Archive for Mack Swain

Gold Fever

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2021 by dcairns

Charlie and Big Jim arrive at their cabin again after “a long, tedious journey” — not “arduous,” noted Fiona — which Chaplin wisely declines to show us. They arrive spectacularly provisioned, so we know there are to be no starvation jokes, and since baddie Black Larssen has got himself crevassed out of the picture, we are left to wonder from which direction jeopardy will strike. We’re also wondering about the suspended romance with Georgia — Charlie believes she loves him, she believes nothing of the sort, and the revolting Jack is still hanging around like a bad and chubby smell.

But the Yukon is a place of danger — a storm blows the cabin loose from whatever foundations it had, and leaves it teetering on a cliff edge. Where did this idea come from? We know that all subsequent iterations of it got it from here — the building undermine by coastal erosion in DON’T MAKE WAVES, and the car parked on the brink in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em — but those adaptations each use more logical explanations for their peril. Chaplin COULD have had a cliff collapse leave his dwelling in this precarious situation, but opts instead for a scenario of near-WIZARD OF OZ-level improbability. Which makes me wonder how on earth he came up with it. It’s hard to follow the thought process… “What if the storm blows the cabin around during the night?” Such a proposition seems more likely to inspire a response of “That wouldn’t happen,” rather than one of “And then…?” This is why it’s important not to reject stupid-sounding ideas out of hand, but to explore them and see if they lead somewhere useful.

Having done so, he milks it for everything it’s worth: Charlie, hungover from the tippling that got him through the strenuous unpacking process, puts the floor’s groaning movement down to his excesses, so there’s a protracted bit of dramatic irony where he’s unaware of the danger, but we are.

I will admit that the sonorized version, with VO, has some decent lines in this sequence, and Chaplin’s clipped delivery adds tension as he acts for both himself and Big Jim. When they discuss crossing to the far side of the room to see how far it’ll go over, that creates a lovely “Oh no!” moment for the audience. But generally the wordless version, with Timothy Brok recreating Chaplin’s score, is much to be preferred.

For the only time in his career, Charlie turns into a puppet, when he hangs from the door of the cabin over the snowy void. And this seems apt. It’s a lovely lesson in screen direction (the one thing Chaplin acknowledged learning from Henry “Pathe” Lehrman) — if you exit screen left you must enter the next shot from screen right — so that a life-sized Chaplin walks out the cabin door and a tiny puppet with loose string joints emerges from the miniature cabin exterior — and we BELIEVE IT. Also, there seems something apt about Chaplin as puppet. He’s made himself into one in the bread roll dance, come to think of it. And this is, in a way, a reprise of the film’s original cabin gag, when the howling wind blasting through one door jetted him out the opposite one.

The cabin, it seems, is a classic liminal space, a bit of civilisation plonked down in the icy wilderness and prone to becoming unplonked. It is inherently unstable, a place where, as the Red Queen would have it, you have to run just as fast as you can to stay in place, and if you want to get anywhere you have to run twice as fast again. While previously it was atmospheric pressure shoving Charlie through this door, now it’s gravity, grown mysteriously capricious. Carrollian physics prevail here.

The cabin tried to warn us: on first welcoming Charlie in to its warm and well-provisioned interior, it spat snow at him through a knothole. It has creakingly leaned to and fro in the gale, rhombohedronizing itself back and forth as if limbering up to become a Fu Manchu infernal device.

And it is, let’s not forget, a place of madness: after Charlie has transformed shoe-leather and laces into a delicious meal by sheer force of pantomime, he himself is turned into a chicken, all unwilling. Thing lose their shapes in what Daniel Riccuito calls Chaplin’s clapboard universe.

Fiona asked if Harold Lloyd had started hanging off buildings yet — he had! So possibly Chaplin was looking to compete, but without breaking his neck. Terror as an accelerant for comedy again. And done without cinematic hype: a more dramatically inclined director would have been unable to resist a POV shot through the back door, the mountainous horizon line tilting vertiginously UP, the gorge rising to devour us… Chaplin settles for the model shot and a set built to rock (no fake Star Trek camera-rocking here, he must have real gravity to work against).

