Archive for Caught in a Cabaret

The Sunday Intertitle: Get Your Skates On

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2021 by dcairns

As a kid, THE RINK impressed and exhilarated me with Chaplin’s grace and speed, much like Gene Kelly’s musical numbers did. Let’s see if it still has that effect.

It’s brilliant that Chaplin repeats himself so much, or rather that he develops ideas from film to film — it adds enormously to the interest of CAUGHT IN A CABARET, a pleasant, typically rudimentary Keystone film, that Chaplin returns to the theme of the waiter passing himself off as a dignitary in THE RINK, because it makes it even plainer how much his skills as storyteller, gagman and performer have developed in a year and a bit, and how much more perfected his character is. If one can have gradations of perfection, which of course one can’t. But maybe HE can.

Chaplin has learned he can start a bit more gradually, so he opens with Edna and a pussycat (as in THE PAWNSHOP) plus her dad, played by James Kelley, not being a full-on gerontological case for once, though he does have a fly alighting on his forehead as Edna plays with a thing on a string to amuse kitty. I always enjoy seeing flies in movies, but only when they’re unintentional, insectoid gatecrashers breaking into the frame to mock the director’s illusion of control. Check out the bold little fellow who strolls into Paul Freeman’s mouth in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Freeman keeps on acting, heroically, and the fly never reemerges, having sacrificed his tiny existence just for this literal walk-on role. “A director is somebody who presides over accidents,” claimed Welles. When Bertolucci musters an army of flies to pester his characters on a bus in THE SHELTERING SKY, it’s hugely impressive and skin-crawlingly ‘orrible (“Flies like Malkovich,” they discovered), but it doesn’t give me the same, ah, buzz.

Charlie is meanwhile a waiter, totting up the bill of Mr. Stout (Eric Campbell, in relatively modest face-fuzz) by assessing the stains on his person — Big Eric has in fact had the exact same meal he enjoys in THE COUNT — soup, spaghetti and melon. He may be playing a different character but he has a certain consistency.

Charlie is a lousy waiter, of course, slow to respond and quick to make off with a ten dollar bill without giving change. He produces the change, but then takes it as a tip, to the outrage of Stout. He also has a complete inability to choose the right door to the kitchen, a difficulty that would still be bothering him, and more so his coworkers, in MODERN TIMES.

In this instance, food spilled on the floor is replaced with the brush and cloth being used to clean the kitchen, and these innocent items, served up to an unsuspecting customer, become charged with a curious repulsiveness. Dirt is merely displaced matter. Lipstick which seems attractive on lips becomes obnoxious when transferred to a wine glass. So with a brush on a dinnerplate.

Charlie now makes a disgusting cocktail, but he makes it very beautifully. Best gag is probably his whole body shaking while the shaker remains unmoved, as if anchored to its spot in the universe. This whole kitchen scene is relentlessly icky and I can’t wait to escape to the ice rink. Even Albert Austin as the cook has traded his usual cookie-duster for a hump and a stringy Rasputin beard which makes you imagine long vile hairs trailing into foodstuffs and thence into the backs of customers’ throats.

Flirtatious Eric somehow looks like the horrid little camel-chortler at the end of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL, unnaturally upscaled to loming Hagrid proportions.

This reminds me that Herzog claimed the “true” interpretation of his weird mini-revolution movie was that the world had, in a fit of Kafkaesque illogic, grown huge overnight, leaving the characters to struggle amid outsized beds, cars, bikes and so on. A subject Chaplin himself might have enjoyed. If Herzog had the money, would he have constructed huge DR. CYCLOPS sets and turned Klaus Kinski and Bruno S. loose amid them?

Enter Henry Bergman in his first drag role, ready to be roundly mistreated. Some of Charlie’s crimes are caused by carelessness, as when he removes Mrs. Stout’s chair just before she sits down, some by insensitivity, as when he breaks the arm of a chair to make it wide enough for the lady. There’s a general hubbub of outrageous stuff going on which I won’t describe, but Eric as Mr. Stout is flirting adulterously with Edna while Mrs. Stout gets cosy with Edna’s dad. But they can’t get very far because Charlie’s only vaguely well-meaning ministrations make the restaurant a kind of living hell.

