Archive for The Squaw Man

Thoroughly Unmodern Tillie

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2021 by dcairns

TILLIE’s PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914) isn’t highly rated — but we should give Sennett some credit for jumping into the feature film racket with both flapshod feet, even when he could have had little idea of what a feature comedy would be like (nobody had made one).

There’s also something poetically apt about Sennett co-directing with Charles Bennett (not the writer of THE 39 STEPS, no — but the guy who sings “Oh, Mr. Kane” in CITIZEN KANE, yes). I want more rhyming co-directors. Christopher Nolan & Xavier Dolan? Michael Mann & Ahn Hung Tran? Susanne Bier & Lars Von Trier? Suggest more!

I’m devoting three posts to this as it’s a six-reeler I guess and certainly thrice the length of any previous Chaplin.

And it starts very nicely, with imported star Marie Dressler emerging from stage curtains to smile shyly at the (imagined) audience, then dissolving into her movie character — and then another dissolve transports that character into her natural habitat. This seems to me better than anything in De Mille’s THE SQUAW MAN, sometimes considered the first feature film, but in reality only the first extant one.

Enter Mack Swain in a big rustic beard, to give Tillie/Marie the traditional Keystone kick up the arse. Welcome to the studio. Sennett tried to cover his costs by shoehorning every comedian in his stable into this movie, which is how Chaplin comes to make his inauspicious feature debut.

And is that Teddy the Keystone Dog ambling through lower frame? Apparently not, though he does seem to have been around pictures at the time. I tell you what, let’s start an unfounded rumour that it’s him.

Enter Chaplin, as “the stranger,” a kind of man with no name I guess, in a straw hat. Always interesting to see him as a villain, and he does it very well. This is his last baddie until Hynkel and Verdoux, I guess. He enters, back to camera, and we stay on that back a loooong time. Keystone has finally discovered preparation and suspense — well, they had to, a feature film made at the pace of a typical Sennett one-reeler would have required a huge budget.

Okay, it’s definitely not Teddy. we could christen him Freddy the Keystone Other Dog

Tillie is playing “catch-the-brick” with Not-Teddy, and accidentally hits the stranger in the nose with her lobbed bit of masonry. Very good pratfall from CC, and it all makes for a very Keystone meet cute. Less than three minutes in and two of their signature moves have been displayed. How long until a pastry is flung?

Charlie aggressively woos Tillie. Wonderful to see Dressler moving about so nimbly in head-to-toe wide shot. And the physical contrast is lovely, with Chaplin like a mosquito thinking of alighting on a tempting jelly.

Charlie and Swain have a drink and everything goes out of focus (nitrate decomposition).

People seem to communicate not by intertitles, but by kicking one another up the arse. I wonder how much nuance they can put into it / get out of it? Dressler’s facial expressions seem to suggest quite a bit. Without the use of her fantastic voice, though, she’s reduced to mainly being a gurner. And the fact that everyone tends to pitch their performances at the camera instead of at one another is a bit tiring. Chaplin was right to limit that to himself as actor, and to use it for audience rapport, not to telegraph things we might have missed. Expositional camera-directed pantomime is the worst.

Charlie’s “look” is yet another fascinating variation. He has a tiny moustache, but a DIFFERENT tiny moustache. Not a toothbrush. There doesn’t seem to be a name for this style or breed. It’s a bit like Max Linder’s chevron-style , but it’s in two pieces. Which is weird. Did it influence Cantinflas and his repulsive face-fungus? But the Spaniard’s two segments have grown further estranged, leaving his philtrum and most of his upper lip area bare, a gaping no-man’s land, while the hairs cluster together like herd animals at the corners of the mouth as if drawing sustenance from stray saliva.

The baggy pants and cane are still there. Chaplin has worked out that his brand definition is beneficial to him, but he needs to delineate between the Little Fellow and this little creep.

Speaking as we were of whiskering, I like that Mack Swain has a portrait of Lincoln on his wall, evidently the inspiration for his unsightly “Irish” beard.

Charlie sets about wooing the hefty hayseed for her father’s loot. This is good material for him, though hardly the kind of thing he’d get up to in his regular characterisation, partially-formed as it yet was. Dressler gets to have fun acting girlish, and would presumably have appealed to John Waters: “I like fat people who don’t know they’re fat.” She’s very graceful, but can drop it in an instant and stagger with pachyderm ponderousness: one thinks of her breaking stride at the end of DINNER AT EIGHT.

This film is usually dismissed, but I have to say, they’ve correctly worked out that the way to make a Keystone feature is to linger on character interplay in simple scenes, not to pack the screen with the usual busy-busy fussing or frenetic action. Cheaper, as well as less exhausting!

The lovers woo by slinging roses at one another. Tillie can hurl a blossom hard enough to knock Charlie on his ass. Of course, it’s not long before bricks are being tossed: this being the countryside, there are plenty lying about (it’s Keystone country).

Charlie proposes an elopement, and it’s a crystal-clear bit of mime, aided by Marie’s shocked, awestruck, delighted responses. His proposal that they rob her father requires a bit more explicit for-our-benefit gesticulation, but plays OK.

