Archive for Keystone

Things I Read off the Screen in The Property Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2020 by dcairns

I’ve already written about RECREATION, the next in line of Chaplin’s Keystone films, and pretty recently, so that brings us to —

IF YOUR ACT IS ROTTEN DO NOT TAKE IT OUT OF THE PROPS

THE PROPERTY MAN is another Chaplin with a good high-concept setting. It’s a backstage story, something Chaplin would refine all the way until LIMELIGHT. This specificity feels like something CC himself brought to Keystone, because certainly none of the shorts I’ve seen from the fun factory, with or without Chaplin, had a strong, unique premise. Whether the setting is a park or a hotel or whatever, it’s all very generic.

NO SMOKING

ACTORS DO NOT POSE IN FRONT OF YOUR POSTERS

“WHY, THEY HAVEN’T EVEN BILLED US”

“WE’LL TAKE THE STARS’ DRESSING ROOM”

Again, though, Chaplin is a horrible wretch. Moving Picture World was moved to complain, “There is some brutality in this picture and we can’t help feeling that this is reprehensible. What human being can see an old man kicked in the face and count it fun?” Well, we might first note that he’s NOT an old man, or not a real one, anyway. His obvious false beard and false performance makes the cruelty a little less real and hurtful. Still, it’s a representation of cruel behaviour, and though surprise and shock are certainly elements of a laugh, it’s easy to cross the line and simply be obnoxious.

TO-NIGHT

ELITE VAUDEVILLE

THE GOO-GOO SISTERS COMEDIENNES

GARLICO IN FEETS OF STRENGTH

GEO. HAM LENA FAT CO. rendering the Heart rending Sketch “SORROW”

5 OTHER BIG ACTS 5

SPECIAL PRICES 9, 19, 29, 49

BOX SEATS 98¢ reduced from $1.23¢

But Chaplin is always thinking, and among his cast of characters is a surly strongman act, so he has someone to play the underdog to. The David & Goliath contrast of little Charlie and some massive brute is in play very quickly in his career. Charlie having to carry a very heavy trunk for this lout is promising material but it’s over too soon. But, ah-hah, it worked once, do it again. If Charlie had been shown as LESS aggressive, having him stagger about with a heavy trunk that could hurt somebody would be MORE funny/dramatic, since we’d know he’s trying to avoid damage to innocent parties. It’s hard to believe this little jerk cares one way or the other.

NO EATABLES OR DRINKABLES ALLOWED IN DRESSING ROOMS

PROPS

All these signs and notices are a little distracting, actually.

KEEP QUIET NO LOUD TALK BY ORDER PROPS

Charlie wets his trousers – with the contents of a jug. But he certainly has the more vulgar reading of the situation in mind. He’s not allowed to make jokes about incontinence but he can evoke the thought in the audience’s mind, and they’ll purge their discomfort with laughter. I guess that’s why Chaplin films seem to find rich, pungent cheeses funny. Bad smells remind us of other bad smells. It’s the era before fart and poop jokes could be put on the screen. Of course, why people laugh at fart jokes is another mystery.

STAGE DOOR

The fact that Charlie wets himself while making goo-good eyes at the Goo-Goo Sisters certainly adds to the discomfiture.

More cruelty to the old man. I guess this stuff is meant to outrage our sensitive feelings but is so unreal that we know it’s not serious, and we’re reassure that we HAVE sensitive feelings to be outraged.

In this film and its immediate precursor, there is a big guy, there is Chaplin, and there is a little/old guy, and each terrorizes the one below him. In later Chaplin films, he himself is at the bottom… or there are characters of no particular status who might get mistreated by the film, but Chaplin is more careful not to make his character the aggressor. But he still does it from time to time in the Mutual films. He demolishes that poor guy’s alarm clock in THE PAWNSHOP. I keep using that one as an example, I need to rewatch some others, in between my study of the Keystones… that’s going to bring some aspects out via contrast, I bet.

Fun fact, George Fat, the persecuted tragedian in this, is actor Charles Bennett, who sings “Oh Mr. Kane,” in CITIZEN KANE.

