Archive for Chaplin

Full of IT

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2021 by dcairns
Thomas Meighan

David Robinson reported that when he came to research his biography of Chaplin, he found Chaplin’s memoirs to be substantially accurate, his memory of events fairly reliable. But here’s a peculiar bit.

Chaplin talks, in My Autobiography, of the prominent figures who were around during his start in movies, including Elinor Glyn, the noted lady novelist. He cites a film called Her Moment (after wittily remarking that there was “a time-diminishing nature” to the trilogy of Three Weeks, His Hour and Her Moment) and describes a sensational scene:

The plot concerns a distinguished lady, played by Gloria Swanson, who is to marry a man she does not love. They are stationed in a tropical jungle. One day she goes horse-back riding alone, and, being interested in botany, gets off her horse to inspect a rare flower. As she bends over it, a deadly viper strikes and bites her right on the bosom. Gloria clutches her breast and screams, and is heard by the man she really loves, who happens, opportunely, to be passing close by. It is handsome Tommy Meighan. Quickly he appears through the bush.

“What has happened?”

She points to the poisonous reptile. “I have been bitten!”

“Where?”

She points to her bosom.

“That’s the deadliest viper of all!” says Tommy, meaning of course the snake. “Quick, something must be done! There is not a moment to spare!”

They are miles from a doctor, and the usual remedy of a tournequet — twisting a handkerchief around the affected part to stop blood circulating — is unthinkable. Suddenly he picks her up, tears at her shirt-waist, and bares her gleaming white shoulder, then turns her from the vulgar glare of the camera, bends over her and with his mouth extracts the poison, spitting it out as he does so. As a result of this suctorial operation she marries him.

Chaplin seems to be recounting this scene to show us how movies were in the old days. Corny and melodramatic. He seems to find it salaciously enjoyable as well as ridiculous, though.

Interestingly, Elinor Glyn never wrote a movie called HER MOMENT. There is a 1918 film of that name but the action is laid in Romania. Thomas Meighan never acted in an Elinor Glyn adaptation, but Gloria Swanson did, and the film was called THE GREAT MOMENT. It’s set in Nevada, but the hero, played by Milton Sills, does save Gloria from snakebite, though the IMDb is silent as to whether she is afflicted in the same spot the asp got Cleopatra.

So, as Robinson essentially predicted, Chaplin turns to be more accurate than at first appears.

The substitution of Thomas Meighan as leading man is suggestive, however. The next time this largely-forgotten strong, silent leading man is mentioned in My Autobiography is when Chaplin discovers his leading lady and girlfriend Edna Purviance almost in Meighan’s arms at a Hollywood party. They broke up more or less as a result of the resulting suspicion, though Chaplin kept Edna as co-star until 1923, tried to make her an independent star with A WOMAN OF PARIS and A WOMAN OF THE SEA, and kept her on salary for decades. I’ll try to spot her short appearances in MONSIEUR VERDOUX and LIMELIGHT.

The IMDb also has her playing a small role in a Bernard Natan production in France in 1927, which doesn’t seem very likely. And yet: photographic evidence ~

So the placement of Meighan in a role he never played, where he steals the heroine away from a man she doesn’t love, is open to a Freudian reading if you’re that way inclined. And Chaplin comes out of this whole thing looking pretty classy, if odd.

Man’s Beast Friend

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2021 by dcairns

On the subject of A DOG’S LIFE, Chaplin’s first film for First National, Walter Kerr (in The Silent Clowns) sagely notes ~

“The dirt floor of the vacant lot on which Charlie is discovered sleeping is now real dirt, hard, soiling, transparently uncomfortable. He will make nothing of this, or, rather, he will deflect attention from it with a gag without denying its presence. The board fence beside him is rickety, uneven at ground level, obviously no shelter from wind. The wind bothers him, a bit. He studies its cause. There is a small knothole in one board. He stuffs that with a piece of cloth and curls up to sleep again, reassured. The joke has had a double face: it is funny because closing off the least source of wind is preposterous in the circumstances; it also accentuates the circumstances. The comedy and a certain harshness of fact are being welded.

