Archive for The Year of the Sex Olympics

The Further Adventures of Commodore Slick

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2021 by dcairns

Last we saw, Charlie was waking up in a strange bed. “This is not my beautiful house,” sings David Byrne in the movie trailer. (Why do trailer editors keep doing that?)

We’re at about 11.30 in the above.

Albert Austin, with his upper lip uncharacteristically nude, enters as a butler. Charlie receives fine clothes. Impostures and mistaken identities are as central to Chaplin’s work as they are to Wodehouse’s. Wodehouse may have felt like an imposter in the upper class scenes he described. Chaplin surely must have sometimes felt he didn’t belong amid the riches of Hollywood. And, though his screen character had a magical transformative power — he becomes a lampstand in this one — the comedy demands that he should struggle to adapt his behaviour to such settings.

Eric is flirting with Edna, but his hideous bifurcated beard is tickling her bare arm. The conjoined beard makes him look like two Rasputins standing close together, (each with one eye closed). A hopeless romantic prospect in any sane world.

Attired in a tux, but with giant flapshoe boots, our man descends to join the other guests. The name’s Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie has the same approach as me when it comes to free drink. When there’s free drink, one should attempt to drink all of it, because later there will be no free drink. This approach has a flaw in it somewhere, but looking at it in black and white (or white and black) I’m not sure just what it is.

Albert Austin’s role here, as ever, is to stand by looking vaguely appalled. He’s great at it. Chaplin relies a little less on a stock company from here on, or at least he mixes things up more, but Austin will still be around.

Edna welcomes Charlie eagerly — he’s rescued her from drowning and now he’s rescuing her from a tickly beard. Eric and Charlie square off. We get another iteration of Chaplin’s cigar-burn gag, a rather ouchy piece of supposed slapstick that’s fallen well out of favour today. The last comic cigar burn I recall was in TIME BANDITS, and there David Rappaport merely singed little Craig Warnock’s hair by mistake, and apologised afterwards.

A bit of arse-kicking here, which is funnier because it’s being done covertly. A curtain is introduced so the men can boot each other from adjoining rooms. Since Chaplin gets many effects using contrast, his traditional arse-kick gets funnier when performed in polite circles, discreetly between pleasantries. Also, an innocent party gets kicked, by Eric, naturally.

Henry Bergman is Edna’s dad, his second role in this one. Usually if he’s doubling up, one role will be in drag, but only social class and an inextinguishable pipe separate his twin characters here.

Eric discovers Charlie’s secret: the newspaper carries a story on the recent escapee, complete with incriminating mug shot. Note that Chaplin is quite keen to keep his character nameless. Here, he’s Convict 23, alias “The Eel,” and at the party he’s assumed the pseudonym of Commodore Slick.

Eric resolves to expose his rival, but foolishly leaves Charlie alone with the newspaper. When he presents it, triumphantly, to his fellow guests, it’s been cunningly altered.

Hilariously, the beard is clearly not drawn on to the photograph: Chaplin has had two photos taken and printed up as two newspapers, only in one of them he’s wearing Campbell’s beard.

Unlike in most Hollywood movies, the full text of the news article seems to have been typed out — it doesn’t turn into Latin when the print gets small, it doesn’t turn into a completely unrelated story. “Officials Completely Baffled.” Chaplin has anticipated that I will be freezeframing his work 105 years later. Further evidence of time travel to compliment that woman with the cell phone.

The threat seemingly defused, “Commodore Slick” mingles, continuing to soak up all the free drink he can swipe, even tipping the contents of Loyal Underwood’s glass into his own.

Meanwhile, one of the prison guards from reel one is being entertained by the cook. This twist is borrowed from POLICE and THE COUNT — cooks may be relied upon to entertain kops and the like, bringing fresh jeopardy into the scenario. It’s hardly necessary here. But since the guard is an interloper it not only adds jeopardy, it produces the irony of the guard hiding from Charlie rather than the other way around. The natural order is subverted. We’re through the looking glass here, folks.

Charlie is left on edge. This guard is prowling around the house. Every champagne cork is now a threatening shotgun. With relief, he allows himself to be escorted upstairs to the ballroom by Edna.

Unknown Chaplin reveals that the director considered two added elements for the ballroom, but deleted both. There was to be a sexy Spanish dancer, and a malfunctioning radiator. Charlie would find himself getting hot under the collar, think it’s the result of the tarantella lady, then discover he’s sat next to the radiator which is spurting steam up him. You can still see the radiator, but he deleted this curious gag.

Instead, he disinterestedly contemplates sticking a pin in a big lady’s backside, but doesn’t, only because Edna’s watching. We’re all glad he restrained himself. This kind of active malice is being eliminated.

Meanwhile, Eric phones the prison with a tip-off.

The ballroom has provided only spot gags, but a more promising invention is the balcony/ice cream gag. Chaplin wrote a fairly long analysis of this for the press, emphasising that dropping ice cream down the back of a fat lady’s dress works on TWO LEVELS.

