Archive for May White

The Kid IS the picture

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2021 by dcairns

THE KID, continued.

Charlie’s job apparently also afford the opportunity to meet and flirt with housewives — I’ve just read Jack Trevor Story’s Live Now, Pay Later, a funny, bleak kitchen sink dramedy or dromedary about buying on credit, a new craze of the sixties, and the “tally boys” of the story are great seducers of bored housewives. Unfortunately, Charlie is fooling with a kop’s wife. Chaplin reveals this with an artful wide shot of the corner, showing Charlie and the missus chatting by the window on one side, and the kop coming home via the door on the other: Hitchcockian suspense a la MARNIE’s safecracking scene (Hitchcock observed in 1964 that his former preference for intercutting was now “old-fashioned”).

A great “he’s behind you!” moment as the kop appears at the window, and the framing actually suggests the scenario of the Punch and Judy show which is where Chaplin as a lad may have learned this routine, a sure-fire way of getting the audience hysterical with both laughter and tension.

When the kop kollars Charlie, amusingly, he thinks its the housewife putting her arm around him, and it takes a moment for him to realise his mistake even when he’s being throttled. My English teacher Mrs. Chapman explained this as “poignancy” or “dramatic irony,” neither of which seems quite to suit the comedy version.

After that, the inevitable chase isn’t a show-stopper, but has some nice tight alleyway shots — think Griffith’s PIG ALLEY perspectives but in fast motion — and shows CC’s ability to cut from (I think) location to studio and back, seamlessly.

Time for lunch! Huge ladle-loads of steaming muck. Looks kind of appealing to me, but then I’m on the low-carb Mediterranean diet so pretty much everything does.

Edna, meanwhile, has become a theatre star. No particular reason why this should have to happen, but the narrative function it fulfills is to remove any sense of financial need, and let her focus on the absent child. And make her well-equipped to care for him, if she should find him. Chaplin cut back on Edna’s scenes when he re-released the film, evidently feeling he’d given her screen time because she was his friend and regular co-star rather than because the picture needed it. And perhaps because, as Walter Kerr suggests, her stuff is “sentimental” in the bad sense.

Edna’s maid is May White, who we just saw as the first victim of Jackie’s window-smashing spree. A spot of makeup renders her easily able to do a Henry Bergman.

Speak of the devil, here’s Henry as “Professor Guido, impressario.” Yeah, don’t know why we need him here.

Then a walking wall of flowers comes in, carried by a little Black kid. Nice to see a non-white character given something to do that’s not outright degrading.

One little seed is planted for later: a mysterious bunch of toys is brought in by May White…

Back to Charlie & Jackie, finishing their meal. Jackie has acquired some of his foster father’s delicacy, requesting a splash of Charlie’s glass of water to make a fingerbowl. He dips his hands in it, then wipes them on his shoulders, and drags his sleeve across his mouth, rather ruining the genteel effect. Charlie then borrows some of the water and wipes his own hands and face on the tablecloth. This focus on behaviour, the gags buried deep within it, is the kind of thing Chaplin could rarely get away with at Keystone but had already been itching to try.

Edna, meanwhile, is handing out toys in the neighbourhood. Fulfilling her maternal instincts, or searching for her lost son? And is that May White in a third role, as a friendly slum mum?

There’s quite a weird shot here, ostensibly depicting Edna as she goes into a thoughtful dwam at the babe in her arms, but actually favouring Charlie & Jackie’s front door. Of course the unusual effect is completely lucid: without her knowing it, that door is exactly what she’s thinking about. And now Jackie comes through that door, which was the true reason for the framing. I’m not sure whether Chaplin always intended to use the negative-space-that’s-really-positive-space in this way, or if it was chance that in covering the scene he got this useful and expressive material.

Jackie is, of course, adorable. By avoiding the melodramatic cliche of the mother and son instantly recognising each other, but showing an instant bond between them, Chaplin can build greater suspense and BETTER MELODRAMA.

And on that poignant note — with more than half the film left to run — I’m going to leave it there for today as I have a shit-tonne of work to do. Might mean I’m still writing about THE KID through next week, but I hope nobody objects to that.

Enter Jackie

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

The story is worth repeating: Chaplin saw Jackie Coogan, aged four, in a show with his dad. He danced the shimmy, which was considered hilarious because that’s a sexy female dance. There was some discussion about hiring the kid but it was dismissed. The subject came up again a day later, for some reason, and this time ideas started popping all over the place, between Chaplin and his gag men / supporting cast. They quickly made inquiries. Disaster! Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had signed Coogan while they were wasting time. Then: relief! It was Coogan Sr. he’d hired! A deal was quickly struck for little Jackie’s services, and his dad came along as combination childminder and bit player.

