Archive for Making a Living

The Sunday Intertitle: Will the real Charlie Chaplin…?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2022 by dcairns

Not taken with Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America by Richard Carr. Maybe the word “political” somehow makes it seem like it’s trying too hard. I picked up a copy from the library and looked up THE CIRCUS. “To modern tastes, it remains Chaplin’s most amusing film, however — the comedy that truly stands up to a twenty-first century-audience in both its inventiveness and execution.” Which tells me that Carr doesn’t much like Chaplin as a comedian or filmmaker and hasn’t bothered to watch the films with an audience, because if he had he’d see and hear them “standing up” rather admirably. It could just be he’s writing sloppily and doesn’t mean to imply that the other films don’t work anymore — certainly the word “remains” is a weak choice where I think the word “is” would better represent his intended meaning.

Not finding anything useful to my little pieces on THE CIRCUS (which is excellent, and maybe has Chaplin’s funniest scene, but isn’t his best or best-made feature in my view, not that that matters), I moved on to CITY LIGHTS, which has more “politics” maybe since it deals with the struggle to survive in the capitalist west, among other things.

Carr’s description of the film and its making are very decent summaries, though “it took time” is a rather unimpressive summary of the months of camera-writer’s-block that afflicted Chaplin when he tried to set up Virginia Cherrill’s mistaken belief in Charlie’s wealth. Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin series does a magnificent job of this, but even if you couldn’t spare the time they lavish on the question, just saying that it took over a year to solve the problem would be more impressive.

“Whatever the politics, the film remains a classic from beginning to end.” There you go with “remains” again, though it’s slightly better here. Still, Carr’s book assembles maybe the most detailed record of Chaplin’s political thoughts and contacts, including his meetings with persons as diverse as Churchill and Gandhi, John Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw. The problem is that I don’t think Chaplin’s politics are even the tenth most interesting thing about him.

Peter Ayckroyd’s straight biography Charlie Chaplin is actually quite fine, I think. Though we didn’t necessarily need another Chaplin bio after Robinson, Louvish, Baxter, and of course Chaplin himself. It’s still pretty enjoyable — Ayckroyd really knows his London, and the areas where he’s not so obviously an expert, the film history and the film analysis and appreciation, he actually does very well with. He seems to genuinely admire the films, in a way Carr can’t manage to suggest. “The details of their opening scene together, when Charlie purchases a flower before realising she is blind, too two years and 342 takes to assemble.” There you go, that wasn’t hard. Ayckroyd nails it, except for the inaccurate use of “opening” — it’s their first scene together, but it doesn’t open the film or anything else. I may not be a great critic but I’m a great pedant.

Also: “City Lights remained Chaplin’s own favourite among his films.” Bravo! A correct use of the r word.

Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s new film THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN is a pretty terrific documentary. It had big boots to fill. It is inferior to Kevin Brownlow’s documentaries with and without David Gill — Hollywood, Unseen Chaplin and The Tramp and the Dictator — because it doesn’t let the viewer see enough of Chaplin’s comedy to judge his genius. LET CHAPLIN HELP YOU! But, apart from some ill-judged reconstructions and some slightly doubtful chronology — saying Chaplin scored his films when describing his accomplishments in the twenties is an inaccuracy — it’s really very good indeed. Beautifully cut by Julian Quantrill, using a plethora of source materials in very creative ways. Beautifully narrated by Pearl Mackie. Beautifully scored by Robert Honstein.

It goes out of its way to be fair to Lita Grey, and it’s time someone did, though it may be going too far in the other direction. But she had a story and it’s worth at the very least asking, What if it’s true? If it’s true, Chaplin could be a sonnovabitch, and there’s no shortage of material to support that claim.

I was grateful to see some footage of Chaplin impersonator Charles Aplin for the first time (that I know of). And amused to learn Aplin’s defence when Chaplin sued him: “I’m not impersonating Chaplin, I’m impersonating (Chaplin impersonator) Bill Ritchie.” Unbelievable. I think if he’d claimed Billy West he might have come closer to convincing someone — West at least was a close facsimile of Chaplin. If you’re impersonating Ritchie, why do you look so much more like Chaplin than he does, and why did you tale the name Aplin? An interesting case — maybe the first time an actor sued to protect his rights, not to a film or story, but to a visual characterisation. Though Ford Sterling could presumably have sued Chaplin over MAKING A LIVING, in which the frock-coated interloper has clearly been tasked with playing a Sterling substitute.

And I suppose Kevin Brownlow could sue over being played by a lookalike in THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN, except I’m sure he wouldn’t, he’s such a nice man and obviously they would have asked him.

When running through the previous Chaplin docs, I should mention the Biography Channel one which is better than the Richard Schickel one, which is also good. I have the Biography Channel one on VHS somewhere but don’t recall who made it. Kenneth Branagh narrated it, a service he also provides for Brownlow, but it didn’t have Brownlow’s name on it and it doesn’t appear on the Branagh IMDb page. A small mystery. (It’s not the one on YouTube, presented by Peter Graves of all people.)

