Archive for Laurel & Hardy

Hobo Erectus

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2021 by dcairns

Though GETTING ACQUAINTED is Chaplin’s Keystone farewell to most of his favourite co-stars and the last real park film made with Sennett, HIS PREHISTORIC PAST has tramp-in-park bookends, so it’s a goodbye to the studio.

All the major silent comedians made stone age comedies — Keaton did THE THREE AGES, Laurel & Hardy did FLYING ELEPHANTS, Harold Lloyd, in his Lonesome Luke phase, did CLUBS ARE TRUMP. Although I’m being ahistorical as well as prehistorical, since when Lloyd and L&H made their entries, they were not yet among the greats, certainly lower echelon than Arbuckle in his pomp.

Chaplin was first — his HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, set up as a dream sequence with the Tramp settling down to sleep on a park bench, the entire story sandwiched, Cocteau-like, between the onset of unconsciousness and the inevitable shaking awake by Kop Syd Chaplin (his half-brother, who had just joined the company as Charlie was leaving), is a straight parody of D.W. Griffith’s BRUTE FORCE, released the same year. That film cast Bobby Harron as Weakhands (Griffith liked his heroes to have parable-type names), this one casts Charlie as Weakchin. There’s some question about whether the name was in Chaplin’s original release cut, because brother Sidney, the noted cannibal rapist, rewrote most of Chaplin’s intertitles after he left Keystone. But given the connection to Griffith’s film, and the fact that playing that up in 1914 makes more sense than doing it later, I feel it was probably part of Charlie’s original scenario.

David Robinson points out that the “discovery” of the Piltdown man in 1912 doubtless kicked off the movies’ brief caveman craze. Piltdown man was a phony, an anthropocene Princess Anastasia, but he caught the public’s eye much as Charlie’s phony hobo would.

This high-concept parody approach is a new wrinkle for Chaplin and probably for Keystone. He wouldn’t return to it. It seems like a lot of effort (costumes, props) for relatively little reward.

Mack Swain is King Lowbrow, identified by title as King of Waikiki Beach. And I feel this may be an unfortunate Sydney interpolated intertitle. The movie was later retitled THE HULA HULA MAN in some territories, clearly an act of madness, as Howard Beale would say. This all seems to be riffing off the primitive ritual dance which opens the caveman section, which has a Hawaiian aspect to it. If Chaplin had known the trouble this would cause, he might have asked for different moves to entertain his terpsichorean tyrant.

Some of the cavegirls wear grass skirts, that’s another reason for the mix-up, I expect.

Enter Charlie from behind a tree, clad in off-the-shoulder fur number, but with familiar hat, cane, toothbrush ‘tache and boots. This is either a good gag or a damaging anachronism. For a short fantasy it seems fine. And Chaplin is now well-identified with these items of costume, they’re not optional. A fur derby and baggy furry pants might have been an idea. A club which can be used like a cane could have worked. But this seems like a decent surreal image.

Charlie then plucks some fur from the arse of his coat, stuffs it into his pipe (he has a pipe again! But a different one from THE PROPERTY MAN) and lights it with a flint struck on his leg which doesn’t produce a spark the way a flint would, but instead catches fire at one end, the way a flint wouldn’t. All of this is just conjured from nowhere with a few props, and would have been cut if anyone at Keystone other than Chaplin had been in charge. It’s not ACTION (the Keystone stock-in-trade). It’s BEHAVIOUR (Chaplin’s forte).

Other cave-persons: May Wallace (cavewoman queen), Gene Marsh (sexy cavegirl), Fritz Schade (Caveman medicine man), Al St John, Vivian Edwards (teenage cavegirl). Grover Ligon (spaceman caveman).

Chaplin starts wooing, but his big club is just for show: he prefers more modern flirting. Sidenote: his legs at this point are very skinny. Amazing they didn’t just slice clean through the baggy pants and leave them standing in his thin wake. Maybe they did, and that’s why he’s making this film panstless.

The medicine man, catching Charlie in flagrante predelecto, shoots him in the bum with an arrow. “He had the obscure feeling someone was trying to give him a present” (William Golding, The Inheritors). Charlie retaliates by slinging a rock, which Kuleshovs through frame in the time-honoured manner and beans the King. Actually, it misses him, but Sennett didn’t believe in retakes. Swain gamely acts as if the royal noggin has been struck.

Swain and the medicine man take turns chasing the ragged rascal round and round a rugged rock. An early who’s-following-who routine. Look at those cavemen go!

