Archive for Eric Campbell

The St Andrew’s Day Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2013 by dcairns

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Finding intertitles from late movies to write about for the blogathon is always an interesting task. This one is from THE ADVENTURER, and it qualifies because this 1917 Chaplin short is the last appearance — or one of the last, he made four films that year — of Chaplin heavy Eric Campbell.

Chaplin never did find anyone to replace Campbell, although this arguably pushed his plots into more adventurous terrain. Soon after this, the leading lady stops being automatically Edna Purviance, and stops being a stock figure. The villains become a more variegated bunch, and the days of “a park, a pretty girl and a policeman” are over, in favour of more ambitious and sprawling narratives.

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THE ADVENTURER is much more sophisticated than any Keystone knockabout, but it’s still a very tight and simple farce, with Chaplin as escaped convict wooing Edna while trying to avoid the clutches (and truncheons) of the law and the machinations of music hall cad Campbell.

This same year, Campbell, who had a history of drunk driving, finally removed himself from the silent comedy gene pool in an auto smash. His ashes remained unclaimed for thirty-five years, and ended up in an unmarked grave somewhere at Rosedale Cemetery.

He’s an interesting figure. Kevin Macdonald made a documentary about him, CHAPLIN’S GOLIATH, predicated largely on Campbell’s status as a Scottish immigrant to Hollywood and funded by Scottish TV. Part of the film shows the placement of a memorial in the town of Dunoon, Campbell’s claimed birthplace.

But it turns out Campbell wasn’t from Scotland at all. He just liked to say he was.

He apparently thought it sounded more glamorous than Cheshire, or more in tune with the image of the burly, tough hard-drinking lummox. One wonders how Macdonald could avoid stumbling across this fact at some point in the course of making his extensively researched 54-minute film…

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It can at least be said that Campbell went out on a high, with THE ADVENTURER, THE IMMIGRANT, THE CURE and EASY STREET all appearing in that last year. Any one of them would ensure him glowering, mad-eyed immortality.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films volume 2 (1916) [DVD]

Charlie Chaplin – Essanay & Mutual 3-Disc Steelbook Collection [DVD]

Charlie Chaplin Short Comedy Classics – The Complete Restored Essanay & Mutual Collection

The Sunday Intertitle: Monologues in front of Burning Cities

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2009 by dcairns

From Chaplin’s THE FIREMAN (1916) — I had to pick a short to watch since I was way behind on my silent-movie viewing and wanted something I could see quickly and write about. And then it turned out that this movie had no intertitles whatsoever for practically the first half. Which worked fine, except Chaplin was limited to basic kicking-up-the-arse slapstick by the lack of any verbal content.

Edna Purviance, the most consistently badly-dressed woman in all cinema, with future director Lloyd Bacon, Chaplin, and Big Eric.

Chief enemy in the film is fire chief Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s semi-permanent antagonist in all the Mutual shorts. A colossal, hard-drinking Scotsman from Dunoon, Campbell eventually wiped himself out with his persistent drunk driving. Fellow Scot Kevin MacDonald made a nice little documentary about the big fellow, hampered by the fact that no interviews or real documentary footage exists (just a few home movies on Chaplin’s set, and some deleted scenes and outtakes) and absolutely nobody is alive who met Campbell. Nevertheless, MacDonald tells a decent story, although he erroneously claims Campbell as the first Scottish movie star: several others have been nominated for this position, although Campbell is the best-remembered.

A spectacular miniature, complete with mini-firemen, in THE BELLS GO DOWN.

By what seemed at the time like a coincidence, but probably wasn’t, I also found myself running THE BELLS GO DOWN, directed by Basil Dearden from a screenplay by Roger MacDougall, made at Ealing in 1943. It’s sort of the multi-strand network narrative comedy-drama version of the more celebrated quasi-documentary FIRES WERE STARTED, which disgracefully I still haven’t seen. Both are about volunteer firemen in Blitz-torn London, and have the urgency that comes from being made at the time. And while the contemporaneous war could easily have resulted in propagandistic and dishonest filmmaking, my feeling is that it doesn’t, here. Any jingoistic qualities are mitigated by the fact that the movie deals with civilians trying to survive, not soldiers trying to win, and in common with a lot of British wartime filmmaking, the emphasis is on celebrating the struggle of the little fellow, and the values of British society at the time.

