Archive for James Parrott

The Sunday Intertitle: The Last Gun

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2017 by dcairns

Charley Chase (of all people) talks tough in SITTIN’ PRETTY, directed by Leo McCarey in 1924. A typically well-ordered yet lunatic farce plot, in which Charley impersonates a police officer (borrowing his prospective father-in-law’s uniform) in order to dispel a particularly shameless carjacker from his auto, then gets roped into police business — capturing a rampant lunatic (played by Charley’s brother, James Parrott).

This leads to the most famous bit, an early run of the mirror sequence from DUCK SOUP (1933, also McCarey). Charley confuses his prey by donning a false beard and impersonating his reflection.

Clearly, McCarey must have seen Max Linder’s rendition of this gag in 7 YEARS BAD LUCK (1921). Or some other version now lost to time.

While much shorter than Groucho and Harpo’s version, this sequence contains many of the same ideas, including business with hats, and the crazy man retreating to one side to formulate his next plan, slightly undercranked. It doesn’t play on a gradual escalation of mistakes by the reflection, which reach such lunatic heights in the Marxian routine — surely, we think, Groucho must have got wise by now… or by now…? In this version, Charley’s first ridiculous mistake causes his whole act to be rumbled.

Instead, the comedy comes from Charley’s supernatural adeptness at anticipating what the madman will do next, so that he appears in a derby, a top hat and a straw boater just as his opponent does. No explanation is possible as to how he manages this, so McCarey simply stays with the bamboozled loon for the duration.

Here too, we may see the 1933 refinement of the routine as a big improvement — rather than temporarily leaving his hero’s viewpoint, McCarey makes one hero (Groucho) the one who’s being tricked and another (Harpo), the trickster, so the comedy comes from the tension generated by Groucho’s failure to get smart and Harpo’s illusion-jeopardising blunders.

Nevertheless, the short (one-reel) SITTIN’ PRETTY is an uncommonly satisfying little comedy.

 

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Sisyphuses off of Sunset

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Radio with tags , , , , , , , on September 22, 2017 by dcairns

In my attempt to examine the interplay of the surprising and the predictable in Laurel & Hardy’s classic shorts, I turned to THE MUSIC BOX (1932), their Oscar-winning film directed by James Parrott. My memory of it was that it’s unusually dedicated to the inevitable.

“Let the boring crap be boring crap,” was one of Sidney Pollack’s rules of film-making, and Parrott seems to have anticipated him. The opening scene is bald exposition, woodenly laying out the purchase of a player piano by a woman as a present for her husband. That last sentence contains just as much character and detail as the scene itself.

Stan & Ollie are removal/delivery men. A sign on their cart tells us that their business was “foundered in 1931,” a statement which seems likely to be accurate. The straightforward assemblage of narrative planks continues, with Charlie Hall (the boys’ antagonist in THEM THAR HILLS and TIT FOR TAT) as a postman who points out the address they’ve been aimed at, helpfully failing to indicate the route of easiest access.

So a tall flight of stairs just off Sunset Blvd. enters cinema history, as the film spends half its runtime with the boys attempting to lug the titular crate to its destination.

The appearance of a nursemaid pushing a pram is the first indication that this is a particularly harsh version of the Hal Roach universe. While her profession might normally imply a caring attitude, Lilyan Irene plays it as a sadly typical L&H female (no wonder the boys had so much trouble staying married). Having sort-of caused the crate to slide all the way down to the foot of the stairs, this infernal female finds the whole business so funny that Stan is compelled to kick her in the ass. She then punches Stan in the nose, which Ollie finds funny (no camaraderie here) which somehow forces her to smash a milk bottle over his head. The slow, methodical delivery of each act of violence plays into the predictability argument, though the combination of childish aggression — peaceful solutions are never considered, less provocative behaviour is seemingly unimaginable — with CLOCKWORK ORANGE-level viciousness ensures that surprise is still present.

Actually, I’m forgetting the malevolence of the horse, Susie, which has already caused the crate to fall on Ollie’s back, for no other reason than its own amusement.

