Archive for The Fireman

Vagabondage and Discipline

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2021 by dcairns

David Robinson regards THE VAGABOND as a major step forward for Chaplin, and I guess he’s right. The title implies a development from THE TRAMP, and it looks forward to THE KID, A WOMAN OF PARIS, and others.

Robinson also says that Chaplin was virtually the last to realize how famous he’d become, but the opening shot of this one — the Tramp identified by his boots and walk alone — shows that he was at least somewhat aware of how iconic his costume and stance had become. Same with introducing himself from the rear in THE FLOORWALKER, but this is altogether more stylish.

The opening sequence is a bit of standalone knockabout, the kind of thing we see Chaplin doing more of in his feature films. Introduce the Little Fellow, get some big laughs, then start the story. Charlie is a busker — Chaplin played the violin for real, and would do so again in LIMELIGHT. At the orphanage, Chaplin had been beaten for being left-handed and as a result had become ambidextrous, but he played the violin left-handed and had the instrument strung accordingly, “with the bass-bar and sounding post reversed.”

When his friend Jascha Heifetz picked up Chaplin’s violin, he couldn’t play it. Chaplin demonstrated: ““You see! I am made inside out and upside down. When I turn my back on you on the screen you are looking at something as expressive as a face.”

Charlie plays outside a bar, but a noisy oompah band (played by all the firemen from THE FIREMAN) impress the customers. When he goes in to collect donations, he’s mistaken for a member of the band. Then the band send someone in and a fight breaks out. Oh, and here’s Leo White in his longest beard yet, playing a Jewish customer tempted by the ham. A bit of very mild Jewish humour to prepare us for the more dubious racial stereotyping later.

The set built for this sequence is very interesting — the long bar constructed as both interior and exterior, enabling a different kind of running battle. Chaplin’s loose approach to story — building it from rehearsal/improvisation — suggests he may have been hoping this sequence would lead organically into a larger story.

Instead, his next scene abruptly relocates Charlie to the countryside. Edna is “the gypsy drudge,” horribly mistreated by a crone — Leo White in drag! — and the gypsy chieftain, Eric Campbell in a straight villain role. The brutal whippings Edna is receiving suggest it’s miraculous she’s reached adulthood.

Charlie happens along and tries to cheer Edna up. His initial motivation seems to be profit, though why (a) he’d expect the ragged and miserable Edna to have money and (b) why he thinks he can impress the stereotyped Romany camp with his fiddling — coals to Newcastle, surely? — are moot points.

Chaplin, interestingly, was probably part Roma himself. Which doesn’t make his using the racist trope of “gypsies abducting babies” any better. He’s thoughlessly following a familiar plotline, as previously exploited in D.W. Griffith’s first short, THE ADVENTURE OF DOLLIE. Everybody seems to have believed travelling people routinely stole kids, or at least they found it a perfectly acceptable premise for a story, whether they believed it or not. Sigh.

Oh, and Chaplin has already introduced this theme with a short scene showing the very rich mother (palatial home — two women knitting). The cut from mother looking at little girl photo to Edna makes it all but explicit what the connection is, so the plot twist doesn’t come as a deus ex machina later.

THE VAGABOND has smoothed over the awkward changes in tone that Walter Kerr found so jarring and unresolved in THE TRAMP, though it’s still a little disconcerting to have Charlie walk into this scene of horror. Only when he starts to fight back against Eric and the rest of his gang do these tensions flow together into a coherent line of action. It’s very exciting when they do. But it only works if you can root for Charlie and forget about the racist assumptions underlying the scene.

Charlie up a tree stealth-bonking the Romany scoundrels on the nut, one after the other, until they’re all neatly laid out unconscious, is thrilling and funny. When he nudges one prone foe off the bridge, presumably into a watery grave, it seems to be an act performed in a spirit of neatness. This is what we mean by “pre-Holocaust comedy.”

Charlie escapes with Edna in a stolen caravan, an excitingly staged mini-chase. I think the comic-dramatic exciting chase, where you root for the hero against the villain(s), is fairly new to Chaplin. There’s some of it in THE TRAMP.

There follows a chaste idyll, the first of many in Chaplin’s films. In fact, Charlie washing Edna’s face is directly echoed in his fatherly ministrations to Jackie Coogan in THE KID — and it’s more appropriate there, too. This idyll is arguably TOO idyllic — it’s interspersed with Edna meeting The Painter (Lloyd Bacon, who played her father in the previous short), an idyll within an idyll. The painter isn’t very interesting, and it’s hard to see why Edna is so impressed with him. I mean, sure he’s cultured, but how good is he at killing gypsies?

The painting complete, it is shown — rather obviously a glazed photograph — in an art gallery, in Chaplin’s first really successful camera move, an elegant pull-back. And the rich lady, setting aside her knitting for a day out, spots the painting, and she and the painter ride out to the country so Edna can be retrieved.

