Archive for Caught in a Cabaret

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.

Doobugle of Greenland

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2020 by dcairns

Charlie with Mabel again, directed by Mabel again — or maybe co-directing WITH Mabel — this was released nine days after MABEL AT THE WHEEL, with TWENTY MINUTES OF LOVE slotted in between. Keystone are really churning them out — and remember, they have other stars working at the same time, Arbuckle and so on. I reckon these films were mostly shot in a day, maybe two days for a two-reeler like this. And “written” in an hour. And the editing is largely a matter of selecting the preferred takes from a small number filmed, cutting off the slates, and doing the titles. So you could “easily” make two a week.

Despite the fact that Chaplin had earlier refused to work for Mabel as director, she was the most talented director he’d had — see her WON IN A CUPBOARD for bits of visual experimentation otherwise unheard-of at Sennett’s studio. And this is in many ways his best film yet.

We meet Charlie, the world’s worst waiter, working in a rowdy dive. He spills the food he’s serving all over the floor, quite carelessly, then slips in it, then serves the empty plate and gets stroppy when the patron complains. He also “tidies up” by emptying shot glasses into a stray pint, then drinking the resulting grog-melange. There’s no indication yet that he’s above his station. He seems to be beneath it. He’s not even nice. Still, we get further iterations of Man’s Eternal Struggle with the Swing Doors.

Give him a dog, do I hear you suggest? OK, here’s a nameless dachshund which he keeps in a cupboard and walks on his lunch hour. Long before A DOG’S LIFE. Some good mischief comes of this: his cuff comes off and slides down the leash. An anticipation of MODERN TIMES.

The dog doesn’t seem to be making Charlie more sympathetic. He trips over it. Then loses it. Fights a small boy for it. (Tiny Tarzan again: kid does a good fall.)

Meanwhile, Mabel is a posh girl. More trouble than usual is taken to delineate her world of awnings and parasols, versus Charlie’s skid row planks and beggary. There’s a distinct lack of irony in Charlie coming to Mabel’s rescue — better if he got caught up in the struggle by accident, rather than suddenly showing out-of-character heroism. But then there’s some good dirty fighting. His opponent is William Hauber, whose sour, pinched, aggrieved face suits this story better than his previous Chaplin roles.

Charlie now starts flirting with Mabel, who’s impressed by his violence. Previous beau, the inevitable Harry McCoy, has disgraced himself by cowering before the ruffian. Chaplin undergoes a remarkable transformation, and so do his props. He picks his tooth with his cane, just about the first instance of him making the physical world repurpose itself for his benefit, a major Chaplin trope. He presents a card, which he somehow has on his person, giving his identity as Baron Doobugle, Prime Minister of Greenland. (Other prints make him “O.T. Axle, Ambassador for Greece” — even The Chaplin Encyclopedia is unsure which version is authentic.) Mabel is even more impressed, and who can blame her? I would be too. Additionally, his display of upper-crust simpering is quite deserving of our awe.

Seeing Chaplin put on airs is exciting, as if he’s discovering what his Tramp outfit is for. Contrast. It’s perhaps not quite there yet, since this is an act, and the future Tramp’s pretensions are quite sincere ones. Moments before, he was stumbling about half asleep, his fag-ash dropping heedlessly down his front, visible even in long shot in a 100 year-old print found on a tip. Now he’s a slicker, a swell. It’s visible in the way he thrusts his tiny butt in a manner both pugilistic and aloof. The walk is coming together more and more. He needs to fuse hobo walk with posh walk. (When a music hall rival said, “I have more talent in my arse than you have in your whole body,” Chaplin replied on the spot, “That’s where your talent lies.” Wrong. Chaplin’s arse speaks volumes. The most expressive rear end since the days of Le Petomane.)

But THE STRAIN… Charlie must keep up this posh act. He meets Mabel’s parents, his cane slung nonchalantly in his jacket pocket. Can they see through me? The comedy of social anxiety — it feels like Mabel has a good handle on the kind of stuff Chaplin can instinctively immerse himself in and get comedy out of. And there is, buried in this idea, pathos. For the first time.

