Archive for Dough and Dynamite

The Sunday Intertitle: Mr. Wow-Wow goes to the Races, or, Drive, he didn’t say

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2020 by dcairns

GENTLEMEN OF NERVE is another bloody Keystone racing film, crammed with busy comics — Mabel is off to the races with Mr. Walrus (Chester Conklin) and Mr. Ambrose (Mack Swain) competing for her favours, Charlie is there too. Maybe this was due to a desire to play it safe after the expensive and extensive DOUGH AND DYNAMITE (which made a huge profit in the end so they needn’t have worried).

The idea of intercutting documentary footage of auto races with capering clowns is a weird one, but one that Keystone — and Chaplin — returned to remorselessly. The documentary dilutes the slapstick and the slapstick… well, it doesn’t harm the documentary because that’s just utterly boring. This one has a crazily long shot of a tyre being changed to set the scene. It’s against the clock, but Chaplin is not the kind of filmmaker who can create exciting suspense from a technical exercise involving non-characters. He just tripods it, panning about a foot one way, then back again. It’s not exactly THE WAGES OF FEAR, is it?

Big Phyllis Allen makes a pass at Chester and he’s tempted to ditch Mabel, which seems… strange. But maybe he likes them large. Mabel was miniscule.

Chaplin enters, introduced by title card as “Mr. Wow-Wow, a disturbing influence.” He’s smartly dressed in a long, loose jacket, but with bowler, moustache and cane, with which he immediately thwacks Swain’s capacious buttocks. So, he’s not quite the Tramp, just Chaplin using some Tramp signifiers. He tries to get into the racetrack without paying by walking backwards, hoping they’ll think he’s leaving. I like that bit.

Swain overacts pretty wildly in the early shorts, and seems weak compared even to Conklin. He doesn’t intimidate Charlie, so the David & Goliath thing that Eric Campbell would help cement isn’t functioning. Later, in THE GOLD RUSH, Swain is even bigger, acts better, and even as a friend to the Little Fellow, is a convincing THREAT. Big people are a menace even when they’re nice, is a lynchpin of the Chaplin worldview.

Forming an alliance, Wow-wow and Ambrose try to sneak into the stadium but Ambrose gets stuck halfway through an opening, leading to lengthy abuse. A woman with a soda seltzer appears, somewhat mysteriously, and Chaplin gets to spritz his first spritzee, Mack. He hasn’t thrown a single pie at Keystone, despite all the pastry abuse in his previous short, but at least he gets to spray.

Wow-Wow now lights a match on Mr. Walrus’s pant seat, amusing the fickle Mabel (well, she has just seen him flirting outrageously with Phyllis Allen). Walrus gets all up in Wow-Wow’s face, and thus gets his nose bitten. Chaplin hangs on there like a conger eel. Picks his teeth afterwards as if he’s actually bitten off actual substance from Conklin’s conk. Shades of brother Sydney’s cannibalistic atrocity.

Separated from the crowd by a fence, Wow-Wow taunts and thwacks the rowdy faces, a brutish bit of business in which nobody seems remotely appealing, the thugs behind the wire mesh or the arrogant and vicious cane-wielder. The later Charlie character is much closer to that seen in his previous couple of pictures, an inadvertently disturbing influence rather than just a nasty piece of work. Minutes later he’s singeing Mr. Ambrose’s nose with his cigarette and kicking him in the gut… it’s not charming and it’s not funny.

Chaplin well knew this stuff bore little relationship to comedy, but he felt duty-bound to give Sennett what he demanded, and this sadism may constitute a “running for cover” after the overrun of DOUGH & DYNAMITE. As Chaplin would write in a 1922 article, “The comic spirit meant to me at the beginning of my screen career, as it still means to many people, a series of “gags” and funny business of a not very high order–anything to capture a moment’s laughter or to stir the most elementary sense of the ridiculous. Now, this broad and slapstick kind of comedy, compounded mostly of boisterous spirits and physical violence, has about the same relation to humor as tickling a man on the soles of his feet with a wisp of straw.” He’s not wrong.

