the club bend unnaturally, but I need to see a bit of wallop put into the culling of troglodytes.

The “cave interior” is the worst set I’ve ever seen in a Keystone film, where usually the production design is sparse and tawdry. This one is just cloth stretched over random angular frames. It’s three-dimensional, but actually a painted backdrop would be less disgraceful. It doesn’t even suggest a cavern. More like a tent that’s being chewed by a dinosaur, who has mysteriously paused his mastication just as his fangs are about to pierce the canvas.

I get the feeling that Chaplin, already casting around for a more profitable deal than the one he enjoyed with Sennett, didn’t really have his mind on this job. He wouldn’t reconnect with Charles D. Hall, a colleague from the Fred Karno troupe, who would design all Chaplin’s films from A DOG’S LIFE to MODERN TIMES, for several years yet. And nobody at Keystone had ever been asked to design anything as unusual as a cave, it seems.

Some unfortunate splices (missing footage) now create a surprising Godardian effect. Competing over the cave-girlies with the rival medicine man, Charlie swings down his club, and instantly he’s standing elsewhere, surrounded by the adoring girls. From cause to effect.

An impressively managed gag, as Charlie and his cave-lady of choice walk into shot and are immediately wiped out by a colossal wave. We hadn’t known these rocks are seafront property. Poor Gene Marsh, as “Sum-Babee, Lowbrow’s Favorite Water Maiden,” (a Syd addition?) seems to be struggling against a sodden wardrobe malfunction. Worse still, Charlie and Gene and the camera operator all seem to be in danger of getting washed away.

Keystone apparently couldn’t locate an actual cave near L.A. (there is one: we see it in THE USUAL SUSPECTS) so Mack Swain’s throne room is entered by walking behind a rock.

More random clonking. This whole scenario brings out the less attractive side of Chaplin-at-Keystone. Still, at least his flirtations are non-violent, the club-’em-on-the-head-and-drag-’em-off-by-the-hair fantasy is merely hinted at, never enacted.

Mack Swain’s whole schtick at Keystone, his “Ambrose” character which this King is a variation on, is to be big and possibly authoritative in position, but really rather timorous and easily dominated, which Charlie plays up to. It’s continually unclear why the King lets Charlie prod him in the belly with whatever’s handy, whack him on the ass with a club, etc. The King having low self-esteem just isn’t a very amusing idea and Charlie comes off as a bully, a recurring but not consistent issue in the Keystone series.

Charlie and the King shoot arrows at a hen in a tree. The eggs it drops on them have been erased, it seems, by the poor digitisation of YouTube, so what follows is a bit abstract. A more pure pantomime?

Charlie kisses Gene and the screen whites out in a Marienbad overexposure of passion. Swain isn’t seeing white, but red, though. Gene retreats to the sidelines, looking like Cousin It in her unflattering grass skirt.

David Robinson reports that Chaplin, when working hard, enjoyed no social life, and so the fact that we don’t know what he was up to besides making films at Keystone means he wasn’t doing anything away from the studio. But he was young and newly successful. I don’t think he spent a whole year NOT banging the ingenues. There’s a whole cave-cluster of them in the film, and really for no reason.

Charlie shoves Mack off a cliff and declares himself “Kink” — which I think we can agree is a likely Syd line.

Charlie now becomes an obnoxious tyrant — no surprise, as he was an obnoxious underling. He poses, Frazetta-style with his concubine in his fabric cavern. Mack enters, and smashes a small boulder to fragments on Charlie’s occiput, which causes a hard cut to “modern” 1914 Charlie being woken by Syd the kop, and the film abruptly stops, missing a few seconds I fear.

A film about succession ends with Chaplin handing over his Keystone throne to his perverted half-brother.

And it’s over. Unlike Ford Sterling, when CC left Sennett’s Fun Factory, he left for good. But Chaplin’s move from Keystone to Essanay is a blog post in itself…

Urban Explorer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on January 5, 2021 by dcairns

Upcoming release from Arrow!

Fiona and I contribute a video essay, edited by the redoubtable Stephen C. Horne, for Jules Dassin’s searing BRUTE FORCE, and for THE NAKED CITY I contribute my first ever commentary track. Since I’m not a huge fan of commentary tracks, I felt the need to REINVENT THE FORM.

Naked City Radio is a kind of alternative soundtrack to the movie. I discovered that I had taken a form that should be easy, if somewhat specialised, and made it very complicated and difficult. But I hope you’ll find it worthwhile.

