Archive for David Robinson

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!

Hobo Erectus

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2021 by dcairns

Though GETTING ACQUAINTED is Chaplin’s Keystone farewell to most of his favourite co-stars and the last real park film made with Sennett, HIS PREHISTORIC PAST has tramp-in-park bookends, so it’s a goodbye to the studio.

All the major silent comedians made stone age comedies — Keaton did THE THREE AGES, Laurel & Hardy did FLYING ELEPHANTS, Harold Lloyd, in his Lonesome Luke phase, did CLUBS ARE TRUMP. Although I’m being ahistorical as well as prehistorical, since when Lloyd and L&H made their entries, they were not yet among the greats, certainly lower echelon than Arbuckle in his pomp.

Chaplin was first — his HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, set up as a dream sequence with the Tramp settling down to sleep on a park bench, the entire story sandwiched, Cocteau-like, between the onset of unconsciousness and the inevitable shaking awake by Kop Syd Chaplin (his half-brother, who had just joined the company as Charlie was leaving), is a straight parody of D.W. Griffith’s BRUTE FORCE, released the same year. That film cast Bobby Harron as Weakhands (Griffith liked his heroes to have parable-type names), this one casts Charlie as Weakchin. There’s some question about whether the name was in Chaplin’s original release cut, because brother Sidney, the noted cannibal rapist, rewrote most of Chaplin’s intertitles after he left Keystone. But given the connection to Griffith’s film, and the fact that playing that up in 1914 makes more sense than doing it later, I feel it was probably part of Charlie’s original scenario.

David Robinson points out that the “discovery” of the Piltdown man in 1912 doubtless kicked off the movies’ brief caveman craze. Piltdown man was a phony, an anthropocene Princess Anastasia, but he caught the public’s eye much as Charlie’s phony hobo would.

This high-concept parody approach is a new wrinkle for Chaplin and probably for Keystone. He wouldn’t return to it. It seems like a lot of effort (costumes, props) for relatively little reward.

Mack Swain is King Lowbrow, identified by title as King of Waikiki Beach. And I feel this may be an unfortunate Sydney interpolated intertitle. The movie was later retitled THE HULA HULA MAN in some territories, clearly an act of madness, as Howard Beale would say. This all seems to be riffing off the primitive ritual dance which opens the caveman section, which has a Hawaiian aspect to it. If Chaplin had known the trouble this would cause, he might have asked for different moves to entertain his terpsichorean tyrant.

Some of the cavegirls wear grass skirts, that’s another reason for the mix-up, I expect.

Enter Charlie from behind a tree, clad in off-the-shoulder fur number, but with familiar hat, cane, toothbrush ‘tache and boots. This is either a good gag or a damaging anachronism. For a short fantasy it seems fine. And Chaplin is now well-identified with these items of costume, they’re not optional. A fur derby and baggy furry pants might have been an idea. A club which can be used like a cane could have worked. But this seems like a decent surreal image.

Charlie then plucks some fur from the arse of his coat, stuffs it into his pipe (he has a pipe again! But a different one from THE PROPERTY MAN) and lights it with a flint struck on his leg which doesn’t produce a spark the way a flint would, but instead catches fire at one end, the way a flint wouldn’t. All of this is just conjured from nowhere with a few props, and would have been cut if anyone at Keystone other than Chaplin had been in charge. It’s not ACTION (the Keystone stock-in-trade). It’s BEHAVIOUR (Chaplin’s forte).

Other cave-persons: May Wallace (cavewoman queen), Gene Marsh (sexy cavegirl), Fritz Schade (Caveman medicine man), Al St John, Vivian Edwards (teenage cavegirl). Grover Ligon (spaceman caveman).

Chaplin starts wooing, but his big club is just for show: he prefers more modern flirting. Sidenote: his legs at this point are very skinny. Amazing they didn’t just slice clean through the baggy pants and leave them standing in his thin wake. Maybe they did, and that’s why he’s making this film panstless.

The medicine man, catching Charlie in flagrante predelecto, shoots him in the bum with an arrow. “He had the obscure feeling someone was trying to give him a present” (William Golding, The Inheritors). Charlie retaliates by slinging a rock, which Kuleshovs through frame in the time-honoured manner and beans the King. Actually, it misses him, but Sennett didn’t believe in retakes. Swain gamely acts as if the royal noggin has been struck.