Wow-Wow meets another pretty girl and steals a sook of her Coke. Caught at it, he looks innocently skywards, like Harpo. Walrus is flirting with Phyllis again so Mabel walks out on him and collides with Wow-Wow (those bloody names! “Mabel” is bad enough). She sits on his hat and destroys it. The surrounding actors are laughing at all this business, which doesn’t make it any funnier.

Some byplay with a jalopy driver whose “racecar” sports an enormous front propellor. A very fine showcasing of the Chaplin cornering hop.

Conklin/Walrus whispers some kind of inappropriate suggestion to Phyllis and gets duffed up. This movie has more plot threads than Bleak House, but fortunately they all consist solely of idiots hitting each other so it’s easy to follow.

Conklin returns to Mabel and tries to claim her by force. Now we’re actually on Wow-Wow’s side as he delivers a punitive drubbing. Toothbrush versus Walrus in the World Series of Moustaches. Walrus collides with Ambrose and both get hauled off by a Kop. Wow-Wow and Mabel laugh delitedly, and it’s a rare instance of Chaplin expressing joy with his natural toothy grin and laugh. We end on lots of affectionate stuff with Mabel, one of the few co-stars Chaplin never got to first base with.

“I’m not your type, neither are you mine,” he says she told him.

Barbara Steele just told me she had lunch with Chaplin and Oona when she was 19. He was all excited because somebody had just let him have the use of a holiday home in St Tropez. I guess this would be around the time of A KING IN NEW YORK and he had some money trouble after leaving America I believe, so a free house would be great news.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to finish the Keystones this year, so that his December output would synch up with mine and I can start next year afresh with the Essanay films, but he’s making them faster than I can write about them (well, I started in the middle of my year and he started at the beginning of his). So I think I’ll run in to January — we have a whole feature film to contend with. But I’ll still get an Essanay done that month, and then it’s more or less one Chaplin per month for 2021. Join me!

Young man Charlie laughing goes all double-chinned, and suddenly we get a glimpse of old man Charlie to come…

The Christmas Day Intertitle: Dough Nuts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2020 by dcairns

Charlie Chaplin always hated Christmas. It reminded him of the poorhouse. And then he died on Christmas Day, aged 88, which I guess allowed him to skip the last one. Take your small victories where you can, and have the merriest one possible under the circumstances.

This Chaplin-Conklin bunfight took nine days to make, an unheard-of thing at Keystone. Sennett announced, per Chaplin’s autobiography, that the only way it could make its money back was as a two-reeler, so it was allowed to spread out a bit more than was typically allowed. Chaplin forfeited his $25 bonus for going $800 over the $1000 budget.

The film made a fortune.

Sennett recollects that he was absent for the studio for a few days. He left Chaplin and Conklin making a short about idle roomers competing for their landlady’s affections, he recalls (but that’s the plot of a different film, THOSE LOVE PANGS, made immediately previously) and when he got back, the boys had taken inspiration from a “help wanted” sign at a local bakery. Sennett claims credit for adding the explosive element. The Chaplin Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell, explains the confusion by suggesting that CC & CC began THOSE LOVE PANGS, got sidetracked onto D&D, then returned to the landlady idea and finished it.

The New York Dramatic Mirror wrote, of Chaplin “His odd little tricks of manner and his refusal to do the most simple things in an ordinary way are essential features of his method, which thus far has defied successful imitation.” Which is actually pretty perceptive.

The film begins, somewhat unusually for the studio, with a stark, one-word intertitle: TROUBLE. Chaplin is cast as an appalling waiter. He’s unusually jovial about it, but his customers don’t seem amused. Never mind, here’s a pretty girl loitering at the ASSORTED FRENCH TARTS counter, so Charlie abandons his disgruntled victims to attend to her needs.

