Archive for Paddy McGuire

The Whitsunday Intertitle: Tramp Steamer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2021 by dcairns

A mystery! There are two versions of a restored SHANGHAIED (1915) on YouTube, one with intertitles and one largely without. They don’t look like original intertitles but they do seem necessary to comprehension so I’m watching the version with.

Ship owner — a thin, wispy type — says something to captain — a moustache and eyebrows type — who then says something to first mate — a rough, Emmet Kelly painted stubble type. The intertitles have the ship owner proposing that the ship be destroyed for the insurance, and the captain agreeing (a unique case of two characters speaking in a single Chaplin intertitle), and then the captain telling the mate he’s going to find a crew. But by pantomime the captain is clearly telling the mate that the ship must be blown up (abrupt hand gesture; awed reaction from mate). So the titles don’t feel quite right, but they’re clearly necessary.

The captain fails to recruit some sea-scum for his doomed voyage. Naturally enough they’re played by seasoned Essanay co-stars Paddy McGuire, Leo White and Billy Armstrong, and silent clown make-up seems to dovetail nicely with salty sea-dog make-up.

The mate spots Charlie. So far this is the plot of Laurel & Hardy’s THE LIVE GHOST. I can imagine the idea was fairly popular. You could turn Harry Langdon loose in such a story. Harold Lloyd could do it, if you made clear he badly needed the money. With Charlie, badly needing money is a given, so he makes a ready recruit for a corrupt scheme.

But hold! First we see Charlie romancing Edna, the ship owner’s daughter, evidently an affair of longish standing. And Charlie’s not outfitted in his maximum filthiness — the waistcoat looks smart. The jacket elbows are dusty, but on the whole he’s not a hobo here. Nevertheless, the ship owner disapproves of the match, as we see when he interrupts the clinch.

The shipowner is future director Wesley Ruggles, enjoying a major promotion from his walk-on in THE BANK. His side-whiskers give him a monkey-like appearance. He’s certainly created a clearly-defined caricature.

Charlie, bereft, makes an easy recruit for the shanghai-ing scheme. The mate gives him a lug hammer for hammering the lugs. The Little Fellow has no scruples about fracturing skulls for profit. I’m not sure if the character ever really acquires scruples, he tends to fall in with any schemes proposed by larger men, but the plots in the mature period tend to avoid having him do anything really corrupt for anyone else. He always has a chivalric attitude towards pretty girls, or at least towards his leading lady (once he leaves his sex pest phase behind, as perhaps he now has).

Charlie is to hide in a barrel, like Jim lad, and wallop the sea-scum as they walk past the boat they don’t want to sail on. There’s a flaw here somewhere but the movie doesn’t admit it. It turns out the mate (regular heavy Bud Jamison) is going to lure each man into hammering range with a pantomimed offer of grog. Naturally, none of the three men is suspicious as their number dwindles by inevitable fatal mallet attrition. The promise of grog obliterates all suspicion.

Charlie does his part of the black bargain fairly efficiently, though he keeps snatching the grog. Which might be whisky, going by the bottle, but I like typing “grog”. The history of grog is quite interesting, but has nothing to do with this film.

Unless I’m misreading the signs, Paddy McGuire seems to be playing his sailor in a “Hello, sailor” caricature of pansy mincing. Just for the hell of it. It’s not really necessary to distinguish the three sailors, but why not do it if you can, I guess?

Chaplin seems to be throwing dummies on board the ship rather than requiring his actors to flop onto the deck from a great height, or hiring stuntmen. These clowns can certainly take falls, but it’s uncertain they could do what’s shown here without serious bruising at least. Tight cutting prevents the trick being obvious, for once.

The captain shows up and of course gets clonked too. IMDb insists on calling him the mate (Lawrence A. Bowes) and Bud Jamison the second mate, but in that case there’s no captain at all, which seems odd.

Then comes the inevitable betrayal — Charlie is ceremonially clonked and thrown aboard to share the voyage with the men he’s walloped, though at least he gets to keep the three bucks and at least the men don’t know he’s responsible for their abduction, unlike in THE LIVE GHOST (Stan Laurel was adept at making each situation the boys get into the absolute worst possible iteration of that scenario — “Oh no” is not an uncommon thing to find yourself saying in a Laurel & Hardy film. In this, Stan is arguably refining a technique introduced by his old colleague Chaplin.)

