Archive for Duck Soup

The Sunday Intertitle: Get Your Skates On

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2021 by dcairns

As a kid, THE RINK impressed and exhilarated me with Chaplin’s grace and speed, much like Gene Kelly’s musical numbers did. Let’s see if it still has that effect.

It’s brilliant that Chaplin repeats himself so much, or rather that he develops ideas from film to film — it adds enormously to the interest of CAUGHT IN A CABARET, a pleasant, typically rudimentary Keystone film, that Chaplin returns to the theme of the waiter passing himself off as a dignitary in THE RINK, because it makes it even plainer how much his skills as storyteller, gagman and performer have developed in a year and a bit, and how much more perfected his character is. If one can have gradations of perfection, which of course one can’t. But maybe HE can.

Chaplin has learned he can start a bit more gradually, so he opens with Edna and a pussycat (as in THE PAWNSHOP) plus her dad, played by James Kelley, not being a full-on gerontological case for once, though he does have a fly alighting on his forehead as Edna plays with a thing on a string to amuse kitty. I always enjoy seeing flies in movies, but only when they’re unintentional, insectoid gatecrashers breaking into the frame to mock the director’s illusion of control. Check out the bold little fellow who strolls into Paul Freeman’s mouth in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Freeman keeps on acting, heroically, and the fly never reemerges, having sacrificed his tiny existence just for this literal walk-on role. “A director is somebody who presides over accidents,” claimed Welles. When Bertolucci musters an army of flies to pester his characters on a bus in THE SHELTERING SKY, it’s hugely impressive and skin-crawlingly ‘orrible (“Flies like Malkovich,” they discovered), but it doesn’t give me the same, ah, buzz.

Charlie is meanwhile a waiter, totting up the bill of Mr. Stout (Eric Campbell, in relatively modest face-fuzz) by assessing the stains on his person — Big Eric has in fact had the exact same meal he enjoys in THE COUNT — soup, spaghetti and melon. He may be playing a different character but he has a certain consistency.

Charlie is a lousy waiter, of course, slow to respond and quick to make off with a ten dollar bill without giving change. He produces the change, but then takes it as a tip, to the outrage of Stout. He also has a complete inability to choose the right door to the kitchen, a difficulty that would still be bothering him, and more so his coworkers, in MODERN TIMES.

In this instance, food spilled on the floor is replaced with the brush and cloth being used to clean the kitchen, and these innocent items, served up to an unsuspecting customer, become charged with a curious repulsiveness. Dirt is merely displaced matter. Lipstick which seems attractive on lips becomes obnoxious when transferred to a wine glass. So with a brush on a dinnerplate.

Charlie now makes a disgusting cocktail, but he makes it very beautifully. Best gag is probably his whole body shaking while the shaker remains unmoved, as if anchored to its spot in the universe. This whole kitchen scene is relentlessly icky and I can’t wait to escape to the ice rink. Even Albert Austin as the cook has traded his usual cookie-duster for a hump and a stringy Rasputin beard which makes you imagine long vile hairs trailing into foodstuffs and thence into the backs of customers’ throats.

Flirtatious Eric somehow looks like the horrid little camel-chortler at the end of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL, unnaturally upscaled to loming Hagrid proportions.

This reminds me that Herzog claimed the “true” interpretation of his weird mini-revolution movie was that the world had, in a fit of Kafkaesque illogic, grown huge overnight, leaving the characters to struggle amid outsized beds, cars, bikes and so on. A subject Chaplin himself might have enjoyed. If Herzog had the money, would he have constructed huge DR. CYCLOPS sets and turned Klaus Kinski and Bruno S. loose amid them?

Enter Henry Bergman in his first drag role, ready to be roundly mistreated. Some of Charlie’s crimes are caused by carelessness, as when he removes Mrs. Stout’s chair just before she sits down, some by insensitivity, as when he breaks the arm of a chair to make it wide enough for the lady. There’s a general hubbub of outrageous stuff going on which I won’t describe, but Eric as Mr. Stout is flirting adulterously with Edna while Mrs. Stout gets cosy with Edna’s dad. But they can’t get very far because Charlie’s only vaguely well-meaning ministrations make the restaurant a kind of living hell.

The 1916 version of first base = moustache-twirling.

Bergman is a convincing enough woman to stand closeup treatment, and I don’t recall being aware of the drag act when I saw this as a kid in the seventies. But then I didn’t notice that Uncle Remus was Black (or that SONG OF THE SOUTH was deeply and perniciously racist).

