Archive for DW Griffith

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…

Thoroughly Unmodern Tillie

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2021 by dcairns

TILLIE’s PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914) isn’t highly rated — but we should give Sennett some credit for jumping into the feature film racket with both flapshod feet, even when he could have had little idea of what a feature comedy would be like (nobody had made one).

There’s also something poetically apt about Sennett co-directing with Charles Bennett (not the writer of THE 39 STEPS, no — but the guy who sings “Oh, Mr. Kane” in CITIZEN KANE, yes). I want more rhyming co-directors. Christopher Nolan & Xavier Dolan? Michael Mann & Ahn Hung Tran? Susanne Bier & Lars Von Trier? Suggest more!

I’m devoting three posts to this as it’s a six-reeler I guess and certainly thrice the length of any previous Chaplin.

And it starts very nicely, with imported star Marie Dressler emerging from stage curtains to smile shyly at the (imagined) audience, then dissolving into her movie character — and then another dissolve transports that character into her natural habitat. This seems to me better than anything in De Mille’s THE SQUAW MAN, sometimes considered the first feature film, but in reality only the first extant one.

Enter Mack Swain in a big rustic beard, to give Tillie/Marie the traditional Keystone kick up the arse. Welcome to the studio. Sennett tried to cover his costs by shoehorning every comedian in his stable into this movie, which is how Chaplin comes to make his inauspicious feature debut.

And is that Teddy the Keystone Dog ambling through lower frame? Apparently not, though he does seem to have been around pictures at the time. I tell you what, let’s start an unfounded rumour that it’s him.

Enter Chaplin, as “the stranger,” a kind of man with no name I guess, in a straw hat. Always interesting to see him as a villain, and he does it very well. This is his last baddie until Hynkel and Verdoux, I guess. He enters, back to camera, and we stay on that back a loooong time. Keystone has finally discovered preparation and suspense — well, they had to, a feature film made at the pace of a typical Sennett one-reeler would have required a huge budget.

Okay, it’s definitely not Teddy. we could christen him Freddy the Keystone Other Dog

Tillie is playing “catch-the-brick” with Not-Teddy, and accidentally hits the stranger in the nose with her lobbed bit of masonry. Very good pratfall from CC, and it all makes for a very Keystone meet cute. Less than three minutes in and two of their signature moves have been displayed. How long until a pastry is flung?

Charlie aggressively woos Tillie. Wonderful to see Dressler moving about so nimbly in head-to-toe wide shot. And the physical contrast is lovely, with Chaplin like a mosquito thinking of alighting on a tempting jelly.

Charlie and Swain have a drink and everything goes out of focus (nitrate decomposition).

People seem to communicate not by intertitles, but by kicking one another up the arse. I wonder how much nuance they can put into it / get out of it? Dressler’s facial expressions seem to suggest quite a bit. Without the use of her fantastic voice, though, she’s reduced to mainly being a gurner. And the fact that everyone tends to pitch their performances at the camera instead of at one another is a bit tiring. Chaplin was right to limit that to himself as actor, and to use it for audience rapport, not to telegraph things we might have missed. Expositional camera-directed pantomime is the worst.

Charlie’s “look” is yet another fascinating variation. He has a tiny moustache, but a DIFFERENT tiny moustache. Not a toothbrush. There doesn’t seem to be a name for this style or breed. It’s a bit like Max Linder’s chevron-style , but it’s in two pieces. Which is weird. Did it influence Cantinflas and his repulsive face-fungus? But the Spaniard’s two segments have grown further estranged, leaving his philtrum and most of his upper lip area bare, a gaping no-man’s land, while the hairs cluster together like herd animals at the corners of the mouth as if drawing sustenance from stray saliva.

The baggy pants and cane are still there. Chaplin has worked out that his brand definition is beneficial to him, but he needs to delineate between the Little Fellow and this little creep.

Speaking as we were of whiskering, I like that Mack Swain has a portrait of Lincoln on his wall, evidently the inspiration for his unsightly “Irish” beard.

Charlie sets about wooing the hefty hayseed for her father’s loot. This is good material for him, though hardly the kind of thing he’d get up to in his regular characterisation, partially-formed as it yet was. Dressler gets to have fun acting girlish, and would presumably have appealed to John Waters: “I like fat people who don’t know they’re fat.” She’s very graceful, but can drop it in an instant and stagger with pachyderm ponderousness: one thinks of her breaking stride at the end of DINNER AT EIGHT.

This film is usually dismissed, but I have to say, they’ve correctly worked out that the way to make a Keystone feature is to linger on character interplay in simple scenes, not to pack the screen with the usual busy-busy fussing or frenetic action. Cheaper, as well as less exhausting!

