Archive for Charles Inslee

The Sunday Intertitle: Promising a Young Woman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2021 by dcairns

A WOMAN was Charlie’s last drag act, building on earlier entries at Keystone. The versions on YouTube are sadly defective — the restored version is there with annoying pop-ups, and my internet connection was playing up, making the action herky-jerky, ruining the smooth movement. The unrestored one is missing the sarcastic opening intertitle. Still, proper movement is essential, so I watched that one. I should really have bought the box set for this project… maybe I will for the Mutual films.

Edna Purviance is in the park with her folks, silk-hatted swell Charles Inslee (the boss in WORK) whose moustache has a remarkable wingspan, and Marta Golden (the deshabille housewife, also in WORK). The parents are snoring unattractively until Inslee spies a floozy (Margie Reiger) and sneaks off to woo her.

The park this time is Lincoln Park, LA. Chaplin now has a new studio, Majestic, nearishby on Fairview Avenue. Seems to be less draughty.

Here comes Charlie now — backlit, seen through the haze of a lawn sprinkler, the sun eating away at his familiar silhouette to make it strange, spidery. It suddenly doesn’t feel like him.

Then he’s flirting rather creepily with Reiger and, yes, that’s Charlie all right. His cane has a life of its own, snagging her ankle and dragging her off the bench, tripping him at the same time.

Inslee, barging in, jealously brains the Little Fellow with a bottle and Charlie stiffens into rigor mortis, with the odd inverted spasm thrown in. Slowly crawling back to consciousness, he’s joined on the bench by two more twerps in toppers, regular co-stars Leo White and Billy Armstrong (puffing out his chest to create a very particular type). Leo has no reason to be in the film at all, but he was a valued co-star, so Chaplin tries to find him some work.

More bottle-smashing on the noggins. Sugar glass seems to be a new discovery for CC — at least I HOPE it’s sugar glass — maybe it was something Majestic Studios made on-site?

Charlie’s first female impersonation in the film comes here — Inslee is playing blind-man’s-bluff with Eiger, who’s wandered off, and when Charlie steals his (root?) beer, he thinks its her.

Charlie now follows the dictum about revenge being a dish best served cold: he leads Inslee by the crook of his cane up to a pond, testing the water to make sure it’s deep enough… at a carefully planned moment he lets CI remove his eye-mask, then smashes him with his own bottle and kicks him into the drink. He doesn’t mess about… except in the sense that everything he does is messing about.

A kop shows up, doing the dramatic knee-bend thing that British bobbies are famed for. Never seen it in a US film (and never understood its meaning). Did Charlie instruct him in this? Neither IMDb nor Wiki seem to have identified this actor. It’s not Paddy McGuire and I don’t think it’s Lloyd Bacon. Obviously a good trick falls man by the way Charlie judo-throws him into the pond after Inslee.

As for Reiger, Wiki says: “Margie Reiger, the youthful actress who played the pretty girl in the park, is a bit of a mystery. Her acting credits show 13 appearances in silent films—all in 1915. Why her career suddenly ended and what became of her is unknown. Furthermore, no researcher has been able to find a date of birth or death for her.”

The mystery would be accounted for, but not dispelled, by the use of a stage name.

Note that when Charlie throws the kop into the water, his derby follows — clearly unplanned. But Chaplin makes a bit of business of it, rescuing the hat with a deft swipe of his cane. Who wants to wait around while your supporting cast dry out for a retake? Just plough through it, it’ll work.

Mystery solved, I think: when the cop staggers out of the lake, he has Billy Armstrong’s face. Armstrong playing two roles, kop and souse in topper? With almost the same moustache?

Charlie is now flirting with Marta Golden, but mainly, one suspects, so that he can subcontract his flirting in Edna’s direction, Humber Humbert fashion. Despite his appearance, it seems we’re not meant to see him as a tramp here, since the women seem flattered by his attentions, which tends not to happen if you’re a tramp, even an unusually pixieish one. Now that I get a better look at him, Charlie is smarter than usual — same basic costume, just neater, less ragged versions of the familiar baggy pants etc.

