Archive for Mack Swain

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.”

The Sunday Intertitle: Pilgrim Versus the World

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by dcairns

At four reels, THE PILGRIM isn’t quite a short and doesn’t seem quite a feature, but the IMDb classes it as one.

Excitingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, not all the way through.

Chaplin is recycling the escaped convict routine from THE ADVENTURER and having another go at the mistaken identity gag from THE IDLE CLASS — again anticipating THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, immediately, is what put me off the film on my previous attempt at viewing: this bloody song. Vocals are tricky in a silent movie score, because if people can sing, why can’t anybody talk, audibly I mean? And yet it can be done. I just don’t happen to like this particular song. It’s a case of Chaplin imposing words on his work, as he did in the revised version of THE GOLD RUSH. Billy Wilder’s dismissal of talking-picture Chaplin — “a child of nine making up lyrics for a Beethoven symphony” isn’t true, I don’t think, of Chaplin’s talkies, but it’s arguably true of this kind of thing. We don’t need words.

We immediately get them, though, and the singer going on while we try to read the wanted sign is distracting. The text here is a basic physical description of Charlie, though the addition “Extremely nervous” is an interesting one, and we learn he has blue eyes.

Like BARRY LYNDON later/earlier, Charlie effects a change of clothing by stealing the duds of a bather — we see the clergyman examining the discarded prison stripes with dismay, a nice bit of economical storytelling.

Charlie the chaplain manages to maintain his usual look surprisingly well — tight jacket and baggy trousers, big shoes. The hat and dog collar are the only noticeable change. So far so good. What comedy will he manage from the impersonation? Early priests in Chaplin’s films — in THE TRAMP and POLICE, are portrayed in a notably acerbic way: one has a rotten egg pressed into his psalm book, the other is a shameless crook and hustler. But in EASY STREET the church scenes are rather delicate and Chaplin seems on his best behaviour. What’s he going to be like here?

But Chaplin jumpstarts a whole new plot before we can find out. Elopers! A pursuing dad!

The chap is Sydney Chaplin, the girl and her father unidentified, despite a very sizable cast list available online. And the plot turns out to be just an excuse for mistaken intentions and running about. The course of true love doesn’t get smoothed out and Syd gets a boot up the bum from Dad. We can assume the girl had a lucky escape.

The bloody song starts again as Charlie is trying to choose a random destination. That song kills everything it plays over, a real shame when Chaplin’s accompanying music is otherwise so good. Trying to stab at a city name from the list, he jabs Henry Bergman in the butt. Well, in the waiting rooms of small-town railway stations, between traveling businessmen and members of the church, such action is not unknown.

Buying his ticket, Charlie still tries to hitch a ride on the underside of the train, before a conductor (Syd again!) corrects him. Charlie has never been in a compartment before.

Another notice is posted, this time announcing the arrival of the new minister, Philip Pim — Charlie, in his new identity. It goes neatly with the wanted poster earlier. The name is an echo of “pilgrim”, obvs.

Among those present, Mack Swain and Edna Purviance, who already harbours romantic imaginings about this new minister, saucy trout that she is.

Chaplin’s train approaches on Sunday, and we see him eating crackers next to Henry Bergman, and we get a look at the newspaper article about his escape, learning that in this film, Charlie, unusually, has a name, Lefty Lombard, and also a pseudonym, “Slippery Elm.” Chaplin was indeed left-handed, though at the workhouse they beat him until he became ambidextrous. Lefty’s escape, like those of John Goodman and William Forsythe in RAISING ARIZONA, and Tim Robbins in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, has been sewer-based, and the paper writes of the prison guards’ “astonisment.” But the entire article does seem to have been written, it doesn’t suddenly devolve into Latin or rubbish about trade conferences. I would quite like that job, just as I would like to have been tasked with typing Jack Torrance’s novel in THE SHINING. My ideal job.

Charlie/Lombard/Pim is dismayed to find the tow sheriff and all the prominent citizens waiting to welcome him. Phyllis Allen gives herself a lovely bit of business, stepping back and colliding with the locomotive. She’s not even in focus, which makes it somehow even more delightfully throwaway.

Charlie filches a quart of whisky from Swain’s back pocket, which I guess establishes that Mack is a bit of a hypocrite. But Charlie loses the booze when they both slip on the sidewalk. They find themselves sitting in a puddle of hooch — mutual embarrassment, as each suspects the other of attributing the contraband to himself.

Charlie giving a service, and not knowing how, seems like the kind of business tailor-made for the talkies. What can Chaplin do with it,wordlessly?

The choir are a notable gang of grotesques, carved from walnut. There is awkward sitting-down-standing-up confusion. More good business with Phyllis and her itchy son. And there is quite a bit of comic value in Charlie having no idea what happens in a church or what is expected of a minister. Plus he has his eyes on the collection boxes.

The sermon — David and Goliath! A tour de force of mime, my favourite part being Charlie’s graphic insistence that David’s slingshot passes clean through Goliath’s massive skull. All done with gestures. Little Raymond Lee, the bully kid from THE KID, is wild about all this, and the equally explicit decapitation scene.

Charlie finishing the sermon as if he were, alternately, a victorious prizefighter, and a prima ballerina receiving an opening night ovation, is good too.

A fellow crook! But, despite his character having three names, the Inaccurate Movie Database doesn’t seem to know any of them. But Charlie does, and the presence of an old acquaintance strikes him as very inconvenient. This is Charles Reisner, the thug from THE KID, whose son, Dean or Dinky Riesner, who married Vampira, is also in the film. And no, I don’t know why they spell their surname differently.

Charlie, meanwhile, has been billeted with Edna and her widowed mother. Observing Edna’s shape through her shapeless dress, Charlie treats us to a downright sinister glance, comparable to his eerie look from the dock in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Pure serial killer.

