Archive for the Charlie Chaplin Category

Century of Slapstick #106: Charlie Chaplin in “Easy Street”:

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on January 22, 2017 by travsd

CC_Easy_Street_1917

Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of one of Charlie Chaplin’s best known and best loved comedy shorts Easy Street (1917).

Easy Street was made and released at the peak of Chaplin’s Mutual Period, which many modern fans regard as the acme of career, when he was at the height of his powers comically, but not yet too far down the road to pathos that he would begin in earnest around The Kid (1921). The plot is simple. Charlie plays a guy who’s so desperate for a job he becomes a policeman in a bad neighborhood, at a precinct just desperate enough to hire him. The slum is being terrorized by a thug played by Eric Campbell in probably his greatest screen role. He’s so scary that the entire neighborhood en masse won’t take him on. A crowd of literally 50 people cowers in his presence. Chaplin is the David to his Goliath, and he finally conquers him by gassing him with a lamp that he himself has bent down to show his strength. Later when he rebounds, Charlie gets the advantage again when he accidentally sits on a syringe full of cocaine and gets the strength to throw a stove on top of him out a window. In the end, Charlie gets the girl (Edna Purviance of course), the bully is reformed, and everyone goes to church on Sunday.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Chaplin in Brooklyn Tomorrow!

Posted in BROOKLYN, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , on December 3, 2016 by travsd

vista_chaplinatessanay_240_356_81_s_c1

Hey Brooklyn! Tomorrow (Sunday, December 4) at 4pm, Flicker Alley is presenting three classic Chaplin shorts from the Essanay period at the Alamo Drafthouse, with Ben Model at the keys! On the menu: A Woman (2015), A Night in the Show (2015) and Police (1916). For more information, directions, etc, go here.

Century of Slapstick #104: Chaplin Takes Us “Behind the Screen”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , on November 13, 2016 by travsd

behind-the-screen-1916-1010

Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin movie Behind the Screen (1916).

While made at the peak of Chaplin’s Mutual period, this comedy feels to me like a throwback to his Keystone and Essanay days.  It’s his umpteenth movie set in a movie studio and also has much in common with related scenarios such as The Property Man and His Musical Career. Eric Campbell is a stage hand, Charlie his assistant. Their names are David and Goliath. Campbell sleeps all the time while Charlie does all the work and makes it look the other way around. Then the crew (except Charlie and Campbell) go on strike, Workers go on strike, recalling Dough and Dynamite. 

images

Edna Purviance (who’s been hanging around in order to get a job (presumably as an actress) dresses as a (male) stage hand in order to get hired. She is. Scab! When Chaplin sees that she’s a girl the two kiss. Campbell sees them, assumes their gay, and ridicules them.

Then a scene on a comedy set. They stage a pie fight. The fight gets out of hand so it spills over into next shoot, a costume drama. Campbell says “I don’t like this highfalutin stuff”. (a Very self-reflexive wink to the audience by Chaplin). Then the strikers set off gunpowder — explosion. Charlie and Edna kiss. The end.

images

While this is in many ways a retread of too many Chaplin films to account, the gags are more elaborate and some are more original. I particularly like a moment where Charlie picks up a whole bunch of chairs, their legs stick in all directions, until he looks like a giant porcupine. And there is very funny business with a trap door Charlie is supposed to operate. He keeps getting the cues all wrong, opening and closing the trap at inopportune times, so people fall down it, or have the doors close on their heads.  It’s the equivalent of the escalator in The Floorwalker or the revolving door in The Cure, a big mechanical toy for Charlie to play with.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Century of Slapstick #103: Charlie Chaplin in “The Pawnshop”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on October 2, 2016 by travsd

1-chaplin-the-pawnshop-granger

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the release of the classic Charlie Chaplin short The Pawnshop (1916).

This comedy was made at the peak of Chaplin’s Mutual period and is full of brilliantly constructed strings of gags, maybe his best. Charlie plays a helper in the titular pawnshop — which is essentially a physical comedian’s dream prop shop. He shows up for work late (Charlie’s characters are always late), takes a feather duster out of a suitcase, dusts his hat, and accidentally gets the duster chopped up in a fan. There follows a brilliant chain of gags with a ladder, including what may be Chaplin’s most impressive thrill stunt, when the whole ladder falls over with him at the top, ending in a backwards tumble.

