Archive for The Pawnshop

The Sunday Intertitle: Charlie as Chaplin or Chaplin as Charlie?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2020 by dcairns

A weird one…

I wrote about RECREATION already — this Keystone park film didn’t seem much different from a half-dozen others, and it survives in a form most uneven and considerably more ragged than most. As so often at Keystone, Chaplin makes valuable discoveries in one short (THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR) only to discard them — for now — in the next.

But to follow it, Chaplin made a peculiar meta-comedy, THE MASQUERADER, co-starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Chaplin, sans felt moustache and costume, hair slicked down, arrives at the studio. (This is to be another behind-the-scenes affair,) A burly ruffian grabs him by the ear and propels him inside. (Time has created a Godardian jump — the rough grabs his ear, and in a trice, both are transported to a new shot, depicting the side-entrance, Charlie is rubbing his injured lobe.) Entering the dressing room, he starts getting made up, but is distracted by the possibility of stealing Fatty’s booze. A long-held take observes the tit-for-tat byplay. Charlie’s hair is now free and curly, as we’re used to seeing it — so in this parallel universe, plainclothes Charlie has straight hair, and the curls are part of a make-up.

Then, after a brief cutaway to the set, we discover Charlie — Chaplin has changed into the Tramp costume and, it seems, into the Tramp character. Rounding a corner at speed, he goes into his one-footed skid, an archetypal trope now but had he used it previously?

Charlie goes on set, nervously popping a breath mint before playing a scene with his leading lady. The director critically inspects his glued-on ‘tache. Prior to getting costumed, Chaplin has been playing the part quite supercilious, but now he seems himself — which is to say, still quite supercilious but the trait is rendered ironic by his costume. But this time it really IS a costume, so should we see him as an underdog, or just an arrogant thesp?

The director calls action, but Charlie misses his cue because he’s flirting with… Chaplin groupies? The actor who’s supposed to be interrupted in the act of stabbing a child with a dagger gets a stiff arm from waiting. Charlie’s attempt at being an action hero is not well-received: he attempts to save the child from the villain by clobbering the villain with the child, who, fortunately, is a dummy. But still, it’s not a good look.

Chester Conklin is immediately hired to replace Charlie, but Charlie duffs him up and goes on in his place.

(My Chaplin Encyclopedia states that Conklin, Chaplin’s exact contemporary, was born Jules Cowles, which is disappointing, but Wikipedia makes no mention of this. I prefer to think of him as a Conklin born. He also has acquired a tragic backstory — his mother was burned to death, at first ruled suicide, then his devoutly religious father was charged with her murder, but acquitted.)

The second bit of melodrama is no less farcical than the first, and Charlie gets the sack. This allows him to do some actual bits of melodrama as he pleads for another chance — but at this stage, Chaplin is still using pathos just as a thing to make fun of. The “don’t fire me” plea pantomime also gets an outing in HIS NEW JOB and, in its most developed form, THE PAWNSHOP.

Charley Chase is back, and this time he’s visible, albeit in the distant background (above). The burly director is Charles Murray, who’d had bits in a couple of previous Chaplins, including the missing HER FRIEND THE BANDIT.

Not to be thwarted, Chaplin returns to Keystone, this time in drag. So the Charlie character really was just a role he was playing. But the costume by now is exerting some kind of transformative effect on its wearer, so that the Tramp really seems a different character than Chaplin out of uniform or Chaplin in drag.

This is Charlie’s first glamorous drag act, and I have to say, he’s tempting, draped in furs and with his forearms immersed in a huge muff. I’d probably take him over, say, Edna Purviance. This is quite different from the drag in the CARRY ON films or A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, where the unhandsome man typically makes a hideous woman and the men falling over themselves with lust are ridiculous. Here, Chaplin really is sexy. Director Murray gets flirtatious, then audacious, then bodacious. He’s either going to get rapacious or salacious, when an office boy interrupts.

Chaplin does that drag-act teasing thing where, joshing with a male admirer, he unexpectedly WALLOPS them with sudden masculine strength, then goes back to joshing demurely. That always seems to work.

Now Murray starts chasing Miss Chaplin around the dressing room, and Chaplin does the one-footed skid, suggesting that there IS one character binding his three guises together, but that it’s the Tramp, not the actor Chaplin.

