Archive for The Music Box

Bedtime for Tantalus

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2021 by dcairns

ONE A.M. is a wild experiment. Chaplin resuscitates his drunk act — he hasn’t been this hilariously incapable since the face on the barroom floor — and is the only one on screen for nine-tenths of the action. Poor Albert Austin is frozen like a wax dummy — I always found him uncanny and a bit disturbing as a kid — so he barely counts as co-star.

I invoke the mythical Tantalus because Chaplin plays a man tormented by his environment and its objects. All he wants is to go home and get into bed, but he’s so inebriated his home has become strange to him (he’s horrified by all his stuffed animals) and the furniture and architecture conspire to prevent him doing anything he tries. Even the matches in his pockets are useless to him since he can’t remember the simple sequence of actions that results in a smoke. Which may be for the best — his mishaps get more and more violent and he could easily set the whole hideous joint ablaze. And you can’t rely on the fire brigade in Chaplin World, as we’ve seen.

The struggle with the taxi door, which is milked for longer than you would think possible, a foretaste of tortures to come, is astounding. The bit that really got me hysterical was the attempt to put away his handkerchief in a pocket, but with his arm through the taxi door’s window, so that the door panel intervenes between hanky and trouser. Charlie — definitely not a hobo, he has usurped Leo White’s topper — finds himself vigorously wiping the door rather than pocketing his kerchief.

I watched my old DVD, then the restoration, which looks much, much better but lacks tinting, which I think we need for the opening exterior. It’s never going to look like night, it’s all too glaringly a bright Los Angeles day, but a hint of blue would at least suggest that’s what we should be imagining.

This is another film that seems to have entered Stan Laurel’s DNA, to emerge when needed. Charlie has lost his door key so goes in by the window. Then he finds his key, so he goes out the window again and comes in by the door. Echoed in THE MUSIC BOX’s broken logic when the boys discover the easy way up to Professor von Schwarzenhoffen’s house, and then redundantly use it. Just as the endless, repetitive journey up the stairs made by Chaplin, calculated to make the audience scream with frustration as well as laughter, is echoed by the struggles with the crated player piano.

The slippery floor, upon which the many little rugs glide like magic carpets, frequently sending Charlie tumbling, occasionally transmitting him to just where he wants to be, like Star Trek transporters, sets up another comparison, with Jerry Lewis’ insanely slidey psychiatrist’s office in CRACKING UP. Lewis was more of a Stan Laurel man, I guess, but he clearly absorbed a lot from Chaplin (including the pathos, which comes out funny when Jer tries it). I’d be fascinated to know what Chaplin thought of Lewis, but we already know he’s a better clown and filmmaker than he is a critic. He liked Benny Hill, if that helps.

The best bit of sliding may be the first, because Charlie is trying to steady himself on the door knob, which is attached to a door which is of course hinged, and swinging wildly, a very unsuitable object to steady yourself with, but all he’s got. A good metaphor for drunken stupor. Attempting to combat treachery from the floor leads you to struggle with treachery from the wall.

Every now and then it’s good to remember that Chaplin’s father died from the effects of alcoholism. It’s getting less and less acceptable to laugh at drunk routines, isn’t it? Back in the day, we weren’t supposed to regard drunks as tragic — the falling-down incompetent kind were funny in a way that disabled people weren’t, because it was a temporary, Tom & Jerry kind of physical handicap, and it was self-inflicted. The vicious treatment of the gouty in Chaplin’s films is similarly “justified” by the sufferer being responsible, it would seem, for his own condition.

Personally I’m very happy I wasn’t “protected” from this film as a child. And I have no problem with laughing at Chaplin’s skill (or Arthur Housman’s, or Foster Brooks‘) rather than laughing at alcoholics or alcoholism. But see also Nietzsche’s “A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion.” Chaplin is attempting to kill with laughter his most painful memories, and who has a better right?

Onwards, then, to the parade of stuffed animals. It is admittedly implausible, in literal terms, that our hero, who keeps a set of climbing gear and is therefore a traveler and presumably the man who bagged all these big cats, bear, ostrich etc, has forgotten all about this and is thus horrified at finding what he presumes to be his home occupied by wild animals. But there IS a metaphorical truth about the way familiar things can come alive and be uncanny at night. And so, though Chaplin is playing a drunk magnificently, maybe he’s also playing a child, as usual. Drunks don’t SEEM that much like children, but they have regressed to that stage where they don’t have control of their bodies of their emotions, so there’s a confluence.

