Archive for Walter Kerr

Man’s Beast Friend

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2021 by dcairns

On the subject of A DOG’S LIFE, Chaplin’s first film for First National, Walter Kerr (in The Silent Clowns) sagely notes ~

“The dirt floor of the vacant lot on which Charlie is discovered sleeping is now real dirt, hard, soiling, transparently uncomfortable. He will make nothing of this, or, rather, he will deflect attention from it with a gag without denying its presence. The board fence beside him is rickety, uneven at ground level, obviously no shelter from wind. The wind bothers him, a bit. He studies its cause. There is a small knothole in one board. He stuffs that with a piece of cloth and curls up to sleep again, reassured. The joke has had a double face: it is funny because closing off the least source of wind is preposterous in the circumstances; it also accentuates the circumstances. The comedy and a certain harshness of fact are being welded.

“When he goes to the tavern, The Green Lantern, the paint is peeling from the cement walls that frame its entrance, the sign promising Beer 5¢ is weathered almost to obliteration. The curbstone on which he sits is littered: there is garbage for him to probe in search of possible food. Compare the environment in which all of the spirited gagging takes place with that of the earlier Easy Street and the new texture becomes plain. Easy Street is a slum street, populated by bullies, drug addicts, impoverished women who must steal. But it is as clean as a drawing for a fairy tale. A Dog’s Life is not a picture of a place but a place. The “setting” as a thing closer to documentation is taking its place.”

Kerr’s observations are all the more astute because there’s no evidence he knew that the Chaplin unit had been joined by a new production designer, uncredited, in the person of Charles D. Hall. Hall would design every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES, while running the design department at Universal for the last few of those years. He’s a giant of cinema, giving us not just the clockwork innards Chaplin will reel through, iconically, but Castle Dracula, Frankenstein’s laboratory, the Bauhaus Satanism of THE BLACK CAT.

Hall was a companion from the Fred Karno days, but by the time he starts working with Chaplin he already has absorbed cinema’s need for close-up detail, as described in Kerr’s examples. It’s not clear whether he absorbed this working on earlier films or simply had his own ideas, or followed Chaplin’s orders. But he certainly brings a new reality to the films. If you’re wondering if a designer would really be responsible for the quality of dirt on the set in 1917, you can read my short bio in this month’s Sight & Sound but also read Tom Charity on Richard Sylbert in the same issue: Sylbert dictated that, since CHINATOWN was about a drought, he didn’t want to see a single cloud. He designed the SKY.

We can compare directly Chaplin waking up in EASY STREET and in A DOG’S LIFE:

In addition to the detail, the new film begins with a slow tilt down from ramshackle buildings, a movement that adds depth and solidity.

The new film benefits especially from the realistic textures because its gags are mostly about SURVIVAL. The addition of a dog is sympathetic but also holds a mirror up to Charlie, as Jackie Coogan would. Scraps is introduced as “a thoroughbred mongrel,” a contradictory statement that also applies to Charlie, a natural aristocrat, an indigent lord of the manner.

Scraps is played by Mut. Chaplin had been experimentally buying dogs, then giving them away to good homes when he judged them insufficiently cinematic. A dachshund, a pomeranian and a poodle preceded the final mutt, Mut. Obviously a mongrel was the way to go, but Chaplin liked to find things out by trial and error.

Class warfare: in Chaplin, the underdog is permitted to mistreat the upper crust silk hat fellow, since this qualifies as revenge on the persecutor, but he can also rob the honest salesman: in EASY STREET, Charlie as constable helps a woman load up with purloined groceries from a stall, and there’s no thought to how the poor stall-keeper is to survive. In THE KID, breaking the windows of the honest poor is permissible (windows are expensive).

A kop! No longer with the silly tit helmet, but with a dignified cap and an unblinking stare. Played not by a clown but by a regular actor, Tom Wilson, previously of Griffith and Pickford productions. But he has to get down and slapsticky with the rest of them, as Charlie uses the gap beneath the fence to roll back and forth and play merry hell with the kopper’s ankles.

Charlie now visits the Employment Office. Despite his offscreen British origins, queuing is not a natural activity for him. An ad for a brewery job provokes a near-riot, and despite his greater speed, Charlie suffers the inevitable consequence of being the smallest jobseeker. The fat jobseeker is the inevitable Henry Bergman, in the first of his inevitable two roles.

