Archive for Edna Purviance

Silas Hathaway peaks early

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

THE KID, PART II.

Chuck Jones’ baby brother was an aspiring actor, or anyhow his mother had aspirations for him — when the tot was rejected for a part, Chuck wondered about what it must be like to be a failure as a baby. In the case of Silas Hathaway, cast as the baby version of Jackie Coogan, his biggest success was as a baby. What must it have been like to live an ordinary life after that, unable to even remember your big moment? I guess it must have been… ordinary.

Chaplin’s technique of following pathos with laughter is established early. After the touching moment when Charlie, realising he has no choice but to look after this foundling, smiles happily and carries the little bundle of joy and faeces off, and we cut to Edna, mourning her situation, there’s an excellent gag when Charlie has to pass the infant off as his own. “What’s its name?” asks a slum woman. He disappears briefly into a doorway and emerges a few seconds later, having obviously checked something. “John.”

It’s a wonderfully delicate nob joke. Of course, Jackie Coogan is never, ever referred to as John. He’s The Kid. But he’s not even called that, he has attained the same sort of nameless universal identity as The Little Fellow (I call him Charlie only for convenience).

Let’s dispel the canard that Chaplin was indifferent to his sets. Charlie’s garret is a terrific creation by Charles D. Hall.

He tries to entertain the bawling babby by shaking various meat products at him, but his sausage does not rattle. The baby is upset, as the last baby Chaplin worked with did, back in HIS TRYSTING PLACE in 1914. Maybe he just affects them that way.

I was wondering when this would happen — Edna rushes back to where she left her baby, but it’s gone. A necessary character development, rather than a plot point, since we already know. But Edna is now a woman who CONSIDERED abandoning her baby, but didn’t ultimately choose to, just as Charlie didn’t ultimately choose to drop the little bugger down an open drain. Edna discovers the baby gone just as the chauffeur of the mansion finds the car gone. She swoons, and the last we see if the lady of the house inspecting her prone form through a lorgnette with what one hopes is vaguely kindness…

Back at Chez Charlie, which has been transformed to suit Baby Silas’ specifications. A bed is hammocked from the rafters, with a teapot on a string as baby bottle. Baby Silas was induced to suckle from the spout — I guess if the contents of the pot are tasty, it comes naturally. I don’t know how much time has passed but this is quite an agile and well-developed baby.

Linen is being scissored up to make nappies, suggesting the installation is still a recent event. Shuggling the hammock, Charlie comes away with a wet hand (which he wipes on his bedclothes, the beast) — for once, a urine joke that isn’t immediately alibied as being spilt milk or something. The lavatorial approach continues, as he shears the seat out of a wicker chair. He’s not planning to torture Daniel Craig, so only one other purpose suggests itself, made more explicit still when the disfigured seat is placed over a dented spitoon. That which receives spit will also serve for… other things.

This is about as scatological as a silent comedy is likely to get, though there’s one delirious French short from the early days of the century in which a musical hall bumpkin defecates in a phone booth. Saw it at the Paris Cinematheque museum and laughed myself ill.

FADE-OUT. Time passes. I shall return.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Drop

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2021 by dcairns

Time to get on with THE KID. I’m running the full-length version with the scenes Chaplin deleted for re-release put back in, because I want to see what audiences saw a hundred years ago. But I’m watching it with Chaplin’s score, which they wouldn’t have been able to do.

IMDb offers no ID for the charity hospital nurse, but she looks a bit like Phyllis Allen, from the Keystone days.

As Walter Kerr points out, the only parts of the film which are really sentimental in the true sense are those involving Edna Purviance as the mother. And it’s these that he cut back on later. Fading in an image of Christ on the way to Calgary as Edna is released from the charity hospital with her illegitimate baby is a very Victorian, very Griffith idea.

This being a Chaplin film, though, she immediately heads for the park.

Now we meet “the man” — obviously the baby’s father. Chaplin does some stuff that’s unusual for him here — he’s working in an usual mode, though it’s close to what we’ve later come to regard as “chaplinesque.” When the Man looks at Edna’s photo, Chaplin dissolves to it, quite gradually, rather than just cutting to a POV. The dissolve as language of solemnity. And he’s not wrong to lard on the seriousness, because he has to cue his audience, who have come expecting laughs, to get into the dramatic situation first, and not look for titters. Command of tone is one of the most important skills there is.

Edna, meanwhile, passes a church where a wedding is taking place. Artsy vignette effects — also not typical of CC’s style. For whatever reason, the bride looks miserable, which may be a case of larding on misery where it doesn’t belong. The true trick to this kind of scene ought to be to show everyone being happy except Edna. Having a flower drop on the ground and get trodden on may also be belabouring the point too much. Still, for artful, religiose sentiment, lighting up a stained glass window behind Edna’s head so that she grows a halo is a neat bit of stagecraft. And subtle enough that egginess is avoided, mostly — you could easily miss it.

