Archive for Henry “Pathe” Lehrman

The Sunday Intertitle: Mabel Gets the Push

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2020 by dcairns

MABEL AT THE WHEEL (still 1914!) marks an interesting, indeed key point in Chaplin’s career. He’d been at least somewhat quarrelsome with his directors up to this point. On this film, he simply refused to play a scene the way his director and lead actor Mabel Normand saw it, and production ground to a halt. Mack Sennett had to come out and see what was wrong, and finish the film himself.

Everybody liked Mabel and they were unconvinced if they liked Chaplin, and so he was likely going to get the sack, but the incident coincided exactly with reports coming in from exhibitors saying how popular the previous few months’ Chaplin shorts had been, and demanding more of the same. Suddenly Charlie, the little shit, was a valued commodity.

Chaplin defended his usurpation by saying that Mabel was awfully young to be directing. In fact, she had directed a bunch of shorts already, which was more than he had done, had been in movies for close to five years, and was only three years younger than CC. Nevertheless, the two worked together again, even co-directing on HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, which is annoyingly now a lost film, unless you have a print in your attic?

In MATW, Chaplin is back in frock coat and top hat, but has kept the cane and tiny ‘tache, augmented by two tiny satanic beardlets. He’s clearly a suave baddie again. After this point, his screen personality stabilizes somewhat, apart from the instances where he plays a woman — I’m guessing those cinema-owner reports had specified the kind of role Chaplin was more successful in. Nobody else has had time to figure that out, though Chaplin later wrote that he immediately felt comfortable as the Tramp, and not as this frock-coated heel.

It’s time I figured out who the short, stocky prostoogonist is in these things. Ah, yes, Harry McCoy. Declined into bit parts and died young. That’s showbiz, I guess.

Charlie steals the fickle Mabel away from Harry on his motorcycle. She falls off the back in a puddle, and Harry gets her back. Then a fight, in which Mabel slaps Charlie, Charlie slaps Mabel, Harry tries to slap Charlie but slaps Mabel. I presume Mabel directed all this stuff. She may have overestimated how much we like to see women get hit.

Charlie then gives Harry a puncture (in his tyre, I mean) and Mabel throws a rock which hits Charlie in the crotch. A general rock-throwing melee ensues, absorbing Mabel’s father, Chester Conklin. Why do they call this “knockabout” comedy, do you think?

This being a two-reel epic, we now relocated to the racetrack where Harry is going to participate in his sportscar. Charlie sticks a pin into various arses, which is good for a minute or so of action. Then some more slapping. Then a pin in Mabel’s leg. For the second film in a row, Chaplin bites Edgar Kennedy’s leg. Then sticks his pin in Harry’s arse. Two-reelers? Easy.

Going full Simon Legree, Chaplin summons into being two henchmen with a single whistle, and despatches them to abduct and duff up his hated rival. There’s a very interesting movement when he sidesteps from one shot into another, adjoining one, seeming to find the transition quite tricky, going boss-eyed and weird, as if he had not quite absorbed Henry “Pathe” Lehrman’s advice on screen direction and had to pass from one shot to another by osmosis, through some kind of semipermeable membrane or something.

With Harry tied to a post, getting his chin slapped at will by a triumphant Chaplin, there’s nothing for it but for Mabel to fulfil the film’s title AT THE WHEEL. She may have displayed brief fickleness or fickletude, but she’s a plucky gal when the chips are down or the boyfriend tied to a post. But first Chaplin tries the across-frame thing again, reaching forth blindly with clutching hand, and getting it bitten, and displaying his huge, spatulate tongue in a silent scream. I’ve never seen it observed that Chaplin had a tongue like a gammon steak, but here is the evidence thrust before our recoiling eyes in living monochrome.

Mabel now finds her motoring exploits spliced into documentary footage of a genuine race, even as Chaplin and his two desperately-moustachioed henchmen prepare acts of bomb-throwing sabotage. VG pratfall from CC at around 13:49.

And the winner is… Chaplin, by a mile. Seemingly filling in for Ford Sterling, who had just left Keystone in search of greener paychecks, cast as the villain and deprived of his Tramp get-up, Chaplin still gets the best material since he’s playing Coyote to Mabel’s literal road-runner. And he pulls as many dirty tricks to grab our attention as his character does to hamper Harry & Mabel. The film may fade out on a triumphant Mabel, but it’s Chaplin, apparently slain by explosion, who has made the bigger impression. There’s nothing fair about genius, as AMADEUS showed.

Oh, supposedly Charley Chase appears briefly, but I didn’t spot him.

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: 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.