“When he goes to the tavern, The Green Lantern, the paint is peeling from the cement walls that frame its entrance, the sign promising Beer 5¢ is weathered almost to obliteration. The curbstone on which he sits is littered: there is garbage for him to probe in search of possible food. Compare the environment in which all of the spirited gagging takes place with that of the earlier Easy Street and the new texture becomes plain. Easy Street is a slum street, populated by bullies, drug addicts, impoverished women who must steal. But it is as clean as a drawing for a fairy tale. A Dog’s Life is not a picture of a place but a place. The “setting” as a thing closer to documentation is taking its place.”

Kerr’s observations are all the more astute because there’s no evidence he knew that the Chaplin unit had been joined by a new production designer, uncredited, in the person of Charles D. Hall. Hall would design every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES, while running the design department at Universal for the last few of those years. He’s a giant of cinema, giving us not just the clockwork innards Chaplin will reel through, iconically, but Castle Dracula, Frankenstein’s laboratory, the Bauhaus Satanism of THE BLACK CAT.

Hall was a companion from the Fred Karno days, but by the time he starts working with Chaplin he already has absorbed cinema’s need for close-up detail, as described in Kerr’s examples. It’s not clear whether he absorbed this working on earlier films or simply had his own ideas, or followed Chaplin’s orders. But he certainly brings a new reality to the films. If you’re wondering if a designer would really be responsible for the quality of dirt on the set in 1917, you can read my short bio in this month’s Sight & Sound but also read Tom Charity on Richard Sylbert in the same issue: Sylbert dictated that, since CHINATOWN was about a drought, he didn’t want to see a single cloud. He designed the SKY.

We can compare directly Chaplin waking up in EASY STREET and in A DOG’S LIFE:

In addition to the detail, the new film begins with a slow tilt down from ramshackle buildings, a movement that adds depth and solidity.

The new film benefits especially from the realistic textures because its gags are mostly about SURVIVAL. The addition of a dog is sympathetic but also holds a mirror up to Charlie, as Jackie Coogan would. Scraps is introduced as “a thoroughbred mongrel,” a contradictory statement that also applies to Charlie, a natural aristocrat, an indigent lord of the manner.

Scraps is played by Mut. Chaplin had been experimentally buying dogs, then giving them away to good homes when he judged them insufficiently cinematic. A dachshund, a pomeranian and a poodle preceded the final mutt, Mut. Obviously a mongrel was the way to go, but Chaplin liked to find things out by trial and error.

Class warfare: in Chaplin, the underdog is permitted to mistreat the upper crust silk hat fellow, since this qualifies as revenge on the persecutor, but he can also rob the honest salesman: in EASY STREET, Charlie as constable helps a woman load up with purloined groceries from a stall, and there’s no thought to how the poor stall-keeper is to survive. In THE KID, breaking the windows of the honest poor is permissible (windows are expensive).

A kop! No longer with the silly tit helmet, but with a dignified cap and an unblinking stare. Played not by a clown but by a regular actor, Tom Wilson, previously of Griffith and Pickford productions. But he has to get down and slapsticky with the rest of them, as Charlie uses the gap beneath the fence to roll back and forth and play merry hell with the kopper’s ankles.

Charlie now visits the Employment Office. Despite his offscreen British origins, queuing is not a natural activity for him. An ad for a brewery job provokes a near-riot, and despite his greater speed, Charlie suffers the inevitable consequence of being the smallest jobseeker. The fat jobseeker is the inevitable Henry Bergman, in the first of his inevitable two roles.

That other Henry, Henry Jaglom, was horrified to learn that Chaplin used gag writers. This seems to be true, but unlike with Keaton it seems we’re not allowed to know who they were. Vincent Bryan & Maverick Tyrrel (cool name) are listed by the IMDb as co-screenwriters of the Mutual films, but on what factual basis I don’t know. Bryan was also a songwriter, responsible for”In My Merry Oldsmobile” (?) No co-writers are given for subsequent Chaplins until we get Orson Welles supplying the story for MONSIEUR VERDOUX. But Glen David Gold’s well-researched novel Sunnyside gives Chaplin a gaggle of gagmen. Albert Austin and Henry Bergman are said to have contributed ideas, and so I suspect the stock company could be said to serve as co-authors, like the actors in Mike Leigh films, but the man in charge serves as filter of all suggestions.

