Archive for Margie Reiger

The Sunday Intertitle: Promising a Young Woman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2021 by dcairns

A WOMAN was Charlie’s last drag act, building on earlier entries at Keystone. The versions on YouTube are sadly defective — the restored version is there with annoying pop-ups, and my internet connection was playing up, making the action herky-jerky, ruining the smooth movement. The unrestored one is missing the sarcastic opening intertitle. Still, proper movement is essential, so I watched that one. I should really have bought the box set for this project… maybe I will for the Mutual films.

Edna Purviance is in the park with her folks, silk-hatted swell Charles Inslee (the boss in WORK) whose moustache has a remarkable wingspan, and Marta Golden (the deshabille housewife, also in WORK). The parents are snoring unattractively until Inslee spies a floozy (Margie Reiger) and sneaks off to woo her.

The park this time is Lincoln Park, LA. Chaplin now has a new studio, Majestic, nearishby on Fairview Avenue. Seems to be less draughty.

Here comes Charlie now — backlit, seen through the haze of a lawn sprinkler, the sun eating away at his familiar silhouette to make it strange, spidery. It suddenly doesn’t feel like him.

Then he’s flirting rather creepily with Reiger and, yes, that’s Charlie all right. His cane has a life of its own, snagging her ankle and dragging her off the bench, tripping him at the same time.

Inslee, barging in, jealously brains the Little Fellow with a bottle and Charlie stiffens into rigor mortis, with the odd inverted spasm thrown in. Slowly crawling back to consciousness, he’s joined on the bench by two more twerps in toppers, regular co-stars Leo White and Billy Armstrong (puffing out his chest to create a very particular type). Leo has no reason to be in the film at all, but he was a valued co-star, so Chaplin tries to find him some work.

More bottle-smashing on the noggins. Sugar glass seems to be a new discovery for CC — at least I HOPE it’s sugar glass — maybe it was something Majestic Studios made on-site?

Charlie’s first female impersonation in the film comes here — Inslee is playing blind-man’s-bluff with Eiger, who’s wandered off, and when Charlie steals his (root?) beer, he thinks its her.

Charlie now follows the dictum about revenge being a dish best served cold: he leads Inslee by the crook of his cane up to a pond, testing the water to make sure it’s deep enough… at a carefully planned moment he lets CI remove his eye-mask, then smashes him with his own bottle and kicks him into the drink. He doesn’t mess about… except in the sense that everything he does is messing about.

A kop shows up, doing the dramatic knee-bend thing that British bobbies are famed for. Never seen it in a US film (and never understood its meaning). Did Charlie instruct him in this? Neither IMDb nor Wiki seem to have identified this actor. It’s not Paddy McGuire and I don’t think it’s Lloyd Bacon. Obviously a good trick falls man by the way Charlie judo-throws him into the pond after Inslee.

As for Reiger, Wiki says: “Margie Reiger, the youthful actress who played the pretty girl in the park, is a bit of a mystery. Her acting credits show 13 appearances in silent films—all in 1915. Why her career suddenly ended and what became of her is unknown. Furthermore, no researcher has been able to find a date of birth or death for her.”

The mystery would be accounted for, but not dispelled, by the use of a stage name.

Note that when Charlie throws the kop into the water, his derby follows — clearly unplanned. But Chaplin makes a bit of business of it, rescuing the hat with a deft swipe of his cane. Who wants to wait around while your supporting cast dry out for a retake? Just plough through it, it’ll work.

Mystery solved, I think: when the cop staggers out of the lake, he has Billy Armstrong’s face. Armstrong playing two roles, kop and souse in topper? With almost the same moustache?

Charlie is now flirting with Marta Golden, but mainly, one suspects, so that he can subcontract his flirting in Edna’s direction, Humber Humbert fashion. Despite his appearance, it seems we’re not meant to see him as a tramp here, since the women seem flattered by his attentions, which tends not to happen if you’re a tramp, even an unusually pixieish one. Now that I get a better look at him, Charlie is smarter than usual — same basic costume, just neater, less ragged versions of the familiar baggy pants etc.

The girls invite Charlie home. Odd. But who are we to judge? Let him that is without sin cast the first cream pie. Elaborate flirtation: a doughnut briefly becomes a wedding ring.

Meet papa: Charlie’s double-take when he realises Edna’s dad is the bloke he kicked backwards into a duck pond is a form of comedy we don’t generally see him do. His features are more antically mobile in these early shorts, but this is a real gawp, the jaw dropping as the blood rushes from his face and then his knees go noodle-limp…

FIGHT! Charlie is literally flung about by his face, then goes into the strangling routine he’d refine to whiplash-perfection later with Eric Campbell. He retaliates with condiments. Armstrong joins the fray and Charlie loses his trousers.

I definitely never imagined his underwear looking like THAT. I mean, I hadn’t given the matter much thought, but I suppose if I’d had to write a piece o speculative slash fiction I’d have gone for boxer shorts with a polka dot motif. Something generic. There are… weird. Long johns with big baggy underpants worn over them? Maybe the pants are a bathing costume? But they’re pinned to his thighs, somehow?

