Archive for Walter Kerr

Hobo Erectus

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2021 by dcairns

Though GETTING ACQUAINTED is Chaplin’s Keystone farewell to most of his favourite co-stars and the last real park film made with Sennett, HIS PREHISTORIC PAST has tramp-in-park bookends, so it’s a goodbye to the studio.

All the major silent comedians made stone age comedies — Keaton did THE THREE AGES, Laurel & Hardy did FLYING ELEPHANTS, Harold Lloyd, in his Lonesome Luke phase, did CLUBS ARE TRUMP. Although I’m being ahistorical as well as prehistorical, since when Lloyd and L&H made their entries, they were not yet among the greats, certainly lower echelon than Arbuckle in his pomp.

Chaplin was first — his HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, set up as a dream sequence with the Tramp settling down to sleep on a park bench, the entire story sandwiched, Cocteau-like, between the onset of unconsciousness and the inevitable shaking awake by Kop Syd Chaplin (his half-brother, who had just joined the company as Charlie was leaving), is a straight parody of D.W. Griffith’s BRUTE FORCE, released the same year. That film cast Bobby Harron as Weakhands (Griffith liked his heroes to have parable-type names), this one casts Charlie as Weakchin. There’s some question about whether the name was in Chaplin’s original release cut, because brother Sidney, the noted cannibal rapist, rewrote most of Chaplin’s intertitles after he left Keystone. But given the connection to Griffith’s film, and the fact that playing that up in 1914 makes more sense than doing it later, I feel it was probably part of Charlie’s original scenario.

David Robinson points out that the “discovery” of the Piltdown man in 1912 doubtless kicked off the movies’ brief caveman craze. Piltdown man was a phony, an anthropocene Princess Anastasia, but he caught the public’s eye much as Charlie’s phony hobo would.

This high-concept parody approach is a new wrinkle for Chaplin and probably for Keystone. He wouldn’t return to it. It seems like a lot of effort (costumes, props) for relatively little reward.

Mack Swain is King Lowbrow, identified by title as King of Waikiki Beach. And I feel this may be an unfortunate Sydney interpolated intertitle. The movie was later retitled THE HULA HULA MAN in some territories, clearly an act of madness, as Howard Beale would say. This all seems to be riffing off the primitive ritual dance which opens the caveman section, which has a Hawaiian aspect to it. If Chaplin had known the trouble this would cause, he might have asked for different moves to entertain his terpsichorean tyrant.

Some of the cavegirls wear grass skirts, that’s another reason for the mix-up, I expect.

Enter Charlie from behind a tree, clad in off-the-shoulder fur number, but with familiar hat, cane, toothbrush ‘tache and boots. This is either a good gag or a damaging anachronism. For a short fantasy it seems fine. And Chaplin is now well-identified with these items of costume, they’re not optional. A fur derby and baggy furry pants might have been an idea. A club which can be used like a cane could have worked. But this seems like a decent surreal image.

Charlie then plucks some fur from the arse of his coat, stuffs it into his pipe (he has a pipe again! But a different one from THE PROPERTY MAN) and lights it with a flint struck on his leg which doesn’t produce a spark the way a flint would, but instead catches fire at one end, the way a flint wouldn’t. All of this is just conjured from nowhere with a few props, and would have been cut if anyone at Keystone other than Chaplin had been in charge. It’s not ACTION (the Keystone stock-in-trade). It’s BEHAVIOUR (Chaplin’s forte).

Other cave-persons: May Wallace (cavewoman queen), Gene Marsh (sexy cavegirl), Fritz Schade (Caveman medicine man), Al St John, Vivian Edwards (teenage cavegirl). Grover Ligon (spaceman caveman).

Chaplin starts wooing, but his big club is just for show: he prefers more modern flirting. Sidenote: his legs at this point are very skinny. Amazing they didn’t just slice clean through the baggy pants and leave them standing in his thin wake. Maybe they did, and that’s why he’s making this film panstless.

The medicine man, catching Charlie in flagrante predelecto, shoots him in the bum with an arrow. “He had the obscure feeling someone was trying to give him a present” (William Golding, The Inheritors). Charlie retaliates by slinging a rock, which Kuleshovs through frame in the time-honoured manner and beans the King. Actually, it misses him, but Sennett didn’t believe in retakes. Swain gamely acts as if the royal noggin has been struck.

Swain and the medicine man take turns chasing the ragged rascal round and round a rugged rock. An early who’s-following-who routine. Look at those cavemen go!

“They exchange cards,” says an intertitle, ruining the joke in advance. But the joke isn’t clear wthout explanation. The piece of pelt Charlie hands over isn’t enough like a card. If we got a closeup and it had writing, or cave-art style pictograms on it, it might work. But I think ideally it should be a tiny stone tablet. Or, given the bowler and cane, it could just be a business card. This Flinstones world isn’t really Chaplin’s natural habitat. Though the casual brutality does make it a logical extension of the Keystone universe. Here’s Walter Kerr:

“Silent film comedy begins as though comedy had never existed, as though Aristophanes had never existed, as though sophistication of the same materials had never been achieved. A completely new form seems to take man back to his dawn, to revive and repeat an entire cycle of race-memories picked up along the evolutionary path, to start as primitively as if the Neanderthals were still a threat, and to probe toward the future with the weapons and level of wit of cavemen.