After being roundly defeated in the Job Centre — even the tiniest jobseekers somehow arrive at the service window before him — the problem is there are TWO –Charlie rescues Scraps from bigger dogs: the parallel with his own scrappy existence is clear. He at once becomes surrogate bitch to the pup, helping access the dregs of a milk bottle using Scraps’ own tail as a kind of milk-sop. Probably THE KID has a better origin story, with Charlie simply forced into partnership with a baby, much against his wishes. But this is fine, and sweet.

Attention to set detail is complimented by attention to extras once we relocate to the Green Lantern bar, a low dive full of low characters. Chaplin invents bits of business for the local colour. But he’s cutting ahead if the plot here — nothing happens in the bar/dance hall this time round. He just needed a cutaway.

Sydney! Chaplin’s half-brother last shared a screen with him in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, Chaplin’s last Keystone film and Sydney’s first. Since then, Syd had made a number of shorts using his “Gussle” character, sometimes called a Chaplin impersonation but not really. Syd was less handsome than Charlie and his characters usually up the grotesquerie factor.There are at a couple of features where he bares his face and looks natural, but he retreats behind makeup and cookieduster again for THE BETTER ‘OLE, the better to resemble the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon the film takes its title from.

I can only hate Syd as a human being, but he’s another comic who, not surprisingly, has fantastic timing with his brother. Like Conklin and Turpin. This is their probably their best bit together, but I’ll be watching out for his subsequent appearances.

The basis of this routine is Charlie and scraps stealing from Syd’s lunch counter. Scraps cleans up a string of sausages in time-honoured fashion. Charlie eats all the pies. It is incredible to see him cram those things into his skinny face. He’s like Paul Newman with the hardboiled eggs. I think they must have made nearly-empty pies, but then again, his face looks pretty full. Syd tries to catch him at it. This becomes very funny indeed, since by the diminishing number of pies and Charlie’s proximity to the dish, his guilt is transparent. But Syd is determined to catch him in flagrante. Circumstantial evidence is insufficient for this stickler. The variety of ways Charlie gets the better of him is dazzling, and a lot of it is played out in unbroken master shots so you can see the interplay in real time. There are cutaways to the dog and closeups, maybe so Chaplin can run off and be sick. But the bulk of the action is in wides of twenty seconds and a minute ten.

The arrival of that kop, whose sinister gaze Charlie meets just as he’s lifting another pie to his gob, breaks up the skit — Charlie flees and the kop gets hit with the colossal sausage intended for him.

Stuffed with meat, Charlie and Scraps enter the Green Lantern and the first thing that can be called plot occurs (I may be being over-strict, but I think the meeting with Edna is the first thing in the film that leads to something else).

Rejected from the joint for having a dog with him, Charlie stuffs Scraps down his baggy pants, which at last have a use. The dog is somewhat large for this role, which may have looked more realistic on paper. Special effects will be used to basically shrink him: once he’s inside, Charlie looks normal-ish, no longer bulging fantastically, but with a wagging tail protruding from his trousers. The seat was torn earlier, when Charlie rescued Scraps from the bigger dogs, so this is unusually logical.

Various barflies and one drummer are freaked out by Charlie’s tail. Mut seems very contented in those pants, whenever we cut to a medium-shot and we see his face.

Edna is a singer in this joint. She sings a sad song — cutaways of various plug uglies weeping into their beer. Henry Bergman, in his inevitable second inevitably drag appearance, cries clown tears, but instead of spurting like water pistols his eyes just dribble in cataracts down his big face upon the place beneath, where Charlie happens to be sitting.

You have to see this one with Chaplin’s score — I guess this is the earliest Chaplin film with his own music accompanying it. He couldn’t write music but he would whistle or hum it for a composer to transcribe. I gather sometimes what he whistled wasn”t entirely original, but his films are full of cute tunes, and Nino Rota’s collaboration with Fellini is impossible to imagine without C.C. Here, Edna’s lament is preceded and followed by a very vigorous and zaftig dancer, and the contrast in style and dignity is very funny.