Jackie kind of looks like a tiny, tiny Arbuckle: Roscoe really missed a trick.

Time passes:

Wide shot of a typical Chaplin T-junction. Jackie is sitting on the kerb, manicuring himself with Keatonesque solemnity. It’s incredible to me how Coogan aged into Uncle Fester, but you can just about see the resemblance by an enormous effort of imagination. It’s like he was given a transfusion of Drew Friedman’s ink.

My friend Danny’s uncle, I think it was — or great-uncle? — was in the war with Jackie. Well, they were both in the war, and they met one time. Jackie’s greeting: “Shake the hand that holds the prick that fucked Betty Grable.”

And yet, he’s cute here.

Silas Hathaway, the baby version of the Kid, is immediately forgotten. He would live to be 98 without doing anything else that need concern us here.

In A DAY’S PLEASURE (and SHOULDER ARMS’ deleted scenes), Chaplin had toyed with the idea of children as miniature versions of himself, but those were almost identical mini-mes (Keaton did the same thing in THE BOAT). Jackie is his own personality, but the baggy pants and beat-up boots establish a relationship with Charlie.

Great moment when Jackie, after buffing his nails on his bare arm and admiring the shine, rises with an almighty roar of a yawn and stretch — but Rollie Totheroh is too slow to catch it properly. I’m surprised a retake wasn’t attempted, Allowance should perhaps be made for the fact that THE KID was edited in a hotel room (in defiance of fire regulations, nitrate stalk being highly flammable) while Chaplin hid out from his wife’s divorce lawyers.

Jackie enters the flat and Charlie tells him to “Put the quarter in the gas meter.” The first dishonest act. The great point of THE KID is that Charlie is, on the one hand, a terrible father who teaches his adopted son to do crimes, and on the other hand the perfect father because he provides love, food and shelter.

Jackie’s nails pass inspection, an analysis of his earholes is satisfactory, but his throat and the minute nose are less salubrious, the nostrils, barely the size of the adult Coogan’s pores, requiring the handkerchief’s ritual intervention. Jackie’s face is turned decorously away from the camera while he gets nasally scoured, a delicate touch.

I wonder how many in the audience laughed as soon as they saw Jackie picking up stones and Charlie strapping on his glazier’s kit? Does everyone need to see the act played out in order to get the joke? It’s definitely funnier when you see it.

Jackie emerging from behind a street corner is just a perfect image, it has it’s own ineffable rightness. As does the undercranked shot of him retreating across the street at high speed.

Jackie smashes a window. May White, a Chaplin actor since his Keystone phase, emerges, in old age disguise. Charlie wanders up, doing his best to look like a happy coincidence. He is commissioned to replace the broken glass.

But Jackie runs into difficulties — a kop — on his third window.

Beautiful bit of mime. You just know Chaplin acted everything out for Jackie to copy, but Jackie — “the greatest child performance in film history” (says Roddy McDowall) — had to be brilliant to be able to channel the moves. Here, he throws away his rock playfully, attempting to give the impression, as forcefully as possible, that he is a nice boy who never throws stones at windows. Then he does a “Look, a baby wolf!” routine and legs it.

The kop does not take the incident seriously. But…

Well, you can watch my Criterion video essay on this.

The kop now finds the broken window, and Jackie seems altogether less innocent. Then he finds Charlie, and suspicions, as yet uncertain and inchoate, begin to materialise:

He’s a slow thinker, this kop (ex-pugilist and soldier Tom Wilson, a blackface specialist), but he gets there in the end. Realisation dawns when he sees Charlie and Jackie together. Charlie realises this danger but Jackie doesn’t. Charlie tries to shoo Jackie away, even shoving him with one boot. This is the problem of accomplices — they may get the basic scheme, but do they understand the potential consequences, the need for denial and secrecy, can they improvise if the plan goes pear-shaped? I recommend solo crimes.

Walter Kerr points out the shocking nature of the scene — a father rejecting his son — while admiring the beautiful way Chaplin gets away with it. It’s because he makes this tiny child into a THREAT, we’re proofed against focussing on Jackie’s feelings, though we certainly understand them. And the incongruity of someone so small and innocent posing such a danger is funny.

I’m determined to get THE KID finished by Sunday, I know this is taking ages… But it’s the first Chaplin feature (not counting TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE) so I want to give it sufficient appreciation.

