Archive for Louise Fazenda

The Sunday Intertitle: Ambrose

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by dcairns

As a kid, I adored Mack Swain in THE GOLD RUSH (as a kid, I also liked Chaplin’s narrated version, but it was the only one I’d seen). And it was a source of frustration to me that I couldn’t seem to see any other Swain movies. Then I saw pictures of him in his Keystone heyday and he gave me the creeps. His “look” certainly illustrates Chaplin’s wisdom in choosing a SMALL mustache for himself — adds age and character, but doesn’t conceal facial expressions.

Swain’s smear of black is, I guess, what Groucho would end up if he didn’t keep his greasepaint neatly trimmed. It makes Swain look like a human being who has been bitten by a minstrel and is slowly turning into one.

Swain is also in HANDS UP!, the excellent, cartoony Civil War comedy that was a smash hit the year THE GENERAL flopped. He’s more like his GOLD RUSH self in that, though his character lacks the Gloomy Gus attitude that makes Big Jim so enjoyable. Star Raymond Griffith took one look at Swain and wanted him fired. “Too funny!” he rasped. Eventually, Swain was allowed to stay on condition he wore a smaller hat. Griffith didn’t want anyone poaching his laughs.

So, now I delve back into Swain’s history — it seems at Keystone he had a CHARACTER, Ambrose, recurring from film to film. But, and this is typical of Keystone, Ambrose doesn’t really have a consistent character apart from his scenic face-fungus. In one film he’s a murderous disgruntled employee, in another an oppressive king of a mythical (and fashion-confused) kingdom. Sennett seems to have not quite grasped the difference between “actor” Swain (plays many roles) and “character” Ambrose (IS supposed to BE a role). One of Ambrose’s more regular comedy job descriptions, however, is hen-pecked husband.

In WILLFUL AMBROSE (1915), Louise Fazenda does the pecking, and her domestic dominance is expressed in the way she drives her spouse outdoors by repeatedly stabbing him in the buttocks with a knife, when its time for him to play with their young daughter, Pansy (Vivian Edwards, 19). Once outside, Pansy throws solid objects at her dear papa, who briefly considers killing her with his pistol, then settles for a bit of target practice, until he destroys a beer stein and his wife concusses him with a bat. It’s kind of RANDOM, don’t you think?

When Chaplin said all he needed was a park, a pretty girl and a policeman, he might have been implying that if you threw more content at him than that and didn’t give him any time to organize it all, it might actually mess things up.

Ambrose attempts to buy a replacement stein from a weird stall that seems to be growing from the side of somebody’s house. “O. Schmidt, Dealer in Steins and Crockery.” But, having read all the German jokes on the vessel, he sees no point in purchasing it. Mr. Schmidt angrily hurls the flagon at the departing Swain, hits a young woman (Dixie Chene) on the coccyx, and provokes a fight between Swain and her boyfriend (Joe Bordeaux), a smaller man with a smaller mustache. Where is this GOING? I haven’t seen a film begin so uncertainly since William Friedkin’s SORCERER.

The abortive fight is notably violent and unhumorous, with Swain’s blows repeatedly landing on the young woman by accident, so she gets smacked in the face, kicked in the arse &c. Ambrose smashes up Schmidt’s stall, then goes for a drink. Pansy seems to have vanished from the film. But wait! Here she is, and the small-mustache Bordeaux, having misplaced his injured girlfriend, is trying to pick her up in the park, by the time-honoured method of throwing rocks and sticks at her. This seems to be the only mode of communication available to the Los Angelinos of 1915, before they discovered speech. Have things really changed so much?

Anyway, Pansy is not altogether averse to this savage wooing, and faints repeatedly, and progressively less genuinely, into her suitor’s short arms. Here, director David Kirkland attempts an actual shot ~

And now Ambrose can illustrate Chekhov’s dictum at the revolver and start blasting away at this unwelcome (to him) suitor. Then he runs into the guy’s much-abused girlfriend and immediately gets horny. I’m sensing that the title WILLFUL AMBROSE was chosen in desperation to try and contain this mess within some sort of comprehensible parameters. Anyway, this is really horrible. Dixie, perhaps the film’s best actor, looks really distressed, as anyone would be upon being snogged by Mack Swain, the Al Franken of the galloping tintypes.

