Archive for Mutual

Shapeshifter

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

THE PAWNSHOP is perfect.

Charlie is a little bastard again — more childish than ever, really, and engaged in a kind of sibling rivalry with co-worker the marvelous John Rand. The pawnbroker, Henry Bergman, is a stern father figure. Edna, his daughter, treats Charlie like a child, which he encourages. But he’s obviously a lecherous child.

Somehow Chaplin balances everything just right in this one — Charlie is just sympathetic enough — in the sense of giving us a vicarious indulgence in naughtiness which is pleasurable — without crossing the line and becoming totally hateful. Obnoxious yet somehow appealing.

The film is pretty plotless — there’s bickering between Charlie and Rand, competition over Edna, attempts to escape the discipline provided by Bergman, and then Eric Campbell turns up to rob the place, providing Charlie a chance to be the hero, a role which he has shown himself entirely undeserving of. There are no really sympathetic characters — Edna is nice, but a gullible idiot with big hair and her cakes are terrible — everyone else bickers and is mean to one another, is grifting or exploiting or out-and-out stealing. And yet the film manages to be fairly likable. The lessons of Keystone, where Charlie could be an absolute thug, have been learned, and Chaplin is cautious about just how far he can go.

After a couple of shots establishing Edna in the kitchen with a kitten, for cuteness, and Henry Bergman as the pawnbroker pacing impatiently, irked by Charlie’s customary lateness, Our Hero appears. Again, viewed from the rear. The Mutual comedies tend to have fun with how recognisable the Little Fellow is, from the rear, or just reduced to raggedy flapshoes.

Bergman was a native Californian who became a kind of courtier/toady to Chaplin. Collaborators could be slightly harsh about his role in offering Chaplin steady support and encouragement, but Chaplin obviously found him valuable. And he’s a good character man, deft with disguise, so he appears in every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES. He never overacts and that’s especially important here as he’s playing Jewish. The treatment of race is considerably more delicate than in THE VAGABOND. Chaplin took to never denying claims that he himself was part Jewish, since he felt this would play into the hands of anti-Semites. He also joked about his half-brother Sydney having Jewish ancestry, explaining the siblings’ marked difference in appearance, though in fact Sydney’s father’s identity is not known for certain.

Charlie, told he’s late, checks his fob watch against the calendar, in the best Mad Hatter tradition. The watch then becomes a running gag, something for Charlie to check every time he receives a blow or takes a fall. If his watch is OK, everything’s fine.

Most of Charlie’s interactions are with his rival, John Rand, who had proved such a deft foil in POLICE. Billy Armstrong, who previously performed this function and wore this cookie-duster, had left to pursue an independent star career, but would subside into modest supporting roles to Stan Laurel and others, and sadly died of tuberculosis aged only 33.

I’m going to be paying close attention to Rand, because he’s excellent, and I didn’t even know his name before embarking on this. He and Armstrong and Conklin had a perfect connection with Chaplin onscreen.

The feather duster is the first great toy: compacting every vane with soot allows Charlie to do far more harm than good, and dusting the electric fan shreds the duster into floating particles.

When Charlie unsportingly “fights” Rand, who’s trapped in a ladder, the other end is held by a shoeshine boy, who is either the second anonymous Black kid in a Chaplin short (after LAUGHING GAS), or the umpteenth blackface character (after, most recently, A NIGHT IN THE SHOW) — my screen isn’t big enough for me to be 100% sure which. Charlie’s swinish behaviour is funny only because he’s putting on such a great pugilistic display, as if he were doing something noble and impressive, rather than persecuting a totally helpless opponent.

Scrapping with Rand gets Charlie fired, and he embarks on his celebrated plee for mercy, miming a large — increasingly large — family of dependents. starting with a gesture indicating Jackie Coogan height, then going up, up, up, until the largest invisible child is the height of Eric Campbell. The mockery of pathos first appeared in THE NEW JANITOR, and gave Chaplin the idea that he could move an audience for real. But it’s still amusing to make fun of the whole idea of emotional manipulation.

Asides from the conflict with Rand, the film has Charlie balancing dangerously on a stepladder, from which he falls with a spine-saving roll; flirtation with Edna, where he dried dishes using a trick mangle, which also serves to dry his hands; he deals expeditiously with Campbell’s very elegant heister; and he “serves” various customers. Alternating between these activities works perfectly well to create the illusion of narrative.

