Archive for Modern Times

Ça Tramp Énormément

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2021 by dcairns

Well, here we are already — THE TRAMP is widely seen as a landmark film in Chaplin’s development. Certainly a film that could never have been made at Keystone. The film where he first tried straight-up pathos, despite friends warning him against this.

Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, rather sides with the friends, saying of this film, “It is in fact, a failure: it solves none of its own problems, answers none of the questions it raises.” Kerr argues this so cogently one is tempted to accept his opinion uncritically. Let’s look at the film and see if he’s right.

One area he may be right is when he points out that Chaplin’s character was not inherently or originally a tramp: he becomes one here, but was back to being gainfully employed in his very next short. When we’ve seen him wandering in parks in previous films, we’ve been inclined (I seem to be using the Kaelian “we” meaning “I”) to assume him to be a few hours away from settling down on those variform park benches, with a newspaper for a bedsheet, but this has rarely been established as a definite fact. He often seems to be on the scrounge for food, admittedly. Films where he has a job often open with him GETTING the job (THE CHAMPION, HIS MUSICAL CAREER, and, as implied by their titles, HIS NEW JOB, HIS NEW CAREER, THE NEW JANITOR, and even HIS PREHISTORIC PAST begins with him arriving, a wandering, tribeless caveman without a cave) so that he at least starts out as rootless and indigent. And I think the costume always indicated poverty. Sometimes Chaplin seems to have considered that it might just mean slovenliness. The Little Fellow was a dirty little fellow. But Chaplin’s own tendency towards gentility and elegance argued against this. His appearance and his acting style combined most neatly to suggest a man trying to hang onto a conception of himself as a gentleman, against impossible odds.

He’s a gentleman of the road here, getting dusted by careless automobiles. He produces an old paintbrush to dust himself off, holding the film up while he bends over to reach between his legs and brush his arse, then straightening up and pulling his baggy pants around sideways so he can do it again, erect. Sideways eyeing us, a little embarrassed, as if challenging us not to laugh at his attempts to maintain dignity.

I sort of already feel something a bit different about this business and the way it’s played, but it’s such a subtle difference I concede it may be my imagination.

Charlie then lays out a picnic, but is robbed by another, nastier tramp. The crucial moment he discovers his bread loaf has been replaced by one of those omnipresent bricks has been, it seems, lost in a historical splice. Charlie miserably munches some handfuls of grass, a meagre sketch for THE GOLD RUSH’s cooked boot.

These two gaglets do two things — they hopefully get some chuckles, but the also position Charlie as a sympathetic underdog. Chaplin could be quite careless about audience sympathy in earlier films, notably the brutish and horrible THE PROPERTY MAN and LAUGHING GAS. As recently as IN THE PARK he seems to have included some closeups of Edna Purviance flirting with him so he wouldn’t come across as a creepy masher, which shows both initial negligence and shrewd awareness of the issue.

The other tramp pursues Edna with apparent sinister intent and Charlie heroically steps in, swinging the guy’s own brick in his bindle to stun him, then propelling him from view with a kick up the arse so powerful it lands Charlie himself on his shoulders, backside up. But now it turns out there are three tramps, rough-looking fellows. (They are Leo White, Lloyd Bacon and Bud Jamison, the backbones of Charlie’s Essanay stock company.)

“He wanted my money!” proclaims Edna, as Charlie gently relieves her of her banknotes. But then he returns the dosh when she’s upset. I think this is good — our man is fundamentally dishonest but also chivalric.

When the other tramps show up, Charlie bests them with a textbook display of bindle-swinging and arse-kicking. There’s a moment that looks forward to THE KID when he shrugs his jacket off his shoulders as if squaring for a fight, and this alone is enough to make an opponent flee in terror. But then his arse goes on fire and he has to run about a bit, you know.

Sweet relief

Walter Kerr does admit that Chaplin experiments not just with tone, but with some beautiful long shots. The bucolic setting is nicely depicted, though this is a very rambunctious vision of rustic life. Unlike THE FATAL MALLET, Chaplin and Sennett’s stupid yokel film, the unit seems to have travelled somewhere worth going to. (Only two miles from Chaplin’s Niles, California base, as it turns out.

Edna takes Charlie to the cheap set she shares with her pop, and there’s some business with Charlie, whose arse is still sore, eating off the mantelpiece because he can’t sit down, but this is cut short by a dodgy splice. (I laughed when Charlie inadvertently slung mash at pops.) IS he Edna’s dad, or just some gink he lives with. He comes in for some rough treatment, but he should know better than to hand Charlie a pitchfork, and anyway, he keeps his money in a sock.