In the midst of this mess, a concept does start to emerge — Swain drives away the diminutive Bordeaux with a display of toughness, biting a piece off the barrel of his pistol (!), a precursor to his shoe-eating in THE GOLD RUSH. Then his Mrs. appears to prove that even big men have their Achilles heels, and even big heels have their little women. Hideously prolonged limbering-up from Fazenda with the bat as Ambrose cringes in his park bench (the only other bit of good construction to be seen) and everyone gathers to watch the fatal blow with gruesome pleasure. A flurry of last-minute business, followed by a happy ending for everyone except Ambrose. Good.

The Sunday Intertitle: Reaction Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 29, 2011 by dcairns

THE NIGHT CLUB (1925) isn’t very well plotted, the gags aren’t brilliantly clever, the title is utterly irrelevant and the direction is decent but mostly uninspired, but it is nevertheless a film at which to laugh off one’s ass.

The reason is Raymond Griffith, near-forgotten silent comedy star, whose ability to react entertainingly to whatever’s going on around him means that the actual action of the film needn’t be particularly funny. This is established early on, when RG is jilted at the altar, a particularly good situation for this unusual comic: he has no interest in our sympathy, so he can simply exploit the sutuation, moment for moment, to get the maximum comedy out of it. As I’ve said before, his reaction upon learning that he stands to inherit a million dollars allows him to make a rapid recovery from heartbreak and demonstrate an amazing mastery of detail and nuance and lightning-change emotional quicksilvering.

Resolving to escape women, and particularly the one he’s now expected to marry in order to inherit (yes, this is one of those “unbelievable farce-type plots” Buster Keaton inveighed against), Ray takes off on holiday and runs smack into the girl. They fall in love at once, and then the plot has to keep inventing obstacles to what promises to be the most premature happy ending on record, occurring as it does somewhere near the end of act I. Complications include a murderous Mexican bandit played by Wallace Beery, a man who imbibed gusto with his mother’s milk. Louise Fazenda plays Carmen, the hot-blooded spitfire/stereotype.

Directors Paul Iribe and Frank Urson, who made the splendid DeMille production of CHICAGO, keep the thing moving as fast as possible to hide the threadbare narrative, and do deliver on an exciting chase, which has some of the accelerated-motion POV thrills that make the climax of Griffith’s PATHS TO PARADISE so breathtaking. Fight scenes are notable for the use of floppy dummies to substitute for RG during the dangerous bits, which always cracks me up. It’s cheating, of course, and the kind of thing which Keaton would never settle for, but it’s still very funny. Griffith is pretty brave when it comes to falling off tables and such, but he clearly had no intention of getting himself killed. His acrobatics lack Chaplin’s balletic elegance or Keaton’s simpler flap-shoe grace — unlike his contemporaries, Griffith was at his very best in scenes of talk, emotion, embarrassment and general medium-shot facial expressiveness. I’m not for a moment suggesting that Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd or Langdon or Stan and Ollie couldn’t do those things, just that it’s an area of special emphasis with Ray G.

Sublime fatuity.

Silent Laughter

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2008 by dcairns

And so to The Silent Clowns, at Edinburgh Filmhouse. Comedian Paul Merton has been sharing his love of the silent comedians for a couple of years now, and this show is a pretty good format to introduce newcomers to the comedy greats, although from my lecturing experience I would suggest you really need about three hours to give people a proper grounding in any of it. But for the modest-by-Fringe-Festival ticket price you get Merton’s introductions, three or four clips, a Laurel and Hardy short and a main feature (Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR.), with Neil Brand at the piano providing sensational live accompaniment.

I’m not sure what Merton really adds to the experience. Well, he adds his TV fame, which presumably draws in at least some of the punters who otherwise might go to their graves without ever seeing a silent feature, and he adds some good jokes and a bit of historical context. There’s no real analysis or anything like that: without the films to look at, you’d have no idea from Merton’s intros just what made Chaplin or Harold Lloyd great. Stressing Lloyd’s everyman persona is a strange way to introduce a scene from WHY WORRY?, where he plays a neurotic millionaire. Merton’s love and enthusiasm, and undoubted knowledge of these films is commendable, as is the fact that he’s proselytizing for them, but I wish he’d take a leaf from Walter Kerr’s magisterial book The Silent Clowns and actually give more of a sense of what makes them great, rather than just asserting that they are. It might seem redundant, when the films are their to be seen, with ample proof of their own greatness, but it’s less redundant than anything else you can say.