The 1916 version of first base = moustache-twirling.

Bergman is a convincing enough woman to stand closeup treatment, and I don’t recall being aware of the drag act when I saw this as a kid in the seventies. But then I didn’t notice that Uncle Remus was Black (or that SONG OF THE SOUTH was deeply and perniciously racist).

Charlie adds a new move to his martial artistry: that brain-damaging attack known to impudence as the “Glasgow Kiss.” When coworker John Rand squares up for a fight, Charlie headbutts him. Brow-to-brow combat always seems as likely to hurt the assailant as the assailed. Really you should aim for the nose.

Charlie the Little Shit: laughing with glee when Rand gets fired for Charlie’s incompetence. This gave me a sour feeling, but on the other hand, Rand did serve up the offending brush, so he’s a pretty sloppy waiter also. It makes me wonder if Charlie’s unfair, unsporting and sadistic side communicate particularly well with children. Kids have a sense of injustice — “That’s not fair!” is something we’re all born able to say, and even monkeys seem to have a sense of fair play. But maybe that inner morality makes it seem all the sweeter to a child when somebody else gets the blame for their misdeeds. Chaplin does seem to think his smirking is adorable. He gets away with it in THE PAWNSHOP, where he’s clearly a brat, than he does here, somehow.

Charlie attempts to serve Mr. Edna and Mrs. Stout, but it’s hard to be a waiter when you’re so protean. Sharpening the cutlery transforms him into a barber, plucking a hair, slicing it, then tucking the offcut into his shirt. His customers look on with the entirely unreasonable expectation that he’s going to prepare their food. Instead, he conjures a raw egg from a fowl’s roasted cloaca, and it splatters on Mr. Edna’s face. He’s coming in for some rough treatment for the heroine’s nearest and dearest, and does he even know he’s seducing a married woman? Is he in any way deserving of Charlie’s legerdemaine/abuse?

Maybe in Charlie’s world, anyone who isn’t amused by him deserves whatever they get? I think that’s it; those are the rules. And if so, Chaplin is channeling his childhood emotions. Kids do silly things, expecting that everyone will be delighted, but sometimes the adults are not charmed, and get angry, and IT’S NOT FAIR!

Taking his street clothes from the oven, Charlie heads for the rink, at last.

The film’s two rink scenes are vastly preferable to the restaurant business. Though Chaplin hasn’t quite decided if he’s playing a brilliant rollerskater or a terrible one, so settles for both. Brilliant moves, though. Eric Campbell cowering beneath him is very funny too.

Chaplin’s balletic quality works best when he’s doing something else — when he attempts to do an actual graceful dance in SUNNYSIDE it’s not too great. Nothing amusing about it, and real ballet dancers do ballet better. But a comedian doing something less elevated in a balletic MANNER is funny and can be beautiful. Especially as he’s free to descend (literally) into pratfalling whenever there’s any danger of monotony. Weird that critic Heywood Broun felt that Chaplin must be in thrall to Nietzsche, because he doesn’t get kicked up the arse in this film. He does take plenty of falls, but the skating scenes admittedly show him winning a fair bit of the time. I think that’s justified, because the delirious appeal is to the fantasy of anarchic rambunctiousness. We feel that walking into a joint and just knocking people over and smashing stuff would be huge fun, though we know it’s bad and socially unacceptable and there would be consequences. The atavistic fantasy persists, and you can see it in zombie movies (run through a mall with a crowbar!) and car chase scenes (break all the traffic rules but innocents [practically] never get hurt). By the time the farce aspect of the story, which is barely developed, has reached its pay-off at the skate party (was that ever a thing?), the movie is just an excuse for shooting about and knocking people down like ninepins.

