Archive for Lois Weber

The Sunday Intertitle: Recce on Easy Street

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2021 by dcairns

WORK (1915) has a lot to commend it. Before the first image has even appeared, there’s an early reference to Easy Street. And then we get Edna Purviance doing some actual comedy (she’s rarely allowed much) as the Ford family maid. I can’t be sure Chaplin acted it all out for her in advance but it seems probable. An excellent bit of miming, anyway.

This maid is always on the phone, making her a Chaplinesque layabout herself. Mr. and Mrs. Ford are regular co-clown Billy Armstrong, permanently apoplectic, and new recruit Marta Golden.

David Robinson waxes very enthusiastic about Charlie’s introduction as slave labour, pulling an enormous cart while his boss, Izzy A. Wake (Charles Inslee) whips him through traffic (with his own cane!). It’s building on the similar business in HIS MUSICAL CAREER, but Charlie is now clearly positioned as underdog, taking the place of the earlier film’s miserable donkey. Any viciousness he gets up to later has now been justified.

I was slightly startled to see the cart get jammed across a tramline, with an oncoming tram very narrowly missed. Chaplin can do things physically that would be dangerous for most of us, but he doesn’t usually skirt suicide in the Keaton manner. I guess, allowing for undercranking, the tram might be traveling slowly enough to just give the cart a good bump and smash it, and the actors would stand a chance of jumping clear. But I’m not going to test it.

Then there’s a rare camera trick, a Dutch tilt creating the impression of a 45° hillside. This movie might be the inspiration for Polanski’s TWO MEN AND A WARDOBE, THE FAT AND THE LEAN, and MAMMALS, which certainly all exude a Chaplin influence.

Enter Leo White, back in his customary top hat and tails. His road is less tilted because he’s posh. Life’s path is easier.

Charlie, catching up with him, slips on his banana skin (Charlie’s second banana related mishap) and slides back into the previous set-up. Chaplin’s films in this period are kind of like chains of set-ups. These function like squares on a board game. But any set-up can recur at any time. Also, if you’re in one set-up, chances are you can’t see the characters in the adjoining one, no matter how close they might be. The exception is when it’s a close shot of a single character, and then you might get a bit of flirting or whatnot between this character and the one in the next square.

Charlie and his boss actually slide all the way back to the set-up before the set-up before, which has an advancing tram in it again (perhaps the tram is always advancing in this set-up). Escaping this tram, Charlie and Izzy head back into the set-up before THAT, which means they have to deal with ANOTHER advancing tram once they finally start going forwards again. Seems there is indeed always an advancing tram in that set-up.

Judging by the improbable physics in Charlie and co’s next hair’s-breadth escape from dismemberment, the cart is on a wire for this gag, with a team or a machine pulling it rapidly out of shot. Which is terrifying: so much more can go wrong.

Climbing the illusionary hill and arriving in Leo’s banana-skin set-up again, Charlie slips on the skin again and nearly goes back to square one. Chaplin has worked out that banana skins are good for suspense as well as surprise, and that repeating funny business is good economics, but also THREATENING to repeat it can get a laugh too. A laugh of relief that we don’t have to go through all that again.

While Charlie wipes a litre of sweat from his brow, Izzy greets Paddy McGuire, stereotyped as an Irish labourer with a hod. So of course Charlie must now tow both of them. There’s an unusual cut to closer view as the two buddies shake hands: the continuity matching is so good I suspect two cameras were used. The principle of match-cutting on action obviously existed but wasn’t much discussed. Chaplin apparently isn’t doing what Griffith often did, repeating a bit of the action to make sure the audience caught it. Since Rollie Totheroh is Chaplin’s number two cameraman by now, he must be shooting one or other of these set-ups.

Charlie’s plunge down a manhole also seems like something you could hurt yourself doing. Sure there can be some kind of crash pad down there but supposing you hit your face on the edge?

