Archive for Chaplin

No Moustache

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2020 by dcairns

Before Valentino there was… Charlie Chaplin.

“We took Chaplin, [Ford] Sterling, [Roscoe] Arbuckle and [Chester] Conklin to a dance hall, turned them loose, and pointed a camera at them. They made funny, and that was it,” said Mack Sennett of the 1914 TANGO TANGLES.

But there’s more to be said of this rambunctious improv: Chaplin appears sans Tramp costume and felt moustache, giving us an opportunity to regard him au naturelle, as it were. He does have a bowler and cane, so he must have really liked those. But this experiment was not repeated — even in an outlier like ONE A.M. where he’s playing a city swell in a top hat, Chaplin would keep the fuzzy felt tab on his upper lip, because it was the one essential part of his brand.

It’s decided — I’m watching all the early Chaplins in sequence, which I’ve never done before, watching for those moments where the Tramp shows up, starts to become the familiar character. And watching for those moments where Chaplin steps out of that character, as he does here.

Naked-faced Charlie is, as Sennett observed with dismay when he first showed up for work, too young. Too pretty. He’s doing the drunk act that so impressed his boss and got him hired, and it’s always worth remembering that alcoholism killed Chaplin’s father, but whether the man was ever around enough in Chaplin’s youth for him to observe the drink in action, I’m unsure. But the East End of London would have provided plenty of other models for close study.

For some reason, comedy drunks are nearly always middle-aged. Though the parodying of alcoholism is now mostly verboten at any age, the masters of it, the Jack Nortons, Arthur Housmans and Foster Brookses, were always a bit shopworn in appearance. Strangely, a young drunk is more pathetic or unpleasant than comic, UNLESS introduced sober. When the character is simple “the drunk,” we need to feel that the tragic decline is safely over and the character is now happily confirmed in their dipsomania.

(Fiona, a modern person, always says “Oh dear,” when Housman turns up in a Laurel & Hardy, just as she does when Fred “Snowflake” Toones turns up in anything, with his demeaning racial schtick. I wince at FT but, being less sensitive, welcome the pastiche of inebriation like an old friend.)

Chaplin chose his small felt rectangle, a fig leaf for his youth, because it made him look more mature without concealing his facial expressions. Which are a lot more grotesque and flamboyant in the early shorts, you’ll notice. Chaplin hasn’t mastered the difference between stage and screen acting but, to be fair, hardly anyone else at Keystone or in Hollywood has either. The best actors are generally the supporting girls, hired to be pretty, without stage training, and given no funny business of their own, who just react more or less like real people to the top-billed comics’ obstreperous antics.

Ford Sterling (also bare-lipped) is someone I never warmed to, but I guess he deserves credit for being just about the first of the slapstickers. Arbuckle is unusually mean here, a fat man with a thin instrument (clarinet). Within seconds of appearing he’s picking up an inoffensive little guy to use as a club.

For reasons of convenience, I guess, the dancers are shot in a real dance hall, per Sennett’s recount, whereas the band have been shot in the studio against two painted flats representing a corner. All the interplay between Sterling, flirting furiously through his trumpet, and Chaplin and his partner, reacting from the ballroom, is created via Kuleshov’s Artificial Geography, which Kuleshov had yet to officially invent. No wonder the eyelines don’t match.

Chaplin grudgingly credited Henry “Pathe” Lehrman with teaching him basic screen direction, but he might have also picked up the importance of it by seeing Sennett fecklessly flout it here.

Another technique we see a lot of is TELEGRAPHY. Sterling pretends to be ill, doing a great deal of pantomime to signal to us that this is an IDEA he has just had in his MIND to fool THAT GUY… Chaplin occasionally does this, perhaps urged by his directors or influenced by his frantic co-stars, but he would soon eliminate it in favour of a subtler communication with his audience, intended for intimacy rather than exposition.

Conklin, Hank Mann, Edgar Kennedy and Al St John get essentially nothing to do, while Minta Durfee is a bone to be fought over by stupid dogs. In mid-battle, Sterling seems to suddenly kiss CC full on the lips, but I think he’s actually biting his nose. Our eyebrows may safely lower.

Paul Merton has neatly and accurately described early Chaplin’s M.O. as “kicking people up the arse” but has he done it yet in a film? I think not, though in BETWEEN SHOWERS he jabs Sterling hard in the anus with an umbrella. Here, Sterling shows CC how it’s done, just as CC is impressing us all with the pugilistic jut of his tiny buttocks. I imagine Charlie will have incorporated the act into his repertoire by the next time we see him.

The climactic cloakroom fight is my favourite bit. The brief iteration of the two-men-in-one-raincoat routine is terrific, with Sterling burling Chaplin around by the sleeve.

A totally unambitious one-reel donnybrook which has unexpected historic interest due to Chaplin’s nude philtrum.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Man Called Chaffin or Something

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2020 by dcairns

Chaplin again — again directed by Henry “Pathe” Lehrman in 1914. A lot of rubbish about an umbrella. Ford Sterling is an obnoxious clown, and Chaplin, billed as “masher” on the IMDb, gets to be comparatively gentlemanly, though this mainly expresses itself in the way he repeatedly hits FS in the face with a brick.

Chaplin doesn’t have his cane here, since it would clash with the brolly. He DID have it in the earlier MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT and KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, however.

KARAV for years was thought to be the Tramp’s first appearance, but it’s his second, although CC has wiped all the old-age/horror make-up, worn in MABEL’S SP, off his face this time and is a kind of truculent protagonist rather than a menacing drunken villain, so a case could still be made for KARAV being the Tramp’s debut. As has been pointed out, he emerges from the mass of the public, an audience member with ideas above his station, which seems perfect. He also starts immediately making his director’s life hell, which is what was going on behind the scenes too. The untalented pretender Lehrman (who never worked for Pathe) appears as himself, a bad-tempered filmmaker who doesn’t want to have to deal with this interloper.