More on the same note: Monty Python did a mountaineering sketch in which a man barges into a room and clambers all over the furniture, and I can remember my brother saying what a lot of fun that looked. Chaplin in manic mode has a Marxian appeal — indefensible behaviour that just looks wonderful psychopathic fun. The victims don’t have to be guilty of anything. Fat and rich helps, but they could just be anybody who isn’t a starring comedian and it still seems to work. (Edgar Kennedy doesn’t really do anything bad in DUCK SOUP, except bellow, and is shamefully mistreated.)

Chaplin cuts directly between Albert Austin as the hunchbacked cook to Albert Austin as a rollerskating gentleman with his customary ‘tache. Well, it doesn’t really matter if anyone recognizes him. And you pay actors by the day, not the part. And if they’re under contract anyway, may as well keep them busy.

In the first skating scene, Edna complains that Eric is annoying her, which then justifies all Charlie’s bad behaviour and makes it chivalrous. But we never really see Eric do anything very offensive. I suppose that’s fine, we don’t want the film getting too dark. Charlie’s version of chivalry is to trip Eric with his cane when he;s not looking. And indeed the cane gets a substantial work-out in this one, making it seem like it’s been underused in the previous films. Asides from hooking big men’s ankles, it can be held by Charlie and Edna together, their arms crossing romantically, as they skate side by side. It can attach Charlie to a passing auto at the end and tow him away from the angry mob of kops and fops in pursuit.

After Charlie defeats Campbell and acquires some faint heroic lustre, for some reason, Chaplin reintroduces the fake count routine he’d deployed just a a few films back. It does bolster the farce aspect, which is a functioning narrative device for about two minutes, until everyone clocks everyone else at the skating party. (Skating party??)

There’s a funny close-up of Big Eric reacting to his wife’s unexpected presence — he’s photographed in an apparent void, possibly on the theory that we don’t want any surroundings to distract from his gurning. But the LACK of background is in itself somewhat distracting.

There’s another naked lunch moment — the frozen instant when everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork — then a perfect detente of embarrassment is achieved — everyone silently consents not to expose everyone else’s misdeeds, and the dirty laundry is transformed by MUTUAL consent into the Emperor’s naked balls, that which is too shameful to be acknowledged and so must be treated as invisible.

It doesn’t last. There’s an amusing gag in the kitchen where Charlie transforms a man’s arse into a turnstyle, shoving it to and fro as if it were hinged, and then he gets his skates on, leading to immediate chaos. It’s impressive that Chaplin, who is after all a master of repetition, which is another thing little kids like about him, can create a whole new climax not particularly different from the immediately preceding one. In some strange way, while surprise is central to comedic effect, predictability is also a help. So the entirely predictable results of Charlie skating are delightful as long as he switches the gags around just a bit.

For some reason the distressed reactions of the womenfolk are particularly hilarious.

THE RINK suffers more from missing frames than the other Mutuals I’ve run so far, perhaps not so much because the damage is greater, but because the action is so fluid that a little jump harms the beauty more. Most Chaplins seem to be missing frames or even seconds at the end, but maybe he favoured a certain abruption. In this one, Charlie starts to fall in the road, having lost his connection to the jalopy he snared, but the painful-looking pratfall — from erect ubermensch to tangle of tuxedo limbs in a sixteenth of a second — is never consummated, the seat of his pants seeming to cut off the celluloid at the instant it makes contact with asphalt.

Things I Read Off the Screen in THE COUNT

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2021 by dcairns

“One more like that and it’s Goodbye, Charlie,” said Chaplin after ONE A.M. underperformed. His next film is a running for cover project, which rewinds his progress by forgetting the pathos of THE VAGABOND as well as the experimentation of ONE A.M. The Tramp is back being a rogue. his character can be stretched in many ways, but if you put a top hat on him, he’s not the same guy — unless it’s clearly a disguise.