That other Henry, Henry Jaglom, was horrified to learn that Chaplin used gag writers. This seems to be true, but unlike with Keaton it seems we’re not allowed to know who they were. Vincent Bryan & Maverick Tyrrel (cool name) are listed by the IMDb as co-screenwriters of the Mutual films, but on what factual basis I don’t know. Bryan was also a songwriter, responsible for”In My Merry Oldsmobile” (?) No co-writers are given for subsequent Chaplins until we get Orson Welles supplying the story for MONSIEUR VERDOUX. But Glen David Gold’s well-researched novel Sunnyside gives Chaplin a gaggle of gagmen. Albert Austin and Henry Bergman are said to have contributed ideas, and so I suspect the stock company could be said to serve as co-authors, like the actors in Mike Leigh films, but the man in charge serves as filter of all suggestions.

After being roundly defeated in the Job Centre — even the tiniest jobseekers somehow arrive at the service window before him — the problem is there are TWO –Charlie rescues Scraps from bigger dogs: the parallel with his own scrappy existence is clear. He at once becomes surrogate bitch to the pup, helping access the dregs of a milk bottle using Scraps’ own tail as a kind of milk-sop. Probably THE KID has a better origin story, with Charlie simply forced into partnership with a baby, much against his wishes. But this is fine, and sweet.

Attention to set detail is complimented by attention to extras once we relocate to the Green Lantern bar, a low dive full of low characters. Chaplin invents bits of business for the local colour. But he’s cutting ahead if the plot here — nothing happens in the bar/dance hall this time round. He just needed a cutaway.

Sydney! Chaplin’s half-brother last shared a screen with him in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, Chaplin’s last Keystone film and Sydney’s first. Since then, Syd had made a number of shorts using his “Gussle” character, sometimes called a Chaplin impersonation but not really. Syd was less handsome than Charlie and his characters usually up the grotesquerie factor.There are at a couple of features where he bares his face and looks natural, but he retreats behind makeup and cookieduster again for THE BETTER ‘OLE, the better to resemble the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon the film takes its title from.

I can only hate Syd as a human being, but he’s another comic who, not surprisingly, has fantastic timing with his brother. Like Conklin and Turpin. This is their probably their best bit together, but I’ll be watching out for his subsequent appearances.

The basis of this routine is Charlie and scraps stealing from Syd’s lunch counter. Scraps cleans up a string of sausages in time-honoured fashion. Charlie eats all the pies. It is incredible to see him cram those things into his skinny face. He’s like Paul Newman with the hardboiled eggs. I think they must have made nearly-empty pies, but then again, his face looks pretty full. Syd tries to catch him at it. This becomes very funny indeed, since by the diminishing number of pies and Charlie’s proximity to the dish, his guilt is transparent. But Syd is determined to catch him in flagrante. Circumstantial evidence is insufficient for this stickler. The variety of ways Charlie gets the better of him is dazzling, and a lot of it is played out in unbroken master shots so you can see the interplay in real time. There are cutaways to the dog and closeups, maybe so Chaplin can run off and be sick. But the bulk of the action is in wides of twenty seconds and a minute ten.

The arrival of that kop, whose sinister gaze Charlie meets just as he’s lifting another pie to his gob, breaks up the skit — Charlie flees and the kop gets hit with the colossal sausage intended for him.

Stuffed with meat, Charlie and Scraps enter the Green Lantern and the first thing that can be called plot occurs (I may be being over-strict, but I think the meeting with Edna is the first thing in the film that leads to something else).

Rejected from the joint for having a dog with him, Charlie stuffs Scraps down his baggy pants, which at last have a use. The dog is somewhat large for this role, which may have looked more realistic on paper. Special effects will be used to basically shrink him: once he’s inside, Charlie looks normal-ish, no longer bulging fantastically, but with a wagging tail protruding from his trousers. The seat was torn earlier, when Charlie rescued Scraps from the bigger dogs, so this is unusually logical.

Various barflies and one drummer are freaked out by Charlie’s tail. Mut seems very contented in those pants, whenever we cut to a medium-shot and we see his face.

Edna is a singer in this joint. She sings a sad song — cutaways of various plug uglies weeping into their beer. Henry Bergman, in his inevitable second inevitably drag appearance, cries clown tears, but instead of spurting like water pistols his eyes just dribble in cataracts down his big face upon the place beneath, where Charlie happens to be sitting.

