Archive for Laurel & Hardy

Bedtime for Tantalus

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2021 by dcairns

ONE A.M. is a wild experiment. Chaplin resuscitates his drunk act — he hasn’t been this hilariously incapable since the face on the barroom floor — and is the only one on screen for nine-tenths of the action. Poor Albert Austin is frozen like a wax dummy — I always found him uncanny and a bit disturbing as a kid — so he barely counts as co-star.

I invoke the mythical Tantalus because Chaplin plays a man tormented by his environment and its objects. All he wants is to go home and get into bed, but he’s so inebriated his home has become strange to him (he’s horrified by all his stuffed animals) and the furniture and architecture conspire to prevent him doing anything he tries. Even the matches in his pockets are useless to him since he can’t remember the simple sequence of actions that results in a smoke. Which may be for the best — his mishaps get more and more violent and he could easily set the whole hideous joint ablaze. And you can’t rely on the fire brigade in Chaplin World, as we’ve seen.

The struggle with the taxi door, which is milked for longer than you would think possible, a foretaste of tortures to come, is astounding. The bit that really got me hysterical was the attempt to put away his handkerchief in a pocket, but with his arm through the taxi door’s window, so that the door panel intervenes between hanky and trouser. Charlie — definitely not a hobo, he has usurped Leo White’s topper — finds himself vigorously wiping the door rather than pocketing his kerchief.

I watched my old DVD, then the restoration, which looks much, much better but lacks tinting, which I think we need for the opening exterior. It’s never going to look like night, it’s all too glaringly a bright Los Angeles day, but a hint of blue would at least suggest that’s what we should be imagining.

This is another film that seems to have entered Stan Laurel’s DNA, to emerge when needed. Charlie has lost his door key so goes in by the window. Then he finds his key, so he goes out the window again and comes in by the door. Echoed in THE MUSIC BOX’s broken logic when the boys discover the easy way up to Professor von Schwarzenhoffen’s house, and then redundantly use it. Just as the endless, repetitive journey up the stairs made by Chaplin, calculated to make the audience scream with frustration as well as laughter, is echoed by the struggles with the crated player piano.

The slippery floor, upon which the many little rugs glide like magic carpets, frequently sending Charlie tumbling, occasionally transmitting him to just where he wants to be, like Star Trek transporters, sets up another comparison, with Jerry Lewis’ insanely slidey psychiatrist’s office in CRACKING UP. Lewis was more of a Stan Laurel man, I guess, but he clearly absorbed a lot from Chaplin (including the pathos, which comes out funny when Jer tries it). I’d be fascinated to know what Chaplin thought of Lewis, but we already know he’s a better clown and filmmaker than he is a critic. He liked Benny Hill, if that helps.

The best bit of sliding may be the first, because Charlie is trying to steady himself on the door knob, which is attached to a door which is of course hinged, and swinging wildly, a very unsuitable object to steady yourself with, but all he’s got. A good metaphor for drunken stupor. Attempting to combat treachery from the floor leads you to struggle with treachery from the wall.

Every now and then it’s good to remember that Chaplin’s father died from the effects of alcoholism. It’s getting less and less acceptable to laugh at drunk routines, isn’t it? Back in the day, we weren’t supposed to regard drunks as tragic — the falling-down incompetent kind were funny in a way that disabled people weren’t, because it was a temporary, Tom & Jerry kind of physical handicap, and it was self-inflicted. The vicious treatment of the gouty in Chaplin’s films is similarly “justified” by the sufferer being responsible, it would seem, for his own condition.

Personally I’m very happy I wasn’t “protected” from this film as a child. And I have no problem with laughing at Chaplin’s skill (or Arthur Housman’s, or Foster Brooks‘) rather than laughing at alcoholics or alcoholism. But see also Nietzsche’s “A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion.” Chaplin is attempting to kill with laughter his most painful memories, and who has a better right?