Charlie returns to the wretched honky tonk where he earns his pittance — he’s completely forgotten he owns a dog — and has — what was I just telling you? — a profound emotional response to music. And Normand, always alert to the romantic touch, fades not-quite-out and then in on herself, the object of his reverie. The way the fades don’t dip all the way down to black is a lovely little grace note and another moment of experimental Mabel. You won’t see this anywhere else except 70s Fellini.

The dream over, Charlie is then kicked up the arse multiple times by his boss, Edgar Kennedy, wearing another florid moustache selected from his brimming coterie. Then more swing door vicissitudes and a brief but good and vicious skirmish with Chester Conklin.

Unlike in most of Chaplin’s previous films, we’re getting to see situations played out properly, give and take between performers unbutchered by the editor’s shears.

An interlude in which Charlie is challenged by the hulking Mack Swain (his GOLD RUSH co-star, “Big Jim”) seems to exist mainly to further elucidate the theme that women love a brute. Charlie soon has the dolls flocking to him after braining Mack with an outsize mallet (were these really kept behind the bar for such occasions? The hammersklavier interlude during The Trail of the Lonesome Pine persuades me this is so.)

PART 2: Charlie is now a big man on skid row, and is off to Mabel’s party in his slick new duds, featuring the silk hat and big coat that become a true prime minister of Greenland. Harry McCoy, demoted from bland leading man in previous films, is now the jealous rival scheming to sabotage him: Chaplin’s role in MABEL AT THE WHEEL. The humiliation! Chaplin blew him away in the villain role, and now the tables are turned, he’s still blowing him away as hero or anti-hero or whatever he is here.

We keep seeing from Mabel’s garden gate that she lives at number 666 but I refuse to attribute any demoniac significance to this.

The party. Mabel can overlook Charlie wiping his mouth with his coat-tails after a drink, but she looks aghast at his big, decaying shoes. Several sizes too big, of course, and worn on the wrong feet. Still, she’s enchanted by his heavy drinking and his loud belching is, it seems hilarious to her. Where has she been all our lives? I confess I relate somewhat to Charlie’s response to being at a party: free booze! It makes purely economic sense to down as much of it as possible, save you paying for it later in the week.

Nice little idyll with the band playing and Charlie singing and burping along to it, and Mabel reacting. Nice to see the people a bit closer to the camera. We’re sure to go wide again for the inevitably brawl. We have arrived at the inevitable drunk scene, with added dyspepsia. Can fisticuffs be far away?

Not sure how this one’s going to end (well, yes, with a fight, obviously). Charlie’s position seems untenable, but McCoy, shaking his fist in a variety of single medium shots, is a sneak and a yellow-bellied lizard and does not deserve fair lady’s hand.

Of course! The swine McCoy takes the party slumming to Charlie’s workplace, a dastardly ploy to expose his lowly origins. Is it really plausible, he will ask, that the prime minster of Greenland should be moonlighting in this filthy hole? Possible, perhaps, but far from likely.

Ensconced in the nameless gin-joint, Mabel, who could smile and wink as a gentleman eructated in her face, is scandalised by Minta Durfee’s sexy dance, and then Charlie, finally getting the better of the swing doors, passes flawlessly through to exposure and shame. Some good suspense first, though, as he cunningly disguises his apron in a variety of coy postures. But his boss, Edgar Kennedy, unreasonably expects him to do some work, and thus a scuffle breaks out. Mabel, recipient of cinema’s first face-pie, gets it splurch in the kisser once more.

All hell breaks loose. Various parties hit with various objects. Mabel crouches bottom left of frame clapping her hands like a clockwork monkey as Kennedy runs amuck with twin pistols. Charlie renders him comatose with multiple bricks to the brow — the set wall buckles notably as the big man slumps against it — there is an attempted reconciliation — but Mabel isn’t going to solve the problems of class and economic disparity in a single two-reel farce comedy, is she? You can’t expect it.