You have to see this one with Chaplin’s score — I guess this is the earliest Chaplin film with his own music accompanying it. He couldn’t write music but he would whistle or hum it for a composer to transcribe. I gather sometimes what he whistled wasn”t entirely original, but his films are full of cute tunes, and Nino Rota’s collaboration with Fellini is impossible to imagine without C.C. Here, Edna’s lament is preceded and followed by a very vigorous and zaftig dancer, and the contrast in style and dignity is very funny.

Syd’s then-wife Minnie is credited as “Dance hall dramatic lady” on the IMDb. Does that make her the dancer? It’s a bit strange.

Fiona likes Edna’s incompetent flirting. It’s one of the few Edna roles where she gets to transform pathos — her bully of a boss demands she flirt with customers — with comedy — she’s so innocent she has no idea how to do it. She looks like she’s having a fit. Charlie, the customer she tries it on, is baffled until she provides an explanatory title card. Such visual cues would be useful in real life.

At attempt to dance with a dog in tow looks forward to the improvised dog leash belt in THE GOLD RUSH. It looks pretty uncomfortable. Charlie is just sitting down to a (leftover) half drink with Edna when the bartended unreasonably demands he buy something for her. He gives her the drink. The bartender starts to eject him so he grabs it back and downs it on his way out.

Charlie and Scraps get the bum’s rush. Meanwhile, a rich drunk is rolled for his bulging wallet. This tipsy walk-on clearly would be given to an experienced comic, but the IMDb offers no clue as to who it is and I don’t recognise him. There’s a nice “mercy shot” after he’s dragged offscreen by thugs and relieved of his loot — he staggers back into view, dazed but unperturbed, and staggers off back the way he came.

Kops chase robbers, and the purloined wad is buried where Scraps can easily find it, providing the ensuing complications of Reel #3 and Day #2 (or is it #3?) of this film.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Sunday Intertitle: Convict 999

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2021 by dcairns

POLICE was Chaplin’s last “real” film for Essanay, and they hung onto it for a few months, releasing it after THE FLOORWALKER, his first film at Mutual, in May 1916.

The cast list, which is a bit more fulsome than usual, gives us usual suspects Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, Billy Armstrong and John Rand, along with CC himself. Confusingly, Armstrong is listed as “The Miser” but no such character appears, I think it’s a typo for “The Minister.”

After two films where he’s played a relatively high-status character, Charlie starts this film being released from prison, and this is the first film to position him as a convict — in THE ADVENTURER and THE PILGRIM he’d play an escapee, and MODERN TIMES uses repeated arrests and releases as a structuring device (almost the only one it has, you might argue). The two Chaplins of THE GREAT DICTATOR exchange arrests, and MONSIEUR VERDOUX is caught, tried and executed.

The real Chaplin — or maybe I should say the real-world Chaplin, since I don’t think the Tramp is NOT real — would have his own legal troubles.

Two things: Charlie STRETCHES as he’s released, because prison is confining. It makes no logical sense but feels right. And it’s been raining, or, more likely, this being L.A., someone has hosed the sidewalk. To make the outside world seem more uninviting. The intertitle characterises the world as the sort of place people commit suicide out of.

A sinister personage is already watching our hero. Chaplin, who had played sinister personages with glee on stage and in a couple of early Keystones, gives him a great entrance:

This lurker proves to be a phony preacher who pretends to reform Charlie. Now, in THE TRAMP there was a minister too, and Charlie dropped a rotten egg in his Bible. This throwaway gag wasn’t ABOUT anything, but it did seem to express an unformed anti-clerical or anyhow disrespectful attitude. Here, Chaplin has actually worked out a philosophy. ..

The holy platitudes move Charlie to tears. True, he wipes his eyes with the minister’s (patently false) beard, but this is not conscious lack of respect, it’s just that people and objects are interchangeable to Charlie. Inspired by the good word, he passes up a golden opportunity to relieve a drunk of his fob watch. And then he discovers his pocket’s been picked and sees the crooked minister is rolling the drunk he’d spared. (I’ve been reading William Burroughs’ Junkie which is a magnificent primer on how to roll drunks, among other things. The minister’s technique lacks finesse, but he did manage to rob Charlie without any of us seeing it.) The next (apparently sincere) priest to attempt saving Charlie’s soul gets seen off with threats of violence.

