Archive for Charlie Chaplin

A Saturday Intertitle: “Let’s go to the beach.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on May 13, 2023 by dcairns

THE MACK SENNETT COLLECTION is actually worth owning, in spite of my regular rudeness about Sennett’s artistry. THE WATER NYMPH (1912) is an early — perhaps the first? — bathing beauty film from Keystone. It’s typical that Mack stuck to the winning formula even after it became a byword for “dated old film” along with the custard pie — a transition that probably occurred within five years, because certainly by the late teens Chaplin was decrying all that stuff as old hat.

The titular nymph is, of course, Mabel Normand, who makes a cute entrance after her costume change, then shares a Keystone expository mime with her chums in the audience: a rubbing of her tits meant to convey, I guess, her youthful joy and sense of mild naughtiness at getting inside a swimming cossie.

We’re already more than three minutes into a ten minute film, the early scenes filled with… nothing much. Bickering beaus, a discussion about possibly going to the beach (“Do you like films,” Chabrol asked his editor disdainfully, “where they say, ‘Let’s go to the beach!’ and then it cuts to them at the beach?”). One presumes, if Sennett had an idea in mind at all, that he thought the suspense generated by the mere possibility of a moistened Mabel would keep the punters glued to their seats, gazing ardently over the lady in front’s enormous hat.

Mabel enters pre-dampened, suggesting the presence of a shower for bathers to use before emerging onto the beach, though the purpose of such a sanitary arrangement remains to be guessed at. The swim baths has such things to prevent people entering the pool filthy… perhaps in 1912 the average holidaymaker was so potentially grimy they needed hosing down to stop them polluting the Pacific.

Mabel in shiny black swimsuit is adorably human, slightly pear-shaped, aware that she’s lovely to look at, unaware that fashions in beauty and sex appeal are going to transmute over the next 111 years. Due to the vagaries of film preservation and duping, her cossie GLOWS BLACK, like some Jack Kirby space phenomenon.

We get to see Mack and Mabel as a shy Edwardian couple, which is nice. Ford Sterling is around as MN’s dad (he would have had to have sired her aged nine). No plot eventuates: any suggestion of farcical developments is attenuated, abortive. There is a sense of anticipation about it all — silent comedy is going to become very exciting. But not yet.

Sid vicious

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2023 by dcairns

Today we had the enormous pleasure and privilege of talking to a legend of British television comedy (not pictured), and even better, having him talk to us. But unfortunately I can’t talk to YOU about it yet.

Very busy days, what with marking at the Art College and working on what was supposed to be one video essay but has ballooned into four. And which we plunged into as I was still making the two Sidney J. Furie pieces. So I haven’t been watching many films, although a sidequest led me to investigate a bunch of Keystone shorts.

Those who have gone into Keystone’s output more deeply than I have emerged somewhat winded — both Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns and Simon Louvish in his Mack Sennett biography have to come out and say that the films, watched whole, aren’t particularly funny. They seem to exist largely to supply clips for compilations and montages of olde-worlde slapstick. They fulfill that function extremely well, so much so that we couldn’t resist incorporating some of that frenetic fractured flicker quality into our current projects. But I can’t talk about that either.

What I CAN talk about is GUSSLE’S DAY OF REST. I’d been meaning to get into some Gussle.

Gussle is Sid Chaplin, who joined Keystone just as his better-known and, let’s face it, better in every way brother left for his short stint at Essanay. The siblings pass like comedic ships in the night in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST.

Sid was a talented clown, for sure. He didn’t settle for imitating his brother, or not directly. Padding his arse out into a mighty cushion, he seems to have been imitating Billie Ritchie, the Chaplin impersonator best remembered today for being pecked to death by ostriches. (The dependable Silentology has debunked this story, but it seems a shame to let such a striking death fall off into the realm of the mythical). Ritchie claimed that HE originated the Tramp character and Charlie stole it, so maybe Sid is a Chaplin impersonator (as well as an actual Chaplin) in reverse.

He had the wit to fashion a different moustache and hat.

GDOR is typical Keystone roughhouse. The world of these films is violent anarchy, with everybody psychopathically horrible to everyone else. Gussle blows smoke in Mrs Gussle’s face as she sleeps and we’re supposed to find this delightful. She’s played by frequent Charlie collaborated Phyllis Allen, a good sport, and her battleaxe persona is all the justification we’re supposed to need. Same goes for when he shuts her in a cage at the zoo with an unfortunate zookeeper and a closeup of an irate wildcat:

At least Sid is allowed to milk a joke long enough to make an impression, something Charlie had fought for. There are some actual laughs. Trying to crank up his jalopy, Sid finds his hat keeps falling off with each twist of the handle. This goes on for an insane number of repetitions, played very fast, until he gives up and puts the hat on his bulging bottom instead, where it can no more fall off than a cow can fall off planet earth.

Asides from being talented, Sid was also deeply horrible (the cannibal rapist angle has NOT been debunked at Silentology or elsewhere, and Sid actually admitted it and joked about it) and that kin of comes through in his comedy, at least here.