The bright side of life

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2021 by dcairns

SUNNYSIDE begins with an iris out on its fictional village, which, like Easy Street and numerous other Chaplin settings, is built around a T-junction, this one with a church at the axis.

The boss (Tom Wilson, acquired from Fairbanks, previously in THE IMMIGRANT and SHOULDER ARMS) wakes up, puts on a single boot, and goes to Charlie’s room where he boots him up the arse to (kick)start the day. This is a decent opening — anything which makes the arsekick more ritualistic than it already is should be commended. What makes Charlie’s arsekicks funnier than the run-of-the-mill kind is precisely the deference, mutual respect, or ritualism with which they can be received or given, because this clashes so absurdly with the rough and vulgar nature of the act itself.

Charlie is introduced as “Charlie” in the film’s second intertitle, which rubs me the wrong way. We’re told Chaplin always referred to his character as “the little fellow” but I see no evidence of this prior to the VO getting added to THE GOLD RUSH. But I prefer that name to Charlie, even though I use that name to describe the character in my blog posts. My bad. I feel like all names are wrong and should be used officially in intertitles. Chaplin does generally avoid this. So this could be a sign that he’s feeling off-kilter, at a loss.

Charlie pretends to get up, banging a boot on the floor to suggest diligent activity to the farmer, now back in his own bed. The boss catches him napping and remarks, via title cars, about “the whole forenoon gone.” Eagle-eyed observers will spot that the hands of his alarm clock indicate it being 3.55 am. Charlie is eventually roused with further arsekickery. When one kick misses, Charlie obediently returns to the receiving position so it can be redelivered.

Charlie goes out, ostensibly to work, then comes back in through the window and back to bed. This, presumably, is what happens every single day. I’m quite enjoying the idea.

Now we learn that the workplace is a hotel. I had assumed it was a farm, since why else did they tell us we were in a village? I’m not sure a village hotel has the right kind of standing for situation comedy or grotesque situational poetry. I’m not even convinced village hotel is a thing. But I’d say the confusion could perhaps have been cleared up by starting microcosmic and building outwards — Charlie is a sleepy worker — in a hotel — in a village. Or the reverse. By leaving out the middle step until now, Chaplin has sown confusion.

The hotel lobby is a picturesque shambles, complete with gamboling puppy and barber’s chair, which will never get used in the final cut. Here’s what we would have seen if Chaplin hadn’t had second thoughts ~

We see the empty chair because Chaplin has Rollie Totheroh sweep the room twice with his camera, right to left then left to right, like an automated security camera that hasn’t been invented yet, or like the end of THE CONVERSATION (whose repetitive pans mimic surveillance CCTV). At the end of pan #2, Charlie enters with a lawnmower and chops the weeds sprouting up through the lobby floor.

Then he puts a very placid chicken in a skillet (did they get the bird drunk, as they did with Mut the dog in A DOG’S LIFE?) to lay an egg. He prepares coffee. Since Charlie is atypically jacketless, in a sleeveless shirt, I notice that his arms, when hung at his side in casual, feckless mode, kind of angle outwards in a feminine manner. Women’s elbows are arranged differently, so they don’t bang against the wider hips when the arms swing. Charlie kind of has wider hips because of the flare-out of his baggy pants. His costume constantly shrinks the upper torso and arms while expanding the hips, legs and feet.

(Billy Ritchie, Scottish comedian and Chaplin impersonator, claimed that in fact Chaplin was impersonating HIM, as he had created the drunk character Chaplin later played in Fred Karno’s music hall group. Ritchie went into movies in baggy pants, teamed up with Henry “Pathé” Lehrmann, Chaplin’s hated first director, and got savaged to death by ostriches. Or else so severely injured he dropped out of performing, depending on who you believe. Anyway, I only mention him because he performed with a hugely padded trouser seat, the main distinction between him and Charlie except for his greater brutality, height, and the fact that he wasn’t very funny. )

Charlie expresses the milk for the coffee directly from an udder attached to a cow that wanders into the kitchen for the purpose. I wasn’t expecting to see gags Chaplin would later adapt for MODERN TIMES’ fantasy bucolic idyll. Obviously he felt the material either could be done better, or deserved a better film to be in.

At the level of micro-business, this film is still full of invention. The boss kicks Charlie up the arse when he’s pouring the coffee and the jolt transfers his spouting from one cup to the next, just at the right moment.

Dripping hot grease on the back of the boss’s neck is also good class vengeance, feckless-style. But Walter Kerr is convinced that Charlie as meek underdog is an unacceptable distortion of the character. He’s probably mostly-right, but in a film like WORK, the oppression of the working man can be used effectively as part of the comedy, and as long as he’s being funny about it here, and getting some revenge in by working poorly, this seems within the Chaplinesque bailiwick. I don’t know what a bailiwick is but I think we’re in one.

