Archive for The Champion

Boxing Clever

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2022 by dcairns

Before the big fight, justly celebrated, is the locker room scene, which also deserves celebration.

Charlie has made a deal with a wiry little fighter (Irishman Eddie McAuliffe, in what seems to be his only movie role) — he’ll throw the fight and they’ll split the prize money. This scheme, and the fact that Eddie is forced to flee by the cops leaving Charlie right in it, recalls the deal Harold strikes with his human fly pal in SAFETY LAST!

Once Charlie realises he’s on his own, the scene becomes a brilliant series of interactions. Trying to ingratiate himself with his new opponent (Keystone veteran Hank Mann), he falls into flirting, causing man’s man Mann to experience homosexual panic. There’s a lovely fast pan from one to the other, something Chaplin will do more of in MODERN TIMES. When he wanted to be, he could be a very good storyteller with the camera. It’s incorrect to suggest that all he ever did was plonk it in front of himself for a head-to-toe wide shot. That may be 90% of what he did, but the other 10 counts.

Seeing how a Black fighter clings to his rabbit’s foot, Charlie begs the use of it, but is disillusioned when the fighter comes back from his bout in a coma. Suddenly he has to disassociate himself from the defective rodent appendage as best he can.

(The IMDb has only two credits for “superstitious fighter” Victor Alexander, in 1931 and ’35, but he must have done more movies in between, surely.)

The fight is astonishing. Again, the close sync allowed by sound films allows Chaplin to play with a musical sound effect, the bell — and to use the score to accompany what amounts to a slapstick dance, in which Eddie Baker, another knockabout veteran, as the referee, plays a vital part.

Chaplin had dabbled with boxing matches before, playing a referee who gets KO’d in THE KNOCKOUT and prizefighting himself in THE CHAMPION. But his greater experience pays off here, along with a stronger comic idea: what makes this fight funny is Charlie’s terror at being in the ring, his preference for hiding behind the referee or getting into a clinch rather than playing by the Queensberry rules. The situation is familiar from countless knockabout comedies, but the protagonist’s ATTITUDE is unique.

We see it even before the first punch is thrown: Charlie politely holds the ropes so the seconds can enter the ring; offered the chance to shake hands with Mann, Charlie does so too eagerly, and then tries to shake with everyone else. If he can make friends all round, maybe no one will hit him.

You could make a direct comparison of Chaplin’s boxing match here with Keaton’s in BATTLING BUTLER and Chaplin, I submit, would win. But that would be deceptive, even if it seems fair to compare like with like.

Chaplin uses repetition a lot more than Keaton ever did, and here it adds immensely to the sense of a formal dance. The ref gets in between the opponents. They jump sideways in unison. When the ref is finally extricated, Charlie lands a punch. Then it happens again. The repetition, given a favourable audience, becomes funny in and of itself, but the substitution of fresh routines keeps things unpredictable.

Brain damage works oddly in this film: just as the drunk keeps losing and recovering his memory, Charlie can be punched into a state of wooziness, then an additional punch suddenly wakes him up, turns him into a ball of pugilistic dervish energy. Again, Chaplin has an impressive faith that his comic logic will be comprehensible to his audience: his faith is repaid.

The particular highlight, for Fiona and I, is the succession of falls — both Charlie and Mann are dazed, and keep faceplanting on the canvas, while the ref tries to count each of them out, but can never quite make it because they keep semi-recovering, then falling over again. Fiona wanted that bit to go on even longer, but it’s already pretty extensive.

Also in here is the beautiful hallucination (leading to yet another gay joke — this part of the film is full of them) with the blind girl appearing to Charlie during a time out when he’s been knocked semi-unconscious. It’s like a pieta.

Her blindness is strangely multiplied: she can’t see anyone, but nobody but Charlie can see her.

The sequence unavoidably has to end on a downer — Charlie has to lose. When we’ve been laughing so much at his struggles, this is a bit of a slap in the face, but at least it isn’t a punch. And it propels us into the film’s climactic scenes, which are all about getting the elusive money, and of course reintroducing the drunken millionaire, back from Europe, the ultimate Indian giver.

TO BE CONTINUED

Bin Dreams

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin is working in a bank in THE BANK, a variant on THE NEW JANITOR, a Keystone one-reeler that looks now like an early clue to the new direction — the Little Fellow as sympathetic underling, dreaming of greater things. In THE BANK, the more exciting part of the plot really IS a dream.