Speed is a weapon — by what can only be considered the most ludicrous of coincidences, the bobsledding house has brought Big Jim to his mountain of gold, previously discovered then lost to concussion. And a good thing to, for the cabin was supposed to be the landmark that helped him locate his loot, a function it can hardly perform while sliding around nocturnally, a rickety land yacht.

Chaplin stops this seeming like a disgusting convenience by having Jim strike his motherload at the worst possible moment, while Charlie is still indoors, sliding towards extinction. Jim, who we know to be forgetful, comes over all amnesiac again once the light of gold is in his eyes. With the best possible action-movie climax, Charlie ends by leaping free of the cabin AS IT FALLS, a stunning effects shot.

(The puppet figure is delightful, and every bit as convincing as we need it to be — in a “just suppose” way — but in a way it’s a shame it punctures the illusion, since the other effects put together by Rollie Totheroh and Charles D. Hall are absolutely successful — as a child, it didn’t even occur to me that Chaplin hadn’t really dropped Tom Murray on a bit of collapsing cliff, or really filmed a low angle of crumbling ice (Totheroh knew to shoot his miniatures in slow motion, something other Hollywood pictures hadn’t, apparently, figured out yet).

There follows a strange lacuna which absolutely works, but maybe shouldn’t: Big Jim and Charlie are millionaires, sailing home. What about Georgia? She’s on the boat too, for unknown reasons, and unaware of Charlie’s good fortune. Charlie has, we can only presume, looked for her but found her gone. But we’re not told this or encouraged to think too much about it.

Big Jim is something of a rough diamond, but is evidently going to enjoy being rich, while Charlie is now outwardly the gentleman he always was inwardly. Fiona laughed heartily when he took of his fur-lined coat to reveal another fur coat underneath. The dainty music Chaplin had used to score the boot-eating scene is now employed, almost irony-free, to accompany the boys entering their shipboard cabin (like the log cabin, a domicile that slides about from place to place).

There’s a bit of plotting here that’s as neat as the car-door slam in CITY LIGHTS that convinces the blind girl that Charlie is rich: photographers documenting Charlie’s rags to riches story require him to dress up in his old prospecting outfit. Georgia will encounter him, thus attired, and mistake him for a stowaway she’s heard about. Critics tend to focus on the improbability of them meeting like this, but we can be generous and note the felicity of the idea: Georgia has never really shown us that she loves Charlie, and she can’t very well turn around and convince us of her romantic feelings if she knows him to be a millionaire. She has to think him impoverished, a failure. Apparently that thing with Jack didn’t work out too good and she’s been thinking about how sweet he was. It’s really a perfect bit of plotting, and I’d love to know when Charlie thought of it: if he had it up his sleeve all along, it would make sense that he kept Georgia from showing any real affection for Charlie until this point. If he had to come up with it on the spot, having created this narrative problem, it’s an impressively ingenious solution.

Charlie, ironically, doesn’t realise that Georgia is expressing a change of heart, or anyhow a belated moment of realisation — he still believes she wrote him a love note back at the dance hall.

One of Chaplin’s least happy alterations to THE GOLD RUSH was to its ending, where Charlie and Georgia go into a clinch and refuse to break it for the photographer’s benefit, a bit of meta larking which for some reason struck him the wrong way in 1942. It seems perfect to me. Had the Tramp retired at this point, it would have served as a nice call-back to his picture-wrecking activities in his first screen appearance, KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE.

Fortunately for us, Chaplin had further ideas for the Little Fellow…

The Chaplin Odyssey will continue in 2022.

Fever Dream

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2021 by dcairns

THE GOLD RUSH, part two.

The storm ends, and Big Jim and the lone prospector go their separate ways, Jim to get clonked on the head by Black Larsen, transforming him into a glazed amnesiac, and the lone prospector to become properly lone again.

(Red is then disappeared from the story by a conveniently yawning crevasse. His dog has previously disappeared, as Fiona noted with concern.)