Now Chaplin dis-drags, and there’s a sense that this might be intended as a surprise — a CRYING GAME penis in the third act moment — and maybe it would have been for audiences at the time. We get to see him glue the moustache on — I doubt that’s on film anywhere else — Jackie Coogan recalled with Proustian wonder that the spirit gum having “kind of an offensive smell” — and for a moment we have Chaplin, wearing the moustache, and a dress, and not in character as anyone in particular, just focussed on glueing his upper lip. Kind of uncanny. Like seeing Mickey Mouse out of costume, shortsless, scratching himself.

She-Charlie has thrown the studio into tumult by taking over the whole dressing room, so Murray has to shout down an incipient revolution. Then Charlie reveals himself, making believe that the sexy girl — himself — is locked in the cupboard. Murray investigates and gets the time-honoured kick up the arse.

Charlie runs rampant through the studio, slapping and kicking people, then falls down a well. The crew resolve not to rescue him, making this the second CHaplin film where he drags up then drowns.

It was another mad experiment, suggesting that Charlie was already either trying to escape the Tramp persona, or define it by stretching and distorting it, seeing what it could be made to do. And maybe what he learned was that IT was more real on screen than HIM?

Things I Read off the Screen in The Property Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2020 by dcairns

IF YOUR ACT IS ROTTEN DO NOT TAKE IT OUT OF THE PROPS

THE PROPERTY MAN is another Chaplin with a good high-concept setting. It’s a backstage story, something Chaplin would refine all the way until LIMELIGHT. This specificity feels like something CC himself brought to Keystone, because certainly none of the shorts I’ve seen from the fun factory, with or without Chaplin, had a strong, unique premise. Whether the setting is a park or a hotel or whatever, it’s all very generic.

NO SMOKING

ACTORS DO NOT POSE IN FRONT OF YOUR POSTERS

“WHY, THEY HAVEN’T EVEN BILLED US”

“WE’LL TAKE THE STARS’ DRESSING ROOM”

Again, though, Chaplin is a horrible wretch. Moving Picture World was moved to complain, “There is some brutality in this picture and we can’t help feeling that this is reprehensible. What human being can see an old man kicked in the face and count it fun?” Well, we might first note that he’s NOT an old man, or not a real one, anyway. His obvious false beard and false performance makes the cruelty a little less real and hurtful. Still, it’s a representation of cruel behaviour, and though surprise and shock are certainly elements of a laugh, it’s easy to cross the line and simply be obnoxious.

TO-NIGHT

ELITE VAUDEVILLE

THE GOO-GOO SISTERS COMEDIENNES

GARLICO IN FEETS OF STRENGTH

GEO. HAM LENA FAT CO. rendering the Heart rending Sketch “SORROW”

5 OTHER BIG ACTS 5

SPECIAL PRICES 9, 19, 29, 49

BOX SEATS 98¢ reduced from $1.23¢

But Chaplin is always thinking, and among his cast of characters is a surly strongman act, so he has someone to play the underdog to. The David & Goliath contrast of little Charlie and some massive brute is in play very quickly in his career. Charlie having to carry a very heavy trunk for this lout is promising material but it’s over too soon. But, ah-hah, it worked once, do it again. If Charlie had been shown as LESS aggressive, having him stagger about with a heavy trunk that could hurt somebody would be MORE funny/dramatic, since we’d know he’s trying to avoid damage to innocent parties. It’s hard to believe this little jerk cares one way or the other.

NO EATABLES OR DRINKABLES ALLOWED IN DRESSING ROOMS

PROPS

All these signs and notices are a little distracting, actually.

KEEP QUIET NO LOUD TALK BY ORDER PROPS

Charlie wets his trousers – with the contents of a jug. But he certainly has the more vulgar reading of the situation in mind. He’s not allowed to make jokes about incontinence but he can evoke the thought in the audience’s mind, and they’ll purge their discomfort with laughter. I guess that’s why Chaplin films seem to find rich, pungent cheeses funny. Bad smells remind us of other bad smells. It’s the era before fart and poop jokes could be put on the screen. Of course, why people laugh at fart jokes is another mystery.

STAGE DOOR

The fact that Charlie wets himself while making goo-good eyes at the Goo-Goo Sisters certainly adds to the discomfiture.

