Archive for Gordon Griffith

Tillie Two

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2021 by dcairns


Marie Dressler wrote in her memoirs that she chose then then-unknown Chaplin and Mabel Normand as her co-stars in her first feature film, a colossal porky pie! To many moviegoers, it was Dressler herself who was the unknown, though Mack Sennett was following a then-popular approach of casting “famous players in famous plays,” taking the preeminent comedienne of the New York stage and bundling her in a movie adapted from Tillie’s Nightmare, her most recent triumph. All this I glean from David Robinson’s magisterial Chaplin biography, acquired for a song on a recent trip to St Columba’s Bookshop, Stockbridge, pre-lockdown.

Robinson also notes that the feature-length comedy was three times longer than any comedy hitherto attempted on the screen, Mack Sennett was a gentleman of nerve.

As reel three begins, Tillie (Dressler) is delivered into the custody of her rich uncle (co-director Charles “Oh Mister Kane” Bennett) by a patient kop. The uncle has a palatial home with stone lions, liveried footmen, tiger skin rugs and suits of armour. Tillie, still tight, unsheathes a broadsword and playfully jabs the help, stoic in their periwigs, then dances a highland fling over the blade and its scabbard, the movie’s first bit of Scottish content, if you don’t count the drunk and disorderly rambunctiousness.

Tillie’s monocled uncle (her monuncle?) orders three footmen to subdue and eject his riotous niece: a chase and struggle ensue, but it’s not a full-on Keystone setpiece. Fairly muted rambunctiousness.

“Guilty creatures sitting at a play” — Charlie and Mabel go to a movie and their crime is brought home to them by the cinematograph. The film, according to the stand outside, is DOUBLE-CROSSED, but the title which appears superimposed, weaving about on the screen within, is A THIEF’S FATE: a Keystone release, seemingly fictional. The female star, interestingly, is Enid Markey, the original Jane in TARZAN OF THE APES, still four years in the future at this point. Which means that Chaplin “appeared with”, in the loosest sense, both the first Tarzan (little Gordon Griffith, who played the ape man as a lad and also appears as a newsboy in TPR) and the first Jane. Colour me Cheeta!

The other cast members in the film within a film include Morgan Wallace, who went on to work for Griffith and played James Fitchmueller in IT’S A GIFT (and WC Fields would appear in a remake of TPR; Minta Durfee (AKA Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle); and Charles Murray, who had recently played Charlie’s director in THE MASQUERADER.

Chaplin’s repulsed reactions to the movie — Mabel immediately sees it as the story of their lives — put me strongly in mind of the late, great Rik Mayall. The sickly grin of acute discomfort! Seated next to Mabel and overacting furiously is the young but makeup-aged Charley Chase, barely recognizable, who I guess would have been billed as Charles Parrott if he were billed at all.

When the bad guys in the movie are arrested, Chaplin’s reactions in the audience are amazing: he’s half-inwardly protesting, very feebly, at the screen, really living it. TPR doesn’t have any good gags or situations but it does have a lot of spirited and imaginative playing.

Tillie gets a job as a waitress. Stumbling, Dressler turns to the camera and mouths “DAMN!” very clearly. No particular lip-reading skill is required. I wonder if offence was caused. One minute later she does it again. Did Keystone have a swear-box?

The movie keeps cutting to Tillie’s uncle’s mountain holiday, which seems like scenic padding. It’s unlikely to have been in the play. I presume he’s going to break a leg or something.

Sennett originally wanted an original story but nobody at Keystone could come up with a feature script idea (they’re hard to do) and with Dressler on salary at vast expense ($2,500 a week still seems a lot to me NOW) he opted to film her stage success under a different title for whatever reason.

Tillie is having the same kind of swing-door trouble Charlie always has, and would still be having as a waiter in MODERN TIMES twenty-two years later. Then Mabel and Charlie come to dine in her restaurant…

Suspense while projectionist fumbles with reels.