Onwards, then, to the parade of stuffed animals. It is admittedly implausible, in literal terms, that our hero, who keeps a set of climbing gear and is therefore a traveler and presumably the man who bagged all these big cats, bear, ostrich etc, has forgotten all about this and is thus horrified at finding what he presumes to be his home occupied by wild animals. But there IS a metaphorical truth about the way familiar things can come alive and be uncanny at night. And so, though Chaplin is playing a drunk magnificently, maybe he’s also playing a child, as usual. Drunks don’t SEEM that much like children, but they have regressed to that stage where they don’t have control of their bodies of their emotions, so there’s a confluence.

One can sympathise with Charlie’s dismay at discovering this wretched undead Stouffer lurking at the foot of the stair. This film also features numerous examples of Charlie’s intimacy with the camera. A fresh taxidermic outrage… a wary glance to his chums in the audience — “Can you see it? Is it as bad as it feels?” Yes, Charlie. Yes, it is.

The sawdust atrocity comes into its own when Charlie kicks it and its curving body causes it to banana round and counter-attack. Brilliant comedy physics.

Then the rotating drinks table. A loooooong bit here. Brilliantly extended by having the victim recognise that his snagged cape is the trouble, then having him doff the cape, but tread in it, so his foot drags it along and it’s STILL snagged and so off we go again. I always assumed that Beckett’s Act Without Words and its sequels were primarily Keaton-derived, but a case could be made for Chaplin exerting an influence through this film, or at least mining similar terrain.

Fiona observed that a lot of what happens here would work well for Keaton, and is the kind of thing we associate more with him. Keaton, in fact, rarely played drunk, but in the thirties often was drunk. But he certainly struggled with objects which sometimes seemed imbued with a malign consciousness. The line between alive and inert is blurred, erased. Chaplin is usually more in command of this, can get away with treating people as objects, objects as people. Keaton transforms one thing into another without conscious choice, simply thinking with his body and adapting. Chaplin seems to generate a protean field around himself which allows things and people to swap qualities. A dangerous thing to mess around with — look what happens when he gets drunk.

“Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life.” William S. Burroughs.

And enjoy the sight of Charlie in tight trousers for once. The black-sheened spider legs become more expressive — the baggy pants actually robbed us of many possibilities, but gave us an indelible outline.

Failing to light cigarette after cigarette, or the same cigarette multiple times, leads Charlie to climb atop the spinning table and try to reach the chandelier, a doomed effort. A little later, it will turn out he has another match after all, which is the way of these things, isn’t it?

Incidentally, I don’t much like the intertitles, which try too hard to be “witty.” Replacing them with inarticulate grunts and swearing would emphasise the basic miserable reality of what we’re facing.

Now to the stairs. After throwing his silk hat onto a stuffed ostrich with perfect finesse — the hostile universe will allow Charlie the occasional, purely trivial triumph — our adventurer sets off upstairs. He’d used a wire to allow Eric Campbell to hold him aloft by the throat in THE FLOORWALKER and it’s possible he uses one to let him lean back at the top of the stairs, another to let him slide down feet first on his belly each time he loses his balance. The stairs look to be heavily padded, anyway, which is a kind of relief.

The further up he goes — in Freudian terms, into the higher conscious — the more vicious the house gets. The clock with the Poe-esque pendulum is completely impractical, a literal health and safety nightmare. It guards the bedroom door like Cerberus. Playing it safe, Charlie slides along the wall like Cesare the somnambulist and is biffed on the chin by the clock’s pugilistic upswing, sending him downstairs again.

Many, many attempts later, Charlie tries the other stair, is terrified by a stuffed bear, and eventually makes it — twice — using the coat stand which had proved useless for hanging coats but makes a neat if precarious climbing frame. A tussle with a stuffed bear, and he gains the bedroom, after adding concussion to inebriation via a round with the killer clock.

The Murphy bed is the boss villain of this fever-dream game. Fiona points out that no rich drunken hunter/mountaineer would have a Murphy bed, something Chaplin might have encountered in cheap rooming houses during his Karno tour of the States. Anyway, this bed is possessed. It’s main desire seems to be to prevent Charlie sleeping in it, or perhaps to destroy him. Starting gradually, it displays more and more independent action, and more complex movements, being able to flip like a YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN secret panel, lower like a drawbridge, then pull up from the head, reversing itself. It has the alarming, unnatural flexibility of Linda Blair’s neck.