The painter’s feelings aren’t much gone into. Having painted Edna as “the Living Shamrock” (owing to the oddly configured birthmark her mother will recognise) he would seem to have lost all interest in her, but now he’s excited again. Probably because Edna turns out to be posh, with a rich mother who lives in a mansion, wears elegant robes, and eats regularly. I’d suspect the painter of mercenary motives if he wasn’t so obviously a plot function with an easel.

Charlie is left alone. He tries kicking his heels to restore his spirits — it worked in THE TRAMP — but he is inconsolable. But, as she drives away in her mother’s limo, Edna has second thoughts. It’s a very nice shot, done in a real automobile, because we can see both Edna’s dawning romantic yearning, and the road stretching away through the rear window, showing the distance between the lovers inexorably lengthening.

But the car turns round, picks up Charlie, and the film ends with the open road but nobody on it. One might worry a little about the abandoned horse. One is more likely to wonder about the characters’ future, about how Charlie and the respectable folks are going to get along. It’s a question begged, but ultimately refused, by the endings of THE KID and CITY LIGHTS, which stop just before the questions become pressing.

Chaplin apparently considered other endings, including a gag finish where he’d try to drown himself, get hauled into a row boat by a passing woman, then throw himself back in when he sees she’s the unglamorous Phyllis Allen. I think we can all be grateful he decided against that one. But it leaves THE VAGABOND as an odd story that starts totally comical and ends totally serious, with little in the way of comedy in its last ten minutes. But it works — and one imagines this gave Chaplin additional confidence. However, his NEXT film refuses all sentiment, dispenses with the supporting cast, and pretty much leaves out the Little Fellow…

Hosed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2021 by dcairns

David Robinson reckons both THE FLOORWALKER and Chaplin’s second Mutual film, THE FIREMAN, mark a retreat from the romance and pathos that had crept in to some of the later Essanay films, into straight knockabout. He’s not wrong. You could argue that Charlie’s relationship with Eric Campbell is the true romance in both films.

What’s surprising to me is the comparative weakness of the endings, after the magnificent final shot of POLICE. We’re back to the throwaway. Still, there’s a huge amount to admire.

In POLICE, Chaplin offered us a glimpse of what kops get up to on their off-ours — sitting around drinking tea. Here, we’re granted a similar intimate view of the fire brigade. The slapstick is framed almost as a documentary: THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN would be a good alternative title.

Eschewing his new studio, Chaplin filmed in a real fire station and at two derelict buildings which the production torched for the occasion.

Chaplin opens with “the fire drill” — imagined as an elaborate zouave routine. This is slightly funny and mostly baffling if you’re not familiar with zouaves. I know Keaton’s THE PLAYHOUSE fairly well so I’m OK. Also, I think I’ve spotted Snub Pollard (far right) in a Chaplin film for the first time, though neither IMDb nor Wikipedia list him. But they have him down for LIFE/POLICE/TRIPLE TROUBLE so I think I’m right.

Charlie has slept in and missed the drill. Funny how his introduction here — asleep, (in repose his face assumes a solemn genius attitude) then waking, realizing he’s late, and descending fire pole — pre-echoes Rufus T. Firefly’s first moments in DUCK SOUP. Although Charlie’s wild exotic-dancer spin around the pole causes his legs to hit the rim of the hole, so his upper body descends ahead of his lower, making him land (on Eric Campbell) upside down.

Which Eric isn’t too pleased about.

Casting Campbell as Charlie’s boss, rather than as out-and-out villain (though he’s still pretty villainous, as we’ll see), works beautifully — they’re forced into each others’ company more. Charlie’s infuriating incompetence becomes a sympathetic trait because his boss is such a blowhard. This works until there’s actually a fire.

Charlie now fetches the horses, the part of the operation they’ve foolishly put him in charge of. But he shows some skill in persuading them to walk backwards. This is the first of several reverse-motion gags in the film. Chaplin doesn’t use camera tricks often, but there are more reverse shots in PAY DAY. Seconds later, Charlie, having ridden the horses and cart out into the street without the engine and crew, makes the whole cart go in reverse too.

Shots of Charlie commanding the horses actually use a husky “double.”

Kevin McDonald made a whole documentary, Chaplin’s Goliath, about Eric Campbell, funded and predicated on the star being Scottish, born in Dunoon. Which it turns out he wasn’t. He just liked the IDEA of being Scottish. He hadn’t heard Ewan McGregor, in a film produced by Kevin’s brother Andrew, express the last word on the condition of Scottishness.

Booted up the arse by Eric, Charlie takes it out on Albert Austin, a fellow Karno company comic from Birmingham. I must try imagining a Brummie accent issuing from under that huge cookie-duster.