The “ruinous old man” — David Robinson’s cruel and beautiful phrase — is credited as Wesley Ruggles on both IMDb and Wikipedia, but it very clearly isn’t. The old, but not original credits on my DVD list James Kelley as “old actor” which is more believable. IMDb instead casts Kelley as “Old Bum.” He might be both… that’s easier to believe. But Kelley, a seventy-year-old Irishman, is typically somewhat recognisable in his movements and his stoutness and tininess (smaller than Chaplin). This guy is thin and frail, probably older than 70, doesn’t seem particularly short or wide, and has a great “strolling tragedian” way of acting that suits his role here.

As the shabby-genteel geezer goes into his pantomime of woe, Chaplin at first watches and eats callously, performing the occasional mocking mime of his own — a gesture heavenwards causes him to pick up binoculars and scan the ceiling. But slowly he’s taken in and moved to tears by the expert heartstring abuse.

When he buys the guy’s ring, he gets the change from a huge wad of dough, not the kind Edna is using, and realises he’s been had. Thus the film preserves its own callousness without having caused our man to totally lose our sympathy. I note also that Charlie’s slow burn I-don’t-believe-this gaup, chin lowered and eyes uprolled balefully — the Crazy Kubrick Stare, almost — appears here for the first time.

Albert Austin’s scene is a different matter, and arguably the film’s true highlight. He’s brought in his alarm clock — how hard up must he be? It’s not clear that Charlie’s ruthless treatment of the wretch is a response to his having been fleeced by whoever the old guy was — I shall be watching out for later appearances — but it’s pretty heartless. Chaplin distracts us slightly from this just by being dazzling, and he softens (literally) the final blow by using what proves to be a rubber hammer to clonk the irate Austin. Despite the fake prop, Austin staggers off, seemingly concussed, presumably by some effect analogous, yet opposite, to the placebo.

Chaplin gets nearly five minutes out of this clock routine.

The set-piece is a thing of wonder. Dissecting the alarm clock until its a mess of oily scrap, Charlie uses a stethoscope, a drill, a can opener, pliers, an oil squirter, the mouthpiece of a telephone. But the oil dropper transforms in his grasp into some kind of insect exterminator, and the phone part is used as a jeweller’s eyeglass. The clock is sometimes a patient, sometimes a can of spoiled and off-smelling goods, perhaps a watch, a dental patient But the set-piece itself is a thing of wonder. Dissecting the alarm clock until its a mess of oily scrap, Charlie uses a stethoscope, a drill, a can opener, pliers, an oil squirter, the mouthpiece of a telephone. But the oil dropper transforms in his grasp into some kind of insect exterminator, and the phone part is used as a jeweller’s eyeglass. The clock is sometimes a patient, sometimes a can of spoiled and off-smelling goods, perhaps a watch; its mainspring becomes a bolt of cloth; its innards, arrayed on the counter and magnetized into a roil from below, become an insect horde to be flitgunned into submission with what had moments before been an oil dropper. Chaplin himself becomes a doctor, surgeon, a dentist, a tailor (several of which he’d been in other films), before he finally reverts to character, sweeps the detritus into Austin’s hat, and hands it back with a shake of the head that isn’t even regretful.

Nobody else was doing this, and pretty much nobody ever has. Buster Keaton exploited the transposition gag a great deal, but with different intentions and results. Usually with Keaton, the objects themselves force him into a new role, and they in turn become transformed. One thinks of the train crashing into the river in OUR HOSPITALITY. Buster finds his fuel car turned into a boat, and so the shovel in his hands becomes automatically a paddle. He uses it as such, with the air of one in a dream or under some strange spell. At other times he’s more in charge, thinking with his body, finding a way to make the objects around him fit his needs, ignoring their intended purpose and using instead their actual properties. Problem-solving, in other words.

Chaplin isn’t solving a problem, here, exactly. It is, I suppose, just showing off, only loosely tied into the narrative. A piece of performance art.

David Robinson cites THE PAWNSHOP as Chaplin’s greatest exploration of transposition gags to date — the setting may have been chosen simply because it allows for a wide variety of objects to be played with.

Arthur Machen writes, in the short story N:

‘When man yielded,’ he would say, ‘to the mysterious temptation intimated by the figurative language of the Holy Writ, the universe, originally fluid and the servant of his spirit, became solid, and crashed down upon him overwhelming beneath its weight and its dead mass.’ I requested him to furnish me with more light on this remarkable belief; and I found that in his opinion that which we now regard as stubborn matter was, primally, to use his singular phraseology, the Heavenly Chaos, a soft and ductile substance, which could be moulded by the imagination of uncorrupted man into whatever forms he chose it to assume. ‘Strange as it may seem,’ he added, ‘the wild inventions (as we imagine them) of the Arabian Tales give us some notion of the powers of the Homo Protoplastus. The prosperous city becomes a lake, the carpet transports us in an instant of time, or rather without time, from one end of the earth to another, the palace rises at a word from nothingness. Magic, we call all this, while we deride the possibility of any such feats; but this magic of the east is but a confused and fragmentary recollection of operations which were of the first nature of man, and of the fiat which was then entrusted to him.’

