Archive for Our Hospitality

The Sunday Intertitle: With silent lips

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2021 by dcairns

We sort of know how THE IMMIGRANT came into existence, thanks to the surviving rushes, presented in digest form in the documentary Unknown Chaplin. Although of course we will actually never know how THE IMMIGRANT or any work of art like it comes into existence.

Chaplin had planned to make a film set among the bohemians of Paris. He built a set representing a cafe. Edna Purviance was going to play the lead, Henry Bergman was a bullying waiter. Then things sort of evolved.

Chaplin ended up with a cafe scene featuring himself in the Tramp guise, Edna in support, and Eric Campbell took over the role of the waiter as he evolved into the story’s main threat. Henry Bergman was recast as a deus ex machina, the last surviving bohemian element, a wealthy artist. When the sequence was done, Chaplin realised all he needed was a sequence to set up his characters — this meant they now knew each other, which meant more reshooting. A brief coda on a rainy street put the finishing touch on one of his most satisfying shorts, a vindication of his extraordinary practice or writing films with the camera, through filmed rehearsals.

Establishing shot of a ship, which executes some strange pulsing movements, not clearly identifiable as the effect of missing frames or digital repairs. Weird.

Rollie Totheroh rigged up a gimbal for his camera to give a rocking ship effect, but sets on rockers were also used. As well as the natural motion of the sea. Edna and her mother are introduced. Kitty Bradbury, who plays that role, had just played a small part in INTOLERANCE, would play two more mothers for Chaplin, and an aunt for Buster Keaton in OUR HOSPITALITY.

Charlie is introduced as a pair of kicking feet — relying on the recognition factor of those boots. Fiona thought at first they were the spasming feet of a hanged man, which was not, I think, the intention of anyone concerned, but it added a further wrinkle to the gag. Tilting up the little figure bent over the side, we’re supposed to diagnose mal de mer, until he turns, grinning, to show us the fish he’s caught. Is he smiling because he caught a good one, or because he fooled us? Charlie often seems sort of aware of the camera and his chums in the audience. This carries right on until his courtroom speech in MONSIEUR VERDOUX.

This ship seems to be bearing immigrants from Eastern Europe: some rather crude racial humour when Charlie’s fish sets its teeth into a Semitic nose. Charlie entertains us just by promenading on deck, where the wild canting of the ship/Totheroh’s camera causes him to teeter. The one leg out for balance thing he usually does when skidding is adapted as a counterweight to the vessel’s pitching.

Albert Austin, in the first of two roles, plays a Russian type afflicted with seasickness. Charlie can’t seem to get away from him. It’s like the two men struggling with the rifle in THE GOLD RUSH, where all Charlie’s scampering can’t keep him out of the line of fire. Instead of a gun, we have AA’s urping fizzog, a convulsing chunder cannon constantly pivoting in CC’s direction.

It would be fun to see the stagehands’ exertions going in to making the ship’s mess lurch as if it had been constructed inside an irate mule. The floor and tables seem to have been copiously greased to make things even more fun, and Charlie is soon skidding from one side of the room to another, either on his belly or on Henry Bergman’s belly. Bergman is dragged up for HIS first role in the film.

Charlie shares a bowl of soup, because it keeps sliding back and forth between him and Austin, who has conquered his malaise long enough to absorb something else to throw up. Then Edna enters and the tossing of the ship magically slows to a less comedic rate.

Charlie gets into a craps game, rolling the dice as if pitching a baseball, with Frank J. Coleman, who usually plays sullen enemies, and does so here (doubling up as restaurant owner later).

Chaplin now does his own mini-version of Bresson’s L’ARGENT, as Coleman swipes Bradbury’s life savings and loses it to Charlie at cards (Charlie shuffles the deck without rearranging a single card), who then gives most of it to Edna, who’s distraught at finding the money gone.

As a melodramatic villain, Coleman’s character would be a natural role for Eric Campbell, had Chaplin not already cast him in the second half of the film. Eric is the one actor, asides from Edna and Chaplin who never plays more than one character, because he’s simply to distinctive. With or without giant beard, you always know it’s him.

Albert Austin comes rolling across the swaying deck, ending up in the perfect position to throw up in Charlie’s bowler. Charlie’s fierce and righteous expression upon kicking AA out of frame is very funny. Sick people are annoying. Charlie’s character only really experiences sympathy for Edna. Jackie Coogan will be a development.

The sequence climaxes with the much-remarked-upon “Arrival in the land of liberty.” The Statue of Liberty is too obvious and self-declaring a symbol to be used anything but ironically in the movies. As Lady Lib glides through frame, everyone looks at it in awe, then they get shoved behind a rope. Charlie gives the statue a second glance. This almost happens again in THE GODFATHER PART II.