Charlie is very fussy and jolly in his incompetence, which is a new look for him. A departure from the Little Fellow’s general air of downbeat, dogged uselessness when called upon to do work. It’s automatically less funny when he’s laughing.

Then he’s leering at the girl’s swinging hips, and his own tiny ass starts metronoming in sympathy with hers. Maybe the smuttiest sequence in Chaplin’s work so far. His attempts to be a leading man as well as a clown have been tentative to date. The romances, such as they are, have not tended to be full narratives requiring resolution.

Chaplin didn’t go in for pie-throwing as much as many would suspect, but a fair bit of pastry tossing occurs in this one’s opening minutes, with Charley Chase as one of the recipients.

Once Charlie is propelled into the kitchen, his cheerful attitude unexpectedly changes as he gets into an immediate fight with Conklin, with the tubby female cool an inadvertent victim. Charlie, it’s clear, despise his fellow workers. His aggression has to make room for numerous gestures of superiority. This movie should have been shown as proof that he wasn’t a communist. You can’t be a hero of the proletariat and kick Chester Conklin in the face, twice.

Down in the cellar, two employees are fomenting a strike. It’s a lot like METROPOLIS, this film, only messier. The dough everyone’s required to handle is revoltingly stick and stringy. Is it Larry Cohen’s THE STUFF? Charlie manages to burn his hand (twice) and his foot on an oven door, then slam the trapdoor on the same foot as he exits through the shop floor.

Back to the kitchen, where some dishes are smashed and CC and CC punch one another in the chest. Charlie’s small frame and tight jacket always make his chest seem impossibly small, and his ribs do seem here to be a weak spot: he staggers, winded, at every blow.

Another intertitle:

It’s hardly a socialist tract. Of course, Chaplin is perhaps trying to please his boss. He recalled getting along quite well with Sennett now and so he’d probably not want to spoil it by suggesting that the workers should control the means of custard pie production, even in a skit.

One particularly aggressive striker threatens Charlie with a knife: he reverses it when the guy’s not looking (or feeling, apparently: he somehow doesn’t notice when it’s taken from his hand and then replaced) and gives the guy a sharp jab. Unlike in MAKING A LIVING, stabbing here isn’t just another form of slapstick violence: we may expect that a more sincere stab might cause non-comic injury.

Charlie, Chester and the Cook, unquestioning blacklegs, set about trying to run the joint all by themselves. Chaplin tries to carrie a bag of flour the size of Mack Swain: his legs crumpling under him and distorted by the baggy pants, resemble those of some trouser-wearing insect or a de-poled scarecrow. The cook has to shove his knees back into their rightful places. He’s also stuffed an apron down his front, making the crotch and seat bulge in carapace-like manner. A new look for him: Chaplin the crippled ant.

Of course, hobbling through the cafe, he has to careen sideways and crush a plump patron. Good outraged reaction from Phyllis Allen. He then drops the whole overstuffed futon down the trapdoor onto Conklin’s head. A few bits of business are then conducted with the wretched Chester pinned under the heavy sack. Chaplin even walks over him, It’s a foretaste of MODERN TIMES, where Conklin is again the butt, though in that one Charlie is much more solicitous and the atrocities more accidental.

The strikers are now transformed into an anarchist cell, their fake whiskers and dynamite evoking a road company version of Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot.

Intriguingly, though Charlie never considers going on strike, he continues to treat his boss with the contempt reserved for anyone he doesn’t want to get off with, hurling hard loaves at the patron, until the guy (Fritz Schade M. La Vie, per cast list) slings one back and it shatters into crumbs on his face.

Chaplin getting his neck caught in the trapdoor as Conklin pulls his legs from below merits a rare close-up:

We’ve established from day one that anything with a hinge is Charlie’s mortal enemy. If you had a hinge, you would be too.