Swain and the medicine man take turns chasing the ragged rascal round and round a rugged rock. An early who’s-following-who routine. Look at those cavemen go!

“They exchange cards,” says an intertitle, ruining the joke in advance. But the joke isn’t clear wthout explanation. The piece of pelt Charlie hands over isn’t enough like a card. If we got a closeup and it had writing, or cave-art style pictograms on it, it might work. But I think ideally it should be a tiny stone tablet. Or, given the bowler and cane, it could just be a business card. This Flinstones world isn’t really Chaplin’s natural habitat. Though the casual brutality does make it a logical extension of the Keystone universe. Here’s Walter Kerr:

“Silent film comedy begins as though comedy had never existed, as though Aristophanes had never existed, as though sophistication of the same materials had never been achieved. A completely new form seems to take man back to his dawn, to revive and repeat an entire cycle of race-memories picked up along the evolutionary path, to start as primitively as if the Neanderthals were still a threat, and to probe toward the future with the weapons and level of wit of cavemen.

“In fact, the most apt description of these first screen comedies appears in a book about chimpanzees, Jane Van Lawick-Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man. ‘Young chimps,’ the author comments, ‘like to play with each other, chasing round a tree trunk, leaping one after the other through the treetops, dangling, each from one hand, while they spar and hit each other…'”

Unfortunately, too, Charlie does not seem to have outfitted himself with a fake club, so that when he clobbers foes or friends or mere passers-by, as he does frequently and at random, he has to “pull his punches” with the hefty bludgeon, which destroys even the witless level of comedy being attempted. I wouldn’t mind seeing the club bend unnaturally, but I need to see a bit of wallop put into the culling of troglodytes.

The “cave interior” is the worst set I’ve ever seen in a Keystone film, where usually the production design is sparse and tawdry. This one is just cloth stretched over random angular frames. It’s three-dimensional, but actually a painted backdrop would be less disgraceful. It doesn’t even suggest a cavern. More like a tent that’s being chewed by a dinosaur, who has mysteriously paused his mastication just as his fangs are about to pierce the canvas.

I get the feeling that Chaplin, already casting around for a more profitable deal than the one he enjoyed with Sennett, didn’t really have his mind on this job. He wouldn’t reconnect with Charles D. Hall, a colleague from the Fred Karno troupe, who would design all Chaplin’s films from A DOG’S LIFE to MODERN TIMES, for several years yet. And nobody at Keystone had ever been asked to design anything as unusual as a cave, it seems.

Some unfortunate splices (missing footage) now create a surprising Godardian effect. Competing over the cave-girlies with the rival medicine man, Charlie swings down his club, and instantly he’s standing elsewhere, surrounded by the adoring girls. From cause to effect.

An impressively managed gag, as Charlie and his cave-lady of choice walk into shot and are immediately wiped out by a colossal wave. We hadn’t known these rocks are seafront property. Poor Gene Marsh, as “Sum-Babee, Lowbrow’s Favorite Water Maiden,” (a Syd addition?) seems to be struggling against a sodden wardrobe malfunction. Worse still, Charlie and Gene and the camera operator all seem to be in danger of getting washed away.

Keystone apparently couldn’t locate an actual cave near L.A. (there is one: we see it in THE USUAL SUSPECTS) so Mack Swain’s throne room is entered by walking behind a rock.

More random clonking. This whole scenario brings out the less attractive side of Chaplin-at-Keystone. Still, at least his flirtations are non-violent, the club-’em-on-the-head-and-drag-’em-off-by-the-hair fantasy is merely hinted at, never enacted.

Mack Swain’s whole schtick at Keystone, his “Ambrose” character which this King is a variation on, is to be big and possibly authoritative in position, but really rather timorous and easily dominated, which Charlie plays up to. It’s continually unclear why the King lets Charlie prod him in the belly with whatever’s handy, whack him on the ass with a club, etc. The King having low self-esteem just isn’t a very amusing idea and Charlie comes off as a bully, a recurring but not consistent issue in the Keystone series.

Charlie and the King shoot arrows at a hen in a tree. The eggs it drops on them have been erased, it seems, by the poor digitisation of YouTube, so what follows is a bit abstract. A more pure pantomime?

Charlie kisses Gene and the screen whites out in a Marienbad overexposure of passion. Swain isn’t seeing white, but red, though. Gene retreats to the sidelines, looking like Cousin It in her unflattering grass skirt.

