Archive for Kid Auto Races at Venice

Idle Idol Idyll

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2021 by dcairns

THE IDLE CLASS, released 100 years ago TODAY begins with very rambunctious, bumptious music. Though Chaplin composed/hummed wonderfully catchy and emotive tunes, their feel does vary a lot depending on who’s doing the orchestration. Here it’s Eric Rogers, known for his CARRY ON film scores, and that’s kind of what this feels like. It’s jaunty, brash, vulgar. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It forewarns us not to expect THE KID.

I’m curious about how I’ll feel about the last shorts CC made before getting fully into feature filmmaking. Will we see him drawing back from the soaring ambition of THE KID? A little, yes, I think. But will this be, in a sense, liberating? With the pressure off, will this allow him to be creative or bold in different ways? Maybe.

The titles (the first of which are missing from the YouTube version) feel subtly modern — this is Chaplin’s 1971 rerelease, which gives us his score, but deprives us I’m guessing of the authentic original title cards. We also seem to be moving rather slowly — as if the frame-rate has been artificially slowed down to eliminate the 16mm speed-up, but maybe they’ve gone a little too far? (I’m watching Criterion’s release; and there isn’t an alternative version on YouTube.)

A series of nicely caricatured upper-class twits disembark from a train at some kind of golf resort. Followed by Edna Purviance, elegantly accoutred:

Her stockings are impressive.

Also getting off the same locomotive is Charlie the Tramp, also presented in a feet-first kind of way. Chaplin gives a lot of thought to his entrances, obviously, and one thing he knows is that each part of his costume/anatomy is instantly recognisable, so he can give the audience a thrill with a minimal glimpse.

Charlie has brought his own golf kit, and an alarm clock — true to his nature, he’s a hobo with pretensions to the upper class. A natural aristocrat in reduced circumstances. Reduced to absurdity.

Meanwhile, another Charlie is abroad in the world. An actual posh person, an inebriate fop with Charlie’s face. A foppelganger, if you will. He could be the rich drunk of ONE A.M., come to think of it. A really smart move by C.C. — he wanted to get away from playing the Tramp all the time, but knew his audience didn’t like to see Chaplin films without the Tramp. So why not make a film where he plays the Tramp, but also someone else? And rather than inventing a disguise, as he had done in A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, or having The Tramp disguise himself, as in THE MASQUERADER, he could display his versatility by playing too markedly different characters who look exactly alike.

(Chuck Jones observed that when sound came into cartoons, you could get away from the old dichotomy of bad characters having to be ugly looking and good ones having to be cute — in Disney’s THE THREE LITTLE PIGS all look the same apart from some subtle differences of costuming, and they’re differentiated by their personalities and attitudes, delivered by dialogue [and song] — but here Chaplin shows that the trick could be done wordlessly.)

Edna is this Charlie’s wife (well, we knew she wasn’t any relation to the first one). She’s wired him to meet her at the station, including a note that she’s glad he’s not drinking. He shoots a furtive glance at his chums in the audience. Theory: having eliminated those awful expository mimes that were de rigeur at Keystone, and more or less eliminated the habitual breaking of the fourth wall, he’s started to allow his special relationship with the camera/us to reassert itself. It was part of the Chaplin character’s very foundations, as in KID AUTO RACES where he literally gets in a fight with a camera crew. He’s scaled it way back, but he always knows we’re looking. Oliver Hardy breaks the fourth wall to enlist our sympathy and the rupture is funny in itself. With Chaplin, there’s no sense of rupture. He always knows. Part of the Tramp’s performance of gentility is for our benefit.

Back at the station, Charlie #1 hitches a ride on the back of Edna’s car, selecting his vehicle with a connoisseur’s eye, mounting the rear bumper with insouciance, and then pratfalling off before the suspicious eyes of a kop.