The lovers woo by slinging roses at one another. Tillie can hurl a blossom hard enough to knock Charlie on his ass. Of course, it’s not long before bricks are being tossed: this being the countryside, there are plenty lying about (it’s Keystone country).

Charlie proposes an elopement, and it’s a crystal-clear bit of mime, aided by Marie’s shocked, awestruck, delighted responses. His proposal that they rob her father requires a bit more explicit for-our-benefit gesticulation, but plays OK.

Dressler dresses up to elope, donning an extraordinary hat which seems to have a miniature egret or something posing atop it. I can imagine such a garment appealing to Bjork but few others. Anyway, get used to it, she doesn’t get another costume change for ages.

Enter Mabel Normand, forearms immersed in an almighty muff (elbow-deep in animal as they were, women of the era could have taken to veterinary practice as to the manner born), as THE GIRL HE LEFT BEHIND HIM. We’re in Part Two now, and the plot, a thin gruel thus far, duly thickens. Mabel advances into a gaping, PIG ALLEY close-up. Either Mack Sennett or Charles Bennett, has been looking at Griffith (with whom Sennett used to work). It’s rumoured that Sennett decided to throw everything into TILLIE’S after learning that DWG was at work on what became BIRTH OF A NATION, but Hobart Bosworth’s THE SEA WOLF and Cecil B. DeMille & Oscar Apfel’s THE SQUAW MAN were already out there, making money, so that influence is not needed.

The mini-skirmish with Mabel in the street is just padding, though, since the trio face off again in a restaurant, another of those bustling, hyperactive scenes Sennett had a weakness for. Interesting to see Mabel as a villainess.

Tillie gets drunk (falls down a fair bit), Charlie steals her ill-gotten dowry and absconds with Mabel. A woman walks by in the background grinning right into the lens, but if the stars can do it, why not random Los Angeles citizens?

Tillie is ousted and rousted, into the waiting arms of a kop, while Charlie and Mabel laugh wickedly from a presumably adjoining shot. (Keystone movies are very Kuleshovic, since near everything’s a master shot and when you have two wide shots joined together by glances or shoved characters passing from one frame to the other, you never ever get a wider view that links the two frames explicitly.)

Mercifully, Tillie is having too good a time being drunk for the first time to notice that she’s been robbed, abandoned and arrested. The local kop shop is just a palace of drunken hilarity to her. So they put her in solitary confinement with five men and two other women.

Charlie and Mabel go shopping — he is floored by the department store’s swing door. Hinges! There’s just no combatting them.

In the jail cell, Tillie is assailed by varied print formats — things keep blazing into high-contrast glare, with curved corners flashing momentarily onto the frame, a bit of Lynchian strangeness that prepares us for the possibility of Marie Dressler inexplicably mutating in her cell into Balthasar Getty. Which wouldn’t be that much weirder than what’s gone before.

Further developments introduce Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s own Marie Dressler type, as a prison matron (though Tillie isn’t in prison yet, just in the hoosegow’s lock-up) and co-director Charles Bennett himself as Tillie’s rich uncle. Also Edgar Kennedy as his butler. Having a rich uncle duly gets Tillie released, and a good thing too as she’s now entered the lachrymose phase of inebriation, weeping and kissing the desk sergeant’s bald head. “You th’ bess pal in th’world, thass wha’ you are…”

Mabel and Charlie emerge from the clothing store, all gussied up. Mabel is now the full Theda Bara. Charlie no longer had the baggy pants, his divorce from the Little Fellow is complete. (But we can’t see his feet!) This movie is like his entire progress at Keystone played in reverse. Mabel and Charlie have a ton of fun just standing in the street interacting. Makes me wish we could have seen them actually clothes shopping.

Admittedly, Tillie’s weird pyjama-dress-pantsuit thing is pretty impressive too. She’s still having tipsy fun, roughhousing with the Kops, making a great play of jumping off one of those huge kerbs they had in them days. I guess having a massive step like that would actually potentially deflect a cartwheel coming at you sideways, so they probably saved a lot of lives. If you were on the sidewalk you were kind of safe, unlike now. On the other hand, the pedestrians must’ve been walking about on broken ankles alla time.

That’s End of Part 2 —

TO BE CONTINUED

Dipso Facto

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 12, 2020 by dcairns

This, like many of my Chaplin pieces, was written in bursts WHILE I WATCHED. I’m adding this bit in later. You can see me, in this one, realizing gradually with surprise that the film, THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR, is genuinely hilarious — a first for Keystone.

Maybe Charlie’s trousers are so baggy because he’s always legless?