Maybe Chaplin’s anti-clerical impulses already derive from leftist sympathies, I don’t know. But the message seems clear: there are honest and dishonest preachers in the world: avoid both kinds.

Determinedly pursuing the hapless cleric, Charlie collides with and bowls over John Rand as a kop, who does a great fall and then gives chase. Surprisingly, the chase fades out just as it’s getting started, and we next see Charlie checking into a flophouse for the night. This is footage taken from LIFE, the Essanay feature project Chaplin had begun and abandoned, thus proving that you don’t have to be Leo White to recycle Chaplin footage. It doesn’t even help to be Leo White.

The dosshouse tenants are an extraordinary bunch — the look like pirates who have come from an explosion. This kind of scene and setting are quite unusual for silent comedy, but Chaplin is trying to find the common ground. His later movies that delve into poverty would portray the world with a kind of slightly softened realism. Here, we’re almost in the Emmett Kelly “hobo clown” domain. One of these guys is Snub Pollard.

Leo White plays the landlord/proprietor as a Jewish emigré type in a filthy waistcoat. A hint of kindliness — he allows a consumptive customer to bed down free. Charlie, having been relieved of his change earlier, spontaneously acquires a racking cough. Leo boots him out, but not before Charlie has given his beard a cruel yank.

Another strange transition as Charlie provokes a policeman, starts a chase… and strolls into the next scene, apparently unpursued. Then he’s mugged at gunpoint but manages to stealthily rob the pinstriped goon that’s doing it. This is apparently Wesley Ruggles, unrecognisable from his bit as Edna’s dad in SHANGHAIED. Ruggles proves to be Charlie’s old cell mate, and enlists him in a burglary. Armed with pistol and fatal mallet, they approach the target house, and Chaplin throws in an expressionist touch, four years before German expressionism was a thing in movies ~

Well, if you have the most recognisable silhouette in movies, might as well use it.

Kop John Rand has overheard the criminous scheme and is keeping watch, in another remarkable shot:

Lots of creeping and lurking in this one, and it brings out Chaplin’s compositional ideas.

Despite his prior conviction, whatever it may have been for, Charlie is a rank amateur at b&e, more liable to damage Wesley Ruggles than the window he’s charged with jimmying. Never ask a Charlie to jimmy for you, or vice versa. Now Rand’s kop pounced, and there’s one of those slow-burn things where Charlie doesn’t seem to have recognised he’s about to be arrested, until suddenly he wallops Rand with the fatal m. and Rand does a great stiffen-and-collapse, legs flying up as he hits the ground flat (a good friend knows how to do this and it’s a regret that I’ve never asked him to teach me. But I would be rubbish at it and smash my skull in).

Jimmying has no effect on this window, but luckily the door was open all along. Sophisticated bit of cutting inside — the two crooks creep to a curtain — Chaplin cuts to a wide of the room beyond, with Charlie peering into it, then back to the hall as Ruggles bumps into Charlie, then back to the big room as they burst into it. We haven’t seen that kind of cutting in Chaplin before, I don’t think. The days when each room was a single shot have imperceptibly faded away to a new kind of fluid treatment of space.

Of course we probably all guess this was going to be Edna’s house, and here she comes now, awakened by Charlie accidentally pulling over a unit full of metallic ornaments with his cane (startled, he dives under a rug, which becomes a bedsheet from which he says his prayers).

Ruggles produces a drill from somewhere. These two incompetents don’t have a toolkit or a swag bag, but it seems not to matter because Ruggles has, it seems, extraordinarily capacious pockets. I bet Charlie does too, judging from his pants. Charlie attempts to drill his way into the piano, for reasons unknown. If you were going burgling and you had the choice of Charlie or Harpo… well, probably going it alone would be your best option.

Edna calls the kops, who are all daintily drinking tea, a nice, strange touch.

This whole situation is great: Charlie is stuck in a situation demanding stealth, wile and ruthlessness, but all he can offer is inane fumbling. A bungler not a burglar. Plus he has a short-tempered associate more competent but also more dangerous than he, to intimidate and shove him about. This kind of thing would become standard for CC.

Lots of mileage is gotten from unlikely objects. He falls in a wicker basket and it becomes momentarily a turtle’s shell, then he steps in it, and simply by raising the wrong foot to get free, traps himself in a deteriorating spiral, leglocked and disorientated.