Firstly, the audience is familiar with the cold wetness of ice cream, so they can relate to the gag on a tactile level. He compares this to the gooeyness of the cream pies of yore, harking back to some mythical, prelapsarian age of incessant pie throwing which seems to have been a dim cinematic memory even in 1917. Which is curious, because film historians have found no evidence that it ever really happened.

Secondly, dignified fat rich ladies are fair game. Like rich men in silk hats, the exaggerated dignity of the dowager demands to be taken down a peg or three. So the gag combines, in dynamic tension, the opposite qualities of empathy and alienation. Surprise and not-me.

(All explanations of comedy are only partial at best, and so the one devised by the desensitized dystopia-dwellers of Nigel Kneale’s TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics is as good as any: a gag must be surprising, and it must be befalling someone else.)

But what makes the ice cream gag funny in this case, is its effect on Eric Campbell. He’s just teased the dowager with his ice cream spoon on her bare back, and been gently scolded, but it’s all in good fun.

Then Charlie has an ice cream accident, depositing the whole of his dessert down the front of his trousers. This is traumatic enough to provoke a sympathy-seeking glance at his chums in the audience ~

The ice cream globule completes a shiversome odyssey down the baggy pants leg, and is chuted out by trouser cuff over the edge of the balcony — SPLAT!

The poor lady gets the dairy bombshell down her dress, and Eric gets the blame. “You’ve gone too far this time, Campbell!” His shamed squirming is very funny, and he’s a much more deserving victim than the lady. She’s just collateral damage. His attempts to help out, rolling up a sleeve to retrieve the offending item like some dapper veterinary surgeon, get him deeper into social disgrace.

Very funny reaction when she sits down. You can tell exactly where the melting ice cream has gotten to, just from her acting.

And this is the same woman Eric kicked earlier, doubling his disgrace.

But who is it? The IMDb has May White, the big lady from A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, in this, but she’s not. But the IMDb is fatally confused about White, misattributing one of her roles in A NIGHT IN THE SHOW. I *think* this is Marta Golden, playing Edna’s mother, in which case it’s quite strong mistreatment for a heroine’s mother. But Chaplin could be like that.

Edna, incidentally, has not much of a role in this one — the romance doesn’t really develop into anything we care about, maybe because Chaplin knew he was going to end it by running away.

Nicely judged aftermath to the ice cream incident. Charlie hastily leads Edna back into the ballroom, Loyal Underwood innocently wanders out onto the balcony, and Edna’s dad comes up and assaults him in vengeance for the ice cream drop. Charlie watches nervously — NOT gleefully, as he had as recently as THE RINK, when someone else gets the blame for his blunders. The character, and Chaplin’s grasp of him, keeps improving.

Frank Coleman and his prison guards turn up en masse. An absolutely brilliant chase ensues — it’s the opening pursuit restaged for a house. Suddenly all the features of the home reveal themselves as having been chase-landscape-in-waiting. The staircase allows Charlie to run up, vault off, and hide under the grand piano while his persecutors pursue thin air. The lampshade can be placed over his head as a cunning disguise (the first time this was done?). The balcony can be leapt off of, Fairbanks-fashion.

A chaste kiss on Edna’s cheek is a nod to romance. Then Eric, throwing off the shackles of civilisation amid the melee, attempts to seize Edna, so Charlie lays him out with arse-kick, lampshade over head, and a slug to the massive gut that makes the antagonist collapse like a dynamited tower block.

Charlie makes some noble and romantic declarations to Edna — think of the lines Chaplin overdubbed on THE GOLD RUSH if you like: “I am going, but when I return, I shall come back again.”

He flees, taking the lampshade with him.

But we’re not done. Coleman chases Charlie back upstairs, and the ballroom’s sliding doors are turned to Charlie’s advantage. The best architecture-as-gag yet. It builds fast and brilliantly. The doors, refusing to behave like normal doors (Charlie’s only just gotten used to hinges) are at first a menace, then a weapon. By the time our hero has used Coleman’s stolen handcuffs to trap both a revived Eric and Coleman himself, a disembodied head and a matching headless body, things have reached an intense pitch of invention, panic and hilarity. It takes less than a minute but it’s absolutely perfect.

There’s only one more gag. Edna spurns Commodore Slick, who is now unmasked as the mere Eel. No time for pathos, though. Collared by Coleman, Charlie uses the airs and graces of the class system to make his escape: formally introduced to Edna, Coleman has no choice but to take her hand, at which point our man legs it.

You could make a case that having Edna play a more active, willed role in Charlie’s escape would be much better from a character arc viewpoint. Instead, Charlie/Chaplin kind of reduces her to another prop.

The abrupt fadeout leaves us laughing, though I could probably do with a shot of Convict 23 on the open road, heading for the sunset. But there’ll be time for that later.