I’m uncertain about Chaplin’s frequent recourse to the dream narrative: in a bittersweet way, it can add a sting of pathos to a story, as in the New Year’s party in THE GOLD RUSH. When the dream eats up the whole movie, you feel a little short-changed, since nothing has really “happened” in the story. When you know it’s a dream, as in THE KID, there’s a danger of the fantasy going on too long, so that you’re looking at a scenario where nothing’s at stake. In that film, the dream really goes on about four times longer than I’d like, it’s a colossal misstep, and the film isn’t wrecked by it only because the rest is so brilliant it resists wrecking.

According to Ben Urwand’s deeply flawed book The Collaboration, Chaplin originally planned for the ending of THE GREAT DICTATOR to turn out to be all a dream, with the Jewish barber waking up from his Hynkel impersonation to find himself back in a concentration camp. That would have been bloody depressing and bloody strong. But I love how the film ends now, with an unformulated question. What does fake Hynkel do next? What will he be allowed to do?

THE BANK begins with Charlie coming to work. Big build-up to him getting his janitor’s uniform from the safe, which isn’t really a great pay-off since his usual costume prohibits us from suspecting he’s the manager. But this halfhearted gag allows Chaplin to set up most of the film’s spaces and their relationships to one another.

This is the most impressive set we’ve seen in a Chaplin film — genuinely large, imposing, convincing. For the last couple of pictures, the domestic environments have been more detailed and solid than you tended to get at Keystone, but this is actually grand.

Charlie’s character — and he’s called Charlie in this one — is not quite settled, so in this picture he can be spectacularly stupid. He doesn’t even know how to carry a mop without mishaps. A lot of the work-based slapstick is very much out of THE NEW JANITOR, as when he lifts a waste-basket upside-down and is surprised when it empties all over the office.

Edna works at the bank. By some quirk of nineteenteens fashion, her office clothes are reasonably fetching — at least they give her a waistline — whereas her leisure clothes in every other film save THE CHAMPION (sexy pullover) are hideously disfiguring. I suppose that by disguising her shape they make it possible for us to imagine she’s a thin girl unflatteringly dressed, instead of a slightly rounder girl unflatteringly dressed. She is a bit rounder than the current fashion, or indeed the nineteenteens fashion, comparing her to the other actresses in Chaplin films.

Anyway, her role here is interesting…

Billy Armstrong is Charlie’s co-worker, a subgump idiot who’s somehow more efficient at his job than Charlie, despite his glazed look. Armstrong has a very thick head of hair (and a very thick head, in this), and I believe he may have reinforced it with some product or produce to make it rise up like a wall of brown flame. He’s also grouchoed his eyebrows very severely. My favourite business involving him is his attempt to speak to Charlie through half a doorstop sandwich he’s crammed into his face. Charlie pauses his discourse and excavates the pulped bread from his maw with a pencil, prying loose doughy wads until Armstrong’s only barrier to fluency is his cookie-duster.

The loose opening of the film sets up these characters and also a bank teller, the president, and a disgruntled customer in silk hat and guyliner, all of whom are important for the upcoming dream.

But before that, pathos. The surly, lazy and mentally disorientated Charlie of this film seems an unlikely subject for pathos, but he’s not quite as obnoxious as the version of the character seen in THE TRAMP. Chaplin is slowly working out how to get the rambunctious knockabout stuff to play along with, around and maybe even THROUGH the sentiment. Charlie is generally rough with his co-workers — he tends to see himself as a superior sort of person, there’s certainly no collegial spirit. But he’s not bullying Armstrong, as he does with Paddy McGuire in THE TRAMP or his wretched old underling in THE PROPERTY MAN. He and Armstrong are just scrapping, and neither one has the upper hand for very long.

In the farce tradition, a misunderstanding is contrived. Edna is sweet on a bank teller, also called Charles. Chaplin seems to have been uninterested in seeing Edna share scenes with a conventional leading man type, since Charles is played by CARLTON STOCKDALE, a kind of jug-eared camel type. Stockdale came from Broncho Billy’s stock company at Essanay, and is otherwise best remembered for providing an alibi for Mary Miles Minter’s mom in the William Desmond Taylor shooting. He went on to join Griffith’s group and was a busy bit-player until 1943.

Edna prepares a gift of a necktie for this other Charles, with a loving note. Charlie sees this on her desk and thinks she loves him. He gets her a couple of measly roses and writes a note of his own. His spelling and handwriting have improved since THE TRAMP, at least.