The business of giving up the baby is echoed in Alan Rudolph’s TROUBLE IN MIND, which everyone should see. It’s a bit of dramatic contrivance of the kind you might get in Dickens, or Wilkie Collins, only with an automobile. Edna stows the child in the back seat of a fortuitously unlocked limo. This being LA and sunny, one might expect the poor mite to broil, but thieves in cloth caps (including regular Albert Austin) steal the car (lock up your autos!) and the baby (Silas Hathaway) is whisked off, dumped in a slum neighbourhood, and the lovely new environment Edna had dreamed of for him is dashed away and replaced with…

Charlie! A jaunty tune switches genres on us and Chaplin again capitalizes on his inconceivable fame by entering in extreme long shot, his tiny figure instantly recognisable, the most successful costume design in film history. Barely dodging a rain of garbage from an upper window, Charlie parades, a figure of natural dignity and poise, dressed in rags.

The location is Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley — in 1922, Buster Keaton would run through it and catch a passing car with one hand and be yanked offscreen in COPS, and in 1926 Harold Lloyd would sneak into work the back way using the same sidestreet. There’s a campaign to name the anonymous alley in honour of the three great silent clowns.

— and a second avalanche of debris strikes Charlie, shattering his mood and his air of superiority. The intertitle “Awkward ass” illustrates Chaplin’s love of language, I guess, but isn’t funny and doesn’t seem to fit the situation very well. But I guess Charlie’s attempts at snootiness are being stressed.

Charlie takes a fragment of cigarette from a tin box full of butts — the facts of poverty dressed up in the style of a gentleman — cargo cult richness. An elaborate play is made of tapping the tiny fag end on the tin as if to break the filter. Another bit of comedy when Charlie finds that binning his decrepit gloves is easier than putting them in his pocket.

Baby Silas is discovered, bawling. This is a delicate situation and Chaplin handles it brilliantly, refusing all sentiment. First, he does a classic Charlie trope, looking up to see if the sprog, like the garbage, has been tossed down from a window. Chaplin knew he could rely on a laugh by looking straight up whenever encountering anything unexpected.

Then he sees a woman with a pram. Obviously, she must have dropped the contents by mistake. He tries to cuckoo her, planting Silas in the pram along with her young one, and when she remonstrates, he nearly takes the wrong one. The plot could have gotten twice as complicated just then.

Events conspire to saddle Charlie with the unwanted stray. He tries to leave it where he found it, but a kop is hovering at hand. He tries to fob it off on an old wreck of a guy — “I need to tie my shoelace” — hands it to him — legs it. The guy, no more scrupulous than Charlie, dumps Silas back in the pram, and Charlie is blamed for this when he innocently walks by. Baby Silas is as hard to shake as Droopy or the bottle imp.

This is all so effective precisely because under the comedy there’s something desperate, almost the first time this has occurred in Chaplin’s work. Amid the “seriousness” it’s nice to note that Baby Wilson, the one in the pram, is really enjoying the sight of Charlie being hit with an umbrella.

(The IMDb notes that Baby Wilson was born in 1919, but somehow appeared in THE HEART OF A MAGDALEN in 1914, presumably with the help of that cell-phone woman who traveled back in time to see THE CIRCUS.)

Charlie now gives some thought to murdering the infant by dropping it down an open drain. Well, it’s not quite as harsh as that. Chaplin knows how to present things. It’s simply a man looking for a solution to his problem. He COULD drop it down the drain. That would work. But no, he can’t very well do that. A micro-glance in our direction confirms him in this view. It just isn’t the done thing.

He finds a note left by Edna: Please love and care for this orphan child. Well, that does seem to be the only remaining option, doesn’t it?

TO BE CONTINUED

Charlie’s Day Out

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2021 by dcairns

Legend has it that MGM changed the title of its 1927 Anna Karenina adaptation from HEAT to LOVE, because a prospective marquee reading “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Heat” would have been comical, bit “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love” would be commercially appealing. With that in mind, the title card “Charlie Chaplin in A Day’s Pleasure with Edna Purviance” may be thought unfortunate.

“Music by Charlie Chaplin” — the fact that it doesn’t say “Charles” makes me wonder if these titles are director-approved. The rambunctiousness of the score may be explained by the fact that the person Chaplin is humming the tunes to is Eric Rogers, of Carry On film fame, rather than the more artful David Raksin. The tunes are as catchy but the tone is different depending on the personality of the notator-orchestrator.

The premise of this one was later used by Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and no doubt a gaggle of others. A family outing. Edna, tow Charlie mini-mes, and the man himself emerge in turn from a respectable Los Angeles bungalow. It’s a very L&H style sunblasted suburban sprawl setting. The idea of Chaplin kids dressed as smaller versions of the man himself had been tried out in a deleted scene from SHOULDER ARMS, which may be an early clue that inspiration is a bit dry.

In fact, this film was begun as CHARLIE’S PICNIC, a follow-up to SUNNYSIDE, which was shut down after the same creative problems caused production to grind to a halt. Then Chaplin discovered Jackie Coogan, started THE KID, and inspiration once more began flowing freely. But partway through shooting that film, Chaplin realised it was going to be bigger and more complex than anything he’d attempted before, and he had First National breathing down his neck. So he dug out the shelved footage from the picnic film and very quickly, by his standards, shot material to complete it. Although the mental logjam apparently triggered by his miserable marriage had broken, working at this speed had never really suited Chaplin and he’d gotten used to the luxury of time. So A DAY’S PLEASURE bears the signs of haste.