Charlie is hired as a hand, and is brutal to his co-worker (burlesque star Paddy McGuire). Lots of unintentional pitchforking, but quite a bit of purely deliberate forkery too. By the time of MODERN TIMES, this cruelty towards his fellow man would be shifted into the realm of fecklessness — Charlie doesn’t deliberately mistreat Conklin in that one, he just causes the man troubles through incompetence. That’s harder to do because you need to devise ways in which carelessness can translate into mishaps that affect the other guy. Here, Chaplin goes the easiest route, simple sadism.

A pastor (Billy Armstrong) shows up, behaving in a stock pastorly manner — standing in the road reading the bible, making rapturous utterances at the sky — and then sniffing in distaste as Charlie passes by. There’s some business with rotten eggs: Charlie gratuitously shoves one in Paddy’s face, then drops the second in the minister’s bible or hymn book. Closing the book, the guy is assailed by a frightful stench. There’s an anti-clerical streak in Chaplin’s work, where priests are often humbugs, but this moment is startling in its directness and because the guy hasn’t really been given a chance to display corruption or hypocrisy.

More brutal treatment of Edna’s dad. It wasn’t too surprising to see the girl’s father treated shoddily in A JITNEY ELOPEMENT, since he’s the antagonist, the obstacle to true love. But in THE TRAMP, Ernest Van Pelt (also the film’s AD) is a quite unoffending chap. And since he’s connected by blood to our heroine, it’s a little startling to see sacks of flour repeatedly dropped on his poor head. Accused by the victim, Charlie blames Paddy, and laughs satanically as the innocent is about to get beaned. It’s purely gratifying when Charlie the little shit gets accidentally bashed on the noggin.

All this brutal, amoral Keystone stuff seems like the very worst kind of comedy to attempt if you’re planning to drop in some pathos later… maybe Chaplin felt he’d better give the mob a double dose of the violence they loved to make sure the film would succeed with its untried emotional heartstring stuff. Still, it’s a somewhat grotesque combo.

SUDDEN COMPOSITION IN DEPTH: pops is counting his sock bills. The tramps open the door in unison. The close view of pops, wide-angle lens, and the gurning hobos in their stage makeup, creates a whole different world, sort of grotesque mock-melodrama. The bruises inflicted by Charlie earlier have not faded with Tom & Jerry rapidity — I can’t recall an earlier Chaplin film where people show signs of injury after the knockabout. The tramp trio are semi-serious villains, so it’s OK to really hurt them.

Walter Kerr singles out the long shot of Charlie watering trees in the orange grove. “In all of this there is one lovely shot, the first of what I think of as the Chaplin master-images. […] he seems to place himself temporarily in a sympathetic, productive universe, where he is enormously happy.” But I note that he throws down his watering can on the spot when he hears the dinner bell ring.

More interplay with Edna, who, since she’s playing a poor farmgirl not a “lady,” is allowed to dress somewhat attractively. God, those fashions. (“I look a frump,” said Lillian Gish, viewing a photograph of herself in Griffith’s office.)

Charlie toys with the notion of milking a bull, anticipating FREDDY GOT FINGERED by eighty-six years. Instead, he tries to use a cow’s tail as a hand-pump for milk.

Romance! After putting his boot in the milk (and wiping off the sole, flicking the soiled milk back into the bucket), Charlie plucks a daisy and chucks it in Edna’s direction. She doesn’t realise where it came from… (always send a card with flowers). Her ignorance of his romantic feelings has now been established, lightly. There’s a little more craft to this than Kerr allows.

Charlie would flirt more, but he gets an egg (which he’s stolen) broken in his trouser pocket, and has to go stuff his pants with leaves to soak up the yolk. Then he bumps into the holey trinity, the hobos, who try to enlist him into their nefarious plans. He plays along.

Don’t know if the night scenes would have been shown with a blue filter originally, but Harry Ensign’s photography seems to need something to help it get to day-for-night.

Not a particularly clever joke, but I like it — Charlie, burning a candle at one end, as approved, sets light to pops’ newspaper. It’s the prolonged obliviousness of Van Pelt that tickles me, plus this is a positive instance of Charlie causing people angst UNINTENTIONALLY, which is the profitable and ironic terrain he will mine in future, once his character and comedy are fully developed.