So now Charlie has simply no choice but to drag up. Of course.

“Censors initially refused permission for A Woman to be shown in Great Britain. The reason is not entirely clear, but it could have been because a married man is trying to seduce a much younger woman or because of the transvestitism hinted at by Charlie disguising himself as a female. The ban on the film was lifted in 1916.”

Given the nature of the British music hall, the British panto, and British life in general, the idea that Charlie’s innocuous drag act got the film banned seems preposterous. I think his peculiar taste in underthings is a better explanation. Although the scene where he undresses a tailor’s mannequin (having first started in alarm at the headless apparition) with the sleazy delicacy of a seasoned seducer does seem rather censorable. Charlie makes people into objects and objects into other objects or else people, and so we can SEE the imaginary girl he’s denuding here. Suggestive mime.

Charlie in full femme costume WITH toothbrush ‘tache IS rather subversive and scandalous, unexpectedly. Ron Mael solemnity. His unique walk acquires a wiggle. But it’s the same walk, now rendered feminine and sexy. Luckily for him, the first member of the household to see him is Edna, who laughs herself sick (good mime from E.P.) She advises him to shave off the crepe.

After a couple of awkward cutaways of the kind he used whenever a sequence needed an excuse to be shorter, Charlie is now transformed into Anita Loos as Prince, and is so gorgeous he has to give himself a rare closeup to exploit it. If this is the reason for the UK ban, it says a lot about how uncomfortable Charlie’s feminine side made the bluenose brigade.

Charlie, who had been barely competent when male — unable to operate simple objects like soda syphons without dousing himself, now becomes elegant, chic. True, he can’t walk in heels, but he makes not being able to walk look good.

More transgression — he gets Edna to kiss him, and they dissolve in sapphic giggles, two schoolgirls experiencing their first “pash”.

Now Charlie’s flirting with Edna’s dad. Is this what TEOREMA is like?

Now Billy Armstrong is also smitten. Chaplin comes from the same music hall tradition that leads to the CARRY ON films, where an ugly man dresses up as a woman and all the men fancy him. It’s stupid comedy about male stupidity. But how does it work when the man is beautiful, but disguised to look less so, and then when he’s a woman he’s REALLY beautiful? It’s a lot less silly.

The loveplay with Armstrong alternates endearments from BA and violent, Miss Piggy type thumps from she-Charlie. And Armstrong kisses Charlie, which one can imagine the bluenoses getting flustered about. But you’d think they’d snip the shot — so it can wind up on Philippe Noiret’s outtakes reel — rather than outlawing the whole movie.

Can I just ask who Charlie’s dress originally belonged to? He’s half the thickness of Edna and a third that of her mum…

Charlie’s skirt falls down and somehow Edna’s dad realises he’s a man. Because those are men’s pants? But are they? They don’t even look human to me.

The film now plunges into a strange section where Charlie attempts to unite the feuding family, get everyone’s forgiveness, and ask Edna’s hand in marriage. Father is flabbergasted or fathergasted, but eventually yields, showing that he can take a joke. He offers Charlie his hand in friendship. Then, after stretching this fake-out just past the point where you suspect anything, Chaplin has dad kick him up the arse, deliver a fantastic roundhouse slap to his face, and boot him out into the street, where he joins the previously ejected Armstrong.

This is one of my favourite endings to date. The structure and plausibility of the films to date is erratic enough that the idea of dad welcoming Charlie into the bosom of the family is just about believable as an unbelievable ending Chaplin might have gone for, so the surprise really works. And we’re not emotionally invested enough in the romance for it to matter that things don’t pan out between Edna and her skeezy, cross-dressing beau. A lot of the earlier films, especially the early Keystones, just end on a random gag, as if anything that gets a laugh will do as resolution, but this one genuinely finishes the film off. Chaplin has begun to understand and care about structure.

Now to see what he can do with it.

Prom Prom Prom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2021 by dcairns

The first character we meet in Chaplin’s BY THE SEA is Billy Armstrong, a somewhat bland clown who really needs his walrus moustache to project any character. He seems the equivalent of the later Albert Austin type. Funnily enough, when regular antagonist Bud Jamison appears, his painted eyebrows and top hat make him seem, with his burly, surly aspect, even more of a proto-Eric Campbell than before.

(Incidentally, David Robinson remarks that this film is a mere nine set-ups. I count more like sixteen, though many are mere variations in shot size. Robinson doesn’t make mistakes so I’m assuming restoration has rendered the film longer than the print he saw, or else he’s not counting slight push-ins.)

But long before we see Bud, Charlie has slipped on cinema’s first banana skin, at least so far as anyone has been able to trace. It’s his own banana skin, which is good. But it’s doubtful if the banana skin will ever have anything like the shock of the new that enabled it to get laughs. Buster Keaton experimented with NOT slipping on one, in THE HIGH SIGN, but seemed to be dissatisfied with the un-gag. In SHERLOCK JR. he has the villain not slip, and then Buster slips on his own banana skin, as if discovering the Chaplin variation all over again.