The girls invite Charlie home. Odd. But who are we to judge? Let him that is without sin cast the first cream pie. Elaborate flirtation: a doughnut briefly becomes a wedding ring.

Meet papa: Charlie’s double-take when he realises Edna’s dad is the bloke he kicked backwards into a duck pond is a form of comedy we don’t generally see him do. His features are more antically mobile in these early shorts, but this is a real gawp, the jaw dropping as the blood rushes from his face and then his knees go noodle-limp…

FIGHT! Charlie is literally flung about by his face, then goes into the strangling routine he’d refine to whiplash-perfection later with Eric Campbell. He retaliates with condiments. Armstrong joins the fray and Charlie loses his trousers.

I definitely never imagined his underwear looking like THAT. I mean, I hadn’t given the matter much thought, but I suppose if I’d had to write a piece o speculative slash fiction I’d have gone for boxer shorts with a polka dot motif. Something generic. There are… weird. Long johns with big baggy underpants worn over them? Maybe the pants are a bathing costume? But they’re pinned to his thighs, somehow?

So now Charlie has simply no choice but to drag up. Of course.

“Censors initially refused permission for A Woman to be shown in Great Britain. The reason is not entirely clear, but it could have been because a married man is trying to seduce a much younger woman or because of the transvestitism hinted at by Charlie disguising himself as a female. The ban on the film was lifted in 1916.”

Given the nature of the British music hall, the British panto, and British life in general, the idea that Charlie’s innocuous drag act got the film banned seems preposterous. I think his peculiar taste in underthings is a better explanation. Although the scene where he undresses a tailor’s mannequin (having first started in alarm at the headless apparition) with the sleazy delicacy of a seasoned seducer does seem rather censorable. Charlie makes people into objects and objects into other objects or else people, and so we can SEE the imaginary girl he’s denuding here. Suggestive mime.

Charlie in full femme costume WITH toothbrush ‘tache IS rather subversive and scandalous, unexpectedly. Ron Mael solemnity. His unique walk acquires a wiggle. But it’s the same walk, now rendered feminine and sexy. Luckily for him, the first member of the household to see him is Edna, who laughs herself sick (good mime from E.P.) She advises him to shave off the crepe.

After a couple of awkward cutaways of the kind he used whenever a sequence needed an excuse to be shorter, Charlie is now transformed into Anita Loos as Prince, and is so gorgeous he has to give himself a rare closeup to exploit it. If this is the reason for the UK ban, it says a lot about how uncomfortable Charlie’s feminine side made the bluenose brigade.

Charlie, who had been barely competent when male — unable to operate simple objects like soda syphons without dousing himself, now becomes elegant, chic. True, he can’t walk in heels, but he makes not being able to walk look good.

More transgression — he gets Edna to kiss him, and they dissolve in sapphic giggles, two schoolgirls experiencing their first “pash”.

Now Charlie’s flirting with Edna’s dad. Is this what TEOREMA is like?

Now Billy Armstrong is also smitten. Chaplin comes from the same music hall tradition that leads to the CARRY ON films, where an ugly man dresses up as a woman and all the men fancy him. It’s stupid comedy about male stupidity. But how does it work when the man is beautiful, but disguised to look less so, and then when he’s a woman he’s REALLY beautiful? It’s a lot less silly.

The loveplay with Armstrong alternates endearments from BA and violent, Miss Piggy type thumps from she-Charlie. And Armstrong kisses Charlie, which one can imagine the bluenoses getting flustered about. But you’d think they’d snip the shot — so it can wind up on Philippe Noiret’s outtakes reel — rather than outlawing the whole movie.

Can I just ask who Charlie’s dress originally belonged to? He’s half the thickness of Edna and a third that of her mum…

Charlie’s skirt falls down and somehow Edna’s dad realises he’s a man. Because those are men’s pants? But are they? They don’t even look human to me.

