Archive for Ford Sterling

The Sunday Intertitle: Will the real Charlie Chaplin…?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2022 by dcairns

Not taken with Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America by Richard Carr. Maybe the word “political” somehow makes it seem like it’s trying too hard. I picked up a copy from the library and looked up THE CIRCUS. “To modern tastes, it remains Chaplin’s most amusing film, however — the comedy that truly stands up to a twenty-first century-audience in both its inventiveness and execution.” Which tells me that Carr doesn’t much like Chaplin as a comedian or filmmaker and hasn’t bothered to watch the films with an audience, because if he had he’d see and hear them “standing up” rather admirably. It could just be he’s writing sloppily and doesn’t mean to imply that the other films don’t work anymore — certainly the word “remains” is a weak choice where I think the word “is” would better represent his intended meaning.

Not finding anything useful to my little pieces on THE CIRCUS (which is excellent, and maybe has Chaplin’s funniest scene, but isn’t his best or best-made feature in my view, not that that matters), I moved on to CITY LIGHTS, which has more “politics” maybe since it deals with the struggle to survive in the capitalist west, among other things.

Carr’s description of the film and its making are very decent summaries, though “it took time” is a rather unimpressive summary of the months of camera-writer’s-block that afflicted Chaplin when he tried to set up Virginia Cherrill’s mistaken belief in Charlie’s wealth. Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin series does a magnificent job of this, but even if you couldn’t spare the time they lavish on the question, just saying that it took over a year to solve the problem would be more impressive.

“Whatever the politics, the film remains a classic from beginning to end.” There you go with “remains” again, though it’s slightly better here. Still, Carr’s book assembles maybe the most detailed record of Chaplin’s political thoughts and contacts, including his meetings with persons as diverse as Churchill and Gandhi, John Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw. The problem is that I don’t think Chaplin’s politics are even the tenth most interesting thing about him.

Peter Ayckroyd’s straight biography Charlie Chaplin is actually quite fine, I think. Though we didn’t necessarily need another Chaplin bio after Robinson, Louvish, Baxter, and of course Chaplin himself. It’s still pretty enjoyable — Ayckroyd really knows his London, and the areas where he’s not so obviously an expert, the film history and the film analysis and appreciation, he actually does very well with. He seems to genuinely admire the films, in a way Carr can’t manage to suggest. “The details of their opening scene together, when Charlie purchases a flower before realising she is blind, too two years and 342 takes to assemble.” There you go, that wasn’t hard. Ayckroyd nails it, except for the inaccurate use of “opening” — it’s their first scene together, but it doesn’t open the film or anything else. I may not be a great critic but I’m a great pedant.

Also: “City Lights remained Chaplin’s own favourite among his films.” Bravo! A correct use of the r word.

Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s new film THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN is a pretty terrific documentary. It had big boots to fill. It is inferior to Kevin Brownlow’s documentaries with and without David Gill — Hollywood, Unseen Chaplin and The Tramp and the Dictator — because it doesn’t let the viewer see enough of Chaplin’s comedy to judge his genius. LET CHAPLIN HELP YOU! But, apart from some ill-judged reconstructions and some slightly doubtful chronology — saying Chaplin scored his films when describing his accomplishments in the twenties is an inaccuracy — it’s really very good indeed. Beautifully cut by Julian Quantrill, using a plethora of source materials in very creative ways. Beautifully narrated by Pearl Mackie. Beautifully scored by Robert Honstein.

It goes out of its way to be fair to Lita Grey, and it’s time someone did, though it may be going too far in the other direction. But she had a story and it’s worth at the very least asking, What if it’s true? If it’s true, Chaplin could be a sonnovabitch, and there’s no shortage of material to support that claim.

I was grateful to see some footage of Chaplin impersonator Charles Aplin for the first time (that I know of). And amused to learn Aplin’s defence when Chaplin sued him: “I’m not impersonating Chaplin, I’m impersonating (Chaplin impersonator) Bill Ritchie.” Unbelievable. I think if he’d claimed Billy West he might have come closer to convincing someone — West at least was a close facsimile of Chaplin. If you’re impersonating Ritchie, why do you look so much more like Chaplin than he does, and why did you tale the name Aplin? An interesting case — maybe the first time an actor sued to protect his rights, not to a film or story, but to a visual characterisation. Though Ford Sterling could presumably have sued Chaplin over MAKING A LIVING, in which the frock-coated interloper has clearly been tasked with playing a Sterling substitute.

And I suppose Kevin Brownlow could sue over being played by a lookalike in THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN, except I’m sure he wouldn’t, he’s such a nice man and obviously they would have asked him.

