Archive for Mauritzio Nicchetti

The Sunday Intertitle: Domestic Blistering

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2021 by dcairns
Low-res turns Keystone’s crisply restored images into a grayscale version of the vile daubings of Jack Vettriano

Charlie is at home, with Mabel and their bawling infant. We haven’t seen him much in a domestic setting. Even when he’s at home, it’s usually been a boarding house or a hotel. So this is an interesting extension of the character.

Charlie is not particularly at home at home: he immediately kicks over a pot of boiling water, scalding his shoeless feet (we can see that he does not really need those big tramp shoes), then scorches himself on the stove. A series of rather ouchy, burny-burny gags. Each time he tortures himself he turns to Mabel reproachfully, as if it’s her fault. When she leaves, he reproaches the baby.

A cigarette hangs from his mouth. Charlie isn’t a heavy smoker on screen, but the dangling fag seems to suit him better than the clay pipe he sported last time.

That baby is not having a great time. Chaplin has met someone he can’t entertain. The kid seems to like Mabel better: her return actually stops the red-faced tyke from wailing. Also, weirdly, when Charlie starts improperly carrying the little beast around by the scruff of its Edwardian romper suit, it quietens right down. Seems to find the experience interesting. It would feel like flying, I suppose, only with an uncomfortable pressure in the crotch area.

Rather alarming gag where baby is playing with a real handgun while Charlie reads the paper. I’m reminded of the baby, fork and power socket gag in Mauritzio Nichetti’s ICICLE THIEVES: it depends on the audience’s understanding of the filmmaker’s goodwill: they’re not going to have anything actually terrible happen. The fact that Charlie is also reclining in the baby’s crib barely registers in the midst of this outrage.

A subplot is generated: Helen Carruthers is playing Clarice (a name with now-inescapable Lecterish associations), and she asks Ambrose (Mack Swain) to mail a letter which is addressed to her lover. Ambrose is married to Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s resident Marie Dressler type. Now read on…

Louis Reeves Harrison of the Montgomery Journal wrote this positive review about HIS TRYSTING PLACE: “The comic spirit is entirely too deep and subtle for me to define. It defies analysis. The human aspect is certainly dominant. It is funniest when it is rich in defects of character. The incongruity of Chaplin’s portrayals, his extreme seriousness, his sober attention to trivialities, his constant errands and as constant resentment of what happens to him, all this has to be seen to be enjoyed.” He then describes the burning stuff as if it were the highest of comedy, which in screen terms I guess it just about was at that time. Chaplin is interested in comic behaviour beyond the narrow Keystone limits of punching and kicking, and that’s all new in 1914.

Mack Swain exits his apartment building, sucking on the head of his cane in a perfect anticipation of THE MALTESE FALCON’s Joel Cairo.

Charlie also heads out, after giving a quick brush to his coat, boots, and fingernails (with the same brush, obvs). Mabel is distraught at his desertion, which is inexplicable really. Baby really brightens up for the first time, and is all excited about somebody standing just off-camera. The actual parent/orphanage superintendent? Before Charlie’s gone, however, there is some actual affectionate byplay between man and wife, and we learn that the baby’s name is Peter. I should go back in and use his name when referring to him, shouldn’t I?*

The family scene is so cute, Chaplin cuts in for a closer look. Then he leaves, blowing his nose on the doormat. This gag, like the brush one, satisfies two requirements at once: it displays Charlie’s grottiness; and it showcases his ability to repurpose or transform the common day-to-day objects of life.

Comedy racism! A black teenager loitering by the store is introduced with the title card A DARK OMEN. One would like to think that Chaplin wasn’t responsible for this cheap shot. I know, let’s blame Syd. He did rework the titles on a lot of his half-brother’s Keystone flicks, generally to add cheap(er) jokes exactly like this one. (The card is absent in the current YouTube copy, thankfully.)

Then, while Charlie’s in the store, since the jump cut hasn’t been invented yet, we cut to a close view of Mabel playing with her little Peter. It’s nice to see her being maternal, although this manifests itself in a very Keystone way: making baby kick himself in the face. Which, to be fair, he seems to really enjoy.

The black kid’s narrative purpose, now we cut back to him, seems to be to make fun of Charlie for buying a kid’s toy. And since I sense the toy is going to be significant later, really the black kid is there to make the toy-buying vaguely entertaining.

Now the farce aspect of the film starts to build, as Charlie and Mack Swain are going to meet at a lunch bar. The place is populated by exaggerated comic types: Filthy Overalls Man and Long Grey Beard Man.

Note something exciting: as Charlie pauses outside, we can see a herd of cows pass by, reflected in the window pane. L.A. was really still a frontier town, it seems.