Fiona, having laughed harder at this than anything in Chaplin apart from THE CIRCUS’ monkey attack, which reduced her to breathless narration, as if by describing what was happening she could lessen its side-splitting agony, began to grow tired of the bed, but then laughed when Charlie leapt onto it as it rose, ripping the bed from the frame.

“Oh well, at least it can’t hurt him now,” she said, and on cue the bedframe viciously tripped its victim.

To the bathroom. The film MUST be ending soon. The attempt to fill a glass of water from the shower drew laughs of anticipation, then bigger laughs when the reaction to a drenching exceeded all anticipation, and when the shower’s exit could not be found, owing to the camera angle concealing it. Charlie performs a full circle of the interior without locating it, and so attempts to climb out…

Finally he beds down, sodden, in the bath, with a wet towel for a blanket, his deep stupor finally coming to his aid by making him oblivious of his miserable, wet, freezing, hard-surface discomfort. The End — of a comedy of frustration beyond even Bunuel.

The Whitsunday Intertitle: Tramp Steamer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2021 by dcairns

A mystery! There are two versions of a restored SHANGHAIED (1915) on YouTube, one with intertitles and one largely without. They don’t look like original intertitles but they do seem necessary to comprehension so I’m watching the version with.

Ship owner — a thin, wispy type — says something to captain — a moustache and eyebrows type — who then says something to first mate — a rough, Emmet Kelly painted stubble type. The intertitles have the ship owner proposing that the ship be destroyed for the insurance, and the captain agreeing (a unique case of two characters speaking in a single Chaplin intertitle), and then the captain telling the mate he’s going to find a crew. But by pantomime the captain is clearly telling the mate that the ship must be blown up (abrupt hand gesture; awed reaction from mate). So the titles don’t feel quite right, but they’re clearly necessary.

The captain fails to recruit some sea-scum for his doomed voyage. Naturally enough they’re played by seasoned Essanay co-stars Paddy McGuire, Leo White and Billy Armstrong, and silent clown make-up seems to dovetail nicely with salty sea-dog make-up.

The mate spots Charlie. So far this is the plot of Laurel & Hardy’s THE LIVE GHOST. I can imagine the idea was fairly popular. You could turn Harry Langdon loose in such a story. Harold Lloyd could do it, if you made clear he badly needed the money. With Charlie, badly needing money is a given, so he makes a ready recruit for a corrupt scheme.

But hold! First we see Charlie romancing Edna, the ship owner’s daughter, evidently an affair of longish standing. And Charlie’s not outfitted in his maximum filthiness — the waistcoat looks smart. The jacket elbows are dusty, but on the whole he’s not a hobo here. Nevertheless, the ship owner disapproves of the match, as we see when he interrupts the clinch.

The shipowner is future director Wesley Ruggles, enjoying a major promotion from his walk-on in THE BANK. His side-whiskers give him a monkey-like appearance. He’s certainly created a clearly-defined caricature.

Charlie, bereft, makes an easy recruit for the shanghai-ing scheme. The mate gives him a lug hammer for hammering the lugs. The Little Fellow has no scruples about fracturing skulls for profit. I’m not sure if the character ever really acquires scruples, he tends to fall in with any schemes proposed by larger men, but the plots in the mature period tend to avoid having him do anything really corrupt for anyone else. He always has a chivalric attitude towards pretty girls, or at least towards his leading lady (once he leaves his sex pest phase behind, as perhaps he now has).

Charlie is to hide in a barrel, like Jim lad, and wallop the sea-scum as they walk past the boat they don’t want to sail on. There’s a flaw here somewhere but the movie doesn’t admit it. It turns out the mate (regular heavy Bud Jamison) is going to lure each man into hammering range with a pantomimed offer of grog. Naturally, none of the three men is suspicious as their number dwindles by inevitable fatal mallet attrition. The promise of grog obliterates all suspicion.