More cruelty to the old man. I guess this stuff is meant to outrage our sensitive feelings but is so unreal that we know it’s not serious, and we’re reassure that we HAVE sensitive feelings to be outraged.

In this film and its immediate precursor, there is a big guy, there is Chaplin, and there is a little/old guy, and each terrorizes the one below him. In later Chaplin films, he himself is at the bottom… or there are characters of no particular status who might get mistreated by the film, but Chaplin is more careful not to make his character the aggressor. But he still does it from time to time in the Mutual films. He demolishes that poor guy’s alarm clock in THE PAWNSHOP. I keep using that one as an example, I need to rewatch some others, in between my study of the Keystones… that’s going to bring some aspects out via contrast, I bet.

Fun fact, George Fat, the persecuted tragedian in this, is actor Charles Bennett, who sings “Oh Mr. Kane,” in CITIZEN KANE.

PRINCIPALS

Sometimes Chaplin’s gratuitous malice IS funny. When a woman in a dressing gown starts flirting with him, Charlie shows off his athletic leg stretching. She responds in kind. And when she has one leg stretched out in mid-air, he casually shoves her onto her ass. It’s so pointless, it’s kind of great.

GARLICO

The strongman gives Charlie a mini-strangle. It’s very much a precursor to Eric Campbell, but he could shake an undercranked Charlie so hard it looked like his head would rattle loose. We haven’t attained that level of majesty yet. Yes, I call it majesty.

PROPERTY ROOM

THE MATINEE

“HAVE THAT BUM SEW UP MY TIGHTS”

Charlie is so threatened by the strong/fat man that he has to abuse the old guy each time he interacts with him, kicking him in the throat this time. It’s very much a portrait of the human race through history.

Mack Sennett’s in the front row of the audience. The cutaways to audience reactions immediately feel randomly splice-in, like Chaplin got them to applaud, boo, laugh, and then just inserted material by the foot (measure a quick shot by extending the celluloid from your nose to your fingertips, then cut). Another audience member (Harry McCoy, continuing his slow slide down the billing) is asleep, and another appears to be blind. There’s a woman with a cat, which I expect is quite old now.

The theater of cruelty continues when Charlie drops the curtain on a baritone’s neck, then rolls the injured man offstage with a broom. For about the only time I can think of, Charlie’s derby gets destroyed in the various scuffles. No Laurel & Hardy, he, his hat usually survives even the roughest scraps.

PART TWO

We really don’t have a lot of plot going to justify a reel change, do we? Still, let’s see.

If in doubt, kick an old man in the face. Or throw a dumbbell at his head.

“HURRY GET MY TIGHTS”

Wet tights are flung into various inexpensive faces. Well, it’s better than bricks. A slap, aimed at Charlie’s deserving kisser, renders an innocent woman unconscious. This is pretty brutal and largely unfunny. The main strength it has is the setting, which affords some gags with the curtain which sure don’t feel fresh now but maybe did once. The fact that Chaplin had lived this life seems to have furnished him with the signs on the walls, but not many ideas for gags.

Between this and LAUGHING GAS I wonder if he was going through a rough time personally and had to take it out on the world somehow. Or else he was just trying on the Keystone sadism for size. “Is this what the moving-going public really wants?

Ripping cloth each time the strongman bends to grab a weight is a fairly sophisticated gag by the standards set so far. If Charlie weren’t so vicious to everybody else, being mean to the strongman who’s been mean to him would actually, well, mean something.

Charlie puffs a pipe throughout. Something that didn’t last. Mildly curious to see if it recurs, ever. It feels like when he tries something and it works for him, he immediately knows, but there are so many things to try before the Tramp character is really established. Maybe he could be a psychopath? Hmm…

SHOES SHOES HOTEL SMITH

THE DRAMATIC ACT

500 LBS 130 LBS

In the show’s/film’s finale, Charlie turns a firehose on the pursuing actors, then on the audience. By freezing the frame I am able to establish, to my relief, that the cat has been removed from the lady’s lap before she gets sprayed.

This film seems to hate it’s audience, but we shouldn’t take that personally — it seems to hate EVERYONE.

