Archive for Eric Campbell

Prom Prom Prom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2021 by dcairns

The first character we meet in Chaplin’s BY THE SEA is Billy Armstrong, a somewhat bland clown who really needs his walrus moustache to project any character. He seems the equivalent of the later Albert Austin type. Funnily enough, when regular antagonist Bud Jamison appears, his painted eyebrows and top hat make him seem, with his burly, surly aspect, even more of a proto-Eric Campbell than before.

(Incidentally, David Robinson remarks that this film is a mere nine set-ups. I count more like sixteen, though many are mere variations in shot size. Robinson doesn’t make mistakes so I’m assuming restoration has rendered the film longer than the print he saw, or else he’s not counting slight push-ins.)

But long before we see Bud, Charlie has slipped on cinema’s first banana skin, at least so far as anyone has been able to trace. It’s his own banana skin, which is good. But it’s doubtful if the banana skin will ever have anything like the shock of the new that enabled it to get laughs. Buster Keaton experimented with NOT slipping on one, in THE HIGH SIGN, but seemed to be dissatisfied with the un-gag. In SHERLOCK JR. he has the villain not slip, and then Buster slips on his own banana skin, as if discovering the Chaplin variation all over again.

Chaplin’s banana bit is a standalone moment, easily excisable, and in fact pretty much ALL of the film is standalone bits. He first gets into a quarrel with Armstrong, both men having tied strings to their hats as a defense against the sea breeze, and their tangling inevitably leads to a punch-up.

Chaplin does manage a more sophisticated bit — having dazed Armstrong with repeated slaps, he forages for fleas in the punchy man’s thick hair (Armstrong is the same size and shape as Charlie, which seems wrong — both Conklin and Turpin had radically different aspects from the star despite being fellow short-arses). It’s mildly impressive that Chaplin manages to make us “see” the leaping insects, but even more impressive that, filming himself in a close medium shot with his stunned opponent, he makes us imagine other, unseen promenaders, whose pseudo-presence compels him to keep up a pretense of civility with his victim.

Charlie isn’t necessarily a tramp in this, but he’s devoid of any social ties — Armstrong has his “wifie” and his rags betoken poverty. When Charlie has a wife or job in the shorts, it always feels like a contrivance for the sake of the film, one from which Charlie will be free by the time we see him again. Some of these films have aspects of the sitcom, but the “sit” is ever-changing, the one constant being Charlie’s freedom to abscond to a whole new scenario at the end of the two reels. This, of course, was standard for all the silent clowns. In Charlie’s case it happens to support his status as eternally at least somewhat of a tramp.

Having rendered Armstrong vegetative, Charlie now does what he always does, uses the other fellow as a convenient object. He sits on him. When Edna passes, the unconscious victim becomes a prop for Charlie’s flirtation. He poses like a hunter with one foot on his kill. His smiles seem to suggest that his having pummeled this man into submission ought to excite the object of his desires. At the same time, he can’t touch the man’s (usually upthrust) arse. All very strange. Finally he leaves the fellow leaning insensate against a lifebelt stand, a grotesque parody of the crucifixion.

Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of slapstick — “grotesque situational poetry” — always seemed odd to me because it leaves out the funny part. But it has rarely seemed more accurate.

Charlie does some more flirting, going so far as to sidle into Edna’s shot. His cane gets out of control, flying around saucily, whacking Edna’s backside and then hitting Charlie in the face. It’s the jester’s bladder and stick all right. I’m almost sure that’s what it is.

Armstrong recovers somewhat — his movements are staggering, his eyes crossed — and attacks Charlie with the lifesaver. Edna moves away, meeting the dyspeptic Bud, hitherto a mere convenient cutaway, now apparently an acquaintance.

A cop — oh hell, I’m just going to call him a kop, what’s he going to do, arrest me? — shows up, but is laid flat by a blow from Armstrong aimed at Charlie. Glass jaws, these kops. Charlie and Billy bond over this shared love of police brutality. Armstrong may not have any special personality but I admit he does play with with Charlie. No doubt Chaplin could get a decent performance out of most people, by showing them what to do, but sustained interactive clowning takes real skill.

Charlie and Billy go for ice cream, Billy offering to pay, but apparently all that brain damage has made him forgetful, as the offer is rescinded the moment the ice cream seller asks money. An ice cream fight ensues, culminating in Billy biting Charlie’s arse — this may be one of the most arse-centric of all the Chaplin shorts, and they’re a pretty butt-obsessed lot.

Meanwhile, a slung bit of vanilla has splurched Bud, who now steps out of his own little sub-film and enters the plot. While he’s strangling Billy, Charlie renews his flirtation with Edna, who is Bud’s paramour evidently, from the way she’s been stroking his knee. He really is a diabolical little sex pest in this one. (In later films, he’s romantic but not overly sexual, except for his fit of nut-tightening madness in MODERN TIMES, which sees Charlie the Imp back in full swing).

