Archive for Chaplin

His New Studio

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2021 by dcairns

I was going to argue that a title like HIS NEW JOB, which Chaplin used for his first film away from Keystone, gives a sense of the tramp character’s nameless, timeless, immortal universality, by using a pronoun instead of a name. The Little Fellow/Tramp had gone by numerous temporary handles under Sennett (Mr Sniffles, Mr Full, Weakchin, Mr Wow-wow) but none of them had stuck, even for two shorts in a row.

Still, Broncho Billy, Chaplin’s stable-mate at Essanay, made HIS REGENERATION the same year as HIS NEW JOB, and Keystone were fond of such titles too, so maybe it was just in the air. But it’s neat anyway: Chaplin begins his new job with HIS NEW JOB, and it’s a Secret Origin Story, showing the Tramp seeking employment at “Lodestone” studios.

And he has his name on the title card! I don’t know if this was a contractual thing, a sales tactic or a stamp of authenticity (though the Chaplin impersonators weren’t out in force yet, since the one-a-week production rate at the Keystone assembly line ensured there was no scarcity of the real thing), but symbolically it certainly suggests Chaplin was no officially a star. Which makes him playing a nonentity in this movie an act of defiance: no matter how rich or famous he gets, Chaplin is playing a bum, an underdog.

Charlie enters the waiting room and immediately starts flirting with the girl in the fur coat and voluminous miff. Gloria Swanson types anonymously in the background having deliberately flunked her audition because she didn’t want to do slapstick. So the object of desire is Agnes Ayres, six before attaining immortality by “getting loused up by Arabs,” to use S.J. Perelman’s indelicate phrase, in THE SHEIK.

Charlie’s flirting includes pinging himself in the face with his unruly cane, which I guess is a jester’s stick i.e. a penis. Then the receptionist, Leo White, demand he remove his bowler. Charlie takes it off, puts it on again, takes it off when told for the second time, puts it on as soon as the guy’s back is turned… he’s playing it like he’s too dim to understand, but then he pulls a fast one, raising the hat to his curly head then letting it spring from his grasp and catching it, just to annoy the petty authority figure.

This is all one take.

An actress leaves the boss’s office, bends to adjust something, and Charlie innocently uses her arse to lean on. A fright-wigged tragedian enters, the kind of character Chaplin had already shown an inclination to mock in THE PROPERTY MAN.

And then comes Ben Turpin. Chaplin had looked around at the Essanay stock players to see if there were any good clowns he could work with, and Turpin was the one. His violently crossed eyes recommended him at once, but there’s more to him than his grotesque strabismus, as you notice the moment he enters here. Chaplin has given him the Chester Conklin role as a sub-Charlie, an equally aggressive, cocky and chaotic little man for Charlie to feud with. Turpin is immediately a commanding if stupid presence. Immediately he’s slinging one foot over the arm of Charlie’s chair, torturing him with the proximity of a malodorous foot.

Perhaps Chaplin was concerned that Turpin’s optical awryness wouldn’t read in a long shot, so he’s further disfigured his co-star with an X of sticking plasters on Turpin’s scrawny, turkey-like neck, as if covering a boil. When the inevitable scuffle breaks out, Charlie first snatches the cigarette from Ben T.’s mouth, then lights it by striking a match upon his neck-dressing.

The strolling tragedian having been told to keep strolling, the call of “Next” sets Chaplin and Turpin scrabbling for the boss’s door, which naturally swings both ways so it can hit Charlie’s backside and Turpin’s face when our man gains the inner sanctum ahead of his rival.

One tiny error of timing: Chaplin extends his leg as he starts through the door, so that Turpin can grab and bite it. Feels forced. Like he’s offering the leg up, which of course he is.

It suddenly turns out that the Mack Sennett surrogate at the desk is stone deaf (but, like Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks, he seems able to hear pretty girls OK). Chaplin’s attempts to communicate through the earpiece speaking tube thing while smoking result in him blasting smoke through the poor man’s head, a surreal sfx you can miss by blinking, or by refusing to believe the evidence of your lying eyes.

Oh wait, the tube is looped round the back of the guy’s no-neck, so the smoke is just escaping from the earpiece, it doesn’t have to travel through his skull. Too bad.

The next mishap results in Chaplin getting ink in his own eye via the tube-thing, so at least the boss has his revenge. It seems quite unchaplinesque to give an authority figure the last laugh, so I’m hoping the whole of Lodestone will be ashes and rubble by the time this film ends.

Somehow, Charlie gets hired. Blowing smoke through the boss’s head is apparently a good technique for currying favour, though I’d always heard the fumes were supposed to go up his ass.

