Archive for Helen Carruthers

The Sunday Intertitle: Domestic Blistering

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2021 by dcairns
Low-res turns Keystone’s crisply restored images into a grayscale version of the vile daubings of Jack Vettriano

Charlie is at home, with Mabel and their bawling infant. We haven’t seen him much in a domestic setting. Even when he’s at home, it’s usually been a boarding house or a hotel. So this is an interesting extension of the character.

Charlie is not particularly at home at home: he immediately kicks over a pot of boiling water, scalding his shoeless feet (we can see that he does not really need those big tramp shoes), then scorches himself on the stove. A series of rather ouchy, burny-burny gags. Each time he tortures himself he turns to Mabel reproachfully, as if it’s her fault. When she leaves, he reproaches the baby.

A cigarette hangs from his mouth. Charlie isn’t a heavy smoker on screen, but the dangling fag seems to suit him better than the clay pipe he sported last time.

That baby is not having a great time. Chaplin has met someone he can’t entertain. The kid seems to like Mabel better: her return actually stops the red-faced tyke from wailing. Also, weirdly, when Charlie starts improperly carrying the little beast around by the scruff of its Edwardian romper suit, it quietens right down. Seems to find the experience interesting. It would feel like flying, I suppose, only with an uncomfortable pressure in the crotch area.

Rather alarming gag where baby is playing with a real handgun while Charlie reads the paper. I’m reminded of the baby, fork and power socket gag in Mauritzio Nichetti’s ICICLE THIEVES: it depends on the audience’s understanding of the filmmaker’s goodwill: they’re not going to have anything actually terrible happen. The fact that Charlie is also reclining in the baby’s crib barely registers in the midst of this outrage.

A subplot is generated: Helen Carruthers is playing Clarice (a name with now-inescapable Lecterish associations), and she asks Ambrose (Mack Swain) to mail a letter which is addressed to her lover. Ambrose is married to Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s resident Marie Dressler type. Now read on…

Louis Reeves Harrison of the Montgomery Journal wrote this positive review about HIS TRYSTING PLACE: “The comic spirit is entirely too deep and subtle for me to define. It defies analysis. The human aspect is certainly dominant. It is funniest when it is rich in defects of character. The incongruity of Chaplin’s portrayals, his extreme seriousness, his sober attention to trivialities, his constant errands and as constant resentment of what happens to him, all this has to be seen to be enjoyed.” He then describes the burning stuff as if it were the highest of comedy, which in screen terms I guess it just about was at that time. Chaplin is interested in comic behaviour beyond the narrow Keystone limits of punching and kicking, and that’s all new in 1914.

Mack Swain exits his apartment building, sucking on the head of his cane in a perfect anticipation of THE MALTESE FALCON’s Joel Cairo.

Charlie also heads out, after giving a quick brush to his coat, boots, and fingernails (with the same brush, obvs). Mabel is distraught at his desertion, which is inexplicable really. Baby really brightens up for the first time, and is all excited about somebody standing just off-camera. The actual parent/orphanage superintendent? Before Charlie’s gone, however, there is some actual affectionate byplay between man and wife, and we learn that the baby’s name is Peter. I should go back in and use his name when referring to him, shouldn’t I?*

The family scene is so cute, Chaplin cuts in for a closer look. Then he leaves, blowing his nose on the doormat. This gag, like the brush one, satisfies two requirements at once: it displays Charlie’s grottiness; and it showcases his ability to repurpose or transform the common day-to-day objects of life.

Comedy racism! A black teenager loitering by the store is introduced with the title card A DARK OMEN. One would like to think that Chaplin wasn’t responsible for this cheap shot. I know, let’s blame Syd. He did rework the titles on a lot of his half-brother’s Keystone flicks, generally to add cheap(er) jokes exactly like this one. (The card is absent in the current YouTube copy, thankfully.)

Then, while Charlie’s in the store, since the jump cut hasn’t been invented yet, we cut to a close view of Mabel playing with her little Peter. It’s nice to see her being maternal, although this manifests itself in a very Keystone way: making baby kick himself in the face. Which, to be fair, he seems to really enjoy.

The black kid’s narrative purpose, now we cut back to him, seems to be to make fun of Charlie for buying a kid’s toy. And since I sense the toy is going to be significant later, really the black kid is there to make the toy-buying vaguely entertaining.