Charlie adds a new move to his martial artistry: that brain-damaging attack known to impudence as the “Glasgow Kiss.” When coworker John Rand squares up for a fight, Charlie headbutts him. Brow-to-brow combat always seems as likely to hurt the assailant as the assailed. Really you should aim for the nose.

Charlie the Little Shit: laughing with glee when Rand gets fired for Charlie’s incompetence. This gave me a sour feeling, but on the other hand, Rand did serve up the offending brush, so he’s a pretty sloppy waiter also. It makes me wonder if Charlie’s unfair, unsporting and sadistic side communicate particularly well with children. Kids have a sense of injustice — “That’s not fair!” is something we’re all born able to say, and even monkeys seem to have a sense of fair play. But maybe that inner morality makes it seem all the sweeter to a child when somebody else gets the blame for their misdeeds. Chaplin does seem to think his smirking is adorable. He gets away with it in THE PAWNSHOP, where he’s clearly a brat, than he does here, somehow.

Charlie attempts to serve Mr. Edna and Mrs. Stout, but it’s hard to be a waiter when you’re so protean. Sharpening the cutlery transforms him into a barber, plucking a hair, slicing it, then tucking the offcut into his shirt. His customers look on with the entirely unreasonable expectation that he’s going to prepare their food. Instead, he conjures a raw egg from a fowl’s roasted cloaca, and it splatters on Mr. Edna’s face. He’s coming in for some rough treatment for the heroine’s nearest and dearest, and does he even know he’s seducing a married woman? Is he in any way deserving of Charlie’s legerdemaine/abuse?

Maybe in Charlie’s world, anyone who isn’t amused by him deserves whatever they get? I think that’s it; those are the rules. And if so, Chaplin is channeling his childhood emotions. Kids do silly things, expecting that everyone will be delighted, but sometimes the adults are not charmed, and get angry, and IT’S NOT FAIR!

Taking his street clothes from the oven, Charlie heads for the rink, at last.

The film’s two rink scenes are vastly preferable to the restaurant business. Though Chaplin hasn’t quite decided if he’s playing a brilliant rollerskater or a terrible one, so settles for both. Brilliant moves, though. Eric Campbell cowering beneath him is very funny too.

Chaplin’s balletic quality works best when he’s doing something else — when he attempts to do an actual graceful dance in SUNNYSIDE it’s not too great. Nothing amusing about it, and real ballet dancers do ballet better. But a comedian doing something less elevated in a balletic MANNER is funny and can be beautiful. Especially as he’s free to descend (literally) into pratfalling whenever there’s any danger of monotony. Weird that critic Heywood Broun felt that Chaplin must be in thrall to Nietzsche, because he doesn’t get kicked up the arse in this film. He does take plenty of falls, but the skating scenes admittedly show him winning a fair bit of the time. I think that’s justified, because the delirious appeal is to the fantasy of anarchic rambunctiousness. We feel that walking into a joint and just knocking people over and smashing stuff would be huge fun, though we know it’s bad and socially unacceptable and there would be consequences. The atavistic fantasy persists, and you can see it in zombie movies (run through a mall with a crowbar!) and car chase scenes (break all the traffic rules but innocents [practically] never get hurt). By the time the farce aspect of the story, which is barely developed, has reached its pay-off at the skate party (was that ever a thing?), the movie is just an excuse for shooting about and knocking people down like ninepins.

More on the same note: Monty Python did a mountaineering sketch in which a man barges into a room and clambers all over the furniture, and I can remember my brother saying what a lot of fun that looked. Chaplin in manic mode has a Marxian appeal — indefensible behaviour that just looks wonderful psychopathic fun. The victims don’t have to be guilty of anything. Fat and rich helps, but they could just be anybody who isn’t a starring comedian and it still seems to work. (Edgar Kennedy doesn’t really do anything bad in DUCK SOUP, except bellow, and is shamefully mistreated.)

Chaplin cuts directly between Albert Austin as the hunchbacked cook to Albert Austin as a rollerskating gentleman with his customary ‘tache. Well, it doesn’t really matter if anyone recognizes him. And you pay actors by the day, not the part. And if they’re under contract anyway, may as well keep them busy.

