Archive for Keystone

Sid vicious

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2023 by dcairns

Today we had the enormous pleasure and privilege of talking to a legend of British television comedy (not pictured), and even better, having him talk to us. But unfortunately I can’t talk to YOU about it yet.

Very busy days, what with marking at the Art College and working on what was supposed to be one video essay but has ballooned into four. And which we plunged into as I was still making the two Sidney J. Furie pieces. So I haven’t been watching many films, although a sidequest led me to investigate a bunch of Keystone shorts.

Those who have gone into Keystone’s output more deeply than I have emerged somewhat winded — both Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns and Simon Louvish in his Mack Sennett biography have to come out and say that the films, watched whole, aren’t particularly funny. They seem to exist largely to supply clips for compilations and montages of olde-worlde slapstick. They fulfill that function extremely well, so much so that we couldn’t resist incorporating some of that frenetic fractured flicker quality into our current projects. But I can’t talk about that either.

What I CAN talk about is GUSSLE’S DAY OF REST. I’d been meaning to get into some Gussle.

Gussle is Sid Chaplin, who joined Keystone just as his better-known and, let’s face it, better in every way brother left for his short stint at Essanay. The siblings pass like comedic ships in the night in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST.

Sid was a talented clown, for sure. He didn’t settle for imitating his brother, or not directly. Padding his arse out into a mighty cushion, he seems to have been imitating Billie Ritchie, the Chaplin impersonator best remembered today for being pecked to death by ostriches. (The dependable Silentology has debunked this story, but it seems a shame to let such a striking death fall off into the realm of the mythical). Ritchie claimed that HE originated the Tramp character and Charlie stole it, so maybe Sid is a Chaplin impersonator (as well as an actual Chaplin) in reverse.

He had the wit to fashion a different moustache and hat.

GDOR is typical Keystone roughhouse. The world of these films is violent anarchy, with everybody psychopathically horrible to everyone else. Gussle blows smoke in Mrs Gussle’s face as she sleeps and we’re supposed to find this delightful. She’s played by frequent Charlie collaborated Phyllis Allen, a good sport, and her battleaxe persona is all the justification we’re supposed to need. Same goes for when he shuts her in a cage at the zoo with an unfortunate zookeeper and a closeup of an irate wildcat:

At least Sid is allowed to milk a joke long enough to make an impression, something Charlie had fought for. There are some actual laughs. Trying to crank up his jalopy, Sid finds his hat keeps falling off with each twist of the handle. This goes on for an insane number of repetitions, played very fast, until he gives up and puts the hat on his bulging bottom instead, where it can no more fall off than a cow can fall off planet earth.

Asides from being talented, Sid was also deeply horrible (the cannibal rapist angle has NOT been debunked at Silentology or elsewhere, and Sid actually admitted it and joked about it) and that kin of comes through in his comedy, at least here.

At the end of the film, a series of explosions, of a kind actually more common in Keystone shorts than custard pies ever were (this movie does feature one slung tartlet, but several enormous detonations), succeed in burying Sid, his jalopy, and his female traveling companion under a mountain of dirt. Then a pale and expressive hand forces its way to the surface, CARRIE-style as Fiona immediately observed, and slowly and painfully excavates the gurning Sid visage. Ever the gentlemen, he starts to uncover the lady in the passenger seat next, only her wig comes off, revealing a bald dome gleaming through the debris. Sid makes a face, holds his nose (a modest version of the dreaded Keystone expository mime) and then buries the woman again. Fade out.

Pretty unpleasant. Charlie made some nasty pieces of work for Sennett too — and of course we’re currently supposed to be looking at him being a serial killer in MONSIEUR VERDOUX — so I may pushing things to see this moment as proof of the ugliness in Sid’s character informing his comic sensibility. But between you and me I don’t think I am.

The Sunday Nonsense: Chaplin Sings!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve set myself what may be an impossible task (for me). I thought, Yes, the song in MODERN TIMES deserves a post of its own. But what to say about it?

Popping out to buy some milk, ONE answer occurred to me. Chaplin got quite a few bad reviews for MT, though the public flocked to it. One accusation the critics flung at him was that he was just repeating favourite old gags from his earlier days. I think we can dismiss that as nonsense. But there ARE callbacks to Keystone, Essanay and Mutual, and this may be one of them.

Charlie, having lost his crib sheet — his cuffs, where the lyrics to his song are written — improvises a song in gibberish Esperanto, with expressive gestures that make the saucy meaning abundantly clear. It’s that old staple of Keystone, the expository mime. Remember how I hate it when Mack Swain or Mabel Normand turn to the camera and make a series of rapid gestures attempting to explain their motivation to the audience?

Chaplin is a master of breaking the fourth wall, but typically in his mature work only he is allowed to do it, and not for explicatory purposes, but merely to establish and expose his rapport with the audience.

But here — in the guise of a performance — Charlie really does tell us a story with pantomime. And it’s aimed right at us. “With Chaplin you can always sense the proscenium,” complained Richard Lester, and it’s certainly a conscious choice here. The audience is all around him but Charlie directs his performance straight at the camera, for the most part. One assumes that there are more diners behind the fourth wall, who have the best seats.

Thanks to Donald Benson for pointing out that, while Chaplin takes his tune from Je cherche après Titine, a 1917 hit by Léo Daniderff, the story he tells seems inspired by The Girl was Young and Pretty, a composition by… Charles Chaplin. His father. Lyrics.

