Archive for Schwarz Brothers

The Sunday Intertitle: But soft, we are observed!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2021 by dcairns

So… declining Essanay’s urging that he should stay on, Chaplin took on his half-brother Syd as managed and signed with Mutual, again for a record-breaking fee. He also acquired a bigger studio — the biggest — to shoot in, still open air but closed off by canvas side walls and with linen diffusers to drape overhead.

THE FLOORWALKER seems designed to exploit this set-up, as it’s entirely based in one big two-storey set, with connecting elevator and escalator, both of which are exploited for gags. A lot of the film is just “turn Charlie loose in a department store,” but there’s a crime plot too. Surprisingly, despite the presence of Edna, carried over from Essanay and in Chaplin’s personal life too, there’s no romance.

But we do have the welcome addition of newcomers Eric Campbell and Albert Austin.

Campbell is immediately monumental. Practically all the Mutual films can be seen as exercises in using Eric to his full potential. Nobody ever strangled Charlie like Eric did. I know Chaplin is selling the gag furiously, flapping his head about like a mere sawdust-filled bag, but Eric is genuinely flinging him around with great violence.

Austin, promoted from an unnoticeable bit in POLICE (Chaplin evidently DID notice), looks on helplessly. This will be his main function in all the Mutuals. He looks on from behind a moustache of inhuman size, but there’s nothing flamboyant about the rest of him. Indeed, the moustache’s rather distrait quality seems to transfer itself to his entire personage. There IS, perhaps, a hint of pansy stereotype in the overall limpness, which is not however confined to the wrist.

The film opens by establishing a fake Chaplin (herr future director Lloyd Bacon), a guy who merely has the toothbrush ‘tache. The lookalike plot of course anticipates THE GREAT DICTATOR, and in a way the many faux Hulots of PLAYTIME. It’s not immediately clear why this character has to exist and audiences in 1916 may have been momentarily puzzled. But the great plague of Chaplin imitators hadn’t begun yet, so they wouldn’t have thought they were being cheated.

This character is in league with Big Eric in a plan to loot the safe.

A startling cinematic touch — Big Eric is introduced by a big closeup, first of his meaty hands clutching a document, then a slow pan and tilt to the meaty face, enhanced by fake face fuzz — a tweezered space-alien monobrow, a beard to make Svengali or Rasputin virescent with envy. And intense guyliner to make those little marbles seem to start from their sockets. An icon is born.

Edna has a thankless secretary role in this one. Bacon and Campbell, facing arrest for unseen crimes, plan their escape. This is quite a lot of plot and character to set up before Charlie even appears. Three and a half minutes worth, probably a record. By now Chaplin knows the audience will wait for him, and even enters with his back to the camera, confident in his outline.

Charlie, at last entering the story (picking his nose), sows disorder by treating the objects on sale as if they were possessions in his own home — shaving accessories and such. I like his interest, not in a sock, but in the mannequin leg enclosed by it. He’s blankly trying to think up some use for it. He also throws in a cheeky smile, which feels like a new development. His former obnoxiousness is leavened with charm.

Much use is made of the inconveniently placed drinking fountain. Chaplin loves a water feature.

His misuse of the store gradually brings the slow-to-anger Austin to the boil, and squabbling turns to kick-up-the-arse battling. In the midst of this, Charlie does a David Jason, leaning on something that won’t support him.

An ironic intertitle: BARGAIN SEEKERS. In fact, shoplifters. While management is ripping off the store and staff is arguing with Charlie, two women start emptying the shelves — in anticipation of Laurel & Hardy’s TIT FOR TAT. We don’t need to wonder if Chaplin’s former understudy Stan Laurel saw this. But the cheerful wholesale thief of the later L&H comedy is better integrated than CC’s lady filchers, who are a mere decorative flourish.

After all his willfully obstreperous behaviour, what finally lands Charlie in legal trouble is an innocent mistake caused by the perfidy of others. The shoplifters have cleaned out a rack. Seeing the empty rack marked 25c, Charlie seeks to buy this unexpected bargain. Hard to imagine what he wants with a rack, but the disembodied leg was a puzzler too. Maybe he’d have used that to store an odd sock, and maybe this is for his collection of neckties (the tie is one part of Chaplin’s costume that continues to change, I think).

Charlie is now a fugitive in the store, and Chaplin has fun coming up with hiding places and playing “he’s behind you,” a fine old British pantomime tradition.

In amidst this, the escalator is starting to play a role. Charlie is as baffled by it as he formerly was by swing doors. It keeps trying to abduct him skywards. Chaplin’s old boss, Mack Sennett, wondered aloud upon seeing the film why the devil they hadn’t thought of this gag at Keystone. The obvious answer would be that Sennett lacked the imagination, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to shell out to build the thing.

Bacon and Campbell abstract the store’s takings from safe to Gladstone bag, but Bacon smashes a drawer over Campbell’s immense noggin and absconds solo. Bir Eric’s staggering about crosseyed with the drawer over his head is knockabout gold. The tipsy dance is even funnier performed by a big man than by a regular clown — all that weight, in tiptoed stagger.