I like the fact that the original show’s librettist, Edgar Smith, wrote a show called Whoop-Dee-Doo. Maybe it suffers from the fact that that phrase is now only ever used, if it’s used at all, in a scathingly ironic way. But it sounds fabulously fatuous. I’d like to see it revived. I wouldn’t go and see it, but you could go and tell me what you think…


Chaos ensues. Tillie faints, theatrically, upon seeing Charlie, and he tramples her prone form in his haste to flee the scene with Mabel. Tillie recovers and gives chase. Kops are called. Charlie & Mabel’s earlier cinematograph nightmare is being visited upon them in reality. They take shelter in — where else? — a park.

Charles Bennett, the film’s co-director, Tillie’s rich uncle, and the bloke who sings the song in CITIZEN KANE, falls off a mountain. I’ll bet you five he’s not alive…

“Oh no, I’ve accidentally fallen off a mountain!”

Two strenuous hams report/receive the news, then phone butler Edgar Kennedy who underplays his reaction about as much as you’d expect. A vigorous mime of the millionaire’s tumbling demise is performed. Kennedy isn’t bald yet so he doesn’t slap his pate in dismay, but he does just about everything else.

Tillie is going to inherit everything, which is just as well because waitressing really isn’t working out for her.

In the park, Charlie is accosted by a little newsboy — Milton Berle always claimed this was him, but it’s not, it’s young Tarzan, Gordon Griffith. I can’t imagine that Milty was this cherubic as a child. Nor could he swing through the trees on convenient lianas, I bet. Mind you, from the way Charlie smacks the little bastard, I almost wish it had been Berle. I wonder if this moment inspired noted Chaplin fan Roman Polanski’s child-slapping park scene in THE TENANT, which is otherwise a very odd moment if it’s not a homage to something. But then, that’s an odd film.

(Sidebar: Chaplin in THE GOLD RUSH is cited in REPULSION by Helen Fraser to cheer up Catherine Denueve; Walter Matthau and Cris Campion are compelled to eat a rat in PIRATES, a skit derived closely from the shoe-eating incident also in THE GOLD RUSH. I think there are more tributes than that, and Polanski’s wordless shorts certainly owe something to Chaplin too.)

Learning of Tillie’s inheritance before she does, Charlie ditches Mabel and skids up to Tillie’s place of employment — the Tramp one-footed skid has been carried over to this unrelated character because it’s a good bit of business. He barges in, out of breath — a good excuse for pantomime. Tillie isn’t in sight, so he describes her, waving his arms in a broad square shape. Basically, “I’m looking for a woman the size of a house.” Tillie is mopping up in the kitchen so Charlie gets to slip, fall, get up, slip, recover, slip again, fall again… He’s pretty amazing here. He didn’t think much of this film but if the whole Tramp thing hadn’t taken off (it already had) he’d be using this stuff on his showreel…

Charlie and Tillie are married by “the Rev. D, Simpson” who looks something like a reanimated cadaver. The pancake disguise is necessary since Frank Opperman also plays three other roles. I’m impressed by this plot turn — since it seems inconceivable they’ll still be married at the film’s end, I’m genuinely curious to see what solution Mr. Whoop-Dee-Doo is going to come up with for his plot.

Tillie learns of unc’s death-fall — good fainting action. Then she immediately gets suspicious of Charlie’s rush to wed her — the first sign of brains Tillie has shown. Not unwelcome. But Charlie persuades her he really loves her with a display of ACTING. There was loose talk about Chaplin playing Hamlet but Richard III would have been a better fit.

Mabel, however, is now on his trail…


It’s Hammer Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2020 by dcairns

I’ve written, briefly, about THE FATAL MALLET before, but its brand of bucolic mayhem plays differently when you watch all the early Chaplins in order, I promise.

