Archive for The Music Box

Music Boxing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2020 by dcairns

HIS MUSICAL CAREER is an unusually subtle title, since the musical career in question turns out to be piano-moving, something customers could only be amused by AFTER paying for a ticket and starting to watch.

We see Charlie getting hired in the first scene, by Mack Swain, while the reliably weird-looking Billy Gilbert (not that one) shamelessly pulls focus in the bg. Expect to see this guy shown the door once Chaplin sees the rushes. And funny that both the major comedy shorts about piano-moving have guys called Billy Gilbert in them.

Charlie is STILL experimenting with his basic look: this time he has a little clay pipe to puff on, smokelessly. He gets some decent business out of it, but David Lynch would probably say the added face-detail makes Charlie’s head too FAST. The little moustache and dark eyebrows are detail enough.

Laurel & Hardy’s THE MUSIC BOX is the one to beat, clearly, and it’s doubtful that Chaplin at this stage in his career has a chance of doing it.

Still, Mack Swain as supervisor is a good idea: so he’s not just bigger than Charlie, he outranks him. Swain had spent so long (maybe only a year and a bit, but dozens of films) being pushed around by Chester Conklin that he was probably programmed against acting dominant, which means he’s no Eric Campbell.

There’s immediately a nasty gag about Swain drinking varnish — Chaplin seems to be consciously responsible for this, whereas it would be funnier as an accident. But Keystone was inclined towards cruelty and aggression, and Chaplin to some extent towed the line. His ineffectual attempts at helping the poisoned Swain are reasonably funny, but would have worked a lot better if he hadn’t switched the drink and varnish on purpose.

Plum role for Charley Parrot (later Chase) as the store manager.

Charlie shows off his tiny muscles. Thin but wiry!

Two customers, Mr. Rich (stout and top-hatted) and Mr. Poor (gesticulating melodramatic scarecrow). Pathos is something to be made mock of, at this stage of the Chaplin filmography.

Two addresses, 666 Prospect St. and 999 Prospect St., are introduced, setting up the potential for a mix-up. I note that Mabel lived at no. 666 in CAUGHT IN A CABARET, but I make no Satanic inference from this.

Before the film has reached the five-minute mark, Swain is trapped under the piano in an image resembling a Weegee death scene. So long as Chaplin is fecklessly responsible, this cruelty works (has deniability), but he keeps alternating between incompetence and malice. Look at his work as Chester Conklin’s assistant in MODERN TIMES to see how this vicious streak in Chaplin would evolve: Conklin suffers great indignities in that one, but Charlie means him no harm, is sincerely trying to help him at every turn. So the rather sadistic comedy comes about ironically, and is therefore much funnier, and character sympathy is preserved.

En route to 666 or 999, Charlie uses his pipe as a tiny ladle to steal booze from a slumbering Swain.

I’d love to have seen the camera set-up for Charlie and Mack riding the donkey-cart. Presumably they’re attached to the back of a truck or something, the camera positioned on it, the donkey getting a rest break. Just as well, since soon the poor beast of burden is being dangled in mid-air.

It seems wrong that the mix-up in addresses isn’t Charlie’s fault. This piano company has survived and even flourished before him coming along, so it seems to me that any disasters should be the inadvertent work of Charlie, Lord of Misrule. Chaplin needs to be more selfish and make himself fully the star comedian. There, never thought I’d complain that Chaplin wasn’t egotistical enough. I’m looking forward to him being supported by blander, less forceful talents like Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Then, in the features, he can find room for some of his Keystone chums again, because the greater running time requires a few diversions from his own showmanship.

The inevitable “moving the piano up a staircase” routine comes and goes without ever evoking the majesty of the l&h version. It’s not bad, would probably get a good laugh in a crowded theatre. Now Chaplin tries playing up the idea of the Little Fellow as oppressed worker, with Swain as exploitative overseer, but it’s too late in the story to really make that stick. Still, it’s a more promising approach than what he’s been doing. And, interestingly, Mr. Poor and his daughter, formerly Dickensian pastiches, now become annoying fusspots so that nobody can decide where to put the piano and Charlie is forced to carry it to and fro on his shoulders, a proletarian Sisyphus.

The strain turns Charlie into a crouched, bow-legged Angelo Rossitto figure, a transmogrification effected solely by acting. Swain’s brutal repair-job again shows the characters working together as they should: the spinal crack is performed heartlessly, just to make Charlie capable of doing more hard work.