The Christmas Day Intertitle: Dough Nuts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2020 by dcairns

Charlie Chaplin always hated Christmas. It reminded him of the poorhouse. And then he died on Christmas Day, aged 88, which I guess allowed him to skip the last one. Take your small victories where you can, and have the merriest one possible under the circumstances.

This Chaplin-Conklin bunfight took nine days to make, an unheard-of thing at Keystone. Sennett announced, per Chaplin’s autobiography, that the only way it could make its money back was as a two-reeler, so it was allowed to spread out a bit more than was typically allowed. Chaplin forfeited his $25 bonus for going $800 over the $1000 budget.

The film made a fortune.

Sennett recollects that he was absent for the studio for a few days. He left Chaplin and Conklin making a short about idle roomers competing for their landlady’s affections, he recalls (but that’s the plot of a different film, THOSE LOVE PANGS, made immediately previously) and when he got back, the boys had taken inspiration from a “help wanted” sign at a local bakery. Sennett claims credit for adding the explosive element. The Chaplin Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell, explains the confusion by suggesting that CC & CC began THOSE LOVE PANGS, got sidetracked onto D&D, then returned to the landlady idea and finished it.

The New York Dramatic Mirror wrote, of Chaplin “His odd little tricks of manner and his refusal to do the most simple things in an ordinary way are essential features of his method, which thus far has defied successful imitation.” Which is actually pretty perceptive.

The film begins, somewhat unusually for the studio, with a stark, one-word intertitle: TROUBLE. Chaplin is cast as an appalling waiter. He’s unusually jovial about it, but his customers don’t seem amused. Never mind, here’s a pretty girl loitering at the ASSORTED FRENCH TARTS counter, so Charlie abandons his disgruntled victims to attend to her needs.

Charlie is very fussy and jolly in his incompetence, which is a new look for him. A departure from the Little Fellow’s general air of downbeat, dogged uselessness when called upon to do work. It’s automatically less funny when he’s laughing.

Then he’s leering at the girl’s swinging hips, and his own tiny ass starts metronoming in sympathy with hers. Maybe the smuttiest sequence in Chaplin’s work so far. His attempts to be a leading man as well as a clown have been tentative to date. The romances, such as they are, have not tended to be full narratives requiring resolution.

Chaplin didn’t go in for pie-throwing as much as many would suspect, but a fair bit of pastry tossing occurs in this one’s opening minutes, with Charley Chase as one of the recipients.

Once Charlie is propelled into the kitchen, his cheerful attitude unexpectedly changes as he gets into an immediate fight with Conklin, with the tubby female cool an inadvertent victim. Charlie, it’s clear, despise his fellow workers. His aggression has to make room for numerous gestures of superiority. This movie should have been shown as proof that he wasn’t a communist. You can’t be a hero of the proletariat and kick Chester Conklin in the face, twice.

Down in the cellar, two employees are fomenting a strike. It’s a lot like METROPOLIS, this film, only messier. The dough everyone’s required to handle is revoltingly stick and stringy. Is it Larry Cohen’s THE STUFF? Charlie manages to burn his hand (twice) and his foot on an oven door, then slam the trapdoor on the same foot as he exits through the shop floor.

Back to the kitchen, where some dishes are smashed and CC and CC punch one another in the chest. Charlie’s small frame and tight jacket always make his chest seem impossibly small, and his ribs do seem here to be a weak spot: he staggers, winded, at every blow.

Another intertitle:

It’s hardly a socialist tract. Of course, Chaplin is perhaps trying to please his boss. He recalled getting along quite well with Sennett now and so he’d probably not want to spoil it by suggesting that the workers should control the means of custard pie production, even in a skit.

One particularly aggressive striker threatens Charlie with a knife: he reverses it when the guy’s not looking (or feeling, apparently: he somehow doesn’t notice when it’s taken from his hand and then replaced) and gives the guy a sharp jab. Unlike in MAKING A LIVING, stabbing here isn’t just another form of slapstick violence: we may expect that a more sincere stab might cause non-comic injury.

Charlie, Chester and the Cook, unquestioning blacklegs, set about trying to run the joint all by themselves. Chaplin tries to carrie a bag of flour the size of Mack Swain: his legs crumpling under him and distorted by the baggy pants, resemble those of some trouser-wearing insect or a de-poled scarecrow. The cook has to shove his knees back into their rightful places. He’s also stuffed an apron down his front, making the crotch and seat bulge in carapace-like manner. A new look for him: Chaplin the crippled ant.

Of course, hobbling through the cafe, he has to careen sideways and crush a plump patron. Good outraged reaction from Phyllis Allen. He then drops the whole overstuffed futon down the trapdoor onto Conklin’s head. A few bits of business are then conducted with the wretched Chester pinned under the heavy sack. Chaplin even walks over him, It’s a foretaste of MODERN TIMES, where Conklin is again the butt, though in that one Charlie is much more solicitous and the atrocities more accidental.