As his ship docked in New York at the start of his Karno tour, Chaplin is said to have shouted, “America, I am coming to conquer you!” He almost certainly said it with a slight touch of humour, but he was right all the same.

THE IMMIGRANT falls into two separate reels more than most Chaplin two-reelers, but this doesn’t seem to hurt it. A lot happens between the reels — Charlie and Edna have each lost all their money and Edna has lost her mother. Chaplin had a curious brain indeed if the purpose of the ship scenes, filmed after the restaurant, was to set up the latter. They actually set up mostly the wrong circumstances.

Anyway, Charlie is now broke on a wet street (his studio was open-air, remember — but later we will see rain that is undoubtedly hose-produced and this may be its aftermath). He finds a coin. Enough to eat. I probably would have suggested that this isn’t a first-class joint, based on the signage alone.

Charlie goes in and immediately annoys headwaiter Eric Campbell, in his shaven-headed EASY STREET guise. The business with the hat is genius — most of it is stuff Charlie has done before, but it’s better-motivated here. Eric is an authority figure, so he must be tormented, but only so far. Charlie’s teasing is flirty and impudent. All this business sets up in an important aspect of this restaurant: the customer is not king.

Charlie then dismays fellow-customer Albert Austin with his idiosyncratic way of eating beans. Maybe, given the number of takes Chaplin liked to shoot (“Film is cheap!”), this was self-protection: one bean is forked at a time, lingered over. Then a huge cuboid array of beans is scooped up with the knife, but dropped into the coffee. It was Edna who had to endure endless beanfeasting. This must have been Chaplin’s fartiest film.

Charlie finally notices Edna and invites her over. It’s established that Mother, having fulfilled her plot function, has sadly died. But Charlie’s coin can feed two: he makes a show of arrogantly commanding Eric to bring more beans.

Now the comedy of terror, so effective in EASY STREET, kicks in. John Rand is a drunken customer who can’t pay. I hope the booze has him good and anaesthetized, because the waiters turn into a mob and, led by Eric with his roundhouse slaps, beat the guy savagely. Most comedies with impecunious diners end with the humiliation of being made to wash dishes. Here, they murder you. We’re in a strange blend of Keystone knockabout and Griffith melodramatic social realism — the audience must have known this kind of violence wasn’t a realistic aspect of dining out. Or was it? I might have to research the 1917 catering trade.

Seeing Rand get dragged out, a limp and pulpy mass, leaving only a hat on the floor, prompts Charlie to check his cash situation.

Disaster! Chaplin, who is already a near-Hitchcockian master of suspense using only story and performance, has himself check every pocket twice before finding the Fatal Hole, just to draw out our agony. When he does, he looks right at us: Can you believe this? Having just about abolished the theatrical aside, so central to the Keystone school, over the past year, Chaplin is now slipping it back in, but only he gets to do it. He has a unique and privileged relationship with the camera/audience.

The presence of Edna precludes making a dash for it, which might seem a perfectly viable desperate solution otherwise.

The difficulty with social realism is that misery by itself is not dramatic. So Chaplin has to produce a source of hope, so that a struggle can result that moves the audience. So: Charlie will attempt to cadge change from a fellow diner, BUT Eric the headwaiter is forever hovering.

TV film critic Barry Norman used to say that he couldn’t respond to Chaplin because he asked you to laugh and cry at the same time. I think this is nonsense: untrue. The sentiment and the comedy are often very close together, but they reinforce one another and Chaplin always knows what effect he’s going for. It’s simply the case that some people don’t get on with Chaplin, and there’s probably no accounting for it. A good friend used to say, “He thinks he’s IT,” which is true — Charlie knows the camera is there and he wants to be admired by it. But feeling than Chaplin preens would not be enough to put you off his comedy is his comedy worked for you. It’s simply the case: not everything is funny to everyone. It makes film criticism a bit harder if you don’t want to just bully your readers/audience into agreeing.

Anyway, Chaplin doesn’t elide comedy and pathos but he knows that comedy and terror work great together. That’s what Eric brings to the table, besides beans.

Eric, it turns out, also has a hole in his pocket. When the other diner pays him, the coin uses his trouser leg as an escape chute and lands on the floor.

Charlie now has to retrieve it without alerting the headwaiter. The logic isn’t totally ironclad: he could, presumably, have said “Ah, my coin!” and picked it up openly. There are possible reasons why this might not be practicable, but it somehow doesn’t matter: simply by going into a routine of covertly trying to get the coin, Charlie produces hysteria, half fear, half hilarity. This might not work on everybody but it works on enough of everybody to make an audience very vocally anxious and amused.

