Archive for Mabel Normand

The Sunday Intertitle: Sunday in the park with Charlie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2020 by dcairns

…and Mack and Mabel and Eva etc…

Some weird video action in this version, mainly around the four-minute mark. And best mute the music, which is appalling.

Echo Park, AKA the Forest of Arden, or of ardent clowns. Mack Swain and Eva Nelson occupy one bench, Charlie and Mabel another. Charlie throws one leg across Mabel’s lap, Harpo-style, but becomes prissy when she folds the toe and upper of his boot back, like a leather blanket, exposing his bare toes. Then he starts peeling a banana. Hmm, I wonder where this is going?

In fact, no banana-skin gag is attempted.

Charlie is experimenting — same costume, but with a top hat. His early shorts play far more loose with the Tramp image than I realised. I’m sure the accounts I read as a kid suggest it was all one thing after MAKING A LIVING. But the Tramp is versatile. There’s even room to question whether the Jewish barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR is the same character, or a distinct variant. He certainly shares aspects.

The top hat might seem a good contrast with the disintegrating boots. But the derby serves that role well enough. It was worth a try, though, I guess.

If you’re feeling nostalgic, you could enjoy this ratty sepiatone print in French, with an iris-in at the end.

Charlie leaves Mabel and passes Mack, who is minus his usual painted Grouchostache but has a tennis racket, and goes into a bar. Mack swiftly becomes a masher and starts bothering Mabel. For some strange reason Chaplin frames them crammed into the bottom left. I guess because he wanted to show Mack hovering in the centre of shot for a moment. And because one space = one shot, there’s no option to change the angle, at least until after we’ve cut away to Chaplin in the bar.

Chaplin often doesn’t look like himself in these earlies, because his face is doing things it doesn’t do later, but when he laughs “delicately” at having “forgotten” to pay for his liquor, you can HEAR Chaplin’s later laugh from the talkies.

And, GOOD — when he gets out of the bar, Mack & Mabel now occupy a much more comfortable position in shot. Just for a few seconds, then Charlie joins them and we’re back to the other angle, which is fine because now everyone stands up and faces off. Charlie’s indignation at being ignored by the bully who’s annoying his wife leads to some very Chaplinesque prissiness, and he takes to punching Mack furiously in the bottom. Even a thwack with the cane and a series of kicks don’t distract Mack from his goofy wooing. The impacts make clouds of dust fly from Mack’s capacious ass. Were all Keystone clowns powdered with fuller’s earth before going into action?

Soon there’s a fourway argument, and then this separates into pairs again, with Charlie mad at Mabel while Mack and Eva seem happy to have sown strife. Everyone in this film is awful except Mabel.

While Charlie’s back in the bar, Mabel negotiates the purchase of a boxer’s mannequin, one of those things that sways on a heavy, rounded base. Charlie has already had some of the usual trouble with a swing door, so this doesn’t bode well for him. A bit of expressive pantomime tries to convey to us, I think, that Mabel hopes to build up her hubbie’s musculature so he will be more able to defend her honour in future skirmishes. Sure enough, Charlie is being picked on by a local rough in the local bar. Charles Chaplin needs Charles Atlas. In one charming, irrelevant aside, Mabel walks up and down in a bow-legged imitation of the barely-yet-established Chaplin walk.

Charlie’s interactions with the ruffians in the bar see his supercilious mannerisms — defining attributes of the Tramp — come out more and more. Plus, setting himself up against a huge guy like Swain allows Charlie to appear more like a child in adult clothes. While still being a comic drunk because that’s what he was hired to do.

Mabel receives the punchbag-dummy while wearing pyjamas and a leopard skin. A good look for her. 1914 fashions in America were generally frumpy to the extreme, so this is welcome glam. The delivery men, like all the men, are awful.

Later that night, Charlie gets home drunk, with some kind of vegetable matter in his hand. He mistakes the dummy for some kind of silent, headless intruder, and becomes jealous. Unwritten law and all that. But, interspersed with him (predictably) hitting the dummy and getting walloped when it rebounds, is more interesting/funny stuff of him trying to reason with it, showing it the door, etc. All of which is allowed to spread out and occupy time in a way unusual at Keystone.

It’s a trial run for ONE A.M., of course, complete with silk hat.

