Archive for The Property Man

Clip Joint

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2021 by dcairns

Essanay released TRIPLE TROUBLE in 1918, over two years after Chaplin had left the studio, and they claimed in advertisements that it was a complete Chaplin film they’d been hanging on to. In fact, it’s a couple of sequences from the abandoned feature LIFE, a few bits of POLICE, and the last shot of WORK, patched together with new footage specially filmed by Leo White.

Chaplin sued, arguing that this fraudulent Frankenstein of a film would damage his professional standing. Essanay successfully argued that critics, many of whom reviewed the film favourably, couldn’t tell the difference, and so neither could the public. So much for newspaper reviewers.

I’m writing about the film now since all the Chaplin footage in it was shot in 1915. I’m writing about it at all because it does include material, the LIFE outtakes, which is not available elsewhere. (Cutting together the scenes Chaplin himself repurposed for POLICE with the scenes here would give us a stronger idea of the unfinished movie’s narrative.)

The film begins with a chaotic series of random shots of context-free characters — a mad scientist, a count, a butler, a cook, Charlie and Edna as a skivvies. Which is pretty much how it continues. In the fuzzy print on YouTube, few intertitles seem to survive, so White’s plan, if he had one, is obscured. He himself is playing a count, though, and he’s trying to buy the radio-controlled explosives from the scientist. The scientist is refusing — we can imagine him saying “I intended my radio-controlled explosive to be used for peaceful means!” (credit to Simon Kane for this joke) — and so White seems to send hired thug Wesley Ruggles to achieve something or other.

As David Robinson says, some of White’s scene matching is quite clever — Charlie exits carrying a bin, and White cuts to new footage of himself in typical silk hat mode, walking down the street, only for the bin to rise over a high fence and tip its contents over him. The montage makes us believe Charlie is wielding the second bin, and that there’s in fact only one bin. As with his mangling of A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, White is also reasonably adept at match-cutting entrances and exits filmed some time (two years?) apart. He doesn’t have much of the original cast to play with, but Billy Armstrong, extravagantly moustached, matches his own exits with new entrances and ties the various separately-shot sequences together, bodily. The trouble is, White — as we know from ABOC, is really shit at narrative.

Oh, he’s helped by something else — Wesley Ruggles apparently was to appear in LIFE as a thug, wearing the same costume he has on in POLICE, but with bigger fake eyebrows. And his trousers don’t seem to be torn yet in LIFE. Curiously, Chaplin shelved all the Ruggles material from LIFE, but kept other footage for use in POLICE, along with Ruggles and his pinstripes. So White is able to use film of Ruggles in both LIFE and POLICE (optically flipping the latter into Looking Glass Land, which shows a certain scrupulousness about disguising his perfidy) along with new material of Ruggles running around firing his gun indoors, which he cuts together with Charlie reacting in unflipped POLICE shots.

Actually, this may not even be Ruggles in the LIFE footage, just a guy wearing his suit.

None of this micro-cunning matters because on a macro level the film is a mess. But let’s look at the Chaplin bits.

The stuff in the house which isn’t from POLICE shows Charlie being incompetent with a bin, which he tips on Edna through carelessness. It’s not particularly inspired, and is interestingly mainly because we discover that, in LIFE, Charlie was to have worn a top with striped sleeves, revealed whenever he removed his tiny jacket. Why this insignificant change in the customary costume? We may never know.

The flophouse scenes, a different batch from POLICE’s, are much more interesting. In LIFE, there were apparently to have been two flophouse nights, a contrasting set. TT uses the second sequence, in which Charlie arrives with a cigar, probably filched from his new employer. He was penniless in the scene that appeared in POLICE, now he has money to hide from a thief who’s robbing the snoring schnorrers.

The IMDb mentions Snub Pollard, who’s evidently too well-disguised for me to identify, and also Albert Austin, in what would be his only Chaplin Essanay appearance, as “man.” Didn’t clock him either.

