Archive for Oliver Hardy

The Sunday Intertitle: The Idiot Stick

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2022 by dcairns

Afternoon, everybody.

Before Charlie meets the blind flower girl in CITY LIGHTS he was at one point going to spend five solid minutes struggling with a stick stuck in a grating outside a department store.

An entire sequence without a single intertitle, pure pantomime, and with no discernible connection otherwise to the film’s plot. Since the statue unveiling sequence is also non-plot-related, this would, I think, have delayed the start of the film’s real story by a dangerous amount, so cutting it was the right decision.

Still, I think it’s a great sequence — depending on the company you watch it with, it’s either progressively more hilarious or more frustrating. If you’re into it, the frustration is part of the hilarity.

Great supporting performances. I remember being astonished at who was playing the idiot messenger boy, then forgetting, then finding out again and being astonished all over again. It’s Charles Lederer, future screenwriter for Howard Hawks among others — he was Marion Davies’ favourite nephew, and Chaplin may have met him at San Simeon, where he was a regular guest, or through Marion, with whom he seems to have been intimate, or maybe through socialite-AD Harry Crocker.

Crocker himself plays the window dresser who gets so infuriated with Charlie, and he’s excellent. Though short, and ultimately deleted, it’s a much more challenging role than Rex, the King of the Air in THE CIRCUS. Long takes, lots of business and expressive pantomime. The actors have to sustain it and communicate it without the aid of title cards or cutaways.

The scene depends for its effect on a hierarchy of stupidity. The mouth-breathing Lederer, barely conscious or alive, is at the lowest end of the idiot spectrum, regarded with horror by Charlie. In an earlier film, at Keystone or Essanay, Charlie might have bullied the dolt, but here the only cruelty is in the simple observation. It’s still a bit cruel. We can call him an idiot, maybe, because he’s just a comic type, not a specific syndrome, though David Robinson goes further and calls him “a haunting figure whose malevolent, wooden-faced idiocy gives him the look of a distant and mentally-retarded cousin of Buster Keaton,” a beautiful turn of phrase except for the slur (if you look up the origins of the phrase “mental retardation” you discover it’s actually racist).

Charlie himself is in the middle phase of the idiot scale — his obsession with pushing the stick through the grating, even though he’s just passing the time, is one symptom, his inability to understand that pushing one side or the other results in an identical effect, and only pushing the centre can be expected to work, is the other plank upon which his dumbness rests.

But Crocker’s shop man is the third kind of idiot. Like Oliver Hardy, he’s just intelligent enough to think he’s smart, but not smart enough to realise he’s an idiot. He gets obsessed with Charlie’s stick problem, and excited and infuriated about it. Charlie at least is smart enough to know it doesn’t matter one way or another. He’s never agitated about his dumb stick. Although he does get possessive of it when the message boy shows an interest.

Charlie’s incomprehension of Crocker is a subtle joke in its own right: the gag being that Charlie is completely unable to understand a clear and explicit pantomime.

The fourth form of idiocy, I guess, is that of the street gawkers who stop to watch Charlie. They don’t even have any ideas to suggest. Their passivity may tell us something about Chaplin’s attitude to his audience, or that may be a reach. But once again, as in THE CIRCUS, Charlie finds himself an unintentional entertainer.

Chaplin was very pleased with this sequence — “a whole story in itself” — but it had to go, precisely BECAUSE it was so self-contained, so it was left to Kevin Brownlow to issue it as part of Unknown Chaplin, thirty years after it was shot, by which time Chaplin, Lederer, Crocker and probably everyone else in the crowd and behind the camera, were gone.

The Valentine’s Day Intertitle:

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 14, 2021 by dcairns

There’s a film I have to write about that would provide a PERFECT intertitle for today, but I’m sworn to secrecy so I can’t use it. And the only other silent film I’ve seen lately is A NIGHT OUT, which isn’t particularly romantic.

Never mind, though, here’s Charley Chase, directed by his brother James Parrott, in FLUTTERING HEARTS, with Eugene Pallette AND Oliver Hardy, but also the alluring and talented Martha Sleeper, the cause of the titular cardiac irregularity. AND it has Charlie Hall as Man Under Car, perhaps the role he was born to play. Isn’t it romantic?

My chosen intertitle for this saint’s day is “Metropolitan 38986 — ask for Tillie.” This occurs at the five minute six seconds mark, but stay with it, there are rewards for the patient viewer.

The Sunday Intertitle: Before Comedy was King

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2020 by dcairns

An evening of Laurel without Hardy and Hardy without Laurel sounded uncertain — I was reminded of the cheap tapes and DVDs that would package together whatever low-quality public domain bits they could scrape together and publish, without a shred of honest, as “The Best of Laurel and Hardy.” But, viewing as an amateur historian, and without the residual feeling of having been cheated, this was pretty great.

This is the intertitle, folks.

THE SERENADE (1916) stars Plump & Runt — an early attempt at putting Ollie in a double-act based on physical opposites: this time, a fat guy and a short guy. Well, that doesn’t work. Absorbing the twosome into a larger troupe, as musicians in a slapstick band, also doesn’t help things. When Stan & Ollie appeared as musicians early on, they made sure they were the only funny ones except for irate conductor James Finlayson.