A kop drags Billy off. Bud shoves the ice cream man to the ground, for no good reason other than malign temper and to show off that Snub Pollard, for it is he — though unrecognisable sans horseshoe moustache — can take a fall like a pro.

Driven off by a fuming Bud, Charlie has brief encounters with the rest of the cast, then espies Billy’s “wifie” (Margie Reiger) — I think her lips are calling “Billy!” — and of course has to make the moves on her.

His moves:

Billy escapes the clutches of kop Paddy McGuire and flees back to the beach.

Everybody winds up ganging up on Charlie on a bench, improbably positioned in the path of the tide. Charlie is using his bowler to play peekaboo so doesn’t notice the encroaching enemies. The natural solution, after a slow-burn realisation, is to upturn the bench and everyone on it.

Which is the end of the film. Well, it’s not any less satisfying than most Keystone climaxes, and BY THE SEA is maybe a little more together than most Keystones. It knows how to be simple. That may be all it knows, but that’s not nothing.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Old Russian proverb.

The Sunday Intertitle: Mr. Wow-Wow goes to the Races, or, Drive, he didn’t say

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2020 by dcairns

GENTLEMEN OF NERVE is another bloody Keystone racing film, crammed with busy comics — Mabel is off to the races with Mr. Walrus (Chester Conklin) and Mr. Ambrose (Mack Swain) competing for her favours, Charlie is there too. Maybe this was due to a desire to play it safe after the expensive and extensive DOUGH AND DYNAMITE (which made a huge profit in the end so they needn’t have worried).

The idea of intercutting documentary footage of auto races with capering clowns is a weird one, but one that Keystone — and Chaplin — returned to remorselessly. The documentary dilutes the slapstick and the slapstick… well, it doesn’t harm the documentary because that’s just utterly boring. This one has a crazily long shot of a tyre being changed to set the scene. It’s against the clock, but Chaplin is not the kind of filmmaker who can create exciting suspense from a technical exercise involving non-characters. He just tripods it, panning about a foot one way, then back again. It’s not exactly THE WAGES OF FEAR, is it?

Big Phyllis Allen makes a pass at Chester and he’s tempted to ditch Mabel, which seems… strange. But maybe he likes them large. Mabel was miniscule.

Chaplin enters, introduced by title card as “Mr. Wow-Wow, a disturbing influence.” He’s smartly dressed in a long, loose jacket, but with bowler, moustache and cane, with which he immediately thwacks Swain’s capacious buttocks. So, he’s not quite the Tramp, just Chaplin using some Tramp signifiers. He tries to get into the racetrack without paying by walking backwards, hoping they’ll think he’s leaving. I like that bit.

Swain overacts pretty wildly in the early shorts, and seems weak compared even to Conklin. He doesn’t intimidate Charlie, so the David & Goliath thing that Eric Campbell would help cement isn’t functioning. Later, in THE GOLD RUSH, Swain is even bigger, acts better, and even as a friend to the Little Fellow, is a convincing THREAT. Big people are a menace even when they’re nice, is a lynchpin of the Chaplin worldview.

Forming an alliance, Wow-wow and Ambrose try to sneak into the stadium but Ambrose gets stuck halfway through an opening, leading to lengthy abuse. A woman with a soda seltzer appears, somewhat mysteriously, and Chaplin gets to spritz his first spritzee, Mack. He hasn’t thrown a single pie at Keystone, despite all the pastry abuse in his previous short, but at least he gets to spray.

Wow-Wow now lights a match on Mr. Walrus’s pant seat, amusing the fickle Mabel (well, she has just seen him flirting outrageously with Phyllis Allen). Walrus gets all up in Wow-Wow’s face, and thus gets his nose bitten. Chaplin hangs on there like a conger eel. Picks his teeth afterwards as if he’s actually bitten off actual substance from Conklin’s conk. Shades of brother Sydney’s cannibalistic atrocity.

Separated from the crowd by a fence, Wow-Wow taunts and thwacks the rowdy faces, a brutish bit of business in which nobody seems remotely appealing, the thugs behind the wire mesh or the arrogant and vicious cane-wielder. The later Charlie character is much closer to that seen in his previous couple of pictures, an inadvertently disturbing influence rather than just a nasty piece of work. Minutes later he’s singeing Mr. Ambrose’s nose with his cigarette and kicking him in the gut… it’s not charming and it’s not funny.

