Archive for Steamboat Bill Jr

The Sunday Intertitle: Fame

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2021 by dcairns

Amidst the general critical appreciation of Chaplin introducing and integrating sentiment SUCCESSFULLY for the first time, everyone tends to forget his other mode, which appears here absolutely for the first time, with barely a hint of its coming before: the sophisticated side. Chaplin obviously thought this was an important mode to master, and would make an entire feature film, A WOMAN OF PARIS, to showcase it. I’m looking forward to seeing that one again to see what I think of it. What I think right now is that it appealed to CC’s vanity to be seen as sophisticated, and I’m not too keen on this kind of showing off. I don’t think he was as sophisticated as he wanted to appear, I’m more in sympathy with his attempts to be DEEP, with THE GREAT DICTATOR and MONSIEUR VERDOUX (the latter being also a sophisticated comedy in parts). I think Chaplin was deep in the sense of feeling things deeply, and his work shows that from THE KID onwards, and he can sometimes transmute his intense emotion into intellectual ideas without tripping over his flap shoes, and when he does it’s worth the occasional stumble.

Anyhow, The man re-enters the picture, to no particular effect. This scene was one of Chaplin’s key deletions when he rereleased the movie. Consequently, Carl Miller, who plays The man, gets a ridiculously prominent credit for doing practically nothing, while actors who contribute invaluable comic bits go completely uncredited and the IMDb still doesn’t know who a bunch of them are.

Since Chaplin is no fool, he isn’t remotely interested in reuniting the former lovers, and he cuts Mr. Miller off in mid-intertitle, in order to get to the more important business of PANCAKES:

Jackie is preparing A GREAT QUANTITY OF FOOD.

Chaplin may be on e of the few filmmakers who can do more good work the less plot he has to work with. This scene has very little to do with the story, it’s just behaviour. Of course the more we see Charlie & Jackie interact in a sweet, quirky way, the more we care, but the trick is in making all this stuff entertaining. Jackie preparing pancakes is fascinating because it’s midway between acting and being. Impossible to tell how much of it Chaplin has acted out first, and how much is Jackie responding in the moment to the pancake mix and frying pan and the taste.

Charlie is in bed, smoking and reading the Police Gazette (looking for tips). Called to breakfast, he sticks his head through a tear in his blanket to turn it into a kind of djellaba or poncho.

Those pancakes look good. I probably can’t have pancakes on my low-carb diet because of the flour quotient, and the syrup might be an issue too.

We note that Jackie still has the toy dog Edna gave him, and getting Charlie to kiss it is an important family ritual.

Enter Raymond Lee, a bully. Lee was a busy actor into the twenties, and also appears in THE PILGRIM for Chaplin, and LONG LIVE THE KING opposite Coogan. He steals Jackie’s dog AND his ball and throws them away.

FIGHT! An audience immediately gathers. Henry Bergman puts on some stubble just to appear at a window. Nobody attempts to separate the lads, it’s all just a great spectator sport. I’m pleased that Charlie steps in — and then it’s funny when he steps back out as soon as he sees Jackie winning. I never understood the rules of this kind of thing, growing up. Boys are/aren’t supposed to fight? I was an OK shin-kicker, was OK at catching the opponent’s foot when they tried to kick me, but still lost every single fight (none of which I started) until I learned to pick on the smallest, dumbest kids. And then I got a pang of conscience and stopped that. So I went back to losing. It’s strange to me that we were basically allowed to spend playtime punching each other. Does that still happen?

Charlie starts to treat this as a boxing match, with himself as trainer, and right on cue a washing line serves as rope for Jackie to lean on in “his corner.” Charlie instructs Jackie in nose-punching, stomach-punching, and his signature move, the kick up the arse.

Enter Charles Reisner, curiously padded, as the bully’s big brother. Reisner had been a boxer, and has the face for it, though I suspect he’s using putty to push his ears forward in the approved movie “pug” manner. Actual cauliflower ears, which you don’t see much these days, tend to be flat. Reisner had been assistant direct for Chaplin since A DOG’S LIFE, and would go on to “direct” STEAMBOAT BILL JR (really Keaton’s work, chiefly), a couple of Sydney Chaplin features including THE BETTER ‘OLE, and, um, THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929. His son Dean Riesner (note the vowel swap in the surname) would act for Chaplin as a boy, and go on to co-write DIRTY HARRY and marry Vampira, AKA Maila Nurmi. So there’s that.

Once again, Chaplin turns Jackie into a threat, and manages to make Charlie’s ignoble behaviour sympathetic. Reisner insists on his kid brother continuing the fight, but warns Charlie —

This is enough to make Charlie look straight at the camera, enlisting our support in an Oliver Hardy manner.

Charlie now watches in horror as Jackie successfully enacts the tactics he’s schooled him in. With no chance of a confidential “Let the wookiee win” to Jackie, he’s reduced to helpless spectatorship until, on an inspiration, he steps on Jackie when he’s down and quickly counts him out. But Jackie isn’t in on the gag, and proceeds to beat up his foe some more even as Charlie is trying to declare the fight over. Reisner’s uncomprehending glower during all this is a great bit of dumb dumbshow.

