Archive for Laughing Gas

Shapeshifter

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2021 by dcairns

THE PAWNSHOP is perfect.

Charlie is a little bastard again — more childish than ever, really, and engaged in a kind of sibling rivalry with co-worker the marvelous John Rand. The pawnbroker, Henry Bergman, is a stern father figure. Edna, his daughter, treats Charlie like a child, which he encourages. But he’s obviously a lecherous child.

Somehow Chaplin balances everything just right in this one — Charlie is just sympathetic enough — in the sense of giving us a vicarious indulgence in naughtiness which is pleasurable — without crossing the line and becoming totally hateful. Obnoxious yet somehow appealing.

The film is pretty plotless — there’s bickering between Charlie and Rand, competition over Edna, attempts to escape the discipline provided by Bergman, and then Eric Campbell turns up to rob the place, providing Charlie a chance to be the hero, a role which he has shown himself entirely undeserving of. There are no really sympathetic characters — Edna is nice, but a gullible idiot with big hair and her cakes are terrible — everyone else bickers and is mean to one another, is grifting or exploiting or out-and-out stealing. And yet the film manages to be fairly likable. The lessons of Keystone, where Charlie could be an absolute thug, have been learned, and Chaplin is cautious about just how far he can go.

After a couple of shots establishing Edna in the kitchen with a kitten, for cuteness, and Henry Bergman as the pawnbroker pacing impatiently, irked by Charlie’s customary lateness, Our Hero appears. Again, viewed from the rear. The Mutual comedies tend to have fun with how recognisable the Little Fellow is, from the rear, or just reduced to raggedy flapshoes.

Bergman was a native Californian who became a kind of courtier/toady to Chaplin. Collaborators could be slightly harsh about his role in offering Chaplin steady support and encouragement, but Chaplin obviously found him valuable. And he’s a good character man, deft with disguise, so he appears in every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES. He never overacts and that’s especially important here as he’s playing Jewish. The treatment of race is considerably more delicate than in THE VAGABOND. Chaplin took to never denying claims that he himself was part Jewish, since he felt this would play into the hands of anti-Semites. He also joked about his half-brother Sydney having Jewish ancestry, explaining the siblings’ marked difference in appearance, though in fact Sydney’s father’s identity is not known for certain.

Charlie, told he’s late, checks his fob watch against the calendar, in the best Mad Hatter tradition. The watch then becomes a running gag, something for Charlie to check every time he receives a blow or takes a fall. If his watch is OK, everything’s fine.

Most of Charlie’s interactions are with his rival, John Rand, who had proved such a deft foil in POLICE. Billy Armstrong, who previously performed this function and wore this cookie-duster, had left to pursue an independent star career, but would subside into modest supporting roles to Stan Laurel and others, and sadly died of tuberculosis aged only 33.

I’m going to be paying close attention to Rand, because he’s excellent, and I didn’t even know his name before embarking on this. He and Armstrong and Conklin had a perfect connection with Chaplin onscreen.

The feather duster is the first great toy: compacting every vane with soot allows Charlie to do far more harm than good, and dusting the electric fan shreds the duster into floating particles.

When Charlie unsportingly “fights” Rand, who’s trapped in a ladder, the other end is held by a shoeshine boy, who is either the second anonymous Black kid in a Chaplin short (after LAUGHING GAS), or the umpteenth blackface character (after, most recently, A NIGHT IN THE SHOW) — my screen isn’t big enough for me to be 100% sure which. Charlie’s swinish behaviour is funny only because he’s putting on such a great pugilistic display, as if he were doing something noble and impressive, rather than persecuting a totally helpless opponent.

Scrapping with Rand gets Charlie fired, and he embarks on his celebrated plea for mercy, miming a large — increasingly large — family of dependents. starting with a gesture indicating Jackie Coogan height, then going up, up, up, until the largest invisible child is the height of Eric Campbell. The mockery of pathos first appeared in THE NEW JANITOR, and gave Chaplin the idea that he could move an audience for real. But it’s still amusing to make fun of the whole idea of emotional manipulation.

Asides from the conflict with Rand, the film has Charlie balancing dangerously on a stepladder, from which he falls with a spine-saving roll; flirtation with Edna, where he dried dishes using a trick mangle, which also serves to dry his hands; he deals expeditiously with Campbell’s very elegant heister; and he “serves” various customers. Alternating between these activities works perfectly well to create the illusion of narrative.