In the first skating scene, Edna complains that Eric is annoying her, which then justifies all Charlie’s bad behaviour and makes it chivalrous. But we never really see Eric do anything very offensive. I suppose that’s fine, we don’t want the film getting too dark. Charlie’s version of chivalry is to trip Eric with his cane when he;s not looking. And indeed the cane gets a substantial work-out in this one, making it seem like it’s been underused in the previous films. Asides from hooking big men’s ankles, it can be held by Charlie and Edna together, their arms crossing romantically, as they skate side by side. It can attach Charlie to a passing auto at the end and tow him away from the angry mob of kops and fops in pursuit.

After Charlie defeats Campbell and acquires some faint heroic lustre, for some reason, Chaplin reintroduces the fake count routine he’d deployed just a a few films back. It does bolster the farce aspect, which is a functioning narrative device for about two minutes, until everyone clocks everyone else at the skating party. (Skating party??)

There’s a funny close-up of Big Eric reacting to his wife’s unexpected presence — he’s photographed in an apparent void, possibly on the theory that we don’t want any surroundings to distract from his gurning. But the LACK of background is in itself somewhat distracting.

There’s another naked lunch moment — the frozen instant when everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork — then a perfect detente of embarrassment is achieved — everyone silently consents not to expose everyone else’s misdeeds, and the dirty laundry is transformed by MUTUAL consent into the Emperor’s naked balls, that which is too shameful to be acknowledged and so must be treated as invisible.

It doesn’t last. There’s an amusing gag in the kitchen where Charlie transforms a man’s arse into a turnstyle, shoving it to and fro as if it were hinged, and then he gets his skates on, leading to immediate chaos. It’s impressive that Chaplin, who is after all a master of repetition, which is another thing little kids like about him, can create a whole new climax not particularly different from the immediately preceding one. In some strange way, while surprise is central to comedic effect, predictability is also a help. So the entirely predictable results of Charlie skating are delightful as long as he switches the gags around just a bit.

For some reason the distressed reactions of the womenfolk are particularly hilarious.

THE RINK suffers more from missing frames than the other Mutuals I’ve run so far, perhaps not so much because the damage is greater, but because the action is so fluid that a little jump harms the beauty more. Most Chaplins seem to be missing frames or even seconds at the end, but maybe he favoured a certain abruption. In this one, Charlie starts to fall in the road, having lost his connection to the jalopy he snared, but the painful-looking pratfall — from erect ubermensch to tangle of tuxedo limbs in a sixteenth of a second — is never consummated, the seat of his pants seeming to cut off the celluloid at the instant it makes contact with asphalt.

Hosed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2021 by dcairns

David Robinson reckons both THE FLOORWALKER and Chaplin’s second Mutual film, THE FIREMAN, mark a retreat from the romance and pathos that had crept in to some of the later Essanay films, into straight knockabout. He’s not wrong. You could argue that Charlie’s relationship with Eric Campbell is the true romance in both films.

What’s surprising to me is the comparative weakness of the endings, after the magnificent final shot of POLICE. We’re back to the throwaway. Still, there’s a huge amount to admire.

In POLICE, Chaplin offered us a glimpse of what kops get up to on their off-ours — sitting around drinking tea. Here, we’re granted a similar intimate view of the fire brigade. The slapstick is framed almost as a documentary: THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN would be a good alternative title.

Eschewing his new studio, Chaplin filmed in a real fire station and at two derelict buildings which the production torched for the occasion.

Chaplin opens with “the fire drill” — imagined as an elaborate zouave routine. This is slightly funny and mostly baffling if you’re not familiar with zouaves. I know Keaton’s THE PLAYHOUSE fairly well so I’m OK. Also, I think I’ve spotted Snub Pollard (far right) in a Chaplin film for the first time, though neither IMDb nor Wikipedia list him. But they have him down for LIFE/POLICE/TRIPLE TROUBLE so I think I’m right.

Charlie has slept in and missed the drill. Funny how his introduction here — asleep, (in repose his face assumes a solemn genius attitude) then waking, realizing he’s late, and descending fire pole — pre-echoes Rufus T. Firefly’s first moments in DUCK SOUP. Although Charlie’s wild exotic-dancer spin around the pole causes his legs to hit the rim of the hole, so his upper body descends ahead of his lower, making him land (on Eric Campbell) upside down.

Which Eric isn’t too pleased about.

Casting Campbell as Charlie’s boss, rather than as out-and-out villain (though he’s still pretty villainous, as we’ll see), works beautifully — they’re forced into each others’ company more. Charlie’s infuriating incompetence becomes a sympathetic trait because his boss is such a blowhard. This works until there’s actually a fire.

