Archive for George Nichols

Chaplin Goes to Hell

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

There’s more experimentation with Charlie Chaplin’s image in the early Keystones than I was led to believe. Since playing a drunken hobo in every film was going to start to seem unnecessarily limiting, even for Keystone, here they try him out as a drunken toff (Lord Helpus) with no bowler hat, no cane, and a more expansive moustache. Widescreen rather than pillarbox.

This movie was lost for fifty years and rediscovered in South America: Wikipedia is sparse on details. It’s directed by George Nichols & Mack Sennett — Sennett’s involvement may be evidence that Chaplin was being difficult. His first director, Henry “Pathé” Lehrman, had already walked out of Keystone because Sennett wouldn’t force Chaplin to obey orders. Since “Pathé’s” other nickname was “Mr. Suicide,” owing to his willingness to risk the lives and limbs of his cast, Chaplin and chums were probably not too sorry to see him go.

With its eavesdropping maid, comedy of misunderstanding, and drawing-room setting, this Keystone “farce comedy” does, for once, resemble a stage farce rather than crude slapstick. Chaplin had played a silly-ass villain in his very first film, here he’s a silly-ass stooge (we can’t really call him a hero). He’s at his most theatrical, a sort of Terry-Thomas figure.

The most “cinematic” moment is Helpus’s vision of the afterlife (after a work by Dante). All through this movie there are dancing snowballs of film damage, but when Helpus gets hysterical and starts reacting to an offscreen hallucination, it feels like he can see them too. “The spots!”

What kind of a proscenium does the cinema offer? Chaplin experiments with advancing into medium shot then staggering back into longshot.

Belatedly, I reach for my tattered copy of Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films (A Book) by Kalton C. Lahue and Terry Brewer. There’s a good line about Sennett believing that any gag worth doing ought to be set-up and paid-off inside twenty feet of film, whereas Chaplin might just be getting going at the end of a hundred feet. But it would be worth it. the question was, could he convince his boss and his colleagues of that?

I’m not clear, halfway through the film, if Edgar Kennedy’s laughing butler is laughing because he knows Lord Helpus hasn’t really been poisoned, or because he thinks he has. Is he a psychopath? Did the butler, for once, do it?

Is there a doctor in the film? A guy called Glen Cavender, in a big false medical-type beard, comes to the rescue. In my recent viewing of Anatole Litvak films, this guy turns up a lot in the Hollywood ones, still, thirty years after this, earning some kind of living as background mountebank along with old stagers like Creighton “I did not have sexual intercourse with that goat” Hale.

Trying to counteract the poison, Lord Helpus drinks a lot of milk, in the best Albert Hoffman tradition. It’s a good thing to do if you think you’ve been poisoned or have dosed yourself with what you then discover is LSD. A horsedrawn ambulance gallops to the rescue. There are fewer chases, but more fights, in Keystone shorts, than you’d think. There are more fights than you’d think possible.

Minta hurries to be with her poisoned lover by jalopy. Shades of Romeo and Juliet. I have to assume by now that, even if Edgar the butler knows his master isn’t fatally envenomed, he is a colossal bastard for not telling him. He’s just laughing his ass off. What a shit. Kennedy is going to spend the rest of his career paying for this.

Why does Helpus think he’s been poisoned, and why does his butler know different? “Screenwriter” Craig Hutchinson, who “wrote” all the early Chaplin shorts, doesn’t seem to have worked out any reason, and Keystone aren’t about to keep everyone on salary for months while they work it out, as Chaplin would later on CITY LIGHTS.

The two doctors, beard and no-beard, strangers to their respective Hippocratic oaths, laugh heartily at the “dying” Helpus, then give him the Heimlich manoeuvre, which had yet to be invented, for no reason. This may be the first screen iteration of the Choking Chaplin Meme.

Minta, the only character with a shred of human feeling, at last tells Helpus that he’s not doomed. Everybody starts fighting for no reason. An ecstatic clinch between Helpus and Minta.

Lord Helpus is never seen again.

The Sunday Intertitle: “He is a new one and deserves mention.”

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

So wrote a critic in Moving Picture World, singling Chaplin out as “the best one Mack Sennett has ever sprung on the public” — a sentiment with which few would now disagree. It wasn’t this review, however, which would rescue the star’s nascent career at Keystone, but the enthusiastic responses of exhibitors. More on that in a later post.

Motion Picture News (all this is via Wikipedia) added, “It is absolutely the funniest thing the Keystone Company has ever put out, and this is not written by a press agent.” Well, it probably was written by a press agent, then.

After his brief stint as a clean-shaven (though drunk) comic in TANGO TANGLES, Chaplin is back in familiar disguise here, and drunk again, suggesting that Keystone’s “plan” for the comic, insofar as one existed, may have been to keep him as a comedy drunk in every film. Chaplin is joined once more by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who likewise dons a down-and-out attire, looking incredibly seedy and somewhat tragic. But this is the first film to give the two most resourceful Keystone comedians any real extended interplay, so it’s of immediate and obvious interest.