It just occurred to me that, under modern industry practice, if Chaplin left Keystone today, they would retain ownership of his character — Sennett would have simply given Syd the costume and ordered him to become the Tramp, and history would have been very different. It’s often claimed that Syd worked as a Chaplin imitator, but his Keystone character, Gussle, is clearly distinguishable from his brother’s. Did he go on to don the Hitler ‘tache and derby? I haven’t seen the evidence.

Smoke travels everywhere inside people’s heads in these films, so shortly after, Charlie is twisting his ear to make smoke jet from his mouth for the amusement of a regal movie star. Then he wanders on set and ruins a take, establishing his true character as disruptor — sometimes conscious, frequently unconscious.

Speaking of unconscious, Turpin, having been whacked with the office door one time to many, is laying inert in the reception area, but he’s still good value. Charlie’s treatment of his prone form gives fresh meaning to the term “walk-on role.”

After ruining another take, Charlie is exiled to the carpentry department, where he proves to be a lethal idiot underling, smacking the head joiner with a plank in time-honoured slapstick fashion.

Having taken off his jacket to get down to business, Chaplin reveals a strangely flaring waistcoat, not the form-hugging one we associate with him. It seems to warp his whole silhouette. Bear in mind that he was still buying his costume off the peg at this point, and had difficulty finding sufficiently massive boots.

Ordered to move a door on the set, Charlie starts flirting again. He’s quite promiscuous in this one. But I guess this is the first girl he was interested in, clad in a new costume. Kind of hard to keep these ringleted starlets straight.

But Charlie is also devoting quite a bit of attention to a Grecian statue in the props room. Since he is forever leaning on fellow humans, treating them as inanimate objects, it seems appropriate for him to get Pygmalion-like urges towards a plaster likeness of a woman. Remember the deco figurine he admires so studiously in CITY LIGHTS?

That Popeye clay pipe is back. Seems like Chaplin intended it as part of his regular costume, but at some point it faded from the scene.

A bum actor is fired and, before you can say “departmental violation”, Charlie, the asst. props man, is improbably promoted to star — it’s like the John Wayne story avant la lettre. Well, actually the guy he’s replacing is just an extra, but Charlie takes a more expansive view of his role. Meanwhile Turpin is hired as the prop man/carpenter’s assistant. Job’s were more loosely defined in them days.

On his way back to the set, now in uniform with busby (he’s pantomimed picking a flea from it) Charlie gets caught up in a game of craps with his former supervisor, forgetting about the movie he’s supposed to be in. The carpenter, Arthur W. Bates, is a pretty good clown, but he seems to have quit pictures in 1918 — I think because he stayed in Chicago after Essanay closed.

HIS NEW JOB is Chaplin’s longest directorial effort to date, almost a half-hour. Without Sennett and his cutters cramping and crimping him, Chaplin is extending himself. Maybe it’s a little indulgent, but his comedy benefits from having room to breathe. I note also that the Keystone style of expositional mime, with characters furiously signalling to the audience what’s on their minds (I call it mime, but it’s mostly pointing) has been entirely eliminated. Sigh of relief.

At 19.10, a tracking shot! Pushing past the prop camera to view the Dramatic Scene being filmed as if from that cameraman’s POV. The dolly movement feels alien, as if the movie were suddenly in colour and 3D with sync sound. I think this is Chaplin’s first track.

The curtain pronging — Charlie is stabbed through the arras — a callback to Conklin. He retaliates, plunging his sabre between the star’s buttocks (slash fic version) and then, because once is not enough, lunges again but this time impales the chunky director, who has assumed his actor’s position to show him how a courtly bow should be performed. Then he hands the blade to the carpenter who has just beaten him at craps. The man is kicked out into the street while Charlie laughs satanically.

Charlie’s character is still a little bastard — but his bastardy is focussed on self-preservation, or at least on coming out on top in a world where he’s unreasonably expected to do his job.

Discovering that his hated rival, Turpin, is now the carpenter, Charlie prepares a pre-emptive strike with a handsaw to the ass. The protective wooden block concealed in Turpin’s pants is so vividly outlined it can be mistaken for a plot point. A fake handsaw would have served the gag much better. But I guess Essanay, a novice company when it came to knockabout, didn’t possess and couldn’t readily make such an object.

Charlie delivers the coup de grace with a large mallet and leaves Turpin torpid again.

Now he has to play a scene. He trips upon entering, a minor mistake the director seems content to allow. Then he thwacks himself in the face with his sabre when attempting a salute. The same trouble he had with his cane in Scene 1. He staggers, crosseyed, temporarily turpinned, his sword now warped. Returning it to its scabbard becomes a hilariously protracted and fruitless task, since the blade is bent out of shape and so is Chaplin’s brain. It’s like watching a baby trying to use a spoon.