Chaplin as Charlie #2 executes a flawless “pull back to reveal no trousers gag.” This gloriously stupid concept was a great favourite of Monty Python, but the term can be used to metaphorically describe any gag where a wide angle reveals something not apparent in the preceding close-up, resulting in our perceptions of the scene changing on a dime. Here, it’s not just funny because underpants, but because it changes our whole understanding. Charlie #2’s attempts to give up alcohol have not been as successful as Edna believes. Like Charlie #1 in the previous scene, he has fallen off the wagon.

Suspense + improbability — the revelation of our man’s bottomless condition is deferred by the passage of a man carrying a set of curtains. This kind of wild improbability may have earthshaking implications for the whole question of probability in dramatic motion pictures. “I don’t dislike coincidence, but I despice convenience,” was a very nice epigram of Chaplin’s, which goes neatly with the Vince Gilligan Principle, that a staggeringly unlikely coincidence is fine, SO LONG AS IT MAKES THINGS WORSE. This unlikely event actually spares Charlie #2 his blushes, for the time being, so maybe it’s making things better. But probably it’ll make them worse later, by delaying the inevitable until it becomes the disastrous. And it’s just funny in itself. The Roger Rabbit Principle applies: anything is possible, but only if it’s funny.

“And the execution!” as Sidney Lumet said, rapturously, of a moment in MODERN TIMES. Chaplin choreographs an elaborate series of comings and goings in the hotel lobby, in which C2’s demi-nudity is artfully concealed from a series of potential witnesses by the providential synchronisation of everybody’s movements. It gets more and more unlikely, in other words. There’s a “do you believe me so far?” vibe to a lot of silent comedy.

Entering the phone booth is a great topper. And a great way for C2 to discover his faux pas, when he hunts for change in pants pockets that aren’t there. He’s safe from discovery in his present situation, but his present situation is unsustainable. So it’s actually perfect, the worst rime/place for him to realise.

The construction starts to pay off, as Edna’s car arrives at the hotel, Charlie #1 gets off first, then Edna passes into the lobby, missing her panic-stricken, trouserless spouse. C2 eventually escapes his dreamlike public nudity predicament by personating Comte Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa.

We seem to be back to a more familiar silent-movie framerate now: perhaps Chaplin slowed down the opening to ease a modern audience into things.

C2 gains his rooms, but Edna is there ahead of him so, after an altercation with a blow-lamp outside, he springs into bed and feigns invalidity, his top hat and tails rather ruining any hoped-for illusion. Edna gives him a look dripping with contempt and self-sacrifice, and breezes out with her retinue, and Chaplin discovers that the wide shot he’d used to establish the space and show himself retreating to the bedroom now serves to encapsulate his aloneness and defeat:

And the effect is a curious midpoint between pathos and slightly cruel mockery.

Now comes the film’s most celebrated gag — one I stole outright in THE NORTHLEACH HORROR, my little WWII science fiction horror espionage comedy. The original utterly depends on this being a silent film: Chaplin convinces us that, brokenhearted at Edna’s abstinence ultimatum, he’s sobbing helplessly; but no: he’s mixing a cocktail, perfectly indifferent to his disintegrating marriage. If this were a soundie, we might expect to hear him cry, and we’d definitely expect to hear the ice sloshing in the shaker, so the gag would be impossible. My version used a high-powered electric toothbrush and we had to cheat the soundtrack like crazy by fading down the music just as the character turned to face us. This gag was the only moment the stupendously talented Freddie Fox had any trouble achieving.

Chaplin’s version is fascinating — he fools us not only in real time, but retrospectively: to begin with, he’s absolutely miming heaving sobs, not cocktail-shaking. As he turns, his movement morphs into something else, and he tricks us into thinking the something else is what he was doing all along. Amazing.

He really cheats outrageously though: he starts the racking sob movements BEFORE he picks up the shaker (off camera). So what are these movements meant to represent, since it turns out he’s not crying at all? Pure stagecraft and legerdemain.

At the end, C2 toasts the audience, like Alex at the start of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (a thing Kubrick, a Chaplin fan, never even noticed until he saw the rushes).

C1, meanwhile, wanders the links, innocently acquiring other people’s balls and clubs. He doesn’t have to be actively larcenous, just open to developments.