OK, so the subject is drink and drinking again — Chaplin the alcoholic’s son finding rough, unsentimental comedy in the pursuit of booze by raddled addicts — but he’s certainly trying something different by incorporating a famous poem. I can’t think of any other examples of Keystone doing anything remotely like that.

Since the poem is sincere, this might count as Chaplinesque pathos, except that he’s burlesquing the verse rather than merely illustrating it. Or is he?

Flashback — the first in a Chaplin film? Not something he’d go in for later, either. Chaplin as celebrated artist, painting in bow tie and dinner jacket rather than a more practical smock because this is CLASS, damnit. They’re going for elegance with the draped lady and the sculptures and whatnot. How very un-Keystone.

We actually see Chaplin do a bit of painting. Somebody with modest skills has started the canvas, but he adds to it. He’s not terribly good. But I slightly prefer this to all those movies where you see an actor daub away with extreme delicacy, desperate not to actually leave a mark on the work.

It’s a really godawful poem, isn’t it? Of course this is a Keystone-mandated bowdlerization of the text by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy, but most of the worst bits are straight out of the original.

Charlie, who still has voluminous pants despite being all classy and everything, steps on his palette. He’s not finding a lot of comedy in this — it’s no FATAL GLASS OF BEER — nor is it as hilariously bathetic as Griffith’s WHAT DRINK DID — but it’s very interesting to see him playing in a different register. This desire to appear sophisticated reached its apogee in A WOMAN OF PARIS, but we’re a ways from there yet.

Ah yes, trip over the bearskin, that’s what its there for. Never let a bearskin or a swing door go to waste. Well, what we have here is comic declension — he’s playing heartbreak in a mock-serious way but with no real comedy, and then he drops down the scale of effects all the way to slapstick. Another classic element of the Chaplinesque is born. His genius lies not in playing pathos and knockabout at the same time, but leaping between them so nimbly that there’s no sense of a gear change. But at present, he’s just discovering that pretending to be serious makes a great set-up for a surprise joke.

Pensively, he sucks on his paintbrush, then BLURGH! Paint doesn’t taste good. Again, the comedy benefits greatly from the mock-serious build-up.

Back to the framing story. Charlie is falling-down drunk on a single shot of whisky so his thoughtful cronies buy him another.

The first full-on laugh created out of actually contrasting the text with the action, rather than merely illustrating it and getting some comic business in at the sides, comes when our friend and humble narrator describes painting “a fair-haired boy” and we fade up on him painting a really fat bald man with jet-black wings of oiled hair adorning his nude scalp, plus a curly moustache. It’s just very funny. It doesn’t score a satiric point off the painting by way of ironic contrast (example: someone is described as handsome but we see them and they’re actually not, and we infer somebody’s lying). It’s just a bit of joyful silliness. Wonderfully stupid.

The painting, and Charlie’s somewhat nauseated reaction to it, are funny too.

Charlie, pensive again, unknowingly disfigures his shirtfront. The paintbrush may be the most productive prop Chaplin’s got his hands on in his entire movie career to date.

The dame runs off with the fat bloke, pinning a note to the painting’s face, something I like particularly since the actress (Cecile Arnold, a new one) doesn’t seem to know there’s anything funny about this.

I don’t know if it really works, having Charlie open the envelope then throw away the letter, then try to read the envelope, then realise it’s the letter he needs, and picking it up again. But I’m glad he tried it.

I was just thinking, funny he hasn’t sat on that paint palette yet, and then, right on cue… Good mock-melodrama destroying his rival’s accursed image.

Actual irony, or an honest attempt at it. The intertitle proclaims that the beloved Madeleine was tarnished and dead in a year, but we see her (in the park, naturally) alive and well and surrounded with her many children, some of whom look substantially older than a year.

Nice to finally get a third camera set-up in this thing.

Now we come to the poem’s climax. The drunk is supposed to sketch the vanished fair one’s face on the floor. You know, I’m not sure I ever knew this phrase came from a poem, and I certainly didn’t know the face was a chalk drawing. I always assumed it was the face of a person who had fallen down drunk. I’ve been missing reams of subtext here.

Anyway, Charlie tries to do the drawing but keeps falling down because he’s so swallied. When he managed to make a few marks, what he’s rendered is an un-smiley face. His fellow boozers throw him out. Outside, unable to process the change of scenery, he continues trying to execute his sketch, with the same ludicrous results. Comic abjection. A passing kop propels him back into the bar. Big fight. Charlie eventually passes out.

Not only the best “falls unconscious” ending to date, but the funniest film Chaplin has made (following two rather nasty ones), a really respectable piece of knockabout, and an early clue to the new direction.