The four captives are awakened by water-pail and set to work, even though we don’t seem to be at sea yet. I would have thought, fractured skulls or not, they might climb back on land at this point. But we soon see the wisdom of the captain’s plan. As each man refuses to work, he is slapped into unconsciousness and dropped down into the hold, no doubt breaking his neck. Leo White is playing his tar VERY OBSTREPEROUS so he gets this treatment. Billy Armstrong and Charlie agree to work.

Charlie is considering rebelling against a whey-faced cabin boy, a pale, drippy Larry Semon sample of a man, but then the captain shows up with a whip and all thoughts of mutiny go the way of the rumble seat.

So far, Chaplin is following a good pattern, one he’s developed by trial and error: Charlie has a sympathetic yearning for Edna; he’s also an amusing rogue; and now he’s in a terrible situation, enslaved on a boat that is, if I’m any interpreter of expository hand gestures, due to be blown up. Sympathy, conflict, suspense, a situation which demands a dramatic resolution. It’s all there. If anything, there’s too much plot, since Charlie has had little room for his comic elaborations.

The ship sets sail, which we see because the set is on rockers. It takes me a while to figure out that the attractive abstract pattern painted on the back wall is the scenic artist’s attempt to suggest the interior of the ship’s bow.

The cabin boy type, the one character Charlie has decided he can bully (this aspect of the Tramp character dies hard, it seems) is Fred Goodwins, a fellow Londoner who would survive service in WWI only to die of bronchitis in London aged 32. He’s in a few Chaplin shorts and has a meaty juvenile role in AMARILLY OF CLOTHES-LINE ALLEY, and David Robinson quotes his contemporary account of Chaplin’s lambasting in the press for vulgarity, and his determination to serve up good clean fun.

Extended bit with winch — Charlie gets two men overboard and, in trying to rescue them, plunges a third into the brine. None of which is massively funny, oddly enough. A new big prop like this would usually bring out Chaplin’s best ideas, but possibly the struggle of filming at sea is interfering with the comic flow. It’s a bit rote on this boat.

Quite a good gag where Armstong, White and McGuire, attempting to haul the captain and mate and underling aboard with a rope, fall off the other side of the ship. Although I’d have had them all hanging onto the rope so you could have six men hanging over the sides, and Charlie could try to rescue them by cutting the rope.

The frantic sailor operating the winch is good — hard to work out from the cast list who he is, and he might be doubling for one of the men overboard… he moves so fast it’s hard to framegrab him without just getting blurry ectoplasm. This would be solved if I had the Blu-ray.

Wesley Ruggles reads a letter: Edna has stowed away on the doomed boat. Ah-ha! I was genuinely wondering how Chaplin would be able to involve Edna in the story beyond the intro. The closeup of the handwriting, oddly, seems completely unrestored — it has a dupey VHS quality. I’m really wondering about the history of this upload.

The shock sends dada beating his bruised and krovvy rookers against unfair Bog in His Heaven. Pardon my nadsat.

Given Charles Ruggles’ later fame, it is arguable that Chaplin has hired the wrong brother, but nothing about Wesley is inapt in this context.

And now we see Edna hiding in a sack, anticipating Marion Mack, and we see Ruggles setting off in a launch to save his daughter from Exploding At Sea.

And now Charlie is washing dishes with predictable efficiency — when he washes them they STAY washed and will never need washed again, in all their many fragments. Unfortunately he’s washing them in the captain’s soup. This kind of gross-out pollution gag isn’t new — indeed, Charlie let his mop drip in Billy Armstrong’s tin of whatever-it-was in his previous short, THE BANK, much to both men’s eventual disgust.

Charlie seems to breaking the basic rules of screen direction by exiting the kitchen from the left and entering the mess also from the left. We seem to be missing a shot taken on deck where he appears from the kitchen and turns to enter another door in the same wall — whether this shot was deleted for pace reasons, lost, or was never shot, I don’t know. It seems unlikely that Chaplin would rely on what’s effectively a jump-cut to speed the film along, he’s always very meticulous about continuity and screen direction, and often shows himself walking through a set just to get to the next scene. He can generally add a bit of business to make the interim action entertaining.