Fleeing the law, Charlie bumps into Bacon, who is fleeing the supine Eric. Cue mirror routine. The idea of someone mistaking another, similar-looking character for his reflection had been used on stage at least as far back as 1894. A European music hall act called the Schwarz Brothers attempted to retain exclusive use of the gag from 1911. Max Linder performed it in 1913 in LE DUEL DE MAX — a direct copy of the Schwarz version, but not every country upheld the copyright claim of the “brothers” (in reality a father and son called Robi), suggesting that they hadn’t originated as much of the skit as they claimed. Interestingly, the Robis performed in the US in 1915, so that in theory Chaplin could have seen them. If he didn’t, he probably saw Linder’s film version. (Credit to Anthony Balducci for this research.)

The gag isn’t particularly well motivated here — there’s no mirror frame, so the misunderstanding requires both Charlie and Bacon’s character to be very dim. That’s no stretch for Charlie, who is as stupid or cunning as the plot requires at this stage, but it doesn’t make much sense for the crafty embezzler Bacon.

Also of note here is the kiss — seeing in Charlie an unwitting saviour, Bacon grabs him by the (upper) cheeks, and Charlie reciprocates with a quick osculation. The Little Fellow is the ultimate in gender fluidity. Put him in a dress, he becomes a woman. Put him in a house, he becomes a householder. If the set-up looks like a clinch, he goes with the flow.

Bacon’s had an idea. Switching clothes with Charlie, he will make his escape. He plans on Charlie getting pinched for robbing the store. In fact, Bacon is immediately collared for Charlie’s “crimes.” Charlie is able to walk about under the eye of the law, who suspect nothing. Which is pretty implausible, since all he’s done is swap suits.

Even crazier is Albert Austin accepting Charlie as the floorwalker, a man he knows well. He’s also not likely to have forgotten the scruffy interloper who recently kicked him across the store. But these doubling plots are never very logical in Chaplin — ask why nobody remarks on the Jewish tailor’s resemblance to Adenoid Hynkel in THE GREAT DICTATOR?

A second kiss — kissing the aged, tiny elevator boy’s forehead is, apparently, Charlie’s idea of how a boss should behave.

Charlie now plunges into the role of floorwalker. True, he doesn’t understand what the job entails, but he finds entertaining things to do. The shoe department is a great excuse for fondling ladies’ ankles, for instance.

Two familiar faces now enter the film. To my surprise, here’s Leo White and his silk hat. Leo would appear in several more Mutual Chaplin films, culminating in EASY STREET, suggesting that Chaplin didn’t bear a grudge over White’s meddling with A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN. Still, after 1917 he stopped using the silk-hatted foil, and White was soon co-starring in Chaplin copycat Billy West’s shorts. White was a prolific bit player until his death in 1948 — he’s in CASABLANCA, CLOAK AND DAGGER, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, THE FOUNTAINHEAD…

Also on hand is Henry Bergman, a versatile supporting player who would keep acting for Chaplin, exclusively, up until MODERN TIMES. He would have been under contract so he’d have drawn a paycheck even in the years-long gaps between features. Chaplin, stingy in some respects, was very generous in that way. Edna Purviance also benefited from regular cheques, decades after she’d stopped acting.

Bergson plays your basic palsied dotard here, and is unrecognisable. Out of disguise, he’s the stout restauranteur in MOD TIMES. This cruel mocking of the afflicted is the kind of rather harsh comedy nobody seems to have batted at eye at in the nineteenteens. The actual playing is very funny if you can forget about being sensitive. I’m not suggesting you SHOULD. Charlie himself has a suitably benign attitude to the old fellow — he’s amused, yes, but mostly looks on in innocent wonderment at this extraordinary spectacle.

Charlie also has the familiar trouble with mannequins — they are too much like humans, you can’t trust them. Humans, on the other hands, are too much like objects. Everything is slippery. Confronted by the cigar-chewing detective, Charlie sees the cigar as a useful promontory from which to hang his cane. The fact that the cigar’s owner takes this amiss is a surprise to him.

Meanwhile, Big Eric has woken up and is on the warpath. The rest of the movie is a running battle for the bag full of loot. Chaplin does an expert mime upon discovering the billfolds. Looks. Looks up, processing the information. Looks about nervously. There’s a lot of high-quality strangling. And, most significant of all —

THE SONOFABITCH IS A BALLET DANCER

Chaplin breaks out into his first ever ballet. It seems to be in direct response to having Eric as screen partner. The gravitational pull of the larger player puts him into a terpsichorean orbit. The exaggerated butchness of Big Eric, all guyliner to the contrary, brings out Charlie’s flirtatiousness. He becomes both feminine and implike, a prancing tease whose submissiveness is a mere ploy. These observations are prompted in particular by the fact that this first set of moves are so unmotivated in plot terms. Later frolics are triggered by the situation, like the curtain Charlie hides behind in THE CURE. This one is sheer joie de vivre — an ecstatic response to finally finding his Goliath. Love at first sight.

The sudden appearance of kops firing guns is a little surprising/confusing, and the ending is abrupt. The gag of the elevator crashing down on Eric so that he bursts through its floor in a daze, presumably to face arrest, is nice, but Chaplin hasn’t built a real elevator, I don’t think, and the device seems to operate like a teleporter: the doors close, then open again in a more-or-less identical set up, and we’ve ascended or descended a floor.

Apart from not finding a role for Edna that’s worthwhile, and the continuing use of cutaways to inert scenes, used semi-randomly to allow Chaplin to ellide uninteresting business — a cutaway gets around the delicate business of Chaplin and Bacon exchanging pants, for instance — and the abruption of that finish, this is a prime Chaplin, about as good as anything he’s done up to now, and a fitting inauguration for the excellent Mutual series.