Retiring to the double bed he’s to share with Paddy, Charlie arms himself with a FATAL MALLET, which he tests on his strange bedfellow a few times. After accidentally bopping pops, he explains about the imminent threat. There’s no logical reason he couldn’t have done so earlier, but I guess to the extent there’s a strategy in this, maybe Chaplin wanted the audience to be unsure of his hero’s intentions?

Charlie sees the thugs off with skull-fracturing hammer blows, but gets shot in the flurry, seemingly by pops himself. Charlie clutching his shin and looking sincerely stricken must have come as a shock to audiences in 1915 — unless they were thrown by the gear-shift and kept laughing, with increasing uncertainty, for a few moments too long. Pops and Paddy run to his assistance — he tries a cocky laugh, but it’s the wan ghost of his previous boisterousness.

There’s blood, and a bullet-hole. It’s hardly Peckinpah, but a blast of realism has been shot into the film.

Iris in, then fade up to see Charlie thoroughly enjoying his convalescence, with Edna reading to him while he smokes and drinks.

Suddenly, Lloyd Bacon shows up again, this time as Edna’s beau. The double-casting, which we’re not meant to notice and largely don’t, seems apt, since this is another enemy for Charlie, but one he can’t defeat with concussion, for this is an eminently fine-looking fellow and Edna is all for him.

Charlie shakes the chap’s hand a couple of times then goes inside, sensing he’s a third wheel. Suddenly self-conscious, he examines his ragged form. He pens a childish note: “I thort your kindness was love but it aint cause I seen him XX’ Good bye” (This scene is missing from at least one Youtube version.)

Tearful, he takes up his bindle and, wiping his face on whatever’s handy, leaves. Which is interesting, because in the depths of his pathos, he’s still remembering to include a little comedy. So I feel Walter Kerr is not quite right to say that “the single character whose silhouette embraces both sentiment and comedy, and both at the same time, has not yet been born.” But he’s about 75% right. Chaplin hasn’t set up any serious dimension to his character — the tossed flower is a gesture in that direction, but not sufficient to broaden the tonal church in time for this turnabout.

But a lot of this works, or shows signs of working, especially the end shot: after lingering on the happy trio at the farm up until they find the note — and Chaplin’s not overmuch interested in their reaction — we cut to the solitary figure limping down a country lane — he needs that can now. Then he stops, kicks up his heels as if to arse-kick himself, and sets off at a brisk and determined pace, as the image irises in around him, forever.

I thought that was a superb ending when I was ten. I still do.

Grand Theft Jalopy

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2021 by dcairns

American women’s fashions in the 1910s were horrible, weren’t they? The pullover Edna Purviance wears in THE CHAMPION is the only thing she ever looked good in, that I can think of. In A JITNEY ELOPEMENT her frilly blouse makes her look like some kind of fancy pillow.

Still, she is Charlie’s darling, and when her father plans to wed her to some motheaten count, he personates said count (making him TRULY motheaten) to abscond with her. Leo White is the real count, of course — the fact that he looks like one may have been what suggested the film to Chaplin in the first place. His Little Fellow character would spend quite a lot of time personating dignitaries, starting with THE MASQUERADER, continuing through THE COUNT, and ending of course with his taking the place of the Phooey of Tomainia.

The name “Count Chloride de Lime” is moderately funny. Charlie trying to lord it up is amusing, but feels like it happens too soon in the story: we need to see him being himself a little more before we’re ready for this. Of course, we know what Charlie’s like as himself from other films, so the movie is maybe presuming on that familiarity, a sign of Chaplin’s increasing awareness of his success. I think the fact that he was so prolific in the early part of his year with Essanay (where he never felt quite at home) also suggests that he was trying to fulfill his contractual obligation as soon as he could, so he could be free to seek an even more rewarding deal elsewhere. So his sense that the Chaplin craze would be burned out within a year may have already been modified.

Edna’s dad performs a foul bit of expository mime for our benefit, pointing at Charlie then at his ring finger — yes, yes, we already know you want the Count to marry Edna, what do you think you’re playing at? I though Chaplin had eliminated this kind of laborious rigmarole when he left Keystone…

One way AJE improves on THE MASQUERADER is its simplicity. Whereas Keystone pics heap on plot wrinkles and complications, rarely resolving them with anything more satisfying than a tumble into standing water, the Essanay films allow Chaplin breathing room to play out simple situations. The set-up isn’t elaborate but the mucking about is.

Fun with bread! Charlie hasn’t got the idea of stealing the dance of the rolls from Fatty Arbuckle yet, but there’s a lovely bit where he distractedly tries to cut a slice from a loaf, slicing around in a long spiral rather than cutting through it, until he’s made a baked accordion of it. Best gag so far. Of course, in Charlie’s hands the loaf actually becomes a musical instrument.