Now the farce aspect of the film starts to build, as Charlie and Mack Swain are going to meet at a lunch bar. The place is populated by exaggerated comic types: Filthy Overalls Man and Long Grey Beard Man.

Note something exciting: as Charlie pauses outside, we can see a herd of cows pass by, reflected in the window pane. L.A. was really still a frontier town, it seems.

More repurposing of the everyday: Charlie wipes his hands on the old guy’s beard. This is also another kind of transmutation, making Beard Man into an object. Suddenly I realise that Charlie’s jacket is in better nick than usual. As befits a husband and father, his whole look is less tramp-like. But this is definitely the same character, fairly well-established now.

Charlie in medium shot reacts to Mack’s soup-straining. Always interesting to see the people a little closer in their face-paint, even though the visual comedy usually require head-to-toe framing, which Chaplin provides. He’s starting to learn when closer framing can add something.

When the meal breaks into a brawl, it’s definitely more comic in wide shot. A pie is flung by Chaplin — and misses! And an intertitle helps us understand that Mack has fled with the wrong overcoat. Charlie flings a second pie which Kuleshovs from the film set into the street location across town and strikes some smartly-dressed rando, splurch in the kisser.

Charlie makes a magnificent exit in triumph, twirling his cane, accidentally smacking the counter with it, and spinning round at the noise in aggression/panic at the “noise”, not realising that he is himself the source. It’s by now fully apparent that Chaplin can take something ordinary, an exit, simple A-B stuff, and imbue it with comedy value and character, which his co-stars hadn’t really thought to do (maybe Arbuckle, a bit? and in France, Linder). They needed all that frenetic pace because without it, the knockabout would have been interspersed with dead air as the comics trotted from set-up to set-up, powerless without a a brick to throw or a hammer to swing. We’re also told that Chaplin had particularly concentrated on his exits and entrances because he knew the Keystone cutters wouldn’t be able to delete those.

The inevitable Echo Lake Park, with its distinctive bridge. Mack meets his Mrs. The swapped coat is going to come into play soon. It’s a ticking time bomb made of cloth.

Charlie returns home and Mabel, in her joy, burns him with the iron. He’s going to look like Freddy Krueger by the end of this one.

Now, looking for baby Peter’s present, Mabel finds the incriminating letter from Clarice. Is it made more incriminating by the fact that Clarice never sealed the envelope? I suppose it is. It doesn’t make any sense, but never mind, it fulfills the basic requirements of a domestic misunderstanding (the bar is set low on such things, as a glance at real life will tell you).

Hmm, Clarice has written “I could not live without seeing you again,” which is a bit scary since her letter now looks like never being delivered. Is the movie going to end with her lifeless body being fished from Echo Lake? Or will little Peter lend her his handgun? I do hope not.

Mabel reads the note and blows her top. The best bit is breaking the ironing board over Charlie’s head. (Missing from current YouTube version!) Probably the least painful thing that’s happened to him at home, if you think about it. I wondered for a moment if she might hit him with Peter, but she showed admirable restraint.

The same cannot be said for Mack Swain’s performance as he canoodles with Carruthers, sucking his cane in false-moustache ecstasy.

A kop appears, as is customary. He diagnoses Charlie as nuts after observing his distrait manner. Charlie then accidentally sits on Carruthers, which leads to striking up a conversation with her —

As if in a nineteen-tens version of TROP BELLE POUR TOIS, Mabel now comes to suspect that her husband is cheating on her with the matronly Carruthers. How could he? Or why would he? The ways of love are strange. But nothing a smack in the face with a loose jacket can’t fix.

Really great marital slapstick as Mabel beats up Charlie in and around a bin. These two play so well together now. (“You’re not my type. And I’m not yours,” Mabel told Charlie when he tried to flirt.)

Meanwhile, Helen Carruthers finds the baby’s bottle intended for small Peter, inside what she believes to be her husband’s coat. The implications are clear.

Swain finds Mabel raging, and attempts to console her, a good, or at any rate good-sized Samaritan. This earns him a kick up the arse from Charlie, something made inevitable by composition, framing, posture, anatomy, the whole enchilada. Rather than going for surprise, Chaplin builds up to the arse-kick with ritualistic care.