Brief appearance by some guy painted up as Sammy Davis Jr, before it was popular or fashionable. You have to hand it to undistinguished director George Nichols for springing for shoe polish just to make future generations yet unborn uncomfortable and sad.

Customary byplay with Peggy “the Keystone girl” Pearce.

The semi-naturalistic detail of both Chaplin and Arbuckle’s costumes, the fact that nobody else wears fancy dress, the location filming, and the time lavished on just showing characters interacting rather than brawling, makes this feel like an unusually controlled Keystone “farce comedy,” rather than the usual three-ring circus. There’s no plot, admittedly, but the tighter focus helps everything.

Oh, here comes a typically expansive Edgar Kennedy as a barroom brawler, yegg or plug-ugly. He also is allowed a funny costume. The application of silly putty or mortician’s wax behind his ears allows them to stick out in a comic cauliflower fashion. It’s all in the detail, folks. When, by the way, and why, did the stripey jumper become inextricably linked with the low criminal type?

Oh wow! Chaplin’s reaction to be slapped on the back by a hearty Kennedy! The first real inkling of the gentleman tramp. His expressions clearly convey a feeling of “I am too refined for this rough company.” I’m telling you, this is it. from 4:03 until 4:08, that’s the bit you need to watch. The Tramp, nature’s gentleman, lowly of status but with an inbuilt sense of superiority to his surroundings, appears. Then disappears, for several films to come.

(I believe Chaplin had, and cultivated, a sense of himself as just such a “natural-born gentleman.” Born into the wrong end of a rigid class system, he noticed his own sensitivity — his overwhelming response to hearing someone sing “I am the honeysuckle, you are the bee” — catnip to the orally-fixated and half-starved boy — and, while attempting to adopt the style and speech patterns of the rich, he also, I think, saw himself as inherently above his surroundings — and I don’t blame him, EVERYONE should be considered above poverty and the workhouse — and it comes out in his characters.)

Chaplin’s reaction to the burnt cork negro mockery in the men’s room is… interesting. He’s as surprised as we are. Like he can tell, even in his stupor, that something is very wrong here. So he’s superior not just to the characters around him, but the film too. Superior, in fact, to Keystone.

Another blackface character, a maid, appears at 5:07. Collect them all. Helen Carruthers, supposedly, having the decency to look embarrassed. She probably signed up to be a bathing beauty, and now this. But she’ll become quite a good leading lady for CC soon.

Given the perfect opportunity to kick a man up the arse, Chaplin instead whacks him across the cheeks with his cane like the public schoolboy he never was. Then he wipes his boots with a towel, before offering it to the guy to wipe his face with. Lo, blackface! Now we see the reason for the other minstrel characters. In a world where black people are merely white people with coal on, a fellow with a dirty face is immediately a second-class citizen. But the movie makes nothing of this interesting but unpleasant idea.

It does look like, when the guy realizes what’s happened, at 5.46, he says “SHIT!” but I’m probably mistaken.

Chaplin is having his usual trouble with swing doors. Never let a swing door go to waste. That goes double for spitoons. (Spitoons! Ugh! And calling them cuspidors does nothing to help. People in 1914 were disgusting.)

The exterior of the bar looks more like a building society to me but I’m not from 1914.

It is kind of strange to me, seeing Charlie on a street with palm trees. In the more mature Chaplin films, he uses studio/backlot streets whenever possible, and creates something a bit more like Victorian London. He’s at home in parks, also. But not in anything that’s too L.A.

Chaplin hanging onto the outside of a streetcar — maybe the first really dangerous thing he’s been asked to do. In the Fred Karno troupe all you had to do was take a fall. Movies happen outdoors in the real world with all its lethal moving parts, and Keystone films are expected to maintain constant frenetic motion, and if somebody gets hurt you just hire a replacement.

Chaplin now stages a drunken home invasion at the Keystone girl’s place, which quickly becomes a dress rehearsal for ONE A.M. A hopeless intoxicated idiot fails to negotiate basic furniture. Chaplin probably knew already he could get a whole two-reeler out of this schtick, and here he is, compelled to shoehorn it into one set-up at the far-end of a 12-min short.

Miscegenation humour! CC mistakes maid for mistress and the dusky Carruthers beats the shit out of him. But for some reason doesn’t throw him out, just leaving him dazed in the drawing room.

Charlie’s necktie is stripy. That’s wrong.

The End: camera lingers on CC in medium shot, waiting for him to do something funny that will conclude the romp. He apparently can’t think of anything. He wanders off. The editor, who perhaps has ADHD, cuts before he’s left frame.

NB: There are no intertitles so my title is a lie. And there are roughly seventeen camera set-ups, all of them repeated several times. Each room/space is one set-up. This hasn’t seemed so striking in earlier films–is HIS FAVORITE PASTIME old-fashioned even for 1914?

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.