Mack Swain! We missed you, buddy! Although I mainly like him as Big Jim in THE GOLD RUSH, his presence is welcome here.

Amazing bit with a sleeping tramp (Henry Bergman). Our waking Tramp, Charlie #1, knocks a golf ball into the snoring mouth of this prone individual. The ball rises and falls menacingly to the back of the guy’s capacious throat.

Charlie #1 tees up, and for a moment I’m afraid he’s going to smash the guy’s teeth out. But, mercifully, he stomps on the bulbous gut, propelling the ball out and into the air as if shot from a cannon, and he swipes it away with his club (how many takes?). This is worth our applause, but Chaplin isn’t done: it turns out this tramp contains a lot of balls. Every time you compress his belly he shoots forth another one, like some kind of fleshy dispenser.

Finally, the tramp runs out of ammunition and wakes, angry. To him, naturally enough, a stranger pressing his stomach with one foot while he sleeps seems an intrusive imposition: he cannot know the health benefits he is likely to enjoy now that he’s no longer rattling full of gutties.

Chaplin is doing quite well at making golf, which is not entertaining, seem entertaining. PG Wodehouse could do that too, but he could find fun in just about anything. Chaplin is having to distort reality quite far to pull it off, to the point of cartoon gags, whereas the drunken rich guy’s antics have one foot in recognisable reality.

A reverie: Charlie #1 sees Edna on horseback. Immediately he fantasises the old riding accident routine: her horse bolts, he rescues her, and in a dizzying succession of unlikely events, they marry, have a kid, etc. And then we’re back in reality with Edna riding sedately into the distance. It’s like a more benign version of the bandit seeing the wife in RASHOMON.

Charlie goes on causing chaos and starting fights without meaning to. I like how, in this shot, having pelted Mack Swain with balls and trodden on his straw boater, causing Mack to blame an innocent twit and throttle him, Chaplin seems to be visible as a tiny, oblivious silhouette in the extreme distance, top left:

I don’t hugely like the other gags in this sequence though. Time to end it, and Chaplin agrees, irising in on a spluttering twit in deep water. Iris out on a costume ball.

Charlie #2 has dressed up as a knight in armour, but gets his visor jammed. This is giving me PINK PANTHER VIBES and though the party climax in that film seems to derive from TO CATCH A THIEF, along with a good bit of the plot set-up, this movie may also have been in the mix.

But outside it’s daylight, and Charlie #1 gets into another anatomical mix-up gag with another thieving hand. This is a straight repeat of a gag he pulled with Jack Coogan Sr. in his previous hit.

One reason THE IDLE CLASS is scaled-down, less ambitious than THE KID, is that the tightwads at First National had insisted on paying Chaplin the same money he got for a short film, per their contract. Chaplin had spent vastly more time and therefore money on THE KID than he did on shorts, and those were HIS expenses. So this hugely successful film may actually have lost him cash.

So — Charlie #1 is unjustly accused of trying to steal a wallet, of being the possessor of an illicit third arm. Unlike on the golf course, where he was to blame for everything that happened, however unknowingly, here he’s the victim of circumstance. I guess the world of this film is one where everybody is always jumping to the wrong conclusions.

Charlie legs it, and we have yet another park and policeman chase. He finds himself in the driveway, where limos are pulling up for the masked ball, and gets boxed in between cars. To escape this trap, he slips THRU a limo, and emerging on the other side is mistaken for a rich guy in tramp fancy dress. Ten years later, stuck for a plot gimmick on CITY LIGHTS which would enable Virginia Cherrill as the blind girl to mistake him for a millionaire, Chaplin remembered this bit and finally escaped from WEEKS of creative blockage. So thank God for THE IDLE CLASS.

Also: another brief appearance from Henry Bergman. Odd, when you think of it, that a man of such distinctive appearance (basically a human Blue Meanie) should be Chaplin’s chief man-of-a-thousand-faces. All of them fat.

