Archive for Mack Sennett

His New Studio

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2021 by dcairns

I was going to argue that a title like HIS NEW JOB, which Chaplin used for his first film away from Keystone, gives a sense of the tramp character’s nameless, timeless, immortal universality, by using a pronoun instead of a name. The Little Fellow/Tramp had gone by numerous temporary handles under Sennett (Mr Sniffles, Mr Full, Weakchin, Mr Wow-wow) but none of them had stuck, even for two shorts in a row.

Still, Broncho Billy, Chaplin’s stable-mate at Essanay, made HIS REGENERATION the same year as HIS NEW JOB, and Keystone were fond of such titles too, so maybe it was just in the air. But it’s neat anyway: Chaplin begins his new job with HIS NEW JOB, and it’s a Secret Origin Story, showing the Tramp seeking employment at “Lodestone” studios.

And he has his name on the title card! I don’t know if this was a contractual thing, a sales tactic or a stamp of authenticity (though the Chaplin impersonators weren’t out in force yet, since the one-a-week production rate at the Keystone assembly line ensured there was no scarcity of the real thing), but symbolically it certainly suggests Chaplin was no officially a star. Which makes him playing a nonentity in this movie an act of defiance: no matter how rich or famous he gets, Chaplin is playing a bum, an underdog.

Charlie enters the waiting room and immediately starts flirting with the girl in the fur coat and voluminous miff. Gloria Swanson types anonymously in the background having deliberately flunked her audition because she didn’t want to do slapstick. So the object of desire is Agnes Ayres, six before attaining immortality by “getting loused up by Arabs,” to use S.J. Perelman’s indelicate phrase, in THE SHEIK.

Charlie’s flirting includes pinging himself in the face with his unruly cane, which I guess is a jester’s stick i.e. a penis. Then the receptionist, Leo White, demand he remove his bowler. Charlie takes it off, puts it on again, takes it off when told for the second time, puts it on as soon as the guy’s back is turned… he’s playing it like he’s too dim to understand, but then he pulls a fast one, raising the hat to his curly head then letting it spring from his grasp and catching it, just to annoy the petty authority figure.

This is all one take.

An actress leaves the boss’s office, bends to adjust something, and Charlie innocently uses her arse to lean on. A fright-wigged tragedian enters, the kind of character Chaplin had already shown an inclination to mock in THE PROPERTY MAN.

And then comes Ben Turpin. Chaplin had looked around at the Essanay stock players to see if there were any good clowns he could work with, and Turpin was the one. His violently crossed eyes recommended him at once, but there’s more to him than his grotesque strabismus, as you notice the moment he enters here. Chaplin has given him the Chester Conklin role as a sub-Charlie, an equally aggressive, cocky and chaotic little man for Charlie to feud with. Turpin is immediately a commanding if stupid presence. Immediately he’s slinging one foot over the arm of Charlie’s chair, torturing him with the proximity of a malodorous foot.

Perhaps Chaplin was concerned that Turpin’s optical awryness wouldn’t read in a long shot, so he’s further disfigured his co-star with an X of sticking plasters on Turpin’s scrawny, turkey-like neck, as if covering a boil. When the inevitable scuffle breaks out, Charlie first snatches the cigarette from Ben T.’s mouth, then lights it by striking a match upon his neck-dressing.

The strolling tragedian having been told to keep strolling, the call of “Next” sets Chaplin and Turpin scrabbling for the boss’s door, which naturally swings both ways so it can hit Charlie’s backside and Turpin’s face when our man gains the inner sanctum ahead of his rival.

One tiny error of timing: Chaplin extends his leg as he starts through the door, so that Turpin can grab and bite it. Feels forced. Like he’s offering the leg up, which of course he is.

It suddenly turns out that the Mack Sennett surrogate at the desk is stone deaf (but, like Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks, he seems able to hear pretty girls OK). Chaplin’s attempts to communicate through the earpiece speaking tube thing while smoking result in him blasting smoke through the poor man’s head, a surreal sfx you can miss by blinking, or by refusing to believe the evidence of your lying eyes.

Oh wait, the tube is looped round the back of the guy’s no-neck, so the smoke is just escaping from the earpiece, it doesn’t have to travel through his skull. Too bad.

