Archive for Buster Keaton

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Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2021 by dcairns

PAY DAY, continued…

The actual pay day bit of PAY DAY isn’t so hot. Charlie thinks he’s been underpaid, because he can’t count. Seems weird that we’re in 1922 and Chaplin is still getting his character wrong. We don’t think of Charlie as stupid. We presume him to be uneducated, but this business doesn’t seem to suit him, and anyway it doesn’t lead to anything funny.

Yay, Phyllis Allen! A woman who must have been a very good sport, given the way Chaplin always casts her. This is a one-minute, one-facial-expression by the Great Bone Face, playing Charlie’s shrewish wife. This is a rare case where Charlie’s hankering after Edna is actually adulterous, though we don’t know what at the time. The whole gag here is Charlie, out in full view, plotting how he can keep back the housekeeping money from his wife, who is watching every moment,ready to pounce and abstract the cash from him.

The Charlie of PAY DAY is a much more wretched figure than usual. The film can be seen as a fairly vicious condemnation of the working man under capitalism: he doesn’t organise his labour, he’s too busy indulging in the pitiable vices society allows him. The bitterness for once suits Chaplin’s biography, as the son of a man who drank himself to death. Charlie’s left enough drinking money to get thoroughly soused, and we iris out on him and his cronies setting the world to rights at closing time. And what cronies! John Rand, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin, Loyal Underwood, Al Ernest Garcia, and Syd. Is this Charlie’s last film as a drunkard? It has some of the best drunk action.

The coat! Charlie manages to get one arm into his overcoat but the other one goes into Henry B.’s overcoat, and Henry plods off, basically wearing Charlie. Next is a great bit with the cane. The cane is fantastically useful as a prop, as we well know by now. We can relate it to the jester’s bladder and stick if we like. This gag actually requires Charlie to LOSE his cane, so the gag had better be a good one if it’s to be worth it. It is, and it is.

Seeing Bergman struggle with his umbrella, Charlie helps. But what he hands back is his cane, and Henry, too pissed to notice, stands in the rain holding this futile object. As if this weren’t enough, Charlie is now wearing both of their coats. Henry’s miserable condition is funny enough for Chaplin to cut back to him, twice, just standing there like a putz.

This all reminds me somewhat of GOOD NIGHT, NURSE!, the Arbuckle-Keaton short best remembered for Buster’s blood-spattered appearance as a prototype of William Burroughs’Dr. Benway (thanks to Dan Sallitt, I think it was, for that comparison). But it begins with a full reel of a thoroughly guttered Fatty standing, just barely, in a torrential downpour. Impressively abject stuff. It doesn’t seem that likely that Chaplin would consciously imitate it… but then, he did steal the dance of the bread rolls from Arbuckle…

Charlie now has trouble with streetcars.The first one to show up is immediately swarmed by undercranked commuters, buzzing like flies, a rare instance of Chaplin using extreme accelerated motion. It’s like Nosferatu packing his coffin.

Meeting Henry again, Charlie regains his cane (of course, how could I have doubted this?) but loses both overcoats in his haste to catch the streetcar. This is all impressive night-for-night shooting — and unless Chaplin somehow diverted a streetcar into his studio, it seems like he’s intercutting his studio street with a real one, quite seamlessly.

David Robinson notes that PAY DAY was a comparatively brisk shoot, with no major hold-ups save a break when Chaplin caught cold around Christmas. A fairly clear plan, a rarity for Chaplin, enabled him to shoot the second half of the film first. I guess the plot of this one is so simple — basically work, drink, go home — the structure didn’t present any difficulties, and the business of coming up with business was something that came comparatively easy to the authentic comedy genius.

The last streetcar is so fantastically overcrowded it looks like someone pasted it with glue and flung men at it. Charlie loses his grip on it, tearing off another passenger’s trousers, after paying his fare. Here, Rollie Totheroh’s lighting is less successful — the tram is illuminated as if by a moving spotlight. I guess it could be the headlights of a car following close behind. And I guess no other solution would have been available unless you were going to light a whole street for night shooting.

Charlie, drunker than we would have thought, or can believe, rushes into a lunch wagon and grabs a hanging sausage, thinking himself in a streetcar holding a hand strap. Brilliantly, it’s Syd’s lunch wagon from A DOG’S LIFE, though Syd has modified his makeup from that film. Maybe this is the brother of the chap from ADL. I feel the gag, which is magnificent, is weakened a little by coming after some very vigorous athletic business from Charlie which makes me think he can’t be as drunk as he seems here.

Good bit where he tries to light the sausage.

Leaving his brother at the lunch wagon, Charlie meets… his brother, playing someone else. The shuffling of players is as bold as that in a Monty Python film (where it feels quite natural — it’s the OBSCURE OBJECT trick played over and over again).

