Archive for Charles Chaplin

The Sunday Intertitle: A Thousand a Week

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2021 by dcairns

“I want a thousand dollars a week,” Chaplin told Sennett,

“But *I* don’t make that!” spluttered the showman.

Sennett is sometimes criticised for his inability to hold on to the stars he’d created. But he didn’t hold the purse-strings, was dependent on the money-men, Kessel and Bauman, and anyway, Chaplin made it difficult. He did try to meet Chaplin’s terms:

“Listen, you have four months to go. We’ll tear up your contract and give you five hundred dollars now, seven hundred dollars for the next year, and fifteen hundred for the following year. That way you’ll get your thousand dollars a week.”

(This is all per My Autobography, Chaplin’s largely very accurate, if understandably selective, memoir.)

Chaplin responded: “If you’ll just reverse the terms, give me fifteen hundred the first year, seven hundred the second year, and five hundred the third, I’ll take it.”

“But that’s a crazy idea.”

Chaplin was convinced this craze couldn’t last, that his star would fade. And he had an urgent desire for financial security that made him think short-term. It WAS a crazy idea — he wouldn’t have been happy to take the pay-cuts when they came — but he wanted a thousand dollars a week NOW.

Essanay agreed to his terms, and at the end of his year at Keystone, Chaplin was off to Chicago.

Auld Acquaintance

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

One last jaunt into Echo Lake Park, AKA the violently inclined idiot’s Forest of Arden.

Charlie is married to Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s own Marie-Dressler-Alike. It’s a seaside postcard marriage, the big, domineering woman and the henpecked little man. Phyllis has the sniffles, and Charlie, rather than being sympathetic, is mocking her for our benefit: he does a trombone mime, and pretends to blow his nose on her knitting.

Wikipedia informs us that the character names this time are Mr. and Mrs. Sniffels — possibly a Sydney Chaplin interpolation, as he rewrote the text and recut the action in much of his brother’s Keystone output at a later date.

Meanwhile (there are several meanwhiles in this) MABEL, we are told, ADMIRES HER HUSBAND AMBROSE. An extraordinary statement. Ambrose, of course, is Mack Swain, and there’s admittedly plenty of him to admire. Wires have not become crossed yet, but the mere introduction of wiring to a Keystone short promises that this will happen. 1914 audiences would be chuckling in anticipation.

A motor car enters frame. Mack & Mabel are enchanted by the gasoline-driven chariot. Their faces light up with religious awe. OK, so Chaplin needed to introduce an auto, and had to find a way to make it interesting (ignoring Sidney Pollack’s dictum, for the good reason that it hadn’t yet been formulated — Pollack wouldn’t be born for twenty years yet — “Let the boring crap BE boring crap”) so he has his lovers ooh and ahh at the mundane jalopy as if it were Hitler flying in at the start of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. Instead, its someone called Joe Bordeaux and his crate promptly breaks down. Ambrose gets distracted trying to help, and Mabel is left alone…

A meting between Charlie and Mabel is now anticipated, but Chaplin pulls a fast one, instead he introduces a whole new character, “Mary, the flirt” per Wikipedia, played by the fetching Cecile Arnold. On seeing her, Charlie/Mr. Sniffels immediately distances himself from his slumbering spouse. Adultery, or anyhow a flirtery, is on the cards.

“It’s the story of a girl who is searching… searching… SEARCHING!” as Jerry Lewis will say in HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. Can Charlie help? HE WOULD BE DELIGHTED!

Scanning the area for whatever MacGuffin Cecile is hunting, Charlie’s eyes alight on her bottom as she bends to examine the lawn. A quick display of beaming innocence is produced when she catches him at it.

Charlie prowls after Cecile, leaving the snoozing Phyllis. It’s a little strange that he’s dressed as a tramp in this one, since his wife is clearly not indigent. Indignant, yes. But Charlie’s costume is now firmly established. It’s taken most of a year.

The plot is now thickened in a startling fashion as Glen Cavender abruptly appears, dragged up as some kind of dagger-wielding Turk in a fez. Cecile is with him, apparently. He stabs Charlie Sniffels in the arse, and that’s that dealt with. Charlie makes his unheard excuses and leaves.

Fleeing the dread Turk, Charlie now discovers Mabel, still waiting alone as Ambrose struggles to crank the stalled automobile, his capacious buttocks thrusting rhythmically upwards in a grotesque parody of the sexual act. Can someone recut Cronenberg’s CRASH, Guy Grand style, so that the characters are watching this on TV?

Chaplin is now composing in depth in a way that greatly enhances the visual interest.

