Archive for His Musical Career

The Sunday Intertitle: Recce on Easy Street

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2021 by dcairns

WORK (1915) has a lot to commend it. Before the first image has even appeared, there’s an early reference to Easy Street. And then we get Edna Purviance doing some actual comedy (she’s rarely allowed much) as the Ford family maid. I can’t be sure Chaplin acted it all out for her in advance but it seems probable. An excellent bit of miming, anyway.

This maid is always on the phone, making her a Chaplinesque layabout herself. Mr. and Mrs. Ford are regular co-clown Billy Armstrong, permanently apoplectic, and new recruit Marta Golden.

David Robinson waxes very enthusiastic about Charlie’s introduction as slave labour, pulling an enormous cart while his boss, Izzy A. Wake (Charles Inslee) whips him through traffic (with his own cane!). It’s building on the similar business in HIS MUSICAL CAREER, but Charlie is now clearly positioned as underdog, taking the place of the earlier film’s miserable donkey. Any viciousness he gets up to later has now been justified.

I was slightly startled to see the cart get jammed across a tramline, with an oncoming tram very narrowly missed. Chaplin can do things physically that would be dangerous for most of us, but he doesn’t usually skirt suicide in the Keaton manner. I guess, allowing for undercranking, the tram might be traveling slowly enough to just give the cart a good bump and smash it, and the actors would stand a chance of jumping clear. But I’m not going to test it.

Then there’s a rare camera trick, a Dutch tilt creating the impression of a 45° hillside. This movie might be the inspiration for Polanski’s TWO MEN AND A WARDOBE, THE FAT AND THE LEAN, and MAMMALS, which certainly all exude a Chaplin influence.

Enter Leo White, back in his customary top hat and tails. His road is less tilted because he’s posh. Life’s path is easier.

Charlie, catching up with him, slips on his banana skin (Charlie’s second banana related mishap) and slides back into the previous set-up. Chaplin’s films in this period are kind of like chains of set-ups. These function like squares on a board game. But any set-up can recur at any time. Also, if you’re in one set-up, chances are you can’t see the characters in the adjoining one, no matter how close they might be. The exception is when it’s a close shot of a single character, and then you might get a bit of flirting or whatnot between this character and the one in the next square.

Charlie and his boss actually slide all the way back to the set-up before the set-up before, which has an advancing tram in it again (perhaps the tram is always advancing in this set-up). Escaping this tram, Charlie and Izzy head back into the set-up before THAT, which means they have to deal with ANOTHER advancing tram once they finally start going forwards again. Seems there is indeed always an advancing tram in that set-up.

Judging by the improbable physics in Charlie and co’s next hair’s-breadth escape from dismemberment, the cart is on a wire for this gag, with a team or a machine pulling it rapidly out of shot. Which is terrifying: so much more can go wrong.

Climbing the illusionary hill and arriving in Leo’s banana-skin set-up again, Charlie slips on the skin again and nearly goes back to square one. Chaplin has worked out that banana skins are good for suspense as well as surprise, and that repeating funny business is good economics, but also THREATENING to repeat it can get a laugh too. A laugh of relief that we don’t have to go through all that again.

While Charlie wipes a litre of sweat from his brow, Izzy greets Paddy McGuire, stereotyped as an Irish labourer with a hod. So of course Charlie must now tow both of them. There’s an unusual cut to closer view as the two buddies shake hands: the continuity matching is so good I suspect two cameras were used. The principle of match-cutting on action obviously existed but wasn’t much discussed. Chaplin apparently isn’t doing what Griffith often did, repeating a bit of the action to make sure the audience caught it. Since Rollie Totheroh is Chaplin’s number two cameraman by now, he must be shooting one or other of these set-ups.

Charlie’s plunge down a manhole also seems like something you could hurt yourself doing. Sure there can be some kind of crash pad down there but supposing you hit your face on the edge?

After Charlie’s vanished from view, the blokes in the cart look around in bewilderment. A Fortean event! Izzy even looks UP, which is a very Chaplin thing to do. Rescued, he wafts his baggy pants to evaporate some of the newly-generated perspiration.