Edna initially thinks the flowers are from Stockdale. There would be room here for farcical misunderstandings to multiply and complicate, but Chaplin isn’t interested in that. Edna realises the roses are from Charlie and bins them. Then she tears up his note. Then she sees him looking heartbroken and SNEERS. Edna is a right cow in this.

Usually in this kind of comic romance, the comedian has to find a way to keep the object of his desire sympathetic, even as she temporarily snubs him. But Chaplin is shrewd enough to know that this time it doesn’t actually matter, so he just plays it to the hilt.

Charlie retrieves the roses and stuffs them up his janitor’s jacket, next to his bosom, a bit of romantic masochism like the bloke in MANON DE SOURCE.

Charlie’s brokenheartedness threatens to rupture the tone, as his getting shot in THE TRAMP does, but he modulates it. Seeing Billy Armstrong preening into a hand mirror, Charlie kicks him out of frame out of sheer spite. But even this simple proven remedy does not relieve his melancholia. He sits on his bench, defeated.

The transition to dream sequence is managed quite smoothly, and probably might still fool people. True, the movie immediately turns into DIE HARD, but that sort of genre-fluidity was common in 1915. Robbers take over the bank. One of them is the disgruntled customer (John Rand, who would keep appearing in Chaplins up until MODERN TIMES), which helps tie things together. It’s a grace note — it’s not essential to set up a bankrobber outside the dream, but it makes things neater.

One of the robbers is herr future film director Lloyd Bacon, a regular, but a bank customer is played by another herr future film director, joining us for the first time, Wesley Ruggles. Makes sense that he was an actor, since his brother is Charlie Ruggles (a thing I never knew until very recently).

So, these bank robbers come pigalleying into the bank, and, hilariously, Stockdale panics and flees, shoving Edna in his craven terror. She falls, is grabbed by the robbers, struggling desperately. She’s been such a bitch it’s hard not to experience a warm glow of schadenfreude. Edna really throws herself into the melodrama here. Feels like every short Chaplin makes requires her to extend herself, and she always does. I think I’d seen her as a bit of a lump before, but watching the films in sequence brings out her range.

Charlie leaps into action, deploying his full range of martial-arts moves: the arse-kick, the roundhouse face slap, and the flying drop-kick to the sternum. He not only propels two of the robbers into the walk-in safe, he slams both the barred gate and the big safe door, spinning the wheel lock and twisting the combination dial. Those guys better hope that thing’s not time-locked. If it is, they better hope Jimmy Valentine’s in the area.

Edna has now swooned, so Charlie hefts her on his shoulder, not, it must be said, without a certain difficulty. Kind of a worker ant scenario going on. Picking up a robber’s fallen pistol while carrying Edna really puts the strain on. Charlie is striking a balance, I’d say, between getting the available comedy out of the situ, and fat-shaming his leading lady. It’s not offensive, just honest.

The remaining heisters are subdued with similar efficiency — Edna actually comes to the rescue when Charlie is at a loss. By the end of this, Charlie is proper knackered. I did one of my bigger lols when he sat on a fallen robber’s head to call the kops. Now the cowardly cur Stockdale is found cowering under a desk, and summarily dismissed. The wretch. Edna is ashamed of ever having fancied the man-camel, as well she should be. Her affections turn to the mentally incompetent janitor. This is the point where it really does feel like a dream sequence. I’m curious to see how Chaplin’s going to handle the romance in later Purviance co-starrers, because there seems no way to make it plausible. I really can’t remember how he works it. He’s going to have to get less stupid, and the social distance between them will have to be reduced if there’s going to be any future in it.

Is Edna thinking, “Well, he possibly saved my life, and the bank, and he fancies me, so I suppose I owe him at least a quick fumble”? Retrieving his roses from the waste paper basket where he’s just re-dropped them, she nestles her head on his chest while he stares at us in wonderment —

— and wakes up cuddling his mop. That mop’s been a very useful prop, but this is its finest moment. Palpable disappointment at the return to reality. Prefiguring the audience’s own literal disenchantment when the illusion of this film is over. Even the film stock deteriorates at this point, which seems perfect in a way.

Edna is back with the repulsive Stockdale. It may be unfair, but I can’t find it in myself to forgive him for his caddish behaviour in Charlie’s dream.

