Archive for Those Love Pangs

The Christmas Day Intertitle: Dough Nuts

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

Charlie Chaplin always hated Christmas. It reminded him of the poorhouse. And then he died on Christmas Day, aged 88, which I guess allowed him to skip the last one. Take your small victories where you can, and have the merriest one possible under the circumstances.

This Chaplin-Conklin bunfight took nine days to make, an unheard-of thing at Keystone. Sennett announced, per Chaplin’s autobiography, that the only way it could make its money back was as a two-reeler, so it was allowed to spread out a bit more than was typically allowed. Chaplin forfeited his $25 bonus for going $800 over the $1000 budget.

The film made a fortune.

Sennett recollects that he was absent for the studio for a few days. He left Chaplin and Conklin making a short about idle roomers competing for their landlady’s affections, he recalls (but that’s the plot of a different film, THOSE LOVE PANGS, made immediately previously) and when he got back, the boys had taken inspiration from a “help wanted” sign at a local bakery. Sennett claims credit for adding the explosive element. The Chaplin Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell, explains the confusion by suggesting that CC & CC began THOSE LOVE PANGS, got sidetracked onto D&D, then returned to the landlady idea and finished it.

The New York Dramatic Mirror wrote, of Chaplin “His odd little tricks of manner and his refusal to do the most simple things in an ordinary way are essential features of his method, which thus far has defied successful imitation.” Which is actually pretty perceptive.

The film begins, somewhat unusually for the studio, with a stark, one-word intertitle: TROUBLE. Chaplin is cast as an appalling waiter. He’s unusually jovial about it, but his customers don’t seem amused. Never mind, here’s a pretty girl loitering at the ASSORTED FRENCH TARTS counter, so Charlie abandons his disgruntled victims to attend to her needs.

Charlie is very fussy and jolly in his incompetence, which is a new look for him. A departure from the Little Fellow’s general air of downbeat, dogged uselessness when called upon to do work. It’s automatically less funny when he’s laughing.

Then he’s leering at the girl’s swinging hips, and his own tiny ass starts metronoming in sympathy with hers. Maybe the smuttiest sequence in Chaplin’s work so far. His attempts to be a leading man as well as a clown have been tentative to date. The romances, such as they are, have not tended to be full narratives requiring resolution.

Chaplin didn’t go in for pie-throwing as much as many would suspect, but a fair bit of pastry tossing occurs in this one’s opening minutes, with Charley Chase as one of the recipients.

Once Charlie is propelled into the kitchen, his cheerful attitude unexpectedly changes as he gets into an immediate fight with Conklin, with the tubby female cool an inadvertent victim. Charlie, it’s clear, despise his fellow workers. His aggression has to make room for numerous gestures of superiority. This movie should have been shown as proof that he wasn’t a communist. You can’t be a hero of the proletariat and kick Chester Conklin in the face, twice.

Down in the cellar, two employees are fomenting a strike. It’s a lot like METROPOLIS, this film, only messier. The dough everyone’s required to handle is revoltingly stick and stringy. Is it Larry Cohen’s THE STUFF? Charlie manages to burn his hand (twice) and his foot on an oven door, then slam the trapdoor on the same foot as he exits through the shop floor.

Back to the kitchen, where some dishes are smashed and CC and CC punch one another in the chest. Charlie’s small frame and tight jacket always make his chest seem impossibly small, and his ribs do seem here to be a weak spot: he staggers, winded, at every blow.

Another intertitle:

It’s hardly a socialist tract. Of course, Chaplin is perhaps trying to please his boss. He recalled getting along quite well with Sennett now and so he’d probably not want to spoil it by suggesting that the workers should control the means of custard pie production, even in a skit.

One particularly aggressive striker threatens Charlie with a knife: he reverses it when the guy’s not looking (or feeling, apparently: he somehow doesn’t notice when it’s taken from his hand and then replaced) and gives the guy a sharp jab. Unlike in MAKING A LIVING, stabbing here isn’t just another form of slapstick violence: we may expect that a more sincere stab might cause non-comic injury.