The reconstructed silent version (as opposed to Chaplin’s post-war sonorized cut) includes a scene of Charlie pawning his shovel, so he’s given up being a prospector so we can’t call him that anymore. Chaplin’s performance in this one shot seems shaky, uncertain, and it looks to have been shot outdoors, so maybe the cold was affecting his performance or his perfectionist (it’s hard to strive for perfection when you’re freezing to death), leading to his decision to reshoot in the studio. He flashes the camera, is what he does, and it’s not an example of the Little Fellow’s ability to share a joke with his chums in the audience, it’s Chaplin breaking character to shoot a glance at Rollie Totheroh, asking if the move from the pawnshop balls to his face had worked…

We meet Georgia, the “saloon girl” (we know what THAT means), collecting some glossies from the photo shop, and we meet the awful Jack (Malcolm Waite), her steady guy. Jovial Jack is MUCH more hateful than Black Larsen, though he doesn’t actually murder anyone. That we know of. Funny that Chaplin’s films have fairly often opposed his character with more classic leading man types, and he loses the girl to one in THE TRAMP, but they haven’t been portrayed as horrible until now. (Jack will also disappear from the movie, unmourned, and with no explanation whatever.)

Georgia is Georgia Hale, discovered working as an extra by Sternberg, who cast her in THE SALVATION HUNTERS. She’s the first Sternbergian woman, and she puts on her eyebrows with a used matchstick in that film, the way Dietrich did for real later. Chaplin hired both her and Sternberg, but it’s fair to say the Sternberg thing didn’t work out: he walked off his first assignment after aiming the camera at the ceiling, and Chaplin burned his second one, the Edna Purviance vehicle A WOMAN OF THE SEA.

Hale’s career went nowhere after this, though she acted until 1931, and Chaplin considered using her again in CITY LIGHTS when he was having trouble getting a performance from Virginia Cherrill. Sternberg blamed alcohol for her decline. She appears lucid when interviewed in later years. And if the 1926 GREAT GATSBY had survived, we could see her in another major film.

Georgia is the one obvious anachronism, with her silvery patterned twenties dress, but I’ll overlook that because it’s a great dress.

Dance hall: Charlie’s arrival here, and this whole first sequence of him meeting Georgia, is the greatest evocation of loneliness in a crowd I’ve ever seen. The shots of him entering the joint are among the most beautiful of Chaplin’s career.

This whole sequence is skating on thin eyes, pathos-wise. Chaplin’s previous successful use of pathos in THE KID centres the heartbreaking emotion on Charlie’s relationship with the Kid. Here, we have to feel sorry for Charlie alone, while also being able to laugh at him. Well, feeling sympathy for a comic character is nothing unusual — it’s a trick to pull off, no doubt,, but one that we frequently see done successfully. Keaton thought the sympathy was an essential ingredient. But Charlie comes close to being pathetic here, a stooge rather than a lord of misrule. It’s a delicate operation. I think what helps is our position in the narrative — it’s OK for the laughs to be fewer and quieter in the middle of a film, and Chaplin has another raucous cabin scene lined up for his big finish.

Charlie gets to be naughty here once — stealing a drink — and funny when he has trouser trouble dancing with Georgia. An elaborate Freudian explanation could be concocted for the situation where he ties up his baggy pants — suddenly a problematic fit in proximity to The Girl — only to find himself tethered to a dog which then takes off after the resident dance hall cat…

Fiona got quite impatient with Georgia — she’s genuinely hard-hearted, which is a first for a Chaplin film and a rarity for silent comedy in general. But she will eventually melt. Chaplin has to pull off one of his cleverest narrative tricks to convince us she has a heart at all.

Interestingly, she’s softened slightly in the voiced-over version, since Chaplin is able to report her thoughts.

The eternal triangle drawn up, we follow Charlie to Henry Bergman’s cabin, where he feigns hypothermia (back to his trickster self) and is taken in as help. So that Jack MacGowran could play frozen rigid in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, Polanski had him encased in a chickenwire exoskeleton under his costume. Chaplin does it by musclepower alone. Well, that’s why they pay him the big money.

Then Georgia and her girlfriends happen by, setting up the idea of the Hogmanay dinner party. Here, Charlie’s tongue-tied intertitles feel a little awkward — all that “Yes mam,” stuff doesn’t feel like him. I think a better effect could be achieved with actual wordlessness. But Georgia’s discovery of the tattered photo Charlie’s saved and keeps under his pillow is a lovely moment. What stops us hating Georgia is probably the music.