“In fact, the most apt description of these first screen comedies appears in a book about chimpanzees, Jane Van Lawick-Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man. ‘Young chimps,’ the author comments, ‘like to play with each other, chasing round a tree trunk, leaping one after the other through the treetops, dangling, each from one hand, while they spar and hit each other…'”

Unfortunately, too, Charlie does not seem to have outfitted himself with a fake club, so that when he clobbers foes or friends or mere passers-by, as he does frequently and at random, he has to “pull his punches” with the hefty bludgeon, which destroys even the witless level of comedy being attempted. I wouldn’t mind seeing the club bend unnaturally, but I need to see a bit of wallop put into the culling of troglodytes.

The “cave interior” is the worst set I’ve ever seen in a Keystone film, where usually the production design is sparse and tawdry. This one is just cloth stretched over random angular frames. It’s three-dimensional, but actually a painted backdrop would be less disgraceful. It doesn’t even suggest a cavern. More like a tent that’s being chewed by a dinosaur, who has mysteriously paused his mastication just as his fangs are about to pierce the canvas.

I get the feeling that Chaplin, already casting around for a more profitable deal than the one he enjoyed with Sennett, didn’t really have his mind on this job. He wouldn’t reconnect with Charles D. Hall, a colleague from the Fred Karno troupe, who would design all Chaplin’s films from A DOG’S LIFE to MODERN TIMES, for several years yet. And nobody at Keystone had ever been asked to design anything as unusual as a cave, it seems.

Some unfortunate splices (missing footage) now create a surprising Godardian effect. Competing over the cave-girlies with the rival medicine man, Charlie swings down his club, and instantly he’s standing elsewhere, surrounded by the adoring girls. From cause to effect.

An impressively managed gag, as Charlie and his cave-lady of choice walk into shot and are immediately wiped out by a colossal wave. We hadn’t known these rocks are seafront property. Poor Gene Marsh, as “Sum-Babee, Lowbrow’s Favorite Water Maiden,” (a Syd addition?) seems to be struggling against a sodden wardrobe malfunction. Worse still, Charlie and Gene and the camera operator all seem to be in danger of getting washed away.

Keystone apparently couldn’t locate an actual cave near L.A. (there is one: we see it in THE USUAL SUSPECTS) so Mack Swain’s throne room is entered by walking behind a rock.

More random clonking. This whole scenario brings out the less attractive side of Chaplin-at-Keystone. Still, at least his flirtations are non-violent, the club-’em-on-the-head-and-drag-’em-off-by-the-hair fantasy is merely hinted at, never enacted.

Mack Swain’s whole schtick at Keystone, his “Ambrose” character which this King is a variation on, is to be big and possibly authoritative in position, but really rather timorous and easily dominated, which Charlie plays up to. It’s continually unclear why the King lets Charlie prod him in the belly with whatever’s handy, whack him on the ass with a club, etc. The King having low self-esteem just isn’t a very amusing idea and Charlie comes off as a bully, a recurring but not consistent issue in the Keystone series.

Charlie and the King shoot arrows at a hen in a tree. The eggs it drops on them have been erased, it seems, by the poor digitisation of YouTube, so what follows is a bit abstract. A more pure pantomime?

Charlie kisses Gene and the screen whites out in a Marienbad overexposure of passion. Swain isn’t seeing white, but red, though. Gene retreats to the sidelines, looking like Cousin It in her unflattering grass skirt.

David Robinson reports that Chaplin, when working hard, enjoyed no social life, and so the fact that we don’t know what he was up to besides making films at Keystone means he wasn’t doing anything away from the studio. But he was young and newly successful. I don’t think he spent a whole year NOT banging the ingenues. There’s a whole cave-cluster of them in the film, and really for no reason.

Charlie shoves Mack off a cliff and declares himself “Kink” — which I think we can agree is a likely Syd line.

Charlie now becomes an obnoxious tyrant — no surprise, as he was an obnoxious underling. He poses, Frazetta-style with his concubine in his fabric cavern. Mack enters, and smashes a small boulder to fragments on Charlie’s occiput, which causes a hard cut to “modern” 1914 Charlie being woken by Syd the kop, and the film abruptly stops, missing a few seconds I fear.

A film about succession ends with Chaplin handing over his Keystone throne to his perverted half-brother.

And it’s over. Unlike Ford Sterling, when CC left Sennett’s Fun Factory, he left for good. But Chaplin’s move from Keystone to Essanay is a blog post in itself…

Pg. 17, #8

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2020 by dcairns

It was hard to look at Estelle, for she was in front of a window, and the window was filled with windy sun, which hurt Sylvia’s eyes, and the glass rattled, which hurt her head. Also, Estelle was lecturing. Her nasal voice sounded as though her throat were a depository of rusty razor blades. ‘I wish you could see yourself,’ she was saying, Or was that something she had said a long while back? Never mind. ‘I don’t know what’s happened to you: I’ll bet you don’t way a hundred pounds, I can see every bone and vein, and your hair! You look like a poodle.’