Dressler dresses up to elope, donning an extraordinary hat which seems to have a miniature egret or something posing atop it. I can imagine such a garment appealing to Bjork but few others. Anyway, get used to it, she doesn’t get another costume change for ages.

Enter Mabel Normand, forearms immersed in an almighty muff (elbow-deep in animal as they were, women of the era could have taken to veterinary practice as to the manner born), as THE GIRL HE LEFT BEHIND HIM. We’re in Part Two now, and the plot, a thin gruel thus far, duly thickens. Mabel advances into a gaping, PIG ALLEY close-up. Either Mack Sennett or Charles Bennett, has been looking at Griffith (with whom Sennett used to work). It’s rumoured that Sennett decided to throw everything into TILLIE’S after learning that DWG was at work on what became BIRTH OF A NATION, but Hobart Bosworth’s THE SEA WOLF and Cecil B. DeMille & Oscar Apfel’s THE SQUAW MAN were already out there, making money, so that influence is not needed.

The mini-skirmish with Mabel in the street is just padding, though, since the trio face off again in a restaurant, another of those bustling, hyperactive scenes Sennett had a weakness for. Interesting to see Mabel as a villainess.

Tillie gets drunk (falls down a fair bit), Charlie steals her ill-gotten dowry and absconds with Mabel. A woman walks by in the background grinning right into the lens, but if the stars can do it, why not random Los Angeles citizens?

Tillie is ousted and rousted, into the waiting arms of a kop, while Charlie and Mabel laugh wickedly from a presumably adjoining shot. (Keystone movies are very Kuleshovic, since near everything’s a master shot and when you have two wide shots joined together by glances or shoved characters passing from one frame to the other, you never ever get a wider view that links the two frames explicitly.)

Mercifully, Tillie is having too good a time being drunk for the first time to notice that she’s been robbed, abandoned and arrested. The local kop shop is just a palace of drunken hilarity to her. So they put her in solitary confinement with five men and two other women.

Charlie and Mabel go shopping — he is floored by the department store’s swing door. Hinges! There’s just no combatting them.

In the jail cell, Tillie is assailed by varied print formats — things keep blazing into high-contrast glare, with curved corners flashing momentarily onto the frame, a bit of Lynchian strangeness that prepares us for the possibility of Marie Dressler inexplicably mutating in her cell into Balthasar Getty. Which wouldn’t be that much weirder than what’s gone before.

Further developments introduce Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s own Marie Dressler type, as a prison matron (though Tillie isn’t in prison yet, just in the hoosegow’s lock-up) and co-director Charles Bennett himself as Tillie’s rich uncle. Also Edgar Kennedy as his butler. Having a rich uncle duly gets Tillie released, and a good thing too as she’s now entered the lachrymose phase of inebriation, weeping and kissing the desk sergeant’s bald head. “You th’ bess pal in th’world, thass wha’ you are…”

Mabel and Charlie emerge from the clothing store, all gussied up. Mabel is now the full Theda Bara. Charlie no longer had the baggy pants, his divorce from the Little Fellow is complete. (But we can’t see his feet!) This movie is like his entire progress at Keystone played in reverse. Mabel and Charlie have a ton of fun just standing in the street interacting. Makes me wish we could have seen them actually clothes shopping.

Admittedly, Tillie’s weird pyjama-dress-pantsuit thing is pretty impressive too. She’s still having tipsy fun, roughhousing with the Kops, making a great play of jumping off one of those huge kerbs they had in them days. I guess having a massive step like that would actually potentially deflect a cartwheel coming at you sideways, so they probably saved a lot of lives. If you were on the sidewalk you were kind of safe, unlike now. On the other hand, the pedestrians must’ve been walking about on broken ankles alla time.

That’s End of Part 2 —

TO BE CONTINUED

The Monday Intertitle: Um

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , on April 7, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-04-07-11h14m21s36

Just finished writing about THE SQUAW MAN, America’s first feature film and the first movie adaptation of a Broadway play (or is it? No it isn’t: see Comments section). The article will appear elsewhere, it is hoped, and I will tell you about it later.

Which means I have nothing to say here except to laugh and point at the funny intertitle.

Oh, OK. Let’s compare DeMille’s original (available only in its 1918 re-release form, I believe) with his talkie (VERY talkie) remake.

The first film manages to get its hero, an English toff, Out West in about fifteen minutes, despite pausing for a blaze at sea and some tricky business in New York. The remake takes half an hour to accomplish the same task, and doesn’t even manage the oceanic inferno or the Big Apple stopover.

The first film stars Red Wing, a full-blooded Winnebago (a tribe with what you might call cinematic implications), whereas the talking picture stars Lupe Velez. Lupe Velez was famous for not being an Indian.

The second film gets by with intertitles, although admittedly they have that Edisonian quality of sometimes telling you what you’re about to see — a film with its own spoilers — but the remake has as much verbiage as it has prairie, going on for miles in all directions. Everyone has been instructed to talk slow for the nice microphone, so that Warner Baxter (as an English nobleman, pwahahaha) sounds as much like an Indian as Lupe.

