Archive for Charles Reisner

The Man Who Mistook His Hat for a Cake

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2021 by dcairns

THE PILGRIM, continued.

As noted, some cute business with Charlie helping Edna in the kitchen, especially the rolling pin on the top shelf that keeps falling on him. This is mildly amusing, but provokes an additional gasp when it imperils Edna. Charlie has thought himself clever by placing a milk bottle in front of the rolling pin to stop it trundling off, but then Edna reaches for the bottle…

Charlie is long past actually doing crude violence to his leading ladies for the sake of a laugh — gone are the days when Mabel Normand took a kick in the skirts. But he can still good-naturedly THREATEN to have some accident befall a lady, so long as disaster is averted.

Meanwhile, little Dinky Riesner has placed Sydney Chaplin’s hat over the similar-looking cake Edna has baked, and Charlie proceeds to decorate it with chocolate and cream and cherries. This is all probably too elaborate a scheme for Dinky to come up with, and he’s not even going to be present for the pay-off. Charlie gently kicks the lad from the room, and we can still see from the mite’s expression that this is a hilarious game and he’s not being hurt by it.

Syd gets quite stroppy when he can’t find his hat. Almost too aggressive for a comedy, especially when he’s been a milquetoast until now. A flash of the real man’s unpleasant side? Consternation as the cake/hat is sliced. It doesn’t behave correctly. A round of close-up reactions as the perfidy is discovered: like the denouement of a murder mystery.

The film’s best intertitle, perhaps, as Mrs. Syd asks “Where did you find it?” and a despondent Syd replies “They were eating it.”

The whole thing is incomprehensible to all concerned, though the solution and culprit, Dinky Dean Riesner, is right there, slapping his tiny palm on the creamy chapeau, then burying his face in it to slurp at the delicious coating.

Romance in three-quarter backlight by the garden gate. Enter this Eden’s snake-in-the-grass, Charles Reisner as Howard Huntington AKA ‘Nitro Nick’ AKA ‘Picking Pete.’ Knowing Charlie from his past life, he’s evidently keen to get a piece of whatever long con is going on. Mack Swain, still at tea with Purviance and her mother, makes an obvious mark and is relieved of his pocketbook. Charlie looks very uncomfortable — this impostor is like the dark version of himself, down to the derby. He steals the pocketbook from Reisner and returns it to Swain. Using his powers of filching for good. But we can sense that Nitro Nick’s intrusion is making clear the untenability of Charlie AKA ‘Lefty Lombard’ AKA ‘Slippery Elm’ as a tenant in this respectable home.

When Picking Pete resteals the money, he’s too much on guard for Charlie to resteal it back, so Charlie goes into a magic routine — a prestidigitator in a world of legerdemain — magicking the pocketbook from Swain (who doesn’t have it) to Reisner (who does, having re-filched it). All done in plain view, so Reisner can’t make a fuss.

But now a cash MacGuffin appears (and Cash MacGuffin would make a fine character name for a crime thriller) — Edna’s mortgage money. Which Reisner spots and immediately makes plans for, spinning a yarn about missing his train so he’s invited to stay the night.

In THE TRAMP, the threat came from outside the house, with Charlie as besieged defender. With the threat INSIDE, the scenario is closer to bedroom farce, only with money rather than furtive sex and the veneer of respectability as the motive force. In THE ADVENTURER, Charlie was outsider who didn’t belong and his enemy, the great Eric Campbell, was an insider who did. The cops were the main adversary, though. Here, Reisner is a scarier villain because he really comes from a dark criminal world that Edna and her mum are wholly innocent of. Only Charlie, who knows that world as a native, can defend them. I’m excited to see where this goes.

Really terrific long-take farce action on the top landing, with Charlie continually pretending to go into his room, catching Reisner leaving his, with none of the straight repetition Chaplin was so fond of — it’s all variations on the theme, not replays. Beautifully done, without a cut or a title.

Then a fight, with Reisner trying to get the swag from a drawer while Charlie, mounted on his back like the Old Man of the Sea, continually kicks the drawer shut. A beautiful gag I’ve never seen anywhere else, but which we get to see about a dozen times here since Chaplin has rightly decided that this one is worth repeating.

Knocking Charlie cold, Nitro Reisner heads to the local saloon to lose the mortgage money at roulette. This dance hall is the film’s first opportunity to inject actual Texan local colour.