He is fired but gets the pawnbroker (Henry Bergman) to relent. Then he has a serious tussle with his coworker (John Rand). When the pawnbroker’s daughter (Edna Purviance) steps in, he manages to get her sympathy. She brings him into kitchen with her. He dries the dishes (including a cup) with a cloth wringer. Then makes a lei out of pie dough and pretends to play the ukulele. The coworker bursts in and they resume fighting.  The pawnbroker comes in, and they quickly pretend to be helping make pies. Charlie sneaks out grabs lunch from a safe and mans the front desk. Then a series of customers:

A man (James T. Kelley) comes in, telling his tale of woe. Charlie gets broken up about it, keeps spitting his cracker crumbs. Gives him a good deal on his ring. The guy proves to have a pocket full of bills.

Another customer (Albert Austin) brings in an alarm clock to hock. In his appraisal of the clock, Chaplin in succession becomes a jeweler, a physician, a safecracker, even a housewife opening in a can of tuna. By the time he is done with the clock it is just a pile of junk. He tells the poor man so and sends him on his way.

A woman tries to pawn bowl of live goldfish.

Then Eric Campbell comes in as a crook; he later tries to rob the place of jewels at gun point. Charlie saves the day, and then takes a bow — right to us! He should; this little comedy is a tour de force. 

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcTo learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Tonight on TCM: More Silent Slapstick Classics

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2016 by travsd

Every Tuesday and Wednesday in September, Turner Classic Movies will be showing some of the finest silent comedy and slapstick classics (and documentaries thereon). Here’s what’s on the menu tonight:

111212_310x459

8:00pm (EST): The Birth of the Tramp (2014)

A documentary on the evolution of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, released on the 100th anniversary of his debut.

Chaplin_A_Dogs_Life

9:15pm (EST): A Dog’s Life (1918)

A Dog’s Life is a longer, more ambitious film than any he had made previously, in some ways a sort of dry run for his later The Kid. For my money, the six scenes of A Dog’s Life are as funny and clever as any of his earlier shorts stacked together, with the additional bump of an emotional journey.

Chaplin plays his Little Tramp in the film. His co-stars are a pooch named Scraps, and Edna Purviance as a forlorn dance hall girl. All three of them are living “a dog’s life” in that they each are getting the short end of the stick. They meet, pass through several trials together, and in the end find happiness by exchanging their solitude for cooperative domesticity.

But along the way, we get to experience several of Chaplin’s most hilarious routines ever. And they’re all physical bits. In the first, after stealing a hot dog the tramp evades a policeman, over, under and around the wooden fence where he was sleeping. In the second, he applies for a job, but each time he advances toward the clerk’s window, someone else steps up to it just a split second before. In a later scene, Charlie keeps stealing muffins from a food vendor played by his brother Sydney, each time snatching one just as Syd’s back is turned. Try as he may Syd can’t catch him at it. In the end, Charlie has swallowed the whole plate of treats. And then there’s a funny bit with Charlie walking across a dance floor with a dog’s tail sticking out of his pants, and the other one (much imitated) in which Charlie supplies the gesturing hands of the man he has just knocked out so it will seem to the guy’s partner that he is still awake. In the coda, one of Chaplin’s occasional happy endings, man, woman, dog (and puppies) all one one big, happy family.

60circuscharlie2

10:00pm (EST): The Circus (1928)

Despite being an estimable hit in its day (the 7th most successful film financially of the silent era), today The Circus is the least well known of Chaplin’s silent comedy features. Why might that be? Possibly because it is more “thinky” than “feely”.  The film (which may have been inspired by Max Linder’s 1925 swan song The King of the Circus) begins with the Tramp fleeing a cop on a circus lot after being framed for a theft. His flight accidentally takes him into the middle of the circus ring where the audience, thinking he’s part of the show, greets him with gales of laughter and storms of applause. He is hired as a clown and turns out to be terrible at it. Meanwhile he falls in love with an equestrienne (Merna KennedyLita Grey’s best friend) who makes the mistake of being nice to him. In due course she falls in love with Rex, a tightrope walker (Harry Crocker), a plot point that is not only reminiscent of The Tramp  but anticipates Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932). In the end, the circus blows town, but the Tramp elects to string along alone. The image of him sitting on a log as the show (and his girl) leave without him is at once striking, moving and, well, kitschy, in a black velvet painting kind of way.