After Charlie’s vanished from view, the blokes in the cart look around in bewilderment. A Fortean event! Izzy even looks UP, which is a very Chaplin thing to do. Rescued, he wafts his baggy pants to evaporate some of the newly-generated perspiration.

At the end of the shot, they walk off, and McGuire goes down the hole, but Time has removed just enough frames to make it not quite very funny.

We’re back to the Ford residence. This is a three set-up household so far: kitchen, hall and dining room, all square and cramped. But there’s a staircase too, so more set-ups may be discovered.

The workmen arrive. Mrs. F. elaborately describes what she wants done, while Izzy ignores her and lights a cigarette, seemingly taking none of it in, and Edna stands back, out of the way of the flailing silent movie gestures. Even doing this she manages to project comic character.

Charlie, having unloaded the cart and loaded himself, is now a one-man-band concatenation of building equipment, emitting tiny puffs of cigarette smoke to prove there’s someone alive in there.

Impossible that he should get in the front door with this stuff wrapped round him, but he does, because the front door is between camera set-ups and so of no concern to us. Charlie collapses in the hall.

Saucy byplay with Edna, who really is on fire in this, and not just because of the maid’s uniform. This being 1915, it’s really quite a dowdy version of a maid’s uniform but the concept is there. You don’t need need to overdo the fetishwear when you’re tickling the leading man’s arse with a feather duster. Which Edna is.

Charlie has already destroyed a fair bit of the Ford home, but it’s all through carelessness. The malice of THE TRAMP’s middle act is gone. For good? We’ll see. The flat is equipped with swing doors, which of course are an invention Charlie has never gotten along with. His inability to navigate them while holding a plank results in headaches for Mr. Ford, again, entirely accidental on Charlie’s part.

David Robinson is very good on the mistrust between classes Chaplin devotes quite a bit of action to. Charlie is oppressed by his boss but both of them see their clients as the common enemy.

Izzy takes off his hat and coat, dusts them carefully and hands them to Charlie, who pretty much destroys them instantly, giving us a clue how this home renovation thing is going to go. The movie has been coy about exactly what kind of “work” it’s going to be about, but now we see that paper-hanging is involved. This is going to be apocalyptic, isn’t it?

Izzy has made himself at home at the family piano while Charlie does all the work. I notice the curtains and tablecloth are blowing about like mad, usually a sign of an exterior set. David Robinson tells us that Chaplin, still between studios, “temporarily took over the converted Bradbury Mansion at 147 North Hill Street.” He used the front of the building to represent the front of the Ford home. But why is it so draughty?

A topical gag: Lois Weber’s HYPOCRITES was released in 1915. Charlie is always fascinated by nude statues and figurines, and he disguises his lust with a show of aesthetic appreciation. He was already working on this at Keystone. Here he uses a lampshade to make a hula skirt for it. His smutty, self-involved smile as he wiggles it. Then he looks up the skirt that he himself dressed it in.

Charlie has also brought along his little clay pipe, which seems to be associated with the workplace.

Edna’s maid, to give her proper credit, does seem more perturbed than charmed by Charlie’s lethal and destructive incompetence.

Immaculately timed bit where Charlie is called upon to help fix a gas range which keeps exploding. Obviously, that goes well. I’ve come to really enjoy Billy Armstrong and I wish he and Charlie had more business together in this.

I cracked up at Charlie trying to remove the great mass of wallpaper paste he has caused to become stuck to Izzy’s head. He’s scraping it off with a brush, but slipping in it every five seconds. So, two stupid activities, interspersed, based around wallpaper paste possessing the contradictory qualities of gooey and slippery. The victim sits patiently as his whited-out features are whisked into one abstraction after another…

Charlie then tries some paperhanging himself. He’s… not very good. Endless fun to be had with paper getting stuck to one hand, then to the other. Charlie has to be dumb enough here to not understand that sticky things are sticky. In later film, he’s not dumb, just not very practical. He doesn’t understand the stuff civilised people are supposed to know.