The next mishap results in Chaplin getting ink in his own eye via the tube-thing, so at least the boss has his revenge. It seems quite unchaplinesque to give an authority figure the last laugh, so I’m hoping the whole of Lodestone will be ashes and rubble by the time this film ends.

Somehow, Charlie gets hired. Blowing smoke through the boss’s head is apparently a good technique for currying favour, though I’d always heard the fumes were supposed to go up his ass.

It just occurred to me that, under modern industry practice, if Chaplin left Keystone today, they would retain ownership of his character — Sennett would have simply given Syd the costume and ordered him to become the Tramp, and history would have been very different. It’s often claimed that Syd worked as a Chaplin imitator, but his Keystone character, Gussle, is clearly distinguishable from his brother’s. Did he go on to don the Hitler ‘tache and derby? I haven’t seen the evidence.

Smoke travels everywhere inside people’s heads in these films, so shortly after, Charlie is twisting his ear to make smoke jet from his mouth for the amusement of a regal movie star. Then he wanders on set and ruins a take, establishing his true character as disruptor — sometimes conscious, frequently unconscious.

Speaking of unconscious, Turpin, having been whacked with the office door one time to many, is laying inert in the reception area, but he’s still good value. Charlie’s treatment of his prone form gives fresh meaning to the term “walk-on role.”

After ruining another take, Charlie is exiled to the carpentry department, where he proves to be a lethal idiot underling, smacking the head joiner with a plank in time-honoured slapstick fashion.

Having taken off his jacket to get down to business, Chaplin reveals a strangely flaring waistcoat, not the form-hugging one we associate with him. It seems to warp his whole silhouette. Bear in mind that he was still buying his costume off the peg at this point, and had difficulty finding sufficiently massive boots.

Ordered to move a door on the set, Charlie starts flirting again. He’s quite promiscuous in this one. But I guess this is the first girl he was interested in, clad in a new costume. Kind of hard to keep these ringleted starlets straight.

But Charlie is also devoting quite a bit of attention to a Grecian statue in the props room. Since he is forever leaning on fellow humans, treating them as inanimate objects, it seems appropriate for him to get Pygmalion-like urges towards a plaster likeness of a woman. Remember the deco figurine he admires so studiously in CITY LIGHTS?

That Popeye clay pipe is back. Seems like Chaplin intended it as part of his regular costume, but at some point it faded from the scene.

A bum actor is fired and, before you can say “departmental violation”, Charlie, the asst. props man, is improbably promoted to star — it’s like the John Wayne story avant la lettre. Well, actually the guy he’s replacing is just an extra, but Charlie takes a more expansive view of his role. Meanwhile Turpin is hired as the prop man/carpenter’s assistant. Job’s were more loosely defined in them days.

On his way back to the set, now in uniform with busby (he’s pantomimed picking a flea from it) Charlie gets caught up in a game of craps with his former supervisor, forgetting about the movie he’s supposed to be in. The carpenter, Arthur W. Bates, is a pretty good clown, but he seems to have quit pictures in 1918 — I think because he stayed in Chicago after Essanay closed.

HIS NEW JOB is Chaplin’s longest directorial effort to date, almost a half-hour. Without Sennett and his cutters cramping and crimping him, Chaplin is extending himself. Maybe it’s a little indulgent, but his comedy benefits from having room to breathe. I note also that the Keystone style of expositional mime, with characters furiously signalling to the audience what’s on their minds (I call it mime, but it’s mostly pointing) has been entirely eliminated. Sigh of relief.

At 19.10, a tracking shot! Pushing past the prop camera to view the Dramatic Scene being filmed as if from that cameraman’s POV. The dolly movement feels alien, as if the movie were suddenly in colour and 3D with sync sound. I think this is Chaplin’s first track.

The curtain pronging — Charlie is stabbed through the arras — a callback to Conklin. He retaliates, plunging his sabre between the star’s buttocks (slash fic version) and then, because once is not enough, lunges again but this time impales the chunky director, who has assumed his actor’s position to show him how a courtly bow should be performed. Then he hands the blade to the carpenter who has just beaten him at craps. The man is kicked out into the street while Charlie laughs satanically.