Mabel is soon involved, trying to make Charlie understand that his opponent is no mere flesh-and-blood rival. Both of them get knocked down. Neighbours gather in the hallway, apparently thrilled by the sounds of murder emanating from the Chaplin residence. Everyone in this film is awful. It’s a nightmare vision of a world without empathy.

Charlie eventually recognises the dummy’s inert nature. A touching reconciliation, not quite up to King Lear, but it’ll do. There are a dizzying number of versions of this film on YouTube, some of which end with the couple flat on their arses, some with an attempt at a kiss, cut short by either nitrate decomposition or the prudish priest from CINEMA PARADISO. There is a smudgy colorized one with nice Antonio Coppola piano score, the sepia French one, and one anamorphically stretched into 16:9, creating a cast of warped Arbuckles, while the clueless perpetrator boasts that it’s in HD. None is ideal. Buy the DVD.

The Sunday Intertitle: Tipsy Nuisance, or, Hot Rods & Hot Dogs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 15, 2020 by dcairns

Charlie Chaplin is billed (on the IMDb) as “Tipsy Nuisance” for his role in MABEL’S BUSY DAY (still 1914) and the name is a good one. It’s another one of these weird early variations on his developing character — he wears the moustache, he has a derby hat and cane, but he wears a smart suit with a loose jacket. Tramp-and-yet-not-Tramp.

It’s also yet another variation on KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE. Use some kind of primitive drag race as a colourful backdrop to the arse-kicking.

I first saw this years ago and it was maybe my first complete Keystone viewing experience. I had befriended a splendid fellow named Chris Weedman in the US and he would tape stuff off TCM and mail it to me and I would mail him things like rare Donald Pleasence movies. It was the original version of file-sharing, I guess. Anyway, I was absolutely horrified by this film. It seemed to have no shape, focus, point, wit or reason for existing.

I was, of course, correct in my assessment, and it’s one that would stand if applied to nearly any Keystone “farce comedy.” But, as I watch Chaplin’s early films in sequence (where will I stop? The end of the Keystone period? The Essanay phase? Or A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG?) they make a bit more sense and you can chart Chaplin’s development, if not that of the Keystone studio, which finally went under simply because it would NOT develop. So even if the films are slight, they start to get very interesting. And it undoubtedly helps to have decent transfers/restorations rather than smudgy, dupey prints, recorded off-air on VHS.

Mabel is selling hotdogs. She puts on some kind of tale of woe so that Kop Chester Conklin will let her into the race track. He agrees in exhange for a hotdog in an unsuitable round bap. This is all done in pantomime and for once it’s clear what the conversation is about.

Once Mabel gets inside a rude man sticks a sausage in her face for a lark and she kicks the crap out of him. The film is starting to become a vision of hell.

Chaplin shows up, wandering past the turnstiles without paying, to the amusement of onlookers apparently delighted to be in a film. After some repetitive shoving and kicking, he gets inside and there’s more shoving and kicking. But at least we can focus on it, the screen isn’t yet busy with competing mummers. And Chaplin uses his cane to hook the Kop he’s tumbling with, which may be his first use of this trick. It’s a snooty, aristocratic move, appropriate to this entitled shit of a character, but becomes funnier when it’s incongruously performed by the actual Tramp.

I wonder if the Kops are all so extravagantly moustached, and wear such ill-fitting uniforms, so they won’t be mistaken for real law officers out on location among the public? They certainly stand out from the normies in plainclothes, milling around the racetrack, staring at the camera.

THE MATRIX: LOADED.

Mabel isn’t having any luck selling her meaty wares, and seems to be trying for pathos — which puts her ahead of Chaplin until he makes THE TRAMP the following year at Essanay. I can lipread her woeful cries of “Sausages! Frankfurters!” or at least I think I can.

Tipsy Nuisance finds some girls cheering the race, is apparently taken with them (checking out their bottoms) and so, in the manner of an eight-year-old, decides to annoy them by standing in their view. Then he picks a purse, then he makes a joke of it. Flirtatious Charlie always seems to offer suggestions of the riches to come… he kicks up one heel behind him in a joyous gesture — a classic Chaplinesque trope, and I think this is its first appearance.

Mabel is having trouble with the latest in a series of obnoxious customers so Tipsy Nuisance turns unexpectedly gallant and kicks the guy up the arse and then fetches him a tremendous slap to the face. And you could argue it actually means something. Defending a lady’s honour, or frankfurters, and so on. More kicking and slapping follows, with which Mabel is delighted. Women love violence.

