Archive for Caught in the Rain

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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.

On the Tiles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2021 by dcairns

For his second Essanay film, Chaplin upped sticks and left Chicago to Oscar Micheaux, decamping to Niles, California and taking Ben Turpin with him. There, he encountered the uneuphoniously-named Edna Purviance who became a fixture in his films until 1922, and who he would keep under contract for years and years, and who he would attempt to turn into an independent star by having Josef Von Sternberg direct her in A WOMAN OF THE SEA, a film which he subsequently shelved for unknown reasons and then seemingly destroyed for tax purposes.

Edna was characterised by a so-called friend as “a docile creature” and we perhaps see a bit of this in Chaplin’s anecdote about hypnotizing her at a party. Having bragged that he could put anyone under the influence, he leaned in close and whispered to her, “Fake it!” A good sport, she complied, and the bond was forged.

Edna is just one of a couple of girls Charlie flirts with during his drunken debauch here. There are also a lot of men in false beards, some of which disguise the thrifty repurposing of cast members (you pay your actors by the day, not the role, so work them, damnit). The “plot” is just Charlie & Ben on the razzle, but then a farce situation develops when Edna innocently finds herself in a compromising situation (in her pajamas in Charlie’s hotel room) after trying to retrieve her dog. Mabel Normand had played this exact situation the previous year in CAUGHT IN THE RAIN. But this is a better film.

Turpin continues to be an aggressive near-equal in screen time. The knockabout teamwork is at least as good as the taut routines Chaplin had worked out with Chester Conklin, so it’s a shame BT didn’t get a later cameo the way CC did in MODERN TIMES. David Robinson describes him as “one of the best comedy partners Chaplin ever found,” while describing him as resembling a prematurely hatched bird. But a feisty one! Chaplin used faint praise: his “stooge” “seemed to know the ropes.” It’s said the two didn’t get on, with Turpin impatient with Chaplin’s methods. Still, there’s more to Turpin than strabismus: Chaplin rarely gives anyone but the leading lady a close-up, so Turpin has to depend on his considerable physical skills to get the laughs, rather than falling back on his crossed eyes (ouch).

Bud Jamison, who had also come from the Chicago branch, is an effective heavy, playing the first insanely violent headwaiter in the Chaplinverse, anticipating Eric Campbell’s terrifying brute in THE IMMIGRANT. Having him turn up later as a jealous husband is smart plotting.

The bit that actually made me laugh out loud is Charlie trying to get toothpaste on his brush, and then forgetting why he’s doing it, while paralytically drunk. I say it again — Chaplin’s father was killed by his alcoholism — and his early comedy depends disproportionately on wringing comedy from abject inebriation.

I realize this isn’t as in-depth as previous posts. But I think I’ll go back to this film for more — especially as I am shocked — shocked! — to discover that my sepia DVD version has, unlike the more pristine YouTube print, actual intertitles!

The All Saints’ Day Intertitle: Transients Welcome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2020 by dcairns

Everybody at Keystone sat down to watch Chaplin’s first film as director. It seems likely that some of them were hoping to see him fail, or expecting it. But the film was good, and they were good enough to applaud at the end.

Chaplin must have been relieved — not only for the career advancement this now promised, and the power over his own comedy — but because he’d put up fifteen hundred dollars of his own money to cover the cost if Sennett judged the film unworthy of release.

It’s a nice, unambitious Keystone “farce comedy.” Chaplin wisely didn’t set out to make something notably more ambitious in scale or complexity than the films he’d acted in. MABEL AT THE WHEEL, for instance, is an epic by comparison. And by keeping things small-scale, he could devote more time to observing his own performance.

Mack Swain and his wife, Alice Davenport, are bickering in the inevitable park. Here I can correct the Wikipedia entry, which claims MS approaches a stall named “St. Rocupia’s.” I believe the name is Cornucopias. While he’s away, Charlie appears. I’m not sure why Davenport is initially so pleased to see a dishevelled tramp stumble from the undergrowth, smiling inanely. But then she has a good laugh as he runs afoul of a drinking fountain, then she becomes a bit perturbed as he approaches and starts… is that flirting? He also shares a wee laugh with his chums in the audience. This is, I believe, the only moment where one of the cast tips us the wink. Chaplin is already reserving that privilege for himself.

Swain, returning, flies into what our friend Clouseau would call a writ of felous jage, and knocks over both Charlie and the bench he’s on. The theme of the Little Fellow versus the Big Guy begins to be drawn. Keystone, makers of live-action cartoons basically, already used physical contrasts as a shorthand for characterisation. Chaplin has a very specific use in mind though for the larger type of comic (and he’d employ Swain again in THE GOLD RUSH by which time the big guy was even bigger).