The captain and mate, rocked back and forth (cameraman Harry Ensign devised a gimbal thing to sway the camera) in a medium shot, laugh about their successful shanghai-ing to remind us to hate them so we can enjoy them being sickened by washing-up soup, and Charlie builds in some good expense before the stricken reactions:

Of course it’s the poor cook (John Rand) who gets arse-kicked for it. Charlie attempts (a) to maintain a low profile (b) to ready a meat cleaver in self-defense (c) to look like an innocent skivvy. He escapes punishment from the captain but then the cook starts a fight, understandably enough. And now it seems that the captain’s mess is screen right, so that Charlie’s reaching it by exiting left was a bit of movie magic/a mistake. And now Charlie exits the kitchen screen right and emerges on deck, without passing through the mess. Who was the S.S. Vaquero’s boatwright, MC Escher?

Incidentally I wrote about all this in 2015, if you want to read the same stuff in different, possibly better, words.

Purely, it seems, to reestablish screen geography, Charlie walks all the way round the deck and enters every door, so we learn that the kitchen is IN FRONT OF the mess, both reached from the deck by going left to right, and so it should be impossible to walk through the kitchen to the mess. But actually, if we assume the kitchen is narrower and the mess is deeper, there just might be a way. But something is still out of wack here as far as I’m concerned.

Things aren’t helped when the ship/set/camera starts rocking violently, and bits of film start to go missing, splinking Charlie around so that he seems to exit right and emerge left, which we KNOW should be impossible. And now I can actually figure something out at last: somebody has flipped a shot, since the lifeboat that previously said L.A. now seems to say A.J. And when we saw this side of the deck previously, we were looking at the BACK of a lifeboat. So somewhere in the restoration a blunder has occurred. I think there’s quite a bit of this goes on at Lobster, sad to say.

And now Charlie enters the mess from the RIGHT… so maybe it was Chaplin who flipped the shot, to cover a mistake, accepting that he’d have to perform at least one spacetime violation since he didn’t have an exit/entrance shot taken on the right side of the boat.

And now he passes from one deck to the other (I believe port and starboard are the accepted terms but I don’t know which is which and this may be the wrong film to attempt to learn from) without passing through the rooms between, as if via wormhole. The nouvelle vague has nothing on this. I wonder if the various pieces of film could be unflipped and reordered in a way that makes sense?

In fairness, matching screen direction on a boat once caused the great Angela Allen, goaded by nonsensical questions from John Huston, to blow a microchip and throw her notes in the air (but NOT, she emphasises, over the side).

Now seated for his own meal, Chaplin is overcome by mal de mer. David Robinson points out the persistence of this routine in Chaplin’s work, developed through THE IMMIGRANT and appearing even during his last screen appearance in A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG. Comedy is very biological, especially visual comedy, but there were constraints on which functions could be shown or even implied. Nausea was acceptable.

Fleeing the food, Chaplin executes, and just about gets away with, another line-cross, then tumbles below-decks, where he must surely discover Edna who has only been in two shots thus far, for probably about a minute’s screen-time. Yes, the walking sack is Edna, as usual (though her 1915 fashions in this are slightly better than usual). She’s apparently discovered the dynamite plot, and the crate of dynamite has somehow moved into a prominent position on this set — perhaps there’s a lost scene where we see the captain and mate setting it up, and Edna overhearing them.

This unrestored version, seemingly dug up from somebody’s garden, is missing most of the geographical snafus but a lot of other material is gone too, including the intertitles.

Now the fuse is lit — the third act begins in earnest — Chaplin provides unusually dramatic suspense shots —

Disconnecting the fuse is intellectually beyond Charlie and Edna so he lugs the crate on deck and, in a piece of footage simply beyond all restoration — if you painted out the scratches you’d have Robert Ryan’s famous all-white painting, appropriately enough in this context entitled Bridge.

Hard to tell if the backlighting is a help or a hindrance to visual comprehension here.

Of course the dynamite somehow lands in the lifeboat with the captain and mate, and they explode. I laughed darkly at Charlie trying to explain his mistake to, presumably, a lot of reddish fragments littering the ocean like the remains of Bruce the shark after he ate something that disagreed with him.

Our lovers disembark onto dad’s launch. Dad, who is morally responsible for this criminal enterprise which has resulted in two fatalities.

A “mercy shot” shows the captain and mate alive and intact, but then shows them sinking from view. So they ARE dead.