When running through the previous Chaplin docs, I should mention the Biography Channel one which is better than the Richard Schickel one, which is also good. I have the Biography Channel one on VHS somewhere but don’t recall who made it. Kenneth Branagh narrated it, a service he also provides for Brownlow, but it didn’t have Brownlow’s name on it and it doesn’t appear on the Branagh IMDb page. A small mystery. (It’s not the one on YouTube, presented by Peter Graves of all people.)

Blimpophobia

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on December 9, 2021 by dcairns

Cretinetti — actually French comic André Deed — gets married (to Tenniel Duchess Leonie Laporte) in 1915, and flies into a panic at the thought of air raids in LA PAURA DEGLI AEROMOBILI NEMICI (FEAR OF ENEMY AIRSHIPS).

Typical frantic clowning for the period, but with a curious premise. Fear of incendiary bombs isn’t irrational enough, during a global conflagration, to seem inherently silly. The British were indeed dropping thermite, though I’m not sure we were heavily into targeting civilian areas. We used biplanes over the enemy trenches. The Germans were chucking bombs loaded with oil and kerosene onto British coastal towns, but sort of half-heartedly. Later in the war, a plan to fly the new long-range zeppelins across the Atlantic and blitz New York was vetoed for fear of reprisals.

Cretinetti becomes maybe the first actor in film history to get comically entangled in a telephone cable (though I don’t know — maybe Ford Sterling, behind that shaky desk at the kop shop?) and sets about filling every available receptacle with water. Fortunately, he has huge fawcets that flare open like the mouths of the anthropomorphic winds on old maps, but unfortunately wicker hampers aren’t watertight. His top hat holds a reasonable number of litres though.

The wedding dinner is interrupted in Bunuelian fashion by the arrival of a dozen men delivering sandbags. When Cretinetti’s father-in-law, I presume, objects, it turns into a big sandbag fight. The action lacks smooth continuity, making me suspect it’s either been chopped down or bits have simply gone astray. But there’s some decent composition in depth, inaugurating the fine comic idea of a restrained bit of business going on close-up, while frenetic slapstick is played upstage. Well, I say “restrained,” but with Signore and Signora Cretinetti, such terms are relative.

Cinematographer Segundo de Chomon’s camera follows the lovebirds into the waterlogged boudoir — when slapstick enters the bedroom, love goes out the door — this is pretty racey stuff for 1915, the prospect of hardcore clown-on-clown action presumably helping make the audience nervous enough to giggle. We really don’t want to see this pair go at it. I feel I speak for all of us. Fortunately, there are plenty of basins of cold water precariously positioned to stop things heating up.

Some really GREAT pratfalling when Cretinetti gets each leg caught in a queer cylindrical canister and staggers among the buckets like a drunken robot. This happens just after the eight-minute mark, and everything from here on is very much worth seeing. Large-scale slapstick destruction — mass fainting — dramatic twists.

The final shot sees Segundo bringing on his purpose-built camera dolly — the first in the world! — for a unique usage. As Cretinetti is carried off to the front in a bin, to serve in an anti-aircraft unit (irony!) — his bin is mounted on the dolly so we can travel with him. The komedy karabinieri are meant to be carrying him, but they’re in fact labouring alongside while the grip, presumably, shoves us forward towards — THE FUTURE!

I’ll Bet You Five You’re Not Alive If You Were In This Film

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2021 by dcairns

It’s all go. In a shattering development, Uncle Donald, played by Charles “Oh Mr. Kane” Bennett, is discovered prone in the snow, apparently alive — well, it did seem a bit harsh to kill him off in a slapstick comedy. Not that we had particularly come to care about him or anything.

Tillie and Charlie, newlywed, move into Uncle Donald’s palatial estate. Chaplin had found the best way to get comedy business past the hyperactive Keystone cutters was to slip it in during entrances and exits, since for the sake of mere comprehensibility the editors couldn’t really get away with not showing characters appear in or leave a scene. But all bets are off now — Sennett wants six reels, so the frenetic pace of previous Keystones isn’t really being pursued. It’s a relief: we get to watch actors act.

This scene is a relief too, since we get a different shot size from the usual full-figure or occasional wide medium. Of course, head-to-toe is the ideal framing for Chaplinesque comedy, but some variety is also nice. A blast of grainy, monochrome oxygen is admitted into the film.

Chaplin gets some play out of treating the footmen as objects: hanging his hat and cane on one, even leaning on him as if he were a meat pillar. The Henri Bergson idea of comedy arising from the lines of separation between organic and mechanical do seem particularly relevant to Chaplin’s comedy. Probably more than anybody else’s.