Charlie’s character is still a little bastard — but his bastardy is focussed on self-preservation, or at least on coming out on top in a world where he’s unreasonably expected to do his job.

Discovering that his hated rival, Turpin, is now the carpenter, Charlie prepares a pre-emptive strike with a handsaw to the ass. The protective wooden block concealed in Turpin’s pants is so vividly outlined it can be mistaken for a plot point. A fake handsaw would have served the gag much better. But I guess Essanay, a novice company when it came to knockabout, didn’t possess and couldn’t readily make such an object.

Charlie delivers the coup de grace with a large mallet and leaves Turpin torpid again.

Now he has to play a scene. He trips upon entering, a minor mistake the director seems content to allow. Then he thwacks himself in the face with his sabre when attempting a salute. The same trouble he had with his cane in Scene 1. He staggers, crosseyed, temporarily turpinned, his sword now warped. Returning it to its scabbard becomes a hilariously protracted and fruitless task, since the blade is bent out of shape and so is Chaplin’s brain. It’s like watching a baby trying to use a spoon.

The leading lady draws him aside into a parallel frame, and the sword conveniently vanishes into the splice — apparently Chaplin felt it got in the way. A shame. I’d have liked to see him struggle with it longer.

Ah, but returning for Take 2, Charlie is magically rearmed as he passes through the splice, his sword now sheathed again. He stumbles again but salutes flawlessly, but now earnestly goes about reinserting the wonky sword. You may be able to see where this is headed…

In fact, the pay off is weak — he lightly jabs the star in her hip, sparing her the interbuttock thrust he’s previously inflicted on his foes, and she looks mildly annoyed rather than doing the shocked and affronted look that Mabel Normand perfected as a leading-ladylike response to arse-kickery. So the gag, appealingly outrageous in conception, fizzles in execution.

Take 3 — or seemingly a new scene — bizarrely, the director is prepared to settle for Charlie’s previous performance. Our hero enters, smoking a fag. He gives it the old Stroheim swagger. And the camera starts to drift to the side… I wonder how long Chaplin is going to keep experimenting with camera movement. This one seems distracting and pointless, but interesting. I think we’re going to be back to locked-off long shots by the next short, but we’ll see if I’m wrong.

Fortunately the camera has stopped by the time Charlie leans on a pillar and topples it, which is nicely done. The star is being played by Charlotte Mineau, btw, who would follow Charlie to Mutual and appear in several of his best shorts there.

Chaplin keeps the wobbling column bit going for a good long while, Jerry Lewis fashion. There are even cutaways to the director overacting in the usual gesticulatory way of silent movie directors (they act like the cliche conception of silent movie actors, only more so). He’s filmed in profile, because the idea of a reverse angle didn’t really exist yet.

Turpin is called in to unpin Charlie. The camera appears to be rolling thoughout. The Christmas blooper reel at Lodestone is going to be longer than GREED.

The third scene is filmed — the third tracking shot is deployed. So there’s a plan here. Although the prop camera is on a simple tripod, not a dolly, it glides with Ophulsian grace when Charlie performs for it. Chaplin goes into some momentarily serious melodrama, just to prove he can do it, then daubs his eyes on the hem of Mineau’s gown.

The camera tracks back, pushed by Charlie as he advances. All very elegant, but does it help the joke? Still, I’m glad he tried it.

The director isn’t happy, and things take the usual turn, augmented by the arrival of the real star, whose costume Charlie has taken. A three-way skirmish in which the director comes off worst. Turpin enters the fray and is malleted into coma. Repeatedly. And then it stops, with the Essanay Indian head abruptly slapped on the tail of the footage so it doesn’t feel like the film snapped.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Thousand a Week

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2021 by dcairns

“I want a thousand dollars a week,” Chaplin told Sennett,

“But *I* don’t make that!” spluttered the showman.

Sennett is sometimes criticised for his inability to hold on to the stars he’d created. But he didn’t hold the purse-strings, was dependent on the money-men, Kessel and Bauman, and anyway, Chaplin made it difficult. He did try to meet Chaplin’s terms:

“Listen, you have four months to go. We’ll tear up your contract and give you five hundred dollars now, seven hundred dollars for the next year, and fifteen hundred for the following year. That way you’ll get your thousand dollars a week.”