Mabel kicking Charlie so he head-butts Mack in the midriff and propels him into the bin is also rather beautiful. Simple knockabout has come a long way in a year. Keyestone always had these guys with amazing physical skills (circus artistes, many of them), but you didn’t see the gags cleanly played in suitable dramatic circumstances until around now.

Mabel starts yanking Charlie about by the collar and he does the accelerated motion head-waggle he’s make good use of later when Eric Campbell got him by the throat. This is, I think, its first appearance.

The kop turns up, holding the (abandoned) baby, and there’s a beautiful group scene of everyone trying to act normal for his benefit. Amazing.

Everything gets resolved. Then Charlie hands over the stray love letter and lands Mack right in it. We end, however, with a charming family scene, Mabel and Charlie and little Peter who, reunited with his father, starts bawling again.

*Did I remember to do that?

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: Cocking His Snook

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2020 by dcairns

Maybe if I look at all of Chaplin’s “park, pretty girl and policeman” shorts from his Keystone period, I’ll find the bit with the flower mentioned by Schulberg/Fitzgerald in The Disenchanted. Or maybe it doesn’t exist.

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RECREATION (1914) begins with a penniless Charlie trying to throw himself to his death. So we know it’s a comedy alright. To accomplish the fatal act, he has to get over a fence. He performs a gag later used by Keaton on TV, hoisting one leg up and resting it on the crossbar, then hoisting up the other leg, leaving him momentarily unsupported in mid-air before gravity reasserts itself and he crashes to earth. Keaton’s version was better, more uncanny, but Chaplin is indisputably there first.

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When Helen Carruthers walks by, Charlie forgets all about suicide and becomes a sex pest. As his career went on, his pursuit of the leading lady gradually became more courtly, less lecherous, until there’s no sense of sexuality about his character at all, just the abstraction of Romance.

Helen’s beau is a violently inclined sailor, and so soon he and Charlie are lobbing bricks at one another. There’s a lot of this in early Chaplin, and it’s never terribly funny. All the later traditions of the custard pie fight are upheld — a few direct hits are followed, for variety, by a miss which clobbers a copper instead. But the projectiles are rather painfully serious rather than silly, undignfied and comic like the cream pie, which had to be discovered (by Mabel Normand, it seems) a little later.

Charlie claimed he learned about screen direction from Henry “Pathé” Lehrmann — you exit screen left, then enter screen right. And it’s very important that if you throw a brick off the left side of frame, it should enter the next shot from the right so it feels like it’s a continuous movement in one direction. But there’s an oddity here: the brick that misses travels left from Chaplin’s hand, left past the sailor, and left into a third shot where it hits the cop.

The cop then appears behind Charlie from the RIGHT, as if the universe were a short circle composed of three shots. It’s hard to work out the physical geography that could cause the policeman to take a circuitous path that avoided the sailor and arrived behind Charlie. He does so purely for the suspense value and dramatic irony of Charlie winding up to throw a brick, all unawares that he’s under the watchful eye of the law. A familiar panto technique.

Caught with the brick in his hand, Charlie shows why he’s a more interesting clown than his contemporaries by dusting it off. A bit of mime intended to prove that he was never intending to hurl it, he just thought it could use a clean.

Ah-hah! There are TWO policemen. That explains it. They have different hats, but I missed this important fact because the surviving print has been horribly cropped. Everyone’s missing the top of their head, which may be why they’re behaving so rambunctiously. Note that Chaplin hasn’t hit on the idea of the gigantic antagonist yet, a lucky thing since an Eric Campbell figure would be cut off at the nipples by this misframing.

Abruptly, for the film’s last two minutes, another source has become available and the image quality improves a thousandfold and we get luminous you-are-there clarity, time-traveling a hundred-plus years, a wrenching shock that takes a while to recover from.

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As Charlie flirts with Helen, a row-boat ponderously and distractingly edges into frame. Is it going to be significant? No, it’s just an indication that there was no A.D. on crowd control. A quick cutaway later and it’s gone. Nobody considered a retake worth their while to solve the continuity issue.

Conclusion: the film lurches back into grainy, smudgy, misframed ugliness and everyone winds up in the water. Right, that’s that dealt with.

Charlie does not seize a flower as described in The Disenchanted. Let’s keep looking.