Archive for Kid Auto Races at Venice

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: Down & Out in Beverly Hills

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2020 by dcairns

Somehow I had never watched this, MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT (1914), the first film for which Chaplin donned his tramp costume, having become seduced by the more celebrated KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, the first Chaplin-tramp film RELEASED.

This one is directed by Mabel Normand herself, and affords Chaplin lots of funny business — he’s still practically playing the villain, as he had been in MAKING A LIVING, and the tramp is a drunken lout. He’s also wearing what looks like old-age make-up — not quite Nakadai in RAN, but verging on it. Well, Mack Sennett had worried that he was too young. The ‘tache seems a little bigger, too. All this has settled down into the familiar chalky face with toothbrush by the time of KID AUTO (probably a few days later).

Amazing to see this looking so sharp (the different in maquillage wouldn’t have been noticable in the kind of dupey copies circulating on VHS. Even the print damage is sharp — clusters of lumious snowballs flashing up like muzzle-flashes, so that when Mabel throws a ball for her dog, the poor thing’s confused and doesn’t know what to chase.

Surprisingly coherent farce plot — the typical Keystone looseness is mainly the result of Chaplin being given lots of extraneous business, but it’s magnificently played. A spitoon proves handy. There’s a great moment near the end where the hero shoves him back onto a chair and Chaplin, finding himself unexpectedly seated, has a look around. The performance is full of detail like that, ALIVE with it.

There’s a lot of telegraphy — Mabel signalling to the audience what just happened in a previous scene — and she keeps up a running commentary for the lipreaders amongst you — Chaplin will address the camera too, but not to help with the plot. He just wants to let us know he knows we’re there, and to enlist us as co-conspirators. Still to figure out when he stops doing this — pretty late, I’d say. In fact he’ll still shoot us the occasional look right into the talkies. There’s a good gloat from the dock in MONSIEUR VERDOUX.