Archive for Nijinsky

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.

Hoot Spa

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2021 by dcairns

THE CURE is generally admired, and genuinely good, but coming after EASY STREET as we watch in sequence, it seems a far less ambitious work. The narrative is super-slight, there’s no real drama. But you can turn that around and say that the ambition lies in structuring a comedy WITHOUT those things.

There’s much to enjoy. After starting the film with himself in the role of orderly, Chaplin restarted from scratch, taking the role of a rich, straw-hatted dipso. He could almost be the same character from ONE A.M. Which is odd, because that film underperformed and was regarded by CC as a failed experiment. It’s hardly surprising, given his back ground of extreme poverty and his sudden, inexplicable wealth and fame, that Chaplin didn’t feel secure in his success. What’s more surprising is the risks he ran, avoiding settling into one formula with his films — probably his comedy just couldn’t function within a set pattern, which would be why he kept trying to escape the Tramp character. The other reason would be the way the character reminded him painfully of his origins.

In his memoir, Chaplin only discusses THE CURE in relation to Nijinsky’s visit to the set. (He doesn’t mention EASY STREET at all.) The great dancer solemnly watched him perform, never laughing once, but was very flattering: “Your comedy is balletique, you are a dancer.” Anticipating W.C. Fields. For a day or two, Chaplin acted without film in the camera, because he knew he couldn’t use anything he shot in front of this tragic fellow.

Nijinsky’s insanity seems to have impressed Chaplin — he writes more about Nijinsky than about Eric Campbell, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman, none of whom rate a mention — but doesn’t connect it to any worries about his own equilibrium. Despite regularly playing dipsomaniacs, and having an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother, Chaplin doesn’t admit to any concerns on that score. I guess, like most of us, most of the time, he simply felt sane.

His manager and half-brother Syd seems to have said not long after this time that he was only waiting for Charlie to crack up finally so he could sell the studio to a supermarket and retire on the proceeds.

Loyal Underwood is the founder of THE CURE’s health spa, and he’s a physical wreck. This broad satire allows Chaplin to treat the place as a system to be destroyed. It’s a place full of rich people pretending to get healthier. A romance with Edna will provide Charlie with a motivation to change his way of life, but nothing serious will result from this.

Eric Campbell plays a gouty villain. Gout being mainly a disease of the rich, it doesn’t have to be treated sympathetically.

An attendant (John Rand) tries to steer a veering Charlie towards and through the revolving doors into the establishment. Drunk and disoriented, Charlie tends to take off in random directions, stepping over the wellspring of the healing waters, teasing us with the suggestion he’s going to fall in — a set-up whose pay-off is saved for the very end.

Swing doors, with their tendency to keep swinging, have given Charlie’s drunk characters a lot of trouble. The revolving doors don’t bother him at all — he just always seems to find himself outside when he goes in. But this infuriates John Rand only — Charlie doesn’t mind in the least. In Unknown Chaplin we see him accidentally catch his cane (one part of his signature look, along with moustache and baggy trousers, that he’s retained) in the doors, then hurl it away in sudden fury. But then he incorporates the mistake into the routine, beautifully. Charlie is dazedly delighted with the way he’s trapped Campbell and Rand in airtight glass compartments, bellowing silently at him.

The impetus from the doors, when Charlie is finally spat out into the spa interior, sends him all the way upstairs, spinning like a top, while Rand, a servile Hoskins, gently guides him to his room. His steamer trunk arrives: a giant booze cabinet. This is psychologically quite true, of course: anyone seeking to be cured of an addiction takes along a bit of what they’re addicted to, just in case. Thereby defeating the whole point, but what are points for, if not to be defeated? We don’t want to ever let points get the upper hand.

Albert Austin, another attendant, arrives to take Charlie to the waters. Prolonged flirtation with nurse — almost three minutes of this single locked-off setting, and I feel it could have been productively pruned. But there’s a bit of amusing salaciousness, and Charlie’s avoidance of the water. The scene ends when he finally takes a sip and then goes scampering around looking for a place to throw up. Digestion is a favourite Chaplin topic. And then, since Chaplin likes to do vulgar jokes and then de-vulgarize them, we find out he was racing back to his room for a proper drink.

Now James Kelley as an aged attendant is showing signs of drink — he’s been at Charlie’s steamer trunk, the first sign that our hero’s state of intoxication is going to spread through the population like a virus.