Charlie does his part of the black bargain fairly efficiently, though he keeps snatching the grog. Which might be whisky, going by the bottle, but I like typing “grog”. The history of grog is quite interesting, but has nothing to do with this film.

Unless I’m misreading the signs, Paddy McGuire seems to be playing his sailor in a “Hello, sailor” caricature of pansy mincing. Just for the hell of it. It’s not really necessary to distinguish the three sailors, but why not do it if you can, I guess?

Chaplin seems to be throwing dummies on board the ship rather than requiring his actors to flop onto the deck from a great height, or hiring stuntmen. These clowns can certainly take falls, but it’s uncertain they could do what’s shown here without serious bruising at least. Tight cutting prevents the trick being obvious, for once.

The captain shows up and of course gets clonked too. IMDb insists on calling him the mate (Lawrence A. Bowes) and Bud Jamison the second mate, but in that case there’s no captain at all, which seems odd.

Then comes the inevitable betrayal — Charlie is ceremonially clonked and thrown aboard to share the voyage with the men he’s walloped, though at least he gets to keep the three bucks and at least the men don’t know he’s responsible for their abduction, unlike in THE LIVE GHOST (Stan Laurel was adept at making each situation the boys get into the absolute worst possible iteration of that scenario — “Oh no” is not an uncommon thing to find yourself saying in a Laurel & Hardy film. In this, Stan is arguably refining a technique introduced by his old colleague Chaplin.)

The four captives are awakened by water-pail and set to work, even though we don’t seem to be at sea yet. I would have thought, fractured skulls or not, they might climb back on land at this point. But we soon see the wisdom of the captain’s plan. As each man refuses to work, he is slapped into unconsciousness and dropped down into the hold, no doubt breaking his neck. Leo White is playing his tar VERY OBSTREPEROUS so he gets this treatment. Billy Armstrong and Charlie agree to work.

Charlie is considering rebelling against a whey-faced cabin boy, a pale, drippy Larry Semon sample of a man, but then the captain shows up with a whip and all thoughts of mutiny go the way of the rumble seat.

So far, Chaplin is following a good pattern, one he’s developed by trial and error: Charlie has a sympathetic yearning for Edna; he’s also an amusing rogue; and now he’s in a terrible situation, enslaved on a boat that is, if I’m any interpreter of expository hand gestures, due to be blown up. Sympathy, conflict, suspense, a situation which demands a dramatic resolution. It’s all there. If anything, there’s too much plot, since Charlie has had little room for his comic elaborations.

The ship sets sail, which we see because the set is on rockers. It takes me a while to figure out that the attractive abstract pattern painted on the back wall is the scenic artist’s attempt to suggest the interior of the ship’s bow.

The cabin boy type, the one character Charlie has decided he can bully (this aspect of the Tramp character dies hard, it seems) is Fred Goodwins, a fellow Londoner who would survive service in WWI only to die of bronchitis in London aged 32. He’s in a few Chaplin shorts and has a meaty juvenile role in AMARILLY OF CLOTHES-LINE ALLEY, and David Robinson quotes his contemporary account of Chaplin’s lambasting in the press for vulgarity, and his determination to serve up good clean fun.

Extended bit with winch — Charlie gets two men overboard and, in trying to rescue them, plunges a third into the brine. None of which is massively funny, oddly enough. A new big prop like this would usually bring out Chaplin’s best ideas, but possibly the struggle of filming at sea is interfering with the comic flow. It’s a bit rote on this boat.

Quite a good gag where Armstong, White and McGuire, attempting to haul the captain and mate and underling aboard with a rope, fall off the other side of the ship. Although I’d have had them all hanging onto the rope so you could have six men hanging over the sides, and Charlie could try to rescue them by cutting the rope.

The frantic sailor operating the winch is good — hard to work out from the cast list who he is, and he might be doubling for one of the men overboard… he moves so fast it’s hard to framegrab him without just getting blurry ectoplasm. This would be solved if I had the Blu-ray.