Rumbled! The sheriff (Tom Murray, who plays the villainous Black Larsen in THE GOLD RUSH) has discovered that Parson Pim is really Lefty Lombard, and gives Edna the bad news. This is pretty good third act plotting — Charlie can retrieve the money and still get arrested,so things really do look bleak. We may know that it’s inevitable that some kind of at least reasonably happyish ending must be arranged, but it’s not easy to see how, which sets Chaplin up nicely to delivery the necessary surprises, whatever they may be.

The plot thickens — a gang of bandits rob the saloon — pure deus ex machina, except that they’re not clearing up the plot problem, they’re intensifying and complicating it.

Chaplin deftly disguises himself to enter the saloon, reversing his dog collar — but I thought it was a real one, stolen from a real minister? It wouldn’t have regular wings at the back. Unless all dog collars do, so that the priests can pass among us incognito, which would be just like them, the sneaky bastards.

Impersonating a bandit, Charlie robs Nitro Nick, then flees, pursued by the real bandits. A pretty desperate bit of plot contrivance, I’ll admit.

Next morning, Charlie is able to return the loot to Edna, but is nailed by the law. His innocence of the current crime counts for nothing since he’s a fugitive from justice anyway. But the goodhearted Sheriff walks Charlie to the Mexican border and orders him to pick flowers — from the other side. It’s the same idea as the jailbreak in THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (and we know Sturges was a Chaplin fan) — will Charlie be sharper than Norville Barnes in realising he’s being allowed to escape?

Nope! Charlie is crafty but nothing in his experience of the law has enabled him to expect this. He comes running back with the flowers even as the Sheriff is riding off, and the stalwart lawman has to march him back to the border by his dog collar, delivering the most well-intentioned boot up the arse in the Chaplin oeuvre, propelling him to freedom. Charlie stands in a wide prairie longshot and looks at us in surprise.

But Chaplin’s not done with us. Just as Charlie is celebrating his new life in peaceful Mexico, a bunch of bandits emerge from the bushes, murdering each other. he flees back to the border, and then retreats from the camera, keeping on big, outward-pointing shoe on either side of the boundary line, ready to flee in whichever direction becomes advisable. It’s a precarious existence for a “citizen of the world.”

The Sunday Intertitle: Pilgrim Versus the World

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by dcairns

At four reels, THE PILGRIM isn’t quite a short and doesn’t seem quite a feature, but the IMDb classes it as one.

Excitingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, not all the way through.

Chaplin is recycling the escaped convict routine from THE ADVENTURER and having another go at the mistaken identity gag from THE IDLE CLASS — again anticipating THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, immediately, is what put me off the film on my previous attempt at viewing: this bloody song. Vocals are tricky in a silent movie score, because if people can sing, why can’t anybody talk, audibly I mean? And yet it can be done. I just don’t happen to like this particular song. It’s a case of Chaplin imposing words on his work, as he did in the revised version of THE GOLD RUSH. Billy Wilder’s dismissal of talking-picture Chaplin — “a child of nine making up lyrics for a Beethoven symphony” isn’t true, I don’t think, of Chaplin’s talkies, but it’s arguably true of this kind of thing. We don’t need words.

We immediately get them, though, and the singer going on while we try to read the wanted sign is distracting. The text here is a basic physical description of Charlie, though the addition “Extremely nervous” is an interesting one, and we learn he has blue eyes.

Like BARRY LYNDON later/earlier, Charlie effects a change of clothing by stealing the duds of a bather — we see the clergyman examining the discarded prison stripes with dismay, a nice bit of economical storytelling.

Charlie the chaplain manages to maintain his usual look surprisingly well — tight jacket and baggy trousers, big shoes. The hat and dog collar are the only noticeable change. So far so good. What comedy will he manage from the impersonation? Early priests in Chaplin’s films — in THE TRAMP and POLICE, are portrayed in a notably acerbic way: one has a rotten egg pressed into his psalm book, the other is a shameless crook and hustler. But in EASY STREET the church scenes are rather delicate and Chaplin seems on his best behaviour. What’s he going to be like here?

But Chaplin jumpstarts a whole new plot before we can find out. Elopers! A pursuing dad!