The hostility of the world soon extends to the crate itself, which has an affinity for crashing downstairs whenever the boys turn their collective back on it. Now that the inevitability of gravity has been established, the achingly predictable does assume a front-and-centre role in the proceedings, but soon a policeman appears to dish out more excessive, childish violence. He obeys the rules of his species by arriving ill-informed, having placed his own misconstruction upon the report given him by the nursemaid who, despite departing in triumph, has taken her grievance straight to the law. She really is the worst. The policeman is the second worst. Of course his faulty construction of the facts places all the blame on Ollie: this is Ollie’s Eternal Fate.

The cop’s violence reduces the boys to children: police brutality was, I’m sure, at least as common then as now, but usually carried out behind closed doors. But kids could be walloped in public, and in the UK the “clip ’round the ear” was considered a positive way of course-correcting an errant waif, without the need for paperwork or parents. I’m not sure it was beneficial to anyone but the constable. This copper (Sam Lufkin, another unsung Joe of the Roach shorts) has an inventive way with his nightstick, the flick of Ollie’s chin and the jab to Stan’s stomach being particular favourites of mine.

This stuff seems pretty vicious, but it always did. I remember my Dad declaring “brutality!” in shocked amusement back in the ’70s when I first saw it, just as Fiona did today. And that was the ’70s, a harsher time. The Battle of Lewisham was considered just a bit of fun.

After ringing every variation on the pianola-stoop situation they can think of, including having Ollie, in the form of an obvious floppy dummy, dragged back to street level by the determined crate, the summit is finally reached and the postman reappears to explain that all this suffering was unnecessary as a curving street approaches their destination on a gentle gradient. They could have used the cart. At this point the boys, sighing in frustration and seeing no alternative, carry the crate back down the stairs so they can cart it up properly. I can vividly remember ANOTHER ’70s viewing of the film, and my sister screaming in frustration at this, just as Fiona did today.

Some people can’t get on with Laurel & Hardy films precisely because of this frustration. The boys embark on a stupidity, which we can see is bound to end in disaster, or else do something like this which makes no real sense at all, and the desperate viewer wants to climb into the frame like Buster in SHERLOCK JR. and sort things out. But of course they’d just get a poke in the eye for their troubles.

We shouldn’t feel sorry for the non-fans, they rather resent our sympathy, I believe. It’s true that this is not a failure of sense of humour, just a different form of wiring in that part of the brain known as the Bud Cortex. The victim finds other things to laugh at. But I’m not sure anything makes anyone laugh as hard as Stan & Ollie, though I’m no closer to knowing why.

Anyway, Stan and Ollie now have fishpond trouble, and find nobody’s home, and embark on a fresh stupidity, hoisting their package into an upper window on the block-and-tackle. Miraculously, the awning more or less survives this misuse, and the box does not actually get dropped on Ollie’s cortex. Everything ELSE goes wrong, though. But the piano does eventually pass into the house. The serious business of home-wrecking can now begin.

As a sensitive child, I was never particularly disturbed by the savage onslaughts against the human body celebrated in L&H films, but I was freaked by the physical distortion gags — Ollie getting his neck stretched so it resembled a great, white candle, gave me a hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach and a sense of Lovecraftian dread. And I was disturbed in my extreme youth by the domestic property destruction. I can remember frowning as the boys wrenched down a Venetian blind. Maybe because we had one in the house and maybe I’d been advised of its fragility. On no account climb it.

The really first-rate job of demolition performed here impresses me and in no sense worries me now, though Ollie getting jabbed in the eye and stepping on a huge nail causes a real double-wince. Though Stan may be a holy fool, Ollie is the Christ figure, suffering for the world’s sins: he has just dragged an outsized assemblage of wood up a hill and got a nail in his foot. Truly he is the Son of God. You can probably find reconstructions of all Christ’s wounds in the performances of Oliver Norville Hardy, if you’re so inclined, and Our Lord never had HIS legs torn off and wrapped round his neck. (And I’m obscurely reminded that Mel Gibson once nearly played Moe Howard for the Farrelly Brothers.)

The apartment is flooded when the crate is opened. The radio is knocked over and Ollie steps in it (broken glass, electrical shocks). Another fuse blows when the pianola is plugged in. Then the homeowner arrives and the wreckage actually intensifies, as he takes an axe to the unwanted instrument.