Wesley Ruggles reads a letter: Edna has stowed away on the doomed boat. Ah-ha! I was genuinely wondering how Chaplin would be able to involve Edna in the story beyond the intro. The closeup of the handwriting, oddly, seems completely unrestored — it has a dupey VHS quality. I’m really wondering about the history of this upload.

The shock sends dada beating his bruised and krovvy rookers against unfair Bog in His Heaven. Pardon my nadsat.

Given Charles Ruggles’ later fame, it is arguable that Chaplin has hired the wrong brother, but nothing about Wesley is inapt in this context.

And now we see Edna hiding in a sack, anticipating Marion Mack, and we see Ruggles setting off in a launch to save his daughter from Exploding At Sea.

And now Charlie is washing dishes with predictable efficiency — when he washes them they STAY washed and will never need washed again, in all their many fragments. Unfortunately he’s washing them in the captain’s soup. This kind of gross-out pollution gag isn’t new — indeed, Charlie let his mop drip in Billy Armstrong’s tin of whatever-it-was in his previous short, THE BANK, much to both men’s eventual disgust.

Charlie seems to breaking the basic rules of screen direction by exiting the kitchen from the left and entering the mess also from the left. We seem to be missing a shot taken on deck where he appears from the kitchen and turns to enter another door in the same wall — whether this shot was deleted for pace reasons, lost, or was never shot, I don’t know. It seems unlikely that Chaplin would rely on what’s effectively a jump-cut to speed the film along, he’s always very meticulous about continuity and screen direction, and often shows himself walking through a set just to get to the next scene. He can generally add a bit of business to make the interim action entertaining.

The captain and mate, rocked back and forth (cameraman Harry Ensign devised a gimbal thing to sway the camera) in a medium shot, laugh about their successful shanghai-ing to remind us to hate them so we can enjoy them being sickened by washing-up soup, and Charlie builds in some good expense before the stricken reactions:

Of course it’s the poor cook (John Rand) who gets arse-kicked for it. Charlie attempts (a) to maintain a low profile (b) to ready a meat cleaver in self-defense (c) to look like an innocent skivvy. He escapes punishment from the captain but then the cook starts a fight, understandably enough. And now it seems that the captain’s mess is screen right, so that Charlie’s reaching it by exiting left was a bit of movie magic/a mistake. And now Charlie exits the kitchen screen right and emerges on deck, without passing through the mess. Who was the S.S. Vaquero’s boatwright, MC Escher?

Incidentally I wrote about all this in 2015, if you want to read the same stuff in different, possibly better, words.

Purely, it seems, to reestablish screen geography, Charlie walks all the way round the deck and enters every door, so we learn that the kitchen is IN FRONT OF the mess, both reached from the deck by going left to right, and so it should be impossible to walk through the kitchen to the mess. But actually, if we assume the kitchen is narrower and the mess is deeper, there just might be a way. But something is still out of wack here as far as I’m concerned.

Things aren’t helped when the ship/set/camera starts rocking violently, and bits of film start to go missing, splinking Charlie around so that he seems to exit right and emerge left, which we KNOW should be impossible. And now I can actually figure something out at last: somebody has flipped a shot, since the lifeboat that previously said L.A. now seems to say A.J. And when we saw this side of the deck previously, we were looking at the BACK of a lifeboat. So somewhere in the restoration a blunder has occurred. I think there’s quite a bit of this goes on at Lobster, sad to say.

And now Charlie enters the mess from the RIGHT… so maybe it was Chaplin who flipped the shot, to cover a mistake, accepting that he’d have to perform at least one spacetime violation since he didn’t have an exit/entrance shot taken on the right side of the boat.

And now he passes from one deck to the other (I believe port and starboard are the accepted terms but I don’t know which is which and this may be the wrong film to attempt to learn from) without passing through the rooms between, as if via wormhole. The nouvelle vague has nothing on this. I wonder if the various pieces of film could be unflipped and reordered in a way that makes sense?