The strikers are now transformed into an anarchist cell, their fake whiskers and dynamite evoking a road company version of Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot.

Intriguingly, though Charlie never considers going on strike, he continues to treat his boss with the contempt reserved for anyone he doesn’t want to get off with, hurling hard loaves at the patron, until the guy (Fritz Schade M. La Vie, per cast list) slings one back and it shatters into crumbs on his face.

Chaplin getting his neck caught in the trapdoor as Conklin pulls his legs from below merits a rare close-up:

We’ve established from day one that anything with a hinge is Charlie’s mortal enemy. If you had a hinge, you would be too.

Once Charlie is freed, he and Chester start whacking each other with dough in a painful-looking manner. The two have magnificent timing together, so the short breathers — during one of which Charlie says a silent prayer — are perfectly matched. Then we get this —

This got me very excited. So the 1914 projectionists had no automated means of changing reels in the “seemless” manner I remember from the days of 35mm — cigarette burn flashes up, crashed burp of soundtrack, scratches and missing footage — and so the show simply stopped while they removed one reel, threaded another, and got the carbon arc going again, all while the customers sat and grumbled. I guess most attractions were still one reel long. I haven’t considered the effect of INTOLERANCE happening as a series of ten-fifteen minute chapters with mini-intermissions. Did at least some of the classier venues have a two-projector system to avoid hiatuses? They must have… it’s not a high-tech solution, just a more expensive one.

Come to think of it, the fact that I grew up seeing reel changes performed by hand and eye kind of makes me feel like a dinosaur.

One of the dynamiteers buys a loaf in the most suspicious possible manner.

Chaplin is struggling to get much comedy out of the ovens. He’s had the set designer build them. They are unquestionably an element of a bakery. But what to do with them, slapstickwise? Yes, he can singe his fingers again.

Ah, this looks promising —

A nasty poke in the face for Chester, which of course Chaplin repeats, because he knows the audience will laugh harder the second time. First for surprise, second for satisfaction. It’s rough on Chester, but what are you going to do?

Charlie then discovers that he can warm his hands before the ovens. Still not funny. Ah, but he can warm his arse! Not actually a gag, but potentially funny because it has an arse in it.

A couple of saucy, giggling wenches descend into the cellar. Charlie sends Chester away so he can slack off work and flirt with them. Going on strike is not an option for the little fellow, it seems (see also the red flag mix-up in MODERN TIMES, an epic gag), but bunking off to chase girls just comes naturally.

Raymond Durgnat put it like this: “One could summarise a proletarian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being outtalked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted. Something like that.”

The strikers create an exploding loaf, a detailed process which we watch in real time, like something out of RIFIFI. It even gets a medium closeup. This is the most anti-labour element in the film, so it makes sense that management, in the form of Sennett, thought of it.

The strikers attack, conking Conklin with sticks. This deliberate assault, however, is arguably no worse than the routine treatment the poor guy has been receiving from Charlie in the ordinary course of his duties. Grievous bodily harm practically qualifies as a rest break.

Chester arranges for Charlie to get the same brutal treatment, and Charlie then pays him back with dough. The two are more focussed on each other than on the guys who concussed them. I think dough-slinging may be funnier than pie-slinging: it’s messier, more strenuous (the combatants frequently become helplessly enmired), more vicious (a good slap send the recipient smothering to the floor).

One of the devilish strikers entrusts the explosive bread product to a random little girl. We’re in BATTLE OF ALGIERS territory now. I suppose the plan is to look unsuspicious by walking INTO a bakery carrying a loaf.

Bakers: worse than Al Qaida.

One presumes at first that the child is a dupe, but she plays it dead sinister, like one of the twins of evil in THE SHINING.

The suspiciously heavy loaf is now delivered to Charlie in the cellar. He decides it wants additional baking. Great idea. Charlie then manages to put a floury handprint on a female derriere, and still won praise for his refusal to resort to vulgarity.

Charley Chase has been sitting bottom right in the cafe for most of this movie, looking bored.

M. La Vie, seeing the handprints on his wife’s behind, flies into a writ of fealous jage and slaps hell out of Charlie (owner of I guess the smallest-hands in the establishment, though Conklin is even shorter). Charlie throws a pie in self-defense and hits Chase, who finally receives the service he’s been waiting for throughout this reel. Big chase, much kicking up the arse, bags of flour hurled left and right (Henry “Pathe” Lehrman’s lesson on screen direction gets a work-out) —

The oven explodes! The roof falls in on Charlie as he is preparing to throw basically all the dough at his boss. The blast causes the strikers’ box of dynamite to fall over and explode, killing (?) them. Or at least making them fall in a heap.

Charlie emerges, swampmonstered by dough, for a messy fade-out.

The Sunday Intertitle: Sunday in the park with Charlie

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

…and Mack and Mabel and Eva etc…

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

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

In fact, no banana-skin gag is attempted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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