The stage is now set for Charlie to be allowed to marry Edna, but her dad, who is after all a bastard, still refuses. Charlie prepares to drown himself. Edna, reunited with dad, is oblivious. He jumps. NOW she notices him.

Charlie manages to climb aboard and kick dad in the pants, dunking him. Charlie and Edna motor off leaving Wesley Ruggles to drown as they laugh in psychopathic glee, and ending Chaplin had previously applied to A JITNEY ELOPMENT. And then, without even an END title or Essanay’s Indian profile, it stops.

The Sunday Intertitle: Recce on Easy Street

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2021 by dcairns

WORK (1915) has a lot to commend it. Before the first image has even appeared, there’s an early reference to Easy Street. And then we get Edna Purviance doing some actual comedy (she’s rarely allowed much) as the Ford family maid. I can’t be sure Chaplin acted it all out for her in advance but it seems probable. An excellent bit of miming, anyway.

This maid is always on the phone, making her a Chaplinesque layabout herself. Mr. and Mrs. Ford are regular co-clown Billy Armstrong, permanently apoplectic, and new recruit Marta Golden.

David Robinson waxes very enthusiastic about Charlie’s introduction as slave labour, pulling an enormous cart while his boss, Izzy A. Wake (Charles Inslee) whips him through traffic (with his own cane!). It’s building on the similar business in HIS MUSICAL CAREER, but Charlie is now clearly positioned as underdog, taking the place of the earlier film’s miserable donkey. Any viciousness he gets up to later has now been justified.

I was slightly startled to see the cart get jammed across a tramline, with an oncoming tram very narrowly missed. Chaplin can do things physically that would be dangerous for most of us, but he doesn’t usually skirt suicide in the Keaton manner. I guess, allowing for undercranking, the tram might be traveling slowly enough to just give the cart a good bump and smash it, and the actors would stand a chance of jumping clear. But I’m not going to test it.

Then there’s a rare camera trick, a Dutch tilt creating the impression of a 45° hillside. This movie might be the inspiration for Polanski’s TWO MEN AND A WARDOBE, THE FAT AND THE LEAN, and MAMMALS, which certainly all exude a Chaplin influence.

Enter Leo White, back in his customary top hat and tails. His road is less tilted because he’s posh. Life’s path is easier.

Charlie, catching up with him, slips on his banana skin (Charlie’s second banana related mishap) and slides back into the previous set-up. Chaplin’s films in this period are kind of like chains of set-ups. These function like squares on a board game. But any set-up can recur at any time. Also, if you’re in one set-up, chances are you can’t see the characters in the adjoining one, no matter how close they might be. The exception is when it’s a close shot of a single character, and then you might get a bit of flirting or whatnot between this character and the one in the next square.

Charlie and his boss actually slide all the way back to the set-up before the set-up before, which has an advancing tram in it again (perhaps the tram is always advancing in this set-up). Escaping this tram, Charlie and Izzy head back into the set-up before THAT, which means they have to deal with ANOTHER advancing tram once they finally start going forwards again. Seems there is indeed always an advancing tram in that set-up.

Judging by the improbable physics in Charlie and co’s next hair’s-breadth escape from dismemberment, the cart is on a wire for this gag, with a team or a machine pulling it rapidly out of shot. Which is terrifying: so much more can go wrong.

Climbing the illusionary hill and arriving in Leo’s banana-skin set-up again, Charlie slips on the skin again and nearly goes back to square one. Chaplin has worked out that banana skins are good for suspense as well as surprise, and that repeating funny business is good economics, but also THREATENING to repeat it can get a laugh too. A laugh of relief that we don’t have to go through all that again.

While Charlie wipes a litre of sweat from his brow, Izzy greets Paddy McGuire, stereotyped as an Irish labourer with a hod. So of course Charlie must now tow both of them. There’s an unusual cut to closer view as the two buddies shake hands: the continuity matching is so good I suspect two cameras were used. The principle of match-cutting on action obviously existed but wasn’t much discussed. Chaplin apparently isn’t doing what Griffith often did, repeating a bit of the action to make sure the audience caught it. Since Rollie Totheroh is Chaplin’s number two cameraman by now, he must be shooting one or other of these set-ups.

Charlie’s plunge down a manhole also seems like something you could hurt yourself doing. Sure there can be some kind of crash pad down there but supposing you hit your face on the edge?

