Archive for Chester Conklin

On the Tiles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2021 by dcairns

For his second Essanay film, Chaplin upped sticks and left Chicago to Oscar Micheaux, decamping to Niles, California and taking Ben Turpin with him. There, he encountered the uneuphoniously-named Edna Purviance who became a fixture in his films until 1922, and who he would keep under contract for years and years, and who he would attempt to turn into an independent star by having Josef Von Sternberg direct her in A WOMAN OF THE SEA, a film which he subsequently shelved for unknown reasons and then seemingly destroyed for tax purposes.

Edna was characterised by a so-called friend as “a docile creature” and we perhaps see a bit of this in Chaplin’s anecdote about hypnotizing her at a party. Having bragged that he could put anyone under the influence, he leaned in close and whispered to her, “Fake it!” A good sport, she complied, and the bond was forged.

Edna is just one of a couple of girls Charlie flirts with during his drunken debauch here. There are also a lot of men in false beards, some of which disguise the thrifty repurposing of cast members (you pay your actors by the day, not the role, so work them, damnit). The “plot” is just Charlie & Ben on the razzle, but then a farce situation develops when Edna innocently finds herself in a compromising situation (in her pajamas in Charlie’s hotel room) after trying to retrieve her dog. Mabel Normand had played this exact situation the previous year in CAUGHT IN THE RAIN. But this is a better film.

Turpin continues to be an aggressive near-equal in screen time. The knockabout teamwork is at least as good as the taut routines Chaplin had worked out with Chester Conklin, so it’s a shame BT didn’t get a later cameo the way CC did in MODERN TIMES. David Robinson describes him as “one of the best comedy partners Chaplin ever found,” while describing him as resembling a prematurely hatched bird. But a feisty one! Chaplin used faint praise: his “stooge” “seemed to know the ropes.” It’s said the two didn’t get on, with Turpin impatient with Chaplin’s methods. Still, there’s more to Turpin than strabismus: Chaplin rarely gives anyone but the leading lady a close-up, so Turpin has to depend on his considerable physical skills to get the laughs, rather than falling back on his crossed eyes (ouch).

Bud Jamison, who had also come from the Chicago branch, is an effective heavy, playing the first insanely violent headwaiter in the Chaplinverse, anticipating Eric Campbell’s terrifying brute in THE IMMIGRANT. Having him turn up later as a jealous husband is smart plotting.

The bit that actually made me laugh out loud is Charlie trying to get toothpaste on his brush, and then forgetting why he’s doing it, while paralytically drunk. I say it again — Chaplin’s father was killed by his alcoholism — and his early comedy depends disproportionately on wringing comedy from abject inebriation.

I realize this isn’t as in-depth as previous posts. But I think I’ll go back to this film for more — especially as I am shocked — shocked! — to discover that my sepia DVD version has, unlike the more pristine YouTube print, actual intertitles!

I’ll Bet You Five You’re Not Alive If You Were In This Film

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2021 by dcairns

It’s all go. In a shattering development, Uncle Donald, played by Charles “Oh Mr. Kane” Bennett, is discovered prone in the snow, apparently alive — well, it did seem a bit harsh to kill him off in a slapstick comedy. Not that we had particularly come to care about him or anything.

Tillie and Charlie, newlywed, move into Uncle Donald’s palatial estate. Chaplin had found the best way to get comedy business past the hyperactive Keystone cutters was to slip it in during entrances and exits, since for the sake of mere comprehensibility the editors couldn’t really get away with not showing characters appear in or leave a scene. But all bets are off now — Sennett wants six reels, so the frenetic pace of previous Keystones isn’t really being pursued. It’s a relief: we get to watch actors act.

This scene is a relief too, since we get a different shot size from the usual full-figure or occasional wide medium. Of course, head-to-toe is the ideal framing for Chaplinesque comedy, but some variety is also nice. A blast of grainy, monochrome oxygen is admitted into the film.

Chaplin gets some play out of treating the footmen as objects: hanging his hat and cane on one, even leaning on him as if he were a meat pillar. The Henri Bergson idea of comedy arising from the lines of separation between organic and mechanical do seem particularly relevant to Chaplin’s comedy. Probably more than anybody else’s.

Disturbingly, Tillie now becomes a domestic tyrant, browbeating and actual-beating the unoffending footmen.

Mabel gets herself hired as a maid, demonstrating her cute curtsey, which in those days served as a résumé.

Enter Conklin! Charlie and Tillie are throwing a ball. Conklin is described on the internet as playing “Mr. Whoozis,” but he doesn’t seem to have a name in this print. He’s wearing an even bigger version of his Mr. Walrus walrus moustache.