Charlie now fetches the horses, the part of the operation they’ve foolishly put him in charge of. But he shows some skill in persuading them to walk backwards. This is the first of several reverse-motion gags in the film. Chaplin doesn’t use camera tricks often, but there are more reverse shots in PAY DAY. Seconds later, Charlie, having ridden the horses and cart out into the street without the engine and crew, makes the whole cart go in reverse too.

Shots of Charlie commanding the horses actually use a husky “double.”

Kevin McDonald made a whole documentary, Chaplin’s Goliath, about Eric Campbell, funded and predicated on the star being Scottish, born in Dunoon. Which it turns out he wasn’t. He just liked the IDEA of being Scottish. He hadn’t heard Ewan McGregor, in a film produced by Kevin’s brother Andrew, express the last word on the condition of Scottishness.

Booted up the arse by Eric, Charlie takes it out on Albert Austin, a fellow Karno company comic from Birmingham. I must try imagining a Brummie accent issuing from under that huge cookie-duster.

There’s a lot of arse-kicking in this film. I know you’re going to say that there is in every Chaplin film, but in this one it’s almost excessive, if that were possible. What THE FLOORWALKER does for strangling, THE FIRE MAN does for arse-kicking.

I watched this one with Fiona and ehs was horrified at Charlie drying his hands in a man’s hair. I said, “People and objects — they’re so similar! How can anyone be expected to keep them straight?” I shall have more to say about CC’s gift of universal transposition.

Another job Charlie shouldn’t be trusted with is helping serve meals.

The fact that Chaplin fills the coffee cups, and adds the milk, using the taps on the fire engine, is not half so delightful as the way he holds five cups in one hand, somehow getting his tiny thumb and forefinger through all five handles, creating an ARRAY of cups which he fills in one go by walking in an arc under the tap. The way he does it, it seems to make sense. I’m almost certain he could have achieved it merely by bending his wrist, but this is more beautiful.

That part of the operation goes comparatively well but they also trust him to serve the soup. Bad idea. Eric will spend the next scene looking like a swamp monster. He already looks, as Fiona said, like the Honey Monster. Even Charlie realizes this is cause for alarm, and he goes to the stable to stand in a corner as if awaiting the attentions of the Blair Witch. The colossal smack Eric gives him leads to several seconds of apparent pathos, where Charlie lies prone, possibly with a fractured skull and Eric, aghast, pleads with him for forgiveness. Then Charlie kicks him into a large basin of water and legs it.

So it goes in this film — every moment of pathos is really just a set-up for more slapstick. Chaplin is adept not only at pulling the rug from under our feet, but at sliding it there, inch by inch, while our attention is elsewhere.

Since Charlie must now flee, his directorial side resorts to another reverse-motion gag, as he shimmies UP the firepole to the safety of bed. “Something wrong between you and the pole, Montag?” Big Eric attempts to haul his vast form up in pursuit, but he doesn’t have trick effects to help him (he’s not the director of this film). Chaplin kneeling to pray reminds me of the words Budd Schulberg put in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mouth.

“Know the secret of Charlie? Not a man at all. Sneaks up in attic, puts on father’s clothes, pants too big, shoes too big, wears all kinds of different clothes together, anything he happens to find lying around. Then he pretends he’s grown up. But it’s all a dream.

“Don’t think of Charlie as an adult acting like a child but as a child acting like a grown-up.

“Notice how there’s always a big brute of a man pushing Charlie around — prospector in Gold Rush, millionaire in City Lights, employer in Modern Times, always the same father image, switching suddenly from love to hatred of Charlie like the millionaire picks him up when he’s drunk takes him home lovingly tucks him in, then sobers up in the morning an’ throws him out.”

Enter Edna — in a really striking outfit. Checkerboard top and UFO hat. She’s with her father, played by Lloyd Bacon, who would have had to have sired her aged six, but it’s exactly as convincing as it needs to be. It’s striking also that the Bacon character is underplayed, functional — not every man has to be a circus clown anymore.

It’s an unusually ambiguous role for EP. Her pop is going to burn the house down for the insurance, and he wants Big Eric to be sure not to extinguish it. Edna appears to be privy to the scheme, and appears to be leading Eric on, heartlessly, manipulating the big galoot. She flirts with Charlie too, but as soon as she’s alone a bitter frown creeps over her features and she mouths “Men!” with contempt.