Our Scottish fire chief in this movie is Finlay Currie, and further interest is provided by Mervyn John’s professional thief who uses the fire service as a sort of cover, and by William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who, much later), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who gets all the words of wisdom MacDougall’s literate script has to offer. When air raids on London seem unlikely, the firemen are laughed at for being useless:

“Our cities are still behind the lines. When someone starts to pin medals on us, it’ll mean they’ve moved right up to the front. It’ll mean… another Rotterdam, another Warsaw. Right here in England. They’ll call us heroes if it comes to that. I’d rather they went on laughing.”

There’s also James Mason, with a not-totally comfortable cockney accent, but a fine, emotive face, especially handsome when smeared with soot and sweat, and cheeky chappie funnyman Tommy Trinder, a very strange piece of casting, since he’s inescapably music-hall in everything he does, a floating slice of theatre adrift amid the spectacular miniature dioramas of flame-engulfed London. Essentially a sort of elongated Ray Davies figure, only with the good cheer turned up to eleven, he nevertheless injects some surprise and pleasure into the movie, even while threatening to punch a hole in it below the credibility waterline. Caught making unauthorized use of fire station phones, he’s told, “You can’t do that!”

“No, I can. Most people can’t. I’m different!”

It’s a given that stirring dramas like this will show its disparate crew of selfish civilians putting their own needs and differences aside for the national good (that aspect IS straight propaganda), but Tommy’s transition from clown to hero is effected with surprising grace and narrative ruthlessness. Impressive stuff, and not just for the model shots.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 1 [1916] [DVD]

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 2 [DVD]

Books 4: Keep Your Sunnyside Up

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2009 by dcairns

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My list of cinephile’s literary pleasures, triggered by Movieman’s meme, has been conspicuously short of actual criticism so far, I realise. It’s possible I haven’t read enough of it to really have many favourites, and maybe also because I’m a filmmaker I gravitated more as a youth to how-to guides, biographies and autobiographies, histories and interview books — stuff that felt like it had more obvious practical applications. Which is underrating what criticism can do, I now realise.

To make up for it, the book I’m going to celebrate here is a solid critical piece, although you’ll have to be patient because I’m going to work around to it in a circuitous kind of a way.

Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil is one of my favourite recent novels (love the ’20s, magicians, intrigue) so I was excited that he has a new book out, Sunnyside, and ordered it before I even knew what it’s about.

It’s about Chaplin. I was just starting to read it (I’m still only on the opening chapters), when I thought that I’d like to compliment it by viewing some Chaplin, and remembered that I’d been meaning to show Fiona A DOG’S LIFE. Fiona, like myself, is a great Buster Keaton admirer, but unlike myself she always declares her preference of Keaton over Chaplin in every way. I lean a bit more to Keaton, it’s true, but I think it’s basically pointless to knock one at the expense of the other. Seems as if one could only like Pasolini and not Fellini, or vice versa. Why compare them at all?

And I was thinking that Fiona would probably like A DOG’S LIFE, and if so then she might get over her mild Charlophobia — it has a cute dog; it’s not too sentimental; it’s short and very funny. The experience was very rewarding indeed, and Fiona did enjoy it more than any Chaplin film she’d seen. She was especially impressed with the lunchwagon man here –

I couldn’t recall for sure, but I had a feeling he was Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s brother and a former Chaplin impersonator. I was right, and no wonder they’re so good together. As a kid I basically only noticed Chaplin’s performance, which is kind of the way he wants it, since only his character has a sort of awareness of the audience. I enjoyed the moustache guys in support, especially the unhealthy-looking Albert Austin, and Eric Campbell, the gigantic Scotsman who played the heavy in most of the Mutual shorts, but I wasn’t really conscious of how Chaplin fed off his co-stars, and how his work is based on the split-second timing of these brilliant supporting players.