The situation having deteriorated as far as it can, a kop shows up to intervene but is punched out by Reisner (a show of actual strength, rather than just a menacing appearance, is always best for an antagonist). Charlie is next in line. He dodges a bit, then mimes a weak heart (Withnail-fashion: “If you hit me, it’ll be murder.”) A missed punch takes a chunk out of one of designer Charles D. Hall’s brick walls, quite convincingly. The next one bends a lamppost, in tribute to the shade of Eric Campbell.

Enter Edna, to do what the kop kouldn’t. And there I’m going to leave it as I have editing to do, a class to prepare, a walk to take. But watch this space because I might post some more this evening.

Fetch!

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 12, 2017 by dcairns

To Filmhouse, where maestro Neil Brand was presenting a big Buster Keaton event on Sunday. The first half was an illustrated talk with clips and piano accompaniment, setting out Buster’s biography and creative approach, with eye-opening analyses of under-cranking, hidden jump-cuts and other tricks of the trade. The second half was STEAMBOAT BILL JR. with live piano accompaniment. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a frosty afternoon.

I’ve been researching Leo McCarey’s THE AWFUL TRUTH and was amused to discover, in a clip from OUR HOSPITALITY, a gag later borrowed by McCarey and gifted to Mr. Smith the dog (AKA Asta) in his classic screwball. Buster is trying to avoid leaving the house, so he hides his porkpie hat under a divan as an excuse. But his helpful hound retrieves it. In a panic, Buster hides it again before anyone sees. This looks like a terrific game to the dog, who fetches the hat once more. All this is given a welcome note of panic by the fact that Buster is liable to be shot dead if he leaves the house.

While McCarey’s revision lacks the life-and-death tension, it creates just as much comic excitement because his domestic situation is so small-scale and plausible, closer to relatable reality. So you can either have the intensity of melodrama or the intensity of life, both are good. Mentioning the comparison to Neil Brand over a pint afterwards, I was reminded by him that Charley Chase’s domestic comedies, supervised by McCarey, are also full of dogs getting the wrong end of the stick, as it were. Buddy the dog is particularly reliable in this respect, always being himself when it would be more convenient for the hero if he would be a cat.

Peter Bogdanovitch’s interview with McCarey turns up this quote about his days with Laurel & Hardy: “Keaton worked in a manner analogous to ours. Two or three gagmen were at his disposal, proposing gags which he could either accept or reject. All of us tried to steal each other’s gagmen, but we had no luck with Keaton because he thought up his best gags himself and we couldn’t steal him!” Well, fourteen years after OUR HOSPITALITY, McCarey arguably did the next best thing by repurposing a Keaton gag.

The Sunday Intertitle: Sydney Failure

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2015 by dcairns

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I first realized how gifted a comedian Sydney Chaplin was when I noticed his interplay with his brother in A DOG’S LIFE — he’s the street vendor Charlie robs of cookies. The pair’s timing is exquisitely worked out, and the central conceit, that the number of cookies keeps diminishing and Charlie is the only suspect but Syd doesn’t feel able to make an accusation without catching him at it, is priceless.

I was disappointed, then, to learn that Syd was a rapist and a cannibal — and was caught at it. The story is gone over in Matthew Sweet’s Shepperton Babylon — Syd was preparing for the second of his British films when he assaulted an actress, Molly Wright, and bit her nipple off. He fled the country, leaving unpaid taxes (I know: infamy upon infamy) and the studio paid her a settlement.

It’s hard to imagine any way Wright could have made this story up (and certainly the studio acted like they believed her, in an era when movie studios were quite prepared to cover up sex crimes by their valued associates); it’s equally hard to imagine anyone biting off a body part unintentionally. It’s all horrific and creepy in the extreme, so much so that it’s not only surprising this isn’t better known, it’s slightly surprising that this story about the half-brother isn’t the first thing people think of when they think of Charlie. I guess that’s a measure of how his fame surpassed any scandal that came near him.

Sydney doesn’t seem to have done anything like this again, that we know of.

In THE MAN ON THE BOX (1925), made before the career-ending incident, Sydney is called a back-biter by a jealous husband, and makes the following denial —

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It’s an odd film. A MacGuffin about plans for a new helicopter leads to millionaire’s son Chaplin disguising himself as a coachman (in 20s California?), getting hired as a groom, pressed into service as a butler and then disguising himself as a maid (like his semi-sibling, he’s very convincing in drag — CHARLIE’S AUNT was one of his biggest hits). Syd is able and agile — there’s some ferocious knockabout involving him and the film’s director, Charles Riesner (best known for skippering STEAMBOAT BILL JR) who co-stars as an enemy agent. Another future director, David Butler, also appears, and is just the kind of guffawing hearty you might expect from his later work.

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“That’s right, Barrymore, pull them funny faces. HAW HAW!”

Syd is, as indicated, a skilled comedian, but he’s also an attractive and sympathetic screen presence, and at times his use of his eyes — flashing signals across a room like twin aldous lamps — is startlingly reminiscent of the better-known brother. For some reason, the squarer jaw-line makes his feminine side seem stranger — Charlie could be coquettish and it somehow seemed absolutely in keeping with his other qualities — imp, innocent, ruffian.

I guess if he ended up working in Britain his career was already on the slide, and there’s no reason to assume audiences had enough enthusiasm for him to want to see him move into talkies, so his career was going to be cut short by film history anyway. But it seems it should have been cut short by a prison sentence.