After Charlie’s vanished from view, the blokes in the cart look around in bewilderment. A Fortean event! Izzy even looks UP, which is a very Chaplin thing to do. Rescued, he wafts his baggy pants to evaporate some of the newly-generated perspiration.

At the end of the shot, they walk off, and McGuire goes down the hole, but Time has removed just enough frames to make it not quite very funny.

We’re back to the Ford residence. This is a three set-up household so far: kitchen, hall and dining room, all square and cramped. But there’s a staircase too, so more set-ups may be discovered.

The workmen arrive. Mrs. F. elaborately describes what she wants done, while Izzy ignores her and lights a cigarette, seemingly taking none of it in, and Edna stands back, out of the way of the flailing silent movie gestures. Even doing this she manages to project comic character.

Charlie, having unloaded the cart and loaded himself, is now a one-man-band concatenation of building equipment, emitting tiny puffs of cigarette smoke to prove there’s someone alive in there.

Impossible that he should get in the front door with this stuff wrapped round him, but he does, because the front door is between camera set-ups and so of no concern to us. Charlie collapses in the hall.

Saucy byplay with Edna, who really is on fire in this, and not just because of the maid’s uniform. This being 1915, it’s really quite a dowdy version of a maid’s uniform but the concept is there. You don’t need need to overdo the fetishwear when you’re tickling the leading man’s arse with a feather duster. Which Edna is.

Charlie has already destroyed a fair bit of the Ford home, but it’s all through carelessness. The malice of THE TRAMP’s middle act is gone. For good? We’ll see. The flat is equipped with swing doors, which of course are an invention Charlie has never gotten along with. His inability to navigate them while holding a plank results in headaches for Mr. Ford, again, entirely accidental on Charlie’s part.

David Robinson is very good on the mistrust between classes Chaplin devotes quite a bit of action to. Charlie is oppressed by his boss but both of them see their clients as the common enemy.

Izzy takes off his hat and coat, dusts them carefully and hands them to Charlie, who pretty much destroys them instantly, giving us a clue how this home renovation thing is going to go. The movie has been coy about exactly what kind of “work” it’s going to be about, but now we see that paper-hanging is involved. This is going to be apocalyptic, isn’t it?

Izzy has made himself at home at the family piano while Charlie does all the work. I notice the curtains and tablecloth are blowing about like mad, usually a sign of an exterior set. David Robinson tells us that Chaplin, still between studios, “temporarily took over the converted Bradbury Mansion at 147 North Hill Street.” He used the front of the building to represent the front of the Ford home. But why is it so draughty?

A topical gag: Lois Weber’s HYPOCRITES was released in 1915. Charlie is always fascinated by nude statues and figurines, and he disguises his lust with a show of aesthetic appreciation. He was already working on this at Keystone. Here he uses a lampshade to make a hula skirt for it. His smutty, self-involved smile as he wiggles it. Then he looks up the skirt that he himself dressed it in.

Charlie has also brought along his little clay pipe, which seems to be associated with the workplace.

Edna’s maid, to give her proper credit, does seem more perturbed than charmed by Charlie’s lethal and destructive incompetence.

Immaculately timed bit where Charlie is called upon to help fix a gas range which keeps exploding. Obviously, that goes well. I’ve come to really enjoy Billy Armstrong and I wish he and Charlie had more business together in this.

I cracked up at Charlie trying to remove the great mass of wallpaper paste he has caused to become stuck to Izzy’s head. He’s scraping it off with a brush, but slipping in it every five seconds. So, two stupid activities, interspersed, based around wallpaper paste possessing the contradictory qualities of gooey and slippery. The victim sits patiently as his whited-out features are whisked into one abstraction after another…

Charlie then tries some paperhanging himself. He’s… not very good. Endless fun to be had with paper getting stuck to one hand, then to the other. Charlie has to be dumb enough here to not understand that sticky things are sticky. In later film, he’s not dumb, just not very practical. He doesn’t understand the stuff civilised people are supposed to know.

Edna discovers the Ford home’s long-lost fourth camera set-up, and dusts it.

When we cut back to him, Charlie has made quite a bit of progress with his papering. It’s strikingly shit progress, but progress nonetheless. The Dunning-Kreuger effect made flesh, even he seems not quite satisfied with the way the paper is peeling at the edges and curling at the ends. But it’ll do fine.