There’s a lot of arse-kicking in this film. I know you’re going to say that there is in every Chaplin film, but in this one it’s almost excessive, if that were possible. What THE FLOORWALKER does for strangling, THE FIRE MAN does for arse-kicking.

I watched this one with Fiona and ehs was horrified at Charlie drying his hands in a man’s hair. I said, “People and objects — they’re so similar! How can anyone be expected to keep them straight?” I shall have more to say about CC’s gift of universal transposition.

Another job Charlie shouldn’t be trusted with is helping serve meals.

The fact that Chaplin fills the coffee cups, and adds the milk, using the taps on the fire engine, is not half so delightful as the way he holds five cups in one hand, somehow getting his tiny thumb and forefinger through all five handles, creating an ARRAY of cups which he fills in one go by walking in an arc under the tap. The way he does it, it seems to make sense. I’m almost certain he could have achieved it merely by bending his wrist, but this is more beautiful.

That part of the operation goes comparatively well but they also trust him to serve the soup. Bad idea. Eric will spend the next scene looking like a swamp monster. He already looks, as Fiona said, like the Honey Monster. Even Charlie realizes this is cause for alarm, and he goes to the stable to stand in a corner as if awaiting the attentions of the Blair Witch. The colossal smack Eric gives him leads to several seconds of apparent pathos, where Charlie lies prone, possibly with a fractured skull and Eric, aghast, pleads with him for forgiveness. Then Charlie kicks him into a large basin of water and legs it.

So it goes in this film — every moment of pathos is really just a set-up for more slapstick. Chaplin is adept not only at pulling the rug from under our feet, but at sliding it there, inch by inch, while our attention is elsewhere.

Since Charlie must now flee, his directorial side resorts to another reverse-motion gag, as he shimmies UP the firepole to the safety of bed. “Something wrong between you and the pole, Montag?” Big Eric attempts to haul his vast form up in pursuit, but he doesn’t have trick effects to help him (he’s not the director of this film). Chaplin kneeling to pray reminds me of the words Budd Schulberg put in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mouth.

“Know the secret of Charlie? Not a man at all. Sneaks up in attic, puts on father’s clothes, pants too big, shoes too big, wears all kinds of different clothes together, anything he happens to find lying around. Then he pretends he’s grown up. But it’s all a dream.

“Don’t think of Charlie as an adult acting like a child but as a child acting like a grown-up.

“Notice how there’s always a big brute of a man pushing Charlie around — prospector in Gold Rush, millionaire in City Lights, employer in Modern Times, always the same father image, switching suddenly from love to hatred of Charlie like the millionaire picks him up when he’s drunk takes him home lovingly tucks him in, then sobers up in the morning an’ throws him out.”

Enter Edna — in a really striking outfit. Checkerboard top and UFO hat. She’s with her father, played by Lloyd Bacon, who would have had to have sired her aged six, but it’s exactly as convincing as it needs to be. It’s striking also that the Bacon character is underplayed, functional — not every man has to be a circus clown anymore.

It’s an unusually ambiguous role for EP. Her pop is going to burn the house down for the insurance, and he wants Big Eric to be sure not to extinguish it. Edna appears to be privy to the scheme, and appears to be leading Eric on, heartlessly, manipulating the big galoot. She flirts with Charlie too, but as soon as she’s alone a bitter frown creeps over her features and she mouths “Men!” with contempt.

The only reason I say it’s ambiguous is that she’s also used as romantic interest for Charlie. Chaplin’s indecision about how to resolve this romance may explain the abruptness of the ending.

I must say, Edna’s various reactions to the soupy Eric are very enjoyable. She even gets to do one of those splashed-in-the-eye flinches.

The next phase of the film I find the least enjoyable. Leo White, inevitably playing a man in a silk hat and pointy beard, finds his house on fire. Charlie is too busy playing checkers with Albert Austin to respond, and even muffles the fire bell with a cloth so he can play on undisturbed. This goes on for a very long time, with the distraught homeowner trying every possible means to alert the firefighters.

So, though David Robinson on the face of it is correct to say that Chaplin apparently bore no grudge over the recutting of A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, from the way he treats his character way may doubt this. This is the meanest gag Chaplin has done for a while, even though it’s motivated by the Little Fellow’s well-established fecklessness rather than by the malice we see in LAUGHING GAS or THE PROPERTY MAN. As I say, it’s also spectacularly sustained. Within the film, only the fact that he has a posh hat justifies torturing White’s character this way. Non-diegetically, there may be other reasons.

The only thing interrupting this housefire, which the crew are pretty useless at extinguishing even when they arrive — cue Charlie drenching everyone with the hose, a gag that’s funnier in some other, weirder context — the only thing interrupting this fire, I say, is another fire.

