Archive for Eric Campbell

The Sunday Intertitle: Cocking His Snook

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2020 by dcairns

Maybe if I look at all of Chaplin’s “park, pretty girl and policeman” shorts from his Keystone period, I’ll find the bit with the flower mentioned by Schulberg/Fitzgerald in The Disenchanted. Or maybe it doesn’t exist.

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RECREATION (1914) begins with a penniless Charlie trying to throw himself to his death. So we know it’s a comedy alright. To accomplish the fatal act, he has to get over a fence. He performs a gag later used by Keaton on TV, hoisting one leg up and resting it on the crossbar, then hoisting up the other leg, leaving him momentarily unsupported in mid-air before gravity reasserts itself and he crashes to earth. Keaton’s version was better, more uncanny, but Chaplin is indisputably there first.

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When Helen Carruthers walks by, Charlie forgets all about suicide and becomes a sex pest. As his career went on, his pursuit of the leading lady gradually became more courtly, less lecherous, until there’s no sense of sexuality about his character at all, just the abstraction of Romance.

Helen’s beau is a violently inclined sailor, and so soon he and Charlie are lobbing bricks at one another. There’s a lot of this in early Chaplin, and it’s never terribly funny. All the later traditions of the custard pie fight are upheld — a few direct hits are followed, for variety, by a miss which clobbers a copper instead. But the projectiles are rather painfully serious rather than silly, undignfied and comic like the cream pie, which had to be discovered (by Mabel Normand, it seems) a little later.

Charlie claimed he learned about screen direction from Henry “Pathé” Lehrmann — you exit screen left, then enter screen right. And it’s very important that if you throw a brick off the left side of frame, it should enter the next shot from the right so it feels like it’s a continuous movement in one direction. But there’s an oddity here: the brick that misses travels left from Chaplin’s hand, left past the sailor, and left into a third shot where it hits the cop.

The cop then appears behind Charlie from the RIGHT, as if the universe were a short circle composed of three shots. It’s hard to work out the physical geography that could cause the policeman to take a circuitous path that avoided the sailor and arrived behind Charlie. He does so purely for the suspense value and dramatic irony of Charlie winding up to throw a brick, all unawares that he’s under the watchful eye of the law. A familiar panto technique.

Caught with the brick in his hand, Charlie shows why he’s a more interesting clown than his contemporaries by dusting it off. A bit of mime intended to prove that he was never intending to hurl it, he just thought it could use a clean.

Ah-hah! There are TWO policemen. That explains it. They have different hats, but I missed this important fact because the surviving print has been horribly cropped. Everyone’s missing the top of their head, which may be why they’re behaving so rambunctiously. Note that Chaplin hasn’t hit on the idea of the gigantic antagonist yet, a lucky thing since an Eric Campbell figure would be cut off at the nipples by this misframing.

Abruptly, for the film’s last two minutes, another source has become available and the image quality improves a thousandfold and we get luminous you-are-there clarity, time-traveling a hundred-plus years, a wrenching shock that takes a while to recover from.

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As Charlie flirts with Helen, a row-boat ponderously and distractingly edges into frame. Is it going to be significant? No, it’s just an indication that there was no A.D. on crowd control. A quick cutaway later and it’s gone. Nobody considered a retake worth their while to solve the continuity issue.

Conclusion: the film lurches back into grainy, smudgy, misframed ugliness and everyone winds up in the water. Right, that’s that dealt with.

Charlie does not seize a flower as described in The Disenchanted. Let’s keep looking.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: Rinky-Dink

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 26, 2017 by dcairns

Impressively, Chaplin’s THE RINK has only, I think, two intertitles in its first reel. Perhaps not so impressive when you consider how slight the plot is. Chaplin is an incompetent waiter, then he gets into a rollerskating rink and trips up Eric Campbell. A bunch of times.

How bad a waiter is Charlie? Bad enough to serve up a live cat for lunch. I think that gives you an idea.

At the midway point there’s a sudden flurry of text flung at us as Chaplin needs to motivate a rematch, getting the antagonists invited to Edna Purviance’s “skating party” (?) so it can all kick off again. A slender pretext for a great action finish.

Chaplin is a bolshy underling at the restaurant where he works, not only careless and accident-prone but malicious and aggressive — very much the Keystone Charlie. Once he comes into contact with Edna, he’s a kind of knight in armour, even if he is indulging in identity theft to woo her. It is, as Keystone would have put it, a “farce comedy,” so you have to expect a bit of imposture along with the ruckus.

This is the movie that provoked W.C. Fields to compare C.C. to a ballet dancer, which I never took as a knock, or the result of envy, or contempt. It just seems an apt analysis. As skilled and graceful a physical performer as Fields could hardly fail to be impressed by Chaplin’s movements, even if what he did with them wasn’t up Fields’ street. I can see the Great McGonigle being more taken with Chaplin the scoundrel than with anyone having the temerity to cast himself as a hero.

The knockabout in the rink is pretty spectacular, though meanie that I am I laughed most this time at the pantomimic distress of the female onlookers as Chaplin repeatedly falls on a prone fat lady, who’s played by regular trouper Henry Bergson in drag. Funny enough the first time, the hysteria escalates with every pratfall ~

It’s not that I always laugh at people in torment — I’m not God — but there’s something ticklesome about the realistic weeping and wailing as a reaction to the stylised pratfalling. It’s as incongruous as vomiting in response to an aria.

The Sunday Intertitle: Jazz Lizard Harold

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 9, 2017 by dcairns

TWO-GUN GUSSIE (1918) is an early, inferior Harold Lloyd short with a western setting — something Harold returned to fairly often. A pointless opening scene establishes Harold playing piano back east — I suspect deleted footage might have made more sense of this. But we do see Harold “shooting” the keys with his index finger (he still had all his fingers at this point), a la Chico Marx. The Marxes were already a big noise in vaudeville, so it’s quite possible this is a direct swipe.

The best jokes in this silent are verbal, from the insane word soup of this intertitle, to the signs behind the bar saying things like “No drink sold stronger than liquid fire” and “If you ask for credit you will get it in the neck.”

But when the hulking bad guy (William Blaisdell) wants to demonstrate his strength, he does so by plucking the legs off a chair. Now, how much strength that takes depends on how securely the legs are attached, so the gesture means nothing, and certainly lacks the hyperbolic terror of Eric Campbell bending a street light just to show Chaplin how strong he is in EASY STREET. Western saloon furniture is notoriously flimsy, but having Blaisdell maybe break the legs in half might have worked better. But he’s just torn Harold’s shooting iron to pieces, so it’s all kind of an anticlimax…

Bebe Daniels (top) also appears, but has little to do (more evidence of missing scenes). Pretty soon, Lloyd’s films would show more structure and better gags, and give Daniels slightly better roles, but they never exploited her comic potential to its full extent. She would have to wait for her own star vehicles…