Edna immediately recognises the worthlessness of the papering, but sits down to hear Charlie’s tale of woe. We can’t hear what she hears, but a tighter two-shot allows Charlie to do a bit of manly yet broken-hearted stuff — mock pathos. Edna listens compassionately, then gets upset at the black muck his hand leaves on her arm.

It’s a strange bit, not as strange as the leftfield sincere pathos that crashes into THE TRAMP midway, but definitely out of register with the tone elsewhere. Unlucky in love, Charlie spaffs up the walls with his paste, Jackson Pollock style.

And now, just when we’d (probably) forgotten him, Leo White reenters the film, with a bouquet to replace his banana. No idea where he’s been all this time (he was AHEAD of Charlie and the cart), but like Poe Dameron in a silk hat he flies in to the rescue for no adequately prepared reason.

He is… the wife’s secret lover? Mr. Ford goes nuts, Mrs. Ford starts explaining again what renovations she wants done… I guess she’s trying to pretend he’s just another workman, for her husband’s sake. Yes, eventually an intertitle confirms this.

Leo enters the room Charlie’s in and gets a brushful of paste splurch in the kisser. This is only moderately funny: better is when, while Leo tries to explain that he’s not a wall, Charlie keeps daubing at his dripping features, seeing if he can’t improve the effect. He’s an artist at heart.

Then he splurches Edna — accidentally, it’s true. Still.

Billy Armstrong runs amok with a revolver, trying to straight-up murder Leo White. Izzy/Inslee falls into a full bathtub — at Keystone, such an incident might have served for a conclusion, but Chaplin has bigger fish to fry. Armstrong/Ford accidentally shoots the stove and the house explodes. Impressive wall caving-in stuff, quite ambitious for a Chaplin of this period.

Aftermath — disturbingly, Charlie’s boss seems to be pinned down under the bathwater by rubble and is drowning, slowly. Not sure what kind of error of judgement made that choice seem wise. The catastrophic kind, I suppose. Husband, wife and lover are reduced to three heads, poking from the wreckage, a Beckettian triangle. Edna has presumably been blasted into space. Charlie’s head emerges from inside the fallen stove, which seems improbable. He grins satanically at us, then gets hit by one of Oliver Hardy’s leftover bricks-to-be, and retires back into the stove where things are more peaceful.

WORK is a pretty successful short knockabout, with a soupcon of farce and that odd spot of faux-pathos. Chaplin doesn’t quite know what to do with this new mode, he’s just throwing it out there to see what it does. But he’s displaying a surer grasp of character sympathy, getting us on his side. As Walter Kerr observed, Chaplin as tramp was an experiment, and now he’s back to gainful employment. Chaplin as low-status underdog hero is the coming thing. He’s more or less worked out what his character is for.

Prom Prom Prom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2021 by dcairns

The first character we meet in Chaplin’s BY THE SEA is Billy Armstrong, a somewhat bland clown who really needs his walrus moustache to project any character. He seems the equivalent of the later Albert Austin type. Funnily enough, when regular antagonist Bud Jamison appears, his painted eyebrows and top hat make him seem, with his burly, surly aspect, even more of a proto-Eric Campbell than before.

(Incidentally, David Robinson remarks that this film is a mere nine set-ups. I count more like sixteen, though many are mere variations in shot size. Robinson doesn’t make mistakes so I’m assuming restoration has rendered the film longer than the print he saw, or else he’s not counting slight push-ins.)

But long before we see Bud, Charlie has slipped on cinema’s first banana skin, at least so far as anyone has been able to trace. It’s his own banana skin, which is good. But it’s doubtful if the banana skin will ever have anything like the shock of the new that enabled it to get laughs. Buster Keaton experimented with NOT slipping on one, in THE HIGH SIGN, but seemed to be dissatisfied with the un-gag. In SHERLOCK JR. he has the villain not slip, and then Buster slips on his own banana skin, as if discovering the Chaplin variation all over again.

Chaplin’s banana bit is a standalone moment, easily excisable, and in fact pretty much ALL of the film is standalone bits. He first gets into a quarrel with Armstrong, both men having tied strings to their hats as a defense against the sea breeze, and their tangling inevitably leads to a punch-up.