Visitors arrive. One is Dinky Dean, another is Syd again, in character actor guise:

Dinky recalled later in life that it took quite a bit of coaching to get him to hit people, especially Charlie, but his dad was the assistant director as well as acting, and between Chaplin and Reisner they persuaded him to cut loose and sock the great star repeatedly in the kisser. This business isn’t too amusing — I was waiting for Charlie to do something more in character with him being a convict than a minister — of course, this is probably the suspense Chaplin had in mind. I’m just frustrated he doesn’t do more to pay it off.

Finally, he does, kicking — gently — the recalcitrant tot onto his keister, or maybe he spells it kiester. It’s moderately gratifying, but Dinky rather spoils it with a grin directed past the camera, presumably at dad. I suppose Chaplin may have welcomed this as proof he hadn’t really harmed a small child.

Cute stuff in the kitchen with Edna. This is all very mild — it seems like Chaplin has decided he doesn’t want to give offence, the anti-clerical tendencies seen in his earlier films are in abeyance here. But let’s see…

Here’s an interesting thing: since, as I’ve observed, Chaplin had taken to using both his cameras to gather coverage, typically a wider and closer view of the same action, he was compelled, to create a second negative for foreign territories, to use alternate takes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the US and foreign (in this case, Russian) versions of THE PILGRIM. The camera angles are mostly the same, but the action is always subtly different.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Birthday Intertitle: 54

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2021 by dcairns

It’s the anniversary of me, whereas PAY DAY, Chaplin’s penultimate short, won’t be 100 until April next. It’s a film I’ve seen, but not recently, and my memories are dim. But I recall that Charlie, fully immersed in a settled lifestyle — marriage, employment, alcoholism — is a less attractive, less revolutionary figure in this one. It’s the last time, in fact, he’d appear in Tramp guise but as a character fundamentally with a job — MODERN TIMES being about what happens when he loses that job; the Jewish tailor in THE GREAT DICTATOR being not 100% the Tramp. I’m sure we’ll get into that later, but while he doesn’t have a name, which makes him like the Tramp, he has a job and an ethnic identity and culture, and he talks…

Throughout his fictional existence, the Little Fellow has held down jobs, some of them seeming quite settled. Often with a sense that the film would terminate in the place of business actually or metaphorically exploding (DOUGH AND DYNAMITE, WORK), setting him at presumable liberty again. Here, there seems no way out, and rather than the striking Marxist view of capital exploiting labour we get in WORK or HIS MUSICAL CAREER, where however labour fights back via ineptitude, here the ineptitude is still in play but rebellion is not, save for the socially-somewhat-sanctioned release of getting plastered.

Charlie is late for work. Mack Swain is the foreman, looking naked without his Groucho moustache.

Charlie enters the building site, simpers at Swain, then immediately strikes John Rand with his pick — by accident, of course. Nice to see Rand again.

Flawless continuity between closer and wider shots as Charlie shovels up tiny spoonfuls of dirt indicates that he was shooting the scene with (at least) two cameras. 1972 intertitle is less flawless, with a typo on YOUR’RE.

Enter Edna, the foreman’s daughter, through the same gap in the fence Charlie came in by. She skips nimbly over the slit trench/grave Charlie’s digging, and his head pops up a second later. Don’t want to imply that he saw up her skirt. Might want to imply that he could’ve.

Charlie, at once all courtliness, conducts Edna by elevator to the scaffolding: she’s brought dad’s lunch. Another quick punch-in points up his look of romantic yearning when, having descended again, he momentarily reascends purely to deliver said look. The habit of shooting with two cameras to create a second negative for European distribution was still extant, I believe, but Chaplin seems to be using his two cameras to get seamless coverage, meaning he’d also have to get two good takes. But multiple takes wasn’t generally a problem for him.

Oh, and there’s the inevitable smelly cheese gag.

Reverse motion! Rand chucks bricks to Charlie who catches them with his back turned, unerringly, and stacks them at dazzling speed. Chaplin did this kind of effects gag rarely, maybe once per studio? The one in BEHIND THE SCREEN, in which a genuine axe-blade seems to just miss him, was deleted before use. Brother Sydney is throwing the bricks, joined by a second, stout workman, Henry Bergman.

Dazzling bit with the elevator — it goes up and down behind Charlie as he sits and stands. He’s sitting on a barrel positioned on the elevator. It’s always magically there when he needs it, but inbetweentimes there’s nothing but your basic yawning abyss. Constant suspense and hair-trigger timing. Chaplin would slow the pace down for a very similar gag in CITY LIGHTS, where he’s admiring a nude statue in a store window, as one of those street elevators drops away behind him. The slowness was better for suspense, the rapidity here is better for dazzle — I can’t pick a winner.

The elevator is made further use of during lunch — having come without comestibles, Charlie gets a bit of everybody’s food as they unthinkingly place items on the elevator and said items are delivered to Charlie’s waiting hands and mouth. The gag with the frankfurter sandwich is great too — Charlie drills a hole in Syd’s stale loaf and inserts a sausage. Removing the sausage by corkscrew is good too, but kind of nullifies the whole procedure — maybe sawing it up into slices would have been more productive? But less amusing.

ABRUPT FONT CHANGE

I incline to the view that the earlier, stark brutalist sans-serif typeface was added in 1972, and this one may be the authentic original. At any rate, I don’t see any reason for the change unless one is a more modern addition, the other a survival of the twenties. With the early Keystones and Essanays, there are often multiple versions on the YouTubes, allowing you to see the films in various conditions with various attempts at titling, but these later ones are more monolithic. A case could be made for re-restoring them so we could have Chaplin’s 1972 revisions AND the 1922 originals.

Still, I hear the whistle blowing for lunch, so I will continue this later.