The only reason I say it’s ambiguous is that she’s also used as romantic interest for Charlie. Chaplin’s indecision about how to resolve this romance may explain the abruptness of the ending.

I must say, Edna’s various reactions to the soupy Eric are very enjoyable. She even gets to do one of those splashed-in-the-eye flinches.

The next phase of the film I find the least enjoyable. Leo White, inevitably playing a man in a silk hat and pointy beard, finds his house on fire. Charlie is too busy playing checkers with Albert Austin to respond, and even muffles the fire bell with a cloth so he can play on undisturbed. This goes on for a very long time, with the distraught homeowner trying every possible means to alert the firefighters.

So, though David Robinson on the face of it is correct to say that Chaplin apparently bore no grudge over the recutting of A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, from the way he treats his character way may doubt this. This is the meanest gag Chaplin has done for a while, even though it’s motivated by the Little Fellow’s well-established fecklessness rather than by the malice we see in LAUGHING GAS or THE PROPERTY MAN. As I say, it’s also spectacularly sustained. Within the film, only the fact that he has a posh hat justifies torturing White’s character this way. Non-diegetically, there may be other reasons.

The only thing interrupting this housefire, which the crew are pretty useless at extinguishing even when they arrive — cue Charlie drenching everyone with the hose, a gag that’s funnier in some other, weirder context — the only thing interrupting this fire, I say, is another fire.

Bacon has torched the homestead with Edna inside. Now he tears around the suburban LA wasteland looking for the fire brigade. Charlie rushes to the rescue so furiously he leaves everyone else behind, and all the equipment. Fortunately, the abandoned house Mutual have bought to incinerate has handy ledges all the way up, which Charlie — not a stuntman, incredibly, and he makes sure we see this — climbs, three storeys up, to Edna’s window. Then climbs down with a suspiciously slender dummy with suspiciously dark hair hanging limply from his neck.

Still pretty damn impressive, though. You wouldn’t catch me doing it. I’ve always assumed that a big difference between Chaplin and Keaton was that Chaplin had little interest in flirting with death. But when the gag calls for it…

Having rescued Edna, Charlie collapses and does the fake pathos thing again, so that he can sit up, quite unharmed, once Eric and the gang have rushed off to fetch some water. And so he simply walks off with Edna and the film stops. I remark that I thought for an instant they were going to blithely walk back into the blazing building. Fiona said, “Keaton would have done that.”

She’s a Keaton gal but she’s learned you can enjoy both.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Last Gun

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2017 by dcairns

Charley Chase (of all people) talks tough in SITTIN’ PRETTY, directed by Leo McCarey in 1924. A typically well-ordered yet lunatic farce plot, in which Charley impersonates a police officer (borrowing his prospective father-in-law’s uniform) in order to dispel a particularly shameless carjacker from his auto, then gets roped into police business — capturing a rampant lunatic (played by Charley’s brother, James Parrott).

This leads to the most famous bit, an early run of the mirror sequence from DUCK SOUP (1933, also McCarey). Charley confuses his prey by donning a false beard and impersonating his reflection.

Clearly, McCarey must have seen Max Linder’s rendition of this gag in 7 YEARS BAD LUCK (1921). Or some other version now lost to time.

While much shorter than Groucho and Harpo’s version, this sequence contains many of the same ideas, including business with hats, and the crazy man retreating to one side to formulate his next plan, slightly undercranked. It doesn’t play on a gradual escalation of mistakes by the reflection, which reach such lunatic heights in the Marxian routine — surely, we think, Groucho must have got wise by now… or by now…? In this version, Charley’s first ridiculous mistake causes his whole act to be rumbled.

Instead, the comedy comes from Charley’s supernatural adeptness at anticipating what the madman will do next, so that he appears in a derby, a top hat and a straw boater just as his opponent does. No explanation is possible as to how he manages this, so McCarey simply stays with the bamboozled loon for the duration.

Here too, we may see the 1933 refinement of the routine as a big improvement — rather than temporarily leaving his hero’s viewpoint, McCarey makes one hero (Groucho) the one who’s being tricked and another (Harpo), the trickster, so the comedy comes from the tension generated by Groucho’s failure to get smart and Harpo’s illusion-jeopardising blunders.

Nevertheless, the short (one-reel) SITTIN’ PRETTY is an uncommonly satisfying little comedy.