Archive for James T Kelley

The Sunday Intertitle: Mr Rowdy & Mr Pest

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin on screen is nearly always some version of The Tramp (who isn’t always a tramp), apart from in the early Keystone days. But he had a few names over the years, as we’ve seen — Mr. Wow-Wow, Mr Sniffels, Weakchin… But A NIGHT IN THE SHOW is unique since he plays two characters, Mr. Pest and Mr. Rowdy.

This is an adaptation of the Karno Company stage play that got Chaplin his Keystone offer. Mack Sennett was impressed by his drunk act. David Robinson remarks that Karno was known to be quite litigious, but Chaplin appears to have used the play without any official agreement… He padded it out by inventing his second character. This may have influenced Buster Keaton’s backstage comedy THE PLAYHOUSE, which opens with a dream in which Keaton plays EVERYBODY.

The lobby scene — Scene One — is an addition. Charlie as a top-hatted drunk would recur in the celebrated near-one-man show ONE A.M.

Mr. Rowdy is a fascinating creation, initially — Chaplin changes his simple makeup, compresses his face into a different formation, and is UNRECOGNISABLE. Suggesting that if the tramp character hadn’t hit it big, he would have been quite successful being different from film to film. But probably not THAT successful — it just so happened that his genius for cinematic clowning combined with him inventing a very recognisable silhouette, and that recognition factor was crucial.

Camera angles! The side-views of Mr. Pest amid the seating seem radical — Keystone audiences were always filmed from front or back, favouring either the faces of the crowd or the action onstage. And here comes Leo White in toff mode, which is how I like to see him best.

Well-timed business with the tuba player (James T. Kelley). Charlie uses the player’s bald head to light a match — he’s already mistaken a statue for a person. His drunkenness enables the confusion of people and objects to be taken to extremes. Then he has trouble finding his mouth with his cigarette, just like Peter Weller in NAKED LUNCH, a detail attested to as accurate by actual addicts.

For some reason Pest’s terror at the scary woman with the lorgnette strikes me as cruel, but his picking up the palsied trombonist’s tremor cracks me up. Both are evil. I suppose the defence, if there is one, is that we’re not mocking the afflicted, we’re laughing at Pest’s social ineptitude, his inability to act unfazed. Maybe.

The conductor accidentally lashing Pest in the face with his baton is wince-making, but he does deserve it. Maybe it’s wrong to have Pest actually struck — the jokes so far have been about HIM being wrong. If he’s whipped across the mouth he’s kind of justified in slapping back.

I don’t understand how the conductor can roll onto a chair so he’s upside down and then make it topple over without at least risking spinal injury.

In the ensuing skirmish, Chaplin cuts to a slightly closer view, with perfect continuity from about twenty-five actors and extras, so I’m assuming this is a single take shot with two cameras, Harry Ensign handing over to Rollie Totheroh, who would shoot almost all Chaplin’s stuff after the Essanay phase.

Fight over piece of trombone. Fat lady knocked into ornamental fountain. Chaplin seems fond of ornamental fountains — a useful way to have people fall in the water while indoors.

Good detail work as the eternal problem of the elbow rest is gone into. OBVIOUSLY theatre seats shouldn’t have conjoined elbow rests. Everybody should have a place for their elbows, if they have elbows. That’s democracy.

Edna laughs from a distance. Will she still be laughing when Mr. Pest gets in the same frame as her? That’s the Pest Test.

No, she’s very much not laughing now.

Ah good, here’s Mr. Rowdy again and he’s brought a bottle. I’m a bit distracted by the bloke in drag with a baby to the right of him. The IMDb doesn’t know who this is, but I suspect it’s somebody in a dual role. The guy to the left seems like a horrible ham, he’s assumed a permanent rictus to disguise his face so I assume he can be found elsewhere, playing elsewho, in the Mr. Pest segment of the movie. Here I get a vague impression that he’s aiming for a Semitic look.

The two Charlies interact without the use of splitscreen — just straight cutting between balcony and stalls. Chaplin wouldn’t really get into special effects until, I think THE GOLD RUSH.

The show begins! The first act is, rather obviously, the fat lady who fell in the fountain, May White, now playing a belly dancer. She doesn’t seem to be related to Leo White. She trips over — which should be pest’s fault but doesn’t seem to be motivated at all — and becomes unconscious. Or possibly dead. Pest jumps on stage to help out. So it’s a weak set-up to the business of Pest trying to lift a big woman onto her feet, which he then doesn’t make as much of as he could.

