Archive for James Kelley

Hoot Spa

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2021 by dcairns

THE CURE is generally admired, and genuinely good, but coming after EASY STREET as we watch in sequence, it seems a far less ambitious work. The narrative is super-slight, there’s no real drama. But you can turn that around and say that the ambition lies in structuring a comedy WITHOUT those things.

There’s much to enjoy. After starting the film with himself in the role of orderly, Chaplin restarted from scratch, taking the role of a rich, straw-hatted dipso. He could almost be the same character from ONE A.M. Which is odd, because that film underperformed and was regarded by CC as a failed experiment. It’s hardly surprising, given his back ground of extreme poverty and his sudden, inexplicable wealth and fame, that Chaplin didn’t feel secure in his success. What’s more surprising is the risks he ran, avoiding settling into one formula with his films — probably his comedy just couldn’t function within a set pattern, which would be why he kept trying to escape the Tramp character. The other reason would be the way the character reminded him painfully of his origins.

In his memoir, Chaplin only discusses THE CURE in relation to Nijinsky’s visit to the set. (He doesn’t mention EASY STREET at all.) The great dancer solemnly watched him perform, never laughing once, but was very flattering: “Your comedy is balletique, you are a dancer.” Anticipating W.C. Fields. For a day or two, Chaplin acted without film in the camera, because he knew he couldn’t use anything he shot in front of this tragic fellow.

Nijinsky’s insanity seems to have impressed Chaplin — he writes more about Nijinsky than about Eric Campbell, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman, none of whom rate a mention — but doesn’t connect it to any worries about his own equilibrium. Despite regularly playing dipsomaniacs, and having an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother, Chaplin doesn’t admit to any concerns on that score. I guess, like most of us, most of the time, he simply felt sane.

His manager and half-brother Syd seems to have said not long after this time that he was only waiting for Charlie to crack up finally so he could sell the studio to a supermarket and retire on the proceeds.

Loyal Underwood is the founder of THE CURE’s health spa, and he’s a physical wreck. This broad satire allows Chaplin to treat the place as a system to be destroyed. It’s a place full of rich people pretending to get healthier. A romance with Edna will provide Charlie with a motivation to change his way of life, but nothing serious will result from this.

Eric Campbell plays a gouty villain. Gout being mainly a disease of the rich, it doesn’t have to be treated sympathetically.

An attendant (John Rand) tries to steer a veering Charlie towards and through the revolving doors into the establishment. Drunk and disoriented, Charlie tends to take off in random directions, stepping over the wellspring of the healing waters, teasing us with the suggestion he’s going to fall in — a set-up whose pay-off is saved for the very end.

Swing doors, with their tendency to keep swinging, have given Charlie’s drunk characters a lot of trouble. The revolving doors don’t bother him at all — he just always seems to find himself outside when he goes in. But this infuriates John Rand only — Charlie doesn’t mind in the least. In Unknown Chaplin we see him accidentally catch his cane (one part of his signature look, along with moustache and baggy trousers, that he’s retained) in the doors, then hurl it away in sudden fury. But then he incorporates the mistake into the routine, beautifully. Charlie is dazedly delighted with the way he’s trapped Campbell and Rand in airtight glass compartments, bellowing silently at him.

The impetus from the doors, when Charlie is finally spat out into the spa interior, sends him all the way upstairs, spinning like a top, while Rand, a servile Hoskins, gently guides him to his room. His steamer trunk arrives: a giant booze cabinet. This is psychologically quite true, of course: anyone seeking to be cured of an addiction takes along a bit of what they’re addicted to, just in case. Thereby defeating the whole point, but what are points for, if not to be defeated? We don’t want to ever let points get the upper hand.

Albert Austin, another attendant, arrives to take Charlie to the waters. Prolonged flirtation with nurse — almost three minutes of this single locked-off setting, and I feel it could have been productively pruned. But there’s a bit of amusing salaciousness, and Charlie’s avoidance of the water. The scene ends when he finally takes a sip and then goes scampering around looking for a place to throw up. Digestion is a favourite Chaplin topic. And then, since Chaplin likes to do vulgar jokes and then de-vulgarize them, we find out he was racing back to his room for a proper drink.