“They exchange cards,” says an intertitle, ruining the joke in advance. But the joke isn’t clear wthout explanation. The piece of pelt Charlie hands over isn’t enough like a card. If we got a closeup and it had writing, or cave-art style pictograms on it, it might work. But I think ideally it should be a tiny stone tablet. Or, given the bowler and cane, it could just be a business card. This Flinstones world isn’t really Chaplin’s natural habitat. Though the casual brutality does make it a logical extension of the Keystone universe. Here’s Walter Kerr:

“Silent film comedy begins as though comedy had never existed, as though Aristophanes had never existed, as though sophistication of the same materials had never been achieved. A completely new form seems to take man back to his dawn, to revive and repeat an entire cycle of race-memories picked up along the evolutionary path, to start as primitively as if the Neanderthals were still a threat, and to probe toward the future with the weapons and level of wit of cavemen.

“In fact, the most apt description of these first screen comedies appears in a book about chimpanzees, Jane Van Lawick-Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man. ‘Young chimps,’ the author comments, ‘like to play with each other, chasing round a tree trunk, leaping one after the other through the treetops, dangling, each from one hand, while they spar and hit each other…'”

Unfortunately, too, Charlie does not seem to have outfitted himself with a fake club, so that when he clobbers foes or friends or mere passers-by, as he does frequently and at random, he has to “pull his punches” with the hefty bludgeon, which destroys even the witless level of comedy being attempted. I wouldn’t mind seeing the club bend unnaturally, but I need to see a bit of wallop put into the culling of troglodytes.

The “cave interior” is the worst set I’ve ever seen in a Keystone film, where usually the production design is sparse and tawdry. This one is just cloth stretched over random angular frames. It’s three-dimensional, but actually a painted backdrop would be less disgraceful. It doesn’t even suggest a cavern. More like a tent that’s being chewed by a dinosaur, who has mysteriously paused his mastication just as his fangs are about to pierce the canvas.

I get the feeling that Chaplin, already casting around for a more profitable deal than the one he enjoyed with Sennett, didn’t really have his mind on this job. He wouldn’t reconnect with Charles D. Hall, a colleague from the Fred Karno troupe, who would design all Chaplin’s films from A DOG’S LIFE to MODERN TIMES, for several years yet. And nobody at Keystone had ever been asked to design anything as unusual as a cave, it seems.

Some unfortunate splices (missing footage) now create a surprising Godardian effect. Competing over the cave-girlies with the rival medicine man, Charlie swings down his club, and instantly he’s standing elsewhere, surrounded by the adoring girls. From cause to effect.

An impressively managed gag, as Charlie and his cave-lady of choice walk into shot and are immediately wiped out by a colossal wave. We hadn’t known these rocks are seafront property. Poor Gene Marsh, as “Sum-Babee, Lowbrow’s Favorite Water Maiden,” (a Syd addition?) seems to be struggling against a sodden wardrobe malfunction. Worse still, Charlie and Gene and the camera operator all seem to be in danger of getting washed away.

Keystone apparently couldn’t locate an actual cave near L.A. (there is one: we see it in THE USUAL SUSPECTS) so Mack Swain’s throne room is entered by walking behind a rock.

More random clonking. This whole scenario brings out the less attractive side of Chaplin-at-Keystone. Still, at least his flirtations are non-violent, the club-’em-on-the-head-and-drag-’em-off-by-the-hair fantasy is merely hinted at, never enacted.

Mack Swain’s whole schtick at Keystone, his “Ambrose” character which this King is a variation on, is to be big and possibly authoritative in position, but really rather timorous and easily dominated, which Charlie plays up to. It’s continually unclear why the King lets Charlie prod him in the belly with whatever’s handy, whack him on the ass with a club, etc. The King having low self-esteem just isn’t a very amusing idea and Charlie comes off as a bully, a recurring but not consistent issue in the Keystone series.

Charlie and the King shoot arrows at a hen in a tree. The eggs it drops on them have been erased, it seems, by the poor digitisation of YouTube, so what follows is a bit abstract. A more pure pantomime?

Charlie kisses Gene and the screen whites out in a Marienbad overexposure of passion. Swain isn’t seeing white, but red, though. Gene retreats to the sidelines, looking like Cousin It in her unflattering grass skirt.