Chaplin well knew this stuff bore little relationship to comedy, but he felt duty-bound to give Sennett what he demanded, and this sadism may constitute a “running for cover” after the overrun of DOUGH & DYNAMITE. As Chaplin would write in a 1922 article, “The comic spirit meant to me at the beginning of my screen career, as it still means to many people, a series of “gags” and funny business of a not very high order–anything to capture a moment’s laughter or to stir the most elementary sense of the ridiculous. Now, this broad and slapstick kind of comedy, compounded mostly of boisterous spirits and physical violence, has about the same relation to humor as tickling a man on the soles of his feet with a wisp of straw.” He’s not wrong.

Wow-Wow meets another pretty girl and steals a sook of her Coke. Caught at it, he looks innocently skywards, like Harpo. Walrus is flirting with Phyllis again so Mabel walks out on him and collides with Wow-Wow (those bloody names! “Mabel” is bad enough). She sits on his hat and destroys it. The surrounding actors are laughing at all this business, which doesn’t make it any funnier.

Some byplay with a jalopy driver whose “racecar” sports an enormous front propellor. A very fine showcasing of the Chaplin cornering hop.

Conklin/Walrus whispers some kind of inappropriate suggestion to Phyllis and gets duffed up. This movie has more plot threads than Bleak House, but fortunately they all consist solely of idiots hitting each other so it’s easy to follow.

Conklin returns to Mabel and tries to claim her by force. Now we’re actually on Wow-Wow’s side as he delivers a punitive drubbing. Toothbrush versus Walrus in the World Series of Moustaches. Walrus collides with Ambrose and both get hauled off by a Kop. Wow-Wow and Mabel laugh delitedly, and it’s a rare instance of Chaplin expressing joy with his natural toothy grin and laugh. We end on lots of affectionate stuff with Mabel, one of the few co-stars Chaplin never got to first base with.

“I’m not your type, neither are you mine,” he says she told him.

Barbara Steele just told me she had lunch with Chaplin and Oona when she was 19. He was all excited because somebody had just let him have the use of a holiday home in St Tropez. I guess this would be around the time of A KING IN NEW YORK and he had some money trouble after leaving America I believe, so a free house would be great news.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to finish the Keystones this year, so that his December output would synch up with mine and I can start next year afresh with the Essanay films, but he’s making them faster than I can write about them (well, I started in the middle of my year and he started at the beginning of his). So I think I’ll run in to January — we have a whole feature film to contend with. But I’ll still get an Essanay done that month, and then it’s more or less one Chaplin per month for 2021. Join me!

Young man Charlie laughing goes all double-chinned, and suddenly we get a glimpse of old man Charlie to come…

Things I Read off the Screen in The Property Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2020 by dcairns

IF YOUR ACT IS ROTTEN DO NOT TAKE IT OUT OF THE PROPS

THE PROPERTY MAN is another Chaplin with a good high-concept setting. It’s a backstage story, something Chaplin would refine all the way until LIMELIGHT. This specificity feels like something CC himself brought to Keystone, because certainly none of the shorts I’ve seen from the fun factory, with or without Chaplin, had a strong, unique premise. Whether the setting is a park or a hotel or whatever, it’s all very generic.

NO SMOKING

ACTORS DO NOT POSE IN FRONT OF YOUR POSTERS

“WHY, THEY HAVEN’T EVEN BILLED US”

“WE’LL TAKE THE STARS’ DRESSING ROOM”

Again, though, Chaplin is a horrible wretch. Moving Picture World was moved to complain, “There is some brutality in this picture and we can’t help feeling that this is reprehensible. What human being can see an old man kicked in the face and count it fun?” Well, we might first note that he’s NOT an old man, or not a real one, anyway. His obvious false beard and false performance makes the cruelty a little less real and hurtful. Still, it’s a representation of cruel behaviour, and though surprise and shock are certainly elements of a laugh, it’s easy to cross the line and simply be obnoxious.

TO-NIGHT

ELITE VAUDEVILLE

THE GOO-GOO SISTERS COMEDIENNES

GARLICO IN FEETS OF STRENGTH

GEO. HAM LENA FAT CO. rendering the Heart rending Sketch “SORROW”

5 OTHER BIG ACTS 5

SPECIAL PRICES 9, 19, 29, 49

BOX SEATS 98¢ reduced from $1.23¢

But Chaplin is always thinking, and among his cast of characters is a surly strongman act, so he has someone to play the underdog to. The David & Goliath contrast of little Charlie and some massive brute is in play very quickly in his career. Charlie having to carry a very heavy trunk for this lout is promising material but it’s over too soon. But, ah-hah, it worked once, do it again. If Charlie had been shown as LESS aggressive, having him stagger about with a heavy trunk that could hurt somebody would be MORE funny/dramatic, since we’d know he’s trying to avoid damage to innocent parties. It’s hard to believe this little jerk cares one way or the other.

NO EATABLES OR DRINKABLES ALLOWED IN DRESSING ROOMS

PROPS

All these signs and notices are a little distracting, actually.