That Bad Man Eric is bothering Edna again. I suppose it’s slightly odd that he’s been mistreated before he’s done anything wrong (just as in THE RINK) but Charlie is depending on the gout being unsympathetic and also on Eric being in melodramatic villain guise, and being known to the audience as his regular antagonist. Edna proves well able to defend herself, stamping on the bandaged hoof then stomping off. Eric, however, simply can’t take “Take that!” for an answer.

Charlie blunders into this situation, sitting between annoyer and annoyee, so that he thinks Eric’s repulsive coochy-cooing is meant for him. Ever-mutable, he flirts back, becoming a winsome coquette for as long as the moment demands. So the next blow to Eric’s inflamed foot is delivered flirtatiously.

Good gag with the wicker chairs. There are two joined together, so when Charlie repositions his, he removes the one Eric was about to sit on. All this guys were great at falling over without getting hurt. Only Jerry Lewis, who didn’t have the training, went on to have terrible back pain. Eric, alas, didn’t live long enough to regret his tumbling.

The manager, or some other important figure, comes to impose order and rebuke Charlie, but Edna springs to his defense — Eric goes into a melodramatic pose, tugging the twin points of his beard which somehow conveys that his perfidy is rumbled, and Charlie, protean as ever, steps forward to his audience, the film having been transformed to a play by the situation and Eric’s posturing. An amazing moment, when you think about it.

Having caused a little more chaos, Charlie is whisked off to have a massage. Henry Bergson is the aggressive masseur.

Meanwhile, two more attendants have gotten bevvied up on Charlie’s stash. The manager orders them to throw out the liquor. Albert Austin, incapably pie-eyed, tosses the bottles out the window into the healthful well…

Charlie’s undressing behind a curtain in the changing room annoys Eric and another patron, as he carelessly flings shoes etc. When the curtain is whisked open, he strikes fey poses. I’ve never been sure what this is a reference to but it always struck me as funny, regardless. Some kind of Windmill Theatre tableau vivant thing is being spoofed, I guess. Or bathing beauties? But it’s a chance for Chaplin to be graceful and effeminate and impudent.

Chaplin had engaged a contortionist for this bit, but initially struggled to find the right role for him (as seen in Unknown Chaplin). The eventual solution is excellent: Bergman twists the guy into impossible shapes while Charlie watches in alarm. It’s a plan he’d re-use in THE IMMIGRANT: visualise, using some hapless subject, the terrible fate awaiting the hero, then see what he can do to escape it.

Charlie the drunk isn’t particularly alarmed, though — he seems the activity as a wrestling match. Charlie is generally devoid of sympathy towards others at this point, except maybe Edna. But he has no intention of taking part in a bout himself. Bergman is astounded when Charlie wrestles back, halfnelsonizing the big guy. All the sliding back and forth on the table to escape Henry’s grip is great. As is Charlie’s aggressive wrestling stance. As with ONE A.M., we get to see the Chaplin legs. Even more so.

Strange bit where Charlie tries to grab Henry by the stomach. He almost succeeds. If the bay window protruded any more — it would have to extrude like a Dali buttock, and probably require a crutch or unicycle to support it — the judo move might have worked.

Meanwhile, Edna is alarmed to find everyone drunk. The spa has acquired a post-apocalyptic quality, like THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS or DAWN OF THE DEAD. Society has broken down. The alcoholics have taken over the asylum. It’s like All Fool’s Day, or St. Patrick’s Day or something. i like the orderly using a lamp as a trumpet. Is it John Rand, in his umpteenth role?

Charlie, having dunked Eric and Henry in the pool, comes upon a scene of pure rambunctiousness. He is now almost the most sober person present, and he doesn’t like it. Things get a bit dark when he has to save Edna from two randy inebriates. I think the beard guy is William Gillespie, a Scot from Aberdeenshire. I wonder what WG thought of Eric’s phony Scotsman act?

The temperance theme — Chaplin really disapproved of overindulgence, sounding kind of priggish when criticising Barrymore’s excesses in his memoir, as if congenital alcoholism was purely a choice — doesn’t stand a chance of being treated seriously. Edna urges Charlie to try the waters. He’s saved her, and she wants to do the same for him. But the waters are now 20% proof. Initially reluctant, Charlie becomes rather keen on the stuff. Edna may soon need protecting from her protector. He throws his leg over her knees, Harpo-fashion.