Syd’s then-wife Minnie is credited as “Dance hall dramatic lady” on the IMDb. Does that make her the dancer? It’s a bit strange.

Fiona likes Edna’s incompetent flirting. It’s one of the few Edna roles where she gets to transform pathos — her bully of a boss demands she flirt with customers — with comedy — she’s so innocent she has no idea how to do it. She looks like she’s having a fit. Charlie, the customer she tries it on, is baffled until she provides an explanatory title card. Such visual cues would be useful in real life.

At attempt to dance with a dog in tow looks forward to the improvised dog leash belt in THE GOLD RUSH. It looks pretty uncomfortable. Charlie is just sitting down to a (leftover) half drink with Edna when the bartended unreasonably demands he buy something for her. He gives her the drink. The bartender starts to eject him so he grabs it back and downs it on his way out.

Charlie and Scraps get the bum’s rush. Meanwhile, a rich drunk is rolled for his bulging wallet. This tipsy walk-on clearly would be given to an experienced comic, but the IMDb offers no clue as to who it is and I don’t recognise him. There’s a nice “mercy shot” after he’s dragged offscreen by thugs and relieved of his loot — he staggers back into view, dazed but unperturbed, and staggers off back the way he came.

Kops chase robbers, and the purloined wad is buried where Scraps can easily find it, providing the ensuing complications of Reel #3 and Day #2 (or is it #3?) of this film.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Sunday Intertitle: But soft, we are observed!

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

So… declining Essanay’s urging that he should stay on, Chaplin took on his half-brother Syd as managed and signed with Mutual, again for a record-breaking fee. He also acquired a bigger studio — the biggest — to shoot in, still open air but closed off by canvas side walls and with linen diffusers to drape overhead.

THE FLOORWALKER seems designed to exploit this set-up, as it’s entirely based in one big two-storey set, with connecting elevator and escalator, both of which are exploited for gags. A lot of the film is just “turn Charlie loose in a department store,” but there’s a crime plot too. Surprisingly, despite the presence of Edna, carried over from Essanay and in Chaplin’s personal life too, there’s no romance.

But we do have the welcome addition of newcomers Eric Campbell and Albert Austin.

Campbell is immediately monumental. Practically all the Mutual films can be seen as exercises in using Eric to his full potential. Nobody ever strangled Charlie like Eric did. I know Chaplin is selling the gag furiously, flapping his head about like a mere sawdust-filled bag, but Eric is genuinely flinging him around with great violence.

Austin, promoted from an unnoticeable bit in POLICE (Chaplin evidently DID notice), looks on helplessly. This will be his main function in all the Mutuals. He looks on from behind a moustache of inhuman size, but there’s nothing flamboyant about the rest of him. Indeed, the moustache’s rather distrait quality seems to transfer itself to his entire personage. There IS, perhaps, a hint of pansy stereotype in the overall limpness, which is not however confined to the wrist.

The film opens by establishing a fake Chaplin (herr future director Lloyd Bacon), a guy who merely has the toothbrush ‘tache. The lookalike plot of course anticipates THE GREAT DICTATOR, and in a way the many faux Hulots of PLAYTIME. It’s not immediately clear why this character has to exist and audiences in 1916 may have been momentarily puzzled. But the great plague of Chaplin imitators hadn’t begun yet, so they wouldn’t have thought they were being cheated.

This character is in league with Big Eric in a plan to loot the safe.

A startling cinematic touch — Big Eric is introduced by a big closeup, first of his meaty hands clutching a document, then a slow pan and tilt to the meaty face, enhanced by fake face fuzz — a tweezered space-alien monobrow, a beard to make Svengali or Rasputin virescent with envy. And intense guyliner to make those little marbles seem to start from their sockets. An icon is born.

Edna has a thankless secretary role in this one. Bacon and Campbell, facing arrest for unseen crimes, plan their escape. This is quite a lot of plot and character to set up before Charlie even appears. Three and a half minutes worth, probably a record. By now Chaplin knows the audience will wait for him, and even enters with his back to the camera, confident in his outline.