In fairness, matching screen direction on a boat once caused the great Angela Allen, goaded by nonsensical questions from John Huston, to blow a microchip and throw her notes in the air (but NOT, she emphasises, over the side).

Now seated for his own meal, Chaplin is overcome by mal de mer. David Robinson points out the persistence of this routine in Chaplin’s work, developed through THE IMMIGRANT and appearing even during his last screen appearance in A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG. Comedy is very biological, especially visual comedy, but there were constraints on which functions could be shown or even implied. Nausea was acceptable.

Fleeing the food, Chaplin executes, and just about gets away with, another line-cross, then tumbles below-decks, where he must surely discover Edna who has only been in two shots thus far, for probably about a minute’s screen-time. Yes, the walking sack is Edna, as usual (though her 1915 fashions in this are slightly better than usual). She’s apparently discovered the dynamite plot, and the crate of dynamite has somehow moved into a prominent position on this set — perhaps there’s a lost scene where we see the captain and mate setting it up, and Edna overhearing them.

This unrestored version, seemingly dug up from somebody’s garden, is missing most of the geographical snafus but a lot of other material is gone too, including the intertitles.

Now the fuse is lit — the third act begins in earnest — Chaplin provides unusually dramatic suspense shots —

Disconnecting the fuse is intellectually beyond Charlie and Edna so he lugs the crate on deck and, in a piece of footage simply beyond all restoration — if you painted out the scratches you’d have Robert Ryan’s famous all-white painting, appropriately enough in this context entitled Bridge.

Hard to tell if the backlighting is a help or a hindrance to visual comprehension here.

Of course the dynamite somehow lands in the lifeboat with the captain and mate, and they explode. I laughed darkly at Charlie trying to explain his mistake to, presumably, a lot of reddish fragments littering the ocean like the remains of Bruce the shark after he ate something that disagreed with him.

Our lovers disembark onto dad’s launch. Dad, who is morally responsible for this criminal enterprise which has resulted in two fatalities.

A “mercy shot” shows the captain and mate alive and intact, but then shows them sinking from view. So they ARE dead.

The stage is now set for Charlie to be allowed to marry Edna, but her dad, who is after all a bastard, still refuses. Charlie prepares to drown himself. Edna, reunited with dad, is oblivious. He jumps. NOW she notices him.

Charlie manages to climb aboard and kick dad in the pants, dunking him. Charlie and Edna motor off leaving Wesley Ruggles to drown as they laugh in psychopathic glee, and ending Chaplin had previously applied to A JITNEY ELOPMENT. And then, without even an END title or Essanay’s Indian profile, it stops.

My Two Centurions

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on March 17, 2021 by dcairns

There didn’t seem to be any reason for it to happen, but while discussing 55 DAYS AT PEKING with Shadowplayer Randall William Cook yesterday, I flashed on the quite unrelated idea that George Stevens should have cast his old chums Laurel & Hardy in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD.

After all, everyone else was in it. The boys had to have felt left out. And they wouldn’t have been any more absurdly distracting than John Wayne.

We started imagining dialogue: “Well, Stanlius, this is another great story you’ve gotten me into.”

Randy topped that: “Truly, this man was the son of God.” “He certainly was.”

I imagined Ollie stepping on a nail. Randy supplied the line: “OOOH HOO HOOO!”

Max Von Sydow looks down compassionately.

Then I realized that Stevens would never have cast Stan and Max in the same film owing to the danger of audience confusion.

It was only this morning that I realized that Ollie died in 1957 and TGSET was made in 1965. But anything’s possible if you have imagination. Use out-takes from THE BOHEMIAN GIRL? The costumes are close enough. I mean, if the audience is bothered by the sudden switch to academy ratio and black and white and the appearance of a dead comedian in the wrong clothes, I think it’s fair to say you’ve already lost them.

(In fairness to Stevens, he DID cast Ed Wynn in a dramatic role, and the guy’s good, too. I kind of like TGSET as an experimental film: the tableau style is really radical. It’s kind of boring to watch, but so are a lot of experimental films if you’re looking for the wrong things in them.)