Using elaborate safecracker pantomime, Charlie breaks into the icebox. It’s not even certain if this is a mistake or mere whimsy. Objects are so easily transposed, there’s really only one all-purpose object in the world, and it’s all people and animals too.

Nonsensically, Charlie steals an alarm clock, and moments later Chaplin offers us the first ever view INSIDE the baggy pants, as the clock goes off. This provokes a frantic, electroconvulsive dance from Charlie, surely an exaggeration. Handed the basket, Charlie fills it with flowers and discards the valuable containers.

Sixteen mintes into a twenty-six minute film, Charlie runs into Edna, and immediately flees, leaping into Ruggles’ arms and then surrendering to an empty room. Ruggles covers Edna with his revolver, but she’s made of sterner stuff. She tells Ruggles to be quiet as her father is very ill. She invites them to dine — she knows the kops are coming — like men in a dream, the housebreakers fall in with their hostess’ request.

Chaplin has fun with the domesticity of the kops too. While they are indeed motoring at speed to the rescue, they’re also smoking cigars and looking very relaxed about it. This is much more characterful clowning than the Keystone variety of frenetic stagger, which does have character in it but, through its rampant disunity and hyperactivity, presents a singular aspect of chaos rather than individual reactions.

This short has more stylistic devices and sheer filmmaking imagination than Chaplin’s whole career to date! A sudden Sergio Leone closeup (but in vignette) shows Ruggles reacting to Edna’s jewellery. We tilt suspensefully up from her beringed fingers to her anxious face.

While Ruggles is off burglarizing, Charlie again shows himself a sucker for reformists, as Edna sweet-talks him into yielding to his better side. Priests is one thing, pretty girls another. But when she utters the exact same words as the film’s opening man of the cloth, Charlie checks his pockets. Good stuff — sentimentality at this stage of Chaplin’s career is mainly a set-up for a deflating punchline, it’s a spice that adds flavour.

Laden with Edna’s property, Charlie tips his hat and shakes hands as he and Ruggles prepare to make their getaway. Charlie has mostly grabbed not particularly valuable furnishings and impedimenta. But Ruggles still wants to try upstairs — Edna protests — now it’s her mother who’s sick — a struggle, as they say, ensues. Charlie is impatient with this sort of ungentlemanliness, and when Ruggles makes to haul off and slap Edna, he instinctively comes to her defence. Like a Jean-Pierre Melville heister, he has a code of honour which does not, however, prevent him from kicking Ruggles in the breadbasket when his dander us up. Ruggles throughout has a small, distracting tear in the seta of his pants, which now enlarges like an iris.

The kop, John Rand, now shows himself to be a subject worthy of continued study, as he awakens from his earlier concussion at the front door, enters the fray, and is at once reconcussed by a swung swag bag not even aimed at him. Staggering out again, he makes an “Oh sod it” gesture and lies down as if to sleep, then as an afterthought sits up and loudly mouths “Help! Help!” then lies back down again, so far as he’s concerned, unconscious.

Fiona asks is this is a Rand improv or if he’s following direction. We can’t know. All we can say is that Chaplin liked it enough to include it when he could have cut it. Rand was an ex-circus clown and presumably had considerable experience working up comedy business. I wasn’t really familiar with him before this trawl through the Essanays, but Chaplin kept him around for decades — I’d seen him a lot without knowing it.

The rescuing kops now arrive. Ruggles exudes via the back window. Rand runs behind the house and Charlie rereconcusses him with his own truncheon. Grabbed by the fuzz, he’s saved by Edna pretending he’s her husband. The following routine was hugely admired by Walter Kerr, who wrote:

“It is at this point that a virtual miracle takes place. With no transition at all, Charlie becomes Edna’s husband. Affable, outgoing, utterly at home, digging his hands into his pockets and flexing his knees as though he were master of his own domain and ready to get out the humidor, he is all bourgeoise bonhomie, the host par excellence, eager to show his guests about and have them back again soon. Nobody has ever been more completely the confident man of the house.