Charlie’s coffee having been loaded up with about forty sugar cubes is now a noxious black treacle unknown to toxicology a caffeinated molasses he can spread on his bread, which actually sounds like quite a good idea now I think about it.

Back to Sunnyside itself. Chaplin tries out a new Goliath, J. Parks Jones, who is very fat (dead at 59). He pairs him with the miniscule Loyal Underwood to make him look even bigger. Apparently Jones was in A DOG’S LIFE and SHOULDER ARMS but I somehow didn’t notice him? Like, a strolling planetoid crossed the screen, eclipsing the sun and causing the film to rattle on its sprockets, but I didn’t notice? Anyway, Jones does a great miseryguts trudge, but is no Eric Campbell.

Chaplin now has the boss kick a small boy’s dog to confirm to us that he’s mean. And he really kicks it! This mainly convinces me that Chaplin is mean.

Charlie’s duties at the hotel apparently include herding cows, which certainly adds to the incoherence of this scenario. It’s hard to see why Chaplin, a genius, couldn’t get enough material from his character being an odd-job man at a crappy hotel. Jerry Lewis got a whole feature out of bellhopping. Broadening the film’s scope to bring in all manner of rustic business makes it easier to introduce gags but dilutes and muddles everything, like eating spaghetti in in the bath.

Herding cows, Charlie slips, very slightly, on a banana peel. This is pretty desperate. The only innovations are (1) the banana skin is lying on a country lane, where it has no business being and (2) the slip happens out of frame and we only get the answer when Charlie stoops and picks up the slippery skin. It’s just weird that Chaplin would bother to shoot this and then, worse, leave it in the film.

To show that Charlie, forced to work on a Sunday, is still a holy fool, Chaplin has him(self) read the Bible while cowherding, which doesn’t appeal to me. Charlie should not be sanctimonious. His reading, however, causes him to lose the cows and collide with a fat lady, who I think may be May White, from A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN and others, a somewhat mysterious figure.

Some great scenery here — looks like the end shot of MODERN TIMES. 99% convinced we’re in roughly the same spot.

The cows stampeding through town is fairly impressive. Making GO WEST, Buster Keaton found a major problem with cattle — they couldn’t be made to stampede without endangering life and limb to an extent even he wasn’t happy to deal with. This left him to wrestle with a rather slow-paced climax. Using a smaller number of cows, Chaplin does get them to behave aggressively, and either he or a stuntman takes considerable risks riding a steer out of town.

Thrown into a ditch, the stunned Charlie falls into a delirium and thence to a bucolic dream sequence.

Now, Chaplin wouldn’t have heard W.C. Fields say of him, “The son-of-a-bitch is a ballet dancer!” but he had heard the same thing from Nijinsky, which would have carried weight. He now embarks on a dance sequence with slight comic embellishments. Walter Kerr was very clear about how misguided this is: “he is dancing in Elysian fields not because the dance has a purpose – either of mockery or of integration – but because his balletic qualities have been noticed by critics and he has taken their remarks a bit too seriously. […] The romp with the nymphs in the field […] is not only gratuitous but a shattering disappointment in quite another way. We discover that Chaplin isn’t really a dancer at all. So long as he was taking mock ballet stances to show his indifference to the narrative or using surprisingly choreographic patterns to elude enemies and contend with fellow job-seekers, the flexibility of his body and the flawless timing of his movements suggested the Pan he was so often called. But he was not truly Pan, or even the Pierrot he called himself at tis time – not someone who could divert us with rhythmic skills in a void. He was a comedian who needed to attach himself to something – to a situation he could mock, to a dilemma calling for escape – in order to bring his grace, his artful shifts of tempo, into play. Given a nondancing function to perform, he seemed a dancer. Cast into the open fields with a half dozen girls, he merely skips and prances without design. The effect is loose, aimless, less airborne than when he is trapped in rooms, pursued by narrative. Suddenly we see his footwork as shapeless, unpatterned; there is no external pressure to demand or contain it. He never made this particular mistake again.” Amen.

Chaplin filmed SUNNYSIDE from 4th November 1918 – 15th April 1919, with long gaps of up to six weeks where he simply floundered in creative paralysis and didn’t come into the studio. EYES WIDE SHUT took fifteen months, but it’s bloody long. SUNNYSIDE is only 33 minutes.

So you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I split this article in two to make it go further.