Archive for Peggy "the Keystone Girl" Pearce

The Sunday Intertitle: Charlie as Chaplin or Chaplin as Charlie?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2020 by dcairns

A weird one…

I wrote about RECREATION already — this Keystone park film didn’t seem much different from a half-dozen others, and it survives in a form most uneven and considerably more ragged than most. As so often at Keystone, Chaplin makes valuable discoveries in one short (THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR) only to discard them — for now — in the next.

But to follow it, Chaplin made a peculiar meta-comedy, THE MASQUERADER, co-starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Chaplin, sans felt moustache and costume, hair slicked down, arrives at the studio. (This is to be another behind-the-scenes affair,) A burly ruffian grabs him by the ear and propels him inside. (Time has created a Godardian jump — the rough grabs his ear, and in a trice, both are transported to a new shot, depicting the side-entrance, Charlie is rubbing his injured lobe.) Entering the dressing room, he starts getting made up, but is distracted by the possibility of stealing Fatty’s booze. A long-held take observes the tit-for-tat byplay. Charlie’s hair is now free and curly, as we’re used to seeing it — so in this parallel universe, plainclothes Charlie has straight hair, and the curls are part of a make-up.

Then, after a brief cutaway to the set, we discover Charlie — Chaplin has changed into the Tramp costume and, it seems, into the Tramp character. Rounding a corner at speed, he goes into his one-footed skid, an archetypal trope now but had he used it previously?

Charlie goes on set, nervously popping a breath mint before playing a scene with his leading lady. The director critically inspects his glued-on ‘tache. Prior to getting costumed, Chaplin has been playing the part quite supercilious, but now he seems himself — which is to say, still quite supercilious but the trait is rendered ironic by his costume. But this time it really IS a costume, so should we see him as an underdog, or just an arrogant thesp?

The director calls action, but Charlie misses his cue because he’s flirting with… Chaplin groupies? The actor who’s supposed to be interrupted in the act of stabbing a child with a dagger gets a stiff arm from waiting. Charlie’s attempt at being an action hero is not well-received: he attempts to save the child from the villain by clobbering the villain with the child, who, fortunately, is a dummy. But still, it’s not a good look.

Chester Conklin is immediately hired to replace Charlie, but Charlie duffs him up and goes on in his place.

(My Chaplin Encyclopedia states that Conklin, Chaplin’s exact contemporary, was born Jules Cowles, which is disappointing, but Wikipedia makes no mention of this. I prefer to think of him as a Conklin born. He also has acquired a tragic backstory — his mother was burned to death, at first ruled suicide, then his devoutly religious father was charged with her murder, but acquitted.)

The second bit of melodrama is no less farcical than the first, and Charlie gets the sack. This allows him to do some actual bits of melodrama as he pleads for another chance — but at this stage, Chaplin is still using pathos just as a thing to make fun of. The “don’t fire me” plea pantomime also gets an outing in HIS NEW JOB and, in its most developed form, THE PAWNSHOP.

Charley Chase is back, and this time he’s visible, albeit in the distant background (above). The burly director is Charles Murray, who’d had bits in a couple of previous Chaplins, including the missing HER FRIEND THE BANDIT.

Not to be thwarted, Chaplin returns to Keystone, this time in drag. So the Charlie character really was just a role he was playing. But the costume by now is exerting some kind of transformative effect on its wearer, so that the Tramp really seems a different character than Chaplin out of uniform or Chaplin in drag.

This is Charlie’s first glamorous drag act, and I have to say, he’s tempting, draped in furs and with his forearms immersed in a huge muff. I’d probably take him over, say, Edna Purviance. This is quite different from the drag in the CARRY ON films or A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, where the unhandsome man typically makes a hideous woman and the men falling over themselves with lust are ridiculous. Here, Chaplin really is sexy. Director Murray gets flirtatious, then audacious, then bodacious. He’s either going to get rapacious or salacious, when an office boy interrupts.

Chaplin does that drag-act teasing thing where, joshing with a male admirer, he unexpectedly WALLOPS them with sudden masculine strength, then goes back to joshing demurely. That always seems to work.

Now Murray starts chasing Miss Chaplin around the dressing room, and Chaplin does the one-footed skid, suggesting that there IS one character binding his three guises together, but that it’s the Tramp, not the actor Chaplin.

Now Chaplin dis-drags, and there’s a sense that this might be intended as a surprise — a CRYING GAME penis in the third act moment — and maybe it would have been for audiences at the time. We get to see him glue the moustache on — I doubt that’s on film anywhere else — Jackie Coogan recalled with Proustian wonder that the spirit gum having “kind of an offensive smell” — and for a moment we have Chaplin, wearing the moustache, and a dress, and not in character as anyone in particular, just focussed on glueing his upper lip. Kind of uncanny. Like seeing Mickey Mouse out of costume, shortsless, scratching himself.

She-Charlie has thrown the studio into tumult by taking over the whole dressing room, so Murray has to shout down an incipient revolution. Then Charlie reveals himself, making believe that the sexy girl — himself — is locked in the cupboard. Murray investigates and gets the time-honoured kick up the arse.

Charlie runs rampant through the studio, slapping and kicking people, then falls down a well. The crew resolve not to rescue him, making this the second CHaplin film where he drags up then drowns.

It was another mad experiment, suggesting that Charlie was already either trying to escape the Tramp persona, or define it by stretching and distorting it, seeing what it could be made to do. And maybe what he learned was that IT was more real on screen than HIM?

The Sunday Intertitle: “He is a new one and deserves mention.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2020 by dcairns

So wrote a critic in Moving Picture World, singling Chaplin out as “the best one Mack Sennett has ever sprung on the public” — a sentiment with which few would now disagree. It wasn’t this review, however, which would rescue the star’s nascent career at Keystone, but the enthusiastic responses of exhibitors. More on that in a later post.