The chap is Sydney Chaplin, the girl and her father unidentified, despite a very sizable cast list available online. And the plot turns out to be just an excuse for mistaken intentions and running about. The course of true love doesn’t get smoothed out and Syd gets a boot up the bum from Dad. We can assume the girl had a lucky escape.

The bloody song starts again as Charlie is trying to choose a random destination. That song kills everything it plays over, a real shame when Chaplin’s accompanying music is otherwise so good. Trying to stab at a city name from the list, he jabs Henry Bergman in the butt. Well, in the waiting rooms of small-town railway stations, between traveling businessmen and members of the church, such action is not unknown.

Buying his ticket, Charlie still tries to hitch a ride on the underside of the train, before a conductor (Syd again!) corrects him. Charlie has never been in a compartment before.

Another notice is posted, this time announcing the arrival of the new minister, Philip Pim — Charlie, in his new identity. It goes neatly with the wanted poster earlier. The name is an echo of “pilgrim”, obvs.

Among those present, Mack Swain and Edna Purviance, who already harbours romantic imaginings about this new minister, saucy trout that she is.

Chaplin’s train approaches on Sunday, and we see him eating crackers next to Henry Bergman, and we get a look at the newspaper article about his escape, learning that in this film, Charlie, unusually, has a name, Lefty Lombard, and also a pseudonym, “Slippery Elm.” Chaplin was indeed left-handed, though at the workhouse they beat him until he became ambidextrous. Lefty’s escape, like those of John Goodman and William Forsythe in RAISING ARIZONA, and Tim Robbins in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, has been sewer-based, and the paper writes of the prison guards’ “astonisment.” But the entire article does seem to have been written, it doesn’t suddenly devolve into Latin or rubbish about trade conferences. I would quite like that job, just as I would like to have been tasked with typing Jack Torrance’s novel in THE SHINING. My ideal job.

Charlie/Lombard/Pim is dismayed to find the tow sheriff and all the prominent citizens waiting to welcome him. Phyllis Allen gives herself a lovely bit of business, stepping back and colliding with the locomotive. She’s not even in focus, which makes it somehow even more delightfully throwaway.

Charlie filches a quart of whisky from Swain’s back pocket, which I guess establishes that Mack is a bit of a hypocrite. But Charlie loses the booze when they both slip on the sidewalk. They find themselves sitting in a puddle of hooch — mutual embarrassment, as each suspects the other of attributing the contraband to himself.

Charlie giving a service, and not knowing how, seems like the kind of business tailor-made for the talkies. What can Chaplin do with it,wordlessly?

The choir are a notable gang of grotesques, carved from walnut. There is awkward sitting-down-standing-up confusion. More good business with Phyllis and her itchy son. And there is quite a bit of comic value in Charlie having no idea what happens in a church or what is expected of a minister. Plus he has his eyes on the collection boxes.

The sermon — David and Goliath! A tour de force of mime, my favourite part being Charlie’s graphic insistence that David’s slingshot passes clean through Goliath’s massive skull. All done with gestures. Little Raymond Lee, the bully kid from THE KID, is wild about all this, and the equally explicit decapitation scene.

Charlie finishing the sermon as if he were, alternately, a victorious prizefighter, and a prima ballerina receiving an opening night ovation, is good too.

A fellow crook! But, despite his character having three names, the Inaccurate Movie Database doesn’t seem to know any of them. But Charlie does, and the presence of an old acquaintance strikes him as very inconvenient. This is Charles Reisner, the thug from THE KID, whose son, Dean or Dinky Riesner, who married Vampira, is also in the film. And no, I don’t know why they spell their surname differently.

Charlie, meanwhile, has been billeted with Edna and her widowed mother. Observing Edna’s shape through her shapeless dress, Charlie treats us to a downright sinister glance, comparable to his eerie look from the dock in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Pure serial killer.

Visitors arrive. One is Dinky Dean, another is Syd again, in character actor guise:

Dinky recalled later in life that it took quite a bit of coaching to get him to hit people, especially Charlie, but his dad was the assistant director as well as acting, and between Chaplin and Reisner they persuaded him to cut loose and sock the great star repeatedly in the kisser. This business isn’t too amusing — I was waiting for Charlie to do something more in character with him being a convict than a minister — of course, this is probably the suspense Chaplin had in mind. I’m just frustrated he doesn’t do more to pay it off.