Another guest, this one a simpering fop. Charlie begins instinctively limbering up to kick him. This is undoubtedly a bit homophobic although, on the other hand, Charlie’s character is a blackguard and hound of the first water. Can’t identify the actor: the IMDb makes clear that Keystone thriftily recycled all the contract players from the restaurant, dressed up as party guests. We have familiar worthies like Hank Mann and Harry McCoy (who seems to have played a record nine roles in this), Alice Davenport and Glen Cavender, and of course token extraterrestrial Grover Ligon (that name!). Cautioned by Tillie against booting guests up the rear, Charlie settles for smacking a flunky, to which nobody could possibly object.

As predicted, Mabel makes an adorable maid. She sticks a finger in a creamy dessert, sampling it. Will she get to flinging pastries later? Sennett recalled, perhaps untruthfully, Mabel pie-ing Ben Turpin upon a random impulse (no such scene appears to exist): “She weighed and hefted the pastry in her right palm, considered it benevolently, balanced herself upon the balls of her feet, went into a wind-up like a big-league pitcher, and threw. Motion-picture history, millions of dollars, and a million laughs hung on her aim as the custard wobbled in a true curve and splashed with a dull explosion in Ben Turpin’s face.”

(Ben Turpin was at Essanay and wouldn’t come to Keystone until years later. But Wikipedia now credits him with receiving the first onscreen pie to the face in 1909, so Sennett was in a way right to give him credit. They also remark that Fred Karno sketches utilised the gag, so Chaplin would have come to Keystone familiar with it.)

I will be kind of disappointed if this party doesn’t turn into a pie fight, even though I rarely find them that funny. I also want a big chase. Ditto.

Mabel confronts Charlie, a spectre at the banquet. Then she retires to the kitchen to ladle booze into herself.

An interesting gaglet occurs when Charlie sneaks off to see Mabel. Tillie, thinking he’s still beside her, reaches over to squeeze his knee while laughing at Mr. Whoozis’s witticisms, or whoozisisms. So instead she’s squeezing a woman’s knee. She finds out her error and is embarrassed, apologises. Her victim goes from looking annoyed to acting forgiving, but as soon as Tillie turns her back the woman is sort of twisting away from her, giving her the fish-eye, a look that says “You’re a weird one, you are.” So is this a lesbian joke? Dressler is an intriguing choice to be doing it, given the rumours and claims.

Charlie persuades Tillie to have a drink, to stop her bullying him, I think. But this is surely a recipe for disaster, or at least for another Highland fling, which is much the same thing. Indeed, soon Tillie has been bitten by a dancing bug, which necessitates for some reason changing from her current weird frilly pantsuit to another, different frilly pantsuit.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Chester start a fight, for no particular reason. This is kind of the problem with circus clowns (and Chester had been one): lack of narrative/character context for the funny business. They’re used to just prancing into the ring and acting up. Same thing with so much Keystone material. It’s just random mucking about, performed by skilled comedians but without any meaning and therefore of limited entertainment value. The triangle of Charlie, Marie and Mabel ought to be enough of a premise to develop some fun slapstick battling, but WHO IS WHOOZIS?

Charlie ejects Whoozis and makes nice with Mabel — demonstrating again his Richard III-type ability to seduce, enchant and befuddle.

Charles Bennett continues to recover from his mountain. A shaft of light pierces the smoky interior of his Alpine convalescence. The first deliberately place grace note of lighting in a Keystone picture, I’ll hazard. It’s placement, a luminous intrusion, is as odd and alien to the scheme of a Sennett picture as if a Dalek were to trundle onto the set.

Whoozis returns for more fighting. Charlie does sling some food at him. Additionally, the larger than usual rich guy sets allow for some unusual in-depth staging as Charlie drives Chester deeper and deeper into the background of shot. This doesn’t make things any funnier, but it’s an interesting variant.

END OF PART 5

PART 6

Tillie, newly attired, rampaged back into the party, making exotic Mata Hari arm movements. Theda Bara’s reaction is unrecorded. Lipreaders and other persons with eyesight may detect her yelling “CHARLIE!” from the top of the stairs.

AND NOW THEY TANGO. This is, admittedly, pretty good. Hippopotamus and stoat. And yet they’re so graceful in the water. In fact, they’re graceful here, it’s just that their grace includes tripping and falling.

Now here’s Harry McCoy, formerly a leading actor who Charlie supported, now got up as a pod person Ford Sterling,. Sterling had been the #1 Keystone star who had recently left to pursue a career elsewhere (he’d be back). I guess Sennett wanted to not only find roles for all his regular actors (but not Roscoe Arbuckle, for some reason), he wanted to create simulacra of those no longer under contract. Previously Chaplin had been tried in this role. McCoy, it must be said, is not markedly less appealing that the original, but it would be hard to surpass the lack of enthusiasm I feel about F.S.