“The impersonation lasts only for a moment or two, but, for me, its implications are immense. It is entirely clear that Charlie could have been this man at any time he chose to adopt the role. He is no born underdog, deprived of opportunity by an unfeeling society. He is not inept, uneducated, uninformed, socially unacceptable. There is nothing in his natural equipment or in his background, nothing cruelly unjust in the society around him to keep him from most acceptably playing for a full twenty-four hours a day the part he is playing now. He might have married Edna, might have run a house, might have had children, might have gone to church, might have worked and become rich, might have done anything he cared to put his mind to. The competence is there, in plain view. The posture is believed in, even by the police. Nothing stands between his talents and the assumption of a role in which they might be exercised. He is no natural tramp.”

Of course the great Kerr is never wrong, but here he may be slightly wrong. Maybe he’s influenced by a greater belief in the American success story than I enjoy. In my estimation, Chaplin himself, who was the supreme example of the American success story, didn’t much believe in it either. Look at him looking at Lady Liberty askance in THE IMMIGRANT. His success was too freakish and tremendous to be believed in. So I think the tramp is (a) a natural aristocrat trapped in a tramp’s trappings, and (b) most definitely imprisoned by an unfeeling society, often literally. The reason he can’t become what he’s clearly capable of, respectable, is the way society is constructed.

I note also that Charlie’s hubby act enables him to bite off the end of a cigar and spit it in a kop’s eye.

Kerr is correct to state that there’s no visible transition, Charlie doesn’t even have to think. He’s a frozen culprit, and when he unfreezes he’s the householder. Charlie is always liquid, he fills whatever mould you put him in. The reason he’s not a homeowner the rest of the time is he doesn’t get put in that situation.

The kops, incidentally, are Leo White again, George Cleethorpe and Fred Goodwins.

Chaplin makes a mistake — the Little Fellow is gifted a coin by Edna — she apparently sleeps with lucre in her stockings — and he bites it to be sure it’s legit. Then he exits, and bites it again. I think either one is a good laugh, but the first one invalidates the second.

But then we’re into a classic closing shot, the long road, and Charlie walking off, this time with many a sidelong glance at the noble woman he’s leaving behind. And then, in a superb touch, he stretches again — a callback to the opening shot.

POLICE is a fitting climax to the Essanay period, probably Chaplin’s most achieved and interesting film to date.

And then, wait! Topping the topped, a furious Officer Rand enters frame and chases Charlie back past the camera.

The Sunday Intertitle: Recce on Easy Street

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2021 by dcairns

WORK (1915) has a lot to commend it. Before the first image has even appeared, there’s an early reference to Easy Street. And then we get Edna Purviance doing some actual comedy (she’s rarely allowed much) as the Ford family maid. I can’t be sure Chaplin acted it all out for her in advance but it seems probable. An excellent bit of miming, anyway.

This maid is always on the phone, making her a Chaplinesque layabout herself. Mr. and Mrs. Ford are regular co-clown Billy Armstrong, permanently apoplectic, and new recruit Marta Golden.

David Robinson waxes very enthusiastic about Charlie’s introduction as slave labour, pulling an enormous cart while his boss, Izzy A. Wake (Charles Inslee) whips him through traffic (with his own cane!). It’s building on the similar business in HIS MUSICAL CAREER, but Charlie is now clearly positioned as underdog, taking the place of the earlier film’s miserable donkey. Any viciousness he gets up to later has now been justified.

I was slightly startled to see the cart get jammed across a tramline, with an oncoming tram very narrowly missed. Chaplin can do things physically that would be dangerous for most of us, but he doesn’t usually skirt suicide in the Keaton manner. I guess, allowing for undercranking, the tram might be traveling slowly enough to just give the cart a good bump and smash it, and the actors would stand a chance of jumping clear. But I’m not going to test it.

Then there’s a rare camera trick, a Dutch tilt creating the impression of a 45° hillside. This movie might be the inspiration for Polanski’s TWO MEN AND A WARDOBE, THE FAT AND THE LEAN, and MAMMALS, which certainly all exude a Chaplin influence.

Enter Leo White, back in his customary top hat and tails. His road is less tilted because he’s posh. Life’s path is easier.

Charlie, catching up with him, slips on his banana skin (Charlie’s second banana related mishap) and slides back into the previous set-up. Chaplin’s films in this period are kind of like chains of set-ups. These function like squares on a board game. But any set-up can recur at any time. Also, if you’re in one set-up, chances are you can’t see the characters in the adjoining one, no matter how close they might be. The exception is when it’s a close shot of a single character, and then you might get a bit of flirting or whatnot between this character and the one in the next square.