Recovering, Charlie leads himself by the ear into a bar, a bit of pantomime for our benefit alone. We don’t see what goes on in there (sets are limited) but next time he appears, he’s properly rat-arsed. Staggering out, he rests an elbow on the very protuberant rear end of a handy policeman, an unusual gag and quite an amusing one. When the Kop objects, Charlie obliviously lights a match on his chest. These guys provide a valuable service, think what we’d be missing if we defunded them. If the IMDb is to be believed, the buttock-thrusting Kop is Ted Edwards who is not only in many Keystones, but third lead in Dwain Esper’s notorious MANIAC. But I don’t think he’s the guy, even though the character in the Esper epic thinks he’s Poe’s razor-wielding orangutan, a role for which ass-thrusting would be fairly useful.

In a fairly alarming gag, Charlie crosses the road and nearly gets rubbed out by a passing jalopy, which would have put an early stop to the nascent career of the screen’s greatest comedy star. Then he arrives in the hotel lobby — seems that, despite being even more ragged than usual (the seam at his shoulder’s giving out at the back) he’s not a total indigent. Some cruel treatment of a gouty invalid anticipates THE CURE. Since gout is, in a sense, a self-inflicted disease of the wealthy, the usual rules about mocking the disabled don’t apply in silent cinema. But most of Chaplin’s gout-sufferers would be fat, domineering men, quite unlike this poor guy.

I do really like Charlie’s truculent manner and his trouble with the stairs, which just escalates. It’s a relief whenever a Keystone film takes the time to let a gag build. One reason Chaplin was much more popular than Keaton is he does something Keaton resisted: repeating a gag. If it works once, do it again. Make a dance move out of it. Let the slower audience members catch up. Pull variations on it, surprise them, but only once they’ve really gotten to expect the next iteration. Tiny kids love repetition: things seem to get funnier for them the more they recur, and Chaplin I would think works better with tinies than Keaton does.

I wrote about this film before, but seeing Chaplin’s shorts in order of production gives me more to say, hopefully.

Chaplin holds a shot on Charlie as he undresses (his pajamas are underneath his “suit”) and discovers a dozen little bits of comic business he can work in. This kind of concentration is missing from most Keystones to date. It’s here CC shows his ambition.

Davenport walks in her sleep, and this motivates the loose act III. It’s a neat reversal of the situation in MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT, which was the Tramp’s first appearance. Having a drunken bum scare Mabel and create jealousy with her boyfriend was interesting but not hugely funny — the menacing hobo works better played straight in Lois Weber’s SUSPENSE — flipping things around so that the drunk is terrorized by the respectable lady walking in her sleep makes the situation inherently absurd, topsy-turvy, and therefore comic. It still might not be funny, but it’s recognizably comic in intent.

Chaplin appears to be trying some really fast cutting at the end, or else bits of all his shots have gone astray. Either is possible. It sort-of works. I’d describe it in the same terms I once used for Jerry Lewis’ double zoom when Buddy Love first appears in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: “an interesting attempt at something.” Causing a friend to remark, “That’s what they’ll put on my tombstone.” Was it Rivette who called Chaplin the greatest editor in history? He definitely isn’t. But he’s fairly precise, and since everything is dictated by his performance, what he’s doing technically tends to look easy when in fact it isn’t.

In his memoir, Chaplin implies that all he really knew about filmmaking at this time was the left-to-right rule, but he uses that in quite a deft manner: at the start, Charlie and Davenport occupy separate frames linked only by their eyeline. Later, Chaplin wrote —

“[…] I found that the placing of a camera was not only psychological but articulated a scene; in fact it was the basis of cinematic style. If the camera is a little too near, or too far, it can enhance or spoil an effect. Because economy of movement is important you don’t want an actor to walk any unnecessary distance unless there is a special reason, for walking is not dramatic. Therefore placement of camera should effect composition and a graceful entrance for the actor. Placement of camera is cinematic inflection. There is no set rule that a close-up gives more emphasis than a long shot. A close-up is a question of feeling; in some instances a long shot can effect greater emphasis.”

We’re definitely missing a half second at the end of this one. Chaplin has carefully set up a sequence of collapsing co-stars which doesn’t really resolve the story in any meaningful way, but seems to. All that’s missing is him falling back with Davenport on top of him, but he doesn’t quite make it. Time, that other great but rather random editor, has made off with the last fragment of footage. Maybe its something we get to see when we all finally keel over too.