Charlie’s street-sweeping routine sees him back in character — turning the performance of a social good into a racket, sweeping one doorfront in order to bury the one next-door, then charging five times more to clear that one. It’s as good as a scam as the window-breaking glazier act in THE KID.

Then comes the bleak “party,” and Chaplin’s best dream sequence. It doesn’t matter too much that the bread roll dance is stolen from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle —

— although it always comes as a shock when you find out.

In any event, Chaplin’s version is far more elaborate, far more illusionistically convincing, funnier and greater. He saw the potential in a brief amusing bit and turned it into a whole performance. Johnny Depp, who had to copy this routine in BENNY AND JOON, talked about how difficult it was. “It’s all in the shoulders,” he said. And, I would add, in the eyes. The solemnity and inwardness of Charlie’s performance is what cracks me up, along with the fact that he alone makes you SEE him as a giant Mardi Gras head with fork legs and bread roll feet, dancing.

You’ll notice that “creative” camera angles and cutting don’t help here — they basically wreck it. Chaplin’s simplistic, stagey decoupage was CORRECT.

Then there’s the beautiful Old Lang Syne sequence at the dance hall, which makes Georgia yearn to see her absent friend, but she STILL hasn’t become, in the term of another festive comedy, “a mensch,” she presents the idea of a post-midnight visit to Charlie as a chance to prank him. She can’t admit to the sentiment this film celebrates. Anyway, Charlie and Georgia miss one another in the dark, and she sees into his private lonely world again when she finds the Marie Celeste dinner party.

Then Big Jim arrives, still amnesiac, recognises Charlie — who is understandably terrified by his manner — Mack Swain is the only one doing operatic silent movie acting in this film — and the movie prepares for the big finish…


The Man Who Mistook His Hat for a Cake

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2021 by dcairns

THE PILGRIM, continued.

As noted, some cute business with Charlie helping Edna in the kitchen, especially the rolling pin on the top shelf that keeps falling on him. This is mildly amusing, but provokes an additional gasp when it imperils Edna. Charlie has thought himself clever by placing a milk bottle in front of the rolling pin to stop it trundling off, but then Edna reaches for the bottle…

Charlie is long past actually doing crude violence to his leading ladies for the sake of a laugh — gone are the days when Mabel Normand took a kick in the skirts. But he can still good-naturedly THREATEN to have some accident befall a lady, so long as disaster is averted.

Meanwhile, little Dinky Riesner has placed Sydney Chaplin’s hat over the similar-looking cake Edna has baked, and Charlie proceeds to decorate it with chocolate and cream and cherries. This is all probably too elaborate a scheme for Dinky to come up with, and he’s not even going to be present for the pay-off. Charlie gently kicks the lad from the room, and we can still see from the mite’s expression that this is a hilarious game and he’s not being hurt by it.

Syd gets quite stroppy when he can’t find his hat. Almost too aggressive for a comedy, especially when he’s been a milquetoast until now. A flash of the real man’s unpleasant side? Consternation as the cake/hat is sliced. It doesn’t behave correctly. A round of close-up reactions as the perfidy is discovered: like the denouement of a murder mystery.

The film’s best intertitle, perhaps, as Mrs. Syd asks “Where did you find it?” and a despondent Syd replies “They were eating it.”

The whole thing is incomprehensible to all concerned, though the solution and culprit, Dinky Dean Riesner, is right there, slapping his tiny palm on the creamy chapeau, then burying his face in it to slurp at the delicious coating.

Romance in three-quarter backlight by the garden gate. Enter this Eden’s snake-in-the-grass, Charles Reisner as Howard Huntington AKA ‘Nitro Nick’ AKA ‘Picking Pete.’ Knowing Charlie from his past life, he’s evidently keen to get a piece of whatever long con is going on. Mack Swain, still at tea with Purviance and her mother, makes an obvious mark and is relieved of his pocketbook. Charlie looks very uncomfortable — this impostor is like the dark version of himself, down to the derby. He steals the pocketbook from Reisner and returns it to Swain. Using his powers of filching for good. But we can sense that Nitro Nick’s intrusion is making clear the untenability of Charlie AKA ‘Lefty Lombard’ AKA ‘Slippery Elm’ as a tenant in this respectable home.