KEEP QUIET NO LOUD TALK BY ORDER PROPS

Charlie wets his trousers – with the contents of a jug. But he certainly has the more vulgar reading of the situation in mind. He’s not allowed to make jokes about incontinence but he can evoke the thought in the audience’s mind, and they’ll purge their discomfort with laughter. I guess that’s why Chaplin films seem to find rich, pungent cheeses funny. Bad smells remind us of other bad smells. It’s the era before fart and poop jokes could be put on the screen. Of course, why people laugh at fart jokes is another mystery.

STAGE DOOR

The fact that Charlie wets himself while making goo-good eyes at the Goo-Goo Sisters certainly adds to the discomfiture.

More cruelty to the old man. I guess this stuff is meant to outrage our sensitive feelings but is so unreal that we know it’s not serious, and we’re reassure that we HAVE sensitive feelings to be outraged.

In this film and its immediate precursor, there is a big guy, there is Chaplin, and there is a little/old guy, and each terrorizes the one below him. In later Chaplin films, he himself is at the bottom… or there are characters of no particular status who might get mistreated by the film, but Chaplin is more careful not to make his character the aggressor. But he still does it from time to time in the Mutual films. He demolishes that poor guy’s alarm clock in THE PAWNSHOP. I keep using that one as an example, I need to rewatch some others, in between my study of the Keystones… that’s going to bring some aspects out via contrast, I bet.

Fun fact, George Fat, the persecuted tragedian in this, is actor Charles Bennett, who sings “Oh Mr. Kane,” in CITIZEN KANE.

PRINCIPALS

Sometimes Chaplin’s gratuitous malice IS funny. When a woman in a dressing gown starts flirting with him, Charlie shows off his athletic leg stretching. She responds in kind. And when she has one leg stretched out in mid-air, he casually shoves her onto her ass. It’s so pointless, it’s kind of great.

GARLICO

The strongman gives Charlie a mini-strangle. It’s very much a precursor to Eric Campbell, but he could shake an undercranked Charlie so hard it looked like his head would rattle loose. We haven’t attained that level of majesty yet. Yes, I call it majesty.

PROPERTY ROOM

THE MATINEE

“HAVE THAT BUM SEW UP MY TIGHTS”

Charlie is so threatened by the strong/fat man that he has to abuse the old guy each time he interacts with him, kicking him in the throat this time. It’s very much a portrait of the human race through history.

Mack Sennett’s in the front row of the audience. The cutaways to audience reactions immediately feel randomly splice-in, like Chaplin got them to applaud, boo, laugh, and then just inserted material by the foot (measure a quick shot by extending the celluloid from your nose to your fingertips, then cut). Another audience member (Harry McCoy, continuing his slow slide down the billing) is asleep, and another appears to be blind. There’s a woman with a cat, which I expect is quite old now.

The theater of cruelty continues when Charlie drops the curtain on a baritone’s neck, then rolls the injured man offstage with a broom. For about the only time I can think of, Charlie’s derby gets destroyed in the various scuffles. No Laurel & Hardy, he, his hat usually survives even the roughest scraps.

PART TWO

We really don’t have a lot of plot going to justify a reel change, do we? Still, let’s see.

If in doubt, kick an old man in the face. Or throw a dumbbell at his head.

“HURRY GET MY TIGHTS”

Wet tights are flung into various inexpensive faces. Well, it’s better than bricks. A slap, aimed at Charlie’s deserving kisser, renders an innocent woman unconscious. This is pretty brutal and largely unfunny. The main strength it has is the setting, which affords some gags with the curtain which sure don’t feel fresh now but maybe did once. The fact that Chaplin had lived this life seems to have furnished him with the signs on the walls, but not many ideas for gags.

Between this and LAUGHING GAS I wonder if he was going through a rough time personally and had to take it out on the world somehow. Or else he was just trying on the Keystone sadism for size. “Is this what the moving-going public really wants?

Ripping cloth each time the strongman bends to grab a weight is a fairly sophisticated gag by the standards set so far. If Charlie weren’t so vicious to everybody else, being mean to the strongman who’s been mean to him would actually, well, mean something.

Charlie puffs a pipe throughout. Something that didn’t last. Mildly curious to see if it recurs, ever. It feels like when he tries something and it works for him, he immediately knows, but there are so many things to try before the Tramp character is really established. Maybe he could be a psychopath? Hmm…

SHOES SHOES HOTEL SMITH

THE DRAMATIC ACT

500 LBS 130 LBS

In the show’s/film’s finale, Charlie turns a firehose on the pursuing actors, then on the audience. By freezing the frame I am able to establish, to my relief, that the cat has been removed from the lady’s lap before she gets sprayed.

This film seems to hate it’s audience, but we shouldn’t take that personally — it seems to hate EVERYONE.