Charlie and his boss actually slide all the way back to the set-up before the set-up before, which has an advancing tram in it again (perhaps the tram is always advancing in this set-up). Escaping this tram, Charlie and Izzy head back into the set-up before THAT, which means they have to deal with ANOTHER advancing tram once they finally start going forwards again. Seems there is indeed always an advancing tram in that set-up.

Judging by the improbable physics in Charlie and co’s next hair’s-breadth escape from dismemberment, the cart is on a wire for this gag, with a team or a machine pulling it rapidly out of shot. Which is terrifying: so much more can go wrong.

Climbing the illusionary hill and arriving in Leo’s banana-skin set-up again, Charlie slips on the skin again and nearly goes back to square one. Chaplin has worked out that banana skins are good for suspense as well as surprise, and that repeating funny business is good economics, but also THREATENING to repeat it can get a laugh too. A laugh of relief that we don’t have to go through all that again.

While Charlie wipes a litre of sweat from his brow, Izzy greets Paddy McGuire, stereotyped as an Irish labourer with a hod. So of course Charlie must now tow both of them. There’s an unusual cut to closer view as the two buddies shake hands: the continuity matching is so good I suspect two cameras were used. The principle of match-cutting on action obviously existed but wasn’t much discussed. Chaplin apparently isn’t doing what Griffith often did, repeating a bit of the action to make sure the audience caught it. Since Rollie Totheroh is Chaplin’s number two cameraman by now, he must be shooting one or other of these set-ups.

Charlie’s plunge down a manhole also seems like something you could hurt yourself doing. Sure there can be some kind of crash pad down there but supposing you hit your face on the edge?

After Charlie’s vanished from view, the blokes in the cart look around in bewilderment. A Fortean event! Izzy even looks UP, which is a very Chaplin thing to do. Rescued, he wafts his baggy pants to evaporate some of the newly-generated perspiration.

At the end of the shot, they walk off, and McGuire goes down the hole, but Time has removed just enough frames to make it not quite very funny.

We’re back to the Ford residence. This is a three set-up household so far: kitchen, hall and dining room, all square and cramped. But there’s a staircase too, so more set-ups may be discovered.

The workmen arrive. Mrs. F. elaborately describes what she wants done, while Izzy ignores her and lights a cigarette, seemingly taking none of it in, and Edna stands back, out of the way of the flailing silent movie gestures. Even doing this she manages to project comic character.

Charlie, having unloaded the cart and loaded himself, is now a one-man-band concatenation of building equipment, emitting tiny puffs of cigarette smoke to prove there’s someone alive in there.

Impossible that he should get in the front door with this stuff wrapped round him, but he does, because the front door is between camera set-ups and so of no concern to us. Charlie collapses in the hall.

Saucy byplay with Edna, who really is on fire in this, and not just because of the maid’s uniform. This being 1915, it’s really quite a dowdy version of a maid’s uniform but the concept is there. You don’t need need to overdo the fetishwear when you’re tickling the leading man’s arse with a feather duster. Which Edna is.

Charlie has already destroyed a fair bit of the Ford home, but it’s all through carelessness. The malice of THE TRAMP’s middle act is gone. For good? We’ll see. The flat is equipped with swing doors, which of course are an invention Charlie has never gotten along with. His inability to navigate them while holding a plank results in headaches for Mr. Ford, again, entirely accidental on Charlie’s part.

David Robinson is very good on the mistrust between classes Chaplin devotes quite a bit of action to. Charlie is oppressed by his boss but both of them see their clients as the common enemy.

Izzy takes off his hat and coat, dusts them carefully and hands them to Charlie, who pretty much destroys them instantly, giving us a clue how this home renovation thing is going to go. The movie has been coy about exactly what kind of “work” it’s going to be about, but now we see that paper-hanging is involved. This is going to be apocalyptic, isn’t it?

Izzy has made himself at home at the family piano while Charlie does all the work. I notice the curtains and tablecloth are blowing about like mad, usually a sign of an exterior set. David Robinson tells us that Chaplin, still between studios, “temporarily took over the converted Bradbury Mansion at 147 North Hill Street.” He used the front of the building to represent the front of the Ford home. But why is it so draughty?

A topical gag: Lois Weber’s HYPOCRITES was released in 1915. Charlie is always fascinated by nude statues and figurines, and he disguises his lust with a show of aesthetic appreciation. He was already working on this at Keystone. Here he uses a lampshade to make a hula skirt for it. His smutty, self-involved smile as he wiggles it. Then he looks up the skirt that he himself dressed it in.