The late John Belushi contrived to meet his wife by hitting her on the arm with an oar. Here, Sniffels, having tidied himself up a bit (a rare moment of near-pathos), thwacks Mabel across the rump with his cane — it’s up to us to decide if it’s deliberate — and then apologises. An introduction is made. Well, it’s one way of doing it.

Picking an imaginary thread from Mabel’s shoulder, Charlie demonstrates how pantomime may be used to further the gentlemanly art of bothering women. And gets a slap in the face. Things are going great.

Charlie inadvertently — it seems — hooks Mabel’s hem and lifts her skirt to expose a shapely ankle. In response to her outrage, he sternly spanks the crook of his cane, a fresh image, startling in its implications.

Mabel is outraged by all this. Charlie keeps trying to get fresh, and gets another slap. His character really is a repulsive little sex pest at this point. Ambrose has given up trying to crank that jalopy and comes to defend his wife’s honour. Except he’s too busy “getting acquainted” with Charlie — a new friend! — to listen to his wife’s complaints. So he leaves them together and returns to his solo cranking activities, a contented cuckold. He gets the car going and is offered a lift, leaving Mabel with the creepy little guy in the derby. This is getting kind of distressing.

Edgar Kennedy gets a laugh! Mabel called “Help!” and Edgar the brushy-moustached kop BOUNDS into shot. Not her shot — he’s just one shot to the right.

It’s funny because it feels like he’s just been waiting, coiled, in an unseen third shot just to the right of the one he springs into.

Then, defying the Kuleshovian imaginary geography that has us expecting him to cross into Mabel’s frame from screen right, he emerges in the background behind Charlie (more depth staging) so we can have British pantomime “He’s behind you!” poignancy/dramatic irony. Chaplin, the master of suspense.

Mabel now relaxes, encourages Charlie to incriminate himself, as Kennedy hovers menacingly behind him with truncheon erect and wagging. Charlie is overjoyed by Mabel’s new smiling responses. His quaint blandishments have borne sexy fruit. They always yield in the end! Very good slow burn response to the truncheon and then its owner. Kennedy is not only a slow-burner himself, but the cause of slow-burning in others.

They’re off! Konstable Kennedy pursues Charlie like an eager dog, lolloping round the bushes… Charlie indulges in some purely-for-fun buttock-piercing with a pin, even though this gains him nothing. But when a foe presents his backside, you have to either boot it or jab it with something sharp. Them’s the rules.

The chase circles dizzyingly around Mabel, with Charlie pausing to raise his derby — he is, after all, a gentleman, albeit a sleazy one —

This plot needs added astringency, so Ambrose dismounts the jalopy a mere shot away from Phyllis, now awake and back to her knitting. He drops his kerchief at her feet, accidentally. But now this is a tricky situation. Phyllis assumes this was a deliberate act, designed to allow him to check out her ankles. Embarrassing. And so much psychology going on in a plain americain wide shot. These wraiths of 106 years ago are still thinking thoughts and beaming them into our eyeballs as if we were all there, in the shade of a Los Angeles recreation area, two pandemics ago.

Ambrose inexplicably exacerbates his blunder by sitting down next to Phyllis, while a random dog photobombs the cast.

Evading the Kop, Charlie backs into the Turk, who then takes a mis-aimed blow to the fez from Kennedy’s truncheon.

All men are sexual nuisances, part 2: Mack is now pinching Phyllis’s cheek and capering on in nonconsensual fashion. The difference between Phyllis and Mabel is that when Phyllis hauls off and slaps you, you stay slapped. Now she’s yelling for a cop and Mack is reduced to a pitiful, whining schoolboy begging her not to get him in trouble.

Eyeline trouble. With all these tangled plot threads, it’s not too surprising when Kennedy exits Mack’s frame screen left and then arrives in Phyllis’s frame left, a feat requiring either a single-frame spin by the character or by the viewer’s brain. Still, Phyllis is able to sic Kennedy on Swain, and now both he and Charlie are fugitives from erotic justice.

Ambrose collides with the Turk, who again receives an accidental thwack from Kennedy. It’s called a night stick because it makes you see stars. Kennedy, realising he’s concussed a Turk by mistake, wallops him again on purpose just for being foreign.

Mabel meets Phyllis, and the #MeToo movement is born.

The Charlie blunders upon the scene and, after some more suspense, is presented to Phyliis’s new bosom buddy. Shock! Charlie goes weak at the knees. Then, luckily for him, some footage goes missing and when we rejoin the scene, Phyllis has been abstracted by Melesian jump-cut. Charlie runs off, and Mabel is alone at last.

Kennedy is still chasing Ambrose and thumping the poor Turk, if that’s what he is. Charlie has rejoined his wife and inexplicably (and disappointingly) escaped dismemberment at her hands. But now Kennedy has located Charlie. More dramatic irony type panto suspense — Chaplin’s favourite device here, along with the in-depth framing he’s discovered.

