Archive for Harold Lloyd

The Sunday Intertitle: Backstreet Osteopath

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 5, 2021 by dcairns

I thought it was worth peeking in on Harold Lloyd to see what he was up to just as Chaplin was gearing up to make THE KID. Well, he’d discovered the skyscraper: NEVER WEAKEN begins with Harold and Mildred Davis getting engaged by fishing rod, each leaning from the window of a separate high-rise office. It makes for a formally inventive start: wide shots of city, close-up of ring dangling and hand reaching, then the two-shot that explains how this all relates.

When Harold’s boss catches him in his remote flirtation, there’s a rare effects shot — well, actually, just a painted backdrop showing the girders of the building under construction next door. Lloyd would duly become known for avoiding any apparent fakery, and we’ll shortly see some more convincing scenery captured in the by-now well-known technique of building a set on the roof of a building, to provide an authentic up-high backdrop.

Harold discovering his boss’s presence when his foot, swaying in the air as he lies on his stomach, is almost exactly like Jackie Coogan discovering the kop behind him when he draws his hand back to throw a rock.

The Universal Language of Schtick.

Were French windows really a thing in office blocks? These characters are already showing a daringness regarding vertiginous heights that I would falter at.

Mildred’s boss is a Chaplin actor, Scotland’s own William Gillespie!

Harold has very much discovered his young-man-on-the-go mode. Here, it’s surprisingly crooked: going out with a tumbler to stage fake accidents to drum up trade for Mildred’s osteopath boss. It’s essentially a snake-oil sales pitch. and, when you think about it, Harold’s Young American archetype is somewhere in line with the P.T. Barnum/Thomas Edison arch-capitalist.

The trick is amusing, but when it does wrong it’s even funnier, in a grotesque sort of way: a mistaken-identity gag causes Harold to try his phony bone doctor act on a genuinely unconscious man. Unable to rouse the concussed pedestrian, he does the next best thing, faking up a recovery by puppeteering the comatose yet oddly rigid victim.

Can’t establish who that jug-eared unconcho actor is, but he’s awfully good.

Separated from his tumbler-accomplice (we should all have one), Harold resorts to actually injuring randos himself, or causing them to be injured, drumming up business by leaving the osteo’s card in the benumbed fingers of each fallen mark. Now we see the violence inherent in the system. Is this much different from Charlie’s window-breaking/repair business in THE KID? You might say that Lloyd’s scheme is motivated by romantic yearning and therefore more sympathetic, but Chaplin’s is motivated by the simple need to survive. Also, Charlie’s vandalism and fraud are enacted in a more plodding, solemn, less exuberant way: survival is a fairly grim business, and Chaplin doesn’t strike me as being so damn keen on it. Though the kops menacing him are dramatic foes, his victims are notably sympathetic, poor people like himself. So Charlie is stuck in the capitalist system, which is miserable, and he maintains his optimism by operating outside the law and using his creativity, whereas Harold seems like an embodiment of that system.

Like a lot of comedy shorts of the time (most of the Arbuckle-Keatons, certainly), NEVER WEAKEN falls into two halves, kickstarting a fresh plot midway, cueing the skyscraper business via an artfully contrived heartbreak-suicide plot.

I love how Mildred’s portrait gets a halo from an upturned hat.

Harold obsessing over the correct spelling of his suicide note is also very good.

When he’s contemplating falling on his letter-spike, Harold’s rubber glove which replaces his missing fingers is more noticeable than I’ve seen before, though when he pricks his index finger it’s naturally his real one.

Ruthless as ever, Harold rigs up a Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg infernal contraption which will implicate an innocent visitor in his death — a string looped round the office doorknob is to trigger the pistol aimed at his heart. Of course farce-plotting intervenes to save our hero, but also to place him in serious peril.

Seen in the light of Harold’s later human fly stuff, this sequence always seemed just TOO SHORT to me. With the same director, Fred Newmeyer, Lloyd would soon explore just how prolonged he could make this kind of situation, finding to his great profit (but eventual stereotyping) that the longer you could extend the suspense, the more you could get out of it.

Incidentally, the building Harold uses here is the same one Keaton must have shot on for THE THREE AGES.

Hobo Erectus

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2021 by dcairns

Though GETTING ACQUAINTED is Chaplin’s Keystone farewell to most of his favourite co-stars and the last real park film made with Sennett, HIS PREHISTORIC PAST has tramp-in-park bookends, so it’s a goodbye to the studio.

All the major silent comedians made stone age comedies — Keaton did THE THREE AGES, Laurel & Hardy did FLYING ELEPHANTS, Harold Lloyd, in his Lonesome Luke phase, did CLUBS ARE TRUMP. Although I’m being ahistorical as well as prehistorical, since when Lloyd and L&H made their entries, they were not yet among the greats, certainly lower echelon than Arbuckle in his pomp.

