Archive for Chester Conklin

The Sunday Intertitle: Tipsy Nuisance, or, Hot Rods & Hot Dogs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 15, 2020 by dcairns

Charlie Chaplin is billed (on the IMDb) as “Tipsy Nuisance” for his role in MABEL’S BUSY DAY (still 1914) and the name is a good one. It’s another one of these weird early variations on his developing character — he wears the moustache, he has a derby hat and cane, but he wears a smart suit with a loose jacket. Tramp-and-yet-not-Tramp.

It’s also yet another variation on KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE. Use some kind of primitive drag race as a colourful backdrop to the arse-kicking.

I first saw this years ago and it was maybe my first complete Keystone viewing experience. I had befriended a splendid fellow named Chris Weedman in the US and he would tape stuff off TCM and mail it to me and I would mail him things like rare Donald Pleasence movies. It was the original version of file-sharing, I guess. Anyway, I was absolutely horrified by this film. It seemed to have no shape, focus, point, wit or reason for existing.

I was, of course, correct in my assessment, and it’s one that would stand if applied to nearly any Keystone “farce comedy.” But, as I watch Chaplin’s early films in sequence (where will I stop? The end of the Keystone period? The Essanay phase? Or A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG?) they make a bit more sense and you can chart Chaplin’s development, if not that of the Keystone studio, which finally went under simply because it would NOT develop. So even if the films are slight, they start to get very interesting. And it undoubtedly helps to have decent transfers/restorations rather than smudgy, dupey prints, recorded off-air on VHS.

Mabel is selling hotdogs. She puts on some kind of tale of woe so that Kop Chester Conklin will let her into the race track. He agrees in exhange for a hotdog in an unsuitable round bap. This is all done in pantomime and for once it’s clear what the conversation is about.

Once Mabel gets inside a rude man sticks a sausage in her face for a lark and she kicks the crap out of him. The film is starting to become a vision of hell.

Chaplin shows up, wandering past the turnstiles without paying, to the amusement of onlookers apparently delighted to be in a film. After some repetitive shoving and kicking, he gets inside and there’s more shoving and kicking. But at least we can focus on it, the screen isn’t yet busy with competing mummers. And Chaplin uses his cane to hook the Kop he’s tumbling with, which may be his first use of this trick. It’s a snooty, aristocratic move, appropriate to this entitled shit of a character, but becomes funnier when it’s incongruously performed by the actual Tramp.

I wonder if the Kops are all so extravagantly moustached, and wear such ill-fitting uniforms, so they won’t be mistaken for real law officers out on location among the public? They certainly stand out from the normies in plainclothes, milling around the racetrack, staring at the camera.


Mabel isn’t having any luck selling her meaty wares, and seems to be trying for pathos — which puts her ahead of Chaplin until he makes THE TRAMP the following year at Essanay. I can lipread her woeful cries of “Sausages! Frankfurters!” or at least I think I can.

Tipsy Nuisance finds some girls cheering the race, is apparently taken with them (checking out their bottoms) and so, in the manner of an eight-year-old, decides to annoy them by standing in their view. Then he picks a purse, then he makes a joke of it. Flirtatious Charlie always seems to offer suggestions of the riches to come… he kicks up one heel behind him in a joyous gesture — a classic Chaplinesque trope, and I think this is its first appearance.

Mabel is having trouble with the latest in a series of obnoxious customers so Tipsy Nuisance turns unexpectedly gallant and kicks the guy up the arse and then fetches him a tremendous slap to the face. And you could argue it actually means something. Defending a lady’s honour, or frankfurters, and so on. More kicking and slapping follows, with which Mabel is delighted. Women love violence.

But soon Mabel is despondent. Her sausage-selling is a disaster. Charlie comforts her. Then makes off with a handful of meat product. Mabel freaks and gives chase. Good background detail of Conklin lying unconscious against a wall. Don’t know what happened to him. I guess maybe the hotdog was too rich for his system. But Mabel revives him with some screaming.

Tipsy Nuisance escalates things by stealing Mabel’s entire tray of goods and passing them out to suddenly eager customers. But these jerks are just as bad as the ones Mabel dealt with, and they start bullying him by constantly repositioning his hat on his head. I can see how that would get irritating.