The runing about is getting repetitive but when Mabel introduces Ambrose to Phyllis, reprising the earlier meet-uncute that got Charlie in hot water, the device works nicely, building on our anticipation. And hopefully there won’t be any lost frames this time so we’ll see what happens. Not than much, actually. And we’re back to running and cowering in bushes. It’s looking like Mabel might go off with the big woman, as she just had in TILLIE’S PUCTURED ROMANCE, for sapphic consolation. Will Charlie and Ambrose do likewise? But first, Kennedy’s kosh at last finds its mark, clobbering each cranium, and the creeps are collared.

But before the can be konfined in klink, their wronged women plead piteously on their behalf. Kennedy is confused by the discovery that the woman molested by masher #1 is married to masher #2 who is married to the woman molested by masher #1. His brain is going in circles. He storms off to beat the shit out of Henry McCoy, who was there at the start as leading man in Chaplin’s MAKING A LIVING and is here again, bothering another lovely in another part of the park. THWACK! Ouch!

Realizing their lucky escape, the foursome congratulate one another (?) and the thing more of less stops. An above-average park romp that does show Chaplin developing some new visual ideas.

The Sunday Intertitle: Cocking His Snook

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2020 by dcairns

Maybe if I look at all of Chaplin’s “park, pretty girl and policeman” shorts from his Keystone period, I’ll find the bit with the flower mentioned by Schulberg/Fitzgerald in The Disenchanted. Or maybe it doesn’t exist.

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RECREATION (1914) begins with a penniless Charlie trying to throw himself to his death. So we know it’s a comedy alright. To accomplish the fatal act, he has to get over a fence. He performs a gag later used by Keaton on TV, hoisting one leg up and resting it on the crossbar, then hoisting up the other leg, leaving him momentarily unsupported in mid-air before gravity reasserts itself and he crashes to earth. Keaton’s version was better, more uncanny, but Chaplin is indisputably there first.

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When Helen Carruthers walks by, Charlie forgets all about suicide and becomes a sex pest. As his career went on, his pursuit of the leading lady gradually became more courtly, less lecherous, until there’s no sense of sexuality about his character at all, just the abstraction of Romance.

Helen’s beau is a violently inclined sailor, and so soon he and Charlie are lobbing bricks at one another. There’s a lot of this in early Chaplin, and it’s never terribly funny. All the later traditions of the custard pie fight are upheld — a few direct hits are followed, for variety, by a miss which clobbers a copper instead. But the projectiles are rather painfully serious rather than silly, undignfied and comic like the cream pie, which had to be discovered (by Mabel Normand, it seems) a little later.

Charlie claimed he learned about screen direction from Henry “Pathé” Lehrmann — you exit screen left, then enter screen right. And it’s very important that if you throw a brick off the left side of frame, it should enter the next shot from the right so it feels like it’s a continuous movement in one direction. But there’s an oddity here: the brick that misses travels left from Chaplin’s hand, left past the sailor, and left into a third shot where it hits the cop.

The cop then appears behind Charlie from the RIGHT, as if the universe were a short circle composed of three shots. It’s hard to work out the physical geography that could cause the policeman to take a circuitous path that avoided the sailor and arrived behind Charlie. He does so purely for the suspense value and dramatic irony of Charlie winding up to throw a brick, all unawares that he’s under the watchful eye of the law. A familiar panto technique.

Caught with the brick in his hand, Charlie shows why he’s a more interesting clown than his contemporaries by dusting it off. A bit of mime intended to prove that he was never intending to hurl it, he just thought it could use a clean.

Ah-hah! There are TWO policemen. That explains it. They have different hats, but I missed this important fact because the surviving print has been horribly cropped. Everyone’s missing the top of their head, which may be why they’re behaving so rambunctiously. Note that Chaplin hasn’t hit on the idea of the gigantic antagonist yet, a lucky thing since an Eric Campbell figure would be cut off at the nipples by this misframing.

Abruptly, for the film’s last two minutes, another source has become available and the image quality improves a thousandfold and we get luminous you-are-there clarity, time-traveling a hundred-plus years, a wrenching shock that takes a while to recover from.

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As Charlie flirts with Helen, a row-boat ponderously and distractingly edges into frame. Is it going to be significant? No, it’s just an indication that there was no A.D. on crowd control. A quick cutaway later and it’s gone. Nobody considered a retake worth their while to solve the continuity issue.

Conclusion: the film lurches back into grainy, smudgy, misframed ugliness and everyone winds up in the water. Right, that’s that dealt with.

Charlie does not seize a flower as described in The Disenchanted. Let’s keep looking.