Back at the Chaplin residence, Phyllis Allen is not quite “nursing her wrath to keep in warm,” in Robert Burns’ immortal phrase, but she’s asleep with a rolling pin ready in her hand, so she can wake up berating. A title tells us it’s five a.m. Charlie has been wandering lost, presumably, for hours, unless closing time was a lot later in the 1920s. Actually, since the Volstead Act had been in effect for two years, the whole thing may be an anachronism — but if we assume Charlie and his mates were at a speakeasy, closing time probably doesn’t apply so he might have left at, say, 4 a.m. On the other other hand, speakeasies probably didn’t encourage customers to gather, swaying, on the street outside. Let’s just agree this is Chaplin’s version of Los Angeles-London, where the pubs still open.

Not such a great backdrop. Quite detailed, but I think what lets it down is the way the building we see is square-on with the window, which is perfectly possible, even likely, but increases our sense of looking at a painted flat, and the large, featureless expanse of ground at the bottom. Charles D. Hall usually did better than this.

Inside Charlie’s flat is a far superior window view, though it seems to contradict everything about the previous one. Strictly speaking, the views of these two adjacent windows should be nearly identical. And, in fact, Hall seems to have painted over View #1, adding the roof corner to the foreground which vastly improves the sense of perspective and the compositional interest. The lighting also really helps this one.

The table laden with cats is a great, rather abstract gag. I like the fellow on the left who thinks he’s in an Ozu film. The cat infestation has cleaned up Charlie’s supper, but fortunately he’s come home with a huge sausage. Thus nature balances itself.

A tiny cat steals the massive sausage. I suspect a long balloon may have been substituted, otherwise the feat would be impossible. One is put in mind of those ants carrying burdens far heavier than themselves.

Charlie oiling his boots so they won’t squeak is an excellent gag, very him. In a sound film he could have fun deciding whether the oil works.

A cartoon gag — the alarm clock shakes as it rings. My first thought was that this was a necessary exaggeration, but it really isn’t — the bell atop the alarm clock is quite capable of showing us that it’sgone off. So Chaplin wanted the exaggeration — but it’s an unusual move for him.

The next gag — Charlie,undressing for bed, immediately goes into reverse so that he seems to be dressing FROM bed, gaslighting his wife into believing he’s been home for hours, was good enough for Steve Martin to nick it in THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, I believe. And I think Martin’s version might be better, because of the fluidity of the movement: Charlie oversells the idea of his being flustered, improvising desperately. I guess that’s his thing, whereas Keaton could do things like a man in a dream.

The threat of Phyllis is once again used for dramatic/comedic irony/poignancy, as she lurks behind Charlie, full aware of his latest imposture. Like John Lennon in Norwegian Wood, he “crawls off to sleep in the bath,” but like himself in ONE A.M. and A NIGHT OUT and CAUGHT IN THE RAIN, he finds the tub full of water. The movie, like those pervious ones, could have ended there, but Chaplin finds a flurry of variants — he turns on the hot tap so he can have a nice warm sleep, Phyllis catches him so he pretends he’s bathing, fleeing the scene he retrieves his last penny from under the doormat but she’s watching him, yet again. He ends on a furious closeup of Phyllis, gesticulating with a milk bottle, and the superimposed THE END is surely a more modern addition.

Houdini Dunnit

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2021 by dcairns

I recall a nice anecdote — almost certainly untrue — in Master of Villainy, Cay Van Ash & Elizabeth Sax Rohmer’s biography of ESR’s famous father, who was also the father of Fu Manchu. It has the air of a family legend, and, as with the story of how Buster Keaton got his nickname, there is no such things as a family legend that cannot be improved by the insertion of Harry Houdini.

The story goes that celebrated racist Sax Rohmer got himself into a bind with one of his serialised stories — the plot refused to come to a resolution. He padded out episodes, inventing delaying tactics, but could not solve his own riddle. An agonising moment occurred when he realised that, several episodes back, he had been within inches of a satisfactory answer, but for a single line of dialogue from a minor character that made that denouement impossible — and that conversation had already been published.

Rohmer was roaming the streets of London, in a perfect frenzy of depression and stress, when who should he bump into but his old chum, Harry Houdini, the handcuff king. HH noticed how unhappy SR seemed, and invited him to unburden himself. But surely even Houdini, master of escapology and the impossible getaway, couldn’t turn his talents to a fictional problem?

“I have the answer!” declared Harry, when Rohmer had told his tale. “Bring back that character, and invent a reason why he lied.”

This definitely didn’t happen: the details about what book/serial we’re dealing with are suspiciously scanty. And the story would be un burger de rien if not for the inclusion of the famous escape artist. I may have some minor details wrong: perhaps Rohmer was in New York, rather than Houdini being in London. Unfortunately I don’t own a copy of this book, because I recall vaguely some other amusing stuff about HH, no doubt equally fictitious, concerning things he could do on the streets of the metropolis, using his powers of illusion — but I can’t remember what they were. But perhaps someone out there does?