Charlie, at last entering the story (picking his nose), sows disorder by treating the objects on sale as if they were possessions in his own home — shaving accessories and such. I like his interest, not in a sock, but in the mannequin leg enclosed by it. He’s blankly trying to think up some use for it. He also throws in a cheeky smile, which feels like a new development. His former obnoxiousness is leavened with charm.

Much use is made of the inconveniently placed drinking fountain. Chaplin loves a water feature.

His misuse of the store gradually brings the slow-to-anger Austin to the boil, and squabbling turns to kick-up-the-arse battling. In the midst of this, Charlie does a David Jason, leaning on something that won’t support him.

An ironic intertitle: BARGAIN SEEKERS. In fact, shoplifters. While management is ripping off the store and staff is arguing with Charlie, two women start emptying the shelves — in anticipation of Laurel & Hardy’s TIT FOR TAT. We don’t need to wonder if Chaplin’s former understudy Stan Laurel saw this. But the cheerful wholesale thief of the later L&H comedy is better integrated than CC’s lady filchers, who are a mere decorative flourish.

After all his willfully obstreperous behaviour, what finally lands Charlie in legal trouble is an innocent mistake caused by the perfidy of others. The shoplifters have cleaned out a rack. Seeing the empty rack marked 25c, Charlie seeks to buy this unexpected bargain. Hard to imagine what he wants with a rack, but the disembodied leg was a puzzler too. Maybe he’d have used that to store an odd sock, and maybe this is for his collection of neckties (the tie is one part of Chaplin’s costume that continues to change, I think).

Charlie is now a fugitive in the store, and Chaplin has fun coming up with hiding places and playing “he’s behind you,” a fine old British pantomime tradition.

In amidst this, the escalator is starting to play a role. Charlie is as baffled by it as he formerly was by swing doors. It keeps trying to abduct him skywards. Chaplin’s old boss, Mack Sennett, wondered aloud upon seeing the film why the devil they hadn’t thought of this gag at Keystone. The obvious answer would be that Sennett lacked the imagination, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to shell out to build the thing.

Bacon and Campbell abstract the store’s takings from safe to Gladstone bag, but Bacon smashes a drawer over Campbell’s immense noggin and absconds solo. Bir Eric’s staggering about crosseyed with the drawer over his head is knockabout gold. The tipsy dance is even funnier performed by a big man than by a regular clown — all that weight, in tiptoed stagger.

Fleeing the law, Charlie bumps into Bacon, who is fleeing the supine Eric. Cue mirror routine. The idea of someone mistaking another, similar-looking character for his reflection had been used on stage at least as far back as 1894. A European music hall act called the Schwarz Brothers attempted to retain exclusive use of the gag from 1911. Max Linder performed it in 1913 in LE DUEL DE MAX — a direct copy of the Schwarz version, but not every country upheld the copyright claim of the “brothers” (in reality a father and son called Robi), suggesting that they hadn’t originated as much of the skit as they claimed. Interestingly, the Robis performed in the US in 1915, so that in theory Chaplin could have seen them. If he didn’t, he probably saw Linder’s film version. (Credit to Anthony Balducci for this research.)

The gag isn’t particularly well motivated here — there’s no mirror frame, so the misunderstanding requires both Charlie and Bacon’s character to be very dim. That’s no stretch for Charlie, who is as stupid or cunning as the plot requires at this stage, but it doesn’t make much sense for the crafty embezzler Bacon.

Also of note here is the kiss — seeing in Charlie an unwitting saviour, Bacon grabs him by the (upper) cheeks, and Charlie reciprocates with a quick osculation. The Little Fellow is the ultimate in gender fluidity. Put him in a dress, he becomes a woman. Put him in a house, he becomes a householder. If the set-up looks like a clinch, he goes with the flow.

Bacon’s had an idea. Switching clothes with Charlie, he will make his escape. He plans on Charlie getting pinched for robbing the store. In fact, Bacon is immediately collared for Charlie’s “crimes.” Charlie is able to walk about under the eye of the law, who suspect nothing. Which is pretty implausible, since all he’s done is swap suits.