Chaplin was first — his HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, set up as a dream sequence with the Tramp settling down to sleep on a park bench, the entire story sandwiched, Cocteau-like, between the onset of unconsciousness and the inevitable shaking awake by Kop Syd Chaplin (his half-brother, who had just joined the company as Charlie was leaving), is a straight parody of D.W. Griffith’s BRUTE FORCE, released the same year. That film cast Bobby Harron as Weakhands (Griffith liked his heroes to have parable-type names), this one casts Charlie as Weakchin. There’s some question about whether the name was in Chaplin’s original release cut, because brother Sidney, the noted cannibal rapist, rewrote most of Chaplin’s intertitles after he left Keystone. But given the connection to Griffith’s film, and the fact that playing that up in 1914 makes more sense than doing it later, I feel it was probably part of Charlie’s original scenario.

David Robinson points out that the “discovery” of the Piltdown man in 1912 doubtless kicked off the movies’ brief caveman craze. Piltdown man was a phony, an anthropocene Princess Anastasia, but he caught the public’s eye much as Charlie’s phony hobo would.

This high-concept parody approach is a new wrinkle for Chaplin and probably for Keystone. He wouldn’t return to it. It seems like a lot of effort (costumes, props) for relatively little reward.

Mack Swain is King Lowbrow, identified by title as King of Waikiki Beach. And I feel this may be an unfortunate Sydney interpolated intertitle. The movie was later retitled THE HULA HULA MAN in some territories, clearly an act of madness, as Howard Beale would say. This all seems to be riffing off the primitive ritual dance which opens the caveman section, which has a Hawaiian aspect to it. If Chaplin had known the trouble this would cause, he might have asked for different moves to entertain his terpsichorean tyrant.

Some of the cavegirls wear grass skirts, that’s another reason for the mix-up, I expect.

Enter Charlie from behind a tree, clad in off-the-shoulder fur number, but with familiar hat, cane, toothbrush ‘tache and boots. This is either a good gag or a damaging anachronism. For a short fantasy it seems fine. And Chaplin is now well-identified with these items of costume, they’re not optional. A fur derby and baggy furry pants might have been an idea. A club which can be used like a cane could have worked. But this seems like a decent surreal image.

Charlie then plucks some fur from the arse of his coat, stuffs it into his pipe (he has a pipe again! But a different one from THE PROPERTY MAN) and lights it with a flint struck on his leg which doesn’t produce a spark the way a flint would, but instead catches fire at one end, the way a flint wouldn’t. All of this is just conjured from nowhere with a few props, and would have been cut if anyone at Keystone other than Chaplin had been in charge. It’s not ACTION (the Keystone stock-in-trade). It’s BEHAVIOUR (Chaplin’s forte).

Other cave-persons: May Wallace (cavewoman queen), Gene Marsh (sexy cavegirl), Fritz Schade (Caveman medicine man), Al St John, Vivian Edwards (teenage cavegirl). Grover Ligon (spaceman caveman).

Chaplin starts wooing, but his big club is just for show: he prefers more modern flirting. Sidenote: his legs at this point are very skinny. Amazing they didn’t just slice clean through the baggy pants and leave them standing in his thin wake. Maybe they did, and that’s why he’s making this film panstless.

The medicine man, catching Charlie in flagrante predelecto, shoots him in the bum with an arrow. “He had the obscure feeling someone was trying to give him a present” (William Golding, The Inheritors). Charlie retaliates by slinging a rock, which Kuleshovs through frame in the time-honoured manner and beans the King. Actually, it misses him, but Sennett didn’t believe in retakes. Swain gamely acts as if the royal noggin has been struck.

Swain and the medicine man take turns chasing the ragged rascal round and round a rugged rock. An early who’s-following-who routine. Look at those cavemen go!

“They exchange cards,” says an intertitle, ruining the joke in advance. But the joke isn’t clear wthout explanation. The piece of pelt Charlie hands over isn’t enough like a card. If we got a closeup and it had writing, or cave-art style pictograms on it, it might work. But I think ideally it should be a tiny stone tablet. Or, given the bowler and cane, it could just be a business card. This Flinstones world isn’t really Chaplin’s natural habitat. Though the casual brutality does make it a logical extension of the Keystone universe. Here’s Walter Kerr:

“Silent film comedy begins as though comedy had never existed, as though Aristophanes had never existed, as though sophistication of the same materials had never been achieved. A completely new form seems to take man back to his dawn, to revive and repeat an entire cycle of race-memories picked up along the evolutionary path, to start as primitively as if the Neanderthals were still a threat, and to probe toward the future with the weapons and level of wit of cavemen.

