Archive for The Gold Rush

The Sunday Intertitle: Mr. Wow-Wow goes to the Races, or, Drive, he didn’t say

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2020 by dcairns

GENTLEMEN OF NERVE is another bloody Keystone racing film, crammed with busy comics — Mabel is off to the races with Mr. Walrus (Chester Conklin) and Mr. Ambrose (Mack Swain) competing for her favours, Charlie is there too. Maybe this was due to a desire to play it safe after the expensive and extensive DOUGH AND DYNAMITE (which made a huge profit in the end so they needn’t have worried).

The idea of intercutting documentary footage of auto races with capering clowns is a weird one, but one that Keystone — and Chaplin — returned to remorselessly. The documentary dilutes the slapstick and the slapstick… well, it doesn’t harm the documentary because that’s just utterly boring. This one has a crazily long shot of a tyre being changed to set the scene. It’s against the clock, but Chaplin is not the kind of filmmaker who can create exciting suspense from a technical exercise involving non-characters. He just tripods it, panning about a foot one way, then back again. It’s not exactly THE WAGES OF FEAR, is it?

Big Phyllis Allen makes a pass at Chester and he’s tempted to ditch Mabel, which seems… strange. But maybe he likes them large. Mabel was miniscule.

Chaplin enters, introduced by title card as “Mr. Wow-Wow, a disturbing influence.” He’s smartly dressed in a long, loose jacket, but with bowler, moustache and cane, with which he immediately thwacks Swain’s capacious buttocks. So, he’s not quite the Tramp, just Chaplin using some Tramp signifiers. He tries to get into the racetrack without paying by walking backwards, hoping they’ll think he’s leaving. I like that bit.

Swain overacts pretty wildly in the early shorts, and seems weak compared even to Conklin. He doesn’t intimidate Charlie, so the David & Goliath thing that Eric Campbell would help cement isn’t functioning. Later, in THE GOLD RUSH, Swain is even bigger, acts better, and even as a friend to the Little Fellow, is a convincing THREAT. Big people are a menace even when they’re nice, is a lynchpin of the Chaplin worldview.

Forming an alliance, Wow-wow and Ambrose try to sneak into the stadium but Ambrose gets stuck halfway through an opening, leading to lengthy abuse. A woman with a soda seltzer appears, somewhat mysteriously, and Chaplin gets to spritz his first spritzee, Mack. He hasn’t thrown a single pie at Keystone, despite all the pastry abuse in his previous short, but at least he gets to spray.

Wow-Wow now lights a match on Mr. Walrus’s pant seat, amusing the fickle Mabel (well, she has just seen him flirting outrageously with Phyllis Allen). Walrus gets all up in Wow-Wow’s face, and thus gets his nose bitten. Chaplin hangs on there like a conger eel. Picks his teeth afterwards as if he’s actually bitten off actual substance from Conklin’s conk. Shades of brother Sydney’s cannibalistic atrocity.

Separated from the crowd by a fence, Wow-Wow taunts and thwacks the rowdy faces, a brutish bit of business in which nobody seems remotely appealing, the thugs behind the wire mesh or the arrogant and vicious cane-wielder. The later Charlie character is much closer to that seen in his previous couple of pictures, an inadvertently disturbing influence rather than just a nasty piece of work. Minutes later he’s singeing Mr. Ambrose’s nose with his cigarette and kicking him in the gut… it’s not charming and it’s not funny.

Chaplin well knew this stuff bore little relationship to comedy, but he felt duty-bound to give Sennett what he demanded, and this sadism may constitute a “running for cover” after the overrun of DOUGH & DYNAMITE. As Chaplin would write in a 1922 article, “The comic spirit meant to me at the beginning of my screen career, as it still means to many people, a series of “gags” and funny business of a not very high order–anything to capture a moment’s laughter or to stir the most elementary sense of the ridiculous. Now, this broad and slapstick kind of comedy, compounded mostly of boisterous spirits and physical violence, has about the same relation to humor as tickling a man on the soles of his feet with a wisp of straw.” He’s not wrong.

Wow-Wow meets another pretty girl and steals a sook of her Coke. Caught at it, he looks innocently skywards, like Harpo. Walrus is flirting with Phyllis again so Mabel walks out on him and collides with Wow-Wow (those bloody names! “Mabel” is bad enough). She sits on his hat and destroys it. The surrounding actors are laughing at all this business, which doesn’t make it any funnier.