This one is simple, violent and deeply stupid. Mabel has two suitors, both grubby, disreputable and subnormal, which makes no sense at all but that’s the premise. Accept it and see what happens. What happens is what the Chaplin Encyclopedia calls “barnyard antics,” and what I call stupid people hitting each other, Keystone Komedy’s stock-in-trade. The rustic setting turns it into a meditation on the beauties of nature and the terrible things we do in it, like THE THIN RED LINE but with more false moustaches.

Introduced by Mabel to her slovenly beau — Mack Sennett, her real-life perpetual fiancé, unrecognizable in his degenerate disguise — Charlie reacts roughly like a three-year-old, and shoves Mack in the face. Then he get slightly more sophisticated, points offscreen (“Look, a baby wolf”) and leads the unprotesting Mabel away while Mack is staring vacantly into that unseen realm beyond the frame where all the good stuff happens in Robert Bresson films.

What follows is an escalating tit-for-tat routine with little idylls of childish wooing interspersed. Some of these show Chaplin adding fresh expressivity to the Tramp, as he performs dainty tricks for his lady. This is the first film where the Tramp is not drunk. Maybe there’s more can be done with this character than just getting shitfaced and annoying women?

What just happened?

Mabel throws herself into the knockabout with girlish glee — Chaplin in drag could get smacked all over the screen and it was funny because of the costume. Hitting Mabel isn’t automatically funny at all, so the violence has to have an element of the accidental, the ironic, if a kick up a lady’s arse can be ironic. So she only takes a brick to the face when it’s aimed at Mack. And she gives as good as she gets, smacking Charlie unconscious with a single blow.

Suddenly another, even larger Mack turns up, Mack Swain, who it seems is in fact Mabel’s swain. He is handsomely dressed, unlike the two stumblebutt ragamuffins she’s been idling with. Sensing that this supermack is a formidable character, Charlie and Mini-Mack stock up on bricks…

“This one-reeler proves that hitting people over the head with bricks and mallets can sometimes be made amusing,” said Moving Picture World. I see imitative behaviour problems with a statement like that.

A new gag: heretofore in Keystone skirmishes, violence has always been effective. A blow on the head with a brick WORKS. Swain casts all this comfortable certainty into question: his skull is apparently constructed on cannonball lines, and he is invulnerable to the most savage four-brick conk on the nut. What now?

Again, Chaplin is making use of the David & Goliath paradigm that will serve him so well with Eric Campbell in just a few years. But the David is not a very sympathetic figure here. The rather courtly Swain deserves Mabel’s hand. Charlie deserves a fractured skull.

After a fair bit more brick-hurling, the mallet is discovered. I’m not really sure this qualifies as a dramatic turning point of the Robert McKee-approved school. I’m uncertain a blow from a mallet is any more devastating than a brick to the face, you see. All I can really say for sure is that this film has both. I do, however, like the superstitious awe with which Sennett regards the weapon — a thing almost beyond his comprehension, like the monolith appearing to the apemen in 2001.

Sennett’s very good here. His character has a certain authentic ugliness owing little if anything to the makeup box, and his presence grounds Charlie in a seedy not-quite-reality.

The mallet works! Swain is rendered comatose. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Now that the mallet’s deadly power is unleashed upon the world, it is anyone’s to use. So Charlie brains the other Mack with it. The romantic square becomes a triangle, then a simple line.

Enter Tiny Tarzan, Chaplin’s original kid, Gordon Griffith. Like everyone else in the film, he has the hots for Mabel. I look forward to someone concussing him with a blunt instrument. You think they won’t? OK, they’re more merciful: Charlie simply kicks the sprog out of frame and gets back to flirting with Mabel in a small patch of hay.

Both Macks reawaken but are locked together in a shed. Good cowering from Sennett, textbook rising-to-his-full-height from Swain. They break free, and the ritual Kicking the Co-Stars into Echo Lake Duck Pond finish is enacted, with Sennett finally walking away with Mabel. Well, he is the producer.