David Robinson reports that Chaplin, when working hard, enjoyed no social life, and so the fact that we don’t know what he was up to besides making films at Keystone means he wasn’t doing anything away from the studio. But he was young and newly successful. I don’t think he spent a whole year NOT banging the ingenues. There’s a whole cave-cluster of them in the film, and really for no reason.

Charlie shoves Mack off a cliff and declares himself “Kink” — which I think we can agree is a likely Syd line.

Charlie now becomes an obnoxious tyrant — no surprise, as he was an obnoxious underling. He poses, Frazetta-style with his concubine in his fabric cavern. Mack enters, and smashes a small boulder to fragments on Charlie’s occiput, which causes a hard cut to “modern” 1914 Charlie being woken by Syd the kop, and the film abruptly stops, missing a few seconds I fear.

A film about succession ends with Chaplin handing over his Keystone throne to his perverted half-brother.

And it’s over. Unlike Ford Sterling, when CC left Sennett’s Fun Factory, he left for good. But Chaplin’s move from Keystone to Essanay is a blog post in itself…

Tillie Two

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2021 by dcairns

TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, continued.

Marie Dressler wrote in her memoirs that she chose then then-unknown Chaplin and Mabel Normand as her co-stars in her first feature film, a colossal porky pie! To many moviegoers, it was Dressler herself who was the unknown, though Mack Sennett was following a then-popular approach of casting “famous players in famous plays,” taking the preeminent comedienne of the New York stage and bundling her in a movie adapted from Tillie’s Nightmare, her most recent triumph. All this I glean from David Robinson’s magisterial Chaplin biography, acquired for a song on a recent trip to St Columba’s Bookshop, Stockbridge, pre-lockdown.

Robinson also notes that the feature-length comedy was three times longer than any comedy hitherto attempted on the screen, Mack Sennett was a gentleman of nerve.

As reel three begins, Tillie (Dressler) is delivered into the custody of her rich uncle (co-director Charles “Oh Mister Kane” Bennett) by a patient kop. The uncle has a palatial home with stone lions, liveried footmen, tiger skin rugs and suits of armour. Tillie, still tight, unsheathes a broadsword and playfully jabs the help, stoic in their periwigs, then dances a highland fling over the blade and its scabbard, the movie’s first bit of Scottish content, if you don’t count the drunk and disorderly rambunctiousness.

Tillie’s monocled uncle (her monuncle?) orders three footmen to subdue and eject his riotous niece: a chase and struggle ensue, but it’s not a full-on Keystone setpiece. Fairly muted rambunctiousness.

“Guilty creatures sitting at a play” — Charlie and Mabel go to a movie and their crime is brought home to them by the cinematograph. The film, according to the stand outside, is DOUBLE-CROSSED, but the title which appears superimposed, weaving about on the screen within, is A THIEF’S FATE: a Keystone release, seemingly fictional. The female star, interestingly, is Enid Markey, the original Jane in TARZAN OF THE APES, still four years in the future at this point. Which means that Chaplin “appeared with”, in the loosest sense, both the first Tarzan (little Gordon Griffith, who played the ape man as a lad and also appears as a newsboy in TPR) and the first Jane. Colour me Cheeta!

The other cast members in the film within a film include Morgan Wallace, who went on to work for Griffith and played James Fitchmueller in IT’S A GIFT (and WC Fields would appear in a remake of TPR; Minta Durfee (AKA Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle); and Charles Murray, who had recently played Charlie’s director in THE MASQUERADER.

Chaplin’s repulsed reactions to the movie — Mabel immediately sees it as the story of their lives — put me strongly in mind of the late, great Rik Mayall. The sickly grin of acute discomfort! Seated next to Mabel and overacting furiously is the young but makeup-aged Charley Chase, barely recognizable, who I guess would have been billed as Charles Parrott if he were billed at all.

When the bad guys in the movie are arrested, Chaplin’s reactions in the audience are amazing: he’s half-inwardly protesting, very feebly, at the screen, really living it. TPR doesn’t have any good gags or situations but it does have a lot of spirited and imaginative playing.

Tillie gets a job as a waitress. Stumbling, Dressler turns to the camera and mouths “DAMN!” very clearly. No particular lip-reading skill is required. I wonder if offence was caused. One minute later she does it again. Did Keystone have a swear-box?