Motion Picture News (all this is via Wikipedia) added, “It is absolutely the funniest thing the Keystone Company has ever put out, and this is not written by a press agent.” Well, it probably was written by a press agent, then.

After his brief stint as a clean-shaven (though drunk) comic in TANGO TANGLES, Chaplin is back in familiar disguise here, and drunk again, suggesting that Keystone’s “plan” for the comic, insofar as one existed, may have been to keep him as a comedy drunk in every film. Chaplin is joined once more by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who likewise dons a down-and-out attire, looking incredibly seedy and somewhat tragic. But this is the first film to give the two most resourceful Keystone comedians any real extended interplay, so it’s of immediate and obvious interest.

Brief appearance by some guy painted up as Sammy Davis Jr, before it was popular or fashionable. You have to hand it to undistinguished director George Nichols for springing for shoe polish just to make future generations yet unborn uncomfortable and sad.

Customary byplay with Peggy “the Keystone girl” Pearce.

The semi-naturalistic detail of both Chaplin and Arbuckle’s costumes, the fact that nobody else wears fancy dress, the location filming, and the time lavished on just showing characters interacting rather than brawling, makes this feel like an unusually controlled Keystone “farce comedy,” rather than the usual three-ring circus. There’s no plot, admittedly, but the tighter focus helps everything.

Oh, here comes a typically expansive Edgar Kennedy as a barroom brawler, yegg or plug-ugly. He also is allowed a funny costume. The application of silly putty or mortician’s wax behind his ears allows them to stick out in a comic cauliflower fashion. It’s all in the detail, folks. When, by the way, and why, did the stripey jumper become inextricably linked with the low criminal type?

Oh wow! Chaplin’s reaction to be slapped on the back by a hearty Kennedy! The first real inkling of the gentleman tramp. His expressions clearly convey a feeling of “I am too refined for this rough company.” I’m telling you, this is it. from 4:03 until 4:08, that’s the bit you need to watch. The Tramp, nature’s gentleman, lowly of status but with an inbuilt sense of superiority to his surroundings, appears. Then disappears, for several films to come.

(I believe Chaplin had, and cultivated, a sense of himself as just such a “natural-born gentleman.” Born into the wrong end of a rigid class system, he noticed his own sensitivity — his overwhelming response to hearing someone sing “I am the honeysuckle, you are the bee” — catnip to the orally-fixated and half-starved boy — and, while attempting to adopt the style and speech patterns of the rich, he also, I think, saw himself as inherently above his surroundings — and I don’t blame him, EVERYONE should be considered above poverty and the workhouse — and it comes out in his characters.)

Chaplin’s reaction to the burnt cork negro mockery in the men’s room is… interesting. He’s as surprised as we are. Like he can tell, even in his stupor, that something is very wrong here. So he’s superior not just to the characters around him, but the film too. Superior, in fact, to Keystone.

Another blackface character, a maid, appears at 5:07. Collect them all. Helen Carruthers, supposedly, having the decency to look embarrassed. She probably signed up to be a bathing beauty, and now this. But she’ll become quite a good leading lady for CC soon.

Given the perfect opportunity to kick a man up the arse, Chaplin instead whacks him across the cheeks with his cane like the public schoolboy he never was. Then he wipes his boots with a towel, before offering it to the guy to wipe his face with. Lo, blackface! Now we see the reason for the other minstrel characters. In a world where black people are merely white people with coal on, a fellow with a dirty face is immediately a second-class citizen. But the movie makes nothing of this interesting but unpleasant idea.

It does look like, when the guy realizes what’s happened, at 5.46, he says “SHIT!” but I’m probably mistaken.

Chaplin is having his usual trouble with swing doors. Never let a swing door go to waste. That goes double for spitoons. (Spitoons! Ugh! And calling them cuspidors does nothing to help. People in 1914 were disgusting.)

The exterior of the bar looks more like a building society to me but I’m not from 1914.

It is kind of strange to me, seeing Charlie on a street with palm trees. In the more mature Chaplin films, he uses studio/backlot streets whenever possible, and creates something a bit more like Victorian London. He’s at home in parks, also. But not in anything that’s too L.A.

Chaplin hanging onto the outside of a streetcar — maybe the first really dangerous thing he’s been asked to do. In the Fred Karno troupe all you had to do was take a fall. Movies happen outdoors in the real world with all its lethal moving parts, and Keystone films are expected to maintain constant frenetic motion, and if somebody gets hurt you just hire a replacement.

Chaplin now stages a drunken home invasion at the Keystone girl’s place, which quickly becomes a dress rehearsal for ONE A.M. A hopeless intoxicated idiot fails to negotiate basic furniture. Chaplin probably knew already he could get a whole two-reeler out of this schtick, and here he is, compelled to shoehorn it into one set-up at the far-end of a 12-min short.

Miscegenation humour! CC mistakes maid for mistress and the dusky Carruthers beats the shit out of him. But for some reason doesn’t throw him out, just leaving him dazed in the drawing room.

Charlie’s necktie is stripy. That’s wrong.

The End: camera lingers on CC in medium shot, waiting for him to do something funny that will conclude the romp. He apparently can’t think of anything. He wanders off. The editor, who perhaps has ADHD, cuts before he’s left frame.

NB: There are no intertitles so my title is a lie. And there are roughly seventeen camera set-ups, all of them repeated several times. Each room/space is one set-up. This hasn’t seemed so striking in earlier films–is HIS FAVORITE PASTIME old-fashioned even for 1914?