Finally, he does, kicking — gently — the recalcitrant tot onto his keister, or maybe he spells it kiester. It’s moderately gratifying, but Dinky rather spoils it with a grin directed past the camera, presumably at dad. I suppose Chaplin may have welcomed this as proof he hadn’t really harmed a small child.

Cute stuff in the kitchen with Edna. This is all very mild — it seems like Chaplin has decided he doesn’t want to give offence, the anti-clerical tendencies seen in his earlier films are in abeyance here. But let’s see…

Here’s an interesting thing: since, as I’ve observed, Chaplin had taken to using both his cameras to gather coverage, typically a wider and closer view of the same action, he was compelled, to create a second negative for foreign territories, to use alternate takes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the US and foreign (in this case, Russian) versions of THE PILGRIM. The camera angles are mostly the same, but the action is always subtly different.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Little Punk

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2021 by dcairns

I think we can forgive Jack Coogan Sr. for calling his son a little punk, but maybe not for spending all his earnings as a child star, or for taking him to see a lynching. Anyway, dispel those thoughts from your minds because he’s now about to appear as an actor.

But let’s get back to where we left off. Maybe deduct a point from Chaplin for failing to give Edna a closeup when she discovers the note proving Jackie is her long-lost son. The emotion still comes across, so maybe it doesn’t matter. Add a point, but a weird one, for the fact that he has the insert shot of the note wobble about as if the hand holding it is in a state of high emotion. We won’t worry about the naked thumb that sways into view holding the paper — Edna is wearing gloves in the wide shot.

Charlie & Jackie have been forced to abandon their garret, as the law is after them — a rare instance of actual consequences for criminal action being depicted in a Chaplin film. Usually you just run away from the kops and your troubles are over. But now they know where he lives. The ever-versatile Henry Bergman makes his third appearance in this film as the lodging-house proprietor whose premises Charlie resorts to. Bergman is disguised with a long beard, but isn’t doing the full Jewish stereotype Leo White would have treated us to (and did).

Charlie has only a single coin to gain admission, so he has to do a Laughing Gravy with Jackie, smuggling the lad in through a window and keeping him concealed. Good comic suspense.

Jack Coogan Sr.’s face (and character) ideally suits him to the role of pickpocket, his thieving hand straying towards Charlie’s baggy pants even as the rest of him is seemingly asleep. Emerging from behind Charlie, it seems at first that he’s grown an extra arm, an anatomical illusion gag in line with Charlie’s own thieving hands routing in A DOG’S LIFE, or the dance of the bread rolls.

Charlie allows Lightfingered Jack to pillage his pockets, secure in the knowledge that he’s penniless, but when the thief actually discovers a tiny coin, he actively encourages the search, after relieving the cutpurse of his ill-and-all-too-briefly-gotten gains.

Some good hide-and-seek with Bergman leads to Jackie’s discovery, and the last coin must be surrendered.

But now Bergman learns that the law is after Jackie — there’s a nifty iris-in on his newspaper coupled with a dissolve to a big close-up that makes it feel somehow like the magnification has been turned up on a microscope. And we get the first DESCRIPTION of Charlie anywhere in a Chaplin film: “a little man with large flat feet and small moustache.”

The ad looks like it’s been pasted straight onto an existing newspaper but never mind. Add one thousand points for the detail of a housefly strolling casually across the page, mickeymoused by Chaplin’s score.

Bergman reads the ad, and the reward decides him, it seems: he can tell himself he’s rescuing a kidnapped child, I guess. He abducts the slumbering Jackie, leaving Charlie to wake in fright and find his son stolen away in the night. We can see his lips say “John,” the only other time the Kid’s name is mentioned, I think. actually, I’m no good as a lipreader but I think he might be saying “Jack.”

Jackie did in fact go missing during the shoot, falling asleep behind some scenery and then waking up to watch, fascinated, as everyone hunted desperately for him. He got a licking from Jack Sr.

Good realistic night scenes as Jackie is handed over to the police and Charlie runs desperately through the streets. Dawn is less realistic: a backcloth has been added to the T-junction set, representing sunrise. Interesting to see. The sky has been stark white in earlier scenes — I think what we’ve been seeing is a diffusing scrim stretched up above the set walls.

Edna turns up at the stationhouse in furs and feathers to claim her child — evidently she wants to dazzle him with her affluence. The feathered hat allows us to appreciate how infernally draughty it is in that cop shop — an open air set.