But soon Mabel is despondent. Her sausage-selling is a disaster. Charlie comforts her. Then makes off with a handful of meat product. Mabel freaks and gives chase. Good background detail of Conklin lying unconscious against a wall. Don’t know what happened to him. I guess maybe the hotdog was too rich for his system. But Mabel revives him with some screaming.

Tipsy Nuisance escalates things by stealing Mabel’s entire tray of goods and passing them out to suddenly eager customers. But these jerks are just as bad as the ones Mabel dealt with, and they start bullying him by constantly repositioning his hat on his head. I can see how that would get irritating.

Twice in this film Charlie chokes on a bit of sausagemeat — again, the obsession with stuff going down the wrong way. This may be a silent film but when he starts beating up his customers, Mabel apparently hears him. She could see him offscreen before, but now she can, and she alerts Constable Conklin. Edgar Kennedy appears and seems about to do something, but the rest of his bit is apparently lost, or was deleted (but then why leave a fragment?)

Faced with both Mabel’s righteous accusation and the presence of an authority figure, Tipsy Nuisance turns placatory (all bullies are cowards). Nice bit when Mabel boots him hard up the jacksy and he tips his hat in reply — another Chaplinesque trope appearing for the first time here. Some very good silent wheedling from the man Chaplin here. Gently touching Conklin’s nightstick, trying to lower it with caresses.

Then the inevitable barney. Mabel does some very funny flailing. Everyone kicks up a lot of dust, and a lot of arses. Mostly looks like this would be a lot of fun to DO.

Charlie, stripped to suspenders and shirtfront (and trousers, this is not a porno though it has aspects of one), is moved by Mabel’s tears and tries to comfort her. They go off arm in arm, she still trying to get the odd kick in. Probably some aspect of their real-life collaboration can be found in this.

Funny-Walk-On

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2020 by dcairns

THE KNOCKOUT is an unusual early Chaplin because he’s only a supporting player, and yet he’s in the Tramp costume (I hesitate to say “playing the Tramp character” because said character is still forming). As successful as Charlie already was, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a big star too, in every sense. The director is Mack Sennett per the IMDb, but Wikipedia assigned the job to one Charles Avery, so it’s also an exception in that CC isn’t in charge.

Regrettably missing — the only only lost Chaplin short — is HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, made immediately before this, co-starring and co-directed by Chaplin and Mabel Normand, who evidently had a generous nature and had forgiven Chaplin for refusing to take direction back on the ironically-titled MABEL AT THE WHEEL.

Director Avery impresses at once as an incompetent, with mismatched shots of two hobos atop a freight train and a railyard bull yelling at them, but then Arbuckle enters in a fulsome medium shot, dog under one arm, and it’s quite smartly done. Luke the dog would later appear in Buster Keaton’s screen debut, THE BUTCHER BOY, and was directed by Buster in THE SCARECROW. He was a pro.

The hobos are Hank Mann (prizefighter in CITY LIGHTS), and Grover Ligon (cool science fiction name). It’s not immediately clear why the film spends so much time introducing them.

Some quirky flirtation with Minta Durfee (Roscoe’s real-life wife). Roscoe is getting screen time to develop character and display whimsical interactions which Chaplin had to fight for in his early roles. Then some roughhouse stuff with a local tough: Roscoe does that Three Stooges trick of grabbing the other fellow’s nose then slapping his own hand away. Looks painful for the nose’s owner. Did people ever really do that in street altercations?

When Roscoe turns his back, one of the ruffians starts flirting with Minta: her contemptuous reactions are quite enjoyable. Roscoe returns, and sees red: he advances into an actual close-up, which, owing to its sparse use, has tremendous force. Griffith had been doing this kind of thing in e.g. MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY (1912) and this feels like a parody of the effect.

Violence ensues. Bricks are thrown. With Fatty being so outnumbered, it feels a bit dramatic rather than merely being amusing roughhouse. Minta getting a brick in the face in closeup, no less, is actively unfunny. Seems to me Keystone films don’t always know how to integrate women into the slapstick without it seeming ugly. I mean, it’s already pretty ugly. But Fatty knocking over five men with one brick is pretty amusing.