While Charlie and Tillie are not so much cutting as lacerating a rug, Mabel gets into fights with random party guest and random footman. Finally, Tillie catches Mabel and Charlie canoodling. PIES ARE THROWN!

Then, surprisingly, Tillie draws a revolver (from nowhere — Mr. Chekhov was not consulted) and bullets are now substituted for pastries (incidentally I always felt a Peckinpahesque slomo pie fight would be worth attempting — Kubrick of course would have been the man to do it, in STRANGELOVE, but he apparently never thought of it).

As shooting sprees go, this is pretty amusing, with Charlie throwing himself into the other guests in his wild flight, creating well-dressed scrummages all over the dance floor. It’s funnier/less nauseating than the comparable scene in MEET THE FEEBLES. It’s comparable the way Tillie wants to shoot absolutely everyone, regardless of whether they’ve actually offended her.

Charlie hides in a huge, unconvincing urn that wasn’t there a minute ago. Mabel hides in a polar bear skin, a fetish object inside a furry. This chase is limited by the number of sets Sennett is prepared to pay for.

Smashing the urn, Tillie is about to, perhaps, tear Charlie’s head from his shoulders, when her not-dead uncle returns home. He throws everyone out. Charlie now has to choose between Mabel and his lawful wife, who is now not a desirable millionairess but a penniless hick in strange pajamas. He boots her in the gut and leaves.

For some reason, a footman calls the kops. I’m not quite clear on which crime is being reported. The kops come bumbling into the station house, falling over one another, a familiar bit of business I haven’t actually seen in many films.

Tillie now has her gun again, and it’s the kind that never needs reloading (funny how you can’t buy those anymore) and she chases Charlie and Mabel onto a pier. This is not the best place for them to have fled to, one senses. From Sennett’s viewpoint, though, it’s useful. Ducking his casts was a reliable way of ending a picture, though I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory in this case.

The kops are in pursuit, naturally. The kop kar rear-ends Tillie and propels her, miraculously transfigured into a burly stuntman, into the sea. The salt water transforms her back into the likeness of Marie Dressler. Then the kop kar drives off the end of the pier, because all the kops are bumbling imbeciles. They turn into dummies as the kar goes over, but soon are themselves again, splashing about and hitting one another with rubber tyres. The transformative power of saline. Tillie is now attempting to spank an eel.

Mabel and Charlie having inexplicably failed to topple into the drink like civilised people, rush to a police call box (literally a small box with a phone in, an Officer Dibble not a TARDIS) and call the Water Police, which is where Al St. John gets into the picture, belatedly. It’s weird that Charlie and Mabel are now trying to get everyone rescued. Also, the water police are just as inept as the “regular” kops. It’s becoming a vision of hell. People are drowning and their lives are in the hands of physical incompetents.

The source play has been abandoned. Chaos reigns.

Tillie is finally dredged up, and returns Charlie’s ring to him. Mabel is supportive, rejects Charlie with a “We’re through!” gesture, and for a while it looks like Mabel and Tillie/Marie will walk off into the sunset, or up Sunset, together.

And in fact… Dressler embraces Normand, kisses her affectionately, and the curtain closes. Then she reemerges from behind it, bows to us, invites Mabel and Charlie (“CHARLIE!”) to join her. Chaplin does a very good impersonation of a man not acting, facing an audience instead of a camera crew. Then, as they prepare to bow, they are airlifted out of the film by Melesian jump-cut. Dressler looks to each side and does two double-takes (or one quadruple-take?) at finding them vanished.

Then she shrugs, confused.

“This film lark is a mystery to me…”

TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE stars Carlotta Vance; Adenoid Hynkel; Paddy, the Nickel Hopper; Robert Bunce; William Pitt; Sixth Member Ale and Quail Club; Charley – Son of the Desert from Texas; Josie Hunkapillar; Tarzan – Younger; Jane Porter; Detective Sweeney; Mrs Cohen; Al Cohen; Wizard of Oz; Fuzzy Jones; and Rear End of Horse.

Music Boxing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2020 by dcairns

HIS MUSICAL CAREER is an unusually subtle title, since the musical career in question turns out to be piano-moving, something customers could only be amused by AFTER paying for a ticket and starting to watch.

We see Charlie getting hired in the first scene, by Mack Swain, while the reliably weird-looking Billy Gilbert (not that one) shamelessly pulls focus in the bg. Expect to see this guy shown the door once Chaplin sees the rushes. And funny that both the major comedy shorts about piano-moving have guys called Billy Gilbert in them.

Charlie is STILL experimenting with his basic look: this time he has a little clay pipe to puff on, smokelessly. He gets some decent business out of it, but David Lynch would probably say the added face-detail makes Charlie’s head too FAST. The little moustache and dark eyebrows are detail enough.

Laurel & Hardy’s THE MUSIC BOX is the one to beat, clearly, and it’s doubtful that Chaplin at this stage in his career has a chance of doing it.