(This is all per My Autobography, Chaplin’s largely very accurate, if understandably selective, memoir.)

Chaplin responded: “If you’ll just reverse the terms, give me fifteen hundred the first year, seven hundred the second year, and five hundred the third, I’ll take it.”

“But that’s a crazy idea.”

Chaplin was convinced this craze couldn’t last, that his star would fade. And he had an urgent desire for financial security that made him think short-term. It WAS a crazy idea — he wouldn’t have been happy to take the pay-cuts when they came — but he wanted a thousand dollars a week NOW.

Essanay agreed to his terms, and at the end of his year at Keystone, Chaplin was off to Chicago.

Tillie Two

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2021 by dcairns

TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, continued.

Marie Dressler wrote in her memoirs that she chose then then-unknown Chaplin and Mabel Normand as her co-stars in her first feature film, a colossal porky pie! To many moviegoers, it was Dressler herself who was the unknown, though Mack Sennett was following a then-popular approach of casting “famous players in famous plays,” taking the preeminent comedienne of the New York stage and bundling her in a movie adapted from Tillie’s Nightmare, her most recent triumph. All this I glean from David Robinson’s magisterial Chaplin biography, acquired for a song on a recent trip to St Columba’s Bookshop, Stockbridge, pre-lockdown.

Robinson also notes that the feature-length comedy was three times longer than any comedy hitherto attempted on the screen, Mack Sennett was a gentleman of nerve.

As reel three begins, Tillie (Dressler) is delivered into the custody of her rich uncle (co-director Charles “Oh Mister Kane” Bennett) by a patient kop. The uncle has a palatial home with stone lions, liveried footmen, tiger skin rugs and suits of armour. Tillie, still tight, unsheathes a broadsword and playfully jabs the help, stoic in their periwigs, then dances a highland fling over the blade and its scabbard, the movie’s first bit of Scottish content, if you don’t count the drunk and disorderly rambunctiousness.

Tillie’s monocled uncle (her monuncle?) orders three footmen to subdue and eject his riotous niece: a chase and struggle ensue, but it’s not a full-on Keystone setpiece. Fairly muted rambunctiousness.

“Guilty creatures sitting at a play” — Charlie and Mabel go to a movie and their crime is brought home to them by the cinematograph. The film, according to the stand outside, is DOUBLE-CROSSED, but the title which appears superimposed, weaving about on the screen within, is A THIEF’S FATE: a Keystone release, seemingly fictional. The female star, interestingly, is Enid Markey, the original Jane in TARZAN OF THE APES, still four years in the future at this point. Which means that Chaplin “appeared with”, in the loosest sense, both the first Tarzan (little Gordon Griffith, who played the ape man as a lad and also appears as a newsboy in TPR) and the first Jane. Colour me Cheeta!

The other cast members in the film within a film include Morgan Wallace, who went on to work for Griffith and played James Fitchmueller in IT’S A GIFT (and WC Fields would appear in a remake of TPR; Minta Durfee (AKA Mrs. Roscoe Arbuckle); and Charles Murray, who had recently played Charlie’s director in THE MASQUERADER.

Chaplin’s repulsed reactions to the movie — Mabel immediately sees it as the story of their lives — put me strongly in mind of the late, great Rik Mayall. The sickly grin of acute discomfort! Seated next to Mabel and overacting furiously is the young but makeup-aged Charley Chase, barely recognizable, who I guess would have been billed as Charles Parrott if he were billed at all.

When the bad guys in the movie are arrested, Chaplin’s reactions in the audience are amazing: he’s half-inwardly protesting, very feebly, at the screen, really living it. TPR doesn’t have any good gags or situations but it does have a lot of spirited and imaginative playing.

Tillie gets a job as a waitress. Stumbling, Dressler turns to the camera and mouths “DAMN!” very clearly. No particular lip-reading skill is required. I wonder if offence was caused. One minute later she does it again. Did Keystone have a swear-box?