The film now plunges into a strange section where Charlie attempts to unite the feuding family, get everyone’s forgiveness, and ask Edna’s hand in marriage. Father is flabbergasted or fathergasted, but eventually yields, showing that he can take a joke. He offers Charlie his hand in friendship. Then, after stretching this fake-out just past the point where you suspect anything, Chaplin has dad kick him up the arse, deliver a fantastic roundhouse slap to his face, and boot him out into the street, where he joins the previously ejected Armstrong.

This is one of my favourite endings to date. The structure and plausibility of the films to date is erratic enough that the idea of dad welcoming Charlie into the bosom of the family is just about believable as an unbelievable ending Chaplin might have gone for, so the surprise really works. And we’re not emotionally invested enough in the romance for it to matter that things don’t pan out between Edna and her skeezy, cross-dressing beau. A lot of the earlier films, especially the early Keystones, just end on a random gag, as if anything that gets a laugh will do as resolution, but this one genuinely finishes the film off. Chaplin has begun to understand and care about structure.

Now to see what he can do with it.

The Sunday Intertitle: Recce on Easy Street

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2021 by dcairns

WORK (1915) has a lot to commend it. Before the first image has even appeared, there’s an early reference to Easy Street. And then we get Edna Purviance doing some actual comedy (she’s rarely allowed much) as the Ford family maid. I can’t be sure Chaplin acted it all out for her in advance but it seems probable. An excellent bit of miming, anyway.

This maid is always on the phone, making her a Chaplinesque layabout herself. Mr. and Mrs. Ford are regular co-clown Billy Armstrong, permanently apoplectic, and new recruit Marta Golden.

David Robinson waxes very enthusiastic about Charlie’s introduction as slave labour, pulling an enormous cart while his boss, Izzy A. Wake (Charles Inslee) whips him through traffic (with his own cane!). It’s building on the similar business in HIS MUSICAL CAREER, but Charlie is now clearly positioned as underdog, taking the place of the earlier film’s miserable donkey. Any viciousness he gets up to later has now been justified.

I was slightly startled to see the cart get jammed across a tramline, with an oncoming tram very narrowly missed. Chaplin can do things physically that would be dangerous for most of us, but he doesn’t usually skirt suicide in the Keaton manner. I guess, allowing for undercranking, the tram might be traveling slowly enough to just give the cart a good bump and smash it, and the actors would stand a chance of jumping clear. But I’m not going to test it.

Then there’s a rare camera trick, a Dutch tilt creating the impression of a 45° hillside. This movie might be the inspiration for Polanski’s TWO MEN AND A WARDOBE, THE FAT AND THE LEAN, and MAMMALS, which certainly all exude a Chaplin influence.

Enter Leo White, back in his customary top hat and tails. His road is less tilted because he’s posh. Life’s path is easier.

Charlie, catching up with him, slips on his banana skin (Charlie’s second banana related mishap) and slides back into the previous set-up. Chaplin’s films in this period are kind of like chains of set-ups. These function like squares on a board game. But any set-up can recur at any time. Also, if you’re in one set-up, chances are you can’t see the characters in the adjoining one, no matter how close they might be. The exception is when it’s a close shot of a single character, and then you might get a bit of flirting or whatnot between this character and the one in the next square.

Charlie and his boss actually slide all the way back to the set-up before the set-up before, which has an advancing tram in it again (perhaps the tram is always advancing in this set-up). Escaping this tram, Charlie and Izzy head back into the set-up before THAT, which means they have to deal with ANOTHER advancing tram once they finally start going forwards again. Seems there is indeed always an advancing tram in that set-up.

Judging by the improbable physics in Charlie and co’s next hair’s-breadth escape from dismemberment, the cart is on a wire for this gag, with a team or a machine pulling it rapidly out of shot. Which is terrifying: so much more can go wrong.

Climbing the illusionary hill and arriving in Leo’s banana-skin set-up again, Charlie slips on the skin again and nearly goes back to square one. Chaplin has worked out that banana skins are good for suspense as well as surprise, and that repeating funny business is good economics, but also THREATENING to repeat it can get a laugh too. A laugh of relief that we don’t have to go through all that again.

