Archive for the Century of Slapstick 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

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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.

Century of Slapstick #105: Charlie Chaplin in “The Rink”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2016 by travsd

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

The Rink is a gem from Chaplin’s Mutual period, that magical stretch when he could do no wrong. Structurally and storywise, the film is similar to many films he had done previously, Caught in a Cabaret (1914), perhaps being the ultimate early example. Charlie is a waiter, causing much havoc at his job, and encountering various rich people….whose party he will later crash disguised as nobility. Here the characters include Edna Purviance (always the honey to Charlie’s fly), her father (James T. Kelley), and a wealthy middle aged couple played by Eric Campbell and — hilariously — Henry Bergman, in drag.

In the old days, what we have just described would have been enough for a two reel comedy, but at this stage Chaplin was no longer satisfied with “good enough”, which is why his comedies have survived, and those of so many of his contemporaries are now buried. Because the piece de resistance of this film is set at a roller rink, and it becomes a showcase for Chaplin’s ASTOUNDING talents as a roller skater. As if the guy didn’t have enough OTHER skills (pantomime, acrobatics, dancing, playing the violin), he is a superb, top level trick roller skater. If he had never done anything else in his career, he could easily have just been a roller skating performer in a vaudeville dumb act, and been the top man in his field. How many movies can you put that in, though? Just a couple. There’s this one, and Chaplin later trots the skating out again in Modern Times 20 years later. At any rate, it is a glorious thing to watch, not just funny, but graceful and beautiful. Because this is, well, Charlie Chaplin.

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

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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

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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. 

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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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.

Century of Slapstick #101: Charlie Chaplin in “One A.M.”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , on August 7, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s 1916 comedy One A.M.

This is one of Chaplin’s most extreme examples of what critic Andre Bazin called “filmed theatre”. It’s essentially a solo vaudeville turn, with the frame as the proscenium and very little cinematic intervention between the performer and his audience. Charlie plays a drunken swell, coming home at the titular hour, trying to negotiate his oddly treacherous apartment. It’s as though traps have been set all around the house. First he has a hard time getting out of his cab.  Then he enters his domicile  through the window, and has a series of encounters with a goldfish bowl, rugs, stairs, a table, a hatrack, a clock, a Murphy bed, and eventually the bath tub. Only the genius of Chaplin could keep audiences in stitches for two reels with nothing himself and a room full of furniture.

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.

Century of Slapstick #99: Charlie Chaplin in “The Fireman”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on June 12, 2016 by travsd

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

Sometimes even a brilliant comedian will get an otherwise great idea that just somehow isn’t for him. For Chaplin, The Fireman is one of those. Heroism and derring-do are the usual turf of Keaton and Lloyd. I salivate to think of the fireman comedy Buster Keaton might have made, for example. His co-starring vehicle The Garage (1920) with Fatty Arbuckle does have a fire fighting scene, but Keaton solo could have gotten a whole feature out of the premise, and with his mechanical mind, could have worked such wonders with every aspect of the process: hoses, ladders, trucks, poles, staircases. And Lloyd had made a good firefighting comedy, Fireman Save My Child (1918), although of his two usual formulas, in this case he went with the less satisfying one. (The two formulas being: A) Young boy has a dream, tries to realize it and finally does so by proving himself; and B) Callow, young rich boy wants girl and finally proves himself in order to win her. The film he made has the latter plot.) I’d like to have seen a movie he’d make more on the lines of Harry Langdon’s His First Flame (1927), to my mind the best of the silent fireman comedies. The Langdon picture manages to tie in the comedy of heroism, with Harry proving himself to his uncle and his girl, all the while working against type. The sight of little Harry in an oversized fireman’s uniform is intrinsically clownish. He is literally trying to fill shoes that are too large for him. But he is trying.

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Chaplin’s film is against type, too, and no doubt he felt this is where the comedy lay. But it’s wrong somehow. Chaplin’s character, as a general rule, is selfish, lazy, and pleasure loving. 99% of the time, we don’t dislike him for this; we rather relate to him. But when he is all of those things, plus incompetent to boot — and in the business of saving lives — then it gets to be off-putting. I don’t like my first responders to be over-sleeping. And yet when the Little Fellow does finally rise to heroism, climbing up the outside of a building to do so, that feels wrong somehow, too. As we have said, that would later be Keaton and Lloyd territory. At the time Chaplin did it, it was Fairbanks turf (which is no doubt where Chaplin got the idea from). But it’s simply wrong for his own comedy character and template. The following year, when Charlie made good as a policeman in Easy Street, he did so through crafty cheating and happenstance much more in line with our expectations and within Chaplin’s own established sense of humor (when he famously gasses the bully with a street lamp, and then later licks the bully in a fight because he has accidentally been injected with a dose of cocaine that gives him superhuman abilities). Charlie as a heroic fireman just doesn’t click any more than we want to see Charlie be a bad fireman. A homeless tramp sleeping in an abandoned building who is compelled to save a bunch of people from an act of arson — that’s what I would buy from Chaplin.

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The Fireman was only the second of Chaplin’s Mutual shorts, and one I would place (along with Behind the Screen and The Count), among the weaker ones. You sense him feeling his way here, experimenting. Another facet of that exploration is his use of numerous trick shots, shooting in reverse for comic effect, the sort of mechanical gag that lesser minds usually resorted to. He would return to form in a big way, however, with his next film The Vagabond. 

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

 

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