Even crazier is Albert Austin accepting Charlie as the floorwalker, a man he knows well. He’s also not likely to have forgotten the scruffy interloper who recently kicked him across the store. But these doubling plots are never very logical in Chaplin — ask why nobody remarks on the Jewish tailor’s resemblance to Adenoid Hynkel in THE GREAT DICTATOR?

A second kiss — kissing the aged, tiny elevator boy’s forehead is, apparently, Charlie’s idea of how a boss should behave.

Charlie now plunges into the role of floorwalker. True, he doesn’t understand what the job entails, but he finds entertaining things to do. The shoe department is a great excuse for fondling ladies’ ankles, for instance.

Two familiar faces now enter the film. To my surprise, here’s Leo White and his silk hat. Leo would appear in several more Mutual Chaplin films, culminating in EASY STREET, suggesting that Chaplin didn’t bear a grudge over White’s meddling with A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN. Still, after 1917 he stopped using the silk-hatted foil, and White was soon co-starring in Chaplin copycat Billy West’s shorts. White was a prolific bit player until his death in 1948 — he’s in CASABLANCA, CLOAK AND DAGGER, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, THE FOUNTAINHEAD…

Also on hand is Henry Bergman, a versatile supporting player who would keep acting for Chaplin, exclusively, up until MODERN TIMES. He would have been under contract so he’d have drawn a paycheck even in the years-long gaps between features. Chaplin, stingy in some respects, was very generous in that way. Edna Purviance also benefited from regular cheques, decades after she’d stopped acting.

Bergson plays your basic palsied dotard here, and is unrecognisable. Out of disguise, he’s the stout restauranteur in MOD TIMES. This cruel mocking of the afflicted is the kind of rather harsh comedy nobody seems to have batted at eye at in the nineteenteens. The actual playing is very funny if you can forget about being sensitive. I’m not suggesting you SHOULD. Charlie himself has a suitably benign attitude to the old fellow — he’s amused, yes, but mostly looks on in innocent wonderment at this extraordinary spectacle.

Charlie also has the familiar trouble with mannequins — they are too much like humans, you can’t trust them. Humans, on the other hands, are too much like objects. Everything is slippery. Confronted by the cigar-chewing detective, Charlie sees the cigar as a useful promontory from which to hang his cane. The fact that the cigar’s owner takes this amiss is a surprise to him.

Meanwhile, Big Eric has woken up and is on the warpath. The rest of the movie is a running battle for the bag full of loot. Chaplin does an expert mime upon discovering the billfolds. Looks. Looks up, processing the information. Looks about nervously. There’s a lot of high-quality strangling. And, most significant of all —

THE SONOFABITCH IS A BALLET DANCER

Chaplin breaks out into his first ever ballet. It seems to be in direct response to having Eric as screen partner. The gravitational pull of the larger player puts him into a terpsichorean orbit. The exaggerated butchness of Big Eric, all guyliner to the contrary, brings out Charlie’s flirtatiousness. He becomes both feminine and implike, a prancing tease whose submissiveness is a mere ploy. These observations are prompted in particular by the fact that this first set of moves are so unmotivated in plot terms. Later frolics are triggered by the situation, like the curtain Charlie hides behind in THE CURE. This one is sheer joie de vivre — an ecstatic response to finally finding his Goliath. Love at first sight.

The sudden appearance of kops firing guns is a little surprising/confusing, and the ending is abrupt. The gag of the elevator crashing down on Eric so that he bursts through its floor in a daze, presumably to face arrest, is nice, but Chaplin hasn’t built a real elevator, I don’t think, and the device seems to operate like a teleporter: the doors close, then open again in a more-or-less identical set up, and we’ve ascended or descended a floor.

Apart from not finding a role for Edna that’s worthwhile, and the continuing use of cutaways to inert scenes, used semi-randomly to allow Chaplin to ellide uninteresting business — a cutaway gets around the delicate business of Chaplin and Bacon exchanging pants, for instance — and the abruption of that finish, this is a prime Chaplin, about as good as anything he’s done up to now, and a fitting inauguration for the excellent Mutual series.