So, this can work on a couple of levels. At its most accessible, it’s set in a circus, and children love the circus. It’s possible to enjoy this film without having a contemplative brain in your head. After all, in one scene Charlie is walking a tightrope with his pants down, with monkeys crawling all over him (see above. It’s one of the highlights of the film). At another remove, however, The Circus is terribly self-conscious. This is a movie about a lonely clown who is having trouble being funny. That’s a formula that may be thought provoking but is probably intrinsically unworkable, despite having been tried many times. Others who’ve given the “accidental comedian” motif a go with varying success included Mabel Normand (The Extra Girl, 1923), Harold Lloyd (Movie Crazy, 1932), Red Skelton (Merton of the Movies, 1947), and Jerry Lewis (The Patsy, 1964). As a comedy premise the deck is stacked against you. The idea of an unintentionally funny comedian is too overwrought, too convoluted to be completely funny. The moments in the film that work best are the ones that are at a remove from that idea, such as when the Tramp poses as part of an animatronic Noah’s Ark display on the midway in order to evade the cop.

And, given that Chaplin is the clown in question in The Circus, what’s he really about here? Is he frustrated with the fact that the process of creating funny comedy (or any effective art) is not conscious, that it is (as we have pointed out a few times), completely instinctive? It can’t just be summoned at will. And Chaplin is famous for having made entire crews and casts wait around for hours, days and even weeks as he tried to do just that.

Or does Chaplin want to tell us that, like the Tramp, he is actually really a serious person (the kind of person whose voice is more like A Woman of Paris) and that he’s just been sort of railroaded into being a comedian? Another intriguing element in the film is the group of hack professional clowns who work at the circus and whom the audience hates. If the Tramp is Chaplin, who are they supposed to represent? The Keystone comedians? It certainly seems germane to his actual attitude towards them during the early part of 1914. It’s as though he were saying, “It’s not MY fault the world thinks I’m better than those people. Don’t blame me. I was born this way!”

Then there is the metaphor of getting the Tramp left behind by that circus. On the one hand he seems to be saying “I can take or leave this comedy thing.” But, on the other hand, perhaps he is expressing the fear that history will pass him by. The Circus was released a few scant months after The Jazz Singer. Was he beginning to have doubts that he could keep up with passing trends?

The self-doubt extends into the romantic realm in this picture, as well, a continuation of a theme he introduces in The Gold Rush. When Edna Purviance had been his leading lady, sometimes the Little Fellow would get the girl, sometimes he wouldn’t. Most of his films of the late silent era follow the model set by The Tramp and The Vagabond, generating pathos out of how the Tramp could never get the girl. (In The Gold Rush he had to buy the girl.). The Circus continued that theme.

Production on The Circus was apparently jinxed. Set-backs during filming included a scratched negative, a fire which set the production back for weeks, and personal woes for Chaplin including the death of his mother, his divorce from Lita Grey, and hassles with the I.R.S. In light of all that, we may fortunate that this film emerged as a comedy at all!

oneweek1

11:30pm (EST): One Week (1920)

This film (the first of Buster Keaton‘s solo shorts to get a public release) was based on Home Made, an actual promotional film for do-it-yourself house construction released by the Ford Motor Company. In Buster’s version, just before his character starts to build his pre-fab dream house for himself and his bride (Sybil Seeley), his rival sabotages the effort by switching the numbers on the constituent pieces. The result is a make-work monstrosity out of a cubist nightmare: doors, walls, roofs, and windows all mismatched and not a single right angle in the construction. Later, when a storm strikes, the whole dealybob spins around and around on its foundation like a crank-fueled carousel. (Twisters are a frequent bête noir in Keaton’s Kansas-bred consciousness.)