I don’t mean to be negative because it was a great afternoon’s viewing: punters in Edinburgh should forego the usual stand-up and see some eighty-year-old material that’s funnier and also more beautiful than most of the current comedy on show. You can laugh yourself sick and also emerge ennobled.

Wisdom gleaned:

My theory has always been that nobody’s funnier than Laurel and Hardy, but even a very good silent L&H like WE FAW DOWN does not show them at their absolute peak. It was very popular with the audience though, and the last shot, with its scores of erring husbands tumbling from windows in their underwear, drew a round of applause from the crowd before the final fadeout even started.

THE CIRCUS has some of Chaplin’s best NIGHTMARE SCENARIOS: trapped in a cage with sleeping lions, while a wee dog yips furiously at him outside, or here, on a high wire and assaulted, horribly, by monkeys.

Chaplin, in the first clip shown, maybe got the best laughs. Extracts from near the start of THE CIRCUS show him near the top of his form, even if the film as a whole doesn’t stack up as among his best. I’ve never seen any Chaplin on the big screen, come to think of it, and he seemed to benefit most from this exposure. Having a greater distance for the eye to traverse from one element to the next in the frame really seemed to boost the comedy. I don’t think there were specific crucial details that would have been lost on the small screen, but everything seemed heightened by enlargement.

And idiots who suggest that Chaplin “doesn’t work” for a modern audience should have been there to see how this very modern audience reacted.

With Keaton, I’d noticed before that the ensemble playing suddenly became more visible and enjoyable on the larger screen, and this seemed true of Chaplin too.

Snub Pollard scored numerous laughs, partly because he provided the most cartoonish material of the show. It was good stuff, though.

“Opening his garage, Snub rolled out a little bullet-shaped car and hopping in, calmly held out a large magnet. As another car passed by, Pollard aimed the magnet and his little car took off in hot pursuit. Various forms of catastrophe occurred en route as Snub’s attention was distracted […]”

~ from Clown Princes and Court Jesters, Some Great Comics of the Silent Screen, by Sam Gill and Kalton C. Lahue. Surely Kalton C. Lahue must be the inspiration for Horton Hears a Who.

The film was IT’S A GIFT (1923), made when Pollard was briefly a contender in two-reelers. His star faded, the Australian comic became a specialist in tiny bit-parts, and can be seen getting an umbrella in the most famous scene of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. What I liked most about his magnetmobile was the idea of him inflicting this level of mayhem of the city streets every time he left the house. Life was tough in the ’20s.

Louise Fazenda got one particularly strong laugh, as her fur stole resolved itself into a draped dog, but her clip was largely to showcase Neil Brand’s skill at the piano, as he talked us through his job as accompanist.

Harold Lloyd wasn’t as well-served by the scene chosen as he could have been, but got good laughs anyway. Part of the charm of the programme is that, with different combinations of films and clips each show, there may be a different “winner” on laughs each afternoon.

Buster Keaton is a special case. Long stretches of SHERLOCK JR. provoked silent admiration rather than loud laughter, and I usually find this to be the case. It is NOT a weakness: with Keaton, the ingenuity of the gags is often more striking than the hilarity, and so you’re too busy gasping in amazement at his brilliance, or in shock at his physical daring. You can’t get your breath in order to laugh. It’s ironic, since Keaton’s stated objective was always simply to get laughs, but he winds up doing far more.

Having said that, the climax of the film, a rip-roaring two-part chase, got HUGE laughs, as did this amazing sequence, which resulted in Keaton unknowingly breaking his neck falling from the water-tower. He got up and was fine (as you see in the clip).

If the show had an extra hour to it (which wouldn’t risk tiring anybody out: you have to have faith in this material!), I’d like to see more complete shorts, and maybe something illustrating the earliest stages of the gag film, which Merton mentioned but didn’t illustrate. Some Charley Bowers would be good, some Fatty Arbuckle would be useful, and some Max Linder should be essential. But as an introduction to silent Hollywood comedy delivered in less than two hours, Merton’s programme can’t seriously be faulted.