The Mutual period sees Chaplin extending in multiple directions, but not all at once. Each film increases his reach in one direction or another. You don’t see them all at once. So THE VAGABOND, for instance, was an exercise in accommodating pathos and drama, resulting in a film David Robinson plausibly argues is as good dramatically as any film of it’s day. Probably true — at least any short film. ONE A.M. is all about slapstick, milking a single situation for as many laughs as possible. Working within strict limitations. THE COUNT is classic farce, eschewing all Charlie’s heroic and noble qualities as shown earlier, just turning the dirty scamp loose in a narrative that isn’t supposed to be about him and an environment where he’s an alien.

The Keystone antecedents are CAUGHT IN A CABARET (especially), A JITNEY ELOPEMENT, and apparently the lost HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, but the plotting is simpler and better, until the end when all character motivation and plot are joyously dispensed with. The funniest stuff in the film, but somehow unsatisfactory, because it makes no sense.

Charlie is introduced as a tailor working for Eric Campbell, whose moustache is tweezed to such extremes it’s visible from the back. Charlie is really feckless this time, and gets fired after a series of expensive mistakes. He’s not only really bad at measuring —

— he treats the thing as a lark. You can actually be on Eric’s side during the first sequence.

From the surviving outtakes, we know that the whole prologue was shot last, as an afterthought, but because the tailor and his assistant’s prior relationship informs the plot, I reckon he must have thought of it while shooting the imposture scenes. Since he was writing with the camera, proceeding with no written script and developing the action through filmed rehearsal, his filming follows the pattern of a screenwriter — work on a bit intensively until you realise you need to go back and put in something before it. Since the film set is a more cumbersome instrument than a typewriter, it makes sense for him to finish the bit he’s working on before returning to the beginning…

A wild coincidence is set up: first, Eric finds a note from “Count Broko,” regretting he cannot attend Mrs. Moneybags’ soiree and meet her charming and wealthy daughter. Eric resolves to personate the absent aristo. Then, Charlie, romancing the Moneybags’ cook, is admitted to the kitchen, and to escape detection by a footman and a rival suitor, uses the dumbwaiter to beam himself up to the swank party.

The kitchen scene is based mainly around a pungent cheese, a real Chaplin motif that seems less funny today, maybe because we have less contact with really smelly cheeses, or maybe because more vulgar jokes about foul-smelling items are now socially acceptable. After BLAZING SADDLES’ farting cowboys, a mere Camembert doesn’t cut the mustard, or cheese, or whatever.

Meeting Eric, Charlie learns of his imposture, and usurps it. Again, it’s just about possible to root for Eric. Sure, he was trying a devious deception, but now Charlie is doing it so he’s clearly no better.

The scene is set for much covert arse-kicking between the two.

Miss Moneybags is, of course, Edna. Contrary to the IMDb, I don’t see any sign of May White here (as “Large lady” supposedly), but Leo White (no relation) eventually turns up as the real Count Broko, and is duly mistreated.

Is this or isn’t it a costume party? Edna has an interesting outfit — Mutual seem to have had a good costume designer, or else Edna’s taste has improved. One guest at dinner is in Pagliacci garb, and upstairs we meet a belly dancer/harem girl and a few others in fancy dress. It makes sense that Eric didn’t know about the costume requirement since he wasn’t invited, and I guess Charlie’s street clothes are interpreted by the hosts as the Count’s disguise. But the effect is initially a bit blurry because 1916 women’s clothes look a bit like fancy dress already, and there are liveried footmen.

A sound gag in a silent film: Charlie has to pause Eric’s soup-slurping so he can hear Edna. Then gags with spaghetti and watermelon — an odd meal, especially for rich folks. There’s a question as to how much leeway Chaplin should be allowed. Do his best gags arise out of a credible situation? Or is there some added pleasure in this unlikely repast? Chaplin is making his film for the kind of people who never get invited to this sort of function.