Now James Kelley as an aged attendant is showing signs of drink — he’s been at Charlie’s steamer trunk, the first sign that our hero’s state of intoxication is going to spread through the population like a virus.

That Bad Man Eric is bothering Edna again. I suppose it’s slightly odd that he’s been mistreated before he’s done anything wrong (just as in THE RINK) but Charlie is depending on the gout being unsympathetic and also on Eric being in melodramatic villain guise, and being known to the audience as his regular antagonist. Edna proves well able to defend herself, stamping on the bandaged hoof then stomping off. Eric, however, simply can’t take “Take that!” for an answer.

Charlie blunders into this situation, sitting between annoyer and annoyee, so that he thinks Eric’s repulsive coochy-cooing is meant for him. Ever-mutable, he flirts back, becoming a winsome coquette for as long as the moment demands. So the next blow to Eric’s inflamed foot is delivered flirtatiously.

Good gag with the wicker chairs. There are two joined together, so when Charlie repositions his, he removes the one Eric was about to sit on. All this guys were great at falling over without getting hurt. Only Jerry Lewis, who didn’t have the training, went on to have terrible back pain. Eric, alas, didn’t live long enough to regret his tumbling.

The manager, or some other important figure, comes to impose order and rebuke Charlie, but Edna springs to his defense — Eric goes into a melodramatic pose, tugging the twin points of his beard which somehow conveys that his perfidy is rumbled, and Charlie, protean as ever, steps forward to his audience, the film having been transformed to a play by the situation and Eric’s posturing. An amazing moment, when you think about it.

Having caused a little more chaos, Charlie is whisked off to have a massage. Henry Bergson is the aggressive masseur.

Meanwhile, two more attendants have gotten bevvied up on Charlie’s stash. The manager orders them to throw out the liquor. Albert Austin, incapably pie-eyed, tosses the bottles out the window into the healthful well…

Charlie’s undressing behind a curtain in the changing room annoys Eric and another patron, as he carelessly flings shoes etc. When the curtain is whisked open, he strikes fey poses. I’ve never been sure what this is a reference to but it always struck me as funny, regardless. Some kind of Windmill Theatre tableau vivant thing is being spoofed, I guess. Or bathing beauties? But it’s a chance for Chaplin to be graceful and effeminate and impudent.

Chaplin had engaged a contortionist for this bit, but initially struggled to find the right role for him (as seen in Unknown Chaplin). The eventual solution is excellent: Bergman twists the guy into impossible shapes while Charlie watches in alarm. It’s a plan he’d re-use in THE IMMIGRANT: visualise, using some hapless subject, the terrible fate awaiting the hero, then see what he can do to escape it.

Charlie the drunk isn’t particularly alarmed, though — he seems the activity as a wrestling match. Charlie is generally devoid of sympathy towards others at this point, except maybe Edna. But he has no intention of taking part in a bout himself. Bergman is astounded when Charlie wrestles back, halfnelsonizing the big guy. All the sliding back and forth on the table to escape Henry’s grip is great. As is Charlie’s aggressive wrestling stance. As with ONE A.M., we get to see the Chaplin legs. Even more so.

Strange bit where Charlie tries to grab Henry by the stomach. He almost succeeds. If the bay window protruded any more — it would have to extrude like a Dali buttock, and probably require a crutch or unicycle to support it — the judo move might have worked.

Meanwhile, Edna is alarmed to find everyone drunk. The spa has acquired a post-apocalyptic quality, like THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS or DAWN OF THE DEAD. Society has broken down. The alcoholics have taken over the asylum. It’s like All Fool’s Day, or St. Patrick’s Day or something. i like the orderly using a lamp as a trumpet. Is it John Rand, in his umpteenth role?