Teeth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 25, 2020 by dcairns

LAUGHING GAS — the Chaplin short, not the Wodehouse novel, starts off very nicely indeed — it’s a good print, and it’s refreshing to find Chaplin in a cheaply-built representation of, if not opulence, at least class: a dentist’s waiting room, where he is employed on spitoon duty. (Blargh, spitoons again!)

The dentist’s assistant, Charlie’s immediate superior, is tiny: he looks like a child wearing false face-fuzz, something out of Vigo. Lots of nice, measured interplay with lashings of violence. Charlie explains by elaborate pantomime that I’m bigger than you, you can’t push me around, it would go badly for you, then the pint-sized fellow hauls off and knocks him down with a colossal slap, and then they shake hands in a formal acknowledgment of their places in life. The handshake after a punch or a kick up the arse becomes a regular Chaplin moment for the next few years. I picture a scholarly study called Ritualism in Knockabout.

The moment tich’s back is turned, Chaplin delivers an unsportsmanlike smack to the dome and then legs it.

Chaplin is a deplorable bully here, kicking the dwarf and smacking the customers with their under-the-jaw bandages and bulging cheeks. It’s not the most welcome development but is probably a necessary one as he gradually becomes a spirit of misrule, a human spanner in society’s works.

Directorially, it’s very largely one shot per room, but he’s using the depth of his painted sets more, he has a door at the side AND a door at the back of the waiting room, opening on to distinct rooms/shots. A more sophisticated primitiveness than we’ve seen.

Atypically, Chaplin offers a scene without himself as performer, where Dr. Pain, whose beard actually looks maybe-real, and whose performance passes as naturalistic, if we imagine he has Italian blood, gives the titular gas to a gesticulating grotesque.

Chaplin’s feuding with a fellow underling while working for a stern but sensible boss makes me think ahead to THE PAWNSHOP, but uh-oh, the gangling patient won’t revive. He’s either sleeping, laughing, or both. Chaplin is dispatched to obtain a cure — pausing to slap most of the supporting cast, he hurries off on his mission of mercy.

Before he even enters the pharmacy (a nice location) he picks a fight with Mack Swain, performing various tricks with his by way of abstract threats. Chaplin the performer who keeps showing off, shoehorning in bits of business unrelated to the scene, is something we’ve seen traces off from early on, but it’s becoming more a part of this character, even if its defining quality is that it has nothing much to do with either character or situation.

Within seconds he’s kicked Swain in the guts and ripped some woman’s skirt off (uh-oh, it’s Mrs. Pain). Then we get to the real business: slinging bricks at people.

This is could almost be the dental equivalent of the glazing business Charlie sets up in THE KID. First, generate the need: either by smashing windows, or, here, teeth. The violence definitely doesn’t get funnier when we see it causing physical harm. Soon, various bit-players are spitting teeth out (what did they use? hard candy, perhaps?) and seeking the ministrations or Dr. Pain.

The intercutting of various bits of action now assumes frenzied proportions. Dr. P. rushes home after the maid telephones to say his wife has had an accident. He’s not told until he arrives that it was a skirt-related accident. The man who won’t wake up, wakes up, disgusted to find his toothache is no better (looks like Pain pulled the wrong tooth — nobody gets any help for any of their suffering in this film — those were harsher times in many ways).

With Pain out of the way, Charlie decides to operate. And what an operator. There is an attractive girl patient. Perfect. Uncertain of the rudiments, he attempts to shine her shoes. No, wrong end, silly of me. They laugh. He throws his leg across her lap — second time he’s done this in his Keystone career, is Harpo in the audience, taking notes?

Some splices, then Charlie using pliers as an instrument of wooing. Odd, but we’ll let it go.

Suspense! Swain is in the waiting room, and tumbles to the fact that the dentist is the one who knocked his teeth out. He interrupts the fiend performing hideous mouth-torture on some other unoffending patient.

Everybody gets knocked down, the end.

Well — the dentist setting makes this comparatively high concept. It’s not just random things happening in a park. It’s still fairly random, though this develops naturally from his character being a sociopathically violent sod, and it’s tied together by the setting of a dental surgery. This kind of idea, slight as it is, would become a very productive approach for Chaplin. Build a specific set, and then come up with comedy business related to it. When he left Keystone and made THE FLOORWALKER, Sennett saw it and cried, “Why didn’t we think of an escalator?” The answer, I’m afraid, is “Because you couldn’t.”