So this is a return to his roots in more than one way, while also being a brave step forward (almost a decade after the coming of sound).

It’s also a kind of ending. The Little Fellow has given utterance. “A sacred principle is breached,” as Simon Louvish puts it. It’s going to be even harder for him to stay mute after breaking his silence. He manages one more scene in this movie, then it’s all change.

Chaplin had been considering various solutions to the problem of the Tramp’s voice. He’d thought about mumbles and monosyllables, which would work OK for Tati. But making him capable of poor speech is again a distortion of the character. He’s a somewhat inarticulate figure in THE GOLD RUSH, but mostly he seems to talk quite well. We just don’t hear it. And any form of speech would tend to anchor him to 24fps, and to reality, in a way that Chaplin had always avoided. Chaplin has one big shoe in truth, the other in fantasy, and changing the balance upsets the… balance.

Yesterday I bought a secondhand issue of Sight and Sound from 1972 and by coincidence it has my man David Robinson’s review of MODERN TIMES, then being reissued in Britain for the first time in seventeen years (!). Robinson says of the song, “we see instantly and beautifully resurrected all the vitality and absurdity of the English music hall in which Chaplin was bred, and acquired the skills of comedy.” It’s a terrific piece and I’ll return to it.

The reception of the piece is richly ironic — Charlie makes a success of his nonsense song, but just as he conquers showbiz — having failed in all normal occupations — he’s forced into exile on account of his connection to an underage girl. It’s like a jumbled autobiography and prophecy. Obviously it wouldn’t do for the eternal wanderer to find a home in the theatre, or would it? Of the previous features, only THE GOLD RUSH produces a settled ending for its hero: rendered implausibly wealthy, Charlie can carry on behaving exactly as before, because millionaires are supposed to be eccentric. To allow him a singing career would be to open up a whole new narrative thread at the ninety-minute mark, so it has to be curtailed, and so it’s back to the open road — TBC

The Sunday Intertitle: Feeding Time

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2022 by dcairns

Before Charlie can have his full-fledged breakdown, he is subjected to an experimental lunch administered by feeding machine. I’ve dealt with this sequence before but there’s always more to say. This rather chilling CLOCKWORK ORANGE sequence is introduced by another talking machine, a recorded sales pitch setting up the idea of the device that lets the worker eat hands-free, so he can continue to labour on behalf of his employer while ingesting the required protein.

As usual when a meal is portrayed in Chaplin’s films, it’s a strange series of courses, chosen for their slapstick potential rather than their adding up into a square or even oblong meal. Soup, corn and pie.

Of course, the machine wouldn’t work unless the worker could operate without seeing what he’s doing, since the metallic dinner table of the feeding machine comes between the hired hand and his hands. But since the machine never gets adopted — “Not practical,” rules the boss (regular unfunnyman Al Ernest Garcia), after Charlie has collapsed — this needn’t bother us.

I had forgotten that the test takes place at the conveyor belt — low angles showing the technician fiddling with the sparking apparatus also reveal Charlie’s hands, their spanners reflexively and uselessly tapping up and down at the stationary belt.

What makes the sequence perfectly cruel and funny is Charlie’s dismay at the whole thing — when the machine is working perfectly, it’s a distressing ordeal. He views each mouthful with alarm, is continually terrified by the mouth-wiping arm. When the thing starts malfunctioning, the horror escalates. In THE CIRCUS, Chaplin revived the comedic impact of the banana peel by laying it on a tightrope. Here, he attempts to breathe fresh life into the custard cream pie by having it delivered robotically. It’s not quite as brilliant a conceit because the mechanical aspect doesn’t make the pie especially more degrading than it normally is, and the prop, otherwise so elegantly designed and smoothly (dys)functional, is unable to deliver a pie into the kisser with the skilled splurch of a Keystone pro — Chaplin has to deliberately smear his face around in the plate to get gooey enough. Progress has yet to supply us with an android Conklin.

But the sequence has this wonderfully chilling aspect to it, partly because the nature of the operation dictates that the scene be played in close-ish medium shot. The usual comic distance is shortened, the suffering is intensified. The whole thing is a torture machine worthy of Kafka’s penal colony anyway, but the victim’s dismay and suffering are brought close to us. Even though we now can see the actor’s eyebrows aren’t real, his distress is. With the cream pie adding another painterly effect (impasto), the tormented subject takes on the aspect of a Francis Bacon pope.

A standard complaint about MODERN TIMES is that it’s episodic, without a strong link between sequences of the kind found in Chaplin’s previous features. “A bunch of two-reelers spliced together” is the complaint. But I’ve never felt this to be a problem. It’s a picaresque yarn, like O LUCKY MAN! — it takes advantage of Charlie’s Tramp status — though he has to DISCOVER that freedom in this movie, starting off as a wage slave — the Tramp becomes our guide through different aspects of modern civilisation. Well, perhaps not a guide, since it’s all so strange to him. He’s no Virgil, nor does he have a Virgil equivalent to show him the way, unless we count the “Gamin.”

Anyway, you could in theory remove the whole eating machine from the film without wrecking the story, but its inclusion does add more of a reason for Charlie to go mad, on this particular day. Maybe a restful lunch hour was the only thing allowing him to hold it together. We know how THAT feels.