Some byplay with a jalopy driver whose “racecar” sports an enormous front propellor. A very fine showcasing of the Chaplin cornering hop.

Conklin/Walrus whispers some kind of inappropriate suggestion to Phyllis and gets duffed up. This movie has more plot threads than Bleak House, but fortunately they all consist solely of idiots hitting each other so it’s easy to follow.

Conklin returns to Mabel and tries to claim her by force. Now we’re actually on Wow-Wow’s side as he delivers a punitive drubbing. Toothbrush versus Walrus in the World Series of Moustaches. Walrus collides with Ambrose and both get hauled off by a Kop. Wow-Wow and Mabel laugh delitedly, and it’s a rare instance of Chaplin expressing joy with his natural toothy grin and laugh. We end on lots of affectionate stuff with Mabel, one of the few co-stars Chaplin never got to first base with.

“I’m not your type, neither are you mine,” he says she told him.

Barbara Steele just told me she had lunch with Chaplin and Oona when she was 19. He was all excited because somebody had just let him have the use of a holiday home in St Tropez. I guess this would be around the time of A KING IN NEW YORK and he had some money trouble after leaving America I believe, so a free house would be great news.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to finish the Keystones this year, so that his December output would synch up with mine and I can start next year afresh with the Essanay films, but he’s making them faster than I can write about them (well, I started in the middle of my year and he started at the beginning of his). So I think I’ll run in to January — we have a whole feature film to contend with. But I’ll still get an Essanay done that month, and then it’s more or less one Chaplin per month for 2021. Join me!

Young man Charlie laughing goes all double-chinned, and suddenly we get a glimpse of old man Charlie to come…

The All Saints’ Day Intertitle: Transients Welcome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2020 by dcairns

Everybody at Keystone sat down to watch Chaplin’s first film as director. It seems likely that some of them were hoping to see him fail, or expecting it. But the film was good, and they were good enough to applaud at the end.

Chaplin must have been relieved — not only for the career advancement this now promised, and the power over his own comedy — but because he’d put up fifteen hundred dollars of his own money to cover the cost if Sennett judged the film unworthy of release.

It’s a nice, unambitious Keystone “farce comedy.” Chaplin wisely didn’t set out to make something notably more ambitious in scale or complexity than the films he’d acted in. MABEL AT THE WHEEL, for instance, is an epic by comparison. And by keeping things small-scale, he could devote more time to observing his own performance.

Mack Swain and his wife, Alice Davenport, are bickering in the inevitable park. Here I can correct the Wikipedia entry, which claims MS approaches a stall named “St. Rocupia’s.” I believe the name is Cornucopias. While he’s away, Charlie appears. I’m not sure why Davenport is initially so pleased to see a dishevelled tramp stumble from the undergrowth, smiling inanely. But then she has a good laugh as he runs afoul of a drinking fountain, then she becomes a bit perturbed as he approaches and starts… is that flirting? He also shares a wee laugh with his chums in the audience. This is, I believe, the only moment where one of the cast tips us the wink. Chaplin is already reserving that privilege for himself.

Swain, returning, flies into what our friend Clouseau would call a writ of felous jage, and knocks over both Charlie and the bench he’s on. The theme of the Little Fellow versus the Big Guy begins to be drawn. Keystone, makers of live-action cartoons basically, already used physical contrasts as a shorthand for characterisation. Chaplin has a very specific use in mind though for the larger type of comic (and he’d employ Swain again in THE GOLD RUSH by which time the big guy was even bigger).

Recovering, Charlie leads himself by the ear into a bar, a bit of pantomime for our benefit alone. We don’t see what goes on in there (sets are limited) but next time he appears, he’s properly rat-arsed. Staggering out, he rests an elbow on the very protuberant rear end of a handy policeman, an unusual gag and quite an amusing one. When the Kop objects, Charlie obliviously lights a match on his chest. These guys provide a valuable service, think what we’d be missing if we defunded them. If the IMDb is to be believed, the buttock-thrusting Kop is Ted Edwards who is not only in many Keystones, but third lead in Dwain Esper’s notorious MANIAC. But I don’t think he’s the guy, even though the character in the Esper epic thinks he’s Poe’s razor-wielding orangutan, a role for which ass-thrusting would be fairly useful.