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Intertitle: “I’m flirting.”

Fiona immediately grasped this, and also made me see Edna Purviance in a new light. With her ungainly name and unflattering costumes, she’d never made much of an impression on me, but her inept flirting had Fiona in hysterics: the slow, obvious wink, and then the come-hither head-twitch that looks like the first step of a convulsion — the woman I live with has a particular fondness for scenes of women being goofy and inexplicable.

A DOG’S LIFE is full of great gag sequences, often based around the motivation of hunger that figures so prominently in Chaplin’s comedy. So I was then delighted to discover that Gold’s book actually begins with Chaplin making this particular film. There are also appearances by Douglas Fairbanks and Frances Marion, beautifully rendered. I’m about a third of the way through and I still don’t know what the story is about, but I’m very much enjoying it — taking it slowly to relish every page.

Here’s Gold on Chaplin ~

He gathered his ten postcards up, tucked them in his pocket, and went to the mirror. He drew in a breath and tried to inflate his love of people as if it were a balloon. It worked — he suddenly looked confident, dashing even. Small, but well presented. Dabbed — but not too much — with Mitsouko by Guerlain, from the fluted bottle that smelled like citrus with base notes of money. Black boots with spotless cloth tops, white linen trousers, silk vest, linen jacket, wristwatch, wallet, handkerchief, shirt with collar on — no, collar off — and then the face: freshly shaved, fiercely intelligent, a trove of black curls with the first flecks of premature gray connoting wisdom, and blue eyes that could bore through the most sophisticated chambers of any woman’s heart, and a smile that could make a whole convent choir forget that their knees were friends. Twenty-eight years old, left-handed, the son of Gypsies and Spaniards and generations of clever forebears, an Aries with Scorpio rising and moon in Scorpio, and, according to Madame Zinka downstairs, destined and cursed to illuminate the world with how mysteriously he stood at the centre of all human attention, Chaplin pointed a finger at himself and whispered, ‘You are a dangerously handsome man.’

And here’s Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, on Chaplin’s move towards greater seriousness in A DOG’S LIFE ~

The thirty-minute A Dog’s Life, as delightful a romp as any the comedian had capered through, and still generally regarded as Chaplin’s first “masterpiece,” makes only three unstressed moves to alter the atmosphere. The dust beneath the comedian’s feet is dustier. The dancing that formerly served to express the comedian’s disbelief in the plot is now incorporated into the plot and made to involve other people. And a slight structural frame, something to enclose the fun and games, begins to appear: Chaplin’s relationship with, and even identification with, a dog serves to open, complicate, and conclude the action.

None of this is permitted to interfere with the fun and games. A Dog’s Life is actually composed of six balletically conceived and executed “turns,” incredibly inventive, one following so quickly upon the other’s barely disappeared heels that we are left breathless with the spontaneity and precision of it all.

Kerr is superb. James Agee, a good prose writer but a rather unhelpful critic, redeems himself with some very nice descriptions of Buster Keaton routines, but Kerr is a far greater analyst. His cosmography of Laurel and Hardy’s developing universe of comedy is beautiful, vivid, a history of talents coming together to transform into genius by alchemy, a process which nobody understands but which Kerr, amazingly, can break down into specific stages. He’s also very strong on Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, and lots of lesser artists who are still worthy of his, and our attention.

Some people have trouble with the idea of comedy analysis, perhaps confusing the principle that you can’t make a failed joke work by explaining it (which is true), with the role of the critic in dissecting art: comedy is just as fit a subject for this as drama, and indeed some jokes get funnier, or unlock slow-release waves of additional humour, when explored with the mind. True, the laugh happens all at once, and is a more-or-less instinctive reaction of the mind to some clear absurdity. But deeper exploration brings out the underlying elements of that absurdity, which hit you afterwards like the base note of a perfume.

Walter Kerr’s is the best book I’ve ever read on screen comedy. Thanks to B. Kite for recommending it.

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