Good gag where Bergman’s kop, who seems to be following C1 with suspicion, turns out to be merely another disguised party guest. The fact that he suddenly puts on a domino mask doesn’t really make sense, but they needed something quick that would make this clear.

C2 is still trapped in his helmet, unable to even take a drink (a straw would solve this problem). So another unlikely but logical situation has arisen. C2 is forcibly anonymous behind his jammed visor, so Edna won’t recognise him. And C1 looks exactly like C2 and his normal clothing has been mistaken for a costume, so she WILL recognise him.

Edna invites Charlie #1 over. This of course makes no sense to him, and he fixes us with a singularly haunting look. This is clearly a dream but he doesn’t want it to end. And anything he does or says could make that happen.

It’s a touching idea — Edna’s fake husband is more sensitive than her real one. And Charlie #1’s fantasy has suddenly come true, for reasons he can’t divine. And again, C1 is the innocent focus of a misunderstanding.

Oh-ho, and I hadn’t even thought of this until now: C2 being stuck in his armour, we can show both Charlies at once without the aid of special effects. C2 does a big double-take at the sight of his wife with another, yet somehow the same, man. In fact, he doesn’t seem to register that his wife’s new beau is a dead ringer for the old one.

And yes, the doppelganger idea would come back in a big way in THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Fight! The rightful Charlie is ejected for starting a brawl, and the wrongful Charlie remains.

Mack Swain, the highland rogue! I like this costume. And Mack is Mabel’s dad. Where is this heading? Nowhere good, I’d guess.

Charlie #1 blows it: “We’re not married.” When you’re in a dream, don’t fight it. Go with the flow.

Mack knocks Charlie #1 down repeatedly with repeated shove to the face, for insulting his daughter. The last time, C1 just lies down by himself. Great low angle of a looming Mack, unusually expressionistic for Chaplin, but justified by the spacial relations.

Chased onto the slippery dance floor, C1 hides under a handy hoop skirt. He could have easily sought shelter ‘neath Mack’s kilt, but then low-angle views would have had to be abandoned.

Bedroom farce: Edna has swooned. C1 is handed her limp form, and shown to C2’s rooms, where C2 is re-outraged to find his wife in the arms of another/the same man.

Fight! C1 spears a cushion on the point of C2’s visor, blinding him, and uses the cushion to deliver punches without hurting his hand. Very practical — surprising there’s no record of this being tried in the middle ages.

Mack arrives, initially siding with C!, but then C2 invites him to peek through his front grille and identify him. In a really good development, C1 is enlisted to help unhelmet the soused spouse. Again, Charlie #1 is wholly unaware of what’s going on or who is concealed in the plate armour.

Weird cartoon gag where Swain coughs and his sporran, for some reason pinned to the bottom of his ribcage, jolts up and down like a catflap.

A bellboy turns up with a hammer — the same exact hammer, I think, Jackie Coogan uses in THE KID. C1 makes various incompetent attempts to tap C2 loose. Result: unconsciousness. Then C1 remembers he has a can opener. Might have been good to establish that earlier in the film, but it’s not what you’d call really important.

I was waiting for a special effect or, more likely, just a closeup of Chaplin in the armour when his visor is peeled off, but Chaplin just goes for a stand-in, and it works.

The situation is uncannily close to the fantasy in BRAZIL where Sam defeats a huge samurai which turns out to have his own face under its mask (Sam-you-are-I). Gilliam unaccountably used a rubber mask cast from Jonathan Pryce’s face rather than getting Pryce to do it, with the result that audiences couldn’t tell that this rubbery visage was supposed to represent the hero.

C! is shown the door now that his unintentional imposture is exposed. He gives Edna a look as he leaves: “This could have been a beautiful thing.”

Edna realises that Charlie #1 is an innocent party in all this and Mack volunteers to go apologise. And in the film’s final misunderstanding, C1 sees Mack coming after him and runs for it — wait, what, he doesn’t? Oh, OK, he tricks Mack into bending to tie a loose shoe buckle, and kicks him up the arse and runs. OK, that’s good too. Not massively clever, but there are times when what’s needed is just a good old-fashioned boot up the bum. Always leave them rubbing their backsides.