While Charlie wipes a litre of sweat from his brow, Izzy greets Paddy McGuire, stereotyped as an Irish labourer with a hod. So of course Charlie must now tow both of them. There’s an unusual cut to closer view as the two buddies shake hands: the continuity matching is so good I suspect two cameras were used. The principle of match-cutting on action obviously existed but wasn’t much discussed. Chaplin apparently isn’t doing what Griffith often did, repeating a bit of the action to make sure the audience caught it. Since Rollie Totheroh is Chaplin’s number two cameraman by now, he must be shooting one or other of these set-ups.

Charlie’s plunge down a manhole also seems like something you could hurt yourself doing. Sure there can be some kind of crash pad down there but supposing you hit your face on the edge?

After Charlie’s vanished from view, the blokes in the cart look around in bewilderment. A Fortean event! Izzy even looks UP, which is a very Chaplin thing to do. Rescued, he wafts his baggy pants to evaporate some of the newly-generated perspiration.

At the end of the shot, they walk off, and McGuire goes down the hole, but Time has removed just enough frames to make it not quite very funny.

We’re back to the Ford residence. This is a three set-up household so far: kitchen, hall and dining room, all square and cramped. But there’s a staircase too, so more set-ups may be discovered.

The workmen arrive. Mrs. F. elaborately describes what she wants done, while Izzy ignores her and lights a cigarette, seemingly taking none of it in, and Edna stands back, out of the way of the flailing silent movie gestures. Even doing this she manages to project comic character.

Charlie, having unloaded the cart and loaded himself, is now a one-man-band concatenation of building equipment, emitting tiny puffs of cigarette smoke to prove there’s someone alive in there.

Impossible that he should get in the front door with this stuff wrapped round him, but he does, because the front door is between camera set-ups and so of no concern to us. Charlie collapses in the hall.

Saucy byplay with Edna, who really is on fire in this, and not just because of the maid’s uniform. This being 1915, it’s really quite a dowdy version of a maid’s uniform but the concept is there. You don’t need need to overdo the fetishwear when you’re tickling the leading man’s arse with a feather duster. Which Edna is.

Charlie has already destroyed a fair bit of the Ford home, but it’s all through carelessness. The malice of THE TRAMP’s middle act is gone. For good? We’ll see. The flat is equipped with swing doors, which of course are an invention Charlie has never gotten along with. His inability to navigate them while holding a plank results in headaches for Mr. Ford, again, entirely accidental on Charlie’s part.

David Robinson is very good on the mistrust between classes Chaplin devotes quite a bit of action to. Charlie is oppressed by his boss but both of them see their clients as the common enemy.

Izzy takes off his hat and coat, dusts them carefully and hands them to Charlie, who pretty much destroys them instantly, giving us a clue how this home renovation thing is going to go. The movie has been coy about exactly what kind of “work” it’s going to be about, but now we see that paper-hanging is involved. This is going to be apocalyptic, isn’t it?

Izzy has made himself at home at the family piano while Charlie does all the work. I notice the curtains and tablecloth are blowing about like mad, usually a sign of an exterior set. David Robinson tells us that Chaplin, still between studios, “temporarily took over the converted Bradbury Mansion at 147 North Hill Street.” He used the front of the building to represent the front of the Ford home. But why is it so draughty?

A topical gag: Lois Weber’s HYPOCRITES was released in 1915. Charlie is always fascinated by nude statues and figurines, and he disguises his lust with a show of aesthetic appreciation. He was already working on this at Keystone. Here he uses a lampshade to make a hula skirt for it. His smutty, self-involved smile as he wiggles it. Then he looks up the skirt that he himself dressed it in.

Charlie has also brought along his little clay pipe, which seems to be associated with the workplace.

Edna’s maid, to give her proper credit, does seem more perturbed than charmed by Charlie’s lethal and destructive incompetence.

