Archive for The Champion

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.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2021 by dcairns

I should really have written about the one-reeler IN THE PARK last month, because that’s when it came out. I don;t mean March 2021, I mean March 1915. Though Chaplin slowed down his furious pace of production when he moved from Keystone to Essanay, this slight film came out a week after THE CHAMPION, and probably hadn’t taken much longer to plan, shoot and cut.

Immediate Leo White! He’s in a top hat so we can expect him to suck on some abuse shortly. He’s also making out with his girly on a bench, while Edna Purviance, graced with a medium close shot, looks on in a transport of vicarious romantic emotion. We know that’s what it is because the book she’s brought to read is called Why They Married (I looked it up: it’s a real book, by James Montgomery Flagg. I’m not going to read it, though, as I’m certain Chaplin never did).

This sequence seems to have been shot during a lightish but persistent drizzle, which everyone is improbably ignoring. But it could just be print damage, doing a fantastic imitation of rain: it seems sunny, too.

Charlie is introduced having his pocket picked by an unskilled hobo wearing clown stubble. The guy is so bad, Charlie picks his pocket while he thinks he’s picking Charlie’s pocket. Then Charlie watches Leo White and his girl getting it on for a while — a popular spectator sport, seemingly.

Bud Jamison turns up as Edna’s beau. Charlie had been using him as a Goliath foil, but here he seems well-suited to the part of straw-hatted Bunter. Suddenly he’s all eagerness, freed from the obligation to glower.

Edna is playing a nursemaid but she can’t be very good at it: she’s forgotten the baby. Hopefully she just left it at home and the poor thing’s not floating in Echo Park Lake as we watch the shenanigans here. (Did Essanay crews sometimes collide with Keystone crews while shooting park films? Yes, I’ve just decided, “park films” is a genre.)

After briefly annoying Leo (yes, the cane pokes the topper), Charlie spots Edna and starts flirting manically. She response with demure enthusiasm, because chicks dig tramps coming on to them. They don’t find it gross or threatening. Ever. Edna is so delighted she even shoots a shy glance at the camera, or at her sympathetic chums, the audience, showing an ability to break or at least puncture the fourth wall that Chaplin is increasingly reserving for himself.

A guess: Chaplin may have added these shots to enhance sympathy for his character. because when he joins Edna on her bench, she’s frosty to him, and he behaves like an annoying masher, even throwing one leg across her lap like a hobo Harpo (and Adolph Marx certainly saw a few Chaplin shorts in his no-doubt misspent youth).

The incompetent thief — future Warners director Lloyd Bacon — snatches Leo White’s date’s purse from the bench.

This exciting melodrama pauses while we watch Bud Jamison buy a sausage. And then take a gulp from a drinking fountain seemingly built into a tree. This is the kind of amazing stuff you simply don’t get in modern films.

The sausage seller is played by Ernest Van Pelt, who is in a couple more Chaplins, notably THE TRAMP.

The park is a wretched hive of scum and villainy — another hobo tries to rob the sausage vendor, smacking him about the face in a vicious battle for the coveted meat products. Charlie, having been seen off by Edna’s beau, joins the melee, walloping the attacker and then, naturally, filching a string of sausages while the vendor is shaking his hand in thanks. Then slapping the poor guy in the face with his own meat and legging it.

The dangling links also serve as a useful mace to knock Leo’s hat off, and then Charlie stuffs them in his jacket pocket, a loose end protruding for him to munch on in his usual unsanitary fashion. (Maybe this is a prequel to THE CHAMPION, showing how he came by the solitary sausage with which he starts that movie?) Just to amuse himself, Charlie experiments with stripper chest movements, by which he can swing the sausages up into his own gaping face-hole. Well, we’ve all done it.

The stolen purse now travels, in a series of filchings, from Bacon (who, appropriately, given his name, is drawn to Charlie’s sausages) to Charlie, to Bud, and back to Charlie. Then to Bud, Charlie, Bacon, Bud… I lost track. Then of course a cop (there’s always a cop — and we don’t call them kops any more, that’s a slur) shows up to make everyone want to disown the hot property they were just squabbling over.

As soon as the cop’s gone there’s a great threeway battle, deploying various kicks, roundhouse slaps, and even some brick-throwing for old time’s sake, enacted across a variety of variously damaged print fragments. Leo and his date are both bashed comatose by stray masonry, a brutal gag softened by the sweet sight of them sinking into unconsciousness together, her head on his shoulder.

As last clown standing, Charlie hooks the purse and departs, pausing to smash Leo deeper into unconsciousness, then falls into Edna’s baby carriage (good thing the occupant’s been abandoned somewhere in the middle of Sunset Blvd, he might have been hurt). Pausing only to hurl a brick and re-knock out Bud Jamison, he then flirts some more, and gifts the purse to her — she’s virtually the only character not to have held it thus far, so only fair she should get a shot of it. The cop turns up, Charlie flees.

The slumbering Bud makes a handy ashtray. People are always objects to Charlie, at least potentially. On the other hand, objects are potentially people. Or other objects. The natural state of the universe is flux. Bud soon awakens, spitting fag-ash from under his cookie-duster, and is outraged to see Charlie making heavily made-up eyes at his girl.

Charlie is seen off to another bench — the short is a fantastic guide to the variety of park furniture available in 1915 Los Angeles, which could possibly be useful to someone in some context I can’t quite visualise.