FINIS

Deleted scene, three takes:

The Sunday Intertitle: Lady for a Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 8, 2020 by dcairns

Chaplin’s star was rising, but how to build the brand? He never quite gave up the desire to break away from the Tramp character, but it’s interesting to see him trying it when he’s only been in movies for a few months, has just started directing, etc. So here’s A BUSY DAY, one of Keystone’s “occasional films” where they’d shoot documentary footage of some real LA event (free productions values) and then shoot inserts of one or two comedians to drop into it — KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE being the most famous example. Mack Sennett liked to say he started filming a Shriner parade as soon as he got off the train in Hollywood… And Chaplin is in drag. And married to Mack Swain.

A lot of chin-jutting and chuntering — it feels like one of the Northern English comics — but Norman Evans was 14 at this time, and the comics he inspired — Les Dawson and Roy Baraclough’s Cissy and Ada — were far in the future. But surely Chaplin would have seen their music hall precursors on the London stage. Drag had presumably invaded that weird British phenomenon, the Christmas panto?

Part of this particular brand of female impersonation is to kind of reveal the artifice: a later drag genius, Paul O’Grady said he didn’t like these acts because they were always “fiddling with their boobs” — adjusting the falsies, playing with giving the game away without quite doing it, admitting what we already know.

Chaplin immediately starts wiping his eyes with his skirt, exposing his bloomers, a bit of vulgarity that might be frowned upon from a female comic. He also plays it very aggressive — I’ve seen him do more feminine acting, but this is broad stuff, he’s not really trying to fool us. He’s not wearing his tramp boots but I think he’s in flap shoes. He got the costume, we’re told, from frequent co-star Helen Davenport.

A routine jealousy plot kicks off, and we’re back in KID AUTO territory as Mrs. Charlie runs afoul of a newsreel crew in the command of Mack Sennett himself.

How long can the film simply pull (slight) variations on Chaplin and various Kops kicking one another through frame? Quite a while. This bruising action is fairly impressive and mildly amusing, and would probably start a riot if you had an audience of kids.

Eventually, we leave the costly free extras and the fleeting spectacle of the parade for some nondescript dockland setting where Mrs. Chaplin catches Mack Swain with another woman (Phyllis Allen). And then everyone starts kicking each other again. OK, this is pretty good. I’m sold. An entirely kicking-based narrative. It may have less to do with the English music hall and more with Punch and Judy, only here it’s Judy who’s the psychopathic dervish.

Finally, Mrs. Charlie makes the mistake of setting upon Mack on the edge of the pier. He shoves her into the sea. She drowns. The end.

OK, not too much ambition here, except to show versatility, but seriously, a ferocious, pathologically malign and horrible violent little woman was probably not going to become a legendary comedy character, and Chaplin probably knew this, which is why he sent her to a watery grave after (checks video) six minutes of rampantly repetitive action.

Chaplin had been hired because Sennett liked his drunk act, and at this point the Tramp/Little Fellow is, in fact, a comic inebriate who has to get smashed in every picture. Chaplin may well have been wondering, How long can I milk this? Time would tell.

A BUSY DAY stars Adenoid Hynckel; Ambrose; Fatty’s Mother-in-Law; Mabel’s true love; Mabel’s Father; and First Cop.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Man Called Chaffin or Something

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2020 by dcairns

Chaplin again — again directed by Henry “Pathe” Lehrman in 1914. A lot of rubbish about an umbrella. Ford Sterling is an obnoxious clown, and Chaplin, billed as “masher” on the IMDb, gets to be comparatively gentlemanly, though this mainly expresses itself in the way he repeatedly hits FS in the face with a brick.

Chaplin doesn’t have his cane here, since it would clash with the brolly. He DID have it in the earlier MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT and KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, however.

