Archive for Keystone

The Sunday Intertitle: Cocking His Snook

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2020 by dcairns

Maybe if I look at all of Chaplin’s “park, pretty girl and policeman” shorts from his Keystone period, I’ll find the bit with the flower mentioned by Schulberg/Fitzgerald in The Disenchanted. Or maybe it doesn’t exist.

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RECREATION (1914) begins with a penniless Charlie trying to throw himself to his death. So we know it’s a comedy alright. To accomplish the fatal act, he has to get over a fence. He performs a gag later used by Keaton on TV, hoisting one leg up and resting it on the crossbar, then hoisting up the other leg, leaving him momentarily unsupported in mid-air before gravity reasserts itself and he crashes to earth. Keaton’s version was better, more uncanny, but Chaplin is indisputably there first.

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When Helen Carruthers walks by, Charlie forgets all about suicide and becomes a sex pest. As his career went on, his pursuit of the leading lady gradually became more courtly, less lecherous, until there’s no sense of sexuality about his character at all, just the abstraction of Romance.

Helen’s beau is a violently inclined sailor, and so soon he and Charlie are lobbing bricks at one another. There’s a lot of this in early Chaplin, and it’s never terribly funny. All the later traditions of the custard pie fight are upheld — a few direct hits are followed, for variety, by a miss which clobbers a copper instead. But the projectiles are rather painfully serious rather than silly, undignfied and comic like the cream pie, which had to be discovered (by Mabel Normand, it seems) a little later.

Charlie claimed he learned about screen direction from Henry “Pathé” Lehrmann — you exit screen left, then enter screen right. And it’s very important that if you throw a brick off the left side of frame, it should enter the next shot from the right so it feels like it’s a continuous movement in one direction. But there’s an oddity here: the brick that misses travels left from Chaplin’s hand, left past the sailor, and left into a third shot where it hits the cop.

The cop then appears behind Charlie from the RIGHT, as if the universe were a short circle composed of three shots. It’s hard to work out the physical geography that could cause the policeman to take a circuitous path that avoided the sailor and arrived behind Charlie. He does so purely for the suspense value and dramatic irony of Charlie winding up to throw a brick, all unawares that he’s under the watchful eye of the law. A familiar panto technique.

Caught with the brick in his hand, Charlie shows why he’s a more interesting clown than his contemporaries by dusting it off. A bit of mime intended to prove that he was never intending to hurl it, he just thought it could use a clean.

Ah-hah! There are TWO policemen. That explains it. They have different hats, but I missed this important fact because the surviving print has been horribly cropped. Everyone’s missing the top of their head, which may be why they’re behaving so rambunctiously. Note that Chaplin hasn’t hit on the idea of the gigantic antagonist yet, a lucky thing since an Eric Campbell figure would be cut off at the nipples by this misframing.

Abruptly, for the film’s last two minutes, another source has become available and the image quality improves a thousandfold and we get luminous you-are-there clarity, time-traveling a hundred-plus years, a wrenching shock that takes a while to recover from.

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As Charlie flirts with Helen, a row-boat ponderously and distractingly edges into frame. Is it going to be significant? No, it’s just an indication that there was no A.D. on crowd control. A quick cutaway later and it’s gone. Nobody considered a retake worth their while to solve the continuity issue.

Conclusion: the film lurches back into grainy, smudgy, misframed ugliness and everyone winds up in the water. Right, that’s that dealt with.

Charlie does not seize a flower as described in The Disenchanted. Let’s keep looking.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: Bounced

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 31, 2020 by dcairns

When I first saw complete Keystone comedies, as opposed to whirligig montages in silent movie documentaries, I was kind of appalled at how incoherent and unfunny they were. Sennett, it seemed, had an aversion to setting anything up, and the frames were packed with grandstanding comics competing for our attention. Sennett thought he had found the formula for comedy gold, but you can only call something a formula when it’s more than a list of ingredients — there should be measures, and a process.

Since then, I’ve found some redeeming qualities and some stand-out films, but my main objections remain…

I hadn’t realised, somehow, that Chaplin made so many films in his first year — over thirty. No wonder he complained about the pace. Allowing for the occasional holiday, a film a week might not be that much in the silent era, I guess, but as he gradually took over as his own director (pushing Mabel Normand out quite nastily), he wasn’t just performing, but coming up with stories and gags, too.

THE NEW JANITOR seems to be one of the best of his Keystones. There’s a plot. Suspense. Characters. And not everybody’s a clown. Although Al St. John can’t help himself, the others play it straight. Even an attempt by the baddie to mouth off at the audience, melodrama-fashion, is raggedly cut off by Chaplin’s — or Sennett’s — impatient scissors.

There’s even pathos — when Charlie gets the sack, the gags don’t exactly stop, but they become, well, pathetic — gags about him being sad and put-upon, delivered more slowly. Chaplin seems to have conceived his character this time as a virtual Stepin Fetchit, shiftless, dopey and incompetent. A reminder that the British working class have their own strategies for irritating hell out of the boss.

This modest little movie makes it clearer than most of the 1914 films why Chaplin stood out. The public had been quite content with rambunctious chaos as a substitute for comic construction — but now it was offered something better.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Gag Man

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2018 by dcairns

This is, I think, the only funny intertitle in THE GENERAL, the only one that even attempts to be funny. And even then, it’s just alliteration, not some kind of wisecrack.

It’s a shock to see Keystone films after watching mature Keaton or Chaplin, because at Keystone they tried to cram gags into every title. I think the idea was to take what had been filmed and punch it up with another layer of comedy. Whereas Buster and Charlie knew what they’d got was good enough. Harold Lloyd would do funny titles — “When the man with the mansion met the miss with a mission…” — really witty ones. And they seem to be more intimately connected to the story — that one, from FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, was going to supply the movie’s original title.

Keaton does gag titles in his shorts, but again, they’re plot-based, as with the boat’s name in THE BOAT. “Damfino.” “Well I don’t know either.”

Weirdly, the writing credit on THE GENERAL names directors Buster and Clyde Bruckman, but adds, “Adapted by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith.” Smith was an actor, who plays the heroine’s dad in the film. And Boasberg was a joke writer from vaudeville who had helped shape the personae of everyone from Jack Benny to Milton Berle and Burns & Allen. Keaton referred to him as an example of how that kind of verbal humour wasn’t needed on his films, and the credit seems likely to be a compensation to Boasberg for not having any of his work used. The straightforward, purely functional titles of the film could be entrusted to a minor actor with, I suspect, Keaton more or less dictating ~

 

Smith.

Boasberg’s trumped-up credit reminds me of H.M. “Beany” Walker, who got writing credit on all the Laurel & Hardy shorts, despite the fact that the story was already in place when he came on, and so he’d write a dialogue script full of one-liners which the boys basically ignored. Those titles at the start of many L&H talkies would end up being his major contribution.

But it’s nice Boasberg got a credit because his name goes unmentioned on a lot of films he DID contribute to — notably A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, where he seems to have originated the legendary stateroom scene, a scene dependent on his speciality — verbal quips which not only fit the situation, but the speaker’s unique comic personality.

Info from Ben Schwartz’s amazing bio essay, The Gag Man, available in The Film Comedy Reader.