Archive for My Autobiography

The Sunday Intertitle: A Thousand a Week

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

“I want a thousand dollars a week,” Chaplin told Sennett,

“But *I* don’t make that!” spluttered the showman.

Sennett is sometimes criticised for his inability to hold on to the stars he’d created. But he didn’t hold the purse-strings, was dependent on the money-men, Kessel and Bauman, and anyway, Chaplin made it difficult. He did try to meet Chaplin’s terms:

“Listen, you have four months to go. We’ll tear up your contract and give you five hundred dollars now, seven hundred dollars for the next year, and fifteen hundred for the following year. That way you’ll get your thousand dollars a week.”

(This is all per My Autobography, Chaplin’s largely very accurate, if understandably selective, memoir.)

Chaplin responded: “If you’ll just reverse the terms, give me fifteen hundred the first year, seven hundred the second year, and five hundred the third, I’ll take it.”

“But that’s a crazy idea.”

Chaplin was convinced this craze couldn’t last, that his star would fade. And he had an urgent desire for financial security that made him think short-term. It WAS a crazy idea — he wouldn’t have been happy to take the pay-cuts when they came — but he wanted a thousand dollars a week NOW.

Essanay agreed to his terms, and at the end of his year at Keystone, Chaplin was off to Chicago.

Pathos and Pangs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2020 by dcairns
Transporter malfunction!

I wrote about THE NEW JANITOR very recently, before I decided to explore Chaplin’s Keystone period in sequence and in more depth than anyone wants. I was influenced by Craig Keller’s excellent series, but he kept things epigrammatic and stopped at 1914… I might keep going. This’ll be like Hitchcock Year all over again, but it’ll be 93 films long. Try and stop me.

What wasn’t obvious about TNJ on a cursory view was that its narrative stratagem — injecting Chaplin-as-Tramp into a perfectly serious little melodrama — was totally new for the comedian, and probably for the studio. And it paves the way for many future developments. Supporting comics in obvious fake whiskers playing supporting clown roles will decrease — only Chaplin is allowed to look midway between circus performer and real everyday dude — the stories will get serious with Chaplin being the means of injecting comedy. The stakes will be real, and the settings for naturalistic.

This one was spat out of the Keystone Komedy assembly line so fast (there are just nine set-ups, and eight of them have been used before the halfway mark) that Al St. John hasn’t had a chance to change out of his bellboy costume. Charlie is set up as the underdog victim of St John’s elevator prank. The building he’s working in has obvious backdrops of skyscrapers outside the windows — or maybe just painted ON the windows. But my one time inside a New York skyscraper the views looked just like that. Unreal.

Charlie’s specific kind of incompetence is well-painted-in too: he has remarkable physical dexterity, gratuitously juggling with props, but his mind lags far behind so he does stupid stuff like carrying a waste paper bin upside down so the contents spill out.

Charlie also gets a little romance, which is played seriously and though he’s not much a catch the film doesn’t emphasise any leering or gargoyleish or antisocial qualities to render this scenario grotesque. Simple and seemingly without ambition, the film, like the character, presages the character and his films’ later form.

Chaplin remarks in My Autobiography, “I was playing in a picture called The New Janitor, in a scene in which the manager of the office fires me. In pleading with him to take pity on me and let me retain my job, I started to pantomime appealingly that I had a large family of little children. Although I was enacting mock sentiment, Dorothy Davenport [sic], an old actress, was on the sidelines watching the scene, and during rehearsal I looked up and to my surprise found her in tears. ‘I know it’s supposed to be funny,’ she said. ‘but you just made me weep.’ She confirmed something I had already felt: I had the ability to evoke laughter as well as tears.”

1) I think he means Alice Davenport.

2) It would be a while — years — before Chaplin found a proper use for this secondary talent…

It’s Keystone but released by Mutual, for whom Chaplin would make his best shorts, later.

But in THOSE LOVE PANGS, released on my birthday fifty-three years before I was born — I am now fifty-three so there’s a kind of symmetry to this — Chaplin is back to playing a repellant sex pest, and is billed as The Masher. Suggesting that he wasn’t sure if THE NEW JANITOR represented the direction he wanted to go in. People seemed to like him as a repulsive lout. He should make more lout films, then?

Charlie and Chester Conklin are rivals in pursuit of their landlady (Helen Carruthers). Though we meet them at the tea-table, Charlie seems drunk, or perhaps just mentally enfeebled. Still, when Conklin usurps his place with the landlady, Charlie is quick to prong the offender’s rump with a suitably pointy utensil. As David Hemmings would later say in JUGGERNAUT, “I may be stupid, but I’m not… bloody stupid.”

Caught red-forked, Chaplin pretends he’s using the implement as a musical instrument — the thinking comedian at work. When Conklin attempts to lay down the law — an amusing idea even in sentence form — Charlie spits in his eye — the low comic at work. Still, Chester can count himself luck not to have received the fork in his eyeball. The lout is mellowing.