Twice in this film Charlie chokes on a bit of sausagemeat — again, the obsession with stuff going down the wrong way. This may be a silent film but when he starts beating up his customers, Mabel apparently hears him. She could see him offscreen before, but now she can, and she alerts Constable Conklin. Edgar Kennedy appears and seems about to do something, but the rest of his bit is apparently lost, or was deleted (but then why leave a fragment?)

Faced with both Mabel’s righteous accusation and the presence of an authority figure, Tipsy Nuisance turns placatory (all bullies are cowards). Nice bit when Mabel boots him hard up the jacksy and he tips his hat in reply — another Chaplinesque trope appearing for the first time here. Some very good silent wheedling from the man Chaplin here. Gently touching Conklin’s nightstick, trying to lower it with caresses.

Then the inevitable barney. Mabel does some very funny flailing. Everyone kicks up a lot of dust, and a lot of arses. Mostly looks like this would be a lot of fun to DO.

Charlie, stripped to suspenders and shirtfront (and trousers, this is not a porno though it has aspects of one), is moved by Mabel’s tears and tries to comfort her. They go off arm in arm, she still trying to get the odd kick in. Probably some aspect of their real-life collaboration can be found in this.

The Sunday Intertitle: Two Reels of Shoving

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 18, 2020 by dcairns

Officially, one Joseph Maddern may have been the director of TWENTY MINUTES OF LOVE, but sources agree that Chaplin was in charge this time. Being a prick to Mabel Normand had paid off. The title seems quite metamodern, except that the surviving film is just over ten minutes.

Maddern is a curious figure: of his six short film credits, three are documentaries. Five were made in this year of grace 1914, and the sixth ten years later. What was he doing in-between-times?

The setting is Echo Park, a kind of urban Forest of Arden with spooning lovers behind every leaf. Here, Chaplin wanders disconsolate, not made for loving, a bitter ironist when faced with the canoodling of strangers. In fact, he begins with what is sometimes erroneously called “pantomime,” satirising by gesture, for the camera’s benefit, the behaviour of park bench amorists. I hate this kind of rubbish, and I can’t wait for Chaplin, and the movies, to grow out of it. His sly awareness of us watching is much subtler in later films, and he’s the only one generally allowed to do it.

There are two kinds of activity on display: snogging and pickpocketry. Chaplin specialises in the latter. So his character is on the make: this is good. Though in later movies his larceny is generally confined to foodstuffs, not fob watches. Dishonesty is permissible to him only when it relates to basic survival. At the start of THE CIRCUS he’s stealing food from a baby, but this is understandable, even sympathetic, the way he does it. To provoke the attentions of the law, he must be framed by a real criminal.

The second young lover, and the second pickpocket, is apparently Chester Conklin, unrecognizable without his cookie-duster.

There’s an actual quite good plot twist when Charlie, desperate not to be caught with the watch he stole from Conklin, ties to sell it to a stranger, who turns out to be the guy Conklin originally stole it from.

At 8:45, a historic moment: Chaplin kicks a man (Conklin) up the arse for the first time on screen (I believe). It’s a damned good kick, too, reduces the receiver to a supine jelly. But moments of triumph are fleeting in this life: 8 seconds later he is rendered unconscious by Conklin’s powerful slap. It’s so often the way.

But this, too, will pass, at 18 fps. Revenge is soon Charlie’s: with the entire cast shoved or kicked into Echo Lake, there to splash about helplessly in the waist-high shallows, Charlie walks off with the girl. Or *A* girl, anyway. Possible proof that the actor is now in charge of his own movies?

The Sunday Intertitle: Mabel Gets the Push

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2020 by dcairns

MABEL AT THE WHEEL (still 1914!) marks an interesting, indeed key point in Chaplin’s career. He’d been at least somewhat quarrelsome with his directors up to this point. On this film, he simply refused to play a scene the way his director and lead actor Mabel Normand saw it, and production ground to a halt. Mack Sennett had to come out and see what was wrong, and finish the film himself.