Leo and his lady awaken and the missing purse is discovered (missing). I’ve been calling it a purse, the IMDb calls it a pocketbook, but Leona Anderson clearly mouths the words “My bag” several times. So it’s a bag. And Leona is “Broncho” Billy Anderson’s little sister, and also the creator of what Wikipedia calls her “1957 shrill music album Music to Suffer By.” I’m not going to read Edna’s book but I HAD to listen to Leona’s record. Here’s a sample, appropriately enough a BURLESQUE ON CARMEN:

Poor Leo, meanwhile, is suicidal, proposing in a barnstormer’s wide gestures to toss himself in the lake. Charlie happens by and is enlisted as helper. There’s a brief moment where he looks set to mine the profitable “I’m dealing with a lunatic” thing he made such great effects out of later (dealing with the drunken millionaire in CITY LIGHTS) but then he simply falls in obligingly with the plan. Leo is to be propelled into the drink by a boot up the arse, so it’s certainly within Charlie’s bailiwick. He tenderly lifts Leo’s coat tails so the kick shall have its proper impact.

Leo, precipitated into the pond, blows a farewell kiss and submerges himself. It seems he’s just going to sit on the lake bed and drown himself in four feet of water.

Bud Jamison meanwhile is hauled off by the law after being found in possession of Miss Anderson’s bag, but then suspicion falls on Charlie. Well, if it worked once… Charlie kicks Bud and the cop into the lake. So, they’re wet, but Leo is dead. The end.

I guess the suicide business was something floating around in Chaplin’s mind that he knew he wanted to do something with. CITY LIGHTS is where he managed it, with the bipolar rich drunk. So it took about sixteen years to click. But it was worth it.

Charlie the Champion

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2021 by dcairns

So, Leo White just turned up in THE CHAMPION, playing the kind of mock-melodramatic villain Chaplin himself had essayed a few times at Keystone. He’s impressively sleekit. He went on to bit parts in feature films up until the forties, including MR. SKEFFINGTON and CASABLANCA (I guess everybody really DOES come to Rick’s). I imagine he’d changed his look by then.

Unusual to see three short people in a row: silent slapsticks thrived on physical contrasts. Also unusual: Edna gets a medium shot. It’s simply used as a cutaway, which is what Chaplin did with most of his closer angles.

The Snidely type offers Charlie five big ones to take a fall, wafting the notes under his nose until the bribee attempts to filch one with his teeth. An oft-repeated gag: Legree keeps slapping Charlie on the back, heartily, until he gets laid out with a retaliatory slap. Charlie then pockets the money — it’s not certain that he intends to take a dive, but he may not have the option.

On waking up, Dastardly actually says “Curses!” and gives a little invisible maracas-type wag of his fists. Never knowingly underplayed. He confronts Charlie. An essentially honest man, Charlie intends to simply keep the money and do nothing in return. He wrestles with his conscience — and wins. When Snidely Dastardly Legree follows him into the shower with a small pistol, he drenches the scoundrel.

The big night: Charlie’s dog, forgotten about for at least a reel, makes his return, watching as Charlie prepares for the match by slugging down beer (the thing he’s best at slugging). Charlie shakes the anonymous pooch’s paw before going to his doom. The dog’s expression, indeed its whole attitude, is pretty funny.

And “Broncho” Billy Anderson, Charlie’s employer at Essanay, makes a cameo in the front row of the audience. Simon Dick Whiplash has just sat down on him by mistake.

Moments later, Ben Turpin, sans cookie-duster, appears as a belligerent ringside vendor, clambering over the audience to deliver his wares.

In Charlie’s last fight, in THE KNOCKOUT, he was the referee, and had to compete for attention with a riot of other clowns. Here, even in a wide-shot, the action is arranged so he’s always the centre of attention.

Upon catching sight of his opponent, Charlie goes into a series of overlapping faints. He then rubs his tiny buttocks in the sandbox, like a dog dealing with a dag, until they are two white spots.

What follows seems every bit as choreographed as the fight in CITY LIGHTS, but there’s less attention to character, with Chaplin simply trying whatever seems funny in the moment. It’s very skilled, but there isn’t an overarching comic idea. Charlie as coward, Charlie as incompetent, Charlie fighting while concussed… it leaps from one inspiration to another. Charlie is suddenly good enough at boxing to knock the champ down. As in CITY LIGHTS and THE KNOCKOUT, the ref gets a drubbing. Charlie discovers that when a punch from the champ sends him into a stagger, a punch from himself can revive him. The gag of the ref trying to count out two dazed boxers at once, as they keep getting up and falling down, appears here for the first time. It’s a good one.

Repeating gags, like trying to use his opponent as a chair when he’s knocked over onto his shoulders with his ass up, allows Charlie to double the laughs (slower audience members only catching on the second time round) and to emphasise the resemblance to a dance, which is a gag in itself. Keaton, who never repeated a gag, was doing things the hard way, as always.

The dog gets a closeup. Charlie’s never had one.

The fight goes from round one to round twenty when Charlie flips the card. There have in fact been multiple rounds, we’ve seen the fighters return to their corners (Charlie’s trainers “revive” him more vigorously/brutally each time) but apparently the art dept. only had one card made.

Finally, appalled at the spectacle of his master’s pulverisation, the pooch enters the ring and takes hold of Bob Uppercut’s leotards. Broncho Billy performs an expository mime in the audience, repeatedly pointing at his own derriere. The dog is swung around by his jaws but does not release Bob’s seat. It’s pulled by the hind legs. He has a death grip. He’s trailing bonelessly from his rear end, a mere carcass, all his powers of concentration invested in his teeth. This ain’t exactly Queensberry Rules, but Charlie seizes the moment just as his dog has.

Charlie has forgotten to include any cutaways of Edna during the fight — apparently she wasn’t there, but she comes in handy as a fade-out shot. Taking the romance very slightly seriously allows the film to end on something other than the climax of a chase or battle, as if it actually meant something. Later, maybe it will.

It’s a lovely shot, too.