A bit of further delicacy: having taken Conklin’s place with the landlady (or is she a maid? I think she’s a bit young for property-owning), Charlie positions her to be the target of the avenging prongs of Conklin. But this won’t do. Conduct unbecoming. He swaps back. And duly gets a set of tines jabbed inches deep in his noble derriere. It actually takes an effort to wrench the steel free from his flesh. Dizzily relieved expression. But his strange spasms repel the object of his wooing.

Some very good, almost abstract dueling clown action between CC and CC, before they realize the bar is open. Making excellent use of his cane, Charlie drags Conklin by the neck to their appointed destination, but for once the opportunity for drink is refused, and the chance of a tussle with some swing doors passed up, as a passing floozy (Vivian Edwards) gives Charlie the wink.

Meanwhile, Chester also meets a seductress (women just can’t resist a comedy pornstache) — Cecile Arnold. She’d been in a few Chaplin shorts previously but makes a much bigger impression here with her unusual introductor closeup. You can see her lips saying “Chester.” I wish she’d call ME Chester.

Charlie flops with his girl (she has a bigger beau, one Fred Hibbard), then reacts extravagantly to the sight of Chester and his gal. Splitscreened by a big tree, the two clowns gesticulate extravagantly and it becomes a bit obscure. I don’t get what they’re each trying to mime. Earlier, facing off together, the comics were wonderfully in synch. Here, competing for our attention, they just make muddle.

But I get that Charlie is disgusted by his rival’s romantic success, so his half-hearted attempt at drowning himself makes sense. The cop who interrupts him is no clownish Kop, but a stern authority figure without walrus moustache decoration.

Then there’s a very good bit where the big beau tries to explain a plot to Charlie who keeps falling backwards towards the pond. The beau keeps rescuing him, then prodding him, or throttling him, because he’s not listening, causing him to fall backwards etc. The relationship seems classically Chapliesque: the big brute is not necessarily consciously the Little Fellow’s enemy, in terms of wishing him ill, but he is his NATURAL enemy because he is a big guy, and pushy, and wants Charlie to do something not in Charlie’s best interests or nature or skillset. He’s inherently a boss, in other words.

Anyway we don’t really find out what the guy wants — a storyline seems amputated, somewhere. Charlie eventually gets him in the water and kicks his forehead and leaves. That’s that dealt with.

Conklin is now romancing BOTH girls. Chester Conklin gets all the pussy. It’s the moustache, has to be. Good Conklin-Chaplin grudge match, with many unconventional moves, not all of them within the Queensberry Rules. In particular, when Charlie folds Chester up and uses him as a chair while going through his wallet, we may feel that a line had been crossed.

The girls are off to the Majestic Cinema to see HELEN’S STRATAGEM. Charlie’s stratagem is to pursue them.

Nice plotting: the big beau, emerging from Echo Lake in a sodden condition, wrings out his jacket over Conklin’s face, inadvertently reviving him. It’s quite a lot like when the fake bat pukes on Dracula’s ashes in SCARS OF DRACULA. But better, obviously, because Christopher Lee didn’t wear a moustache like Dracula does in the book. What kind of moustache? Wouldn’t it be amazing if Dracula had a Chester Conklin cookie-duster? All dripping with blood and everything.

Chaplin is now embracing both girlies in the front row of the Majestic, and since his arms are occupied he’s telling them stories using his legs to gesture with. A young Charley Chase is somewhere in the audience behind him, the third CC in this movie. Then his rivals, Chester and the big beau, arrive, and we find out why cinema seats these days are bolted to the floor, and then Charlie is thrown through the cinema screen and pelted with bricks The End.

The clear implication from this film’s eventful action is that CC and CC do this every day of their lives.

The All Saints’ Day Intertitle: Transients Welcome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2020 by dcairns

Everybody at Keystone sat down to watch Chaplin’s first film as director. It seems likely that some of them were hoping to see him fail, or expecting it. But the film was good, and they were good enough to applaud at the end.

Chaplin must have been relieved — not only for the career advancement this now promised, and the power over his own comedy — but because he’d put up fifteen hundred dollars of his own money to cover the cost if Sennett judged the film unworthy of release.

It’s a nice, unambitious Keystone “farce comedy.” Chaplin wisely didn’t set out to make something notably more ambitious in scale or complexity than the films he’d acted in. MABEL AT THE WHEEL, for instance, is an epic by comparison. And by keeping things small-scale, he could devote more time to observing his own performance.

Mack Swain and his wife, Alice Davenport, are bickering in the inevitable park. Here I can correct the Wikipedia entry, which claims MS approaches a stall named “St. Rocupia’s.” I believe the name is Cornucopias. While he’s away, Charlie appears. I’m not sure why Davenport is initially so pleased to see a dishevelled tramp stumble from the undergrowth, smiling inanely. But then she has a good laugh as he runs afoul of a drinking fountain, then she becomes a bit perturbed as he approaches and starts… is that flirting? He also shares a wee laugh with his chums in the audience. This is, I believe, the only moment where one of the cast tips us the wink. Chaplin is already reserving that privilege for himself.

