Archive for Mack Sennett

The Sunday Intertitle: A Change from Chaplin

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on June 27, 2021 by dcairns

Dave Glass, who brought us/me the outstanding Lupino Lane collection some of you asked about, is e’en now hard at work on the follow-up, detailing the Sennett comedies of Billy Bevan in the twenties.

It promises to be hot stuff — if you’d like to invest via Kickstarter to secure your own copy —

Here’s the link.

The Sunday Intertitle: But soft, we are observed!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2021 by dcairns

So… declining Essanay’s urging that he should stay on, Chaplin took on his half-brother Syd as managed and signed with Mutual, again for a record-breaking fee. He also acquired a bigger studio — the biggest — to shoot in, still open air but closed off by canvas side walls and with linen diffusers to drape overhead.

THE FLOORWALKER seems designed to exploit this set-up, as it’s entirely based in one big two-storey set, with connecting elevator and escalator, both of which are exploited for gags. A lot of the film is just “turn Charlie loose in a department store,” but there’s a crime plot too. Surprisingly, despite the presence of Edna, carried over from Essanay and in Chaplin’s personal life too, there’s no romance.

But we do have the welcome addition of newcomers Eric Campbell and Albert Austin.

Campbell is immediately monumental. Practically all the Mutual films can be seen as exercises in using Eric to his full potential. Nobody ever strangled Charlie like Eric did. I know Chaplin is selling the gag furiously, flapping his head about like a mere sawdust-filled bag, but Eric is genuinely flinging him around with great violence.

Austin, promoted from an unnoticeable bit in POLICE (Chaplin evidently DID notice), looks on helplessly. This will be his main function in all the Mutuals. He looks on from behind a moustache of inhuman size, but there’s nothing flamboyant about the rest of him. Indeed, the moustache’s rather distrait quality seems to transfer itself to his entire personage. There IS, perhaps, a hint of pansy stereotype in the overall limpness, which is not however confined to the wrist.

The film opens by establishing a fake Chaplin (herr future director Lloyd Bacon), a guy who merely has the toothbrush ‘tache. The lookalike plot of course anticipates THE GREAT DICTATOR, and in a way the many faux Hulots of PLAYTIME. It’s not immediately clear why this character has to exist and audiences in 1916 may have been momentarily puzzled. But the great plague of Chaplin imitators hadn’t begun yet, so they wouldn’t have thought they were being cheated.

This character is in league with Big Eric in a plan to loot the safe.

A startling cinematic touch — Big Eric is introduced by a big closeup, first of his meaty hands clutching a document, then a slow pan and tilt to the meaty face, enhanced by fake face fuzz — a tweezered space-alien monobrow, a beard to make Svengali or Rasputin virescent with envy. And intense guyliner to make those little marbles seem to start from their sockets. An icon is born.

Edna has a thankless secretary role in this one. Bacon and Campbell, facing arrest for unseen crimes, plan their escape. This is quite a lot of plot and character to set up before Charlie even appears. Three and a half minutes worth, probably a record. By now Chaplin knows the audience will wait for him, and even enters with his back to the camera, confident in his outline.

Charlie, at last entering the story (picking his nose), sows disorder by treating the objects on sale as if they were possessions in his own home — shaving accessories and such. I like his interest, not in a sock, but in the mannequin leg enclosed by it. He’s blankly trying to think up some use for it. He also throws in a cheeky smile, which feels like a new development. His former obnoxiousness is leavened with charm.

Much use is made of the inconveniently placed drinking fountain. Chaplin loves a water feature.

His misuse of the store gradually brings the slow-to-anger Austin to the boil, and squabbling turns to kick-up-the-arse battling. In the midst of this, Charlie does a David Jason, leaning on something that won’t support him.

An ironic intertitle: BARGAIN SEEKERS. In fact, shoplifters. While management is ripping off the store and staff is arguing with Charlie, two women start emptying the shelves — in anticipation of Laurel & Hardy’s TIT FOR TAT. We don’t need to wonder if Chaplin’s former understudy Stan Laurel saw this. But the cheerful wholesale thief of the later L&H comedy is better integrated than CC’s lady filchers, who are a mere decorative flourish.

After all his willfully obstreperous behaviour, what finally lands Charlie in legal trouble is an innocent mistake caused by the perfidy of others. The shoplifters have cleaned out a rack. Seeing the empty rack marked 25c, Charlie seeks to buy this unexpected bargain. Hard to imagine what he wants with a rack, but the disembodied leg was a puzzler too. Maybe he’d have used that to store an odd sock, and maybe this is for his collection of neckties (the tie is one part of Chaplin’s costume that continues to change, I think).

Charlie is now a fugitive in the store, and Chaplin has fun coming up with hiding places and playing “he’s behind you,” a fine old British pantomime tradition.

In amidst this, the escalator is starting to play a role. Charlie is as baffled by it as he formerly was by swing doors. It keeps trying to abduct him skywards. Chaplin’s old boss, Mack Sennett, wondered aloud upon seeing the film why the devil they hadn’t thought of this gag at Keystone. The obvious answer would be that Sennett lacked the imagination, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to shell out to build the thing.

Bacon and Campbell abstract the store’s takings from safe to Gladstone bag, but Bacon smashes a drawer over Campbell’s immense noggin and absconds solo. Bir Eric’s staggering about crosseyed with the drawer over his head is knockabout gold. The tipsy dance is even funnier performed by a big man than by a regular clown — all that weight, in tiptoed stagger.