Sennett makes a pretty good support for Chaplin. I think he thought he was going to be co-lead. He cameos in a few more shorts, but never played a major role with his protégé again.

In Your Face, Elmo Lincoln!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2020 by dcairns

Gordon Griffith was the first screen Tarzan, in the 1918 TARZAN OF THE APES — he plays Tarzan as a boy, before Elmo steps into the loincloth. He’s also featured in THE STAR BOARDER (1914), Chaplin’s 10th film as actor, in a key role.

George Nichols directs again, but Chaplin seems to be exerting more control. His introduction here is really good. Flat on his back in bed, his hat and cane (which have returned, after being sadly absent in CRUEL, CRUEL LOVE) hung at various points around the room. There’s almost an awareness that these are iconic emblems of a famous character. He’s smoking. He rouses himself — slowly. This is daring stuff for Keystone, the perpetual motion company. But Chaplin knows how to get the audience’s interest, having done it ruthlessly on stage, and he at least suspects that the same principles apply in film.

The Chaplin costume is very slightly neater here since he’s not a hobo. But it still has all the recognizable features. His necktie having tried out being stripey, has changed its mind again and become a skinny black ribbon hung limply from an erect collar.

The eating scene is a mess — the classic Keystone clusterfuck of busy clowns, all trying to pull focus at once. Particularly egregious mugging to camera from Edgar Kennedy, screen right, seething in a voluminous false moustache. Never knowingly underplayed.

Minta Durfee is playing Mrs. Kennedy, the landlady who flirts with Charlie (well, if you were married to Edgar Kennedy…) It’s a rare character part for her. She’s usually dependable because she concentrates on reacting to co-stars and situations rather than trying to silently explain the plot to the audience, like a benshi imprisoned onscreen.

A game of tennis with the landlady. Because. Since Charlie isn’t, it seems, drunk here, it’s strange that he’s so uncoordinated, but we are learning that that the Tramp character can play people who are not tramps, do not carry their money in an old sock, etc. This will be useful stuff to grasp, going forward. There are a huge number of Chaplin shorts to be made based around the simple fact of him having a new job.

(Chaplin became a very keen tennis player in real life — I don’t know if he’d begun yet. I imagine he was very COMPETITIVE about it. Our tennis-playing directors — Chaplin and Lester — seem to live to ripe old ages. Richard Linklater may be around a long time too, as he is likewise an enthusiast of the racquet.)

Standing against some kind of wall of foliage, CC touches Minta’s breast with his stick. It’s interesting that he hasn’t used his cane much so far in his career, but clearly considers it an essential part of the character. Not for this purpose, though.

Tiny Tarzan photographs CC and Minta with his Box Brownie or whatever it is. A whole series of incriminating pictures are then taken of both the Kennedys. Like the young Mark Lewis in PEEPING TOM, he is an incipient scoptophiliac. In the pantry, Chaplin checks to see if he’s hungry by looking down into his trousers. Then he gets pissed up on booze. At last, the inevitable drunk scene! But Chaplin, perhaps hurried, forgets to do much drunk acting. The beer seems to have made him more agile and competent, if anything, though he does sit on a pie. But that’s no evidence of intoxication, we all do that.

At the climax, Charlie is once more part of an audience at a picture show, as Tiny Tarzan, without the benefit of going to a lab or chemist’s, is somehow able to project his slides of the day’s debauchery. Does this cause a big fight? It does.

Chaplin, colliding with the slideshow screen, becomes ensheeted. Tiny Tarzan gets a spanking. Edgar Kennedy pushes Charlie through a tabletop. Charlie bites Edgar’s thigh. Both fall unconscious.

Yes, well that does seem like a satisfying dramatic resolution so let’s suddenly stop the picture.


And — no, we’re not actually in Pordenone, but we’re attending the Silent Film Festival virtually — will post on it shortly.