At the end of the shot, they walk off, and McGuire goes down the hole, but Time has removed just enough frames to make it not quite very funny.

We’re back to the Ford residence. This is a three set-up household so far: kitchen, hall and dining room, all square and cramped. But there’s a staircase too, so more set-ups may be discovered.

The workmen arrive. Mrs. F. elaborately describes what she wants done, while Izzy ignores her and lights a cigarette, seemingly taking none of it in, and Edna stands back, out of the way of the flailing silent movie gestures. Even doing this she manages to project comic character.

Charlie, having unloaded the cart and loaded himself, is now a one-man-band concatenation of building equipment, emitting tiny puffs of cigarette smoke to prove there’s someone alive in there.

Impossible that he should get in the front door with this stuff wrapped round him, but he does, because the front door is between camera set-ups and so of no concern to us. Charlie collapses in the hall.

Saucy byplay with Edna, who really is on fire in this, and not just because of the maid’s uniform. This being 1915, it’s really quite a dowdy version of a maid’s uniform but the concept is there. You don’t need need to overdo the fetishwear when you’re tickling the leading man’s arse with a feather duster. Which Edna is.

Charlie has already destroyed a fair bit of the Ford home, but it’s all through carelessness. The malice of THE TRAMP’s middle act is gone. For good? We’ll see. The flat is equipped with swing doors, which of course are an invention Charlie has never gotten along with. His inability to navigate them while holding a plank results in headaches for Mr. Ford, again, entirely accidental on Charlie’s part.

David Robinson is very good on the mistrust between classes Chaplin devotes quite a bit of action to. Charlie is oppressed by his boss but both of them see their clients as the common enemy.

Izzy takes off his hat and coat, dusts them carefully and hands them to Charlie, who pretty much destroys them instantly, giving us a clue how this home renovation thing is going to go. The movie has been coy about exactly what kind of “work” it’s going to be about, but now we see that paper-hanging is involved. This is going to be apocalyptic, isn’t it?

Izzy has made himself at home at the family piano while Charlie does all the work. I notice the curtains and tablecloth are blowing about like mad, usually a sign of an exterior set. David Robinson tells us that Chaplin, still between studios, “temporarily took over the converted Bradbury Mansion at 147 North Hill Street.” He used the front of the building to represent the front of the Ford home. But why is it so draughty?

A topical gag: Lois Weber’s HYPOCRITES was released in 1915. Charlie is always fascinated by nude statues and figurines, and he disguises his lust with a show of aesthetic appreciation. He was already working on this at Keystone. Here he uses a lampshade to make a hula skirt for it. His smutty, self-involved smile as he wiggles it. Then he looks up the skirt that he himself dressed it in.

Charlie has also brought along his little clay pipe, which seems to be associated with the workplace.

Edna’s maid, to give her proper credit, does seem more perturbed than charmed by Charlie’s lethal and destructive incompetence.

Immaculately timed bit where Charlie is called upon to help fix a gas range which keeps exploding. Obviously, that goes well. I’ve come to really enjoy Billy Armstrong and I wish he and Charlie had more business together in this.

I cracked up at Charlie trying to remove the great mass of wallpaper paste he has caused to become stuck to Izzy’s head. He’s scraping it off with a brush, but slipping in it every five seconds. So, two stupid activities, interspersed, based around wallpaper paste possessing the contradictory qualities of gooey and slippery. The victim sits patiently as his whited-out features are whisked into one abstraction after another…

Charlie then tries some paperhanging himself. He’s… not very good. Endless fun to be had with paper getting stuck to one hand, then to the other. Charlie has to be dumb enough here to not understand that sticky things are sticky. In later film, he’s not dumb, just not very practical. He doesn’t understand the stuff civilised people are supposed to know.

Edna discovers the Ford home’s long-lost fourth camera set-up, and dusts it.

When we cut back to him, Charlie has made quite a bit of progress with his papering. It’s strikingly shit progress, but progress nonetheless. The Dunning-Kreuger effect made flesh, even he seems not quite satisfied with the way the paper is peeling at the edges and curling at the ends. But it’ll do fine.