Hmm, Babe made thirty-eight of these suckers, so I guess they thought they’d established things… I have zero recollection of ever reading about this series.

There are one or two ACTUAL SHOTS in this, such as the introduction of Runt (Billy Ruge) from behind his own feet. And some neat trick shots. Lots of stuff of Ollie blasting people out of frame with his mighty tuba, a kind of early sonic weapon. It isn’t any damn good, but it has spurts of invention.

Larry Semon rips off EASY STREET in THE RENT COLLECTOR (1921) with Babe Hardy in the Eric Campbell part, looking like Paul Sorvino in a spray-on beard. Hardy played heavy a lot in his early films, but whereas the examples I’ve seen were notable for how similar to his later performance style Ollie’s characterisations were, in this one it’s more interesting to see how unformed the persona is.

(There’s that wild west one where villainous O.N.H. spots the heroine skinny-dipping, and displays lustful scheming by hitching up his pants with a side-to-side rotation of the waistline, a pure Ollie gesture employed in unexpected and very unfamiliar circs.)

Larry Semon is funny-looking (hire Paul Rubens for the remake), and distinctive, though when he adds a jacket to his derby and baggy dungarees he again seems to be ripping off That Other Clown.

Some inventive special effects, jump cuts and undercranking and even overcranking, so you could fairly say, as the saying goes, it’s both good and original, but the parts that are good etc…

NB: Larry Semon definitely faked his own death. DEFINITELY.

Ollie has a henchman, another fat guy who’s even fatter. Two fat guys NEVER works.

Then we moved on to Stan Laurel in DETAINED — the title is funny, somehow. An escaped convict forces Stan into that stripy prison attire he’d be seen in several times in later years, resulting in his immediate incarceration — in other words, it’s Keaton’s CONVICT 13, and promptly devolves into a series of spot gags featuring Stan’s nascent idiot persona. He grins a lot, especially at us, and is much more, uh, proactive, than his later incarnations. There’s an electric chair scene played in a vaulted dungeon which is probably a recycled set from the Chaney HUNCHBACK — see also Stan’s DR. PYCKLE AND MR. PRYDE.

Some of Stan’s “freak gags” appear — his neck is literally stretched by a noose. Hal Roach might have actually been right about those — they’re always unsettling and rarely funny. Still, the tunneling to freedom stuff does show Stan annoying another, larger convict, and the foreshadowing of THE SECOND 100 YEARS is very clear. Towards the end, he does some running about in a panic, and some weeping, so it feels like he’s getting born.

Argh, take it away!

MOONLIGHT AND NOSES (1925) is a vehicle for Clyde Cook, paired with the reliably gruesome Noah Young, as a couple of burglars. Stan directed this one. and thriftily recycled chunks in future shorts — at first it looks like he’s using the burglars sketch his father wrote, and which he kept trying to turn into a successful short, but then it throws in a mad scientist (James Finlayson in fulsome side-whiskers) and grave-robbing, and a certain ingenue named Fay Wray, and turns into a practice run for HABEAS CORPUS.

Cook plays a hapless idiot, and Young plays a domineering idiot — you see where this is going — it’s like a rehearsal for mature Laurel & Hardy comedy, with a shopsoiled Chuckle Brother and a murderous gargoyle cast as the boys. Absolutely fascinating. Not a laugh in it. But I’m really glad I saw it. It has the quality of a dream, where all your familiar friends have been replaced by unsuitable stand-ins.

The byplay between Cook & Young is actually skilled, and I like comedy of terror a lot, so I had a fairly good time with this. Maybe no laughs but some muted snorts of appreciation.

And then comes WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD (1923), one of Stan’s parody films, which are often outrageously funny (remember Rhubarb Vaselino?). This one, though incomplete, is a joy. The ridiculous gags mainly consist of throwing everything at the situation — whatever’s easiest. This being a Fairbanks Robin Hood parody, we get anachronisms and absurdities from the off. (Well, the actual off is missing, but from the off that’s left.)

Stan enters on horseback, but it’s a puppet horse he’s wearing, with floppy fake human legs draped over the saddle. British comedian Bernie Clifton used to wear an outfit like this, only he rode an ostrich I believe it was. You can ride anything using this technique.

Stan is being chased by an army of knights, all wearing their horses in the same manner. It’s very MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, only he found a more expensive way of doing the coconuts, which wouldn’t have worked in a silent movie, I guess.

Much battling on recycled sets ensues — Mae Laurel is glimpsed, I think — and the gags come (extremely) thick and fast. When an enemy is booted from a window, he lands on some power lines just for added cruelty and anachronism. The incessant piling-on of jokes means that Stan doesn’t get to make that much of an impression as an actor — you could substitute anybody you like, including Bernie Clifton, and it would make not too much difference. But it’s a riotous and unrelenting guffaw-generator, completely stupid and wonderful from (truncated) beginning to end, and fully justified the whole evening’s conceit.

Neil Brand’s piano throughout this programme brought the films to life, not in a ghastly electro-galvanistic way, which nobody would thank him for, but by infusing zest and charm and basic coherence where it needed to be and wasn’t always to be found, and brought into being the final short’s very specific musical requirement: a ragtime version of The Wedding March.

Frame grabs by Mark Fuller, mostly, to whom appreciation is due as always.