Ruggles’ motivation here is opaque, but he’s evidently a bad guy. No sympathetic character could sport such caterpillarish eyebrows.

Charlie is pretty nasty too, using one drunk’s mouth as an ashtray, and later silencing the fellow with one of Essanay’s sugar-glass beer bottles. It’s a return to the viciousness of THE PROPERTY MAN — interestingly, both derive from Chaplin’s early life experiences — the workhouse dormitory and backstage life. This seems to bring out his sadism.

“A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion” ~ Nietzsche.

“Chaplin is a very simple case. He is compelled to endlessly reenact the humiliations of poverty” ~ Freud.

There are more extravagantly outlandish rags being worn in this sequence — Chaplin could give Terry Gilliam a run for his money when it comes to using the homeless as set decoration.

I’m not 100% sure than Chaplin intended LIFE to be a feature, but that’s what the sources say. What survives looks like maybe half a two-reeler. Charlie struggles to get a place in the flophouse, then gets a job emptying bins at a house where Mabel works, returns to the flophouse (comparatively) flush with money.

The scientist thing is entirely White’s invention, but forms an interesting antecedent to Laurel & Hardy’s DIRTY WORK, where the boys are chimney cleaners arriving at the home of a mad scientist, an odd juxtaposition of story elements which may have been inspired by White’s desperately improvisations here.

The scientist’s invention is accidentally detanated at the “climax” of TRIPLE TROUBLE, a sequence which, for obvious reasons, barely involves Charlie. The most interesting shot in the film shows the kops (of course there are kops) apparently tumbling through the air, having been blasted skywards by the almighty boom. The crummy print and video interlacing render the image almost incoherent, but it seems like an interesting effect.

And then Charlie pokes his head from an oven, stolen from the end of WORK. Ruggles, in a new shot, lobs a brick at him — a callback to Keystone days — White cuts back to Charlie reacting to random rubble in WORK, and the thing ends.

I find repurposed footage movies sort of interesting, from WHAT’S NEW, TIGER LILY? to HERCULES UNCHAINED to DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID and TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER. They never really work, though. You would think that those which have the luxury of being able to shoot new material with some of the same actors would be the most coherent, but Blake Edwards and Leo White can prove the contrary.

On Sunday, we begin Chaplin’s Mutual period — I’m excited! These are the Charlie Chaplin films I grew up with, or failed to grow up with, on BBC2, accompanied by the Goed Nieuws Orkest. Alas, their lovely Chaplin violin theme is nowhere to be found today…

The Sunday Intertitle: Mr Rowdy & Mr Pest

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin on screen is nearly always some version of The Tramp (who isn’t always a tramp), apart from in the early Keystone days. But he had a few names over the years, as we’ve seen — Mr. Wow-Wow, Mr Sniffels, Weakchin… But A NIGHT IN THE SHOW is unique since he plays two characters, Mr. Pest and Mr. Rowdy.

This is an adaptation of the Karno Company stage play that got Chaplin his Keystone offer. Mack Sennett was impressed by his drunk act. David Robinson remarks that Karno was known to be quite litigious, but Chaplin appears to have used the play without any official agreement… He padded it out by inventing his second character. This may have influenced Buster Keaton’s backstage comedy THE PLAYHOUSE, which opens with a dream in which Keaton plays EVERYBODY.

The lobby scene — Scene One — is an addition. Charlie as a top-hatted drunk would recur in the celebrated near-one-man show ONE A.M.

Mr. Rowdy is a fascinating creation, initially — Chaplin changes his simple makeup, compresses his face into a different formation, and is UNRECOGNISABLE. Suggesting that if the tramp character hadn’t hit it big, he would have been quite successful being different from film to film. But probably not THAT successful — it just so happened that his genius for cinematic clowning combined with him inventing a very recognisable silhouette, and that recognition factor was crucial.