David Robinson reports that Chaplin, when working hard, enjoyed no social life, and so the fact that we don’t know what he was up to besides making films at Keystone means he wasn’t doing anything away from the studio. But he was young and newly successful. I don’t think he spent a whole year NOT banging the ingenues. There’s a whole cave-cluster of them in the film, and really for no reason.

Charlie shoves Mack off a cliff and declares himself “Kink” — which I think we can agree is a likely Syd line.

Charlie now becomes an obnoxious tyrant — no surprise, as he was an obnoxious underling. He poses, Frazetta-style with his concubine in his fabric cavern. Mack enters, and smashes a small boulder to fragments on Charlie’s occiput, which causes a hard cut to “modern” 1914 Charlie being woken by Syd the kop, and the film abruptly stops, missing a few seconds I fear.

A film about succession ends with Chaplin handing over his Keystone throne to his perverted half-brother.

And it’s over. Unlike Ford Sterling, when CC left Sennett’s Fun Factory, he left for good. But Chaplin’s move from Keystone to Essanay is a blog post in itself…

The Sleeper Awakes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2021 by dcairns

Guest-post from Jaime Christley —

Recently I got sidetracked from my viewing queue by one Leo McCarey / Charley Chase short, then another, then another. Presently following a McCarey compulsion as far as it will go; clearing out several rarities per week. (I’ve seen all the major sound features except SATAN NEVER SLEEPS, if that one is considered “major”.)

Oh and PART TIME WIFE; can’t seem to find that one.

I no longer get much out of arguing auteurism pro or con, but the concept is quite a bit more interesting as one catalogs McCarey from 1929 and walking backwards from there: job titles like “Director” get a bit cloudy with the addition of “Supervising Director” (McCarey has been both), and it’s common knowledge that Laurel and Chase conceived and wrote the largest part of their own stories and gags. 

Still, when I think McCarey is really feeling his oats, the difference is palpable, especially in the Chases. It helps that I don’t find Chase all that funny (but I don’t dislike him, far from it), so I find myself grouping the more successful 1- and 2-reelers by how much a film is managing to achieve equilibrium with/against what I’ve come to think of as “Hal Roach hijinks”… i.e. the notion that actors behaving funny is funny enough. (I’m recalling a very early Mack Sennett short that ends with a guy wearing a funny disguise biting down on a curtain rod.

An auteurist like me has to make peace with the fog, as well as the dominance of bigger voices and “truer” authors. And I believe in Stan Laurel’s genius, he probably did as much for the cinema as anybody. Nevertheless the hunt for McCarey-ness continues apace, and I even feel, here and there, vindicated. The unassuming and seemingly minor-register BROMO AND JULIET, during this survey, has been the closest to a triumph, even as the reasons why I think it’s a near-masterpiece elude me. It’s just one of those cases where the souffle rises rather than doesn’t.

I think of it like this: take this frame from MUM’S THE WORD. Credit Chase for devising a meet-cute prompted by Martha Sleeper shooting him in the butt (she was fighting off a purse thief). (Chase liked to have Jimmy Jump get shot in the butt. I guess he thought you don’t get hurt back there?) But those onlooking passengers in the background, sort of audience surrogates watching the seeds of a future romance … that’s something McCarey would make sure was part of the bit.

Jaime Christley

Music Boxing

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

HIS MUSICAL CAREER is an unusually subtle title, since the musical career in question turns out to be piano-moving, something customers could only be amused by AFTER paying for a ticket and starting to watch.

We see Charlie getting hired in the first scene, by Mack Swain, while the reliably weird-looking Billy Gilbert (not that one) shamelessly pulls focus in the bg. Expect to see this guy shown the door once Chaplin sees the rushes. And funny that both the major comedy shorts about piano-moving have guys called Billy Gilbert in them.

Charlie is STILL experimenting with his basic look: this time he has a little clay pipe to puff on, smokelessly. He gets some decent business out of it, but David Lynch would probably say the added face-detail makes Charlie’s head too FAST. The little moustache and dark eyebrows are detail enough.

Laurel & Hardy’s THE MUSIC BOX is the one to beat, clearly, and it’s doubtful that Chaplin at this stage in his career has a chance of doing it.

Still, Mack Swain as supervisor is a good idea: so he’s not just bigger than Charlie, he outranks him. Swain had spent so long (maybe only a year and a bit, but dozens of films) being pushed around by Chester Conklin that he was probably programmed against acting dominant, which means he’s no Eric Campbell.