Charlie, having dunked Eric and Henry in the pool, comes upon a scene of pure rambunctiousness. He is now almost the most sober person present, and he doesn’t like it. Things get a bit dark when he has to save Edna from two randy inebriates. I think the beard guy is William Gillespie, a Scot from Aberdeenshire. I wonder what WG thought of Eric’s phony Scotsman act?

The temperance theme — Chaplin really disapproved of overindulgence, sounding kind of priggish when criticising Barrymore’s excesses in his memoir, as if congenital alcoholism was purely a choice — doesn’t stand a chance of being treated seriously. Edna urges Charlie to try the waters. He’s saved her, and she wants to do the same for him. But the waters are now 20% proof. Initially reluctant, Charlie becomes rather keen on the stuff. Edna may soon need protecting from her protector. He throws his leg over her knees, Harpo-fashion.

Eric, having been in the pool while everyone else was getting plastered, is still sober, but the attendant pushing his bath chair isn’t. Well, somebody was bound to end up submerged in the healthful well. Chaplin’s water features exist for no other purpose. Freeze-framing it just allow us to see that a padded stuntman, in Eric’s elaborate makeup, performs the dive.

Looking for a way to end this sequence, Chaplin falls back on a reliable gambit, and has his character stagger about until he falls into the tiny swimming pool. I’m not much of a swimmer but I reckon I could manage a length of that thing. By stretching.

The next day. Everyone is horribly hungover, except Edna and Eric, who does not appear. I don’t suppose he actually drowned. Actually, he might have a hangover too, depending on how much he swallowed when upside down in the well.

Charlie now learns that the well was full of liquor, but not that it was his. Now Edna is urging him NOT to take the waters, and the temperance pledge can be done semi-sincerely. But having already lampooned it, the film can’t really be seen as particularly moralistic now. The curse has been taken off in advance.

Charlie falls in the well. The End.

Unknown Chaplin supplies us with two fine gags I rather wish had been used. In one elaborate routine, Charlie acts as traffic cop to the drunken attendants pushing wheelchairs and bath chairs. He shot this multiple times, first in his disorderly orderly guise, then again after switching roles and becoming the rich drunk. Everyone says that he discarded this because he realised his character is supposed to create chaos, not order, but that’s just a (plausible) assumption. I think it could have worked, because once everybody’s smashed, Charlie DOES become the adult in the room.

Chaplin also shot a bit more ending, where he bobs up and down in the well like a cork, kissing Edna on each surfacing. Again, this seems like a nice way to develop the gag and make it romantic — after all, we’ve already seen someone fall in there, so a plunge alone is not too surprising. I think it’s even possible the gag WAS included — so many of Chaplin’s films seem to have lost frames from the end, that a missing shot doesn’t seem impossible. But I have no evidence to support this idea, except for the fact that Chaplin shot the gag, and it was good.

Next up: Chaplin takes everything he’s learned and applies it to one film.

Shapeshifter

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2021 by dcairns

THE PAWNSHOP is perfect.

Charlie is a little bastard again — more childish than ever, really, and engaged in a kind of sibling rivalry with co-worker the marvelous John Rand. The pawnbroker, Henry Bergman, is a stern father figure. Edna, his daughter, treats Charlie like a child, which he encourages. But he’s obviously a lecherous child.

Somehow Chaplin balances everything just right in this one — Charlie is just sympathetic enough — in the sense of giving us a vicarious indulgence in naughtiness which is pleasurable — without crossing the line and becoming totally hateful. Obnoxious yet somehow appealing.

The film is pretty plotless — there’s bickering between Charlie and Rand, competition over Edna, attempts to escape the discipline provided by Bergman, and then Eric Campbell turns up to rob the place, providing Charlie a chance to be the hero, a role which he has shown himself entirely undeserving of. There are no really sympathetic characters — Edna is nice, but a gullible idiot with big hair and her cakes are terrible — everyone else bickers and is mean to one another, is grifting or exploiting or out-and-out stealing. And yet the film manages to be fairly likable. The lessons of Keystone, where Charlie could be an absolute thug, have been learned, and Chaplin is cautious about just how far he can go.