Charlie still retains some trace of this fiat, though he applies the old prelapsarian protean power on a much smaller scale. He is atavism and avatar.

My thoughts on Chaplin and the fluidity of matter owe a great debt to B. Kite’s remarkable writing here.

Things I Read Off the Screen in THE COUNT

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2021 by dcairns

“One more like that and it’s Goodbye, Charlie,” said Chaplin after ONE A.M. underperformed. His next film is a running for cover project, which rewinds his progress by forgetting the pathos of THE VAGABOND as well as the experimentation of ONE A.M. The Tramp is back being a rogue. his character can be stretched in many ways, but if you put a top hat on him, he’s not the same guy — unless it’s clearly a disguise.

The Mutual period sees Chaplin extending in multiple directions, but not all at once. Each film increases his reach in one direction or another. You don’t see them all at once. So THE VAGABOND, for instance, was an exercise in accommodating pathos and drama, resulting in a film David Robinson plausibly argues is as good dramatically as any film of it’s day. Probably true — at least any short film. ONE A.M. is all about slapstick, milking a single situation for as many laughs as possible. Working within strict limitations. THE COUNT is classic farce, eschewing all Charlie’s heroic and noble qualities as shown earlier, just turning the dirty scamp loose in a narrative that isn’t supposed to be about him and an environment where he’s an alien.

The Keystone antecedents are CAUGHT IN A CABARET (especially), A JITNEY ELOPEMENT, and apparently the lost HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, but the plotting is simpler and better, until the end when all character motivation and plot are joyously dispensed with. The funniest stuff in the film, but somehow unsatisfactory, because it makes no sense.

Charlie is introduced as a tailor working for Eric Campbell, whose moustache is tweezed to such extremes it’s visible from the back. Charlie is really feckless this time, and gets fired after a series of expensive mistakes. He’s not only really bad at measuring —

— he treats the thing as a lark. You can actually be on Eric’s side during the first sequence.

From the surviving outtakes, we know that the whole prologue was shot last, as an afterthought, but because the tailor and his assistant’s prior relationship informs the plot, I reckon he must have thought of it while shooting the imposture scenes. Since he was writing with the camera, proceeding with no written script and developing the action through filmed rehearsal, his filming follows the pattern of a screenwriter — work on a bit intensively until you realise you need to go back and put in something before it. Since the film set is a more cumbersome instrument than a typewriter, it makes sense for him to finish the bit he’s working on before returning to the beginning…

A wild coincidence is set up: first, Eric finds a note from “Count Broko,” regretting he cannot attend Mrs. Moneybags’ soiree and meet her charming and wealthy daughter. Eric resolves to personate the absent aristo. Then, Charlie, romancing the Moneybags’ cook, is admitted to the kitchen, and to escape detection by a footman and a rival suitor, uses the dumbwaiter to beam himself up to the swank party.

The kitchen scene is based mainly around a pungent cheese, a real Chaplin motif that seems less funny today, maybe because we have less contact with really smelly cheeses, or maybe because more vulgar jokes about foul-smelling items are now socially acceptable. After BLAZING SADDLES’ farting cowboys, a mere Camembert doesn’t cut the mustard, or cheese, or whatever.

Meeting Eric, Charlie learns of his imposture, and usurps it. Again, it’s just about possible to root for Eric. Sure, he was trying a devious deception, but now Charlie is doing it so he’s clearly no better.

The scene is set for much covert arse-kicking between the two.

Miss Moneybags is, of course, Edna. Contrary to the IMDb, I don’t see any sign of May White here (as “Large lady” supposedly), but Leo White (no relation) eventually turns up as the real Count Broko, and is duly mistreated.

Is this or isn’t it a costume party? Edna has an interesting outfit — Mutual seem to have had a good costume designer, or else Edna’s taste has improved. One guest at dinner is in Pagliacci garb, and upstairs we meet a belly dancer/harem girl and a few others in fancy dress. It makes sense that Eric didn’t know about the costume requirement since he wasn’t invited, and I guess Charlie’s street clothes are interpreted by the hosts as the Count’s disguise. But the effect is initially a bit blurry because 1916 women’s clothes look a bit like fancy dress already, and there are liveried footmen.