“In fact, the most apt description of these first screen comedies appears in a book about chimpanzees, Jane Van Lawick-Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man. ‘Young chimps,’ the author comments, ‘like to play with each other, chasing round a tree trunk, leaping one after the other through the treetops, dangling, each from one hand, while they spar and hit each other…'”

Unfortunately, too, Charlie does not seem to have outfitted himself with a fake club, so that when he clobbers foes or friends or mere passers-by, as he does frequently and at random, he has to “pull his punches” with the hefty bludgeon, which destroys even the witless level of comedy being attempted. I wouldn’t mind seeing the club bend unnaturally, but I need to see a bit of wallop put into the culling of troglodytes.

The “cave interior” is the worst set I’ve ever seen in a Keystone film, where usually the production design is sparse and tawdry. This one is just cloth stretched over random angular frames. It’s three-dimensional, but actually a painted backdrop would be less disgraceful. It doesn’t even suggest a cavern. More like a tent that’s being chewed by a dinosaur, who has mysteriously paused his mastication just as his fangs are about to pierce the canvas.

I get the feeling that Chaplin, already casting around for a more profitable deal than the one he enjoyed with Sennett, didn’t really have his mind on this job. He wouldn’t reconnect with Charles D. Hall, a colleague from the Fred Karno troupe, who would design all Chaplin’s films from A DOG’S LIFE to MODERN TIMES, for several years yet. And nobody at Keystone had ever been asked to design anything as unusual as a cave, it seems.

Some unfortunate splices (missing footage) now create a surprising Godardian effect. Competing over the cave-girlies with the rival medicine man, Charlie swings down his club, and instantly he’s standing elsewhere, surrounded by the adoring girls. From cause to effect.

An impressively managed gag, as Charlie and his cave-lady of choice walk into shot and are immediately wiped out by a colossal wave. We hadn’t known these rocks are seafront property. Poor Gene Marsh, as “Sum-Babee, Lowbrow’s Favorite Water Maiden,” (a Syd addition?) seems to be struggling against a sodden wardrobe malfunction. Worse still, Charlie and Gene and the camera operator all seem to be in danger of getting washed away.

Keystone apparently couldn’t locate an actual cave near L.A. (there is one: we see it in THE USUAL SUSPECTS) so Mack Swain’s throne room is entered by walking behind a rock.

More random clonking. This whole scenario brings out the less attractive side of Chaplin-at-Keystone. Still, at least his flirtations are non-violent, the club-’em-on-the-head-and-drag-’em-off-by-the-hair fantasy is merely hinted at, never enacted.

Mack Swain’s whole schtick at Keystone, his “Ambrose” character which this King is a variation on, is to be big and possibly authoritative in position, but really rather timorous and easily dominated, which Charlie plays up to. It’s continually unclear why the King lets Charlie prod him in the belly with whatever’s handy, whack him on the ass with a club, etc. The King having low self-esteem just isn’t a very amusing idea and Charlie comes off as a bully, a recurring but not consistent issue in the Keystone series.

Charlie and the King shoot arrows at a hen in a tree. The eggs it drops on them have been erased, it seems, by the poor digitisation of YouTube, so what follows is a bit abstract. A more pure pantomime?

Charlie kisses Gene and the screen whites out in a Marienbad overexposure of passion. Swain isn’t seeing white, but red, though. Gene retreats to the sidelines, looking like Cousin It in her unflattering grass skirt.

David Robinson reports that Chaplin, when working hard, enjoyed no social life, and so the fact that we don’t know what he was up to besides making films at Keystone means he wasn’t doing anything away from the studio. But he was young and newly successful. I don’t think he spent a whole year NOT banging the ingenues. There’s a whole cave-cluster of them in the film, and really for no reason.

Charlie shoves Mack off a cliff and declares himself “Kink” — which I think we can agree is a likely Syd line.

Charlie now becomes an obnoxious tyrant — no surprise, as he was an obnoxious underling. He poses, Frazetta-style with his concubine in his fabric cavern. Mack enters, and smashes a small boulder to fragments on Charlie’s occiput, which causes a hard cut to “modern” 1914 Charlie being woken by Syd the kop, and the film abruptly stops, missing a few seconds I fear.

A film about succession ends with Chaplin handing over his Keystone throne to his perverted half-brother.

And it’s over. Unlike Ford Sterling, when CC left Sennett’s Fun Factory, he left for good. But Chaplin’s move from Keystone to Essanay is a blog post in itself…

Streets Behind

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2020 by dcairns

In Pordeone Silent Film Fest’s first shorts collection, we saw travel films of foreign parts, including Krakow. And now locations wizard John Bengston has matched three of the views to their contemporary equivalents.

Hmm, Poland needs more trees. Well, we all do.

Yes, 1929 versus 2020, it’s all about the trees.

John’s current project deserves your attention: there’s an alleyway in LA with a curious and romantic history. This alleyway deserves a name to match its incredible cinematic heritage. I’ll let John explain:

John writes more about silent movie locations here.

Also enjoyed at Pordenone: the amazing 65mm Bioscope films, whose large-format clarity astonishes. I hope these will become more widely available, they are the closest thing to time travel you can have without a tachyon drive.