The “ruinous old man” — David Robinson’s cruel and beautiful phrase — is credited as Wesley Ruggles on both IMDb and Wikipedia, but it very clearly isn’t. The old, but not original credits on my DVD list James Kelley as “old actor” which is more believable. IMDb instead casts Kelley as “Old Bum.” He might be both… that’s easier to believe. But Kelley, a seventy-year-old Irishman, is typically somewhat recognisable in his movements and his stoutness and tininess (smaller than Chaplin). This guy is thin and frail, probably older than 70, doesn’t seem particularly short or wide, and has a great “strolling tragedian” way of acting that suits his role here.

As the shabby-genteel geezer goes into his pantomime of woe, Chaplin at first watches and eats callously, performing the occasional mocking mime of his own — a gesture heavenwards causes him to pick up binoculars and scan the ceiling. But slowly he’s taken in and moved to tears by the expert heartstring abuse.

When he buys the guy’s ring, he gets the change from a huge wad of dough, not the kind Edna is using, and realises he’s been had. Thus the film preserves its own callousness without having caused our man to totally lose our sympathy. I note also that Charlie’s slow burn I-don’t-believe-this gaup, chin lowered and eyes uprolled balefully — the Crazy Kubrick Stare, almost — appears here for the first time.

Albert Austin’s scene is a different matter, and arguably the film’s true highlight. He’s brought in his alarm clock — how hard up must he be? It’s not clear that Charlie’s ruthless treatment of the wretch is a response to his having been fleeced by whoever the old guy was — I shall be watching out for later appearances — but it’s pretty heartless. Chaplin distracts us slightly from this just by being dazzling, and he softens (literally) the final blow by using what proves to be a rubber hammer to clonk the irate Austin. Despite the fake prop, Austin staggers off, seemingly concussed, presumably by some effect analogous, yet opposite, to the placebo.

Chaplin gets nearly five minutes out of this clock routine.

The set-piece itself is a thing of wonder. Dissecting the alarm clock until its a mess of oily scrap, Charlie uses a stethoscope, a drill, a can opener, pliers, an oil squirter, the mouthpiece of a telephone. But the oil dropper transforms in his grasp into some kind of insect exterminator, and the phone part is used as a jeweller’s eyeglass. The clock is sometimes a patient, sometimes a can of spoiled and off-smelling goods, perhaps a watch; its mainspring becomes a bolt of cloth; its innards, arrayed on the counter and magnetized into a roil from below, become an insect horde to be flitgunned into submission with what had moments before been an oil dropper. Chaplin himself becomes a doctor, surgeon, a dentist, a tailor (several of which he’d been in other films), before he finally reverts to character, sweeps the detritus into Austin’s hat, and hands it back with a shake of the head that isn’t even regretful.

Nobody else was doing this, and pretty much nobody ever has. Buster Keaton exploited the transposition gag a great deal, but with different intentions and results. Usually with Keaton, the objects themselves force him into a new role, and they in turn become transformed. One thinks of the train crashing into the river in OUR HOSPITALITY. Buster finds his fuel car turned into a boat, and so the shovel in his hands becomes automatically a paddle. He uses it as such, with the air of one in a dream or under some strange spell. At other times he’s more in charge, thinking with his body, finding a way to make the objects around him fit his needs, ignoring their intended purpose and using instead their actual properties. Problem-solving, in other words.

Chaplin isn’t solving a problem, here, exactly. It is, I suppose, just showing off, only loosely tied into the narrative. A piece of performance art.

David Robinson cites THE PAWNSHOP as Chaplin’s greatest exploration of transposition gags to date — the setting may have been chosen simply because it allows for a wide variety of objects to be played with.

Arthur Machen writes, in the short story N:

‘When man yielded,’ he would say, ‘to the mysterious temptation intimated by the figurative language of the Holy Writ, the universe, originally fluid and the servant of his spirit, became solid, and crashed down upon him overwhelming beneath its weight and its dead mass.’ I requested him to furnish me with more light on this remarkable belief; and I found that in his opinion that which we now regard as stubborn matter was, primally, to use his singular phraseology, the Heavenly Chaos, a soft and ductile substance, which could be moulded by the imagination of uncorrupted man into whatever forms he chose it to assume. ‘Strange as it may seem,’ he added, ‘the wild inventions (as we imagine them) of the Arabian Tales give us some notion of the powers of the Homo Protoplastus. The prosperous city becomes a lake, the carpet transports us in an instant of time, or rather without time, from one end of the earth to another, the palace rises at a word from nothingness. Magic, we call all this, while we deride the possibility of any such feats; but this magic of the east is but a confused and fragmentary recollection of operations which were of the first nature of man, and of the fiat which was then entrusted to him.’

Charlie still retains some trace of this fiat, though he applies the old prelapsarian protean power on a much smaller scale. He is atavism and avatar.

My thoughts on Chaplin and the fluidity of matter owe a great debt to B. Kite’s remarkable writing here.

Things I Read off the Screen in The Property Man

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

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 shoves 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.”