Charlie throws away the flowers, with accompanying back-kick. This is not so much pathos as bitterness, actually. He turns to walk away, tries to switch from mopish to upbeat, but doesn’t seem to have built the set big enough to pull it off — the open road is better suited to this — and then the film is cut off — probably at least a second or two missing, and it could make all the difference.

A step forward! The pathos is integrated into the tone, and ameliorated with comedy so it goes down smooth. The Essanay phase is beginning to build towards the maturity of Mutual, but a couple of stumbles lie ahead — not really Chaplin’s, more Essanay and Leo White’s…

Grand Theft Jalopy

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2021 by dcairns

American women’s fashions in the 1910s were horrible, weren’t they? The pullover Edna Purviance wears in THE CHAMPION is the only thing she ever looked good in, that I can think of. In A JITNEY ELOPEMENT her frilly blouse makes her look like some kind of fancy pillow.

Still, she is Charlie’s darling, and when her father plans to wed her to some motheaten count, he personates said count (making him TRULY motheaten) to abscond with her. Leo White is the real count, of course — the fact that he looks like one may have been what suggested the film to Chaplin in the first place. His Little Fellow character would spend quite a lot of time personating dignitaries, starting with THE MASQUERADER, continuing through THE COUNT, and ending of course with his taking the place of the Phooey of Tomainia.

The name “Count Chloride de Lime” is moderately funny. Charlie trying to lord it up is amusing, but feels like it happens too soon in the story: we need to see him being himself a little more before we’re ready for this. Of course, we know what Charlie’s like as himself from other films, so the movie is maybe presuming on that familiarity, a sign of Chaplin’s increasing awareness of his success. I think the fact that he was so prolific in the early part of his year with Essanay (where he never felt quite at home) also suggests that he was trying to fulfill his contractual obligation as soon as he could, so he could be free to seek an even more rewarding deal elsewhere. So his sense that the Chaplin craze would be burned out within a year may have already been modified.

Edna’s dad performs a foul bit of expository mime for our benefit, pointing at Charlie then at his ring finger — yes, yes, we already know you want the Count to marry Edna, what do you think you’re playing at? I though Chaplin had eliminated this kind of laborious rigmarole when he left Keystone…

One way AJE improves on THE MASQUERADER is its simplicity. Whereas Keystone pics heap on plot wrinkles and complications, rarely resolving them with anything more satisfying than a tumble into standing water, the Essanay films allow Chaplin breathing room to play out simple situations. The set-up isn’t elaborate but the mucking about is.

Fun with bread! Charlie hasn’t got the idea of stealing the dance of the rolls from Fatty Arbuckle yet, but there’s a lovely bit where he distractedly tries to cut a slice from a loaf, slicing around in a long spiral rather than cutting through it, until he’s made a baked accordion of it. Best gag so far. Of course, in Charlie’s hands the loaf actually becomes a musical instrument.

Edna’s father is a very trusting man: he doesn’t wonder while Count Chloride is dressed like a tramp, nor why Edna is suddenly so keen on the fellow.

When a spoonful of beans is deposited on Charlie’s plate when he’s not looking, his surprise at finding it there is followed by a look skywards, as if it were birdshit — a gag repeated with a better choice of foodstuff in MODERN TIMES’ prison scene.

At 9:36 I think I can see Chaplin looking right at the camera and maybe saying “OK” or something. I don’t think he’s saying “cut” but I get the sense he’s breaking character.

Then a jalopy shows up, with Leo White in it. Leo seems to be the replacement for Ben Turpin as co-comedian. As Chaplin gained in confidence he would be less inclined to let anyone else be too funny, at least until the features. He was looking for a new Conklin at this point. White is obviously a different type from Chester and Ben, but he’s useful because of his toffee-nosed elegance. Charlie actually has the same air of gentility, but in his case it’s ironic. Leo is suavity in its natural colours.

This moment ought to create suspense, though there’s nothing formally to identify Leo as the Count. An intertitle could have cleared up any ambiguity, but Chaplin seems to be relying on the fact that Leo White couldn’t be called anything other than Count Chloride de Lime.

Charlie eats hot soup and blasts steam/smoke out his nostrils, a nifty special effect presumably achieved with the aid of a cigarette.

Upon Count Chloride presenting his card, Charlie is towed, naughty-boy, into the hall by his earlobe, where he fatalistically presents his behind for the customary boot. Which is delivered more in anger than sorrow. Charlie tips his hat meekly… then kicks his no-long-father-in-law-to-be in the guts, propelling him into the next set. By the time the old fellow has returned to the scene via the conventional Henry “Pathe” Lehrmann match cut on movement, Charlie has gone, which isn’t like him at all. I suspect missing footage. People never normally effect an exit in a Chaplin film without you getting to see it. The intertitle reading “Get out!” seems to have been spliced in to take care of this lacuna, but whether by Chaplin himself or later hands, I cannot say.