PRINCIPALS

Sometimes Chaplin’s gratuitous malice IS funny. When a woman in a dressing gown starts flirting with him, Charlie shows off his athletic leg stretching. She responds in kind. And when she has one leg stretched out in mid-air, he casually shoved her onto her ass. It’s so pointless, it’s kind of great.

GARLICO

The strongman gives Charlie a mini-strangle. It’s very much a precursor to Eric Campbell, but he could shake an undercranked Charlie so hard it looked like his head would rattle loose. We haven’t attained that level of majesty yet. Yes, I call it majesty.

PROPERTY ROOM

THE MATINEE

“HAVE THAT BUM SEW UP MY TIGHTS”

Charlie is so threatened by the strong/fat man that he has to abuse the old guy each time he interacts with him, kicking him in the throat this time. It’s very much a portrait of the human race through history.

Mack Sennett’s in the front row of the audience. The cutaways to audience reactions immediately feel randomly splice-in, like Chaplin got them to applaud, boo, laugh, and then just inserted material by the foot (measure a quick shot by extending the celluloid from your nose to your fingertips, then cut). Another audience member (Harry McCoy, continuing his slow slide down the billing) is asleep, and another appears to be blind. There’s a woman with a cat, which I expect is quite old now.

The theater of cruelty continues when Charlie drops the curtain on a baritone’s neck, then rolls the injured man offstage with a broom. For about the only time I can think of, Charlie’s derby gets destroyed in the various scuffles. No Laurel & Hardy, he, his hat usually survives even the roughest scraps.

PART TWO

We really don’t have a lot of plot going to justify a reel change, do we? Still, let’s see.

If in doubt, kick an old man in the face. Or throw a dumbbell at his head.

“HURRY GET MY TIGHTS”

Wet tights are flung into various inexpensive faces. Well, it’s better than bricks. A slap, aimed at Charlie’s deserving kisser, renders an innocent woman unconscious. This is pretty brutal and largely unfunny. The main strength it has is the setting, which affords some gags with the curtain which sure don’t feel fresh now but maybe did once. The fact that Chaplin had lived this life seems to have furnished him with the signs on the walls, but not many ideas for gags.

Between this and LAUGHING GAS I wonder if he was going through a rough time personally and had to take it out on the world somehow. Or else he was just trying on the Keystone sadism for size. “Is this what the moving-going public really wants?

Ripping cloth each time the strongman bends to grab a weight is a fairly sophisticated gag by the standards set so far. If Charlie weren’t so vicious to everybody else, being mean to the strongman who’s been mean to him would actually, well, mean something.

Charlie puffs a pipe throughout. Something that didn’t last. Mildly curious to see if it recurs, ever. It feels like when he tries something and it works for him, he immediately knows, but there are so many things to try before the Tramp character is really established. Maybe he could be a psychopath? Hmm…

SHOES SHOES HOTEL SMITH

THE DRAMATIC ACT

500 LBS 130 LBS

In the show’s/film’s finale, Charlie turns a firehose on the pursuing actors, then on the audience. By freezing the frame I am able to establish, to my relief, that the cat has been removed from the lady’s lap before she gets sprayed.

This film seems to hate it’s audience, but we shouldn’t take that personally — it seems to hate EVERYONE.

Teeth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 25, 2020 by dcairns

LAUGHING GAS — the Chaplin short, not the Wodehouse novel, starts off very nicely indeed — it’s a good print, and it’s refreshing to find Chaplin in a cheaply-built representation of, if not opulence, at least class: a dentist’s waiting room, where he is employed on spitoon duty. (Blargh, spitoons again!)

The dentist’s assistant, Charlie’s immediate superior, is tiny: he looks like a child wearing false face-fuzz, something out of Vigo. Lots of nice, measured interplay with lashings of violence. Charlie explains by elaborate pantomime that I’m bigger than you, you can’t push me around, it would go badly for you, then the pint-sized fellow hauls off and knocks him down with a colossal slap, and then they shake hands in a formal acknowledgment of their places in life. The handshake after a punch or a kick up the arse becomes a regular Chaplin moment for the next few years. I picture a scholarly study called Ritualism in Knockabout.

The moment tich’s back is turned, Chaplin delivers an unsportsmanlike smack to the dome and then legs it.