Charlie, Chester and the Cook, unquestioning blacklegs, set about trying to run the joint all by themselves. Chaplin tries to carrie a bag of flour the size of Mack Swain: his legs crumpling under him and distorted by the baggy pants, resemble those of some trouser-wearing insect or a de-poled scarecrow. The cook has to shove his knees back into their rightful places. He’s also stuffed an apron down his front, making the crotch and seat bulge in carapace-like manner. A new look for him: Chaplin the crippled ant.

Of course, hobbling through the cafe, he has to careen sideways and crush a plump patron. Good outraged reaction from Phyllis Allen. He then drops the whole overstuffed futon down the trapdoor onto Conklin’s head. A few bits of business are then conducted with the wretched Chester pinned under the heavy sack. Chaplin even walks over him, It’s a foretaste of MODERN TIMES, where Conklin is again the butt, though in that one Charlie is much more solicitous and the atrocities more accidental.

The strikers are now transformed into an anarchist cell, their fake whiskers and dynamite evoking a road company version of Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot.

Intriguingly, though Charlie never considers going on strike, he continues to treat his boss with the contempt reserved for anyone he doesn’t want to get off with, hurling hard loaves at the patron, until the guy (Fritz Schade M. La Vie, per cast list) slings one back and it shatters into crumbs on his face.

Chaplin getting his neck caught in the trapdoor as Conklin pulls his legs from below merits a rare close-up:

We’ve established from day one that anything with a hinge is Charlie’s mortal enemy. If you had a hinge, you would be too.

Once Charlie is freed, he and Chester start whacking each other with dough in a painful-looking manner. The two have magnificent timing together, so the short breathers — during one of which Charlie says a silent prayer — are perfectly matched. Then we get this —

This got me very excited. So the 1914 projectionists had no automated means of changing reels in the “seemless” manner I remember from the days of 35mm — cigarette burn flashes up, crashed burp of soundtrack, scratches and missing footage — and so the show simply stopped while they removed one reel, threaded another, and got the carbon arc going again, all while the customers sat and grumbled. I guess most attractions were still one reel long. I haven’t considered the effect of INTOLERANCE happening as a series of ten-fifteen minute chapters with mini-intermissions. Did at least some of the classier venues have a two-projector system to avoid hiatuses? They must have… it’s not a high-tech solution, just a more expensive one.

Come to think of it, the fact that I grew up seeing reel changes performed by hand and eye kind of makes me feel like a dinosaur.

One of the dynamiteers buys a loaf in the most suspicious possible manner.

Chaplin is struggling to get much comedy out of the ovens. He’s had the set designer build them. They are unquestionably an element of a bakery. But what to do with them, slapstickwise? Yes, he can singe his fingers again.

Ah, this looks promising —

A nasty poke in the face for Chester, which of course Chaplin repeats, because he knows the audience will laugh harder the second time. First for surprise, second for satisfaction. It’s rough on Chester, but what are you going to do?

Charlie then discovers that he can warm his hands before the ovens. Still not funny. Ah, but he can warm his arse! Not actually a gag, but potentially funny because it has an arse in it.

A couple of saucy, giggling wenches descend into the cellar. Charlie sends Chester away so he can slack off work and flirt with them. Going on strike is not an option for the little fellow, it seems (see also the red flag mix-up in MODERN TIMES, an epic gag), but bunking off to chase girls just comes naturally.

Raymond Durgnat put it like this: “One could summarise a proletarian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being outtalked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted. Something like that.”

The strikers create an exploding loaf, a detailed process which we watch in real time, like something out of RIFIFI. It even gets a medium closeup. This is the most anti-labour element in the film, so it makes sense that management, in the form of Sennett, thought of it.

The strikers attack, conking Conklin with sticks. This deliberate assault, however, is arguably no worse than the routine treatment the poor guy has been receiving from Charlie in the ordinary course of his duties. Grievous bodily harm practically qualifies as a rest break.

Chester arranges for Charlie to get the same brutal treatment, and Charlie then pays him back with dough. The two are more focussed on each other than on the guys who concussed them. I think dough-slinging may be funnier than pie-slinging: it’s messier, more strenuous (the combatants frequently become helplessly enmired), more vicious (a good slap send the recipient smothering to the floor).

One of the devilish strikers entrusts the explosive bread product to a random little girl. We’re in BATTLE OF ALGIERS territory now. I suppose the plan is to look unsuspicious by walking INTO a bakery carrying a loaf.

Bakers: worse than Al Qaida.