I finished this one and went almost straight into another feature-length project, still under wraps.

More soon!

C is for Carcel de Mujeres

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2011 by dcairns

Once more, special guest Shadowplayer David Melville takes us down Mexico way ~

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

 C is for Carcel de mujeres (Women’s Prison)

 “She has no idea what’s in store for her,” sneers a young and very sexy Sarita Montiel – as two butch uniformed guards lead an angelic blonde beauty (Miroslava Stern) into the riotous main hall of the Mexico City Penitentiary for Women. In fact, we in the audience can hazard a guess. Just a few shots away, the movie’s most ostentatious lesbian (Katy Jurado) is languidly stroking the hair of a cute blonde companion.

Prison melodramas were all the rage in Hollywood in the late 40s. Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947) put Burt Lancaster at the mercy of sadistic closet case Hume Cronyn. Caged (John Cromwell, 1950) had Eleanor Parker and Agnes Moorehead under the guard of terrifying Hope Emerson, and is still cherished as a minor camp classic. Yet for me the ne plus ultra of the genre is Carcel de mujeres (whose title translates bluntly as Women’s Prison) directed by one Miguel Delgado in 1951. This Mexican variant is like the Hollywood movies, only much more so…and that, in the realm of melodrama, can only be a Good Thing.

The first thing we see is a glamorously garbed woman – her face cast in shadow, the moonlight aglow on her slinky white fur. Her arm, clanking with jewels, reaches out and fires a round of bullets into her sleazy, no-good boyfriend (Tito Junco). The police arrest two suspects: Sarita, a brassy nightclub chanteuse, his mistress and partner in his shady deals, and Miroslava, a respectable doctor’s wife, who had a brief fling with him before her marriage. She’s still wearing her immaculate high-fashion gown when the guards lead her into the clink. The other ladies gang up and tear the fancy duds off her back.

This being Mexico in the 1950s, the script (with dialogue by Max Aub) is not exactly on the cutting edge of Political Correctness. When poor Miroslava gets arrested, her stuffy dolt of a husband is less concerned that his wife is going to prison, than worried that she might not have been a virgin on their bridal night. (“My dear, do you have anything to reproach yourself for?”) When he comes to visit her in stir, she gazes at him tearfully and wails: “My love, how you have suffered for my sake!”

When hubby is big-hearted enough to suggest that she might be suffering too, she replies with a line that sums up the whole ethos of melodrama, Mexican or otherwise: “No suffering is too great, if it makes our love grow stronger!” The brilliance of the genre lies in convincing an audience of hardened cynics that yes, people actually do talk this way – and, what’s more, the sadomasochistic wallowing they express is not only natural but admirable. Watch enough movies of this sort, and you may start to talk like this too.

Once Miroslava is behind bars, a spiteful Sarita sets out to make her life a living hell – even throwing a bowl of hot soup into her face! This is the cue for a spectacular cat-fight, which all their fellow inmates join in. An orgy of bitch-slapping and hair-pulling erupts in the dining hall, so the (male) guards have to step in and hose down the ladies with water cannons. Both women must also contend with a slinky, sinister warden (Maria Douglas) who’s a cross between Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Any pretty young thing who doesn’t do her bidding is liable to wind up in solitary confinement. (“One meal a week and six days on bread and water is the best way to keep your figure, don’t you think?”)

At last, the two rivals bury the hatchet when Sarita gives birth, behind bars, to Junco’s baby and Miroslava saves it from an elderly psycho who wants to “teach the little angel how to fly”. There’s still time, of course, for a climactic riot and mass break-out…and we even get to find out who committed the crime! Nobody would ever mistake Carcel de mujeres for a work of art, but it sure packs a lot into 85 minutes.

Off screen, life did not run quite so smoothly. The beauteous Miroslava committed suicide at a young age – but not before appearing in one of Luis Buñuel’s best films, Ensayo de un crimen/The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). Sarita (or Sara, as she is now known) thrives to this day in her native Spain. Returning home from her sojourn in Mexico and Hollywood, she reigned as queen of the kitsch musical melodramas known as españoladas. (The most unmissable are La Violetera (1958), La bella Lola (1962) and Variétés (1971)). An icon to three generations of drag queens, she also inspired the Pedro Almodóvar film Bad Education (2004). 

David Melville