Chaplin is a deplorable bully here, kicking the dwarf and smacking the customers with their under-the-jaw bandages and bulging cheeks. It’s not the most welcome development but is probably a necessary one as he gradually becomes a spirit of misrule, a human spanner in society’s works.

Directorially, it’s very largely one shot per room, but he’s using the depth of his painted sets more, he has a door at the side AND a door at the back of the waiting room, opening on to distinct rooms/shots. A more sophisticated primitiveness than we’ve seen.

Atypically, Chaplin offers a scene without himself as performer, where Dr. Pain, whose beard actually looks maybe-real, and whose performance passes as naturalistic, if we imagine he has Italian blood, gives the titular gas to a gesticulating grotesque.

Chaplin’s feuding with a fellow underling while working for a stern but sensible boss makes me think ahead to THE PAWNSHOP, but uh-oh, the gangling patient won’t revive. He’s either sleeping, laughing, or both. Chaplin is dispatched to obtain a cure — pausing to slap most of the supporting cast, he hurries off on his mission of mercy.

Before he even enters the pharmacy (a nice location) he picks a fight with Mack Swain, performing various tricks with his by way of abstract threats. Chaplin the performer who keeps showing off, shoehorning in bits of business unrelated to the scene, is something we’ve seen traces off from early on, but it’s becoming more a part of this character, even if its defining quality is that it has nothing much to do with either character or situation.

Within seconds he’s kicked Swain in the guts and ripped some woman’s skirt off (uh-oh, it’s Mrs. Pain). Then we get to the real business: slinging bricks at people.

This is could almost be the dental equivalent of the glazing business Charlie sets up in THE KID. First, generate the need: either by smashing windows, or, here, teeth. The violence definitely doesn’t get funnier when we see it causing physical harm. Soon, various bit-players are spitting teeth out (what did they use? hard candy, perhaps?) and seeking the ministrations or Dr. Pain.

The intercutting of various bits of action now assumes frenzied proportions. Dr. P. rushes home after the maid telephones to say his wife has had an accident. He’s not told until he arrives that it was a skirt-related accident. The man who won’t wake up, wakes up, disgusted to find his toothache is no better (looks like Pain pulled the wrong tooth — nobody gets any help for any of their suffering in this film — those were harsher times in many ways).

With Pain out of the way, Charlie decides to operate. And what an operator. There is an attractive girl patient. Perfect. Uncertain of the rudiments, he attempts to shine her shoes. No, wrong end, silly of me. They laugh. He throws his leg across her lap — second time he’s done this in his Keystone career, is Harpo in the audience, taking notes?

Some splices, then Charlie using pliers as an instrument of wooing. Odd, but we’ll let it go.

Suspense! Swain is in the waiting room, and tumbles to the fact that the dentist is the one who knocked his teeth out. He interrupts the fiend performing hideous mouth-torture on some other unoffending patient.

Everybody gets knocked down, the end.

Well — the dentist setting makes this comparatively high concept. It’s not just random things happening in a park. It’s still fairly random, though this develops naturally from his character being a sociopathically violent sod, and it’s tied together by the setting of a dental surgery. This kind of idea, slight as it is, would become a very productive approach for Chaplin. Build a specific set, and then come up with comedy business related to it. When he left Keystone and made THE FLOORWALKER, Sennett saw it and cried, “Why didn’t we think of an escalator?” The answer, I’m afraid, is “Because you couldn’t.”

The Sunday Intertitle: Sunday in the park with Charlie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2020 by dcairns

…and Mack and Mabel and Eva etc…

Some weird video action in this version, mainly around the four-minute mark. And best mute the music, which is appalling.

Echo Park, AKA the Forest of Arden, or of ardent clowns. Mack Swain and Eva Nelson occupy one bench, Charlie and Mabel another. Charlie throws one leg across Mabel’s lap, Harpo-style, but becomes prissy when she folds the toe and upper of his boot back, like a leather blanket, exposing his bare toes. Then he starts peeling a banana. Hmm, I wonder where this is going?

In fact, no banana-skin gag is attempted.

Charlie is experimenting — same costume, but with a top hat. His early shorts play far more loose with the Tramp image than I realised. I’m sure the accounts I read as a kid suggest it was all one thing after MAKING A LIVING. But the Tramp is versatile. There’s even room to question whether the Jewish barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR is the same character, or a distinct variant. He certainly shares aspects.