A sound gag in a silent film: Charlie has to pause Eric’s soup-slurping so he can hear Edna. Then gags with spaghetti and watermelon — an odd meal, especially for rich folks. There’s a question as to how much leeway Chaplin should be allowed. Do his best gags arise out of a credible situation? Or is there some added pleasure in this unlikely repast? Chaplin is making his film for the kind of people who never get invited to this sort of function.

The cook (Eva Thatcher) is an unusual character, an older woman with a romantic life. Charlie betrays her, but she seems to have a stable of boyfriends to fall back on. We don’t elsewhere see Charlie pursuing cupboard love of this sort, and his romantic interests, even where money is a factor, are usually pretty Ednas. This is Eva’s only Chaplin film, so there’s a sense that this wasn’t his kind of character. He IS married to the redoubtable Phyllis Allen in PAY DAY, for a nagging wife/drunken husband routine, which is again an atypical sitcom set-up for him. David Robinson points out that the other characters introduced in the kitchen, a butler and a neighbourhood kop, play no further role.

Charlie and Eric compete for the attentions of Miss Moneybags, but Charlie is also frequently distracted by the harem girl. His silent following about (admittedly, no other kind of following about is permitted in this medium) is positively sinister.

Oh, and during the ballroom battle, Chaplin also attempts another tracking shot, quite successfully, slowly pushing in to follow the dancers who are drifting back into the room.

Chaplin dances — a series of strange moves including something dimly recalling a highland reel, and the same buttock thrust with foot-skid he does during the song in MODERN TIMES. Also some physical malfunctioning — after a tumble, his hip keeps misaligning, jutting to the side disobediently. The body as machine. In the Mutual world of extreme mutability, even Charlie himself is apt to transform into faulty mechanism.

At a certain point, after Count Broko arrives and is humiliated and knocked around, Charlie just goes berserk. It would, one presumes, have been easy to show him getting drunk to justify this. He does gather up the contents of a drinks trolley, refusing a glass, earlier, but nothing seems to come of this. He just turns into a rampant monkey. he starts off by impaling a roast turkey with his cane and then gratuitously knocking a liveried footman cold with it. Whacking a cake with the cane, he is able to barrage his enemies, plus the innocent bystanders, with confectionary. This is very funny, but meaningless, but very funny. It has some of the anarchic fury of IF….

Things escalate fast, with Campbell drawing a revolver and taking potshots at the Little Fellow Bastard. He runs off down the street, as good an ending as is now possible.

But Chaplin and his audience both now know that a shot of him retreating into extreme long shot is an ending — he doesn’t do it in every film, but it’s a reliable standby.

THE COUNT is very good. What’s next is better.

Vagabondage and Discipline

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2021 by dcairns

David Robinson regards THE VAGABOND as a major step forward for Chaplin, and I guess he’s right. The title implies a development from THE TRAMP, and it looks forward to THE KID, A WOMAN OF PARIS, and others.

Robinson also says that Chaplin was virtually the last to realize how famous he’d become, but the opening shot of this one — the Tramp identified by his boots and walk alone — shows that he was at least somewhat aware of how iconic his costume and stance had become. Same with introducing himself from the rear in THE FLOORWALKER, but this is altogether more stylish.

The opening sequence is a bit of standalone knockabout, the kind of thing we see Chaplin doing more of in his feature films. Introduce the Little Fellow, get some big laughs, then start the story. Charlie is a busker — Chaplin played the violin for real, and would do so again in LIMELIGHT. At the orphanage, Chaplin had been beaten for being left-handed and as a result had become ambidextrous, but he played the violin left-handed and had the instrument strung accordingly, “with the bass-bar and sounding post reversed.”

When his friend Jascha Heifetz picked up Chaplin’s violin, he couldn’t play it. Chaplin demonstrated: ““You see! I am made inside out and upside down. When I turn my back on you on the screen you are looking at something as expressive as a face.”

Charlie plays outside a bar, but a noisy oompah band (played by all the firemen from THE FIREMAN) impress the customers. When he goes in to collect donations, he’s mistaken for a member of the band. Then the band send someone in and a fight breaks out. Oh, and here’s Leo White in his longest beard yet, playing a Jewish customer tempted by the ham. A bit of very mild Jewish humour to prepare us for the more dubious racial stereotyping later.

The set built for this sequence is very interesting — the long bar constructed as both interior and exterior, enabling a different kind of running battle. Chaplin’s loose approach to story — building it from rehearsal/improvisation — suggests he may have been hoping this sequence would lead organically into a larger story.