Camera angles! The side-views of Mr. Pest amid the seating seem radical — Keystone audiences were always filmed from front or back, favouring either the faces of the crowd or the action onstage. And here comes Leo White in toff mode, which is how I like to see him best.

Well-timed business with the tuba player (James T. Kelley). Charlie uses the player’s bald head to light a match — he’s already mistaken a statue for a person. His drunkenness enables the confusion of people and objects to be taken to extremes. Then he has trouble finding his mouth with his cigarette, just like Peter Weller in NAKED LUNCH, a detail attested to as accurate by actual addicts.

For some reason Pest’s terror at the scary woman with the lorgnette strikes me as cruel, but his picking up the palsied trombonist’s tremor cracks me up. Both are evil. I suppose the defence, if there is one, is that we’re not mocking the afflicted, we’re laughing at Pest’s social ineptitude, his inability to act unfazed. Maybe.

The conductor accidentally lashing Pest in the face with his baton is wince-making, but he does deserve it. Maybe it’s wrong to have Pest actually struck — the jokes so far have been about HIM being wrong. If he’s whipped across the mouth he’s kind of justified in slapping back.

I don’t understand how the conductor can roll onto a chair so he’s upside down and then make it topple over without at least risking spinal injury.

In the ensuing skirmish, Chaplin cuts to a slightly closer view, with perfect continuity from about twenty-five actors and extras, so I’m assuming this is a single take shot with two cameras, Harry Ensign handing over to Rollie Totheroh, who would shoot almost all Chaplin’s stuff after the Essanay phase.

Fight over piece of trombone. Fat lady knocked into ornamental fountain. Chaplin seems fond of ornamental fountains — a useful way to have people fall in the water while indoors.

Good detail work as the eternal problem of the elbow rest is gone into. OBVIOUSLY theatre seats shouldn’t have conjoined elbow rests. Everybody should have a place for their elbows, if they have elbows. That’s democracy.

Edna laughs from a distance. Will she still be laughing when Mr. Pest gets in the same frame as her? That’s the Pest Test.

No, she’s very much not laughing now.

Ah good, here’s Mr. Rowdy again and he’s brought a bottle. I’m a bit distracted by the bloke in drag with a baby to the right of him. The IMDb doesn’t know who this is, but I suspect it’s somebody in a dual role. The guy to the left seems like a horrible ham, he’s assumed a permanent rictus to disguise his face so I assume he can be found elsewhere, playing elsewho, in the Mr. Pest segment of the movie. Here I get a vague impression that he’s aiming for a Semitic look.

The two Charlies interact without the use of splitscreen — just straight cutting between balcony and stalls. Chaplin wouldn’t really get into special effects until, I think THE GOLD RUSH.

The show begins! The first act is, rather obviously, the fat lady who fell in the fountain, May White, now playing a belly dancer. She doesn’t seem to be related to Leo White. She trips over — which should be pest’s fault but doesn’t seem to be motivated at all — and becomes unconscious. Or possibly dead. Pest jumps on stage to help out. So it’s a weak set-up to the business of Pest trying to lift a big woman onto her feet, which he then doesn’t make as much of as he could.

Now a fat boy arrives, and at first I thought this was May White yet again, in drag, but it’s Dee Lampton. He’d star in his own series of short films in 1917 as Schemer Skinny, then was relegated to roles like “Fat Man on Bench,” “Fat Rival” and “Fat Butler.” He was dead at twenty.

The business with Mr. Rowdy seems mainly to have been conceived to give something for Chaplin to cut to. A shame, because it’s fascinating to see him play someone else, even someone as unpleasant as this. Rowdy amuses himself by kicking the woman with the baby in the face. Which is why, I guess, it’s essential the she be played by a man. The unreality of the situation must be plain.

Lampton’s knickerbockered prankster has brought cream pies to the theatre, which Pest keeps putting his hand in. Losing patience, he swipes the pie at Lampton and hits the parent or guardian. So, are we to take it that Fred Karno was doing pie-in-face action before the movies got ahold of the gag? Ben Turpin, as we have seen, appears to have thrown cinema’s first pastry.