There’s immediately a nasty gag about Swain drinking varnish — Chaplin seems to be consciously responsible for this, whereas it would be funnier as an accident. But Keystone was inclined towards cruelty and aggression, and Chaplin to some extent towed the line. His ineffectual attempts at helping the poisoned Swain are reasonably funny, but would have worked a lot better if he hadn’t switched the drink and varnish on purpose.

Plum role for Charley Parrot (later Chase) as the store manager.

Charlie shows off his tiny muscles. Thin but wiry!

Two customers, Mr. Rich (stout and top-hatted) and Mr. Poor (gesticulating melodramatic scarecrow). Pathos is something to be made mock of, at this stage of the Chaplin filmography.

Two addresses, 666 Prospect St. and 999 Prospect St., are introduced, setting up the potential for a mix-up. I note that Mabel lived at no. 666 in CAUGHT IN A CABARET, but I make no Satanic inference from this.

Before the film has reached the five-minute mark, Swain is trapped under the piano in an image resembling a Weegee death scene. So long as Chaplin is fecklessly responsible, this cruelty works (has deniability), but he keeps alternating between incompetence and malice. Look at his work as Chester Conklin’s assistant in MODERN TIMES to see how this vicious streak in Chaplin would evolve: Conklin suffers great indignities in that one, but Charlie means him no harm, is sincerely trying to help him at every turn. So the rather sadistic comedy comes about ironically, and is therefore much funnier, and character sympathy is preserved.

En route to 666 or 999, Charlie uses his pipe as a tiny ladle to steal booze from a slumbering Swain.

I’d love to have seen the camera set-up for Charlie and Mack riding the donkey-cart. Presumably they’re attached to the back of a truck or something, the camera positioned on it, the donkey getting a rest break. Just as well, since soon the poor beast of burden is being dangled in mid-air.

It seems wrong that the mix-up in addresses isn’t Charlie’s fault. This piano company has survived and even flourished before him coming along, so it seems to me that any disasters should be the inadvertent work of Charlie, Lord of Misrule. Chaplin needs to be more selfish and make himself fully the star comedian. There, never thought I’d complain that Chaplin wasn’t egotistical enough. I’m looking forward to him being supported by blander, less forceful talents like Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Then, in the features, he can find room for some of his Keystone chums again, because the greater running time requires a few diversions from his own showmanship.

The inevitable “moving the piano up a staircase” routine comes and goes without ever evoking the majesty of the l&h version. It’s not bad, would probably get a good laugh in a crowded theatre. Now Chaplin tries playing up the idea of the Little Fellow as oppressed worker, with Swain as exploitative overseer, but it’s too late in the story to really make that stick. Still, it’s a more promising approach than what he’s been doing. And, interestingly, Mr. Poor and his daughter, formerly Dickensian pastiches, now become annoying fusspots so that nobody can decide where to put the piano and Charlie is forced to carry it to and fro on his shoulders, a proletarian Sisyphus.

The strain turns Charlie into a crouched, bow-legged Angelo Rossitto figure, a transmogrification effected solely by acting. Swain’s brutal repair-job again shows the characters working together as they should: the spinal crack is performed heartlessly, just to make Charlie capable of doing more hard work.

The rules of film grammar, as they are understood in 1914, require that we watch Charlie and Mack return downstairs and get on their cart, even though there are no gags devised to make the trip particularly entertaining. L&H could dispose of such A-B business with a wipe or dissolve. Still, Chaplin can splice in a title card to shorten the trip to number 999.

Mr. Rich also has a daughter, who is apparently suitable for flirting with (Mr. Poor’s daughter was innocent and respectable). The Riches also employ a liveried footman who seems somewhat out of keeping in L.A. Kicking him to the floor, Charlie and Mack abduct the upright, and go crashing into the bright street. At 12.31 Charlie does a little back-kick of one leg to literally kickstart himself, a signature move — I’m unsure if we’ve seen it done properly before this. Probably we have. The confrontation with the furious owner DOES seem a bit reminiscent of developments in THE MUSIC BOX.

The boys flee downhill, ruthlessly kicking aside an innocent passer-by (a moment mostly splinked out by a bad splice) and splash into what is presumably Echo Lake. Mr. Rich shakes his fist in stereotyped pantomime, and we have another of those very abrupt endings, not helped by what is likely a bit of missing footage, where Charlie for obscure reasons tries to play the now half-submerged piano. There’s a promising comic image there, but no time to work it out, seemingly.