Instead, his next scene abruptly relocates Charlie to the countryside. Edna is “the gypsy drudge,” horribly mistreated by a crone — Leo White in drag! — and the gypsy chieftain, Eric Campbell in a straight villain role. The brutal whippings Edna is receiving suggest it’s miraculous she’s reached adulthood.

Charlie happens along and tries to cheer Edna up. His initial motivation seems to be profit, though why (a) he’d expect the ragged and miserable Edna to have money and (b) why he thinks he can impress the stereotyped Romany camp with his fiddling — coals to Newcastle, surely? — are moot points.

Chaplin, interestingly, was probably part Roma himself. Which doesn’t make his using the racist trope of “gypsies abducting babies” any better. He’s thoughlessly following a familiar plotline, as previously exploited in D.W. Griffith’s first short, THE ADVENTURE OF DOLLIE. Everybody seems to have believed travelling people routinely stole kids, or at least they found it a perfectly acceptable premise for a story, whether they believed it or not. Sigh.

Oh, and Chaplin has already introduced this theme with a short scene showing the very rich mother (palatial home — two women knitting). The cut from mother looking at little girl photo to Edna makes it all but explicit what the connection is, so the plot twist doesn’t come as a deus ex machina later.

THE VAGABOND has smoothed over the awkward changes in tone that Walter Kerr found so jarring and unresolved in THE TRAMP, though it’s still a little disconcerting to have Charlie walk into this scene of horror. Only when he starts to fight back against Eric and the rest of his gang do these tensions flow together into a coherent line of action. It’s very exciting when they do. But it only works if you can root for Charlie and forget about the racist assumptions underlying the scene.

Charlie up a tree stealth-bonking the Romany scoundrels on the nut, one after the other, until they’re all neatly laid out unconscious, is thrilling and funny. When he nudges one prone foe off the bridge, presumably into a watery grave, it seems to be an act performed in a spirit of neatness. This is what we mean by “pre-Holocaust comedy.”

Charlie escapes with Edna in a stolen caravan, an excitingly staged mini-chase. I think the comic-dramatic exciting chase, where you root for the hero against the villain(s), is fairly new to Chaplin. There’s some of it in THE TRAMP.

There follows a chaste idyll, the first of many in Chaplin’s films. In fact, Charlie washing Edna’s face is directly echoed in his fatherly ministrations to Jackie Coogan in THE KID — and it’s more appropriate there, too. This idyll is arguably TOO idyllic — it’s interspersed with Edna meeting The Painter (Lloyd Bacon, who played her father in the previous short), an idyll within an idyll. The painter isn’t very interesting, and it’s hard to see why Edna is so impressed with him. I mean, sure he’s cultured, but how good is he at killing gypsies?

The painting complete, it is shown — rather obviously a glazed photograph — in an art gallery, in Chaplin’s first really successful camera move, an elegant pull-back. And the rich lady, setting aside her knitting for a day out, spots the painting, and she and the painter ride out to the country so Edna can be retrieved.

The painter’s feelings aren’t much gone into. Having painted Edna as “the Living Shamrock” (owing to the oddly configured birthmark her mother will recognise) he would seem to have lost all interest in her, but now he’s excited again. Probably because Edna turns out to be posh, with a rich mother who lives in a mansion, wears elegant robes, and eats regularly. I’d suspect the painter of mercenary motives if he wasn’t so obviously a plot function with an easel.

Charlie is left alone. He tries kicking his heels to restore his spirits — it worked in THE TRAMP — but he is inconsolable. But, as she drives away in her mother’s limo, Edna has second thoughts. It’s a very nice shot, done in a real automobile, because we can see both Edna’s dawning romantic yearning, and the road stretching away through the rear window, showing the distance between the lovers inexorably lengthening.

But the car turns round, picks up Charlie, and the film ends with the open road but nobody on it. One might worry a little about the abandoned horse. One is more likely to wonder about the characters’ future, about how Charlie and the respectable folks are going to get along. It’s a question begged, but ultimately refused, by the endings of THE KID and CITY LIGHTS, which stop just before the questions become pressing.

Chaplin apparently considered other endings, including a gag finish where he’d try to drown himself, get hauled into a row boat by a passing woman, then throw himself back in when he sees she’s the unglamorous Phyllis Allen. I think we can all be grateful he decided against that one. But it leaves THE VAGABOND as an odd story that starts totally comical and ends totally serious, with little in the way of comedy in its last ten minutes. But it works — and one imagines this gave Chaplin additional confidence. However, his NEXT film refuses all sentiment, dispenses with the supporting cast, and pretty much leaves out the Little Fellow…