Edna immediately recognises the worthlessness of the papering, but sits down to hear Charlie’s tale of woe. We can’t hear what she hears, but a tighter two-shot allows Charlie to do a bit of manly yet broken-hearted stuff — mock pathos. Edna listens compassionately, then gets upset at the black muck his hand leaves on her arm.

It’s a strange bit, not as strange as the leftfield sincere pathos that crashes into THE TRAMP midway, but definitely out of register with the tone elsewhere. Unlucky in love, Charlie spaffs up the walls with his paste, Jackson Pollock style.

And now, just when we’d (probably) forgotten him, Leo White reenters the film, with a bouquet to replace his banana. No idea where he’s been all this time (he was AHEAD of Charlie and the cart), but like Poe Dameron in a silk hat he flies in to the rescue for no adequately prepared reason.

He is… the wife’s secret lover? Mr. Ford goes nuts, Mrs. Ford starts explaining again what renovations she wants done… I guess she’s trying to pretend he’s just another workman, for her husband’s sake. Yes, eventually an intertitle confirms this.

Leo enters the room Charlie’s in and gets a brushful of paste splurch in the kisser. This is only moderately funny: better is when, while Leo tries to explain that he’s not a wall, Charlie keeps daubing at his dripping features, seeing if he can’t improve the effect. He’s an artist at heart.

Then he splurches Edna — accidentally, it’s true. Still.

Billy Armstrong runs amok with a revolver, trying to straight-up murder Leo White. Izzy/Inslee falls into a full bathtub — at Keystone, such an incident might have served for a conclusion, but Chaplin has bigger fish to fry. Armstrong/Ford accidentally shoots the stove and the house explodes. Impressive wall caving-in stuff, quite ambitious for a Chaplin of this period.

Aftermath — disturbingly, Charlie’s boss seems to be pinned down under the bathwater by rubble and is drowning, slowly. Not sure what kind of error of judgement made that choice seem wise. The catastrophic kind, I suppose. Husband, wife and lover are reduced to three heads, poking from the wreckage, a Beckettian triangle. Edna has presumably been blasted into space. Charlie’s head emerges from inside the fallen stove, which seems improbable. He grins satanically at us, then gets hit by one of Oliver Hardy’s leftover bricks-to-be, and retires back into the stove where things are more peaceful.

WORK is a pretty successful short knockabout, with a soupcon of farce and that odd spot of faux-pathos. Chaplin doesn’t quite know what to do with this new mode, he’s just throwing it out there to see what it does. But he’s displaying a surer grasp of character sympathy, getting us on his side. As Walter Kerr observed, Chaplin as tramp was an experiment, and now he’s back to gainful employment. Chaplin as low-status underdog hero is the coming thing. He’s more or less worked out what his character is for.

Music Boxing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2020 by dcairns

HIS MUSICAL CAREER is an unusually subtle title, since the musical career in question turns out to be piano-moving, something customers could only be amused by AFTER paying for a ticket and starting to watch.

We see Charlie getting hired in the first scene, by Mack Swain, while the reliably weird-looking Billy Gilbert (not that one) shamelessly pulls focus in the bg. Expect to see this guy shown the door once Chaplin sees the rushes. And funny that both the major comedy shorts about piano-moving have guys called Billy Gilbert in them.

Charlie is STILL experimenting with his basic look: this time he has a little clay pipe to puff on, smokelessly. He gets some decent business out of it, but David Lynch would probably say the added face-detail makes Charlie’s head too FAST. The little moustache and dark eyebrows are detail enough.

Laurel & Hardy’s THE MUSIC BOX is the one to beat, clearly, and it’s doubtful that Chaplin at this stage in his career has a chance of doing it.

Still, Mack Swain as supervisor is a good idea: so he’s not just bigger than Charlie, he outranks him. Swain had spent so long (maybe only a year and a bit, but dozens of films) being pushed around by Chester Conklin that he was probably programmed against acting dominant, which means he’s no Eric Campbell.

There’s immediately a nasty gag about Swain drinking varnish — Chaplin seems to be consciously responsible for this, whereas it would be funnier as an accident. But Keystone was inclined towards cruelty and aggression, and Chaplin to some extent towed the line. His ineffectual attempts at helping the poisoned Swain are reasonably funny, but would have worked a lot better if he hadn’t switched the drink and varnish on purpose.