Edna’s father is a very trusting man: he doesn’t wonder while Count Chloride is dressed like a tramp, nor why Edna is suddenly so keen on the fellow.

When a spoonful of beans is deposited on Charlie’s plate when he’s not looking, his surprise at finding it there is followed by a look skywards, as if it were birdshit — a gag repeated with a better choice of foodstuff in MODERN TIMES’ prison scene.

At 9:36 I think I can see Chaplin looking right at the camera and maybe saying “OK” or something. I don’t think he’s saying “cut” but I get the sense he’s breaking character.

Then a jalopy shows up, with Leo White in it. Leo seems to be the replacement for Ben Turpin as co-comedian. As Chaplin gained in confidence he would be less inclined to let anyone else be too funny, at least until the features. He was looking for a new Conklin at this point. White is obviously a different type from Chester and Ben, but he’s useful because of his toffee-nosed elegance. Charlie actually has the same air of gentility, but in his case it’s ironic. Leo is suavity in its natural colours.

This moment ought to create suspense, though there’s nothing formally to identify Leo as the Count. An intertitle could have cleared up any ambiguity, but Chaplin seems to be relying on the fact that Leo White couldn’t be called anything other than Count Chloride de Lime.

Charlie eats hot soup and blasts steam/smoke out his nostrils, a nifty special effect presumably achieved with the aid of a cigarette.

Upon Count Chloride presenting his card, Charlie is towed, naughty-boy, into the hall by his earlobe, where he fatalistically presents his behind for the customary boot. Which is delivered more in anger than sorrow. Charlie tips his hat meekly… then kicks his no-long-father-in-law-to-be in the guts, propelling him into the next set. By the time the old fellow has returned to the scene via the conventional Henry “Pathe” Lehrmann match cut on movement, Charlie has gone, which isn’t like him at all. I suspect missing footage. People never normally effect an exit in a Chaplin film without you getting to see it. The intertitle reading “Get out!” seems to have been spliced in to take care of this lacuna, but whether by Chaplin himself or later hands, I cannot say.

Edna receives the Count’s rather Italianate effusions with coldness, shaking her hand as if to cast off filthy droplets after he kisses it (but note: she shakes the wrong hand).

Edna, Pops and the Count go for an outing, and the deteriorated film stock gives this section a fogbound, Scottish look. Dank and dreary. It looks like David Hamilton’s been at the lens with his petroleum jelly. Pops, exhorting Edna to make nice with her creepy suitor, mimes another boot up the arse, but pulls his kick because leading ladies must not be treated so.

Edna’s revulsion at Leo’s advances is well-played, one of the few times Chaplin lets her be funny. Then she’s laughing at the holes in his trousers — he literally IS moth-eaten. Not clear why Edna’s dad is so keen on the match, the fiance being without finance. I guess he just likes titles.

Chaplin brings the film to a stop while he rolls a cigarette. This is done largely without gags, at great length and with huge detail and precision… then the fag paper unwraps and the whole thing disintegrates in his face. Textbook.

Defeated — and glancing at us with embarrassment — “Did they notice anything?” — he simply eats a handful of tobacco. The following action, however, when he lights up an ordinary ciggie, is pure filler.

Now Charlie confronts Leo, and we get an ornate bout of squabbling and low-level slapstick abuse. Fast, inventive, adroit. Ending with Leo’s silk hat rammed down over his eyes and the man himself ejected by boot into Edna’s oblivious father. Great and protracted tumbling over a log bench. (The varieties of park furniture in this era seem endless.

Enter two cops, a moustache and a face-puller, both equally thick. They try to follow Charlie but he fools them by walking backwards. The constabulary are played by the same clowns who were dad’s butlers, Lloyd Bacon and Paddy McGuire.

Rough-and-tumble with Edna as Charlie tries to spoon with her on a branch. The leading ladies post-Keystone were rarely subjected to such bruising ordeals. I think it’s a mark of comic respect when they get to fall over.

Charlie now fights Leo, Edna’s dad, the two cops (felled with two handy bricks, of the kind you always find lying around in parks) and a big cop, the inevitable Bud Jamison. There follows a vaguely Griffith-style chase, unusual for Chaplin. Lots of skidding, though. Then the couple steal a jalopy, though whether it’s actually a jitney (hire-cab) is unclear to me. Charlie unscrews the radiator cap and drops a coin in to make it go.