Bacon has torched the homestead with Edna inside. Now he tears around the suburban LA wasteland looking for the fire brigade. Charlie rushes to the rescue so furiously he leaves everyone else behind, and all the equipment. Fortunately, the abandoned house Mutual have bought to incinerate has handy ledges all the way up, which Charlie — not a stuntman, incredibly, and he makes sure we see this — climbs, three storeys up, to Edna’s window. Then climbs down with a suspiciously slender dummy with suspiciously dark hair hanging limply from his neck.

Still pretty damn impressive, though. You wouldn’t catch me doing it. I’ve always assumed that a big difference between Chaplin and Keaton was that Chaplin had little interest in flirting with death. But when the gag calls for it…

Having rescued Edna, Charlie collapses and does the fake pathos thing again, so that he can sit up, quite unharmed, once Eric and the gang have rushed off to fetch some water. And so he simply walks off with Edna and the film stops. I remark that I thought for an instant they were going to blithely walk back into the blazing building. Fiona said, “Keaton would have done that.”

She’s a Keaton gal but she’s learned you can enjoy both.

The Sunday Intertitle: Monologues in front of Burning Cities

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2009 by dcairns

From Chaplin’s THE FIREMAN (1916) — I had to pick a short to watch since I was way behind on my silent-movie viewing and wanted something I could see quickly and write about. And then it turned out that this movie had no intertitles whatsoever for practically the first half. Which worked fine, except Chaplin was limited to basic kicking-up-the-arse slapstick by the lack of any verbal content.

Edna Purviance, the most consistently badly-dressed woman in all cinema, with future director Lloyd Bacon, Chaplin, and Big Eric.

Chief enemy in the film is fire chief Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s semi-permanent antagonist in all the Mutual shorts. A colossal, hard-drinking Scotsman from Dunoon, Campbell eventually wiped himself out with his persistent drunk driving. Fellow Scot Kevin MacDonald made a nice little documentary about the big fellow, hampered by the fact that no interviews or real documentary footage exists (just a few home movies on Chaplin’s set, and some deleted scenes and outtakes) and absolutely nobody is alive who met Campbell. Nevertheless, MacDonald tells a decent story, although he erroneously claims Campbell as the first Scottish movie star: several others have been nominated for this position, although Campbell is the best-remembered.

A spectacular miniature, complete with mini-firemen, in THE BELLS GO DOWN.

By what seemed at the time like a coincidence, but probably wasn’t, I also found myself running THE BELLS GO DOWN, directed by Basil Dearden from a screenplay by Roger MacDougall, made at Ealing in 1943. It’s sort of the multi-strand network narrative comedy-drama version of the more celebrated quasi-documentary FIRES WERE STARTED, which disgracefully I still haven’t seen. Both are about volunteer firemen in Blitz-torn London, and have the urgency that comes from being made at the time. And while the contemporaneous war could easily have resulted in propagandistic and dishonest filmmaking, my feeling is that it doesn’t, here. Any jingoistic qualities are mitigated by the fact that the movie deals with civilians trying to survive, not soldiers trying to win, and in common with a lot of British wartime filmmaking, the emphasis is on celebrating the struggle of the little fellow, and the values of British society at the time.

Our Scottish fire chief in this movie is Finlay Currie, and further interest is provided by Mervyn John’s professional thief who uses the fire service as a sort of cover, and by William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who, much later), a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who gets all the words of wisdom MacDougall’s literate script has to offer. When air raids on London seem unlikely, the firemen are laughed at for being useless:

“Our cities are still behind the lines. When someone starts to pin medals on us, it’ll mean they’ve moved right up to the front. It’ll mean… another Rotterdam, another Warsaw. Right here in England. They’ll call us heroes if it comes to that. I’d rather they went on laughing.”

There’s also James Mason, with a not-totally comfortable cockney accent, but a fine, emotive face, especially handsome when smeared with soot and sweat, and cheeky chappie funnyman Tommy Trinder, a very strange piece of casting, since he’s inescapably music-hall in everything he does, a floating slice of theatre adrift amid the spectacular miniature dioramas of flame-engulfed London. Essentially a sort of elongated Ray Davies figure, only with the good cheer turned up to eleven, he nevertheless injects some surprise and pleasure into the movie, even while threatening to punch a hole in it below the credibility waterline. Caught making unauthorized use of fire station phones, he’s told, “You can’t do that!”

“No, I can. Most people can’t. I’m different!”

It’s a given that stirring dramas like this will show its disparate crew of selfish civilians putting their own needs and differences aside for the national good (that aspect IS straight propaganda), but Tommy’s transition from clown to hero is effected with surprising grace and narrative ruthlessness. Impressive stuff, and not just for the model shots.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 1 [1916] [DVD]

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Films – Vol. 2 [DVD]