Enter Jackie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2021 by dcairns

The story is worth repeating: Chaplin saw Jackie Coogan, aged four, in a show with his dad. He danced the shimmy, which was considered hilarious because that’s a sexy female dance. There was some discussion about hiring the kid but it was dismissed. The subject came up again a day later, for some reason, and this time ideas started popping all over the place, between Chaplin and his gag men / supporting cast. They quickly made inquiries. Disaster! Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had signed Coogan while they were wasting time. Then: relief! It was Coogan Sr. he’d hired! A deal was quickly struck for little Jackie’s services, and his dad came along as combination childminder and bit player.

Jackie kind of looks like a tiny, tiny Arbuckle: Roscoe really missed a trick.

Time passes:

Wide shot of a typical Chaplin T-junction. Jackie is sitting on the kerb, manicuring himself with Keatonesque solemnity. It’s incredible to me how Coogan aged into Uncle Fester, but you can just about see the resemblance by an enormous effort of imagination. It’s like he was given a transfusion of Drew Friedman’s ink.

My friend Danny’s uncle, I think it was — or great-uncle? — was in the war with Jackie. Well, they were both in the war, and they met one time. Jackie’s greeting: “Shake the hand that holds the prick that fucked Betty Grable.”

And yet, he’s cute here.

Silas Hathaway, the baby version of the Kid, is immediately forgotten. He would live to be 98 without doing anything else that need concern us here.

In A DAY’S PLEASURE (and SHOULDER ARMS’ deleted scenes), Chaplin had toyed with the idea of children as miniature versions of himself, but those were almost identical mini-mes (Keaton did the same thing in THE BOAT). Jackie is his own personality, but the baggy pants and beat-up boots establish a relationship with Charlie.

Great moment when Jackie, after buffing his nails on his bare arm and admiring the shine, rises with an almighty roar of a yawn and stretch — but Rollie Totheroh is too slow to catch it properly. I’m surprised a retake wasn’t attempted, Allowance should perhaps be made for the fact that THE KID was edited in a hotel room (in defiance of fire regulations, nitrate stalk being highly flammable) while Chaplin hid out from his wife’s divorce lawyers.

Jackie enters the flat and Charlie tells him to “Put the quarter in the gas meter.” The first dishonest act. The great point of THE KID is that Charlie is, on the one hand, a terrible father who teaches his adopted son to do crimes, and on the other hand the perfect father because he provides love, food and shelter.

Jackie’s nails pass inspection, an analysis of his earholes is satisfactory, but his throat and the minute nose are less salubrious, the nostrils, barely the size of the adult Coogan’s pores, requiring the handkerchief’s ritual intervention. Jackie’s face is turned decorously away from the camera while he gets nasally scoured, a delicate touch.

I wonder how many in the audience laughed as soon as they saw Jackie picking up stones and Charlie strapping on his glazier’s kit? Does everyone need to see the act played out in order to get the joke? It’s definitely funnier when you see it.

Jackie emerging from behind a street corner is just a perfect image, it has it’s own ineffable rightness. As does the undercranked shot of him retreating across the street at high speed.

Jackie smashes a window. May White, a Chaplin actor since his Keystone phase, emerges, in old age disguise. Charlie wanders up, doing his best to look like a happy coincidence. He is commissioned to replace the broken glass.

But Jackie runs into difficulties — a kop — on his third window.

Beautiful bit of mime. You just know Chaplin acted everything out for Jackie to copy, but Jackie — “the greatest child performance in film history” (says Roddy McDowall) — had to be brilliant to be able to channel the moves. Here, he throws away his rock playfully, attempting to give the impression, as forcefully as possible, that he is a nice boy who never throws stones at windows. Then he does a “Look, a baby wolf!” routine and legs it.

The kop does not take the incident seriously. But…

Well, you can watch my Criterion video essay on this.

The kop now finds the broken window, and Jackie seems altogether less innocent. Then he finds Charlie, and suspicions, as yet uncertain and inchoate, begin to materialise:

He’s a slow thinker, this kop (ex-pugilist and soldier Tom Wilson, a blackface specialist), but he gets there in the end. Realisation dawns when he sees Charlie and Jackie together. Charlie realises this danger but Jackie doesn’t. Charlie tries to shoo Jackie away, even shoving him with one boot. This is the problem of accomplices — they may get the basic scheme, but do they understand the potential consequences, the need for denial and secrecy, can they improvise if the plan goes pear-shaped? I recommend solo crimes.

Walter Kerr points out the shocking nature of the scene — a father rejecting his son — while admiring the beautiful way Chaplin gets away with it. It’s because he makes this tiny child into a THREAT, we’re proofed against focussing on Jackie’s feelings, though we certainly understand them. And the incongruity of someone so small and innocent posing such a danger is funny.

I’m determined to get THE KID finished by Sunday, I know this is taking ages… But it’s the first Chaplin feature (not counting TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE) so I want to give it sufficient appreciation.