Chaplin does manage a more sophisticated bit — having dazed Armstrong with repeated slaps, he forages for fleas in the punchy man’s thick hair (Armstrong is the same size and shape as Charlie, which seems wrong — both Conklin and Turpin had radically different aspects from the star despite being fellow short-arses). It’s mildly impressive that Chaplin manages to make us “see” the leaping insects, but even more impressive that, filming himself in a close medium shot with his stunned opponent, he makes us imagine other, unseen promenaders, whose pseudo-presence compels him to keep up a pretense of civility with his victim.

Charlie isn’t necessarily a tramp in this, but he’s devoid of any social ties — Armstrong has his “wifie” and his rags betoken poverty. When Charlie has a wife or job in the shorts, it always feels like a contrivance for the sake of the film, one from which Charlie will be free by the time we see him again. Some of these films have aspects of the sitcom, but the “sit” is ever-changing, the one constant being Charlie’s freedom to abscond to a whole new scenario at the end of the two reels. This, of course, was standard for all the silent clowns. In Charlie’s case it happens to support his status as eternally at least somewhat of a tramp.

Having rendered Armstrong vegetative, Charlie now does what he always does, uses the other fellow as a convenient object. He sits on him. When Edna passes, the unconscious victim becomes a prop for Charlie’s flirtation. He poses like a hunter with one foot on his kill. His smiles seem to suggest that his having pummeled this man into submission ought to excite the object of his desires. At the same time, he can’t touch the man’s (usually upthrust) arse. All very strange. Finally he leaves the fellow leaning insensate against a lifebelt stand, a grotesque parody of the crucifixion.

Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of slapstick — “grotesque situational poetry” — always seemed odd to me because it leaves out the funny part. But it has rarely seemed more accurate.

Charlie does some more flirting, going so far as to sidle into Edna’s shot. His cane gets out of control, flying around saucily, whacking Edna’s backside and then hitting Charlie in the face. It’s the jester’s bladder and stick all right. I’m almost sure that’s what it is.

Armstrong recovers somewhat — his movements are staggering, his eyes crossed — and attacks Charlie with the lifesaver. Edna moves away, meeting the dyspeptic Bud, hitherto a mere convenient cutaway, now apparently an acquaintance.

A cop — oh hell, I’m just going to call him a kop, what’s he going to do, arrest me? — shows up, but is laid flat by a blow from Armstrong aimed at Charlie. Glass jaws, these kops. Charlie and Billy bond over this shared love of police brutality. Armstrong may not have any special personality but I admit he does play with with Charlie. No doubt Chaplin could get a decent performance out of most people, by showing them what to do, but sustained interactive clowning takes real skill.

Charlie and Billy go for ice cream, Billy offering to pay, but apparently all that brain damage has made him forgetful, as the offer is rescinded the moment the ice cream seller asks money. An ice cream fight ensues, culminating in Billy biting Charlie’s arse — this may be one of the most arse-centric of all the Chaplin shorts, and they’re a pretty butt-obsessed lot.

Meanwhile, a slung bit of vanilla has splurched Bud, who now steps out of his own little sub-film and enters the plot. While he’s strangling Billy, Charlie renews his flirtation with Edna, who is Bud’s paramour evidently, from the way she’s been stroking his knee. He really is a diabolical little sex pest in this one. (In later films, he’s romantic but not overly sexual, except for his fit of nut-tightening madness in MODERN TIMES, which sees Charlie the Imp back in full swing).

A kop drags Billy off. Bud shoves the ice cream man to the ground, for no good reason other than malign temper and to show off that Snub Pollard, for it is he — though unrecognisable sans horseshoe moustache — can take a fall like a pro.

Driven off by a fuming Bud, Charlie has brief encounters with the rest of the cast, then espies Billy’s “wifie” (Margie Reiger) — I think her lips are calling “Billy!” — and of course has to make the moves on her.

His moves:

Billy escapes the clutches of kop Paddy McGuire and flees back to the beach.

Everybody winds up ganging up on Charlie on a bench, improbably positioned in the path of the tide. Charlie is using his bowler to play peekaboo so doesn’t notice the encroaching enemies. The natural solution, after a slow-burn realisation, is to upturn the bench and everyone on it.

Which is the end of the film. Well, it’s not any less satisfying than most Keystone climaxes, and BY THE SEA is maybe a little more together than most Keystones. It knows how to be simple. That may be all it knows, but that’s not nothing.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Old Russian proverb.