The cook (Eva Thatcher) is an unusual character, an older woman with a romantic life. Charlie betrays her, but she seems to have a stable of boyfriends to fall back on. We don’t elsewhere see Charlie pursuing cupboard love of this sort, and his romantic interests, even where money is a factor, are usually pretty Ednas. This is Eva’s only Chaplin film, so there’s a sense that this wasn’t his kind of character. He IS married to the redoubtable Phyllis Allen in PAY DAY, for a nagging wife/drunken husband routine, which is again an atypical sitcom set-up for him. David Robinson points out that the other characters introduced in the kitchen, a butler and a neighbourhood kop, play no further role.

Charlie and Eric compete for the attentions of Miss Moneybags, but Charlie is also frequently distracted by the harem girl. His silent following about (admittedly, no other kind of following about is permitted in this medium) is positively sinister.

Oh, and during the ballroom battle, Chaplin also attempts another tracking shot, quite successfully, slowly pushing in to follow the dancers who are drifting back into the room.

Chaplin dances — a series of strange moves including something dimly recalling a highland reel, and the same buttock thrust with foot-skid he does during the song in MODERN TIMES. Also some physical malfunctioning — after a tumble, his hip keeps misaligning, jutting to the side disobediently. The body as machine. In the Mutual world of extreme mutability, even Charlie himself is apt to transform into faulty mechanism.

At a certain point, after Count Broko arrives and is humiliated and knocked around, Charlie just goes berserk. It would, one presumes, have been easy to show him getting drunk to justify this. He does gather up the contents of a drinks trolley, refusing a glass, earlier, but nothing seems to come of this. He just turns into a rampant monkey. he starts off by impaling a roast turkey with his cane and then gratuitously knocking a liveried footman cold with it. Whacking a cake with the cane, he is able to barrage his enemies, plus the innocent bystanders, with confectionary. This is very funny, but meaningless, but very funny. It has some of the anarchic fury of IF….

Things escalate fast, with Campbell drawing a revolver and taking potshots at the Little Fellow Bastard. He runs off down the street, as good an ending as is now possible.

But Chaplin and his audience both now know that a shot of him retreating into extreme long shot is an ending — he doesn’t do it in every film, but it’s a reliable standby.

THE COUNT is very good. What’s next is better.

Music Boxing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2020 by dcairns

HIS MUSICAL CAREER is an unusually subtle title, since the musical career in question turns out to be piano-moving, something customers could only be amused by AFTER paying for a ticket and starting to watch.

We see Charlie getting hired in the first scene, by Mack Swain, while the reliably weird-looking Billy Gilbert (not that one) shamelessly pulls focus in the bg. Expect to see this guy shown the door once Chaplin sees the rushes. And funny that both the major comedy shorts about piano-moving have guys called Billy Gilbert in them.

Charlie is STILL experimenting with his basic look: this time he has a little clay pipe to puff on, smokelessly. He gets some decent business out of it, but David Lynch would probably say the added face-detail makes Charlie’s head too FAST. The little moustache and dark eyebrows are detail enough.

Laurel & Hardy’s THE MUSIC BOX is the one to beat, clearly, and it’s doubtful that Chaplin at this stage in his career has a chance of doing it.

Still, Mack Swain as supervisor is a good idea: so he’s not just bigger than Charlie, he outranks him. Swain had spent so long (maybe only a year and a bit, but dozens of films) being pushed around by Chester Conklin that he was probably programmed against acting dominant, which means he’s no Eric Campbell.

There’s immediately a nasty gag about Swain drinking varnish — Chaplin seems to be consciously responsible for this, whereas it would be funnier as an accident. But Keystone was inclined towards cruelty and aggression, and Chaplin to some extent towed the line. His ineffectual attempts at helping the poisoned Swain are reasonably funny, but would have worked a lot better if he hadn’t switched the drink and varnish on purpose.

Plum role for Charley Parrot (later Chase) as the store manager.

Charlie shows off his tiny muscles. Thin but wiry!