Charlie has also brought along his little clay pipe, which seems to be associated with the workplace.

Edna’s maid, to give her proper credit, does seem more perturbed than charmed by Charlie’s lethal and destructive incompetence.

Immaculately timed bit where Charlie is called upon to help fix a gas range which keeps exploding. Obviously, that goes well. I’ve come to really enjoy Billy Armstrong and I wish he and Charlie had more business together in this.

I cracked up at Charlie trying to remove the great mass of wallpaper paste he has caused to become stuck to Izzy’s head. He’s scraping it off with a brush, but slipping in it every five seconds. So, two stupid activities, interspersed, based around wallpaper paste possessing the contradictory qualities of gooey and slippery. The victim sits patiently as his whited-out features are whisked into one abstraction after another…

Charlie then tries some paperhanging himself. He’s… not very good. Endless fun to be had with paper getting stuck to one hand, then to the other. Charlie has to be dumb enough here to not understand that sticky things are sticky. In later film, he’s not dumb, just not very practical. He doesn’t understand the stuff civilised people are supposed to know.

Edna discovers the Ford home’s long-lost fourth camera set-up, and dusts it.

When we cut back to him, Charlie has made quite a bit of progress with his papering. It’s strikingly shit progress, but progress nonetheless. The Dunning-Kreuger effect made flesh, even he seems not quite satisfied with the way the paper is peeling at the edges and curling at the ends. But it’ll do fine.

Edna immediately recognises the worthlessness of the papering, but sits down to hear Charlie’s tale of woe. We can’t hear what she hears, but a tighter two-shot allows Charlie to do a bit of manly yet broken-hearted stuff — mock pathos. Edna listens compassionately, then gets upset at the black muck his hand leaves on her arm.

It’s a strange bit, not as strange as the leftfield sincere pathos that crashes into THE TRAMP midway, but definitely out of register with the tone elsewhere. Unlucky in love, Charlie spaffs up the walls with his paste, Jackson Pollock style.

And now, just when we’d (probably) forgotten him, Leo White reenters the film, with a bouquet to replace his banana. No idea where he’s been all this time (he was AHEAD of Charlie and the cart), but like Poe Dameron in a silk hat he flies in to the rescue for no adequately prepared reason.

He is… the wife’s secret lover? Mr. Ford goes nuts, Mrs. Ford starts explaining again what renovations she wants done… I guess she’s trying to pretend he’s just another workman, for her husband’s sake. Yes, eventually an intertitle confirms this.

Leo enters the room Charlie’s in and gets a brushful of paste splurch in the kisser. This is only moderately funny: better is when, while Leo tries to explain that he’s not a wall, Charlie keeps daubing at his dripping features, seeing if he can’t improve the effect. He’s an artist at heart.

Then he splurches Edna — accidentally, it’s true. Still.

Billy Armstrong runs amok with a revolver, trying to straight-up murder Leo White. Izzy/Inslee falls into a full bathtub — at Keystone, such an incident might have served for a conclusion, but Chaplin has bigger fish to fry. Armstrong/Ford accidentally shoots the stove and the house explodes. Impressive wall caving-in stuff, quite ambitious for a Chaplin of this period.

Aftermath — disturbingly, Charlie’s boss seems to be pinned down under the bathwater by rubble and is drowning, slowly. Not sure what kind of error of judgement made that choice seem wise. The catastrophic kind, I suppose. Husband, wife and lover are reduced to three heads, poking from the wreckage, a Beckettian triangle. Edna has presumably been blasted into space. Charlie’s head emerges from inside the fallen stove, which seems improbable. He grins satanically at us, then gets hit by one of Oliver Hardy’s leftover bricks-to-be, and retires back into the stove where things are more peaceful.

WORK is a pretty successful short knockabout, with a soupcon of farce and that odd spot of faux-pathos. Chaplin doesn’t quite know what to do with this new mode, he’s just throwing it out there to see what it does. But he’s displaying a surer grasp of character sympathy, getting us on his side. As Walter Kerr observed, Chaplin as tramp was an experiment, and now he’s back to gainful employment. Chaplin as low-status underdog hero is the coming thing. He’s more or less worked out what his character is for.