Once Charlie is freed, he and Chester start whacking each other with dough in a painful-looking manner. The two have magnificent timing together, so the short breathers — during one of which Charlie says a silent prayer — are perfectly matched. Then we get this —

This got me very excited. So the 1914 projectionists had no automated means of changing reels in the “seemless” manner I remember from the days of 35mm — cigarette burn flashes up, crashed burp of soundtrack, scratches and missing footage — and so the show simply stopped while they removed one reel, threaded another, and got the carbon arc going again, all while the customers sat and grumbled. I guess most attractions were still one reel long. I haven’t considered the effect of INTOLERANCE happening as a series of ten-fifteen minute chapters with mini-intermissions. Did at least some of the classier venues have a two-projector system to avoid hiatuses? They must have… it’s not a high-tech solution, just a more expensive one.

Come to think of it, the fact that I grew up seeing reel changes performed by hand and eye kind of makes me feel like a dinosaur.

One of the dynamiteers buys a loaf in the most suspicious possible manner.

Chaplin is struggling to get much comedy out of the ovens. He’s had the set designer build them. They are unquestionably an element of a bakery. But what to do with them, slapstickwise? Yes, he can singe his fingers again.

Ah, this looks promising —

A nasty poke in the face for Chester, which of course Chaplin repeats, because he knows the audience will laugh harder the second time. First for surprise, second for satisfaction. It’s rough on Chester, but what are you going to do?

Charlie then discovers that he can warm his hands before the ovens. Still not funny. Ah, but he can warm his arse! Not actually a gag, but potentially funny because it has an arse in it.

A couple of saucy, giggling wenches descend into the cellar. Charlie sends Chester away so he can slack off work and flirt with them. Going on strike is not an option for the little fellow, it seems (see also the red flag mix-up in MODERN TIMES, an epic gag), but bunking off to chase girls just comes naturally.

Raymond Durgnat put it like this: “One could summarise a proletarian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being outtalked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted. Something like that.”

The strikers create an exploding loaf, a detailed process which we watch in real time, like something out of RIFIFI. It even gets a medium closeup. This is the most anti-labour element in the film, so it makes sense that management, in the form of Sennett, thought of it.

The strikers attack, conking Conklin with sticks. This deliberate assault, however, is arguably no worse than the routine treatment the poor guy has been receiving from Charlie in the ordinary course of his duties. Grievous bodily harm practically qualifies as a rest break.

Chester arranges for Charlie to get the same brutal treatment, and Charlie then pays him back with dough. The two are more focussed on each other than on the guys who concussed them. I think dough-slinging may be funnier than pie-slinging: it’s messier, more strenuous (the combatants frequently become helplessly enmired), more vicious (a good slap send the recipient smothering to the floor).

One of the devilish strikers entrusts the explosive bread product to a random little girl. We’re in BATTLE OF ALGIERS territory now. I suppose the plan is to look unsuspicious by walking INTO a bakery carrying a loaf.

Bakers: worse than Al Qaida.

One presumes at first that the child is a dupe, but she plays it dead sinister, like one of the twins of evil in THE SHINING.

The suspiciously heavy loaf is now delivered to Charlie in the cellar. He decides it wants additional baking. Great idea. Charlie then manages to put a floury handprint on a female derriere, and still won praise for his refusal to resort to vulgarity.

Charley Chase has been sitting bottom right in the cafe for most of this movie, looking bored.

M. La Vie, seeing the handprints on his wife’s behind, flies into a writ of fealous jage and slaps hell out of Charlie (owner of I guess the smallest-hands in the establishment, though Conklin is even shorter). Charlie throws a pie in self-defense and hits Chase, who finally receives the service he’s been waiting for throughout this reel. Big chase, much kicking up the arse, bags of flour hurled left and right (Henry “Pathe” Lehrman’s lesson on screen direction gets a work-out) —

The oven explodes! The roof falls in on Charlie as he is preparing to throw basically all the dough at his boss. The blast causes the strikers’ box of dynamite to fall over and explode, killing (?) them. Or at least making them fall in a heap.

Charlie emerges, swampmonstered by dough, for a messy fade-out.