When Picking Pete resteals the money, he’s too much on guard for Charlie to resteal it back, so Charlie goes into a magic routine — a prestidigitator in a world of legerdemain — magicking the pocketbook from Swain (who doesn’t have it) to Reisner (who does, having re-filched it). All done in plain view, so Reisner can’t make a fuss.

But now a cash MacGuffin appears (and Cash MacGuffin would make a fine character name for a crime thriller) — Edna’s mortgage money. Which Reisner spots and immediately makes plans for, spinning a yarn about missing his train so he’s invited to stay the night.

In THE TRAMP, the threat came from outside the house, with Charlie as besieged defender. With the threat INSIDE, the scenario is closer to bedroom farce, only with money rather than furtive sex and the veneer of respectability as the motive force. In THE ADVENTURER, Charlie was outsider who didn’t belong and his enemy, the great Eric Campbell, was an insider who did. The cops were the main adversary, though. Here, Reisner is a scarier villain because he really comes from a dark criminal world that Edna and her mum are wholly innocent of. Only Charlie, who knows that world as a native, can defend them. I’m excited to see where this goes.

Really terrific long-take farce action on the top landing, with Charlie continually pretending to go into his room, catching Reisner leaving his, with none of the straight repetition Chaplin was so fond of — it’s all variations on the theme, not replays. Beautifully done, without a cut or a title.

Then a fight, with Reisner trying to get the swag from a drawer while Charlie, mounted on his back like the Old Man of the Sea, continually kicks the drawer shut. A beautiful gag I’ve never seen anywhere else, but which we get to see about a dozen times here since Chaplin has rightly decided that this one is worth repeating.

Knocking Charlie cold, Nitro Reisner heads to the local saloon to lose the mortgage money at roulette. This dance hall is the film’s first opportunity to inject actual Texan local colour.

Rumbled! The sheriff (Tom Murray, who plays the villainous Black Larsen in THE GOLD RUSH) has discovered that Parson Pim is really Lefty Lombard, and gives Edna the bad news. This is pretty good third act plotting — Charlie can retrieve the money and still get arrested,so things really do look bleak. We may know that it’s inevitable that some kind of at least reasonably happyish ending must be arranged, but it’s not easy to see how, which sets Chaplin up nicely to delivery the necessary surprises, whatever they may be.

The plot thickens — a gang of bandits rob the saloon — pure deus ex machina, except that they’re not clearing up the plot problem, they’re intensifying and complicating it.

Chaplin deftly disguises himself to enter the saloon, reversing his dog collar — but I thought it was a real one, stolen from a real minister? It wouldn’t have regular wings at the back. Unless all dog collars do, so that the priests can pass among us incognito, which would be just like them, the sneaky bastards.

Impersonating a bandit, Charlie robs Nitro Nick, then flees, pursued by the real bandits. A pretty desperate bit of plot contrivance, I’ll admit.

Next morning, Charlie is able to return the loot to Edna, but is nailed by the law. His innocence of the current crime counts for nothing since he’s a fugitive from justice anyway. But the goodhearted Sheriff walks Charlie to the Mexican border and orders him to pick flowers — from the other side. It’s the same idea as the jailbreak in THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (and we know Sturges was a Chaplin fan) — will Charlie be sharper than Norville Barnes in realising he’s being allowed to escape?

Nope! Charlie is crafty but nothing in his experience of the law has enabled him to expect this. He comes running back with the flowers even as the Sheriff is riding off, and the stalwart lawman has to march him back to the border by his dog collar, delivering the most well-intentioned boot up the arse in the Chaplin oeuvre, propelling him to freedom. Charlie stands in a wide prairie longshot and looks at us in surprise.

But Chaplin’s not done with us. Just as Charlie is celebrating his new life in peaceful Mexico, a bunch of bandits emerge from the bushes, murdering each other. he flees back to the border, and then retreats from the camera, keeping on big, outward-pointing shoe on either side of the boundary line, ready to flee in whichever direction becomes advisable. It’s a precarious existence for a “citizen of the world.”