Immaculately timed bit where Charlie is called upon to help fix a gas range which keeps exploding. Obviously, that goes well. I’ve come to really enjoy Billy Armstrong and I wish he and Charlie had more business together in this.

I cracked up at Charlie trying to remove the great mass of wallpaper paste he has caused to become stuck to Izzy’s head. He’s scraping it off with a brush, but slipping in it every five seconds. So, two stupid activities, interspersed, based around wallpaper paste possessing the contradictory qualities of gooey and slippery. The victim sits patiently as his whited-out features are whisked into one abstraction after another…

Charlie then tries some paperhanging himself. He’s… not very good. Endless fun to be had with paper getting stuck to one hand, then to the other. Charlie has to be dumb enough here to not understand that sticky things are sticky. In later film, he’s not dumb, just not very practical. He doesn’t understand the stuff civilised people are supposed to know.

Edna discovers the Ford home’s long-lost fourth camera set-up, and dusts it.

When we cut back to him, Charlie has made quite a bit of progress with his papering. It’s strikingly shit progress, but progress nonetheless. The Dunning-Kreuger effect made flesh, even he seems not quite satisfied with the way the paper is peeling at the edges and curling at the ends. But it’ll do fine.

Edna immediately recognises the worthlessness of the papering, but sits down to hear Charlie’s tale of woe. We can’t hear what she hears, but a tighter two-shot allows Charlie to do a bit of manly yet broken-hearted stuff — mock pathos. Edna listens compassionately, then gets upset at the black muck his hand leaves on her arm.

It’s a strange bit, not as strange as the leftfield sincere pathos that crashes into THE TRAMP midway, but definitely out of register with the tone elsewhere. Unlucky in love, Charlie spaffs up the walls with his paste, Jackson Pollock style.

And now, just when we’d (probably) forgotten him, Leo White reenters the film, with a bouquet to replace his banana. No idea where he’s been all this time (he was AHEAD of Charlie and the cart), but like Poe Dameron in a silk hat he flies in to the rescue for no adequately prepared reason.

He is… the wife’s secret lover? Mr. Ford goes nuts, Mrs. Ford starts explaining again what renovations she wants done… I guess she’s trying to pretend he’s just another workman, for her husband’s sake. Yes, eventually an intertitle confirms this.

Leo enters the room Charlie’s in and gets a brushful of paste splurch in the kisser. This is only moderately funny: better is when, while Leo tries to explain that he’s not a wall, Charlie keeps daubing at his dripping features, seeing if he can’t improve the effect. He’s an artist at heart.

Then he splurches Edna — accidentally, it’s true. Still.

Billy Armstrong runs amok with a revolver, trying to straight-up murder Leo White. Izzy/Inslee falls into a full bathtub — at Keystone, such an incident might have served for a conclusion, but Chaplin has bigger fish to fry. Armstrong/Ford accidentally shoots the stove and the house explodes. Impressive wall caving-in stuff, quite ambitious for a Chaplin of this period.

Aftermath — disturbingly, Charlie’s boss seems to be pinned down under the bathwater by rubble and is drowning, slowly. Not sure what kind of error of judgement made that choice seem wise. The catastrophic kind, I suppose. Husband, wife and lover are reduced to three heads, poking from the wreckage, a Beckettian triangle. Edna has presumably been blasted into space. Charlie’s head emerges from inside the fallen stove, which seems improbable. He grins satanically at us, then gets hit by one of Oliver Hardy’s leftover bricks-to-be, and retires back into the stove where things are more peaceful.

WORK is a pretty successful short knockabout, with a soupcon of farce and that odd spot of faux-pathos. Chaplin doesn’t quite know what to do with this new mode, he’s just throwing it out there to see what it does. But he’s displaying a surer grasp of character sympathy, getting us on his side. As Walter Kerr observed, Chaplin as tramp was an experiment, and now he’s back to gainful employment. Chaplin as low-status underdog hero is the coming thing. He’s more or less worked out what his character is for.