In a fairly alarming gag, Charlie crosses the road and nearly gets rubbed out by a passing jalopy, which would have put an early stop to the nascent career of the screen’s greatest comedy star. Then he arrives in the hotel lobby — seems that, despite being even more ragged than usual (the seam at his shoulder’s giving out at the back) he’s not a total indigent. Some cruel treatment of a gouty invalid anticipates THE CURE. Since gout is, in a sense, a self-inflicted disease of the wealthy, the usual rules about mocking the disabled don’t apply in silent cinema. But most of Chaplin’s gout-sufferers would be fat, domineering men, quite unlike this poor guy.

I do really like Charlie’s truculent manner and his trouble with the stairs, which just escalates. It’s a relief whenever a Keystone film takes the time to let a gag build. One reason Chaplin was much more popular than Keaton is he does something Keaton resisted: repeating a gag. If it works once, do it again. Make a dance move out of it. Let the slower audience members catch up. Pull variations on it, surprise them, but only once they’ve really gotten to expect the next iteration. Tiny kids love repetition: things seem to get funnier for them the more they recur, and Chaplin I would think works better with tinies than Keaton does.

I wrote about this film before, but seeing Chaplin’s shorts in order of production gives me more to say, hopefully.

Chaplin holds a shot on Charlie as he undresses (his pajamas are underneath his “suit”) and discovers a dozen little bits of comic business he can work in. This kind of concentration is missing from most Keystones to date. It’s here CC shows his ambition.

Davenport walks in her sleep, and this motivates the loose act III. It’s a neat reversal of the situation in MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT, which was the Tramp’s first appearance. Having a drunken bum scare Mabel and create jealousy with her boyfriend was interesting but not hugely funny — the menacing hobo works better played straight in Lois Weber’s SUSPENSE — flipping things around so that the drunk is terrorized by the respectable lady walking in her sleep makes the situation inherently absurd, topsy-turvy, and therefore comic. It still might not be funny, but it’s recognizably comic in intent.

Chaplin appears to be trying some really fast cutting at the end, or else bits of all his shots have gone astray. Either is possible. It sort-of works. I’d describe it in the same terms I once used for Jerry Lewis’ double zoom when Buddy Love first appears in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR: “an interesting attempt at something.” Causing a friend to remark, “That’s what they’ll put on my tombstone.” Was it Rivette who called Chaplin the greatest editor in history? He definitely isn’t. But he’s fairly precise, and since everything is dictated by his performance, what he’s doing technically tends to look easy when in fact it isn’t.

In his memoir, Chaplin implies that all he really knew about filmmaking at this time was the left-to-right rule, but he uses that in quite a deft manner: at the start, Charlie and Davenport occupy separate frames linked only by their eyeline. Later, Chaplin wrote —

“[…] I found that the placing of a camera was not only psychological but articulated a scene; in fact it was the basis of cinematic style. If the camera is a little too near, or too far, it can enhance or spoil an effect. Because economy of movement is important you don’t want an actor to walk any unnecessary distance unless there is a special reason, for walking is not dramatic. Therefore placement of camera should effect composition and a graceful entrance for the actor. Placement of camera is cinematic inflection. There is no set rule that a close-up gives more emphasis than a long shot. A close-up is a question of feeling; in some instances a long shot can effect greater emphasis.”

We’re definitely missing a half second at the end of this one. Chaplin has carefully set up a sequence of collapsing co-stars which doesn’t really resolve the story in any meaningful way, but seems to. All that’s missing is him falling back with Davenport on top of him, but he doesn’t quite make it. Time, that other great but rather random editor, has made off with the last fragment of footage. Maybe its something we get to see when we all finally keel over too.

The (UK) Father’s Day Intertitle: Schulberg on Fitzgerald on Chaplin

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2020 by dcairns

I’m finally reading The Disenchanted, the 1950 novel by Budd Schulberg, a Penguin paperback I inherited from my old friend Lawrie Knight years ago. It’s falling to bits as I read it, adding a certain pathos to the already sad story.

The book has multiple cinematic-literary connections, both as a text and a crumbling physical object. Schulberg, the son of Paramount boss B.P. Schulberg, was a 25-year-old screenwriter working for Walter Wanger when he was assigned Scott Fitzgerald as writing partner. Their extremely unsuccessful attempts to collaborate form the subject of this book, which is stuffed with walk-ons by film biz personalities.