Edna receives the Count’s rather Italianate effusions with coldness, shaking her hand as if to cast off filthy droplets after he kisses it (but note: she shakes the wrong hand).

Edna, Pops and the Count go for an outing, and the deteriorated film stock gives this section a fogbound, Scottish look. Dank and dreary. It looks like David Hamilton’s been at the lens with his petroleum jelly. Pops, exhorting Edna to make nice with her creepy suitor, mimes another boot up the arse, but pulls his kick because leading ladies must not be treated so.

Edna’s revulsion at Leo’s advances is well-played, one of the few times Chaplin lets her be funny. Then she’s laughing at the holes in his trousers — he literally IS moth-eaten. Not clear why Edna’s dad is so keen on the match, the fiance being without finance. I guess he just likes titles.

Chaplin brings the film to a stop while he rolls a cigarette. This is done largely without gags, at great length and with huge detail and precision… then the fag paper unwraps and the whole thing disintegrates in his face. Textbook.

Defeated — and glancing at us with embarrassment — “Did they notice anything?” — he simply eats a handful of tobacco. The following action, however, when he lights up an ordinary ciggie, is pure filler.

Now Charlie confronts Leo, and we get an ornate bout of squabbling and low-level slapstick abuse. Fast, inventive, adroit. Ending with Leo’s silk hat rammed down over his eyes and the man himself ejected by boot into Edna’s oblivious father. Great and protracted tumbling over a log bench. (The varieties of park furniture in this era seem endless.

Enter two cops, a moustache and a face-puller, both equally thick. They try to follow Charlie but he fools them by walking backwards. The constabulary are played by the same clowns who were dad’s butlers, Lloyd Bacon and Paddy McGuire.

Rough-and-tumble with Edna as Charlie tries to spoon with her on a branch. The leading ladies post-Keystone were rarely subjected to such bruising ordeals. I think it’s a mark of comic respect when they get to fall over.

Charlie now fights Leo, Edna’s dad, the two cops (felled with two handy bricks, of the kind you always find lying around in parks) and a big cop, the inevitable Bud Jamison. There follows a vaguely Griffith-style chase, unusual for Chaplin. Lots of skidding, though. Then the couple steal a jalopy, though whether it’s actually a jitney (hire-cab) is unclear to me. Charlie unscrews the radiator cap and drops a coin in to make it go.

The “bad guys” (the forces of order) steal a car of their own, beating up the owner in their zeal. We drive past a huge windmill, a moment of sightseeing and majestic scale highly untypical of Chaplin at this time. Something about the giant rotating arms seems to confuse the drivers, who throw their vehicles into meaningless spins, like spiders on LSD. At one point, a missing-frames jump cut makes a car vanish before our eyes, apported to Meliesville.

Chaplin doesn’t seem inspired to come up with any proper gags in this scenario, but he tries out traveling shots taken alongside his car, dynamic depth compositions with the autos passing a whisker’s breadth from the camera, and various other visual strategies that didn’t normally interest him.

Charlie stops to load up with bricks, then has engine trouble. His pursuers, mere seconds behind in the preceding shot, never arrive in this one. Fixing the motor, he cocks his snook at them, drives off, and then we see the enemy trailing behind him by the exact same margin they were at before.

The bricks come in handy, knocking Bud from his seat into the road. We pause for a jalopy duel in a really interesting neighbourhood. Apparently this is San Francisco, and when you know that, the vertical structures make a bit more sense, as does the foggy diffusion effect. Though it’s weird to see people building UP in a flat, open area of quasi-suburban sprawl.

Chaplin is often criticised for his lack of interest in scenic values, so enjoy the novelty while you can. It’s not clear to me that this fresh architecture adds anything really useful to his cinema, it’s just mildly interesting to see.

Finally, the pursuing car is nudged into the bay, and Edna laughs wickedly at what seems to be her father’s demise, then puckers up for a chaste kiss from her rescuer, interrupted by an abrupt cut to black.

Interesting to see Chaplin try the kind of car chase associated more with Keystone but which he didn’t really do when he was there. He missed the chance to be the first one to go up and down those wretched hills, though.