The rules of film grammar, as they are understood in 1914, require that we watch Charlie and Mack return downstairs and get on their cart, even though there are no gags devised to make the trip particularly entertaining. L&H could dispose of such A-B business with a wipe or dissolve. Still, Chaplin can splice in a title card to shorten the trip to number 999.

Mr. Rich also has a daughter, who is apparently suitable for flirting with (Mr. Poor’s daughter was innocent and respectable). The Riches also employ a liveried footman who seems somewhat out of keeping in L.A. Kicking him to the floor, Charlie and Mack abduct the upright, and go crashing into the bright street. At 12.31 Charlie does a little back-kick of one leg to literally kickstart himself, a signature move — I’m unsure if we’ve seen it done properly before this. Probably we have. The confrontation with the furious owner DOES seem a bit reminiscent of developments in THE MUSIC BOX.

The boys flee downhill, ruthlessly kicking aside an innocent passer-by (a moment mostly splinked out by a bad splice) and splash into what is presumably Echo Lake. Mr. Rich shakes his fist in stereotyped pantomime, and we have another of those very abrupt endings, not helped by what is likely a bit of missing footage, where Charlie for obscure reasons tries to play the now half-submerged piano. There’s a promising comic image there, but no time to work it out, seemingly.

Sisyphuses off of Sunset

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Radio with tags , , , , , , , on September 22, 2017 by dcairns

In my attempt to examine the interplay of the surprising and the predictable in Laurel & Hardy’s classic shorts, I turned to THE MUSIC BOX (1932), their Oscar-winning film directed by James Parrott. My memory of it was that it’s unusually dedicated to the inevitable.

“Let the boring crap be boring crap,” was one of Sidney Pollack’s rules of film-making, and Parrott seems to have anticipated him. The opening scene is bald exposition, woodenly laying out the purchase of a player piano by a woman as a present for her husband. That last sentence contains just as much character and detail as the scene itself.

Stan & Ollie are removal/delivery men. A sign on their cart tells us that their business was “foundered in 1931,” a statement which seems likely to be accurate. The straightforward assemblage of narrative planks continues, with Charlie Hall (the boys’ antagonist in THEM THAR HILLS and TIT FOR TAT) as a postman who points out the address they’ve been aimed at, helpfully failing to indicate the route of easiest access.

So a tall flight of stairs just off Sunset Blvd. enters cinema history, as the film spends half its runtime with the boys attempting to lug the titular crate to its destination.

The appearance of a nursemaid pushing a pram is the first indication that this is a particularly harsh version of the Hal Roach universe. While her profession might normally imply a caring attitude, Lilyan Irene plays it as a sadly typical L&H female (no wonder the boys had so much trouble staying married). Having sort-of caused the crate to slide all the way down to the foot of the stairs, this infernal female finds the whole business so funny that Stan is compelled to kick her in the ass. She then punches Stan in the nose, which Ollie finds funny (no camaraderie here) which somehow forces her to smash a milk bottle over his head. The slow, methodical delivery of each act of violence plays into the predictability argument, though the combination of childish aggression — peaceful solutions are never considered, less provocative behaviour is seemingly unimaginable — with CLOCKWORK ORANGE-level viciousness ensures that surprise is still present.

Actually, I’m forgetting the malevolence of the horse, Susie, which has already caused the crate to fall on Ollie’s back, for no other reason than its own amusement.

The hostility of the world soon extends to the crate itself, which has an affinity for crashing downstairs whenever the boys turn their collective back on it. Now that the inevitability of gravity has been established, the achingly predictable does assume a front-and-centre role in the proceedings, but soon a policeman appears to dish out more excessive, childish violence. He obeys the rules of his species by arriving ill-informed, having placed his own misconstruction upon the report given him by the nursemaid who, despite departing in triumph, has taken her grievance straight to the law. She really is the worst. The policeman is the second worst. Of course his faulty construction of the facts places all the blame on Ollie: this is Ollie’s Eternal Fate.

The cop’s violence reduces the boys to children: police brutality was, I’m sure, at least as common then as now, but usually carried out behind closed doors. But kids could be walloped in public, and in the UK the “clip ’round the ear” was considered a positive way of course-correcting an errant waif, without the need for paperwork or parents. I’m not sure it was beneficial to anyone but the constable. This copper (Sam Lufkin, another unsung Joe of the Roach shorts) has an inventive way with his nightstick, the flick of Ollie’s chin and the jab to Stan’s stomach being particular favourites of mine.

This stuff seems pretty vicious, but it always did. I remember my Dad declaring “brutality!” in shocked amusement back in the ’70s when I first saw it, just as Fiona did today. And that was the ’70s, a harsher time. The Battle of Lewisham was considered just a bit of fun.

