Archive for Henry “Pathe” Lehrman

The bright side of life

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2021 by dcairns

SUNNYSIDE begins with an iris out on its fictional village, which, like Easy Street and numerous other Chaplin settings, is built around a T-junction, this one with a church at the axis.

The boss (Tom Wilson, acquired from Fairbanks, previously in THE IMMIGRANT and SHOULDER ARMS) wakes up, puts on a single boot, and goes to Charlie’s room where he boots him up the arse to (kick)start the day. This is a decent opening — anything which makes the arsekick more ritualistic than it already is should be commended. What makes Charlie’s arsekicks funnier than the run-of-the-mill kind is precisely the deference, mutual respect, or ritualism with which they can be received or given, because this clashes so absurdly with the rough and vulgar nature of the act itself.

Charlie is introduced as “Charlie” in the film’s second intertitle, which rubs me the wrong way. We’re told Chaplin always referred to his character as “the little fellow” but I see no evidence of this prior to the VO getting added to THE GOLD RUSH. But I prefer that name to Charlie, even though I use that name to describe the character in my blog posts. My bad. I feel like all names are wrong and should be used officially in intertitles. Chaplin does generally avoid this. So this could be a sign that he’s feeling off-kilter, at a loss.

Charlie pretends to get up, banging a boot on the floor to suggest diligent activity to the farmer, now back in his own bed. The boss catches him napping and remarks, via title cars, about “the whole forenoon gone.” Eagle-eyed observers will spot that the hands of his alarm clock indicate it being 3.55 am. Charlie is eventually roused with further arsekickery. When one kick misses, Charlie obediently returns to the receiving position so it can be redelivered.

Charlie goes out, ostensibly to work, then comes back in through the window and back to bed. This, presumably, is what happens every single day. I’m quite enjoying the idea.

Now we learn that the workplace is a hotel. I had assumed it was a farm, since why else did they tell us we were in a village? I’m not sure a village hotel has the right kind of standing for situation comedy or grotesque situational poetry. I’m not even convinced village hotel is a thing. But I’d say the confusion could perhaps have been cleared up by starting microcosmic and building outwards — Charlie is a sleepy worker — in a hotel — in a village. Or the reverse. By leaving out the middle step until now, Chaplin has sown confusion.

The hotel lobby is a picturesque shambles, complete with gamboling puppy and barber’s chair, which will never get used in the final cut. Here’s what we would have seen if Chaplin hadn’t had second thoughts ~

We see the empty chair because Chaplin has Rollie Totheroh sweep the room twice with his camera, right to left then left to right, like an automated security camera that hasn’t been invented yet, or like the end of THE CONVERSATION (whose repetitive pans mimic surveillance CCTV). At the end of pan #2, Charlie enters with a lawnmower and chops the weeds sprouting up through the lobby floor.

Then he puts a very placid chicken in a skillet (did they get the bird drunk, as they did with Mut the dog in A DOG’S LIFE?) to lay an egg. He prepares coffee. Since Charlie is atypically jacketless, in a sleeveless shirt, I notice that his arms, when hung at his side in casual, feckless mode, kind of angle outwards in a feminine manner. Women’s elbows are arranged differently, so they don’t bang against the wider hips when the arms swing. Charlie kind of has wider hips because of the flare-out of his baggy pants. His costume constantly shrinks the upper torso and arms while expanding the hips, legs and feet.

(Billy Ritchie, Scottish comedian and Chaplin impersonator, claimed that in fact Chaplin was impersonating HIM, as he had created the drunk character Chaplin later played in Fred Karno’s music hall group. Ritchie went into movies in baggy pants, teamed up with Henry “Pathé” Lehrmann, Chaplin’s hated first director, and got savaged to death by ostriches. Or else so severely injured he dropped out of performing, depending on who you believe. Anyway, I only mention him because he performed with a hugely padded trouser seat, the main distinction between him and Charlie except for his greater brutality, height, and the fact that he wasn’t very funny. )

Charlie expresses the milk for the coffee directly from an udder attached to a cow that wanders into the kitchen for the purpose. I wasn’t expecting to see gags Chaplin would later adapt for MODERN TIMES’ fantasy bucolic idyll. Obviously he felt the material either could be done better, or deserved a better film to be in.

At the level of micro-business, this film is still full of invention. The boss kicks Charlie up the arse when he’s pouring the coffee and the jolt transfers his spouting from one cup to the next, just at the right moment.