At the end of the film, a series of explosions, of a kind actually more common in Keystone shorts than custard pies ever were (this movie does feature one slung tartlet, but several enormous detonations), succeed in burying Sid, his jalopy, and his female traveling companion under a mountain of dirt. Then a pale and expressive hand forces its way to the surface, CARRIE-style as Fiona immediately observed, and slowly and painfully excavates the gurning Sid visage. Ever the gentlemen, he starts to uncover the lady in the passenger seat next, only her wig comes off, revealing a bald dome gleaming through the debris. Sid makes a face, holds his nose (a modest version of the dreaded Keystone expository mime) and then buries the woman again. Fade out.

Pretty unpleasant. Charlie made some nasty pieces of work for Sennett too — and of course we’re currently supposed to be looking at him being a serial killer in MONSIEUR VERDOUX — so I may pushing things to see this moment as proof of the ugliness in Sid’s character informing his comic sensibility. But between you and me I don’t think I am.

Floral Arrangements

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 22, 2023 by dcairns

Two dedicated professionals: M. Verdoux is still sending flowers to Mme. Grosnay; Det. Morrow (shouldn’t it be “Moreau”?) is trailing him, an indefatigable Javert of Justice. A single, slightly wobbly tracking shot takes us from Verdoux floral purchase to the watchful flic — this kind of storytelling camera move is extremely rare in Chaplin’s work.

[I’ve identified five principle motivations for the camera to move: exploring space; following a moving character; representing the POV of a moving character; evoking a psychological change in a character; and telling a story. The narrational tracking shot is common in horror movies and Hitchcock. By moving from one subject to another, the director self-consciously lets us in on what’s happening beneath the surface of a situation. Often, the movement takes us from a seemingly innocent wide shot to a detail that has sinister implications, as it does here. MONSIEUR VERDOUX, dealing with crime, murder, and detection, is next-door to a thriller. We can assume that had Orson Welles been able to develop his own idea (which Chaplin basically nicked), the thriller aspects may have been even more evident, since the Wellesian style leans towards noir.]

Of all the plot strands in the film, Morrow’s feels the most Wellesian, because it plays games with our sympathies and defies narrative expectations: Morrow is set up as Nemesis, but is neatly taken out of the game just when his purpose seems set to be fulfilled.

Morrow beards Verdoux in his den — the doorbell provokes a startled look, almost to camera (and thence to Charlie’s chums in the audience) in which his head is amusingly framed by a wall mirror, creating a halo effect. Verdoux is able to check Morrow out via the window, a POV shot that aligns us with the prey, not the predator. A series of elegant movements here as Chaplin moves around the room, expressing Verdoux’ discomfiture and his fast thinking. Another ring of the bell makes Verdoux look at us again.

Verdoux runs into the kitchen and we get an axial violation — the switch in camera position causes his movement to flip from left-to-right to right-to-left. This is supposedly the first thing Chaplin learned about movies, and the only thing he learned from Henry “Pathe” Lehrman. Possibly we should blame the production designer for forcing the issue, but Chaplin had the authority and money to order a set wall removed and another put in so he could maintain consistent screen direction…

It’s not that the effect is actually confusing — one man going through a doorway is unlikely to throw us off, comprehensionwise. But it’s inelegant.

Verdoux seems cool as a cucumber once he lets Morrow in (he has his poisoned wine in readiness). Then a nice bit of slapstick as he bumps into the dressmaker’s dummy from act one — not only does the clumsiness betray nerves, something Morrow notices, it’s clumsiness involving an object associated with his murderous career — the dummy represents the dead Thelma Couvais, rising, a stuffed torso on a pole, to accuse her assassin.

Chaplin can now play the scene for suspense — how prepared is Morrow to arrest Verdoux, and will he drink the poison laid out for him? I imagine it may have pleased Chaplin to reduce dialogue to mere delaying action: the cat-and-mouse game going on in the interrogation is secondary to the ticking bomb element.

Morrow has been conveniently silly, not telling police headquarters of his lead. This is a crime story trope, a fact pressed into my awareness by its appearance in Comencini’s THE SUNDAY WOMAN which I watched a week ago: whenever a supporting character says “I know who the killer is but I’m not quite ready to tell,” you can be sure they’re about to get it in the neck. Poor, overconfident Detective Morrow. When he stands up, the camera pushes in with vulturine eagerness as he turns to look right at us, perhaps already feeling the effects of the slow-acting mickey (he’s a touch shiny). Perhaps the Chaplinesque look to camera in this film is associated specifically with Death?

The familiar intersticial shot of racing train wheels leads us by quick dissolve to Morrow’s own dissolution. Like McTeague, antihero of GREED, Verdoux finds himself handcuffed to a corpse, but unlike him he has the key handy. (I worked out a solution to McTeague’s dilemma, although it would still leave him stranded in the desert. We planned to use it in LET US PREY, the horro movie Fiona & I wrote, but amid the innumerable rewrites it got pruned, saved for another day.)

Cut from Verdoux exit, leaving the snoring Inspector in his compartment, to the headline announcing the man’s death, to Verdoux’s smug reaction as he sits at a curbside cafe. As he stands, his eyes seem to catch our own, just as Morrow’s had done…