Disturbingly, Tillie now becomes a domestic tyrant, browbeating and actual-beating the unoffending footmen.

Mabel gets herself hired as a maid, demonstrating her cute curtsey, which in those days served as a résumé.

Enter Conklin! Charlie and Tillie are throwing a ball. Conklin is described on the internet as playing “Mr. Whoozis,” but he doesn’t seem to have a name in this print. He’s wearing an even bigger version of his Mr. Walrus walrus moustache.

Another guest, this one a simpering fop. Charlie begins instinctively limbering up to kick him. This is undoubtedly a bit homophobic although, on the other hand, Charlie’s character is a blackguard and hound of the first water. Can’t identify the actor: the IMDb makes clear that Keystone thriftily recycled all the contract players from the restaurant, dressed up as party guests. We have familiar worthies like Hank Mann and Harry McCoy (who seems to have played a record nine roles in this), Alice Davenport and Glen Cavender, and of course token extraterrestrial Grover Ligon (that name!). Cautioned by Tillie against booting guests up the rear, Charlie settles for smacking a flunky, to which nobody could possibly object.

As predicted, Mabel makes an adorable maid. She sticks a finger in a creamy dessert, sampling it. Will she get to flinging pastries later? Sennett recalled, perhaps untruthfully, Mabel pie-ing Ben Turpin upon a random impulse (no such scene appears to exist): “She weighed and hefted the pastry in her right palm, considered it benevolently, balanced herself upon the balls of her feet, went into a wind-up like a big-league pitcher, and threw. Motion-picture history, millions of dollars, and a million laughs hung on her aim as the custard wobbled in a true curve and splashed with a dull explosion in Ben Turpin’s face.”

(Ben Turpin was at Essanay and wouldn’t come to Keystone until years later. But Wikipedia now credits him with receiving the first onscreen pie to the face in 1909, so Sennett was in a way right to give him credit. They also remark that Fred Karno sketches utilised the gag, so Chaplin would have come to Keystone familiar with it.)

I will be kind of disappointed if this party doesn’t turn into a pie fight, even though I rarely find them that funny. I also want a big chase. Ditto.

Mabel confronts Charlie, a spectre at the banquet. Then she retires to the kitchen to ladle booze into herself.

An interesting gaglet occurs when Charlie sneaks off to see Mabel. Tillie, thinking he’s still beside her, reaches over to squeeze his knee while laughing at Mr. Whoozis’s witticisms, or whoozisisms. So instead she’s squeezing a woman’s knee. She finds out her error and is embarrassed, apologises. Her victim goes from looking annoyed to acting forgiving, but as soon as Tillie turns her back the woman is sort of twisting away from her, giving her the fish-eye, a look that says “You’re a weird one, you are.” So is this a lesbian joke? Dressler is an intriguing choice to be doing it, given the rumours and claims.

Charlie persuades Tillie to have a drink, to stop her bullying him, I think. But this is surely a recipe for disaster, or at least for another Highland fling, which is much the same thing. Indeed, soon Tillie has been bitten by a dancing bug, which necessitates for some reason changing from her current weird frilly pantsuit to another, different frilly pantsuit.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Chester start a fight, for no particular reason. This is kind of the problem with circus clowns (and Chester had been one): lack of narrative/character context for the funny business. They’re used to just prancing into the ring and acting up. Same thing with so much Keystone material. It’s just random mucking about, performed by skilled comedians but without any meaning and therefore of limited entertainment value. The triangle of Charlie, Marie and Mabel ought to be enough of a premise to develop some fun slapstick battling, but WHO IS WHOOZIS?

Charlie ejects Whoozis and makes nice with Mabel — demonstrating again his Richard III-type ability to seduce, enchant and befuddle.

Charles Bennett continues to recover from his mountain. A shaft of light pierces the smoky interior of his Alpine convalescence. The first deliberately place grace note of lighting in a Keystone picture, I’ll hazard. It’s placement, a luminous intrusion, is as odd and alien to the scheme of a Sennett picture as if a Dalek were to trundle onto the set.

Whoozis returns for more fighting. Charlie does sling some food at him. Additionally, the larger than usual rich guy sets allow for some unusual in-depth staging as Charlie drives Chester deeper and deeper into the background of shot. This doesn’t make things any funnier, but it’s an interesting variant.

END OF PART 5

PART 6

Tillie, newly attired, rampaged back into the party, making exotic Mata Hari arm movements. Theda Bara’s reaction is unrecorded. Lipreaders and other persons with eyesight may detect her yelling “CHARLIE!” from the top of the stairs.

AND NOW THEY TANGO. This is, admittedly, pretty good. Hippopotamus and stoat. And yet they’re so graceful in the water. In fact, they’re graceful here, it’s just that their grace includes tripping and falling.