Eric, having been in the pool while everyone else was getting plastered, is still sober, but the attendant pushing his bath chair isn’t. Well, somebody was bound to end up submerged in the healthful well. Chaplin’s water features exist for no other purpose. Freeze-framing it just allow us to see that a padded stuntman, in Eric’s elaborate makeup, performs the dive.

Looking for a way to end this sequence, Chaplin falls back on a reliable gambit, and has his character stagger about until he falls into the tiny swimming pool. I’m not much of a swimmer but I reckon I could manage a length of that thing. By stretching.

The next day. Everyone is horribly hungover, except Edna and Eric, who does not appear. I don’t suppose he actually drowned. Actually, he might have a hangover too, depending on how much he swallowed when upside down in the well.

Charlie now learns that the well was full of liquor, but not that it was his. Now Edna is urging him NOT to take the waters, and the temperance pledge can be done semi-sincerely. But having already lampooned it, the film can’t really be seen as particularly moralistic now. The curse has been taken off in advance.

Charlie falls in the well. The End.

Unknown Chaplin supplies us with two fine gags I rather wish had been used. In one elaborate routine, Charlie acts as traffic cop to the drunken attendants pushing wheelchairs and bath chairs. He shot this multiple times, first in his disorderly orderly guise, then again after switching roles and becoming the rich drunk. Everyone says that he discarded this because he realised his character is supposed to create chaos, not order, but that’s just a (plausible) assumption. I think it could have worked, because once everybody’s smashed, Charlie DOES become the adult in the room.

Chaplin also shot a bit more ending, where he bobs up and down in the well like a cork, kissing Edna on each surfacing. Again, this seems like a nice way to develop the gag and make it romantic — after all, we’ve already seen someone fall in there, so a plunge alone is not too surprising. I think it’s even possible the gag WAS included — so many of Chaplin’s films seem to have lost frames from the end, that a missing shot doesn’t seem impossible. But I have no evidence to support this idea, except for the fact that Chaplin shot the gag, and it was good.

Next up: Chaplin takes everything he’s learned and applies it to one film.

Words with a “K” are funny

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2012 by dcairns

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The advice of a character in Neil Simon’s THE SUNSHINE BOYS may be genuine showbiz lore — it certainly seems to have informed Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script for THE APARTMENT, which I showed to some of my students as a Christmas treat.

Jack Lemmon is C.C. “Buddy” Baxter, the “x” forming our first K sound. He works for Consolidated Insurance and his boss is Mr Sheldrake (Wilder’s lucky name, dropped into several scripts). In their first conversation, Sheldrake mentions both the Kentucky Derby (another Wilder favourite*) Where it tips over into the blatant is with Shirley MacLaine’s character, Fran Kubelik. Two Ks is definitely humorous.

One of Lemmon’s oppressors is Mr Kirkeby, which looks sensible written down but sounds kind or funny spoken aloud. Another is Eichelberger, which is comical either way. Kubelik’s brother-in-law is Carl Matuschka, and Hope Holiday is Margie MacDougall, wife of the unseen jockey Mickey MacDougall.

The film uses other kinds of alliteration, rhymes, assonance and echolalia. Objects travel through the film, changing their purpose and meaning with each appearance, taking their cue from the apartment door key which circulates from doormat to in tray, sometimes switching places with the key to the Executive Washroom (a place of hallowed splendour, as we know from WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?) — a champagne bottle, a hand mirror, a gramophone record.

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In one scene, Lemmon twirls a piece of spaghetti (which should really be dry and rigid after a week stuck to his tennis racket) and Wilder dissolves to a New Year party where Shirley is toying with a string of pearls as streamers whorl downwards — a double echo. And a meme of drunkenly inaccurate raised fingers (“Three,” says MacLaine, holding up four fingers) is transmitted from scene to scene and person to person like the “Type O” blood in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Wilder probably never achieved a script as tightly constructed as this before or since — he’s using a kind of farce structure to tell a story that’s mainly serious, and a bitter and cynical attitude to disguise a story that’s ultimately sweet at the centre.

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*In one anecdote, Wilder pitches a life of Nijinsky to the bosses at Paramount. “What kind of story is this? A ballet dancer who goes crazy and thinks he’s a racehorse?” “Yeah, but in my version there’s a happy ending — he wins the Kentucky Derby.”)

PS — a Christmas limerick!