The gang is led by Al St John and evinces skill and enthusiasm falling into a trough etc. My heart warms nostalgically at the thought of a time when men could earn an honest crust just by falling down flamboyantly and getting up again. Most of these guys had careers into the early thirties at least. Hank Mann would still be turning up as an extra in things like INHERIT THE WIND. James Cagney was blown away by his slapstick skill on THE MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES.

Having shown such pugilistic flair and killer instinct, Fatty is a natural to sign up for the boxing contest where the Act I hobos have just enlisted. St John, his recent rival, certainly thinks this is a swell idea. He no doubt has some cunning revenge in mind.

Fatty’s back to being an underdog, a big innocent kid tricked into the dangerous Dingville Athletic Club. Dingville must be close to Bangville, setting for BANGVILLE POLICE, the first Keystone Kop Komedy. You can tell how they got named.

Meanwhile, hearing that their prospective opponent is a large man, the two volunteer hobos head off to check out the competition. Even as Fatty is being beaten by the punchbag, prey as he is, like Chaplin, to any object that can swing to and fro. Keystone comedians are simply unable to deal with such moving parts, which always strike them (literally) as unpredictable and perhaps demonically possessed.

Fatty persuades the camera to tilt upwards coyly as he removes his overalls, an early version of the hand-over-the-lens gag in Keaton’s ONE WEEK. Then he performs feats of strength that make the hobos flee in terror, even as a real prizefighter shows up (played by Edgar Kennedy with good swagger) and gives them an added shove on their way. But what were the hobos in the film for at all?

Meanwhile, Minta Durfee has disguised herself as a boy. To what end? There was a bit where she seemed to be explaining a costume change to Fatty, but I couldn’t make out why. Just so she can sit in the audience? Or just sheer, exuberant gender-fluidity?

By the way, the IMDb has Chaplin down as the writer of this thing. For decades it was bandied about that Keystone never had scripts, but several of the pesky pamphlets eventually turned up, and it now seems they would generally have a sort of rough scriptment or description of the action made up, which would allow preparation of a few special props, casting, and so on.

PART TWO

The fight approaches, and so does Chaplin, but Sennett is falling prey to his usual compulsion to cram the frame with funnymen, all fighting for our attention to no particular effect. Enter Mack Swain, with his biggest, droopiest moustache yet. He mutters a few words to the camera, but how even the most observant lipreaders can make anything of this in the shadow of his hanging face-fungus is beyond me. He’s some kind of western desperado and gambler, adding suspense by threatening to shoot Fatty if he loses.

So by the time Charlie prances in, we don’t really need him, but it’s interesting to see him try to hold our attention in this madhouse. He’s wearing the Tramp moustache and suit minus jacket, hat and cane, and he’s not playing drunk. His very energetic entrance suggests he’s been looking at some real-life referees as models for this schtick. So it’s outward bits of Tramp costume and a different character inside, maybe. Still, this may lead to some development of the Tramp…

My hopes seem dashed when he’s immediately punched unconscious. But he’s up again, just as I notice the foreshadowing of CITY LIGHTS’ boxing match. This isn’t AS choreographed, but there are certainly moments where both boxers and ref seem to be moving in sync.

Sennett can’t even give us a decent view of the ring, he insists on broadening the frame to squeeze Swain in, a character who has his own cutaways anyway where he rightly belongs. And the boxers’ teams crowd round the outskirts, dancing about. It’s lively, but it isn’t “a good clean fight” — it’s all distraction, no focus. Chaplin manages some clever moments, dragging himself along by the ropes on his backside, but he’s fighting against a sea of chaotic movement all the time.

His entire performance is delivered in a single camera set-up.

This is a longer than usual “farce comedy” so the ending gets to be bigger than usual, with Fatty stealing Mack’s six shooters and terrorizing everyone. The kops are kalled. The six shooters apparently never need reloading, a handy thing since have you ever tried reloading a pistol in boxing gloves? Come to that, ever tried firing one? You can’t, you know, with your trigger fingers tucked inside.

Skegness is so bracing.

Charlie disappears from the picture forever (a relatively light day’s work for him, excluding the “writing” which I don’t believe he had any hand in apart from devising his own moves). There’s a long, involved chase with Fatty, Kennedy and the Kops, in which it’s hard to imagine any satisfactory outcome, then Fatty and the Kops fall off a pier into the sea, the end.

What would have made this better?

Having Chaplin appear on the pier, counting Fatty out as he splashes and splutters in the brine.