Swain, returning, flies into what our friend Clouseau would call a writ of felous jage, and knocks over both Charlie and the bench he’s on. The theme of the Little Fellow versus the Big Guy begins to be drawn. Keystone, makers of live-action cartoons basically, already used physical contrasts as a shorthand for characterisation. Chaplin has a very specific use in mind though for the larger type of comic (and he’d employ Swain again in THE GOLD RUSH by which time the big guy was even bigger).

Recovering, Charlie leads himself by the ear into a bar, a bit of pantomime for our benefit alone. We don’t see what goes on in there (sets are limited) but next time he appears, he’s properly rat-arsed. Staggering out, he rests an elbow on the very protuberant rear end of a handy policeman, an unusual gag and quite an amusing one. When the Kop objects, Charlie obliviously lights a match on his chest. These guys provide a valuable service, think what we’d be missing if we defunded them. If the IMDb is to be believed, the buttock-thrusting Kop is Ted Edwards who is not only in many Keystones, but third lead in Dwain Esper’s notorious MANIAC. But I don’t think he’s the guy, even though the character in the Esper epic thinks he’s Poe’s razor-wielding orangutan, a role for which ass-thrusting would be fairly useful.

In a fairly alarming gag, Charlie crosses the road and nearly gets rubbed out by a passing jalopy, which would have put an early stop to the nascent career of the screen’s greatest comedy star. Then he arrives in the hotel lobby — seems that, despite being even more ragged than usual (the seam at his shoulder’s giving out at the back) he’s not a total indigent. Some cruel treatment of a gouty invalid anticipates THE CURE. Since gout is, in a sense, a self-inflicted disease of the wealthy, the usual rules about mocking the disabled don’t apply in silent cinema. But most of Chaplin’s gout-sufferers would be fat, domineering men, quite unlike this poor guy.

I do really like Charlie’s truculent manner and his trouble with the stairs, which just escalates. It’s a relief whenever a Keystone film takes the time to let a gag build. One reason Chaplin was much more popular than Keaton is he does something Keaton resisted: repeating a gag. If it works once, do it again. Make a dance move out of it. Let the slower audience members catch up. Pull variations on it, surprise them, but only once they’ve really gotten to expect the next iteration. Tiny kids love repetition: things seem to get funnier for them the more they recur, and Chaplin I would think works better with tinies than Keaton does.

I wrote about this film before, but seeing Chaplin’s shorts in order of production gives me more to say, hopefully.

Chaplin holds a shot on Charlie as he undresses (his pajamas are underneath his “suit”) and discovers a dozen little bits of comic business he can work in. This kind of concentration is missing from most Keystones to date. It’s here CC shows his ambition.

Davenport walks in her sleep, and this motivates the loose act III. It’s a neat reversal of the situation in MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT, which was the Tramp’s first appearance. Having a drunken bum scare Mabel and create jealousy with her boyfriend was interesting but not hugely funny — the menacing hobo works better played straight in Lois Weber’s SUSPENSE — flipping things around so that the drunk is terrorized by the respectable lady walking in her sleep makes the situation inherently absurd, topsy-turvy, and therefore comic. It still might not be funny, but it’s recognizably comic in intent.

Chaplin appears to be trying some really fast cutting at the end, or else bits of all his shots have gone astray. Either is possible. It sort-of works. I’d describe it in the same terms I once used for Jerry Lewis’ double zoom when Buddy Love first appears in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: “an interesting attempt at something.” Causing a friend to remark, “That’s what they’ll put on my tombstone.” Was it Rivette who called Chaplin the greatest editor in history? He definitely isn’t. But he’s fairly precise, and since everything is dictated by his performance, what he’s doing technically tends to look easy when in fact it isn’t.

In his memoir, Chaplin implies that all he really knew about filmmaking at this time was the left-to-right rule, but he uses that in quite a deft manner: at the start, Charlie and Davenport occupy separate frames linked only by their eyeline. Later, Chaplin wrote —

“[…] I found that the placing of a camera was not only psychological but articulated a scene; in fact it was the basis of cinematic style. If the camera is a little too near, or too far, it can enhance or spoil an effect. Because economy of movement is important you don’t want an actor to walk any unnecessary distance unless there is a special reason, for walking is not dramatic. Therefore placement of camera should effect composition and a graceful entrance for the actor. Placement of camera is cinematic inflection. There is no set rule that a close-up gives more emphasis than a long shot. A close-up is a question of feeling; in some instances a long shot can effect greater emphasis.”

We’re definitely missing a half second at the end of this one. Chaplin has carefully set up a sequence of collapsing co-stars which doesn’t really resolve the story in any meaningful way, but seems to. All that’s missing is him falling back with Davenport on top of him, but he doesn’t quite make it. Time, that other great but rather random editor, has made off with the last fragment of footage. Maybe its something we get to see when we all finally keel over too.