Everybody liked Mabel and they were unconvinced if they liked Chaplin, and so he was likely going to get the sack, but the incident coincided exactly with reports coming in from exhibitors saying how popular the previous few months’ Chaplin shorts had been, and demanding more of the same. Suddenly Charlie, the little shit, was a valued commodity.

Chaplin defended his usurpation by saying that Mabel was awfully young to be directing. In fact, she had directed a bunch of shorts already, which was more than he had done, had been in movies for close to five years, and was only three years younger than CC. Nevertheless, the two worked together again, even co-directing on HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, which is annoyingly now a lost film, unless you have a print in your attic?

In MATW, Chaplin is back in frock coat and top hat, but has kept the cane and tiny ‘tache, augmented by two tiny satanic beardlets. He’s clearly a suave baddie again. After this point, his screen personality stabilizes somewhat, apart from the instances where he plays a woman — I’m guessing those cinema-owner reports had specified the kind of role Chaplin was more successful in. Nobody else has had time to figure that out, though Chaplin later wrote that he immediately felt comfortable as the Tramp, and not as this frock-coated heel.

It’s time I figured out who the short, stocky prostoogonist is in these things. Ah, yes, Harry McCoy. Declined into bit parts and died young. That’s showbiz, I guess.

Charlie steals the fickle Mabel away from Harry on his motorcycle. She falls off the back in a puddle, and Harry gets her back. Then a fight, in which Mabel slaps Charlie, Charlie slaps Mabel, Harry tries to slap Charlie but slaps Mabel. I presume Mabel directed all this stuff. She may have overestimated how much we like to see women get hit.

Charlie then gives Harry a puncture (in his tyre, I mean) and Mabel throws a rock which hits Charlie in the crotch. A general rock-throwing melee ensues, absorbing Mabel’s father, Chester Conklin. Why do they call this “knockabout” comedy, do you think?

This being a two-reel epic, we now relocated to the racetrack where Harry is going to participate in his sportscar. Charlie sticks a pin into various arses, which is good for a minute or so of action. Then some more slapping. Then a pin in Mabel’s leg. For the second film in a row, Chaplin bites Edgar Kennedy’s leg. Then sticks his pin in Harry’s arse. Two-reelers? Easy.

Going full Simon Legree, Chaplin summons into being two henchmen with a single whistle, and despatches them to abduct and duff up his hated rival. There’s a very interesting movement when he sidesteps from one shot into another, adjoining one, seeming to find the transition quite tricky, going boss-eyed and weird, as if he had not quite absorbed Henry “Pathe” Lehrman’s advice on screen direction and had to pass from one shot to another by osmosis, through some kind of semipermeable membrane or something.

With Harry tied to a post, getting his chin slapped at will by a triumphant Chaplin, there’s nothing for it but for Mabel to fulfil the film’s title AT THE WHEEL. She may have displayed brief fickleness or fickletude, but she’s a plucky gal when the chips are down or the boyfriend tied to a post. But first Chaplin tries the across-frame thing again, reaching forth blindly with clutching hand, and getting it bitten, and displaying his huge, spatulate tongue in a silent scream. I’ve never seen it observed that Chaplin had a tongue like a gammon steak, but here is the evidence thrust before our recoiling eyes in living monochrome.

Mabel now finds her motoring exploits spliced into documentary footage of a genuine race, even as Chaplin and his two desperately-moustachioed henchmen prepare acts of bomb-throwing sabotage. VG pratfall from CC at around 13:49.

And the winner is… Chaplin, by a mile. Seemingly filling in for Ford Sterling, who had just left Keystone in search of greener paychecks, cast as the villain and deprived of his Tramp get-up, Chaplin still gets the best material since he’s playing Coyote to Mabel’s literal road-runner. And he pulls as many dirty tricks to grab our attention as his character does to hamper Harry & Mabel. The film may fade out on a triumphant Mabel, but it’s Chaplin, apparently slain by explosion, who has made the bigger impression. There’s nothing fair about genius, as AMADEUS showed.

Oh, supposedly Charley Chase appears briefly, but I didn’t spot him.