In spite of all this, I do find the remake, ponderous though it is (crude by 1931 standards) slightly more fun, if only because it contains this image —

vlcsnap-2014-04-07-11h31m48s9

In fact, Eleanor Boardman, in her penultimate film,  seems to inhabit better compositions than the entire rest of the cast. I must see more of her, starting with Borzage’s THE CIRCLE, recently supplied by a thoughtful Shadowplayer

Their Purple Moment

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , on April 24, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-04-16-14h01m52s209

Chapter Two of THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS (continued from last week) comes leaping at us with the homoerotic title of THE PURPLE DAGGER.

Seems I erred last week in stating that the serial’s cinematographer is uncredited. His credit is proudly present on the film, just not on the IMDb. King D. Grey had a reasonably long career consisting mainly of serials and B pictures, taking time out in 1918 to shoot Cecil B. DeMille’s THE SQUAW MAN, first remake of what’s sometimes claimed as the first American feature film. (Thanks to Randy Byers for the correction.) His work on TTOTO is superb, and he must be considered a subject for further research.

The second part of our twisting tale starts just as enticingly as the first — the opening titles identifying leading man Ben F. Wilson and leading lady Neva Gerber are illustrated by shots of the characters menaced by the cliffhanging situations we last glimpsed them in, thus enabling the show to get up and running in record speed. The idea of the lengthy recap seems to be a later innovation. Latecomers to this saga just have to fend for themselves.

vlcsnap-2013-04-16-14h05m59s139

The bizarre magic trickery that showed hands coming through walls now materializes a whole platoon of unsympathetic chop-socky experts for Wilson (as Carter Holmes, eminent criminologist) to wrassle with. They come looming out of the wallpaper like a dying vision of Oscar Wilde. Fortunately, a good white man has the strength of a dozen fiendish orientals, and he fends them off until dropped down a trap door into the lair of the evil cultists where our heroine is currently threatened with ritual sacrifice.

Did I mention that TTOTO is a thriller?

vlcsnap-2013-04-16-14h10m22s216

Now Holmes remembers his gun, and keeps the cultists at bay. They seem to be mainly faux-Arabic, suggesting a Sax Rohmer style non-white alliance. All the shiftier races ganging up on the poor caucasian. Sax Rohmer had already created the Si-Fan, his dastardly pan-Asian conspiracy, but his paranoid racial fantasies hadn’t yet been adapted to the screen — the first adaptation, THE YELLOW CLAW, seems to have happened the year after TTOTO.

Escaping through a secret passage, Carter and Ruth (Neva’s character) are pursued by the masked man, Monsieur X, who seems to be the leader of this whole throng of miscreants. They all give him a left-handed Hitler salute when he shows up (theory: Hitler sneaked into a Berlin cinema to see this, liked the salute, but was watching from behind the screen and so got it backwards).

vlcsnap-2013-04-16-14h20m57s183

The film continues surefootedly — having fled down cardboard corridors with hand-painted stonework, our heroes now find themselves in a real stone corridor, which leads them out into the street. The actual interior location thus acts as a kind of buffer zone or pressure chamber allowing the transition from studio set to actuality. Nice.

Now Carter’s bulbous Scottish sidekick, Sandy McNab comes bouncing up with news of another murdered professor. Being involved in the sciences in the 1910s was truly hazardous. Oh, and while this is all going on, every now and then THE EYES intermittently stare out of the wallpaper at people. Holmes empties his revolver into the beady devils, and they blink and fade out, but they’re soon back. This seems evidence of a genuine supernatural element to the serial, which strikes me as unusual. We’ll see where it all leads.

vlcsnap-2013-04-16-14h04m56s22

The remainder of the episode is less hectic — the action decamps to the sinisterly named Seal Island (where the unwary visitor stands in danger of being slapped to death with a wet flipper) — breezy outdoor scenery and a dynamite plot by the evil rug merchant who runs the mystery cult. Carter Holmes wants to fit the two daggers he’s obtained thus far (the plot being a kind of treasure hunt) into the stone vault. It being a nice day, he takes Neva along too.

vlcsnap-2013-04-16-18h29m34s219

I must have missed the explanation of what’s in the stone vault and why it matters. I think it might be the cursed Egyptian figurine from episode one. I dunno.

Little does he dream that the rug merchant has wired the cave containing the stone vault with “enough explosives to blow up the island.” A rash plan, one might think, since the rug merchant is sitting with the detonator on the island, just a few hundred yards away. But it’s certainly enough of a cliffhanger to end the episode on ~

vlcsnap-2013-04-16-21h43m17s126

Food for thought, that. I’m not sure I was even wondering if Monsieur X and the Eyes were One and the Same. I guess since he wears a fringed domino mask concealing his eyes, and they are simply a pair of disembodied, hovering eyes gazing through the wallpaper in a curious fashion, if you put the two together you’d have a pretty good identikit of your felon. Watch this space.