More repurposing of the everyday: Charlie wipes his hands on the old guy’s beard. This is also another kind of transmutation, making Beard Man into an object. Suddenly I realise that Charlie’s jacket is in better nick than usual. As befits a husband and father, his whole look is less tramp-like. But this is definitely the same character, fairly well-established now.

Charlie in medium shot reacts to Mack’s soup-straining. Always interesting to see the people a little closer in their face-paint, even though the visual comedy usually require head-to-toe framing, which Chaplin provides. He’s starting to learn when closer framing can add something.

When the meal breaks into a brawl, it’s definitely more comic in wide shot. A pie is flung by Chaplin — and misses! And an intertitle helps us understand that Mack has fled with the wrong overcoat. Charlie flings a second pie which Kuleshovs from the film set into the street location across town and strikes some smartly-dressed rando, splurch in the kisser.

Charlie makes a magnificent exit in triumph, twirling his cane, accidentally smacking the counter with it, and spinning round at the noise in aggression/panic at the “noise”, not realising that he is himself the source. It’s by now fully apparent that Chaplin can take something ordinary, an exit, simple A-B stuff, and imbue it with comedy value and character, which his co-stars hadn’t really thought to do (maybe Arbuckle, a bit? and in France, Linder). They needed all that frenetic pace because without it, the knockabout would have been interspersed with dead air as the comics trotted from set-up to set-up, powerless without a a brick to throw or a hammer to swing. We’re also told that Chaplin had particularly concentrated on his exits and entrances because he knew the Keystone cutters wouldn’t be able to delete those.

The inevitable Echo Lake Park, with its distinctive bridge. Mack meets his Mrs. The swapped coat is going to come into play soon. It’s a ticking time bomb made of cloth.

Charlie returns home and Mabel, in her joy, burns him with the iron. He’s going to look like Freddy Krueger by the end of this one.

Now, looking for baby Peter’s present, Mabel finds the incriminating letter from Clarice. Is it made more incriminating by the fact that Clarice never sealed the envelope? I suppose it is. It doesn’t make any sense, but never mind, it fulfills the basic requirements of a domestic misunderstanding (the bar is set low on such things, as a glance at real life will tell you).

Hmm, Clarice has written “I could not live without seeing you again,” which is a bit scary since her letter now looks like never being delivered. Is the movie going to end with her lifeless body being fished from Echo Lake? Or will little Peter lend her his handgun? I do hope not.

Mabel reads the note and blows her top. The best bit is breaking the ironing board over Charlie’s head. (Missing from current YouTube version!) Probably the least painful thing that’s happened to him at home, if you think about it. I wondered for a moment if she might hit him with Peter, but she showed admirable restraint.

The same cannot be said for Mack Swain’s performance as he canoodles with Carruthers, sucking his cane in false-moustache ecstasy.

A kop appears, as is customary. He diagnoses Charlie as nuts after observing his distrait manner. Charlie then accidentally sits on Carruthers, which leads to striking up a conversation with her —

As if in a nineteen-tens version of TROP BELLE POUR TOIS, Mabel now comes to suspect that her husband is cheating on her with the matronly Carruthers. How could he? Or why would he? The ways of love are strange. But nothing a smack in the face with a loose jacket can’t fix.

Really great marital slapstick as Mabel beats up Charlie in and around a bin. These two play so well together now. (“You’re not my type. And I’m not yours,” Mabel told Charlie when he tried to flirt.)

Meanwhile, Helen Carruthers finds the baby’s bottle intended for small Peter, inside what she believes to be her husband’s coat. The implications are clear.

Swain finds Mabel raging, and attempts to console her, a good, or at any rate good-sized Samaritan. This earns him a kick up the arse from Charlie, something made inevitable by composition, framing, posture, anatomy, the whole enchilada. Rather than going for surprise, Chaplin builds up to the arse-kick with ritualistic care.

Mabel kicking Charlie so he head-butts Mack in the midriff and propels him into the bin is also rather beautiful. Simple knockabout has come a long way in a year. Keyestone always had these guys with amazing physical skills (circus artistes, many of them), but you didn’t see the gags cleanly played in suitable dramatic circumstances until around now.

Mabel starts yanking Charlie about by the collar and he does the accelerated motion head-waggle he’s make good use of later when Eric Campbell got him by the throat. This is, I think, its first appearance.

The kop turns up, holding the (abandoned) baby, and there’s a beautiful group scene of everyone trying to act normal for his benefit. Amazing.

Everything gets resolved. Then Charlie hands over the stray love letter and lands Mack right in it. We end, however, with a charming family scene, Mabel and Charlie and little Peter who, reunited with his father, starts bawling again.

*Did I remember to do that?