It also has a front cover illo by Len Deighton.

I’m enjoying it — though some have doubts, which I share, about whether Schulberg is entirely honest about the events he covers. Of course, he fictionalizes like crazy, as is his right: names are changed; Schulberg’s fictive avatar is described as “handsome,” which is hilarious when you see the author photo on the back where he looks like a bump on a tree; his mogul dad is eliminated to erase any hint of nepotism and make “Shep” seem like an independent success.

The more serious bit is about Budd/Shep’s failure to stop Fitzgerald/Halliday from drinking. Shep has apparently read everything by Halliday but doesn’t know he’s a struggling alcoholic — in this fictional reality there’s conveniently no equivalent of The Crack-Up.  The real Schulberg said he had no idea about Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and nobody warned him he was partly being paid to keep it under control. So practically the first thing he does is urge the author to have a drink. And he keeps doing so, all through the book. Schulberg has Halliday tell him this is necessary, now that he’s started back on the booze he can’t afford to dry out until the job is done. Retelling the story, as he did often, Schulberg would omit this vital exchange, so did it happen? Did he ply his hero with drink to get stories out of him? Because that’s the glowing subtext.

Schulberg seems like a bad choice for the role of nurse: he was a bit of a boozer himself, and he makes Shep one. Shep finds a drink useful to prepare him for all sorts of activities, like meeting his boss. Like a lot of mid-twentieth-century literature, it really gives you a sense of how socially omnipresent drink was.

Fitzgerald’s partner, Sheilah Graham, never forgave him for this book — and who can blame her? — but it’s actually very sympathetic — maybe it’s the real-life events she should have held the grudge over.

Anyway, here’s an extract — Halliday is a man who remains insightful and eloquent even when so sloshed he can barely speak coherently, and his thoughts on Chaplin, which I’d like to believe are really Fitzgerald’s, are wonderfully sharp.

“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. Girl he falls in love with, ‘thereal, too beautiful, way little boys fall in love with grown-up women from a distance. Dances with ’em, makes love to ’em, gives ’em won’erful presents, all in a dream. ‘member City Lights. And that face on Charlie. From ridic’lous to sublime no cliché for Charlie. Real art, real tragedy, only tragedy I ever saw in movies. That face on Charlie. The pain. I c’n seen it right now. All his pictures, same idea, the dream’s a beautiful balloon, a kid’s balloon, and reality’s a sharp point on a fence. The balloon drifts over the forbidden garden, hits the point ‘n bursts — way all of us wake up right back where we were. Chaplin’s the only one saw the movie as the bes’ medium in the worl’ for dreams, the child being the father, the tramp being the millionaire, the homely little bum being the elegant Don Juan. […]

“‘member one picture little one-reeler, can’t even ‘member the name of it. Charlie’s a drink being dragged along, grabs a bush as he struggles, finds a daisy in his hand. Daisy changes mood entirely. Becomes a poet, a dreamer, an aesthete. So convincing it looks like impro – improvisation an’ when you think of Charlie as a child not even unrealistic, you know the way a little boy sees a toy boat an’ becomes a boat captain, picks up a gun an’ goes right into character as a soldier. See what I mean? Don’t think of Charlie as an adult acting like a child but as a child acting like a grown-up.

“Like The Gold Rush. […] If movies didn’t die so fast it’d be considered a permanent classic like Hamlet or Cyrano. Funny as hell on the surface and full of inner meanings an’ the idea, the Gold Rush, just when the whole country was rushing for gold. Money crazy. […]

“I’m no analyst, but I could analyse Chaplin from his comedies — that’s how true they are. […] 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. Conflict with the father, whether Charlie sees it or not. All Charlie’s pictures full of it. Psychiatrist c’d do a helluva book on Charlie’s movies. […] What’m I talking about?”

“The Chaplin movies.”

“…don’t switch from comedy to tragedy. No phony, mechanical change o’ pace. The funniest parts, the parts where you laugh the loudest, are tragic. That’s where the genius comes in…”

Good stuff, eh, even if Freudian interps always start to feel sterile and reductive after a while. Incidentally, if the one-reeler cited is genuine, I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who can identify it.