Edna discovers the Ford home’s long-lost fourth camera set-up, and dusts it.

When we cut back to him, Charlie has made quite a bit of progress with his papering. It’s strikingly shit progress, but progress nonetheless. The Dunning-Kreuger effect made flesh, even he seems not quite satisfied with the way the paper is peeling at the edges and curling at the ends. But it’ll do fine.

Edna immediately recognises the worthlessness of the papering, but sits down to hear Charlie’s tale of woe. We can’t hear what she hears, but a tighter two-shot allows Charlie to do a bit of manly yet broken-hearted stuff — mock pathos. Edna listens compassionately, then gets upset at the black muck his hand leaves on her arm.

It’s a strange bit, not as strange as the leftfield sincere pathos that crashes into THE TRAMP midway, but definitely out of register with the tone elsewhere. Unlucky in love, Charlie spaffs up the walls with his paste, Jackson Pollock style.

And now, just when we’d (probably) forgotten him, Leo White reenters the film, with a bouquet to replace his banana. No idea where he’s been all this time (he was AHEAD of Charlie and the cart), but like Poe Dameron in a silk hat he flies in to the rescue for no adequately prepared reason.

He is… the wife’s secret lover? Mr. Ford goes nuts, Mrs. Ford starts explaining again what renovations she wants done… I guess she’s trying to pretend he’s just another workman, for her husband’s sake. Yes, eventually an intertitle confirms this.

Leo enters the room Charlie’s in and gets a brushful of paste splurch in the kisser. This is only moderately funny: better is when, while Leo tries to explain that he’s not a wall, Charlie keeps daubing at his dripping features, seeing if he can’t improve the effect. He’s an artist at heart.

Then he splurches Edna — accidentally, it’s true. Still.

Billy Armstrong runs amok with a revolver, trying to straight-up murder Leo White. Izzy/Inslee falls into a full bathtub — at Keystone, such an incident might have served for a conclusion, but Chaplin has bigger fish to fry. Armstrong/Ford accidentally shoots the stove and the house explodes. Impressive wall caving-in stuff, quite ambitious for a Chaplin of this period.

Aftermath — disturbingly, Charlie’s boss seems to be pinned down under the bathwater by rubble and is drowning, slowly. Not sure what kind of error of judgement made that choice seem wise. The catastrophic kind, I suppose. Husband, wife and lover are reduced to three heads, poking from the wreckage, a Beckettian triangle. Edna has presumably been blasted into space. Charlie’s head emerges from inside the fallen stove, which seems improbable. He grins satanically at us, then gets hit by one of Oliver Hardy’s leftover bricks-to-be, and retires back into the stove where things are more peaceful.

WORK is a pretty successful short knockabout, with a soupcon of farce and that odd spot of faux-pathos. Chaplin doesn’t quite know what to do with this new mode, he’s just throwing it out there to see what it does. But he’s displaying a surer grasp of character sympathy, getting us on his side. As Walter Kerr observed, Chaplin as tramp was an experiment, and now he’s back to gainful employment. Chaplin as low-status underdog hero is the coming thing. He’s more or less worked out what his character is for.

The All Saints’ Day Intertitle: Transients Welcome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2020 by dcairns

Everybody at Keystone sat down to watch Chaplin’s first film as director. It seems likely that some of them were hoping to see him fail, or expecting it. But the film was good, and they were good enough to applaud at the end.

Chaplin must have been relieved — not only for the career advancement this now promised, and the power over his own comedy — but because he’d put up fifteen hundred dollars of his own money to cover the cost if Sennett judged the film unworthy of release.

It’s a nice, unambitious Keystone “farce comedy.” Chaplin wisely didn’t set out to make something notably more ambitious in scale or complexity than the films he’d acted in. MABEL AT THE WHEEL, for instance, is an epic by comparison. And by keeping things small-scale, he could devote more time to observing his own performance.