When Buster learns that he has built his house on the wrong lot, he has to tow it to the correct spot. Unfortunately on the way, his car stalls on some railroad tracks. Seeing an onrushing train, we brace for disaster, then breathe a sigh of relief when it turns out that the locomotive is on an adjoining track. It passes, leaving the couple unharmed. A beat—and then the money shot: a train heading in the other direction comes from out of nowhere and smashes the house to splinters.

What sets Keaton apart is his famously tight story telling and the attention to character. Despite all the craziness, he never lets us forget this is about a couple of newlyweds working toward a very specific goal. We’re rooting for them to finish this house so they can begin their life together, even as comical events keep intruding to impede them.

steamBill

12:00am (EST): Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill Jr. was Buster Keaton’s final independent film, and one of his best. The story: dandified college boy Buster tries to prove himself to his riverboat captain dad, and win the heart of the daughter of his dad’s rival. The Mississippi setting unavoidably evokes Mark Twain.  The climax contains Buster’s most famous film sequence…the brilliantly staged hurricane, culminating in his most well known single shot, with the building facade falling down around him, while the real life Buster stands there frozen praying to God they measured the window right. A movie as beautiful as it is funny.

imgres

1:15am (EST): Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962)

Inspired by the success of Robert Youngson’s The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), Harold Lloyd made this compilation film containing clips of his own “greatest hits”. For many of us born far too late to have experienced his films in their own day, this film was our first introduction to the work of silent comedy’s “Third Genius”.

970.original

3:00am (EST) Number Please (1920)

While the climax to this short is one of the film’s best parts, the set-up is convoluted. Harold and a rival (Roy Brooks) vie for the attentions of a girl (Mildred Davis) at an amusement park. When her dog gets lost, she wants to go up in a hot air balloon operated by her uncle. The balloon will only hold two. The girl announces she will go up with whichever beau gets her mother’s permission first. The rival heads for the mother’s house in a car. Harold runs to a telephone so he can call the mother for permission. This would seem easy…but it’s a public phone in a hotel. The hilarious part is the succession of obstacles which prevent him from doing this simple thing. Then he winds up with a lost purse, which he finally gives to a goat to eat so he won’t be arrested for stealing. But it turns out to have been the girl’s purse, complete with the balloon tickets….

large

3:30am (EST) Speedy (1928)

Counterintuitively, given that the American film industry was largely based in New York City during its earliest years (roughly 1893-1913), by the twenties most of the business was where it is now, in Hollywood. Location shooting in New York City for major feature films had become something of a novelty. Harold Lloyd’s Speedy redresses that lapse; it’s virtually a love poem to New York. Harold plays a soda jerk and rabid Yankees fan who wants to help save his girlfriend’s dad’s endangered business: the last horse drawn trolley line in New York. Two special highlights: a cameo by the actual Babe Ruth (Harold has to rush him to a game); and an actual vehicular accident, which the producers opted to keep in the film because it was so spectacular. And let’s not forget the cool scenes at Coney Island and Times Square! Harold plays a slightly different character in this film: cocky, pushy, fun-loving and a little irresponsible. Just like New York.

Speedy was Lloyd’s last released silent film. His next film Welcome Danger was originally prepared as a silent, but adapted for sound.

hqdefault

5:05am (EST) Anna Case in La Fiesta (1926)

This couldn’t be farther from a silent slapstick comedy. I can only think they include this short and Roseland (below) as illustrations of what the late silents were up against. This is an early Vitaphone talkie starring opera singer Anna Case, backed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

imgres

5:15am (EST): Charley My Boy (1926)

An early Leo McCarey effort. The great Charley Chase gets mistaken for a suitor for the affections for heiress Kathryn Grant (he’s just there for a job). The last act has him roaming around the boss’s house, trying to hide booze from prohibition cops.

imgres

4:57am (EST) Roseland (1930)

Ruth Etting et al in a Vitaphone short set in the famed Jazz Age nightclub.

And stay tuned — they’ll be showing more classic comedies later in the day — more on that to come!

