Archive for Laurel & Hardy

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: Before Comedy was King

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2020 by dcairns

An evening of Laurel without Hardy and Hardy without Laurel sounded uncertain — I was reminded of the cheap tapes and DVDs that would package together whatever low-quality public domain bits they could scrape together and publish, without a shred of honest, as “The Best of Laurel and Hardy.” But, viewing as an amateur historian, and without the residual feeling of having been cheated, this was pretty great.

This is the intertitle, folks.

THE SERENADE (1916) stars Plump & Runt — an early attempt at putting Ollie in a double-act based on physical opposites: this time, a fat guy and a short guy. Well, that doesn’t work. Absorbing the twosome into a larger troupe, as musicians in a slapstick band, also doesn’t help things. When Stan & Ollie appeared as musicians early on, they made sure they were the only funny ones except for irate conductor James Finlayson.

Hmm, Babe made thirty-eight of these suckers, so I guess they thought they’d established things… I have zero recollection of ever reading about this series.

There are one or two ACTUAL SHOTS in this, such as the introduction of Runt (Billy Ruge) from behind his own feet. And some neat trick shots. Lots of stuff of Ollie blasting people out of frame with his mighty tuba, a kind of early sonic weapon. It isn’t any damn good, but it has spurts of invention.

Larry Semon rips off EASY STREET in THE RENT COLLECTOR (1921) with Babe Hardy in the Eric Campbell part, looking like Paul Sorvino in a spray-on beard. Hardy played heavy a lot in his early films, but whereas the examples I’ve seen were notable for how similar to his later performance style Ollie’s characterisations were, in this one it’s more interesting to see how unformed the persona is.

(There’s that wild west one where villainous O.N.H. spots the heroine skinny-dipping, and displays lustful scheming by hitching up his pants with a side-to-side rotation of the waistline, a pure Ollie gesture employed in unexpected and very unfamiliar circs.)

Larry Semon is funny-looking (hire Paul Rubens for the remake), and distinctive, though when he adds a jacket to his derby and baggy dungarees he again seems to be ripping off That Other Clown.

Some inventive special effects, jump cuts and undercranking and even overcranking, so you could fairly say, as the saying goes, it’s both good and original, but the parts that are good etc…

NB: Larry Semon definitely faked his own death. DEFINITELY.

Ollie has a henchman, another fat guy who’s even fatter. Two fat guys NEVER works.

Then we moved on to Stan Laurel in DETAINED — the title is funny, somehow. An escaped convict forces Stan into that stripy prison attire he’d be seen in several times in later years, resulting in his immediate incarceration — in other words, it’s Keaton’s CONVICT 13, and promptly devolves into a series of spot gags featuring Stan’s nascent idiot persona. He grins a lot, especially at us, and is much more, uh, proactive, than his later incarnations. There’s an electric chair scene played in a vaulted dungeon which is probably a recycled set from the Chaney HUNCHBACK — see also Stan’s DR. PYCKLE AND MR. PRYDE.

Some of Stan’s “freak gags” appear — his neck is literally stretched by a noose. Hal Roach might have actually been right about those — they’re always unsettling and rarely funny. Still, the tunneling to freedom stuff does show Stan annoying another, larger convict, and the foreshadowing of THE SECOND 100 YEARS is very clear. Towards the end, he does some running about in a panic, and some weeping, so it feels like he’s getting born.

Argh, take it away!

MOONLIGHT AND NOSES (1925) is a vehicle for Clyde Cook, paired with the reliably gruesome Noah Young, as a couple of burglars. Stan directed this one. and thriftily recycled chunks in future shorts — at first it looks like he’s using the burglars sketch his father wrote, and which he kept trying to turn into a successful short, but then it throws in a mad scientist (James Finlayson in fulsome side-whiskers) and grave-robbing, and a certain ingenue named Fay Wray, and turns into a practice run for HABEAS CORPUS.

Cook plays a hapless idiot, and Young plays a domineering idiot — you see where this is going — it’s like a rehearsal for mature Laurel & Hardy comedy, with a shopsoiled Chuckle Brother and a murderous gargoyle cast as the boys. Absolutely fascinating. Not a laugh in it. But I’m really glad I saw it. It has the quality of a dream, where all your familiar friends have been replaced by unsuitable stand-ins.

The byplay between Cook & Young is actually skilled, and I like comedy of terror a lot, so I had a fairly good time with this. Maybe no laughs but some muted snorts of appreciation.

And then comes WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD (1923), one of Stan’s parody films, which are often outrageously funny (remember Rhubarb Vaselino?). This one, though incomplete, is a joy. The ridiculous gags mainly consist of throwing everything at the situation — whatever’s easiest. This being a Fairbanks Robin Hood parody, we get anachronisms and absurdities from the off. (Well, the actual off is missing, but from the off that’s left.)

Stan enters on horseback, but it’s a puppet horse he’s wearing, with floppy fake human legs draped over the saddle. British comedian Bernie Clifton used to wear an outfit like this, only he rode an ostrich I believe it was. You can ride anything using this technique.

Stan is being chased by an army of knights, all wearing their horses in the same manner. It’s very MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, only he found a more expensive way of doing the coconuts, which wouldn’t have worked in a silent movie, I guess.

Much battling on recycled sets ensues — Mae Laurel is glimpsed, I think — and the gags come (extremely) thick and fast. When an enemy is booted from a window, he lands on some power lines just for added cruelty and anachronism. The incessant piling-on of jokes means that Stan doesn’t get to make that much of an impression as an actor — you could substitute anybody you like, including Bernie Clifton, and it would make not too much difference. But it’s a riotous and unrelenting guffaw-generator, completely stupid and wonderful from (truncated) beginning to end, and fully justified the whole evening’s conceit.

Neil Brand’s piano throughout this programme brought the films to life, not in a ghastly electro-galvanistic way, which nobody would thank him for, but by infusing zest and charm and basic coherence where it needed to be and wasn’t always to be found, and brought into being the final short’s very specific musical requirement: a ragtime version of The Wedding March.

Frame grabs by Mark Fuller, mostly, to whom appreciation is due as always.

The 10th

Posted in FILM with tags , , on October 10, 2020 by dcairns
Stan demonstrates to the key to surviving lockdown: pie

It’s my birthday! I am mumblety-mumble years old and will celebrate with Fiona by meeting friends and, later, finishing off the Pordenone Festival of Silent Cinema by devouring their Laurel & Hardy programme. This being Pordenone, where obscurity is the new ubiquity, this is a programme of Laurel films and Hardy films, not Laurel & Hardy films. One thousand times the rarity value and one five-hundredth the laughs, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Maybe DON’T try this on your piano?

Pordenone, concentrating on delivering ALL of its programme online, has gotten some things right that Bologna just couldn’t (rights reasons), but the principle of making a film available for 24 hrs seems to work, even if there are benefits to watching each streaming movie “live” with a crowd of online friends.

Yesterday I saw TENET, partly for historical reasons, so I’ll review that soon. Interesting going to the cinema with ads saying “Welcome Back!” even as Cineworld, the UK’s largest chain, announces closure, and Covid cases skyrocket, and seeing a trailer for the new Bond film that announces “Coming in November!” which is no longer true. And about three other people in the auditorium. By “interesting” I guess I mean “melancholy,” but hey, this is autumn.