Fleeing the law, Charlie bumps into Bacon, who is fleeing the supine Eric. Cue mirror routine. The idea of someone mistaking another, similar-looking character for his reflection had been used on stage at least as far back as 1894. A European music hall act called the Schwarz Brothers attempted to retain exclusive use of the gag from 1911. Max Linder performed it in 1913 in LE DUEL DE MAX — a direct copy of the Schwarz version, but not every country upheld the copyright claim of the “brothers” (in reality a father and son called Robi), suggesting that they hadn’t originated as much of the skit as they claimed. Interestingly, the Robis performed in the US in 1915, so that in theory Chaplin could have seen them. If he didn’t, he probably saw Linder’s film version. (Credit to Anthony Balducci for this research.)

The gag isn’t particularly well motivated here — there’s no mirror frame, so the misunderstanding requires both Charlie and Bacon’s character to be very dim. That’s no stretch for Charlie, who is as stupid or cunning as the plot requires at this stage, but it doesn’t make much sense for the crafty embezzler Bacon.

Also of note here is the kiss — seeing in Charlie an unwitting saviour, Bacon grabs him by the (upper) cheeks, and Charlie reciprocates with a quick osculation. The Little Fellow is the ultimate in gender fluidity. Put him in a dress, he becomes a woman. Put him in a house, he becomes a householder. If the set-up looks like a clinch, he goes with the flow.

Bacon’s had an idea. Switching clothes with Charlie, he will make his escape. He plans on Charlie getting pinched for robbing the store. In fact, Bacon is immediately collared for Charlie’s “crimes.” Charlie is able to walk about under the eye of the law, who suspect nothing. Which is pretty implausible, since all he’s done is swap suits.

Even crazier is Albert Austin accepting Charlie as the floorwalker, a man he knows well. He’s also not likely to have forgotten the scruffy interloper who recently kicked him across the store. But these doubling plots are never very logical in Chaplin — ask why nobody remarks on the Jewish tailor’s resemblance to Adenoid Hynkel in THE GREAT DICTATOR?

A second kiss — kissing the aged, tiny elevator boy’s forehead is, apparently, Charlie’s idea of how a boss should behave.

Charlie now plunges into the role of floorwalker. True, he doesn’t understand what the job entails, but he finds entertaining things to do. The shoe department is a great excuse for fondling ladies’ ankles, for instance.

Two familiar faces now enter the film. To my surprise, here’s Leo White and his silk hat. Leo would appear in several more Mutual Chaplin films, culminating in EASY STREET, suggesting that Chaplin didn’t bear a grudge over White’s meddling with A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN. Still, after 1917 he stopped using the silk-hatted foil, and White was soon co-starring in Chaplin copycat Billy West’s shorts. White was a prolific bit player until his death in 1948 — he’s in CASABLANCA, CLOAK AND DAGGER, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, THE FOUNTAINHEAD…

Also on hand is Henry Bergman, a versatile supporting player who would keep acting for Chaplin, exclusively, up until MODERN TIMES. He would have been under contract so he’d have drawn a paycheck even in the years-long gaps between features. Chaplin, stingy in some respects, was very generous in that way. Edna Purviance also benefited from regular cheques, decades after she’d stopped acting.

Bergson plays your basic palsied dotard here, and is unrecognisable. Out of disguise, he’s the stout restauranteur in MOD TIMES. This cruel mocking of the afflicted is the kind of rather harsh comedy nobody seems to have batted at eye at in the nineteenteens. The actual playing is very funny if you can forget about being sensitive. I’m not suggesting you SHOULD. Charlie himself has a suitably benign attitude to the old fellow — he’s amused, yes, but mostly looks on in innocent wonderment at this extraordinary spectacle.

Charlie also has the familiar trouble with mannequins — they are too much like humans, you can’t trust them. Humans, on the other hands, are too much like objects. Everything is slippery. Confronted by the cigar-chewing detective, Charlie sees the cigar as a useful promontory from which to hang his cane. The fact that the cigar’s owner takes this amiss is a surprise to him.

Meanwhile, Big Eric has woken up and is on the warpath. The rest of the movie is a running battle for the bag full of loot. Chaplin does an expert mime upon discovering the billfolds. Looks. Looks up, processing the information. Looks about nervously. There’s a lot of high-quality strangling. And, most significant of all —

THE SONOFABITCH IS A BALLET DANCER

Chaplin breaks out into his first ever ballet. It seems to be in direct response to having Eric as screen partner. The gravitational pull of the larger player puts him into a terpsichorean orbit. The exaggerated butchness of Big Eric, all guyliner to the contrary, brings out Charlie’s flirtatiousness. He becomes both feminine and implike, a prancing tease whose submissiveness is a mere ploy. These observations are prompted in particular by the fact that this first set of moves are so unmotivated in plot terms. Later frolics are triggered by the situation, like the curtain Charlie hides behind in THE CURE. This one is sheer joie de vivre — an ecstatic response to finally finding his Goliath. Love at first sight.

The sudden appearance of kops firing guns is a little surprising/confusing, and the ending is abrupt. The gag of the elevator crashing down on Eric so that he bursts through its floor in a daze, presumably to face arrest, is nice, but Chaplin hasn’t built a real elevator, I don’t think, and the device seems to operate like a teleporter: the doors close, then open again in a more-or-less identical set up, and we’ve ascended or descended a floor.

Apart from not finding a role for Edna that’s worthwhile, and the continuing use of cutaways to inert scenes, used semi-randomly to allow Chaplin to ellide uninteresting business — a cutaway gets around the delicate business of Chaplin and Bacon exchanging pants, for instance — and the abruption of that finish, this is a prime Chaplin, about as good as anything he’s done up to now, and a fitting inauguration for the excellent Mutual series.

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.