One presumes at first that the child is a dupe, but she plays it dead sinister, like one of the twins of evil in THE SHINING.

The suspiciously heavy loaf is now delivered to Charlie in the cellar. He decides it wants additional baking. Great idea. Charlie then manages to put a floury handprint on a female derriere, and still won praise for his refusal to resort to vulgarity.

Charley Chase has been sitting bottom right in the cafe for most of this movie, looking bored.

M. La Vie, seeing the handprints on his wife’s behind, flies into a writ of fealous jage and slaps hell out of Charlie (owner of I guess the smallest-hands in the establishment, though Conklin is even shorter). Charlie throws a pie in self-defense and hits Chase, who finally receives the service he’s been waiting for throughout this reel. Big chase, much kicking up the arse, bags of flour hurled left and right (Henry “Pathe” Lehrman’s lesson on screen direction gets a work-out) —

The oven explodes! The roof falls in on Charlie as he is preparing to throw basically all the dough at his boss. The blast causes the strikers’ box of dynamite to fall over and explode, killing (?) them. Or at least making them fall in a heap.

Charlie emerges, swampmonstered by dough, for a messy fade-out.

Pathos and Pangs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2020 by dcairns
Transporter malfunction!

I wrote about THE NEW JANITOR very recently, before I decided to explore Chaplin’s Keystone period in sequence and in more depth than anyone wants. I was influenced by Craig Keller’s excellent series, but he kept things epigrammatic and stopped at 1914… I might keep going. This’ll be like Hitchcock Year all over again, but it’ll be 93 films long. Try and stop me.

What wasn’t obvious about TNJ on a cursory view was that its narrative stratagem — injecting Chaplin-as-Tramp into a perfectly serious little melodrama — was totally new for the comedian, and probably for the studio. And it paves the way for many future developments. Supporting comics in obvious fake whiskers playing supporting clown roles will decrease — only Chaplin is allowed to look midway between circus performer and real everyday dude — the stories will get serious with Chaplin being the means of injecting comedy. The stakes will be real, and the settings for naturalistic.

This one was spat out of the Keystone Komedy assembly line so fast (there are just nine set-ups, and eight of them have been used before the halfway mark) that Al St. John hasn’t had a chance to change out of his bellboy costume. Charlie is set up as the underdog victim of St John’s elevator prank. The building he’s working in has obvious backdrops of skyscrapers outside the windows — or maybe just painted ON the windows. But my one time inside a New York skyscraper the views looked just like that. Unreal.

Charlie’s specific kind of incompetence is well-painted-in too: he has remarkable physical dexterity, gratuitously juggling with props, but his mind lags far behind so he does stupid stuff like carrying a waste paper bin upside down so the contents spill out.

Charlie also gets a little romance, which is played seriously and though he’s not much a catch the film doesn’t emphasise any leering or gargoyleish or antisocial qualities to render this scenario grotesque. Simple and seemingly without ambition, the film, like the character, presages the character and his films’ later form.

Chaplin remarks in My Autobiography, “I was playing in a picture called The New Janitor, in a scene in which the manager of the office fires me. In pleading with him to take pity on me and let me retain my job, I started to pantomime appealingly that I had a large family of little children. Although I was enacting mock sentiment, Dorothy Davenport [sic], an old actress, was on the sidelines watching the scene, and during rehearsal I looked up and to my surprise found her in tears. ‘I know it’s supposed to be funny,’ she said. ‘but you just made me weep.’ She confirmed something I had already felt: I had the ability to evoke laughter as well as tears.”

1) I think he means Alice Davenport.

2) It would be a while — years — before Chaplin found a proper use for this secondary talent…

It’s Keystone but released by Mutual, for whom Chaplin would make his best shorts, later.

But in THOSE LOVE PANGS, released on my birthday fifty-three years before I was born — I am now fifty-three so there’s a kind of symmetry to this — Chaplin is back to playing a repellant sex pest, and is billed as The Masher. Suggesting that he wasn’t sure if THE NEW JANITOR represented the direction he wanted to go in. People seemed to like him as a repulsive lout. He should make more lout films, then?