After a couple of shots establishing Edna in the kitchen with a kitten, for cuteness, and Henry Bergman as the pawnbroker pacing impatiently, irked by Charlie’s customary lateness, Our Hero appears. Again, viewed from the rear. The Mutual comedies tend to have fun with how recognisable the Little Fellow is, from the rear, or just reduced to raggedy flapshoes.

Bergman was a native Californian who became a kind of courtier/toady to Chaplin. Collaborators could be slightly harsh about his role in offering Chaplin steady support and encouragement, but Chaplin obviously found him valuable. And he’s a good character man, deft with disguise, so he appears in every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES. He never overacts and that’s especially important here as he’s playing Jewish. The treatment of race is considerably more delicate than in THE VAGABOND. Chaplin took to never denying claims that he himself was part Jewish, since he felt this would play into the hands of anti-Semites. He also joked about his half-brother Sydney having Jewish ancestry, explaining the siblings’ marked difference in appearance, though in fact Sydney’s father’s identity is not known for certain.

Charlie, told he’s late, checks his fob watch against the calendar, in the best Mad Hatter tradition. The watch then becomes a running gag, something for Charlie to check every time he receives a blow or takes a fall. If his watch is OK, everything’s fine.

Most of Charlie’s interactions are with his rival, John Rand, who had proved such a deft foil in POLICE. Billy Armstrong, who previously performed this function and wore this cookie-duster, had left to pursue an independent star career, but would subside into modest supporting roles to Stan Laurel and others, and sadly died of tuberculosis aged only 33.

I’m going to be paying close attention to Rand, because he’s excellent, and I didn’t even know his name before embarking on this. He and Armstrong and Conklin had a perfect connection with Chaplin onscreen.

The feather duster is the first great toy: compacting every vane with soot allows Charlie to do far more harm than good, and dusting the electric fan shreds the duster into floating particles.

When Charlie unsportingly “fights” Rand, who’s trapped in a ladder, the other end is held by a shoeshine boy, who is either the second anonymous Black kid in a Chaplin short (after LAUGHING GAS), or the umpteenth blackface character (after, most recently, A NIGHT IN THE SHOW) — my screen isn’t big enough for me to be 100% sure which. Charlie’s swinish behaviour is funny only because he’s putting on such a great pugilistic display, as if he were doing something noble and impressive, rather than persecuting a totally helpless opponent.

Scrapping with Rand gets Charlie fired, and he embarks on his celebrated plea for mercy, miming a large — increasingly large — family of dependents. starting with a gesture indicating Jackie Coogan height, then going up, up, up, until the largest invisible child is the height of Eric Campbell. The mockery of pathos first appeared in THE NEW JANITOR, and gave Chaplin the idea that he could move an audience for real. But it’s still amusing to make fun of the whole idea of emotional manipulation.

Asides from the conflict with Rand, the film has Charlie balancing dangerously on a stepladder, from which he falls with a spine-saving roll; flirtation with Edna, where he dried dishes using a trick mangle, which also serves to dry his hands; he deals expeditiously with Campbell’s very elegant heister; and he “serves” various customers. Alternating between these activities works perfectly well to create the illusion of narrative.

The “ruinous old man” — David Robinson’s cruel and beautiful phrase — is credited as Wesley Ruggles on both IMDb and Wikipedia, but it very clearly isn’t. The old, but not original credits on my DVD list James Kelley as “old actor” which is more believable. IMDb instead casts Kelley as “Old Bum.” He might be both… that’s easier to believe. But Kelley, a seventy-year-old Irishman, is typically somewhat recognisable in his movements and his stoutness and tininess (smaller than Chaplin). This guy is thin and frail, probably older than 70, doesn’t seem particularly short or wide, and has a great “strolling tragedian” way of acting that suits his role here.

As the shabby-genteel geezer goes into his pantomime of woe, Chaplin at first watches and eats callously, performing the occasional mocking mime of his own — a gesture heavenwards causes him to pick up binoculars and scan the ceiling. But slowly he’s taken in and moved to tears by the expert heartstring abuse.