One can sympathise with Charlie’s dismay at discovering this wretched undead Stouffer lurking at the foot of the stair. This film also features numerous examples of Charlie’s intimacy with the camera. A fresh taxidermic outrage… a wary glance to his chums in the audience — “Can you see it? Is it as bad as it feels?” Yes, Charlie. Yes, it is.

The sawdust atrocity comes into its own when Charlie kicks it and its curving body causes it to banana round and counter-attack. Brilliant comedy physics.

Then the rotating drinks table. A loooooong bit here. Brilliantly extended by having the victim recognise that his snagged cape is the trouble, then having him doff the cape, but tread in it, so his foot drags it along and it’s STILL snagged and so off we go again. I always assumed that Beckett’s Act Without Words and its sequels were primarily Keaton-derived, but a case could be made for Chaplin exerting an influence through this film, or at least mining similar terrain.

Fiona observed that a lot of what happens here would work well for Keaton, and is the kind of thing we associate more with him. Keaton, in fact, rarely played drunk, but in the thirties often was drunk. But he certainly struggled with objects which sometimes seemed imbued with a malign consciousness. The line between alive and inert is blurred, erased. Chaplin is usually more in command of this, can get away with treating people as objects, objects as people. Keaton transforms one thing into another without conscious choice, simply thinking with his body and adapting. Chaplin seems to generate a protean field around himself which allows things and people to swap qualities. A dangerous thing to mess around with — look what happens when he gets drunk.

“Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life.” William S. Burroughs.

And enjoy the sight of Charlie in tight trousers for once. The black-sheened spider legs become more expressive — the baggy pants actually robbed us of many possibilities, but gave us an indelible outline.

Failing to light cigarette after cigarette, or the same cigarette multiple times, leads Charlie to climb atop the spinning table and try to reach the chandelier, a doomed effort. A little later, it will turn out he has another match after all, which is the way of these things, isn’t it?

Incidentally, I don’t much like the intertitles, which try too hard to be “witty.” Replacing them with inarticulate grunts and swearing would emphasise the basic miserable reality of what we’re facing.

Now to the stairs. After throwing his silk hat onto a stuffed ostrich with perfect finesse — the hostile universe will allow Charlie the occasional, purely trivial triumph — our adventurer sets off upstairs. He’d used a wire to allow Eric Campbell to hold him aloft by the throat in THE FLOORWALKER and it’s possible he uses one to let him lean back at the top of the stairs, another to let him slide down feet first on his belly each time he loses his balance. The stairs look to be heavily padded, anyway, which is a kind of relief.

The further up he goes — in Freudian terms, into the higher conscious — the more vicious the house gets. The clock with the Poe-esque pendulum is completely impractical, a literal health and safety nightmare. It guards the bedroom door like Cerberus. Playing it safe, Charlie slides along the wall like Cesare the somnambulist and is biffed on the chin by the clock’s pugilistic upswing, sending him downstairs again.

Many, many attempts later, Charlie tries the other stair, is terrified by a stuffed bear, and eventually makes it — twice — using the coat stand which had proved useless for hanging coats but makes a neat if precarious climbing frame. A tussle with a stuffed bear, and he gains the bedroom, after adding concussion to inebriation via a round with the killer clock.

The Murphy bed is the boss villain of this fever-dream game. Fiona points out that no rich drunken hunter/mountaineer would have a Murphy bed, something Chaplin might have encountered in cheap rooming houses during his Karno tour of the States. Anyway, this bed is possessed. It’s main desire seems to be to prevent Charlie sleeping in it, or perhaps to destroy him. Starting gradually, it displays more and more independent action, and more complex movements, being able to flip like a YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN secret panel, lower like a drawbridge, then pull up from the head, reversing itself. It has the alarming, unnatural flexibility of Linda Blair’s neck.

Fiona, having laughed harder at this than anything in Chaplin apart from THE CIRCUS’ monkey attack, which reduced her to breathless narration, as if by describing what was happening she could lessen its side-splitting agony, began to grow tired of the bed, but then laughed when Charlie leapt onto it as it rose, ripping the bed from the frame.

“Oh well, at least it can’t hurt him now,” she said, and on cue the bedframe viciously tripped its victim.

To the bathroom. The film MUST be ending soon. The attempt to fill a glass of water from the shower drew laughs of anticipation, then bigger laughs when the reaction to a drenching exceeded all anticipation, and when the shower’s exit could not be found, owing to the camera angle concealing it. Charlie performs a full circle of the interior without locating it, and so attempts to climb out…

Finally he beds down, sodden, in the bath, with a wet towel for a blanket, his deep stupor finally coming to his aid by making him oblivious of his miserable, wet, freezing, hard-surface discomfort. The End — of a comedy of frustration beyond even Bunuel.

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…