Charlie is swathed in a greatcoat, marking the character as more settled and respectable than usual. He cranks the boneshaker into violent motion, but the motor keeps dying just as he steps onto the running board. I suspect the presence of hefty stagehands shaking the vehicle from the lee side.

The jalopy is abandoned almost as soon as it appears, as this is to be a boat ride. Maybe some memory of the outing to Southampton Charlie experienced with Hannah and Syd when a boy. Standard fat lady humour: when a big woman misses the boat and ends up stretched between it and the dock, Charlie, also late, is able to use her as a human bridge. Then, when she’s dangling from the starboard, he tries pulling her aboard with a dangerously spikey looking boathook. Mercifully, the victim appears to be a large man in drag (Tom Wood? The fat peoples’ credits on Chaplin films at the IMDb are very confusing). David Robinson suggests she’s a woman, Babe London.

The rocking boat allows Rollie Totheroh to get his camera gimbal out again, but a dance floor sequence on deck produces no real gags. The black jazz quartet accompanying the hectic jig escapes too much racial mockery until the intertitle “Three minds with but a single thought” gratuitously ruins things, and also gets the number of musicians wrong. “They have suffered too much ever to be funny to me,” Chaplin would later say, but when the comic muse is AWOL, low-hanging (strange) fruit is duly plucked.

The inevitable mal de mer business ticked off, Charlie entangles himself in a complex deckchair which resolutely fails to come alive the way ONE A.M.s Murphy bed had. And the violent rocking of the camera really gets in the way here. Chaplin is going through the motions in an unsuitable sitcom scenario about bourgeoise family problems, something he has no feeling for nor experience of. Still, it’s only a two-reeler and I’ve never seen it before so at least it’s short and new.

Through convoluted means, Charlie, so seasick he’s coming off as inebriated, collapses across the lap of another stout lady, and is covered with a blanket by an attendant. When the woman’s husband arrives with refreshments, Charlie’s waving hand, emerging from under the blanket, is mistaken for the woman’s. A dim echo of the brilliant alien hands routine from A DOG’S LIFE. It’s unconvincing spatially: I would have thought the bodies and limbs could have been arranged to make it work better. For a better example of the same kind of thing, see Lorelei Lee and Mr. Spofford in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, arranged around a porthole. (“Quit it.”)

This leads to a fight with the husband (burly ex-boxer Tom Wilson, rather a colourless antagonist), interrupted by seasickness — as the husband leans over the side, Chaplin rains kicks and punches on his upthrust buttocks. A coward at heart, Charlie always waxes belligerent when his opponent is handicapped in any way. One of his less attractive qualities — which always seem to emerge when he’s feeling hurried or uninspired.

Still, he disembarks victorious. Which is a problem for me, because the loose structuring device of these kind of comedies is “a series of disasters/frustrations/mishaps”. Certainly the film tries to evoke that notion with the next bit of action, introduced flatly as “The hold-up at the crossroads.” Actually it’s the most inventive sequence.

Charlie manages to upset a traffic cop, tiny, obstreperous Loyal Underwood and his womenfolk, a haulage firm, Henry Bergman as two separate men, Toraichi Kono his chauffeur in real life (Mrs Kono apparently objected to his earlier appearance in THE ADVENTURER, feeling that acting was beneath a respectable driver’s dignity, but here he is again), and a couple of tar-spreaders and their vat, which is quite literally upset.

When Charlie and Bergman (in his second guise, as a second cop or kop) both get their feet stuck in the tar while arguing, the film actually threatens to become amusing. Charlie leans forwards at a super-Hulot ankle-straining angle, then pulls himself erect by the seat of his pants, a good piece of comedy physics.

Leaving his flap-shoes and both kops hopelessly sunk in bitumen, Charlie escapes using a policeman’s cap as stepping stone, making the film’s title, and the final intertitle “The end of a perfect day,” oddly UN-ironic.

Chaplin was still stuck in a disappointing marriage, and partway through production became father to Norman Spencer Chaplin, born incomplete — mostly missing his brain. The child died after a few days.

Victims of such birth defects are not usually viable, though I was once told by a nurse that the custom is to starve them so they die as quickly as possible. Glen David Gold gets quite a bit of high drama out of this tragedy in his novel Sunnyside, concluding with the horrific moment at the funeral when Chaplin sees that the mortician has arranged his son’s features into a grotesque SMILE in the tiny coffin. True.

Are we having fun yet?

Chaplin managed only two shorts in 1920, neither of them up to his exacting standards. ADP was released in December, and he didn’t manage to get another film in cinemas all through the following year. But when THE KID appeared in February 1921 (this is its centenary!) any suspicions of creative bankruptcy would be utterly dispelled.

It’s masterpiece time.