Charlie and Chester Conklin are rivals in pursuit of their landlady (Helen Carruthers). Though we meet them at the tea-table, Charlie seems drunk, or perhaps just mentally enfeebled. Still, when Conklin usurps his place with the landlady, Charlie is quick to prong the offender’s rump with a suitably pointy utensil. As David Hemmings would later say in JUGGERNAUT, “I may be stupid, but I’m not… bloody stupid.”

Caught red-forked, Chaplin pretends he’s using the implement as a musical instrument — the thinking comedian at work. When Conklin attempts to lay down the law — an amusing idea even in sentence form — Charlie spits in his eye — the low comic at work. Still, Chester can count himself luck not to have received the fork in his eyeball. The lout is mellowing.

A bit of further delicacy: having taken Conklin’s place with the landlady (or is she a maid? I think she’s a bit young for property-owning), Charlie positions her to be the target of the avenging prongs of Conklin. But this won’t do. Conduct unbecoming. He swaps back. And duly gets a set of tines jabbed inches deep in his noble derriere. It actually takes an effort to wrench the steel free from his flesh. Dizzily relieved expression. But his strange spasms repel the object of his wooing.

Some very good, almost abstract dueling clown action between CC and CC, before they realize the bar is open. Making excellent use of his cane, Charlie drags Conklin by the neck to their appointed destination, but for once the opportunity for drink is refused, and the chance of a tussle with some swing doors passed up, as a passing floozy (Vivian Edwards) gives Charlie the wink.

Meanwhile, Chester also meets a seductress (women just can’t resist a comedy pornstache) — Cecile Arnold. She’d been in a few Chaplin shorts previously but makes a much bigger impression here with her unusual introductor closeup. You can see her lips saying “Chester.” I wish she’d call ME Chester.

Charlie flops with his girl (she has a bigger beau, one Fred Hibbard), then reacts extravagantly to the sight of Chester and his gal. Splitscreened by a big tree, the two clowns gesticulate extravagantly and it becomes a bit obscure. I don’t get what they’re each trying to mime. Earlier, facing off together, the comics were wonderfully in synch. Here, competing for our attention, they just make muddle.

But I get that Charlie is disgusted by his rival’s romantic success, so his half-hearted attempt at drowning himself makes sense. The cop who interrupts him is no clownish Kop, but a stern authority figure without walrus moustache decoration.

Then there’s a very good bit where the big beau tries to explain a plot to Charlie who keeps falling backwards towards the pond. The beau keeps rescuing him, then prodding him, or throttling him, because he’s not listening, causing him to fall backwards etc. The relationship seems classically Chapliesque: the big brute is not necessarily consciously the Little Fellow’s enemy, in terms of wishing him ill, but he is his NATURAL enemy because he is a big guy, and pushy, and wants Charlie to do something not in Charlie’s best interests or nature or skillset. He’s inherently a boss, in other words.

Anyway we don’t really find out what the guy wants — a storyline seems amputated, somewhere. Charlie eventually gets him in the water and kicks his forehead and leaves. That’s that dealt with.

Conklin is now romancing BOTH girls. Chester Conklin gets all the pussy. It’s the moustache, has to be. Good Conklin-Chaplin grudge match, with many unconventional moves, not all of them within the Queensberry Rules. In particular, when Charlie folds Chester up and uses him as a chair while going through his wallet, we may feel that a line had been crossed.

The girls are off to the Majestic Cinema to see HELEN’S STRATAGEM. Charlie’s stratagem is to pursue them.

Nice plotting: the big beau, emerging from Echo Lake in a sodden condition, wrings out his jacket over Conklin’s face, inadvertently reviving him. It’s quite a lot like when the fake bat pukes on Dracula’s ashes in SCARS OF DRACULA. But better, obviously, because Christopher Lee didn’t wear a moustache like Dracula does in the book. What kind of moustache? Wouldn’t it be amazing if Dracula had a Chester Conklin cookie-duster? All dripping with blood and everything.

Chaplin is now embracing both girlies in the front row of the Majestic, and since his arms are occupied he’s telling them stories using his legs to gesture with. A young Charley Chase is somewhere in the audience behind him, the third CC in this movie. Then his rivals, Chester and the big beau, arrive, and we find out why cinema seats these days are bolted to the floor, and then Charlie is thrown through the cinema screen and pelted with bricks The End.

The clear implication from this film’s eventful action is that CC and CC do this every day of their lives.