*

“It is very true that I have a headache always on call, or on tap if you like and have only to move my head so — ah, devil take it!”

*

Guy removed his mask and let it hang, in correct form, across his chest to dry.

*

‘I’d like to be beautiful but sometimes I think I am strangely put together… They always write about me as the girl with the Fu Manchu finger nails and the nose as long as an anteater’s.’

*

His silence filled the shabby room. He took off his scarf and dropped it on the chair behind him. Sadie sat rocking very gently, making a cradle of her worry. He looked across at her. She looked so gormless that a suspicion formed in him slowly.

*

He looked across the distance at Mrs. Slape in maroon and Gallelty murmuring in emotion. Gallelty’s ferret face was all aquiver; he could see the twitch in her eye and her lips rising and falling.

*

The sensation of coping with real objects in the present tense was out of all proportion to its cause; film was still a record, even though it moved, But it was a kind of record no one had ever seen before, and its impact, even when the report was of something ordinary and familiar, was overwhelming. Had no one seen a kiss before? Not in this way. One of the relatively few surviving films that almost everyone has come across in museum showings or in commercial compilations is the still-celebrated May Irwin-John Rice The Kiss. The film runs less than a minute. Though both Miss Irwin and Mr. Rice were professional actors, we do not look at them as actors here. We simply see a rather large, coarsely grained, agreeably puckish woman heartily embrace and kiss a sportive gentleman with a formidable beard. But, for the first time, we see it monumentally close up, we see it all from beginning to end, and we see it with none of life’s discreet need to turn away. We are permitted to be fully present.

*

Seven passages from seven page seventeens from seven books from one shelf. It appears to be chance that three of the authors are called William, as is all the talk of masks and scarves and headaches, though I’ve been dealing with those things a lot lately.

First and Last, by Truman Capote (the extract is from the short story Master Misery); Close Quarters, by William Golding; A to Z of Hollywood Style, by Sinty Stemp (the speaker is Barbra Streisand); Officers and Gentlemen, by Evelyn Waugh; Laidlaw, by William McIlvanney; The Boarding House, by William Trevor; The Silent Clowns, by Walter Kerr.

Pg. 17, #7

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2020 by dcairns

*

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

*

‘It’s in the cellar under the dining-room,’ he went on, so overcome by his worries now that he forgot to be pompous. ‘It’s mine — mine. I discovered it when I was a child, all by myself. The cellar stairway is so steep that my aunt and uncle forbade my using it, but I’d heard someone say there was a world down there. I found out later they meant an old-fashioned globe of the world, but at the time I thought they were referring to the world itself. One day when no one was there I started down in secret, but I stumbled and fell. When I opened my eyes, I discovered the Aleph.’

*

We see, from the start, the very strong inclination of science to deny, as much as it can, external relations of this earth.

*

*

More and more madly poured the shrieking, moaning night wind into the gulf of the inner earth. I dropped prone again and clutched vainly at the floor for fear of being swept bodily through the open gate into the phosphorescent abyss. Such fury I had not expected, and as I grew aware of an actual slipping of my form toward the abyss I was beset by a thousand new terrors of apprehension and imagination.

*

“I have seen Niagara thunder over her gorge in the noblest frenzy ever beheld by man,” rhapsodized Frederick Starr in a piece for the Chicago Tribune in 1909, recovered for us now by Stanley Kauffmann and Bruce Henstell in their fine anthology, American Film Criticism: “I have watched an English railroad train draw into a station, take on its passengers, and then chug away with its stubby little engine through the Yorkshire Dells [sic], past old Norman Abbeys [sic] silhouetted against the skyline, while a cluster of century-aged cottages loomed up in the valley below . . . . I have looked upon weird dances and outlandish frolics in every quarter of the globe, and I didn’t have to leave Chicago for a moment.”

*

Seven passages from seven page seventeens from seven different books. I belatedly recalled an entire forgotten bookcase, and rushed to avail myself of it. Of course, apart from stimulating your brains to assemble strange narratives with sparking connections, and get you wondering about what comes next, these offerings can also serve as inspiration for your purchases — if you respond favourably to a prose style, you can seek out the excerpted volume and roll around in it. See below for details.

Flaming Carrot Comics #1, by Bob Burden; The Picture of Dorian Gray, preface, by Oscar Wilde; The Aleph And Other Stories 1933-1969, title story, by Jorge Luis Borges; The Book of the Damned, by Charles Fort; Tales Designed to Thrizzle #3, by Michael Kupperman (looks like a front cover but is a panel from page 17): The Whisperer in Darkness, by HP Lovecraft, from the story Dagon; The Silent Clowns, by Walter Kerr.