This is the excellent, swivel-eyed Billy Gilbert, essaying a Herman Bing accent. The boys have already encountered him on the stairway, and as Fate would arrange things this was their only victory en route to Calgary. Now it works against them, though the timely arrival of the wife from scene one calms the apoplectic faux-kraut long enough for Fate to deliver a final insult, a final twist, and then we’re out.

Preliminary hypothesis: the deliberate pacing of L&H allows many of their gags and situations to be both surprising and inevitable at the same time, letting the audience start to laugh while the mishap is just starting, so that our laughter gets an extra push (or several) as mayhem ensues. Also, the unusual willingness to let the audience get well ahead of a gag results in greater surprise and delight when a piece of slapstick is triggered WITHOUT advance warning. I don’t know if I can get any deeper than that on a theoretical level, but I’m going to try. Maybe close analysis of one scene is the way forward…

The Sunday Intertitle: Animal Crackers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2012 by dcairns

Didn’t get around to viewing any Max Linder this week, which had been the plan — but I’ve been delving deeper into the wonderful world of Charley Chase. Ridiculous that it’s taken this long to form an appreciation of this comic. For some reason I’d found him a little bland before, but that was based on a few excerpts. Since some of Chase’s films have quite convoluted plots, they take more time to get going than the usual silent comedies, and there’s a slow-burn effect that doesn’t come across in clips.

DOG SHY is another collaboration with Leo McCarey, whose farce plotting is comparable to PG Wodehouse. He would have been a great man to adapt “Plum”. And I’m not just saying that because here Charley impersonates a butler, which is a very Wodehousian trope.

There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. Charley is trying to rescue a nice flapper from marriage to a dastardly Duke. But Charley is also deathly afraid of dogs. And the family dog is also called The Duke. The lady of the house instructs her new butler to give the Duke a bath. He’s a little surprised, but then, rich people are famously eccentric, aren’t they? She warns him that The Duke may offer resistance, and he shouldn’t be afraid to use force.

Charley, very amused by the whole thing, attempts to lure the human Duke away from his lady friends by enacting various bathtime activities. His versatility as mime gets a good work-out here, and both the Duke’s incompehension and exasperation and Charley’s hilarity add immensely to the pleasures of the scene. Once he finally lures his prey into the bathroom, the ensuing struggle takes on some of the qualities of a homosexual rape, without, thankfully, any of the concomitant vulgarity.

Of course, once the confusion is straightened out, Charley’s problem worsens, as the canine Duke (played by “Buddy”), is much more intimidating and just as resistant to washing.

The plot thickens as Charley’s elopement gets tangled with a burglary and a dognapping, all three schemes depending on a midnight howl signal — it’s remarkable how McCarey uses the absurdity of his plotting to his advantage. Even though this is a comedy, it’s easy to imagine such improbability cause irritation as much as amusement.

As in MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE, Buddy gets the last laugh, offering a paw of congratulation to Charley upon his eventual triumph, then snapping at him when he attempts to accept it.

We also watched ROUGH SEAS, a Chase talkie enlivened by Thelma Todd being cute as a French stowaway, and Napoleon the monkey being cute as a French monkey stowaway (“Remember how I found you on the battlefield?” asks doughboy Charley, and Josephine lies down and plays dead.) I have to assume that Napoleon either comes from the same simian stable as Josephine, companion to Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN and Harold Lloyd in THE KID BROTHER, or else is actually Josephine in drag (the monkey wears a miniature doughboy uniform just like Charley’s).

Here’s Josephine with Harold in THE KID BROTHER.

It’s a pleasure to hear Charley speak (and sing!). His voice and delivery seem to lower his social standing slightly, although some of that may just be the role he’s playing here. Rather than the middle-class man about town, he’s more of a blue-collar goof, and his “Aw honey” manner seems weirdly to be the inspiration for Bruce Campbell’s entire screen persona.

Directed by Chase’s brother, James Parrott (why Chase didn’t use his real name, which is eminently humorous, when acting, is a mystery to me), ROUGH SEAS lacks the fastidious construction of DOG SHY, preferring just to cram a bunch of silly people and ideas together on a ship, but it’s entirely winning and very funny. Now that most all of Laurel & Hardy’s films are familiar to me, discovering Chase’s world seems like a new lease of life.

Somebody’s helpfully uploaded edited highlights of Charley and Thelma (and Napoleon) in ROUGH SEAS, preceded by its prequel, HIGH C’s…