The movie keeps cutting to Tillie’s uncle’s mountain holiday, which seems like scenic padding. It’s unlikely to have been in the play. I presume he’s going to break a leg or something.

Sennett originally wanted an original story but nobody at Keystone could come up with a feature script idea (they’re hard to do) and with Dressler on salary at vast expense ($2,500 a week still seems a lot to me NOW) he opted to film her stage success under a different title for whatever reason.

Tillie is having the same kind of swing-door trouble Charlie always has, and would still be having as a waiter in MODERN TIMES twenty-two years later. Then Mabel and Charlie come to dine in her restaurant…

Suspense while projectionist fumbles with reels.

I like the fact that the original show’s librettist, Edgar Smith, wrote a show called Whoop-Dee-Doo. Maybe it suffers from the fact that that phrase is now only ever used, if it’s used at all, in a scathingly ironic way. But it sounds fabulously fatuous. I’d like to see it revived. I wouldn’t go and see it, but you could go and tell me what you think…

PART 4

Chaos ensues. Tillie faints, theatrically, upon seeing Charlie, and he tramples her prone form in his haste to flee the scene with Mabel. Tillie recovers and gives chase. Kops are called. Charlie & Mabel’s earlier cinematograph nightmare is being visited upon them in reality. They take shelter in — where else? — a park.

Charles Bennett, the film’s co-director, Tillie’s rich uncle, and the bloke who sings the song in CITIZEN KANE, falls off a mountain. I’ll bet you five he’s not alive…

“Oh no, I’ve accidentally fallen off a mountain!”

Two strenuous hams report/receive the news, then phone butler Edgar Kennedy who underplays his reaction about as much as you’d expect. A vigorous mime of the millionaire’s tumbling demise is performed. Kennedy isn’t bald yet so he doesn’t slap his pate in dismay, but he does just about everything else.

Tillie is going to inherit everything, which is just as well because waitressing really isn’t working out for her.

In the park, Charlie is accosted by a little newsboy — Milton Berle always claimed this was him, but it’s not, it’s young Tarzan, Gordon Griffith. I can’t imagine that Milty was this cherubic as a child. Nor could he swing through the trees on convenient lianas, I bet. Mind you, from the way Charlie smacks the little bastard, I almost wish it had been Berle. I wonder if this moment inspired noted Chaplin fan Roman Polanski’s child-slapping park scene in THE TENANT, which is otherwise a very odd moment if it’s not a homage to something. But then, that’s an odd film.

(Sidebar: Chaplin in THE GOLD RUSH is cited in REPULSION by Helen Fraser to cheer up Catherine Denueve; Walter Matthau and Cris Campion are compelled to eat a rat in PIRATES, a skit derived closely from the shoe-eating incident also in THE GOLD RUSH. I think there are more tributes than that, and Polanski’s wordless shorts certainly owe something to Chaplin too.)

Learning of Tillie’s inheritance before she does, Charlie ditches Mabel and skids up to Tillie’s place of employment — the Tramp one-footed skid has been carried over to this unrelated character because it’s a good bit of business. He barges in, out of breath — a good excuse for pantomime. Tillie isn’t in sight, so he describes her, waving his arms in a broad square shape. Basically, “I’m looking for a woman the size of a house.” Tillie is mopping up in the kitchen so Charlie gets to slip, fall, get up, slip, recover, slip again, fall again… He’s pretty amazing here. He didn’t think much of this film but if the whole Tramp thing hadn’t taken off (it already had) he’d be using this stuff on his showreel…

Charlie and Tillie are married by “the Rev. D, Simpson” who looks something like a reanimated cadaver. The pancake disguise is necessary since Frank Opperman also plays three other roles. I’m impressed by this plot turn — since it seems inconceivable they’ll still be married at the film’s end, I’m genuinely curious to see what solution Mr. Whoop-Dee-Doo is going to come up with for his plot.

Tillie learns of unc’s death-fall — good fainting action. Then she immediately gets suspicious of Charlie’s rush to wed her — the first sign of brains Tillie has shown. Not unwelcome. But Charlie persuades her he really loves her with a display of ACTING. There was loose talk about Chaplin playing Hamlet but Richard III would have been a better fit.

Mabel, however, is now on his trail…

END OF PART 4