Chaplin’s banana bit is a standalone moment, easily excisable, and in fact pretty much ALL of the film is standalone bits. He first gets into a quarrel with Armstrong, both men having tied strings to their hats as a defense against the sea breeze, and their tangling inevitably leads to a punch-up.

Chaplin does manage a more sophisticated bit — having dazed Armstrong with repeated slaps, he forages for fleas in the punchy man’s thick hair (Armstrong is the same size and shape as Charlie, which seems wrong — both Conklin and Turpin had radically different aspects from the star despite being fellow short-arses). It’s mildly impressive that Chaplin manages to make us “see” the leaping insects, but even more impressive that, filming himself in a close medium shot with his stunned opponent, he makes us imagine other, unseen promenaders, whose pseudo-presence compels him to keep up a pretense of civility with his victim.

Charlie isn’t necessarily a tramp in this, but he’s devoid of any social ties — Armstrong has his “wifie” and his rags betoken poverty. When Charlie has a wife or job in the shorts, it always feels like a contrivance for the sake of the film, one from which Charlie will be free by the time we see him again. Some of these films have aspects of the sitcom, but the “sit” is ever-changing, the one constant being Charlie’s freedom to abscond to a whole new scenario at the end of the two reels. This, of course, was standard for all the silent clowns. In Charlie’s case it happens to support his status as eternally at least somewhat of a tramp.

Having rendered Armstrong vegetative, Charlie now does what he always does, uses the other fellow as a convenient object. He sits on him. When Edna passes, the unconscious victim becomes a prop for Charlie’s flirtation. He poses like a hunter with one foot on his kill. His smiles seem to suggest that his having pummeled this man into submission ought to excite the object of his desires. At the same time, he can’t touch the man’s (usually upthrust) arse. All very strange. Finally he leaves the fellow leaning insensate against a lifebelt stand, a grotesque parody of the crucifixion.

Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of slapstick — “grotesque situational poetry” — always seemed odd to me because it leaves out the funny part. But it has rarely seemed more accurate.

Charlie does some more flirting, going so far as to sidle into Edna’s shot. His cane gets out of control, flying around saucily, whacking Edna’s backside and then hitting Charlie in the face. It’s the jester’s bladder and stick all right. I’m almost sure that’s what it is.

Armstrong recovers somewhat — his movements are staggering, his eyes crossed — and attacks Charlie with the lifesaver. Edna moves away, meeting the dyspeptic Bud, hitherto a mere convenient cutaway, now apparently an acquaintance.

A cop — oh hell, I’m just going to call him a kop, what’s he going to do, arrest me? — shows up, but is laid flat by a blow from Armstrong aimed at Charlie. Glass jaws, these kops. Charlie and Billy bond over this shared love of police brutality. Armstrong may not have any special personality but I admit he does play with with Charlie. No doubt Chaplin could get a decent performance out of most people, by showing them what to do, but sustained interactive clowning takes real skill.

Charlie and Billy go for ice cream, Billy offering to pay, but apparently all that brain damage has made him forgetful, as the offer is rescinded the moment the ice cream seller asks money. An ice cream fight ensues, culminating in Billy biting Charlie’s arse — this may be one of the most arse-centric of all the Chaplin shorts, and they’re a pretty butt-obsessed lot.

Meanwhile, a slung bit of vanilla has splurched Bud, who now steps out of his own little sub-film and enters the plot. While he’s strangling Billy, Charlie renews his flirtation with Edna, who is Bud’s paramour evidently, from the way she’s been stroking his knee. He really is a diabolical little sex pest in this one. (In later films, he’s romantic but not overly sexual, except for his fit of nut-tightening madness in MODERN TIMES, which sees Charlie the Imp back in full swing).

A kop drags Billy off. Bud shoves the ice cream man to the ground, for no good reason other than malign temper and to show off that Snub Pollard, for it is he — though unrecognisable sans horseshoe moustache — can take a fall like a pro.

Driven off by a fuming Bud, Charlie has brief encounters with the rest of the cast, then espies Billy’s “wifie” (Margie Reiger) — I think her lips are calling “Billy!” — and of course has to make the moves on her.

His moves:

Billy escapes the clutches of kop Paddy McGuire and flees back to the beach.

Everybody winds up ganging up on Charlie on a bench, improbably positioned in the path of the tide. Charlie is using his bowler to play peekaboo so doesn’t notice the encroaching enemies. The natural solution, after a slow-burn realisation, is to upturn the bench and everyone on it.

Which is the end of the film. Well, it’s not any less satisfying than most Keystone climaxes, and BY THE SEA is maybe a little more together than most Keystones. It knows how to be simple. That may be all it knows, but that’s not nothing.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Old Russian proverb.