The movie keeps cutting to Tillie’s uncle’s mountain holiday, which seems like scenic padding. It’s unlikely to have been in the play. I presume he’s going to break a leg or something.

Sennett originally wanted an original story but nobody at Keystone could come up with a feature script idea (they’re hard to do) and with Dressler on salary at vast expense ($2,500 a week still seems a lot to me NOW) he opted to film her stage success under a different title for whatever reason.

Tillie is having the same kind of swing-door trouble Charlie always has, and would still be having as a waiter in MODERN TIMES twenty-two years later. Then Mabel and Charlie come to dine in her restaurant…

Suspense while projectionist fumbles with reels.

I like the fact that the original show’s librettist, Edgar Smith, wrote a show called Whoop-Dee-Doo. Maybe it suffers from the fact that that phrase is now only ever used, if it’s used at all, in a scathingly ironic way. But it sounds fabulously fatuous. I’d like to see it revived. I wouldn’t go and see it, but you could go and tell me what you think…

PART 4

Chaos ensues. Tillie faints, theatrically, upon seeing Charlie, and he tramples her prone form in his haste to flee the scene with Mabel. Tillie recovers and gives chase. Kops are called. Charlie & Mabel’s earlier cinematograph nightmare is being visited upon them in reality. They take shelter in — where else? — a park.

Charles Bennett, the film’s co-director, Tillie’s rich uncle, and the bloke who sings the song in CITIZEN KANE, falls off a mountain. I’ll bet you five he’s not alive…

“Oh no, I’ve accidentally fallen off a mountain!”

Two strenuous hams report/receive the news, then phone butler Edgar Kennedy who underplays his reaction about as much as you’d expect. A vigorous mime of the millionaire’s tumbling demise is performed. Kennedy isn’t bald yet so he doesn’t slap his pate in dismay, but he does just about everything else.

Tillie is going to inherit everything, which is just as well because waitressing really isn’t working out for her.

In the park, Charlie is accosted by a little newsboy — Milton Berle always claimed this was him, but it’s not, it’s young Tarzan, Gordon Griffith. I can’t imagine that Milty was this cherubic as a child. Nor could he swing through the trees on convenient lianas, I bet. Mind you, from the way Charlie smacks the little bastard, I almost wish it had been Berle. I wonder if this moment inspired noted Chaplin fan Roman Polanski’s child-slapping park scene in THE TENANT, which is otherwise a very odd moment if it’s not a homage to something. But then, that’s an odd film.

(Sidebar: Chaplin in THE GOLD RUSH is cited in REPULSION by Helen Fraser to cheer up Catherine Denueve; Walter Matthau and Cris Campion are compelled to eat a rat in PIRATES, a skit derived closely from the shoe-eating incident also in THE GOLD RUSH. I think there are more tributes than that, and Polanski’s wordless shorts certainly owe something to Chaplin too.)

Learning of Tillie’s inheritance before she does, Charlie ditches Mabel and skids up to Tillie’s place of employment — the Tramp one-footed skid has been carried over to this unrelated character because it’s a good bit of business. He barges in, out of breath — a good excuse for pantomime. Tillie isn’t in sight, so he describes her, waving his arms in a broad square shape. Basically, “I’m looking for a woman the size of a house.” Tillie is mopping up in the kitchen so Charlie gets to slip, fall, get up, slip, recover, slip again, fall again… He’s pretty amazing here. He didn’t think much of this film but if the whole Tramp thing hadn’t taken off (it already had) he’d be using this stuff on his showreel…

Charlie and Tillie are married by “the Rev. D, Simpson” who looks something like a reanimated cadaver. The pancake disguise is necessary since Frank Opperman also plays three other roles. I’m impressed by this plot turn — since it seems inconceivable they’ll still be married at the film’s end, I’m genuinely curious to see what solution Mr. Whoop-Dee-Doo is going to come up with for his plot.

Tillie learns of unc’s death-fall — good fainting action. Then she immediately gets suspicious of Charlie’s rush to wed her — the first sign of brains Tillie has shown. Not unwelcome. But Charlie persuades her he really loves her with a display of ACTING. There was loose talk about Chaplin playing Hamlet but Richard III would have been a better fit.

Mabel, however, is now on his trail…

END OF PART 4