Plum role for Charley Parrot (later Chase) as the store manager.

Charlie shows off his tiny muscles. Thin but wiry!

Two customers, Mr. Rich (stout and top-hatted) and Mr. Poor (gesticulating melodramatic scarecrow). Pathos is something to be made mock of, at this stage of the Chaplin filmography.

Two addresses, 666 Prospect St. and 999 Prospect St., are introduced, setting up the potential for a mix-up. I note that Mabel lived at no. 666 in CAUGHT IN A CABARET, but I make no Satanic inference from this.

Before the film has reached the five-minute mark, Swain is trapped under the piano in an image resembling a Weegee death scene. So long as Chaplin is fecklessly responsible, this cruelty works (has deniability), but he keeps alternating between incompetence and malice. Look at his work as Chester Conklin’s assistant in MODERN TIMES to see how this vicious streak in Chaplin would evolve: Conklin suffers great indignities in that one, but Charlie means him no harm, is sincerely trying to help him at every turn. So the rather sadistic comedy comes about ironically, and is therefore much funnier, and character sympathy is preserved.

En route to 666 or 999, Charlie uses his pipe as a tiny ladle to steal booze from a slumbering Swain.

I’d love to have seen the camera set-up for Charlie and Mack riding the donkey-cart. Presumably they’re attached to the back of a truck or something, the camera positioned on it, the donkey getting a rest break. Just as well, since soon the poor beast of burden is being dangled in mid-air.

It seems wrong that the mix-up in addresses isn’t Charlie’s fault. This piano company has survived and even flourished before him coming along, so it seems to me that any disasters should be the inadvertent work of Charlie, Lord of Misrule. Chaplin needs to be more selfish and make himself fully the star comedian. There, never thought I’d complain that Chaplin wasn’t egotistical enough. I’m looking forward to him being supported by blander, less forceful talents like Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Then, in the features, he can find room for some of his Keystone chums again, because the greater running time requires a few diversions from his own showmanship.

The inevitable “moving the piano up a staircase” routine comes and goes without ever evoking the majesty of the l&h version. It’s not bad, would probably get a good laugh in a crowded theatre. Now Chaplin tries playing up the idea of the Little Fellow as oppressed worker, with Swain as exploitative overseer, but it’s too late in the story to really make that stick. Still, it’s a more promising approach than what he’s been doing. And, interestingly, Mr. Poor and his daughter, formerly Dickensian pastiches, now become annoying fusspots so that nobody can decide where to put the piano and Charlie is forced to carry it to and fro on his shoulders, a proletarian Sisyphus.

The strain turns Charlie into a crouched, bow-legged Angelo Rossitto figure, a transmogrification effected solely by acting. Swain’s brutal repair-job again shows the characters working together as they should: the spinal crack is performed heartlessly, just to make Charlie capable of doing more hard work.

The rules of film grammar, as they are understood in 1914, require that we watch Charlie and Mack return downstairs and get on their cart, even though there are no gags devised to make the trip particularly entertaining. L&H could dispose of such A-B business with a wipe or dissolve. Still, Chaplin can splice in a title card to shorten the trip to number 999.

Mr. Rich also has a daughter, who is apparently suitable for flirting with (Mr. Poor’s daughter was innocent and respectable). The Riches also employ a liveried footman who seems somewhat out of keeping in L.A. Kicking him to the floor, Charlie and Mack abduct the upright, and go crashing into the bright street. At 12.31 Charlie does a little back-kick of one leg to literally kickstart himself, a signature move — I’m unsure if we’ve seen it done properly before this. Probably we have. The confrontation with the furious owner DOES seem a bit reminiscent of developments in THE MUSIC BOX.

The boys flee downhill, ruthlessly kicking aside an innocent passer-by (a moment mostly splinked out by a bad splice) and splash into what is presumably Echo Lake. Mr. Rich shakes his fist in stereotyped pantomime, and we have another of those very abrupt endings, not helped by what is likely a bit of missing footage, where Charlie for obscure reasons tries to play the now half-submerged piano. There’s a promising comic image there, but no time to work it out, seemingly.