For more on silent comedy and slapstick film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Century of Slapstick #102: Charlie Chaplin in “The Count”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on September 4, 2016 by travsd

count_still1

Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy The Count (1916). 

This movie shows Chaplin at the top of his game as a straight up comedian, chock full of original bits of funny physical business, with no twinges of melancholia along the way. It has limburger cheese, and messy slurping of watermelon, and lots and lots of social embarrassment. 

In this Mutual short Eric Campbell plays a tailor and dry cleaner,  Charlie his assistant. Of course, Charlie makes a hash of everything, mismeasures a lady (due to his own delicacy), and burns up all his ironing. The boss fires him (hilariously, Charlie manages to light a cigarette even as he is being kicked out). 

Subsequently, Campbell finds a party invitation in the pocket of a coat he is dry cleaning: “Mrs Moneybags invites Count Broko…” He decides to attend in the Count’s place (this device is used in too many Chaplin and Keystone comedies to count). Little does the tailor reckon on encountering his former assistant at the very same mansion (Charlie has gone there to flirt with the cook). Learning the details, Charlie turns the tables, representing HIMSELF as the Count, and forcing his former boss to play his secretary. And it just builds from there….

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

On Chaplin’s Other Half Brother

Posted in Broadway, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on August 31, 2016 by travsd

url

Today is the birthday of Wheeler Dryden (George Dryden Wheeler, Jr, 1892-1957). It was tempting to include him in both my Stars of Vaudeville and Stars of Slapstick series, but Dryden was admittedly minor in both fields, and I decided to go with the best headline!

Dryden was Charlie Chaplin’s half-brother, born to their mother Hannah Hill (a.k.a Lily Harley) when the comedian was three years old. The chronology of events appears to go something like this:

  1. In 1885, music hall performers Charles Chaplin, Sr.and Hannah Hill marry. Hill came into the marriage with the infant Sydney, whose father may have been a man named Sydney Hawkes
  2. 1889, Charlie Chaplin is born
  3. 1890, Charles Chaplin, Sr. has a successful vaudeville tour of America, leaving Hannah alone with the children
  4. 1891, Hannah becomes involved with music hall performer Leo Dryden and Hannah separates from Chaplin (or vice versa)
  5. 1892, Wheeler Dryden born

Charles Chaplin, Sr. never divorced Hill, and Leo took custody of the infant Wheeler, removing her from the care of the unstable woman. From here she began to spiral into the mental illness that would overshadow Charlie Chaplin’s life.  A single mother, abandoned by several men, and one of her children taken away.

Like everyone else in the family, Wheeler Dryden became a vaudeville performer. In 1915, after his two half brothers became famous, his father told him the news of his real mother. He started reaching out to Charlie and Sydney at that time, although it took him two years to finally get a reply from them. He joined them in America in 1918.

Dryden enjoyed some small initial success in Hollywood, appearing in the dramas Tom’s Little Star (1919) and False Women (1921), the kid’s movie Penrod (1921) and the Stan Laurel comedy Mud and Sand (1922).

After this, he focused on Broadway, where he appeared in ten plays between 1925 and 1939.  In 1928, he adapted and co-directed the feature A Little Bit of Fluff starring Sydney Chaplin. In 1938 he married Alice Chapple, a dancer at radio City Music Hall. Their son Spencer Dryden was one of the original members of Jefferson Airplane, and was later a member of New Riders of the Purple Sage and other bands (he was a drummer).

Over the next decade-plus he was to be a key member of Chaplin’s creative team. He was assistant director and did some voiceover work on The Great Dictator (1940). He was associate director and played a bit role in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). And he had a slightly larger speaking role as a doctor, and acted as Chaplin’s personal assistant on Limelight (1952).

At this stage, when Chaplin began his exile in Europe, Dryden remained in Hollywood to oversee his interests in America. At this stage, he alone of the three brothers seems to have inherited his mother’s stress-triggered mental illness, living in seclusion and growing paranoid and detached from reality. Although it might be more accurate to say he was all TOO connected to reality. He was being harassed by the FBI at the time, after all.  He passed away in 1957.

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For still more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

%d bloggers like this: