Archive for Tango Tangles

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?

No Moustache

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2020 by dcairns

Before Valentino there was… Charlie Chaplin.

“We took Chaplin, [Ford] Sterling, [Roscoe] Arbuckle and [Chester] Conklin to a dance hall, turned them loose, and pointed a camera at them. They made funny, and that was it,” said Mack Sennett of the 1914 TANGO TANGLES.

But there’s more to be said of this rambunctious improv: Chaplin appears sans Tramp costume and felt moustache, giving us an opportunity to regard him au naturelle, as it were. He does have a bowler and cane, so he must have really liked those. But this experiment was not repeated — even in an outlier like ONE A.M. where he’s playing a city swell in a top hat, Chaplin would keep the fuzzy felt tab on his upper lip, because it was the one essential part of his brand.

It’s decided — I’m watching all the early Chaplins in sequence, which I’ve never done before, watching for those moments where the Tramp shows up, starts to become the familiar character. And watching for those moments where Chaplin steps out of that character, as he does here.

Naked-faced Charlie is, as Sennett observed with dismay when he first showed up for work, too young. Too pretty. He’s doing the drunk act that so impressed his boss and got him hired, and it’s always worth remembering that alcoholism killed Chaplin’s father, but whether the man was ever around enough in Chaplin’s youth for him to observe the drink in action, I’m unsure. But the East End of London would have provided plenty of other models for close study.

For some reason, comedy drunks are nearly always middle-aged. Though the parodying of alcoholism is now mostly verboten at any age, the masters of it, the Jack Nortons, Arthur Housmans and Foster Brookses, were always a bit shopworn in appearance. Strangely, a young drunk is more pathetic or unpleasant than comic, UNLESS introduced sober. When the character is simple “the drunk,” we need to feel that the tragic decline is safely over and the character is now happily confirmed in their dipsomania.

(Fiona, a modern person, always says “Oh dear,” when Housman turns up in a Laurel & Hardy, just as she does when Fred “Snowflake” Toones turns up in anything, with his demeaning racial schtick. I wince at FT but, being less sensitive, welcome the pastiche of inebriation like an old friend.)

Chaplin chose his small felt rectangle, a fig leaf for his youth, because it made him look more mature without concealing his facial expressions. Which are a lot more grotesque and flamboyant in the early shorts, you’ll notice. Chaplin hasn’t mastered the difference between stage and screen acting but, to be fair, hardly anyone else at Keystone or in Hollywood has either. The best actors are generally the supporting girls, hired to be pretty, without stage training, and given no funny business of their own, who just react more or less like real people to the top-billed comics’ obstreperous antics.

Ford Sterling (also bare-lipped) is someone I never warmed to, but I guess he deserves credit for being just about the first of the slapstickers. Arbuckle is unusually mean here, a fat man with a thin instrument (clarinet). Within seconds of appearing he’s picking up an inoffensive little guy to use as a club.

For reasons of convenience, I guess, the dancers are shot in a real dance hall, per Sennett’s recount, whereas the band have been shot in the studio against two painted flats representing a corner. All the interplay between Sterling, flirting furiously through his trumpet, and Chaplin and his partner, reacting from the ballroom, is created via Kuleshov’s Artificial Geography, which Kuleshov had yet to officially invent. No wonder the eyelines don’t match.

Chaplin grudgingly credited Henry “Pathe” Lehrman with teaching him basic screen direction, but he might have also picked up the importance of it by seeing Sennett fecklessly flout it here.

Another technique we see a lot of is TELEGRAPHY. Sterling pretends to be ill, doing a great deal of pantomime to signal to us that this is an IDEA he has just had in his MIND to fool THAT GUY… Chaplin occasionally does this, perhaps urged by his directors or influenced by his frantic co-stars, but he would soon eliminate it in favour of a subtler communication with his audience, intended for intimacy rather than exposition.

Conklin, Hank Mann, Edgar Kennedy and Al St John get essentially nothing to do, while Minta Durfee is a bone to be fought over by stupid dogs. In mid-battle, Sterling seems to suddenly kiss CC full on the lips, but I think he’s actually biting his nose. Our eyebrows may safely lower.

Paul Merton has neatly and accurately described early Chaplin’s M.O. as “kicking people up the arse” but has he done it yet in a film? I think not, though in BETWEEN SHOWERS he jabs Sterling hard in the anus with an umbrella. Here, Sterling shows CC how it’s done, just as CC is impressing us all with the pugilistic jut of his tiny buttocks. I imagine Charlie will have incorporated the act into his repertoire by the next time we see him.

The climactic cloakroom fight is my favourite bit. The brief iteration of the two-men-in-one-raincoat routine is terrific, with Sterling burling Chaplin around by the sleeve.

A totally unambitious one-reel donnybrook which has unexpected historic interest due to Chaplin’s nude philtrum.