Mack Swain and his wife, Alice Davenport, are bickering in the inevitable park. Here I can correct the Wikipedia entry, which claims MS approaches a stall named “St. Rocupia’s.” I believe the name is Cornucopias. While he’s away, Charlie appears. I’m not sure why Davenport is initially so pleased to see a dishevelled tramp stumble from the undergrowth, smiling inanely. But then she has a good laugh as he runs afoul of a drinking fountain, then she becomes a bit perturbed as he approaches and starts… is that flirting? He also shares a wee laugh with his chums in the audience. This is, I believe, the only moment where one of the cast tips us the wink. Chaplin is already reserving that privilege for himself.

Swain, returning, flies into what our friend Clouseau would call a writ of felous jage, and knocks over both Charlie and the bench he’s on. The theme of the Little Fellow versus the Big Guy begins to be drawn. Keystone, makers of live-action cartoons basically, already used physical contrasts as a shorthand for characterisation. Chaplin has a very specific use in mind though for the larger type of comic (and he’d employ Swain again in THE GOLD RUSH by which time the big guy was even bigger).

Recovering, Charlie leads himself by the ear into a bar, a bit of pantomime for our benefit alone. We don’t see what goes on in there (sets are limited) but next time he appears, he’s properly rat-arsed. Staggering out, he rests an elbow on the very protuberant rear end of a handy policeman, an unusual gag and quite an amusing one. When the Kop objects, Charlie obliviously lights a match on his chest. These guys provide a valuable service, think what we’d be missing if we defunded them. If the IMDb is to be believed, the buttock-thrusting Kop is Ted Edwards who is not only in many Keystones, but third lead in Dwain Esper’s notorious MANIAC. But I don’t think he’s the guy, even though the character in the Esper epic thinks he’s Poe’s razor-wielding orangutan, a role for which ass-thrusting would be fairly useful.

In a fairly alarming gag, Charlie crosses the road and nearly gets rubbed out by a passing jalopy, which would have put an early stop to the nascent career of the screen’s greatest comedy star. Then he arrives in the hotel lobby — seems that, despite being even more ragged than usual (the seam at his shoulder’s giving out at the back) he’s not a total indigent. Some cruel treatment of a gouty invalid anticipates THE CURE. Since gout is, in a sense, a self-inflicted disease of the wealthy, the usual rules about mocking the disabled don’t apply in silent cinema. But most of Chaplin’s gout-sufferers would be fat, domineering men, quite unlike this poor guy.

I do really like Charlie’s truculent manner and his trouble with the stairs, which just escalates. It’s a relief whenever a Keystone film takes the time to let a gag build. One reason Chaplin was much more popular than Keaton is he does something Keaton resisted: repeating a gag. If it works once, do it again. Make a dance move out of it. Let the slower audience members catch up. Pull variations on it, surprise them, but only once they’ve really gotten to expect the next iteration. Tiny kids love repetition: things seem to get funnier for them the more they recur, and Chaplin I would think works better with tinies than Keaton does.

I wrote about this film before, but seeing Chaplin’s shorts in order of production gives me more to say, hopefully.

Chaplin holds a shot on Charlie as he undresses (his pajamas are underneath his “suit”) and discovers a dozen little bits of comic business he can work in. This kind of concentration is missing from most Keystones to date. It’s here CC shows his ambition.

Davenport walks in her sleep, and this motivates the loose act III. It’s a neat reversal of the situation in MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT, which was the Tramp’s first appearance. Having a drunken bum scare Mabel and create jealousy with her boyfriend was interesting but not hugely funny — the menacing hobo works better played straight in Lois Weber’s SUSPENSE — flipping things around so that the drunk is terrorized by the respectable lady walking in her sleep makes the situation inherently absurd, topsy-turvy, and therefore comic. It still might not be funny, but it’s recognizably comic in intent.

