Archive for The Fatal Mallet

I’m a prestidigitator who works in a world of legerdemain

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2021 by dcairns

— those were the words four-year-old Jackie Coogan used to introduce himself to Chaplin. David Robinson notes that, with Chaplin’s love of words (something we might not expect from a silent comedian), this was bound to endear him as well as impress him. It’s also a good job description of Chaplin, and his magic act in the following sequence from THE KID shows him a veritable Cagliostro.

“I must go now, but I’ll return,” says Edna, anticipating Chaplin’s VO in THE GOLD RUSH: “I am going, but when I return, I will come back again.”

Jackie’s illness is too sudden and unmotivated to work as pathos, at least to my eyes, but it gets us where we’re going: a doctor is called (a good bit from one Jules Hanft) and Charlie happens to admit to not being Jackie’s natural father. The doc, being an officious busybody as well as an idiot, reports the case. Charlie has shown him the note that says “Please love and care for this orphan child,” which does not say “Please put this child in an uncaring institution.”

This is raw stuff for Chaplin, of course, who had been in the workhouse as a boy when his mother became too mentally ill to care for her sons. Nestor Almendros filmed an interview with Chaplin late in his life, and when asked if he was happy, CC replied “Yes, of course, I’ve got money.” Almendros was appalled by this shallow and materialistic reply, but think about what’s behind it.

Chaplin now follows the DW Griffith rulebook: charity workers, social workers and the like are baddies, just like kops. (Something I was told at a party by a social worker: if a department has a particularly bad case, like a child who gets murdered by their stepdad while supposedly being monitored by social services, the department gets its budget cut — of course making further tragedies more likely, not less,)

Incidentally, the doctor gets to do something Chaplin’s supporting cast are rarely allowed to do, post-Keystone: he turns and appeals to the audience. I guess he’s that kind of guy. Charlie’s doing it too, so why not?

The doc blusters off, still complaining about everything in sight — he’s sat on the toilet-chair which broke, the place is filthy, the stairs nearly kill him. Look how tiny Charlie’s hands are. Now it’s September!

Now the two brutes from the orphan asylum turn up. Fantastic the way the one in charge won’t even talk to Charlie, relaying his questions (“Ask him where the kid is,” while Jackie is in plain view) through his doltish underling.

Things escalate fast — these guys, apart from their lack of human empathy, are incredibly bad at their jobs. Chaplin has learned, possibly from Griffith, how to amplify the emotion of a scene with a well-placed closer shot:

jackie saves the day for now, striking both intruders with a hammer and chasing them away. Appropriately enough, I think it’s a chasing hammer. I’m interested in the balance of comedy and drama in the next sequence, the point where Chaplin’s use of comedy and melodrama together reached the sublime. The hammer thumps are something we’ve seen in Chaplin comedies before — THE FATAL MALLET is almost entirely devoted to blows on the head — and it’s gratifying to see these guys receive them, but they’re not played particularly for laughs here. We’re too concerned with the drama to be ready to laugh, I think.

The orphanarium guys return with the film’s chief kop, Tom Wilson. Wilson’s never hugely funny, but that’s fine here, we want a bit of unleavened menace. The supervisor gets a bowl of flour smashed in his face — good, good — but again, it’s part of a dramatic struggle, not funny. Jackie is successfully abducted.

Coogan, interviewed by Brownlow & Gill, describes how his hysteria in this scene was produced simply by Chaplin talking to him, explaining the meaning of the scene, a kind of hypnosis. No child cruelty was involved, though one suspects Jack Coogan Sr. would have been on board if it had been.

That interview is one of the greatest things ever, though I sadly note that Jackie is NO LONGER CUTE. I’m impressed that the camera operator risks a zoom at a key moment, as an emotional intensifier.

Meanwhile, Charlie is struggling with the two heavies, looking straight at us — a little too much? Never mind. Chaplin’s cinema is inherently proscenium-like, our presence as audience is regularly implied, the fourth wall is not only broken, it’s dissolved, and the effect is whatever the opposite of verfremsdungseffekt might be,

The asylum guy gets two more blows on the head, and this is technically slapstick, in the midst of tragedy, so it plays a little oddly but not so it bothers us. Charlie escapes through a skylight and we now get an exciting rooftop chase as he clambers along the houses, actually preceding the child-catcher’s van down the street, before jumping in the back of it and duffing up the supervisor.

The IMDb lists Frank Campeau as the Welfare Officer (a better title than the ones I’ve been giving him) but Campeau, a character guy for Fairbanks and later in many westerns, seems to be a different man with a different man’s face, so I would like to know who this excellent baddie is.

Again, the W.O. getting kicked from the van and left in the dust is very satisfying, but doesn’t play as comedy, exactly. It’s a slightly amusing incident in a dramatic situation in a comic film.

The eventual embrace with Jackie is unbearably emotional. And then, as Coogan noted years later, Chaplin felt the need to top it off with a bit of humour, so he chases the driver away with a series of feints — now that we know it;s going to be alright, we can laugh freely, and it’s a terrific release. Charlie & Jackie then walk off, victorious.