Now a fat boy arrives, and at first I thought this was May White yet again, in drag, but it’s Dee Lampton. He’d star in his own series of short films in 1917 as Schemer Skinny, then was relegated to roles like “Fat Man on Bench,” “Fat Rival” and “Fat Butler.” He was dead at twenty.

The business with Mr. Rowdy seems mainly to have been conceived to give something for Chaplin to cut to. A shame, because it’s fascinating to see him play someone else, even someone as unpleasant as this. Rowdy amuses himself by kicking the woman with the baby in the face. Which is why, I guess, it’s essential the she be played by a man. The unreality of the situation must be plain.

Lampton’s knickerbockered prankster has brought cream pies to the theatre, which Pest keeps putting his hand in. Losing patience, he swipes the pie at Lampton and hits the parent or guardian. So, are we to take it that Fred Karno was doing pie-in-face action before the movies got ahold of the gag? Ben Turpin, as we have seen, appears to have thrown cinema’s first pastry.

Now a snake charmer appears — IMDb has this as May White also, but I think that’s wrong. This character isn’t a comedic fat lady, just zaftig in a way that was considered attractive rather than funny in 1915. Although there’s a crossover — she and the belly dancer are treated both as potentially erotic (a lady drags her husband away because he enjoys the belly dancer too much) and also as suitable butts for crude gags — as when Mr. Pest lights a match on the snake charmer’s bare sole. She must have really calloused feet.

She also has a whole urn full of serpents. Another reason she’s not May White (unless the fat lady isn’t May White and she is) — she’s prepared to handle snakes, and is therefore probably a specialty act. I’m starting to think that maybe the fat lady and the belly dancer are both Dee Lampton in drag, or one of them is, or something. Whatever way, the Inaccurate Movie Database is living up to its name.

Snakes in an orchestra pit! Where’s Sam Jackson when you need him? “I have had it with etc.” The python in the tuba is an oddly uncomfortable gag.

Now I’ve noticed Leo White in blackface up in the gallery behind Mr. Rowdy and I can’t unsee that. It does at least confirm that probably everybody up there — the idiot children of paradise — is a disguised cast member from elsehwre in the film.

It occurs to me that in dividing himself in twain, Chaplin has given his derby to Mr. Rowdy and his moustache to Mr. Pest. Rowdy gets a good bit of business lifting his bushy ‘tache up so he can drink. The little toothbrish job was chosen to make Chaplin look older while not concealing his facial expressions, and we can see the wisdom of this, as Mr. Rowdy basically only has one expression, since Chaplin is holding his face in a different formation to make the character distinct. How to describe that expression? It seems to me tipsy, stupid, and very open and very psychopathic at the same time.

Dot and Dash — Bud Jamison and a little person the IMDb OUGHT to be able to identify but has not. Surely we’ll see this guy in other films from the period. Anyway, they sing badly, it seems, and are pelted with fruit. Inevitably, Mr. Pest sees a use for Dee Lampton’s other pie. Rather than throw it, sportsmanlike, however, he creeps on stage to deliver it at close quarters into the musical face of the anonymous achondroplasiac. This is done. There is no twist, no joke, really, just a short guy pieing the face of an even shorter guy. And then kicking him up the arse. Mr. Pest/Chaplin seems to be sadistically amused by this, and the audience goes wild, and I’m left rather cold.

Dutifully, Dot and Dash come back for a curtain call and more abuse.

The audience is now wildly applauding Mr. Pest for his nastiness. It would seem that Chaplin had some reservations about the kind of comedy he was doing — he would later say so, anyway — and so it makes sense that he’d have an ambivalent attitude to the people who loved him.

Next stop: Hell. “Professor Nix, the fire eater” performs in a volcanic cavern set, wearing horns. Mr. Pest is rightly alarmed. Chaplin’s last encounter with the flames of Hades was in THOSE LOVE PANGS. Other than the heavenly dream sequence of THE KID, I’m not sure he was particularly inspired by the afterlife again. Prof. Nix is really good, though — he uses Melesian jump-cuts, not something we’d have seen in the Karno production.

Pearls before swine: Mr. Rowdy panics and turns on the firehose, much as in THE PROPERTY MAN. Chaplin gets to show his resentment of the audience. But he ends on Mr Rowdy squirting Mr Pest from above — a close-up of a sodden Chaplin being a standard full stop at Keystone, but somewhat lacking for the more structured Essanay shorts.

I feel the main value here is the glimpse we get of Karno komedy, but it’s a distorted glimpse, since Chaplin is adapting everything for the cinema and extending it to make a two-reeler. We still can’t know what it was really like to see Chaplin on the stage. But clues are good.

I’m kind of excited about A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, which is next. Hoping I can see the original two-reel cut AND Leo White’s four-reel travesty.