Archive for Ford Sterling

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.

No Moustache

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2020 by dcairns

Before Valentino there was… Charlie Chaplin.

“We took Chaplin, [Ford] Sterling, [Roscoe] Arbuckle and [Chester] Conklin to a dance hall, turned them loose, and pointed a camera at them. They made funny, and that was it,” said Mack Sennett of the 1914 TANGO TANGLES.

But there’s more to be said of this rambunctious improv: Chaplin appears sans Tramp costume and felt moustache, giving us an opportunity to regard him au naturelle, as it were. He does have a bowler and cane, so he must have really liked those. But this experiment was not repeated — even in an outlier like ONE A.M. where he’s playing a city swell in a top hat, Chaplin would keep the fuzzy felt tab on his upper lip, because it was the one essential part of his brand.

It’s decided — I’m watching all the early Chaplins in sequence, which I’ve never done before, watching for those moments where the Tramp shows up, starts to become the familiar character. And watching for those moments where Chaplin steps out of that character, as he does here.

Naked-faced Charlie is, as Sennett observed with dismay when he first showed up for work, too young. Too pretty. He’s doing the drunk act that so impressed his boss and got him hired, and it’s always worth remembering that alcoholism killed Chaplin’s father, but whether the man was ever around enough in Chaplin’s youth for him to observe the drink in action, I’m unsure. But the East End of London would have provided plenty of other models for close study.

For some reason, comedy drunks are nearly always middle-aged. Though the parodying of alcoholism is now mostly verboten at any age, the masters of it, the Jack Nortons, Arthur Housmans and Foster Brookses, were always a bit shopworn in appearance. Strangely, a young drunk is more pathetic or unpleasant than comic, UNLESS introduced sober. When the character is simple “the drunk,” we need to feel that the tragic decline is safely over and the character is now happily confirmed in their dipsomania.

(Fiona, a modern person, always says “Oh dear,” when Housman turns up in a Laurel & Hardy, just as she does when Fred “Snowflake” Toones turns up in anything, with his demeaning racial schtick. I wince at FT but, being less sensitive, welcome the pastiche of inebriation like an old friend.)

Chaplin chose his small felt rectangle, a fig leaf for his youth, because it made him look more mature without concealing his facial expressions. Which are a lot more grotesque and flamboyant in the early shorts, you’ll notice. Chaplin hasn’t mastered the difference between stage and screen acting but, to be fair, hardly anyone else at Keystone or in Hollywood has either. The best actors are generally the supporting girls, hired to be pretty, without stage training, and given no funny business of their own, who just react more or less like real people to the top-billed comics’ obstreperous antics.

Ford Sterling (also bare-lipped) is someone I never warmed to, but I guess he deserves credit for being just about the first of the slapstickers. Arbuckle is unusually mean here, a fat man with a thin instrument (clarinet). Within seconds of appearing he’s picking up an inoffensive little guy to use as a club.

For reasons of convenience, I guess, the dancers are shot in a real dance hall, per Sennett’s recount, whereas the band have been shot in the studio against two painted flats representing a corner. All the interplay between Sterling, flirting furiously through his trumpet, and Chaplin and his partner, reacting from the ballroom, is created via Kuleshov’s Artificial Geography, which Kuleshov had yet to officially invent. No wonder the eyelines don’t match.

Chaplin grudgingly credited Henry “Pathe” Lehrman with teaching him basic screen direction, but he might have also picked up the importance of it by seeing Sennett fecklessly flout it here.

Another technique we see a lot of is TELEGRAPHY. Sterling pretends to be ill, doing a great deal of pantomime to signal to us that this is an IDEA he has just had in his MIND to fool THAT GUY… Chaplin occasionally does this, perhaps urged by his directors or influenced by his frantic co-stars, but he would soon eliminate it in favour of a subtler communication with his audience, intended for intimacy rather than exposition.

Conklin, Hank Mann, Edgar Kennedy and Al St John get essentially nothing to do, while Minta Durfee is a bone to be fought over by stupid dogs. In mid-battle, Sterling seems to suddenly kiss CC full on the lips, but I think he’s actually biting his nose. Our eyebrows may safely lower.

Paul Merton has neatly and accurately described early Chaplin’s M.O. as “kicking people up the arse” but has he done it yet in a film? I think not, though in BETWEEN SHOWERS he jabs Sterling hard in the anus with an umbrella. Here, Sterling shows CC how it’s done, just as CC is impressing us all with the pugilistic jut of his tiny buttocks. I imagine Charlie will have incorporated the act into his repertoire by the next time we see him.

The climactic cloakroom fight is my favourite bit. The brief iteration of the two-men-in-one-raincoat routine is terrific, with Sterling burling Chaplin around by the sleeve.