Now here’s Harry McCoy, formerly a leading actor who Charlie supported, now got up as a pod person Ford Sterling,. Sterling had been the #1 Keystone star who had recently left to pursue a career elsewhere (he’d be back). I guess Sennett wanted to not only find roles for all his regular actors (but not Roscoe Arbuckle, for some reason), he wanted to create simulacra of those no longer under contract. Previously Chaplin had been tried in this role. McCoy, it must be said, is not markedly less appealing that the original, but it would be hard to surpass the lack of enthusiasm I feel about F.S.

While Charlie and Tillie are not so much cutting as lacerating a rug, Mabel gets into fights with random party guest and random footman. Finally, Tillie catches Mabel and Charlie canoodling. PIES ARE THROWN!

Then, surprisingly, Tillie draws a revolver (from nowhere — Mr. Chekhov was not consulted) and bullets are now substituted for pastries (incidentally I always felt a Peckinpahesque slomo pie fight would be worth attempting — Kubrick of course would have been the man to do it, in STRANGELOVE, but he apparently never thought of it).

As shooting sprees go, this is pretty amusing, with Charlie throwing himself into the other guests in his wild flight, creating well-dressed scrummages all over the dance floor. It’s funnier/less nauseating than the comparable scene in MEET THE FEEBLES. It’s comparable the way Tillie wants to shoot absolutely everyone, regardless of whether they’ve actually offended her.

Charlie hides in a huge, unconvincing urn that wasn’t there a minute ago. Mabel hides in a polar bear skin, a fetish object inside a furry. This chase is limited by the number of sets Sennett is prepared to pay for.

Smashing the urn, Tillie is about to, perhaps, tear Charlie’s head from his shoulders, when her not-dead uncle returns home. He throws everyone out. Charlie now has to choose between Mabel and his lawful wife, who is now not a desirable millionairess but a penniless hick in strange pajamas. He boots her in the gut and leaves.

For some reason, a footman calls the kops. I’m not quite clear on which crime is being reported. The kops come bumbling into the station house, falling over one another, a familiar bit of business I haven’t actually seen in many films.

Tillie now has her gun again, and it’s the kind that never needs reloading (funny how you can’t buy those anymore) and she chases Charlie and Mabel onto a pier. This is not the best place for them to have fled to, one senses. From Sennett’s viewpoint, though, it’s useful. Ducking his casts was a reliable way of ending a picture, though I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory in this case.

The kops are in pursuit, naturally. The kop kar rear-ends Tillie and propels her, miraculously transfigured into a burly stuntman, into the sea. The salt water transforms her back into the likeness of Marie Dressler. Then the kop kar drives off the end of the pier, because all the kops are bumbling imbeciles. They turn into dummies as the kar goes over, but soon are themselves again, splashing about and hitting one another with rubber tyres. The transformative power of saline. Tillie is now attempting to spank an eel.

Mabel and Charlie having inexplicably failed to topple into the drink like civilised people, rush to a police call box (literally a small box with a phone in, an Officer Dibble not a TARDIS) and call the Water Police, which is where Al St. John gets into the picture, belatedly. It’s weird that Charlie and Mabel are now trying to get everyone rescued. Also, the water police are just as inept as the “regular” kops. It’s becoming a vision of hell. People are drowning and their lives are in the hands of physical incompetents.

The source play has been abandoned. Chaos reigns.

Tillie is finally dredged up, and returns Charlie’s ring to him. Mabel is supportive, rejects Charlie with a “We’re through!” gesture, and for a while it looks like Mabel and Tillie/Marie will walk off into the sunset, or up Sunset, together.

And in fact… Dressler embraces Normand, kisses her affectionately, and the curtain closes. Then she reemerges from behind it, bows to us, invites Mabel and Charlie (“CHARLIE!”) to join her. Chaplin does a very good impersonation of a man not acting, facing an audience instead of a camera crew. Then, as they prepare to bow, they are airlifted out of the film by Melesian jump-cut. Dressler looks to each side and does two double-takes (or one quadruple-take?) at finding them vanished.

Then she shrugs, confused.

“This film lark is a mystery to me…”

TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE stars Carlotta Vance; Adenoid Hynkel; Paddy, the Nickel Hopper; Robert Bunce; William Pitt; Sixth Member Ale and Quail Club; Charley – Son of the Desert from Texas; Josie Hunkapillar; Tarzan – Younger; Jane Porter; Detective Sweeney; Mrs Cohen; Al Cohen; Wizard of Oz; Fuzzy Jones; and Rear End of Horse.