After ringing every variation on the pianola-stoop situation they can think of, including having Ollie, in the form of an obvious floppy dummy, dragged back to street level by the determined crate, the summit is finally reached and the postman reappears to explain that all this suffering was unnecessary as a curving street approaches their destination on a gentle gradient. They could have used the cart. At this point the boys, sighing in frustration and seeing no alternative, carry the crate back down the stairs so they can cart it up properly. I can vividly remember ANOTHER ’70s viewing of the film, and my sister screaming in frustration at this, just as Fiona did today.

Some people can’t get on with Laurel & Hardy films precisely because of this frustration. The boys embark on a stupidity, which we can see is bound to end in disaster, or else do something like this which makes no real sense at all, and the desperate viewer wants to climb into the frame like Buster in SHERLOCK JR. and sort things out. But of course they’d just get a poke in the eye for their troubles.

We shouldn’t feel sorry for the non-fans, they rather resent our sympathy, I believe. It’s true that this is not a failure of sense of humour, just a different form of wiring in that part of the brain known as the Bud Cortex. The victim finds other things to laugh at. But I’m not sure anything makes anyone laugh as hard as Stan & Ollie, though I’m no closer to knowing why.

Anyway, Stan and Ollie now have fishpond trouble, and find nobody’s home, and embark on a fresh stupidity, hoisting their package into an upper window on the block-and-tackle. Miraculously, the awning more or less survives this misuse, and the box does not actually get dropped on Ollie’s cortex. Everything ELSE goes wrong, though. But the piano does eventually pass into the house. The serious business of home-wrecking can now begin.

As a sensitive child, I was never particularly disturbed by the savage onslaughts against the human body celebrated in L&H films, but I was freaked by the physical distortion gags — Ollie getting his neck stretched so it resembled a great, white candle, gave me a hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach and a sense of Lovecraftian dread. And I was disturbed in my extreme youth by the domestic property destruction. I can remember frowning as the boys wrenched down a Venetian blind. Maybe because we had one in the house and maybe I’d been advised of its fragility. On no account climb it.

The really first-rate job of demolition performed here impresses me and in no sense worries me now, though Ollie getting jabbed in the eye and stepping on a huge nail causes a real double-wince. Though Stan may be a holy fool, Ollie is the Christ figure, suffering for the world’s sins: he has just dragged an outsized assemblage of wood up a hill and got a nail in his foot. Truly he is the Son of God. You can probably find reconstructions of all Christ’s wounds in the performances of Oliver Norville Hardy, if you’re so inclined, and Our Lord never had HIS legs torn off and wrapped round his neck. (And I’m obscurely reminded that Mel Gibson once nearly played Moe Howard for the Farrelly Brothers.)

The apartment is flooded when the crate is opened. The radio is knocked over and Ollie steps in it (broken glass, electrical shocks). Another fuse blows when the pianola is plugged in. Then the homeowner arrives and the wreckage actually intensifies, as he takes an axe to the unwanted instrument.

This is the excellent, swivel-eyed Billy Gilbert, essaying a Herman Bing accent. The boys have already encountered him on the stairway, and as Fate would arrange things this was their only victory en route to Calgary. Now it works against them, though the timely arrival of the wife from scene one calms the apoplectic faux-kraut long enough for Fate to deliver a final insult, a final twist, and then we’re out.

Preliminary hypothesis: the deliberate pacing of L&H allows many of their gags and situations to be both surprising and inevitable at the same time, letting the audience start to laugh while the mishap is just starting, so that our laughter gets an extra push (or several) as mayhem ensues. Also, the unusual willingness to let the audience get well ahead of a gag results in greater surprise and delight when a piece of slapstick is triggered WITHOUT advance warning. I don’t know if I can get any deeper than that on a theoretical level, but I’m going to try. Maybe close analysis of one scene is the way forward…

“You don’t explore on people.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on January 17, 2009 by dcairns

Well, folks were telling me THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE was a monsterpiece, and now we can see they were right. (Too bad this is the cut version though.)

With lines like the above-quoted, and “Very well, the corpse is yours,” and “The line between scientific genius and obsessive fanatacism is a thin one — I want you on the right side of it!” — all in the opening scene alone, the film has an Ed Wood feeling for demented speechifying that anticipates the current comedy work of Larry Blamire and more than justifies the credit for “Additional dialogue by Doris Brent.” (Doris also plays the terrifying whispery nurse in scene one.)