Now a snake charmer appears — IMDb has this as May White also, but I think that’s wrong. This character isn’t a comedic fat lady, just zaftig in a way that was considered attractive rather than funny in 1915. Although there’s a crossover — she and the belly dancer are treated both as potentially erotic (a lady drags her husband away because he enjoys the belly dancer too much) and also as suitable butts for crude gags — as when Mr. Pest lights a match on the snake charmer’s bare sole. She must have really calloused feet.

She also has a whole urn full of serpents. Another reason she’s not May White (unless the fat lady isn’t May White and she is) — she’s prepared to handle snakes, and is therefore probably a specialty act. I’m starting to think that maybe the fat lady and the belly dancer are both Dee Lampton in drag, or one of them is, or something. Whatever way, the Inaccurate Movie Database is living up to its name.

Snakes in an orchestra pit! Where’s Sam Jackson when you need him? “I have had it with etc.” The python in the tuba is an oddly uncomfortable gag.

Now I’ve noticed Leo White in blackface up in the gallery behind Mr. Rowdy and I can’t unsee that. It does at least confirm that probably everybody up there — the idiot children of paradise — is a disguised cast member from elsehwre in the film.

It occurs to me that in dividing himself in twain, Chaplin has given his derby to Mr. Rowdy and his moustache to Mr. Pest. Rowdy gets a good bit of business lifting his bushy ‘tache up so he can drink. The little toothbrish job was chosen to make Chaplin look older while not concealing his facial expressions, and we can see the wisdom of this, as Mr. Rowdy basically only has one expression, since Chaplin is holding his face in a different formation to make the character distinct. How to describe that expression? It seems to me tipsy, stupid, and very open and very psychopathic at the same time.

Dot and Dash — Bud Jamison and a little person the IMDb OUGHT to be able to identify but has not. Surely we’ll see this guy in other films from the period. Anyway, they sing badly, it seems, and are pelted with fruit. Inevitably, Mr. Pest sees a use for Dee Lampton’s other pie. Rather than throw it, sportsmanlike, however, he creeps on stage to deliver it at close quarters into the musical face of the anonymous achondroplasiac. This is done. There is no twist, no joke, really, just a short guy pieing the face of an even shorter guy. And then kicking him up the arse. Mr. Pest/Chaplin seems to be sadistically amused by this, and the audience goes wild, and I’m left rather cold.

Dutifully, Dot and Dash come back for a curtain call and more abuse.

The audience is now wildly applauding Mr. Pest for his nastiness. It would seem that Chaplin had some reservations about the kind of comedy he was doing — he would later say so, anyway — and so it makes sense that he’d have an ambivalent attitude to the people who loved him.

Next stop: Hell. “Professor Nix, the fire eater” performs in a volcanic cavern set, wearing horns. Mr. Pest is rightly alarmed. Chaplin’s last encounter with the flames of Hades was in THOSE LOVE PANGS. Other than the heavenly dream sequence of THE KID, I’m not sure he was particularly inspired by the afterlife again. Prof. Nix is really good, though — he uses Melesian jump-cuts, not something we’d have seen in the Karno production.

Pearls before swine: Mr. Rowdy panics and turns on the firehose, much as in THE PROPERTY MAN. Chaplin gets to show his resentment of the audience. But he ends on Mr Rowdy squirting Mr Pest from above — a close-up of a sodden Chaplin being a standard full stop at Keystone, but somewhat lacking for the more structured Essanay shorts.

I feel the main value here is the glimpse we get of Karno komedy, but it’s a distorted glimpse, since Chaplin is adapting everything for the cinema and extending it to make a two-reeler. We still can’t know what it was really like to see Chaplin on the stage. But clues are good.

I’m kind of excited about A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, which is next. Hoping I can see the original two-reel cut AND Leo White’s four-reel travesty.

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.