The Monday Intertitle: Spike

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by dcairns

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Been thinking about Spike Milligan a lot, for various reasons — I met a director of his, and a co-star. Then Anne Billson and I met for the first time in Camden Market and found a neat DVD shop, selling out-of-print obscurities on a semi-legal (well, illegal, really) basis, and they had a four-part series entitled Milligan In… which aired in 72-73, just before he appeared in THE THREE MUSKETEERS as Raquel Welch’s husband (“But it was only acting,” he reflected sadly).

What a disturbing thing — Milligan was a complicated individual, shellshocked from WWII, bipolar, a philanderer, and a genius. His genius was comedic, but he was also a poet — talented, but not superlatively so. Also a self-confessed racist — a mixture of the generational thing, his being a child of Empire brought up initially in India, a stubborn inability to grasp the niceties of political progress. Milligan’s race jokes are usually fairly inoffensive — punning on phrases that use the words “black” or “white” — but they’re not usually very funny. And there are too many of them. And then there are awkward bits that don’t seem like jokes at all.

One episode features a silent-movie sketch based around the idea of an unemployment crisis for comedians. The intertitles are hilarious, including one that has no words, just a spinning bow tie, and a speechless reply that’s just black space in a decorative frame. And there’s a beautiful joke involving a bicycle that gets eaten, leaving only its skeleton. The skeleton of a bicycle.

But there’s also a sequence of closeups when Spike enters the job centre and sees lots of people of different races waiting ahead of him. The implication is clear — these non-white people are taking our jobs. And there’s no joke to it, it’s just a slice of unpleasant Daily Mail racism. But then Milligan pans to the floor and redeems himself with a shot of the skeletal remains of a jobseeker, subtitled “Harry Secombe” (portly Welsh comic and sometime sidekick to Spike). Pan onto a second set of remains, labeled “Tommy Cooper” (another beloved British comic, very popular with Anthony Hopkins).

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There were a lot of racist comics on telly in the seventies. But the others weren’t mad geniuses. The most liberal or even radical comedy people in Britain today still idolise Spike — we’ve all decided to sort of look the other way concerning his racial politics. This sketch from the later “Q6” series, which is one of the funniest things I ever saw, is introduced as being about “Why mixed marriages don’t work” — another cringeworthy moment. But the sketch is funny because it’s about the domestic life of a dalek, the dalek is married to a lady, there’s a child dalek, the daleks can’t steer and keep bumping into the furniture, contrary to the advice of Mr Lunt, and also the lead dalek has Spike Milligan’s voice issuing electronically from its steel carapace. And they keep blowing things up. That’s a lot of funny elements, any one of which would have had me in a breathless, full-on asthmatic agony of mirth when I first saw it. The combination nearly made my ribcage explode.

The fact that the Dalek is wearing a sort of sloppy attempt a a turban is vaguely wrong, slightly funny, and ultimately easy to ignore amid the rest of the stuff going on. A Dalek bumping into a table is already, to me, funnier than anything, ever.

Later in Spike Milligan In… there’s a parody of the very respectable BBC kids’ show Blue Peter. Everybody grins terrifyingly. Milligan, in fright wig, is the most disturbing, but the guy parodying BP presenter John Noakes is really good too. The girl is Madeline Smith, of Hammer glamour fame, which cues us to expect knockers on display at some point. Sure enough, the show leaves the studio as the presenters narrate a film clip of their “skiing holiday in Islington.” They go into a shack and get rat-arsed on whisky. They play strip poker and Miss Smith is shortly down to her very skimpy undies. Violence breaks out. The Noakes figure is beaten unconscious, Madeline is bound and helpless and Milligan advances with ferocious lust —

Oh yeah, sexism. They had that in the seventies too. Milligan again was guilty, and again mainly because he refused to understand it. Here, he clearly felt this was something the audience would enjoy seeing. Which argues for a dim view of us — but at the same time, the assumption must be based on Milligan himself regarding it as something HE would like to see. Porn is always fantasy autobiography.

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But this sequence, highly reminiscent of Nigel Kneale’s legendary sci-fi TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics, is so disturbing it’s kind of good. Society collapses into horrific barbarism while a studio audience laughs and applauds. And the stock footage of clapping schoolkids is augmented by the laugh track played on top. Everyone is implicated.

The whole show is such a tonal stramash — poetry written for Milligan’s children, silent movie parody with racist propaganda, absurdity, songs (also written by Milligan), and now rape and bondage in a reversion to savagery — it’s impossible to watch without a queasy feeling. We also laughed, sometimes very hard. “It makes you feel stoned,” Fiona observed.

The Milligan mind was not disciplined, though it was amazingly fertile. It’s uncertain if he ever did anything that approached perfection, except backwards. But this series, very far from perfect and not his most likable, does present arguably the most complete picture of his virtues and vices.

Madeline Smith’s further crimes against womankind ~

This is an actual thing. The 1970s were different, and not really in good ways.