KARAV for years was thought to be the Tramp’s first appearance, but it’s his second, although CC has wiped all the old-age/horror make-up, worn in MABEL’S SP, off his face this time and is a kind of truculent protagonist rather than a menacing drunken villain, so a case could still be made for KARAV being the Tramp’s debut. As has been pointed out, he emerges from the mass of the public, an audience member with ideas above his station, which seems perfect. He also starts immediately making his director’s life hell, which is what was going on behind the scenes too. The untalented pretender Lehrman (who never worked for Pathe) appears as himself, a bad-tempered filmmaker who doesn’t want to have to deal with this interloper.

I’ll say this for H(P)L, the closeup at the end, though alarming, is a nice touch.

Around this time, Chaplin also appeared as an officious and violently-inclined short-arsed Keystone Kop in A THIEF CATCHER. Then, for the first time, he was the title character in A FILM JOHNNIE, which also has him as a troublesome audience member.

Chaplin spends the last penny in his sock-purse (an accoutrement also sported by Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg’s SPIDER) to see THE CHAMPION DRIVER, a film whose existence I am unable to confirm — I would have assumed the thrifty Mack Sennett would have taken this opportunity to plug one of his other pictures — because he is enamoured of the leading lady, Peggy Pearce.

Once in the auditorium, Chaplin is unable to control his movements or his emotions, to the annoyance of other patrons including the prostooganist from MABEL’S SP. Bafflingly, THE CHAMPION DRIVER turns out to be a Civil War epic highly reminiscent of BIRTH OF A NATION, not released until the following year. Maybe that time-traveller with the cell phone from the premiere of CITY LIGHTS helped Sennett out. Or maybe Sennett had a bunch of leftover Civil War footage he was looking to monetize.

Within a matter of frames, the appearance of serious epic historical drama is replaced by a bunch of Kop types in the uniforms of North and South battering one another silly with the butts of their muskets, and Charlie has soaked his now-vacant sock, and the crotch of his baggy pants, with tears, so deeply moved is he.

When “the Keystone girl” appears she’s in modern dress, so I guess this is a program of varied short subjects (features not yet being the rage). Now Charlie, enacting a bumpkin stereotype lampooned in some of the earliest films, becomes overwrought, unable to tell cinema from reality, and is ejected into the street.

The two other films showing, I note, aren’t Keystone releases, but Mutual, the company where Chaplin would wind up making his best shorts, after an intervening stint at Essanay.

Charlie now plays starstruck fan, an outsider at Keystone, flattering the major players (Fatty, Ford) and begging for dimes. The studio door is slammed in his face. The director doesn’t want “any bums around here.” But after some confusing jump-splices Charlie gets inside.

I wrote about this one before but mainly because of all the swastikas.

The inside of the studio — the unsound stage — is a big greenhouse. There are painted flats simulating different locations, among which the first we see represents — a big greenhouse. The phrase “wasted effort” does spring to mind, as so often with Sennett comedies.

Chaplin immediately finds slapstick opportunities in this world where the walls and furniture keep moving around. He was a flailing blunderer even in the stable environment of the movie house, so this place is really beyond his ability to navigate. This is the closest we get to vintage Chaplin, but time or an impatient editor seem to have truncated the knockabout.

The director of this one is George Nichols — Chaplin’s second director. He didn’t like him any more than H(P)L. Both these guys appear here, but the role of the movie director is played by the great Edgar Kennedy, according to the IMDb. His movements — rage and frustration in gesticulatory form — are more recognizable than his young, barely-formed face. He has hair! That’s just blatantly wrong.

The studio set-up could easily have provided enough gags and conflict for a full two-reeler, so it’s rather a pity that the film rushes off to attend a housefire, to little comic effect. The Keystone “it’s got to move” philosophy would cheerfully have a film up sticks from a promising situation in order to race off to a less interesting one, and that, as well as the rapidity with which the films were churned out, would increasingly annoy Chaplin…

As with KARAV, we end with a single on CC, and he does a favourite trick, the old twist-the-ear-to-make-water-squirt-out gag. Henri Bergson used to say that comedy comes from human beings behaving in a mechanical way, and Chaplin often seems to go out of his way to confirm this.