Chaplin appears to be trying some really fast cutting at the end, or else bits of all his shots have gone astray. Either is possible. It sort-of works. I’d describe it in the same terms I once used for Jerry Lewis’ double zoom when Buddy Love first appears in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: “an interesting attempt at something.” Causing a friend to remark, “That’s what they’ll put on my tombstone.” Was it Rivette who called Chaplin the greatest editor in history? He definitely isn’t. But he’s fairly precise, and since everything is dictated by his performance, what he’s doing technically tends to look easy when in fact it isn’t.

In his memoir, Chaplin implies that all he really knew about filmmaking at this time was the left-to-right rule, but he uses that in quite a deft manner: at the start, Charlie and Davenport occupy separate frames linked only by their eyeline. Later, Chaplin wrote —

“[…] I found that the placing of a camera was not only psychological but articulated a scene; in fact it was the basis of cinematic style. If the camera is a little too near, or too far, it can enhance or spoil an effect. Because economy of movement is important you don’t want an actor to walk any unnecessary distance unless there is a special reason, for walking is not dramatic. Therefore placement of camera should effect composition and a graceful entrance for the actor. Placement of camera is cinematic inflection. There is no set rule that a close-up gives more emphasis than a long shot. A close-up is a question of feeling; in some instances a long shot can effect greater emphasis.”

We’re definitely missing a half second at the end of this one. Chaplin has carefully set up a sequence of collapsing co-stars which doesn’t really resolve the story in any meaningful way, but seems to. All that’s missing is him falling back with Davenport on top of him, but he doesn’t quite make it. Time, that other great but rather random editor, has made off with the last fragment of footage. Maybe its something we get to see when we all finally keel over too.

Intertitle of the Week: the living intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 15, 2009 by dcairns

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Lois Weber’s TOO WISE WIVES features an unusual device — intertitles with live action footage incorporated. Mrs. David Graham (Claire Windsor) sits embroidering as the intertitle assures of her domesticity. It seems like a very good idea, since a common use for the intertitle was to introduce the dramatic personae. In some films, the actor’s name would also be given in parenthesis, making the title cards work as a sort of running credit sequence.

But, since TOO WISE WIVES was made in 1921, and I haven’t seen this approach in other silents, it look like an experiment that didn’t catch on.

(Incidentally, Mr. David Graham is played by Ambassador Trentino himself, Louis Calhern.)

Lois Weber is fascinating because of her mixture of bold experimentation with lapses into woodenness. Her devotion to enlightening the public about social issues makes her the kind of didactic do-gooder modern cinephiles often scorn, but her equal devotion to trying new things (see SUSPENSE, 1913, for a barrage of exciting tricks and first-time techniques) mean she cannot be lightly dismissed.

TOO WISE WIVES features some impressive special effects rooms — the ceilings are paintings, probably on glass, allowing a lighting rig to do its work, unseen ~

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Unfortunately, Weber rests on her laurels somewhat, re-using the same master shots of each room, again and again, at various points in the story. It’s as if the house were fitted out with 1920s CCTV, so that each room has one wide shot and one wide shot only. Fortunately, the closer shots show more variety.

It was from David Mamet that I first heard the dictum “Never repeat composition in a longshot,” and despite not caring much for his movies, I think it’s a very sound argument. By returning to the same set-up, you are saying to the audience, “Nothing has changed since the last time you were here,” and thus, by extension, “You have no reason to be watching.” Sometimes a return to a wide shot at the end of a scene can be justified, if the characters have struggled during the scene and wound up at an impasse, the repeated angle can affirm that. That depends for its effect on a lot of dramatic power shifts within the scene, and is probably overused because it’s economical: if the director has shot a master of the whole scene, the beginning and the end are probably the only times he can get away with using it.

Weber’s problem is doubtless that her master shots, with their special effects, took so long to set up that she couldn’t possibly shoot variations on them for each scene. Also, since the tableau style of shooting has only recently been replaced by the more montage-based approach, directors are still experimenting with what works, on the most basic level.

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Not much seems to be known about this beauty, who rejoices in the name of Mona Lisa.