I’ll say this for H(P)L, the closeup at the end, though alarming, is a nice touch.

Around this time, Chaplin also appeared as an officious and violently-inclined short-arsed Keystone Kop in A THIEF CATCHER. Then, for the first time, he was the title character in A FILM JOHNNIE, which also has him as a troublesome audience member.

Chaplin spends the last penny in his sock-purse (an accoutrement also sported by Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg’s SPIDER) to see THE CHAMPION DRIVER, a film whose existence I am unable to confirm — I would have assumed the thrifty Mack Sennett would have taken this opportunity to plug one of his other pictures — because he is enamoured of the leading lady, Peggy Pearce.

Once in the auditorium, Chaplin is unable to control his movements or his emotions, to the annoyance of other patrons including the prostooganist from MABEL’S SP. Bafflingly, THE CHAMPION DRIVER turns out to be a Civil War epic highly reminiscent of BIRTH OF A NATION, not released until the following year. Maybe that time-traveller with the cell phone from the premiere of CITY LIGHTS helped Sennett out. Or maybe Sennett had a bunch of leftover Civil War footage he was looking to monetize.

Within a matter of frames, the appearance of serious epic historical drama is replaced by a bunch of Kop types in the uniforms of North and South battering one another silly with the butts of their muskets, and Charlie has soaked his now-vacant sock, and the crotch of his baggy pants, with tears, so deeply moved is he.

When “the Keystone girl” appears she’s in modern dress, so I guess this is a program of varied short subjects (features not yet being the rage). Now Charlie, enacting a bumpkin stereotype lampooned in some of the earliest films, becomes overwrought, unable to tell cinema from reality, and is ejected into the street.

The two other films showing, I note, aren’t Keystone releases, but Mutual, the company where Chaplin would wind up making his best shorts, after an intervening stint at Essanay.

Charlie now plays starstruck fan, an outsider at Keystone, flattering the major players (Fatty, Ford) and begging for dimes. The studio door is slammed in his face. The director doesn’t want “any bums around here.” But after some confusing jump-splices Charlie gets inside.

I wrote about this one before but mainly because of all the swastikas.

The inside of the studio — the unsound stage — is a big greenhouse. There are painted flats simulating different locations, among which the first we see represents — a big greenhouse. The phrase “wasted effort” does spring to mind, as so often with Sennett comedies.

Chaplin immediately finds slapstick opportunities in this world where the walls and furniture keep moving around. He was a flailing blunderer even in the stable environment of the movie house, so this place is really beyond his ability to navigate. This is the closest we get to vintage Chaplin, but time or an impatient editor seem to have truncated the knockabout.

The director of this one is George Nichols — Chaplin’s second director. He didn’t like him any more than H(P)L. Both these guys appear here, but the role of the movie director is played by the great Edgar Kennedy, according to the IMDb. His movements — rage and frustration in gesticulatory form — are more recognizable than his young, barely-formed face. He has hair! That’s just blatantly wrong.

The studio set-up could easily have provided enough gags and conflict for a full two-reeler, so it’s rather a pity that the film rushes off to attend a housefire, to little comic effect. The Keystone “it’s got to move” philosophy would cheerfully have a film up sticks from a promising situation in order to race off to a less interesting one, and that, as well as the rapidity with which the films were churned out, would increasingly annoy Chaplin…

As with KARAV, we end with a single on CC, and he does a favourite trick, the old twist-the-ear-to-make-water-squirt-out gag. Henri Bergson used to say that comedy comes from human beings behaving in a mechanical way, and Chaplin often seems to go out of his way to confirm this.

The Sunday Intertitle: Bumfight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on September 13, 2020 by dcairns

MAKING A LIVING is Chaplin’s very first film, the only one predating his Tramp character, or at any rate the costume (despite what Chaplin would later write, the character develops fairl gradually though certain aspects are immediately apparent — the lord of misrule, defiant of authority).

Chaplin said he immediately felt at home in his Tramp get-up, and hadn’t as the caddish antagonist here. And he’s really doing a lot to disguise himself — you can tell by the lip movements he’s doing a posy English silly-ass voice. Lip reading does seem to be something Keystone counted on — a definite moment is provided for the hero (though really more stooge) to call Chaplin “Bum.” I wonder how much more we’re supposed to get via mere labial observation.

Lots of nice character stuff before it turns into a good old brawl (hair-pulling, heroine’s mother hit with broom).

Then some plot-coagulation is required so for no obvious reason the cad becomes a reporter, which makes him professional as well as amorous rival of the hero/stooge (prostooganist?). A location shot of what I take to be typesetters at work provides some beside-the-point production values for director Henry “Pathé” Lehrmann. Then there’s a car wreck, I suspect borrowed from another picture (the angle is all wrong). The fabled Kops show up, with various subsidiary Klowns, and the whole thing starts to look like a typical Keystone pile-up of gesticulating hysterics, lively without being funny. The tight focus of the early scenes is gone.

Slightly alarming moment when Chaplin appears to stab a Kop in the stomach. Is he to be an accidental Kop-killer? But the man gets up again, winded not wounded. Not clear how he survived. Moments later, a woman is apparently stabbed in the head, but gets up, not a mark on her. MAKING A LIVING is, perhaps, set in an alternative universe of rubber knives.

The busy street scenes, full of people NOT wearing theatrical garb, shows up the stageyness of the main characters, Chaplin in particular. Discarding the frock coat, he would become more able to blend it, but would also opt increasingly for back lot and studio settings where the crowd could be controlled. In fact, by chance the movie deprives him of coat and topper at the (abrupt, truncated?) end, making his new wardrobe easier to assume…