BUT — in a genuinely clever bit of plotting, the doctor now shows Edna the note which Charlie showed him, and the third act is set in motion IMMEDIATELY.

I will write about this tomorrow.

It’s Hammer Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2020 by dcairns

I’ve written, briefly, about THE FATAL MALLET before, but its brand of bucolic mayhem plays differently when you watch all the early Chaplins in order, I promise.

This one is simple, violent and deeply stupid. Mabel has two suitors, both grubby, disreputable and subnormal, which makes no sense at all but that’s the premise. Accept it and see what happens. What happens is what the Chaplin Encyclopedia calls “barnyard antics,” and what I call stupid people hitting each other, Keystone Komedy’s stock-in-trade. The rustic setting turns it into a meditation on the beauties of nature and the terrible things we do in it, like THE THIN RED LINE but with more false moustaches.

Introduced by Mabel to her slovenly beau — Mack Sennett, her real-life perpetual fiancé, unrecognizable in his degenerate disguise — Charlie reacts roughly like a three-year-old, and shoves Mack in the face. Then he get slightly more sophisticated, points offscreen (“Look, a baby wolf”) and leads the unprotesting Mabel away while Mack is staring vacantly into that unseen realm beyond the frame where all the good stuff happens in Robert Bresson films.

What follows is an escalating tit-for-tat routine with little idylls of childish wooing interspersed. Some of these show Chaplin adding fresh expressivity to the Tramp, as he performs dainty tricks for his lady. This is the first film where the Tramp is not drunk. Maybe there’s more can be done with this character than just getting shitfaced and annoying women?

What just happened?

Mabel throws herself into the knockabout with girlish glee — Chaplin in drag could get smacked all over the screen and it was funny because of the costume. Hitting Mabel isn’t automatically funny at all, so the violence has to have an element of the accidental, the ironic, if a kick up a lady’s arse can be ironic. So she only takes a brick to the face when it’s aimed at Mack. And she gives as good as she gets, smacking Charlie unconscious with a single blow.

Suddenly another, even larger Mack turns up, Mack Swain, who it seems is in fact Mabel’s swain. He is handsomely dressed, unlike the two stumblebutt ragamuffins she’s been idling with. Sensing that this supermack is a formidable character, Charlie and Mini-Mack stock up on bricks…

“This one-reeler proves that hitting people over the head with bricks and mallets can sometimes be made amusing,” said Moving Picture World. I see imitative behaviour problems with a statement like that.

A new gag: heretofore in Keystone skirmishes, violence has always been effective. A blow on the head with a brick WORKS. Swain casts all this comfortable certainty into question: his skull is apparently constructed on cannonball lines, and he is invulnerable to the most savage four-brick conk on the nut. What now?

Again, Chaplin is making use of the David & Goliath paradigm that will serve him so well with Eric Campbell in just a few years. But the David is not a very sympathetic figure here. The rather courtly Swain deserves Mabel’s hand. Charlie deserves a fractured skull.

After a fair bit more brick-hurling, the mallet is discovered. I’m not really sure this qualifies as a dramatic turning point of the Robert McKee-approved school. I’m uncertain a blow from a mallet is any more devastating than a brick to the face, you see. All I can really say for sure is that this film has both. I do, however, like the superstitious awe with which Sennett regards the weapon — a thing almost beyond his comprehension, like the monolith appearing to the apemen in 2001.

Sennett’s very good here. His character has a certain authentic ugliness owing little if anything to the makeup box, and his presence grounds Charlie in a seedy not-quite-reality.

The mallet works! Swain is rendered comatose. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Now that the mallet’s deadly power is unleashed upon the world, it is anyone’s to use. So Charlie brains the other Mack with it. The romantic square becomes a triangle, then a simple line.

Enter Tiny Tarzan, Chaplin’s original kid, Gordon Griffith. Like everyone else in the film, he has the hots for Mabel. I look forward to someone concussing him with a blunt instrument. You think they won’t? OK, they’re more merciful: Charlie simply kicks the sprog out of frame and gets back to flirting with Mabel in a small patch of hay.

Both Macks reawaken but are locked together in a shed. Good cowering from Sennett, textbook rising-to-his-full-height from Swain. They break free, and the ritual Kicking the Co-Stars into Echo Lake Duck Pond finish is enacted, with Sennett finally walking away with Mabel. Well, he is the producer.

Sennett makes a pretty good support for Chaplin. I think he thought he was going to be co-lead. He cameos in a few more shorts, but never played a major role with his protégé again.

Mabel Bodied

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2014 by dcairns


More Mabel Normand over at Mubi, as The Notebook presents this fortnight’s edition of The Forgotten.

The kid getting fresh is Gordon Griffith, the screen’s first Tarzan. Although Elmo Lincoln played the King of the Apes in 1918, little GG played his younger self, thus preceding Elmo to the role by minutes. Here, he gets some practice in with a “Me Gordon, you Mabel,” routine. From century-old Keystone knockabout THE FATAL MALLET.