Archive for The Nutty Professor

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 Sunday Intertitle: Heckle and Hype

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on October 28, 2012 by dcairns

I thought I’d watched all the silent versions of DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE but I’d missed a doozy, the 1913 feature with King Baggot. K.B., who has a fantastic name, proves to be quite the performer. His Jekyll is a stiff plaster saint in the Fredric March mould, for sure, but his Hyde… OH, his Hyde!

Now we see where Jerry Lewis drew his inspiration for Professor Julius Kelp. Baggot dons a set of comedy teeth and spasms at will. Most actors playing the role have assumed that the physical transformation of one’s entire body and face, brought on by consumption of a fuming flagon of peculiar poison, would be painful, and effect their metamorphosis by writing about in agony. Baggot stands stock still and transmutes via slow dissolve into his alter ego — THEN goes into paroxysms of contortion and crouching. He plays the whole part in a crouch, buttocks scuffing the pavement as he shuffles along, like Toulouse-Lautrec with intestinal cramps.

It’s an arresting spectacle. Director Herbert Brenon assists the weirdness by framing his shots for an erect man, so that his star wriggles wormlike across the bottom of the screen, great tracts of empty discomfort occupying the frame above his head. He also inserts some wonderfully confusing intertitles, with a less-is-more approach to grammar. Nearly every bit of text provokes minutes of head-scratching, greatly enhancing the overall effect of baffling strangeness.

Rather than the “vague sense of deformity” Stevenson’s characters attest to feeling in Hyde’s presence, the supporting players here either start in horror at the mere sight of Baggot, or fail to notice him altogether as he wiggles by like a Russian dancer.

Baggot was one of those silent stars who stuck it out but wound up an extra, probably unrecognized by the new generation of actors and directors he worked with. He’s an unbilled Courtroom Spectator in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and Man on Subway in Minnelli’s THE CLOCK. I like to think that this fall from stardom was occasioned by a perverse decision to play all his rolls crouching, almost curled into a ball, hopping and staggering around and gesticulating spasmodically with splayed, twitching fingers. Sadly, that’s just a fantasy, easily disproved.

But if I say that Baggot liked to polish his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by doing his patented Mr Hyde walk over it so that the seat of his pants dusted the shiny sidewalk emblem, who among you can prove I speak false?

Puppet on a String

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , on September 7, 2012 by dcairns

Concentrated feel-good juice from LIVING IT UP. Jerry Lewis dances with the awesome Sheree North, who can be glamorous and goofy at the same time.

Watch him bash his spine  with the floor at the end of the clip: that’s going to cause you some trouble in later life, Jer.

Some Jerry Lewis stuff is a little sophisticated or has a zany abstraction. If I may quote David Ehrenstein on one mind-bending number: “Like all gags in Lewis-directed films, the Miss Cartilage scene in THE LADIES’ MAN refuses to be specific about its objectives. It questions itself even as it unfolds.”

But there’s another area of humour in Lewis that has nothing to do with gags, or intellection — the warping of the face and body for sheer freakshow appeal. “I bet you never saw a face/torso/limb do THIS,” is the closest this comedy comes to making any kind of statement.

Maybe this is why Lewis has more to do with dance than any other comedian I can think of. sure, Chaplin was balletic, but when he actually dances, in A DAY’S PLEASURE, the effect is ruined. Chaplin turning everyday situations or comic crises into a form of dance is funny and revelatory. Chaplin just dancing is just Chaplin dancing.

WC Fields comes close in his juggling: he’s so amazing at it that you don’t mind a suspension of the comedy, in fact you don’t really want the comedy to interrupt what he’s doing.

But Lewis dances in so many films, and with many different levels of grotesquerie that it’s clearly something inherent in his nature and in his comedy. In the above clip he’s unmistakably REALLY GOOD; in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR he’s brilliant on a whole other level and with a whole different character: those constrained, introverted movements yearning to breathe free. Like a locust who saw humans dancing and thought it looked fun.