The top hat might seem a good contrast with the disintegrating boots. But the derby serves that role well enough. It was worth a try, though, I guess.

If you’re feeling nostalgic, you could enjoy this ratty sepiatone print in French, with an iris-in at the end.

Charlie leaves Mabel and passes Mack, who is minus his usual painted Grouchostache but has a tennis racket, and goes into a bar. Mack swiftly becomes a masher and starts bothering Mabel. For some strange reason Chaplin frames them crammed into the bottom left. I guess because he wanted to show Mack hovering in the centre of shot for a moment. And because one space = one shot, there’s no option to change the angle, at least until after we’ve cut away to Chaplin in the bar.

Chaplin often doesn’t look like himself in these earlies, because his face is doing things it doesn’t do later, but when he laughs “delicately” at having “forgotten” to pay for his liquor, you can HEAR Chaplin’s later laugh from the talkies.

And, GOOD — when he gets out of the bar, Mack & Mabel now occupy a much more comfortable position in shot. Just for a few seconds, then Charlie joins them and we’re back to the other angle, which is fine because now everyone stands up and faces off. Charlie’s indignation at being ignored by the bully who’s annoying his wife leads to some very Chaplinesque prissiness, and he takes to punching Mack furiously in the bottom. Even a thwack with the cane and a series of kicks don’t distract Mack from his goofy wooing. The impacts make clouds of dust fly from Mack’s capacious ass. Were all Keystone clowns powdered with fuller’s earth before going into action?

Soon there’s a fourway argument, and then this separates into pairs again, with Charlie mad at Mabel while Mack and Eva seem happy to have sown strife. Everyone in this film is awful except Mabel.

While Charlie’s back in the bar, Mabel negotiates the purchase of a boxer’s mannequin, one of those things that sways on a heavy, rounded base. Charlie has already had some of the usual trouble with a swing door, so this doesn’t bode well for him. A bit of expressive pantomime tries to convey to us, I think, that Mabel hopes to build up her hubbie’s musculature so he will be more able to defend her honour in future skirmishes. Sure enough, Charlie is being picked on by a local rough in the local bar. Charles Chaplin needs Charles Atlas. In one charming, irrelevant aside, Mabel walks up and down in a bow-legged imitation of the barely-yet-established Chaplin walk.

Charlie’s interactions with the ruffians in the bar see his supercilious mannerisms — defining attributes of the Tramp — come out more and more. Plus, setting himself up against a huge guy like Swain allows Charlie to appear more like a child in adult clothes. While still being a comic drunk because that’s what he was hired to do.

Mabel receives the punchbag-dummy while wearing pyjamas and a leopard skin. A good look for her. 1914 fashions in America were generally frumpy to the extreme, so this is welcome glam. The delivery men, like all the men, are awful.

Later that night, Charlie gets home drunk, with some kind of vegetable matter in his hand. He mistakes the dummy for some kind of silent, headless intruder, and becomes jealous. Unwritten law and all that. But, interspersed with him (predictably) hitting the dummy and getting walloped when it rebounds, is more interesting/funny stuff of him trying to reason with it, showing it the door, etc. All of which is allowed to spread out and occupy time in a way unusual at Keystone.

It’s a trial run for ONE A.M., of course, complete with silk hat.

Mabel is soon involved, trying to make Charlie understand that his opponent is no mere flesh-and-blood rival. Both of them get knocked down. Neighbours gather in the hallway, apparently thrilled by the sounds of murder emanating from the Chaplin residence. Everyone in this film is awful. It’s a nightmare vision of a world without empathy.

Charlie eventually recognises the dummy’s inert nature. A touching reconciliation, not quite up to King Lear, but it’ll do. There are a dizzying number of versions of this film on YouTube, some of which end with the couple flat on their arses, some with an attempt at a kiss, cut short by either nitrate decomposition or the prudish priest from CINEMA PARADISO. There is a smudgy colorized one with nice Antonio Coppola piano score, the sepia French one, and one anamorphically stretched into 16:9, creating a cast of warped Arbuckles, while the clueless perpetrator boasts that it’s in HD. None is ideal. Buy the DVD.