Dripping hot grease on the back of the boss’s neck is also good class vengeance, feckless-style. But Walter Kerr is convinced that Charlie as meek underdog is an unacceptable distortion of the character. He’s probably mostly-right, but in a film like WORK, the oppression of the working man can be used effectively as part of the comedy, and as long as he’s being funny about it here, and getting some revenge in by working poorly, this seems within the Chaplinesque bailiwick. I don’t know what a bailiwick is but I think we’re in one.

Charlie’s coffee having been loaded up with about forty sugar cubes is now a noxious black treacle unknown to toxicology a caffeinated molasses he can spread on his bread, which actually sounds like quite a good idea now I think about it.

Back to Sunnyside itself. Chaplin tries out a new Goliath, J. Parks Jones, who is very fat (dead at 59). He pairs him with the miniscule Loyal Underwood to make him look even bigger. Apparently Jones was in A DOG’S LIFE and SHOULDER ARMS but I somehow didn’t notice him? Like, a strolling planetoid crossed the screen, eclipsing the sun and causing the film to rattle on its sprockets, but I didn’t notice? Anyway, Jones does a great miseryguts trudge, but is no Eric Campbell.

Chaplin now has the boss kick a small boy’s dog to confirm to us that he’s mean. And he really kicks it! This mainly convinces me that Chaplin is mean.

Charlie’s duties at the hotel apparently include herding cows, which certainly adds to the incoherence of this scenario. It’s hard to see why Chaplin, a genius, couldn’t get enough material from his character being an odd-job man at a crappy hotel. Jerry Lewis got a whole feature out of bellhopping. Broadening the film’s scope to bring in all manner of rustic business makes it easier to introduce gags but dilutes and muddles everything, like eating spaghetti in in the bath.

Herding cows, Charlie slips, very slightly, on a banana peel. This is pretty desperate. The only innovations are (1) the banana skin is lying on a country lane, where it has no business being and (2) the slip happens out of frame and we only get the answer when Charlie stoops and picks up the slippery skin. It’s just weird that Chaplin would bother to shoot this and then, worse, leave it in the film.

To show that Charlie, forced to work on a Sunday, is still a holy fool, Chaplin has him(self) read the Bible while cowherding, which doesn’t appeal to me. Charlie should not be sanctimonious. His reading, however, causes him to lose the cows and collide with a fat lady, who I think may be May White, from A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN and others, a somewhat mysterious figure.

Some great scenery here — looks like the end shot of MODERN TIMES. 99% convinced we’re in roughly the same spot.

The cows stampeding through town is fairly impressive. Making GO WEST, Buster Keaton found a major problem with cattle — they couldn’t be made to stampede without endangering life and limb to an extent even he wasn’t happy to deal with. This left him to wrestle with a rather slow-paced climax. Using a smaller number of cows, Chaplin does get them to behave aggressively, and either he or a stuntman takes considerable risks riding a steer out of town.

Thrown into a ditch, the stunned Charlie falls into a delirium and thence to a bucolic dream sequence.

Now, Chaplin wouldn’t have heard W.C. Fields say of him, “The son-of-a-bitch is a ballet dancer!” but he had heard the same thing from Nijinsky, which would have carried weight. He now embarks on a dance sequence with slight comic embellishments. Walter Kerr was very clear about how misguided this is: “he is dancing in Elysian fields not because the dance has a purpose – either of mockery or of integration – but because his balletic qualities have been noticed by critics and he has taken their remarks a bit too seriously. […] The romp with the nymphs in the field […] is not only gratuitous but a shattering disappointment in quite another way. We discover that Chaplin isn’t really a dancer at all. So long as he was taking mock ballet stances to show his indifference to the narrative or using surprisingly choreographic patterns to elude enemies and contend with fellow job-seekers, the flexibility of his body and the flawless timing of his movements suggested the Pan he was so often called. But he was not truly Pan, or even the Pierrot he called himself at tis time – not someone who could divert us with rhythmic skills in a void. He was a comedian who needed to attach himself to something – to a situation he could mock, to a dilemma calling for escape – in order to bring his grace, his artful shifts of tempo, into play. Given a nondancing function to perform, he seemed a dancer. Cast into the open fields with a half dozen girls, he merely skips and prances without design. The effect is loose, aimless, less airborne than when he is trapped in rooms, pursued by narrative. Suddenly we see his footwork as shapeless, unpatterned; there is no external pressure to demand or contain it. He never made this particular mistake again.” Amen.

Chaplin filmed SUNNYSIDE from 4th November 1918 – 15th April 1919, with long gaps of up to six weeks where he simply floundered in creative paralysis and didn’t come into the studio. EYES WIDE SHUT took fifteen months, but it’s bloody long. SUNNYSIDE is only 33 minutes.

So you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I split this article in two to make it go further.

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.