The “bad guys” (the forces of order) steal a car of their own, beating up the owner in their zeal. We drive past a huge windmill, a moment of sightseeing and majestic scale highly untypical of Chaplin at this time. Something about the giant rotating arms seems to confuse the drivers, who throw their vehicles into meaningless spins, like spiders on LSD. At one point, a missing-frames jump cut makes a car vanish before our eyes, apported to Meliesville.

Chaplin doesn’t seem inspired to come up with any proper gags in this scenario, but he tries out traveling shots taken alongside his car, dynamic depth compositions with the autos passing a whisker’s breadth from the camera, and various other visual strategies that didn’t normally interest him.

Charlie stops to load up with bricks, then has engine trouble. His pursuers, mere seconds behind in the preceding shot, never arrive in this one. Fixing the motor, he cocks his snook at them, drives off, and then we see the enemy trailing behind him by the exact same margin they were at before.

The bricks come in handy, knocking Bud from his seat into the road. We pause for a jalopy duel in a really interesting neighbourhood. Apparently this is San Francisco, and when you know that, the vertical structures make a bit more sense, as does the foggy diffusion effect. Though it’s weird to see people building UP in a flat, open area of quasi-suburban sprawl.

Chaplin is often criticised for his lack of interest in scenic values, so enjoy the novelty while you can. It’s not clear to me that this fresh architecture adds anything really useful to his cinema, it’s just mildly interesting to see.

Finally, the pursuing car is nudged into the bay, and Edna laughs wickedly at what seems to be her father’s demise, then puckers up for a chaste kiss from her rescuer, interrupted by an abrupt cut to black.

Interesting to see Chaplin try the kind of car chase associated more with Keystone but which he didn’t really do when he was there. He missed the chance to be the first one to go up and down those wretched hills, though.

On the Tiles

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

For his second Essanay film, Chaplin upped sticks and left Chicago to Oscar Micheaux, decamping to Niles, California and taking Ben Turpin with him. There, he encountered the uneuphoniously-named Edna Purviance who became a fixture in his films until 1922, and who he would keep under contract for years and years, and who he would attempt to turn into an independent star by having Josef Von Sternberg direct her in A WOMAN OF THE SEA, a film which he subsequently shelved for unknown reasons and then seemingly destroyed for tax purposes.

Edna was characterised by a so-called friend as “a docile creature” and we perhaps see a bit of this in Chaplin’s anecdote about hypnotizing her at a party. Having bragged that he could put anyone under the influence, he leaned in close and whispered to her, “Fake it!” A good sport, she complied, and the bond was forged.

Edna is just one of a couple of girls Charlie flirts with during his drunken debauch here. There are also a lot of men in false beards, some of which disguise the thrifty repurposing of cast members (you pay your actors by the day, not the role, so work them, damnit). The “plot” is just Charlie & Ben on the razzle, but then a farce situation develops when Edna innocently finds herself in a compromising situation (in her pajamas in Charlie’s hotel room) after trying to retrieve her dog. Mabel Normand had played this exact situation the previous year in CAUGHT IN THE RAIN. But this is a better film.

Turpin continues to be an aggressive near-equal in screen time. The knockabout teamwork is at least as good as the taut routines Chaplin had worked out with Chester Conklin, so it’s a shame BT didn’t get a later cameo the way CC did in MODERN TIMES. David Robinson describes him as “one of the best comedy partners Chaplin ever found,” while describing him as resembling a prematurely hatched bird. But a feisty one! Chaplin used faint praise: his “stooge” “seemed to know the ropes.” It’s said the two didn’t get on, with Turpin impatient with Chaplin’s methods. Still, there’s more to Turpin than strabismus: Chaplin rarely gives anyone but the leading lady a close-up, so Turpin has to depend on his considerable physical skills to get the laughs, rather than falling back on his crossed eyes (ouch).

Bud Jamison, who had also come from the Chicago branch, is an effective heavy, playing the first insanely violent headwaiter in the Chaplinverse, anticipating Eric Campbell’s terrifying brute in THE IMMIGRANT. Having him turn up later as a jealous husband is smart plotting.

The bit that actually made me laugh out loud is Charlie trying to get toothpaste on his brush, and then forgetting why he’s doing it, while paralytically drunk. I say it again — Chaplin’s father was killed by his alcoholism — and his early comedy depends disproportionately on wringing comedy from abject inebriation.

I realize this isn’t as in-depth as previous posts. But I think I’ll go back to this film for more — especially as I am shocked — shocked! — to discover that my sepia DVD version has, unlike the more pristine YouTube print, actual intertitles!