A totally unambitious one-reel donnybrook which has unexpected historic interest due to Chaplin’s nude philtrum.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Man Called Chaffin or Something

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2020 by dcairns

Chaplin again — again directed by Henry “Pathe” Lehrman in 1914. A lot of rubbish about an umbrella. Ford Sterling is an obnoxious clown, and Chaplin, billed as “masher” on the IMDb, gets to be comparatively gentlemanly, though this mainly expresses itself in the way he repeatedly hits FS in the face with a brick.

Chaplin doesn’t have his cane here, since it would clash with the brolly. He DID have it in the earlier MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT and KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, however.

KARAV for years was thought to be the Tramp’s first appearance, but it’s his second, although CC has wiped all the old-age/horror make-up, worn in MABEL’S SP, off his face this time and is a kind of truculent protagonist rather than a menacing drunken villain, so a case could still be made for KARAV being the Tramp’s debut. As has been pointed out, he emerges from the mass of the public, an audience member with ideas above his station, which seems perfect. He also starts immediately making his director’s life hell, which is what was going on behind the scenes too. The untalented pretender Lehrman (who never worked for Pathe) appears as himself, a bad-tempered filmmaker who doesn’t want to have to deal with this interloper.

I’ll say this for H(P)L, the closeup at the end, though alarming, is a nice touch.

Around this time, Chaplin also appeared as an officious and violently-inclined short-arsed Keystone Kop in A THIEF CATCHER. Then, for the first time, he was the title character in A FILM JOHNNIE, which also has him as a troublesome audience member.

Chaplin spends the last penny in his sock-purse (an accoutrement also sported by Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg’s SPIDER) to see THE CHAMPION DRIVER, a film whose existence I am unable to confirm — I would have assumed the thrifty Mack Sennett would have taken this opportunity to plug one of his other pictures — because he is enamoured of the leading lady, Peggy Pearce.

Once in the auditorium, Chaplin is unable to control his movements or his emotions, to the annoyance of other patrons including the prostooganist from MABEL’S SP. Bafflingly, THE CHAMPION DRIVER turns out to be a Civil War epic highly reminiscent of BIRTH OF A NATION, not released until the following year. Maybe that time-traveller with the cell phone from the premiere of CITY LIGHTS helped Sennett out. Or maybe Sennett had a bunch of leftover Civil War footage he was looking to monetize.

Within a matter of frames, the appearance of serious epic historical drama is replaced by a bunch of Kop types in the uniforms of North and South battering one another silly with the butts of their muskets, and Charlie has soaked his now-vacant sock, and the crotch of his baggy pants, with tears, so deeply moved is he.

When “the Keystone girl” appears she’s in modern dress, so I guess this is a program of varied short subjects (features not yet being the rage). Now Charlie, enacting a bumpkin stereotype lampooned in some of the earliest films, becomes overwrought, unable to tell cinema from reality, and is ejected into the street.

The two other films showing, I note, aren’t Keystone releases, but Mutual, the company where Chaplin would wind up making his best shorts, after an intervening stint at Essanay.

Charlie now plays starstruck fan, an outsider at Keystone, flattering the major players (Fatty, Ford) and begging for dimes. The studio door is slammed in his face. The director doesn’t want “any bums around here.” But after some confusing jump-splices Charlie gets inside.

I wrote about this one before but mainly because of all the swastikas.

The inside of the studio — the unsound stage — is a big greenhouse. There are painted flats simulating different locations, among which the first we see represents — a big greenhouse. The phrase “wasted effort” does spring to mind, as so often with Sennett comedies.

Chaplin immediately finds slapstick opportunities in this world where the walls and furniture keep moving around. He was a flailing blunderer even in the stable environment of the movie house, so this place is really beyond his ability to navigate. This is the closest we get to vintage Chaplin, but time or an impatient editor seem to have truncated the knockabout.

The director of this one is George Nichols — Chaplin’s second director. He didn’t like him any more than H(P)L. Both these guys appear here, but the role of the movie director is played by the great Edgar Kennedy, according to the IMDb. His movements — rage and frustration in gesticulatory form — are more recognizable than his young, barely-formed face. He has hair! That’s just blatantly wrong.

The studio set-up could easily have provided enough gags and conflict for a full two-reeler, so it’s rather a pity that the film rushes off to attend a housefire, to little comic effect. The Keystone “it’s got to move” philosophy would cheerfully have a film up sticks from a promising situation in order to race off to a less interesting one, and that, as well as the rapidity with which the films were churned out, would increasingly annoy Chaplin…

As with KARAV, we end with a single on CC, and he does a favourite trick, the old twist-the-ear-to-make-water-squirt-out gag. Henri Bergson used to say that comedy comes from human beings behaving in a mechanical way, and Chaplin often seems to go out of his way to confirm this.