When he buys the guy’s ring, he gets the change from a huge wad of dough, not the kind Edna is using, and realises he’s been had. Thus the film preserves its own callousness without having caused our man to totally lose our sympathy. I note also that Charlie’s slow burn I-don’t-believe-this gaup, chin lowered and eyes uprolled balefully — the Crazy Kubrick Stare, almost — appears here for the first time.

Albert Austin’s scene is a different matter, and arguably the film’s true highlight. He’s brought in his alarm clock — how hard up must he be? It’s not clear that Charlie’s ruthless treatment of the wretch is a response to his having been fleeced by whoever the old guy was — I shall be watching out for later appearances — but it’s pretty heartless. Chaplin distracts us slightly from this just by being dazzling, and he softens (literally) the final blow by using what proves to be a rubber hammer to clonk the irate Austin. Despite the fake prop, Austin staggers off, seemingly concussed, presumably by some effect analogous, yet opposite, to the placebo.

Chaplin gets nearly five minutes out of this clock routine.

The set-piece itself is a thing of wonder. Dissecting the alarm clock until its a mess of oily scrap, Charlie uses a stethoscope, a drill, a can opener, pliers, an oil squirter, the mouthpiece of a telephone. But the oil dropper transforms in his grasp into some kind of insect exterminator, and the phone part is used as a jeweller’s eyeglass. The clock is sometimes a patient, sometimes a can of spoiled and off-smelling goods, perhaps a watch; its mainspring becomes a bolt of cloth; its innards, arrayed on the counter and magnetized into a roil from below, become an insect horde to be flitgunned into submission with what had moments before been an oil dropper. Chaplin himself becomes a doctor, surgeon, a dentist, a tailor (several of which he’d been in other films), before he finally reverts to character, sweeps the detritus into Austin’s hat, and hands it back with a shake of the head that isn’t even regretful.

Nobody else was doing this, and pretty much nobody ever has. Buster Keaton exploited the transposition gag a great deal, but with different intentions and results. Usually with Keaton, the objects themselves force him into a new role, and they in turn become transformed. One thinks of the train crashing into the river in OUR HOSPITALITY. Buster finds his fuel car turned into a boat, and so the shovel in his hands becomes automatically a paddle. He uses it as such, with the air of one in a dream or under some strange spell. At other times he’s more in charge, thinking with his body, finding a way to make the objects around him fit his needs, ignoring their intended purpose and using instead their actual properties. Problem-solving, in other words.

Chaplin isn’t solving a problem, here, exactly. It is, I suppose, just showing off, only loosely tied into the narrative. A piece of performance art.

David Robinson cites THE PAWNSHOP as Chaplin’s greatest exploration of transposition gags to date — the setting may have been chosen simply because it allows for a wide variety of objects to be played with.

Arthur Machen writes, in the short story N:

‘When man yielded,’ he would say, ‘to the mysterious temptation intimated by the figurative language of the Holy Writ, the universe, originally fluid and the servant of his spirit, became solid, and crashed down upon him overwhelming beneath its weight and its dead mass.’ I requested him to furnish me with more light on this remarkable belief; and I found that in his opinion that which we now regard as stubborn matter was, primally, to use his singular phraseology, the Heavenly Chaos, a soft and ductile substance, which could be moulded by the imagination of uncorrupted man into whatever forms he chose it to assume. ‘Strange as it may seem,’ he added, ‘the wild inventions (as we imagine them) of the Arabian Tales give us some notion of the powers of the Homo Protoplastus. The prosperous city becomes a lake, the carpet transports us in an instant of time, or rather without time, from one end of the earth to another, the palace rises at a word from nothingness. Magic, we call all this, while we deride the possibility of any such feats; but this magic of the east is but a confused and fragmentary recollection of operations which were of the first nature of man, and of the fiat which was then entrusted to him.’

Charlie still retains some trace of this fiat, though he applies the old prelapsarian protean power on a much smaller scale. He is atavism and avatar.

My thoughts on Chaplin and the fluidity of matter owe a great debt to B. Kite’s remarkable writing here.