(Did I imagine it or does THE SOUND OF MUSIC feature an all-time classic grudging credit, something like, “With partial use of ideas by -“? It’s been a long time since I looked at it, so I can’t be sure I’m not making it up.)

THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T, as I’m now calling it (for short), is one of those B-films where there’s a perfect balance of defects — lack of funds, lack of talent, lack of experience, lack of good sense — so that a kind of cockamamie artistic harmony is engendered, and everything seems VERY GOOD INDEED. The car crash is a perfectly fine no-budget smash-up, but what lifts it into the paranormally brilliant  is the way the arrogant doc then gets lingered over by the rubbernecking camera as he apparently suffers a painful attack of trapped wind, and by the time he gets through with that the stock music has run out of cacophonous melodrama and segued into a cavorting faun theme, which plays, with a sort of helpless shrug, as the heroine is incinerated in the wrecked vehicle. Just beautiful.

Moments later and our man is climbing a narrow flight of exterior stairs with his fiancee’s severed head wrapped in his jacket, and he takes a very long time to do it (be fair, he’s tired). It’s like the horror movie version of Laurel & Hardy’s THE MUSIC BOX. If he had dropped the head when he got to the top, and it rolled all the way back down, I believe I would have died a happy man.

I don’t intend in any way to be disparaging about TBTWD, because it can’t be easy to make a compulsively watchable film on a micro-budget without access to top-tier talent and without a lot of practice. The IMDb notes of writer-director Joseph Green, “Owned a small (he answered the phone himself) distribution company which distributed an eclectic mix of minor foreign films (such as Chabrol’s Une Partie de Plaisir) and kung fu/exploitation pictures.” So I picture him as a guy who was in it for the love. He only made one other picture — twenty four years after this one. That makes me sad.

What makes me happy? The line “How can you make of her an experiment of horror?” The gibbering THING IN THE CLOSET (you know you’re in zero-budget land when they can’t even afford an attic or cellar to imprison their failed experiments). When our obsessive fanatic scientific genius goes trolling for bodies we’re obviously looking at the inspiration for THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, only we’re looking at it for far longer than expected.

“You’re a freak of life — and of death!”

Where the film betrays some weak-mindedness is an eagerness to get to the point with Jan-in-the-pan, the severed head character. Somehow she KNOWS she’s a severed head, which robs us of a potentially very dramatic scene of her finding out, (reflection in shiny surface?) and somehow she knows that she now has a tremendous new power, without ever actually learning this, which again could have made for a good strong scene. However, as the story goes on and it becomes clear that she doesn’t have any tremendous new power at all, I came to appreciate the inverted wisdom of Green’s forbearance.

Instead we get many many shots of the withered hand guy looking pensive, which don’t achieve much since we don’t really know what he’s worried about — his shrivelled arm? The guy in the closet? The severed head lady? The fact that he’s missing the strip-shows? All good reasons for concern, but as Alexander Mackendrick says, ambiguity is a choice between two possible meanings, not countless.

“My hopes — shattering with each severed arm he grafted to me!”

Interesting how the scientific genius obsessed fanatic, having decided he needs a new body for his fiancee’s head, immediately decides that abduction and murder is the only possible course of action, and immediately resorts to visiting strip-shows and kerb-crawling and going to “body beautiful” contests. It’s hard not to form the conviction that he’d be doing all this anyway, even if he didn’t have his girlfriend’s cranium waiting in a dish.

“Posing bare for a bunch of neurotics.”

I liked the magnificent man-hating life-model with the scar — shades of PEEPING TOM. The movie’s assumption that being a man-hater with a scarred face makes you a prime full-body donor is bordering on the offensive, but the powerfully-built vixen is so impressive as she forcefully stresses every single syllable of dialogue, one can’t help but admire her magnificent froideur and hauteur. It’s kind of a shame when she mellows out.

“This kind of thing must be done.”

That’s a BIG HAND that reaches through the hatch from the evil closet. And it’s no fake monster hand, just a really enormous meaty man-paw. The mutant it’s attached to may be a bit overdone, but he’s still rather disturbing, and well worth the wait. It’s a shame he doesn’t get more to do — his gibbering was fun, but he falls curiously silent when he emerges from his prison-cupboard. A monologue about the dangers of science run amok would have been nice — everyone else has one. But fighting the mad scientist with his arm stuck through a door makes for an agreeably different action sequence. Perhaps if the monster had got a foot jammed in a waste-paper basket, that would have raised things to the next level.

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“When she does come to, it will be your head consciously awakening for her.”

Wait — the monster gets the girl? Is that a first?