Charlie, hatless, still clutching Jackie’s cap, arrives at his own doorstep, evidently tired and footsore. He lies down and dreams — the third Chaplin dream sequence, or is it the fourth? All of HIS PREHISTORIC PAST is a dream, and SUNNYSIDE contains one definite vision, maybe two.

Third act dream sequences are tricky — this one may have inspired the ballet in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, which is similarly predicated: the hero thinks all is lost, but in reality it isn’t. The audience is encouraged to share Charlie/Gene’s misapprehension, but to make this dramatic low point last, a phantasy is concocted. I never feel this really works in dramatic terms, though there’s no denying the brilliance of the invention displayed by Kelly, Minnelli, Alton, Lerner et al, and by Chaplin and his team here.

The idea of staging heaven on the streets Charlie knows is a terrific one. Without that idea, it wouldn’t be worth doing. There’s no particular reason for an afterlife fantasy — Charlie doesn’t think he’s dead, and has no reason to think Jackie’s dead.

J.M. Barrie, “king of whimsy”, according to David Robinson, thought the sequence too whimsical. It’s also hard to find any of it funny given the suspended emotional crisis this stuff is wedged into. Francis Hackett in The New Republic praised the scene, though, for imagining and depicting the limited imagination of Charlie’s character: he only knows these streets, so the Heaven he imagines is set here, and has all the same problems as earth, only with wings on (and lots of flowers and balloons in the street).

An intertitle identifies this as “Dreamland,” which sort of gets around the obvious “Why heaven?” question. A young Esther Ralston and Lita Grey, Chaplin’s second wife of four years’ hence, are among the juvenile throng, but only the winged spaniel really impresses.

Charlie gets himself outfitted with wings and a chorister’s smock — from an obviously Jewish tailor. Shades of Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule. I think, from the bay window, this is Henry Bergman in appearance #4, with a false beard and silly-putty nose.

Sin creeps in: Jack Coogan Sr. in red devil costume creeps past the dozing gatekeeper (Henry Bergman, appearance #5, going for a new record) with a couple of acolytes.

And you were there, and you, and you! Charles Reisner’s street tough is magically transformed into a good citizen, full of sweetness — he’s unable to avoid making himself seem slightly sissy.

At the demonic Coogan Sr.’s suggestion, Lita, in angel form, vamps Charlie, showing a fifteen-year-old ankle. Chaplin’s ephebophilia is most nakedly displayed in this sequence.

Also, this dream is only five minutes long, but I always thought it was twenty, because that’s how it feels. We want to know what happens next, for real.

Trouble in paradise — Lita, who is very cute, but cute like Jackie Coogan, provokes jealousy in Mr. Reisner, and the feathers fly. We could argue that just as Charlie is unable to imagine a Paradise separate from the neighbourhood he knows, he can’t imagine one without fight scenes either. God’s Kop (Tom Wilson again) arrives to break up the war in Heaven, Charlie flees/flies the scene, and something that never happens in Chaplin’s earthly police altercations occurs: Wilson draws a revolver and shoots him out of the sky.

Jackie rushes to the fallen angel, mouthing “Dad!” and DISSOLVES INTO HIM.

At this point, the expiring angel Charlie COULD go into a dream within a dream, a new afterlife nested in the first — it could be like INCEPTION. But, fortunately, he wakes up instead — going from an angelic corpse being manhandled by Wilson, to a live mortal in exactly the same situation.

Hollywood screenwriting #101: you create dramatic peaks and troughs zigzagging between triumph and disaster, and you try to make the chart intensify as it goes on, so the third act looks like a heart attack. You try to make the final switch go from ALL IS LOST TOTAL DISASTER to SAVED HAPPY ENDING in a single beat, which Chaplin more or less accomplishes here by having Wilson take Charlie, not to prison, but to Edna and Jackie.

Tom the kop laughs indulgently as father and son embrace. Yeah, whatever, we still don’t like you, pig.

Walter Kerr appreciates this as being like the end of CITY LIGHTS — it ends exactly where it has to. How will Jackie adapt to his new surroundings? What will Charlie’s position be? These are largely unanswerable questions, but fortunately outside the scope of the story being told, so Chaplin knows exactly what he has to do:

FADE OUT