The leading lady draws him aside into a parallel frame, and the sword conveniently vanishes into the splice — apparently Chaplin felt it got in the way. A shame. I’d have liked to see him struggle with it longer.

Ah, but returning for Take 2, Charlie is magically rearmed as he passes through the splice, his sword now sheathed again. He stumbles again but salutes flawlessly, but now earnestly goes about reinserting the wonky sword. You may be able to see where this is headed…

In fact, the pay off is weak — he lightly jabs the star in her hip, sparing her the interbuttock thrust he’s previously inflicted on his foes, and she looks mildly annoyed rather than doing the shocked and affronted look that Mabel Normand perfected as a leading-ladylike response to arse-kickery. So the gag, appealingly outrageous in conception, fizzles in execution.

Take 3 — or seemingly a new scene — bizarrely, the director is prepared to settle for Charlie’s previous performance. Our hero enters, smoking a fag. He gives it the old Stroheim swagger. And the camera starts to drift to the side… I wonder how long Chaplin is going to keep experimenting with camera movement. This one seems distracting and pointless, but interesting. I think we’re going to be back to locked-off long shots by the next short, but we’ll see if I’m wrong.

Fortunately the camera has stopped by the time Charlie leans on a pillar and topples it, which is nicely done. The star is being played by Charlotte Mineau, btw, who would follow Charlie to Mutual and appear in several of his best shorts there.

Chaplin keeps the wobbling column bit going for a good long while, Jerry Lewis fashion. There are even cutaways to the director overacting in the usual gesticulatory way of silent movie directors (they act like the cliche conception of silent movie actors, only more so). He’s filmed in profile, because the idea of a reverse angle didn’t really exist yet.

Turpin is called in to unpin Charlie. The camera appears to be rolling thoughout. The Christmas blooper reel at Lodestone is going to be longer than GREED.

The third scene is filmed — the third tracking shot is deployed. So there’s a plan here. Although the prop camera is on a simple tripod, not a dolly, it glides with Ophulsian grace when Charlie performs for it. Chaplin goes into some momentarily serious melodrama, just to prove he can do it, then daubs his eyes on the hem of Mineau’s gown.

The camera tracks back, pushed by Charlie as he advances. All very elegant, but does it help the joke? Still, I’m glad he tried it.

The director isn’t happy, and things take the usual turn, augmented by the arrival of the real star, whose costume Charlie has taken. A three-way skirmish in which the director comes off worst. Turpin enters the fray and is malleted into coma. Repeatedly. And then it stops, with the Essanay Indian head abruptly slapped on the tail of the footage so it doesn’t feel like the film snapped.

Between Studios

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 22, 2021 by dcairns

“Broncho” Billy Anderson, said Chaplin, had a special kind of charm. The real reason he signed with Essanay may have been the thousand dollars a week they were willing to pay, but the human touch was important. So when the company’s paymasters were late in paying him, the money issue was a big deal but so was the apparent lack of friendly feeling and honesty it indicated. In fact, the company man in charge of payments, Mr. Spoor (!), had never heard of Chaplin, and was shocked and appalled that Anderson had agreed to such an exorbitant salary. He might be contractually bound to pay it, but he felt entitled to drag his feet over the matter. It was only when friends congratulated him on signing the world’s greatest screen comedian that he began to view the deal as a bargain, but by then the damage was done: it was pretty well guaranteed that Chaplin would be looking for alternative employment as soon as his year at Essanay was up.

Chaplin recounts an interesting encounter that occurred as he and Anderson took the train to Chicago. On board were three men, a sheriff and D.A. taking a prisoner for execution in St. Louis. They struck up a conversation. The condemned man, named Hank, was a fan of Anderson’s gunplay, but had never seen Chaplin on the screen, having been in San Quentin the past three years.

“It’s a tough world,” remarked Broncho, on learning of their fellow passenger’s destination.

“Well,” said the sheriff, “We want to make it less tough. Hank knows that.”

“Sure,” said Hank.

Hank had been arrested in California for “burglaring.” But he’d killed a cop in St. Louis. When he finished his California sentence, the sheriff was waiting to re-arrest him at the prison gates. Now here they were, bound for the noose. Hank had agreed not to fight extradition, which would have only meant a short delay, in exchange for a good breakfast and first-class travel to his doom, without handcuffs, with only a leg iron to stop him running off.

Chaplin wished Hank good luck when they parted. They hanged him anyway.

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…