Two customers, Mr. Rich (stout and top-hatted) and Mr. Poor (gesticulating melodramatic scarecrow). Pathos is something to be made mock of, at this stage of the Chaplin filmography.

Two addresses, 666 Prospect St. and 999 Prospect St., are introduced, setting up the potential for a mix-up. I note that Mabel lived at no. 666 in CAUGHT IN A CABARET, but I make no Satanic inference from this.

Before the film has reached the five-minute mark, Swain is trapped under the piano in an image resembling a Weegee death scene. So long as Chaplin is fecklessly responsible, this cruelty works (has deniability), but he keeps alternating between incompetence and malice. Look at his work as Chester Conklin’s assistant in MODERN TIMES to see how this vicious streak in Chaplin would evolve: Conklin suffers great indignities in that one, but Charlie means him no harm, is sincerely trying to help him at every turn. So the rather sadistic comedy comes about ironically, and is therefore much funnier, and character sympathy is preserved.

En route to 666 or 999, Charlie uses his pipe as a tiny ladle to steal booze from a slumbering Swain.

I’d love to have seen the camera set-up for Charlie and Mack riding the donkey-cart. Presumably they’re attached to the back of a truck or something, the camera positioned on it, the donkey getting a rest break. Just as well, since soon the poor beast of burden is being dangled in mid-air.

It seems wrong that the mix-up in addresses isn’t Charlie’s fault. This piano company has survived and even flourished before him coming along, so it seems to me that any disasters should be the inadvertent work of Charlie, Lord of Misrule. Chaplin needs to be more selfish and make himself fully the star comedian. There, never thought I’d complain that Chaplin wasn’t egotistical enough. I’m looking forward to him being supported by blander, less forceful talents like Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Then, in the features, he can find room for some of his Keystone chums again, because the greater running time requires a few diversions from his own showmanship.

The inevitable “moving the piano up a staircase” routine comes and goes without ever evoking the majesty of the l&h version. It’s not bad, would probably get a good laugh in a crowded theatre. Now Chaplin tries playing up the idea of the Little Fellow as oppressed worker, with Swain as exploitative overseer, but it’s too late in the story to really make that stick. Still, it’s a more promising approach than what he’s been doing. And, interestingly, Mr. Poor and his daughter, formerly Dickensian pastiches, now become annoying fusspots so that nobody can decide where to put the piano and Charlie is forced to carry it to and fro on his shoulders, a proletarian Sisyphus.

The strain turns Charlie into a crouched, bow-legged Angelo Rossitto figure, a transmogrification effected solely by acting. Swain’s brutal repair-job again shows the characters working together as they should: the spinal crack is performed heartlessly, just to make Charlie capable of doing more hard work.

The rules of film grammar, as they are understood in 1914, require that we watch Charlie and Mack return downstairs and get on their cart, even though there are no gags devised to make the trip particularly entertaining. L&H could dispose of such A-B business with a wipe or dissolve. Still, Chaplin can splice in a title card to shorten the trip to number 999.

Mr. Rich also has a daughter, who is apparently suitable for flirting with (Mr. Poor’s daughter was innocent and respectable). The Riches also employ a liveried footman who seems somewhat out of keeping in L.A. Kicking him to the floor, Charlie and Mack abduct the upright, and go crashing into the bright street. At 12.31 Charlie does a little back-kick of one leg to literally kickstart himself, a signature move — I’m unsure if we’ve seen it done properly before this. Probably we have. The confrontation with the furious owner DOES seem a bit reminiscent of developments in THE MUSIC BOX.

The boys flee downhill, ruthlessly kicking aside an innocent passer-by (a moment mostly splinked out by a bad splice) and splash into what is presumably Echo Lake. Mr. Rich shakes his fist in stereotyped pantomime, and we have another of those very abrupt endings, not helped by what is likely a bit of missing footage, where Charlie for obscure reasons tries to play the now half-submerged piano. There’s a promising comic image there, but no time to work it out, seemingly.