This is such a perfect illustration of a dramatic situation. A character (Charlie) wants something; there are clear bad consequences waiting if he doesn’t get it (a beating from the entire waiting staff); there is a clear obstacle to him getting it (Eric); he is resourceful and persistent in trying to solve his problem. You can have all the social realism you like but it tends to fall down like a tower of mulch without the above elements.

These elements are best derived through an organic creative process rather than by Syd Field box-ticking, however. You can back-engineer an exciting graph from the drama in a film — the audience’s hope-despair index starts zigzagging violently — all is lost! — saved! — lost! Charlie gets the coin and presents it to Eric, who bites it. The coin bends. This is so unjust — he didn’t bite the coin when the other guy gave it to him, and it’s the same damn coin. But Eric doesn’t LIKE Charlie. He still holds the business with the hat against him.

Charlie goes limp, sliding from his seat like a spineless spaghetti strand. He can only order more coffee — digging himself deeper (holes are, it seems, important in this film). Every cup represents about ten kicks to the head and torso when the bill comes due.

The day is saved by Henry Bergman ex machina, last survivor of the bohemia concept — he’s an artist who simply must paint Charlie and Edna. He’s had a vision. This would be a slightly lame solution to the problem but Chaplin has more torments up his tiny sleeve. Bergman offers to pick up the tab. Politeness and suavity prompt Charlie to say, or anyway mouth, “No,” pushing back the offered coin. The audience — Fiona in this case — starts screaming at him not to be an idiot. He keeps this up an absurd length, knowing he’s got us where he wants us. FOUR TIMES he refuses to let Bergman take the check. Until of course Bergman gives up. Horror!

The reason story or plot is difficult is you have to find a dreadful situation, which is not easy, and then you have to resolve it in a way thousands of audience members don’t predict. Your only advantage is having more time to think about it. So Charlie is able to sneakily pay his bill with the change from Bergman’s bill. Eric gets a miniscule tip.

This is maybe the only film in which Eric doesn’t get a proper comeuppance, but as he’s an impersonal force of capitalism, he doesn’t need one. We expect him to be still around and dominant at the fadeout, just like the Statue of Liberty.

It’s raining outside. Charlie begs an advance from Bergman and uses it to marry Edna, which is done in a cute way, hopefully, and is all the ending this miniature masterpiece needs, since everything else it’s about is the eternal struggle for survival, which isn’t going to be cleared up in two reels.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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 plea 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 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.

The Sunday Intertitle: Where the Worst Begins

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2018 by dcairns

WEST OF HOT DOG is a (1924) silent Stan Laurel comedy, produced by Joe Rock, where Stan plays a sissified city gent all at sea in the sagebrush. Seeing Stan in a carriage with a girl at the start made me wonder if Keaton’s OUR HOSPITALITY was an influence, but Stan being a character player where Keaton was a star, he takes the tenderfootedness a lot further — into full-on effiminacy in fact. As if the glasses and camp manner weren’t enough, he’s also (the shame of it!) reading a book, entitled Let Brotherly Love Continue.

 

When the stage is held up by desperadoes, Stan retorts, “I shall see my attorney about this.” Which is funny without making much sense, since he’s the victim of a crime, not someone accused of one. Banditry was rarely tried in the civil courts out west.

The whole thing seems to be happening in the 1920s (note the cloche hat), but an alternate universe ’20s in which stagecoaches and stick-ups still characterised the wide-open spaces. But the enclosed space of Stan’s head has no room for such concepts. This temporal confusion reminds me of the Scottish cartoon strip Desperate Dan, which always seems to be set simultaneously in the Wild West, 1950s Dundee and, occasionally, contemporary Dundee. The ’50s thing is just because the writers and artists at DC Thompson got stuck in a time-warp of their own, deep in the shadowy confines of Scotland’s first reinforced concrete building.

Titles written by future director Tay Garnett. Some great “special effects” when Stan hits his thumb with a hammer — scratches on film for cartoon effect. When he’s shot in the bum, a huge white question mark whorls out of him like a tail, or escaping gas.

And yes, I’m tentatively interested in the forthcoming biopic STAN & OLLIE. Having seen some brilliant impersonation/embodiment of the boys onstage in Tom McGrath’s play Laurel and Hardy, I have high standards, and Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly will have to not only make us see the characters, but erase all trace of their own familiar selves. Coogan is an impersonator of genius, so Reilly will be the big unknown factor here, but he’s an excellent actor and comic…