Still, Mack Swain as supervisor is a good idea: so he’s not just bigger than Charlie, he outranks him. Swain had spent so long (maybe only a year and a bit, but dozens of films) being pushed around by Chester Conklin that he was probably programmed against acting dominant, which means he’s no Eric Campbell.

There’s immediately a nasty gag about Swain drinking varnish — Chaplin seems to be consciously responsible for this, whereas it would be funnier as an accident. But Keystone was inclined towards cruelty and aggression, and Chaplin to some extent towed the line. His ineffectual attempts at helping the poisoned Swain are reasonably funny, but would have worked a lot better if he hadn’t switched the drink and varnish on purpose.

Plum role for Charley Parrot (later Chase) as the store manager.

Charlie shows off his tiny muscles. Thin but wiry!

Two customers, Mr. Rich (stout and top-hatted) and Mr. Poor (gesticulating melodramatic scarecrow). Pathos is something to be made mock of, at this stage of the Chaplin filmography.

Two addresses, 666 Prospect St. and 999 Prospect St., are introduced, setting up the potential for a mix-up. I note that Mabel lived at no. 666 in CAUGHT IN A CABARET, but I make no Satanic inference from this.

Before the film has reached the five-minute mark, Swain is trapped under the piano in an image resembling a Weegee death scene. So long as Chaplin is fecklessly responsible, this cruelty works (has deniability), but he keeps alternating between incompetence and malice. Look at his work as Chester Conklin’s assistant in MODERN TIMES to see how this vicious streak in Chaplin would evolve: Conklin suffers great indignities in that one, but Charlie means him no harm, is sincerely trying to help him at every turn. So the rather sadistic comedy comes about ironically, and is therefore much funnier, and character sympathy is preserved.

En route to 666 or 999, Charlie uses his pipe as a tiny ladle to steal booze from a slumbering Swain.

I’d love to have seen the camera set-up for Charlie and Mack riding the donkey-cart. Presumably they’re attached to the back of a truck or something, the camera positioned on it, the donkey getting a rest break. Just as well, since soon the poor beast of burden is being dangled in mid-air.

It seems wrong that the mix-up in addresses isn’t Charlie’s fault. This piano company has survived and even flourished before him coming along, so it seems to me that any disasters should be the inadvertent work of Charlie, Lord of Misrule. Chaplin needs to be more selfish and make himself fully the star comedian. There, never thought I’d complain that Chaplin wasn’t egotistical enough. I’m looking forward to him being supported by blander, less forceful talents like Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Then, in the features, he can find room for some of his Keystone chums again, because the greater running time requires a few diversions from his own showmanship.

The inevitable “moving the piano up a staircase” routine comes and goes without ever evoking the majesty of the l&h version. It’s not bad, would probably get a good laugh in a crowded theatre. Now Chaplin tries playing up the idea of the Little Fellow as oppressed worker, with Swain as exploitative overseer, but it’s too late in the story to really make that stick. Still, it’s a more promising approach than what he’s been doing. And, interestingly, Mr. Poor and his daughter, formerly Dickensian pastiches, now become annoying fusspots so that nobody can decide where to put the piano and Charlie is forced to carry it to and fro on his shoulders, a proletarian Sisyphus.

The strain turns Charlie into a crouched, bow-legged Angelo Rossitto figure, a transmogrification effected solely by acting. Swain’s brutal repair-job again shows the characters working together as they should: the spinal crack is performed heartlessly, just to make Charlie capable of doing more hard work.

The rules of film grammar, as they are understood in 1914, require that we watch Charlie and Mack return downstairs and get on their cart, even though there are no gags devised to make the trip particularly entertaining. L&H could dispose of such A-B business with a wipe or dissolve. Still, Chaplin can splice in a title card to shorten the trip to number 999.

Mr. Rich also has a daughter, who is apparently suitable for flirting with (Mr. Poor’s daughter was innocent and respectable). The Riches also employ a liveried footman who seems somewhat out of keeping in L.A. Kicking him to the floor, Charlie and Mack abduct the upright, and go crashing into the bright street. At 12.31 Charlie does a little back-kick of one leg to literally kickstart himself, a signature move — I’m unsure if we’ve seen it done properly before this. Probably we have. The confrontation with the furious owner DOES seem a bit reminiscent of developments in THE MUSIC BOX.

The boys flee downhill, ruthlessly kicking aside an innocent passer-by (a moment mostly splinked out by a bad splice) and splash into what is presumably Echo Lake. Mr. Rich shakes his fist in stereotyped pantomime, and we have another of those very abrupt endings, not helped by what is likely a bit of missing footage, where Charlie for obscure reasons tries to play the now half-submerged piano. There’s a promising comic image there, but no time to work it out, seemingly.