Archive for Charlie Chaplin

Slapstick Comedies of World War One

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by travsd

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of America’s entry into World War One. In honor of the day, we look at several WWI films from the era of classic comedy:

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The Bond (1918)

September 29, 1918 was the release date for Charlie Chaplin’s World War One propaganda film The Bond. The shabby way this country treated Chaplin in the late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen as especially unjust in light of the fact that Chaplin raised millions of dollars to fund the First World War, by making a publicity tour, along with releasing this interesting little gem. It’s easily Chaplin’s most experimental film, employing straight-up didactic allegory in pantomime to teach us that there are  “many kinds of bonds”….bond of friendship, bond of love, the marriage bond…Most important is the LIBERTY Bond—Charlie hits the Kaiser (Syd Chaplin) on the head with a sledgehammer marked “Liberty Bonds”. The simple painted studio sets are unlike anything else in the Chaplin canon. The film seems to point the way both towards the self-consciousness of Sunnyside (1919), and his exhortations at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) — calls to action. Also in the film are Edna Purviance and Albert Austin, with the entire cast uncredited.

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Shoulder Arms (1918)

Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (initially called Camouflage), was first planned to come in at five reels, about fifty minutes, which was no shorter than many features in those days.  As originally conceived, the film would have had an opening act showing the Little Fellow’s home life with his wife and kids. Then it would take him into the process of being inducted into the army. It would then have had a closing act wherein the Little Fellow is celebrated as a war hero, before inevitably being awakened from a dream. Chaplin eventually decided to cut it to just the middle – the Little Fellow’s service in the war.

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As comic subject matter this film was unprecedentedly dark, not just for Chaplin, but for the movies. No one had ever done a comedy that included trench warfare, gas masks, bullets, barbed wire, and No Man’s Land. Not only was Shoulder Arms the first war comedy, it was also the first black comedy, introducing a side of Chaplin that would come to full flowering in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. It’s hard to imagine much of Stanley Kubrick’s work, for example, in particular Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) without the precedent of Shoulder Arms. Fortunately, Chaplin had already inoculated himself against charges of being unpatriotic or unserious about the war by participating in a nationwide bond drive and making the propaganda film The Bond. And the fact that Shoulder Arms was funny covered all manner of sins. Memorable takeaways included scenes where Charlie made his way through enemy territory disguised as a tree, tried to sleep in an underground barracks neck deep in water, and used his gas mask as protection against limburger cheese.

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Huns and Hyphens (1918)

Larry Semon’s war comedy is set on the home front, with Larry as a waiter at a restaurant run by German spies. He is also masquerading as a wealthy suitor to a young lady who has invented a gas mask. The plot is not unlike many Chaplin “masquerade” comedies, with Semon’s patented extravagant gags and hair-raising chase finish. Also in the cast are a pre-Hardy Stan Laurel and his wife Mae, and Frank “Fatty” Alexander. 

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A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)

This WWI-era patriotic comedy is doubly interesting to us: 1) because it stars so many greats from the Sennett stock company: Ford Sterling (as the Kaiser!), Ben Turpin, Mal St. Clair, Marie Prevost, Charlie Murray, both Chester and Heinie Conklin, and the Bathing Beauties; and 2) the star of the picture is Bothwell Browne, a vaudeville drag performer whose only starring film this is. (For more on Browne go here). This was Sennett’s most ambitious film up to that time, and only his third feature. Unfortunately he gambled on the war lasting longer than it did; it was already over by the time the film was in theatres. The plot is just what you think it would be. Browne is an army captain who goes undercover in the Kaiser’s Germany, disguised as a woman. As long as Sterling or Turpin makes a pass at him, that’s all I ask!

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The Better ‘ole (1926)

This World War One comedy has a long pedigree. First it was a cartoon drawn by English humorist Bruce Bairnsfather. In 1917 it opened as a West End musical comedy running for 811 performances starring Arthur Bouchier as the main character “Old Bill”. The following year a Broadway version opened, starring Charles Coburn. 

With his years of music hall experience, Syd Chaplin was perfect for the comical part of Old Bill, a 30 year regular army vet who knows how to look out for his creature comforts. With his walrus mustache, and omnipresent pipe, the character has the kind of broad visual outline that any self-respecting Chaplin would know just what to do with. Jack Ackroyd plays his sidekick, “Little Alf”.  Edgar Kennedy plays the tough sergeant who constantly bedevils him.

There are some sight gags and funny pantomime business, but the film leans heavily on comical cockney intertitles. Bill is always napping, goofing off, getting into trouble. In one routine worthy of the younger Chaplin brother, Bill is playing with his dog, and accidentally drills an entire company of soldiers who overhear his instructions to the pooch and follow them. He spends a lot of time on trash detail.  The story starts to take off when he is putting on a camp show dressed in a horse costume, then gets stuck behind German lines still wearing the disguise. He steals some German uniforms and winds up having to serve a German general breakfast though he doesn’t understand the language. He knocks out a guard and meets fellow Brit who warns him of an immanent attack. He must warn the English army. He races in stolen car, then crashes it. Then he gets a motorcycle and plunges into a river. He is rescued and brought to a place where a detonation plunger is located. He knocks his captors out and saves and entire town. Then he is caught by Brits who think he is a spy out to sabotage his own army. He is bout to be executed but is saved at the last minute and made sergeant. He uses the opportunity to finally deck his nemesis Edgar Kennedy.

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Soldier Man (1926)

Soldier Man was Harry Langdon‘s last short before leaving Mack Sennett to do features. It’s one of his most creative and elaborate ones, containing enough for two separate shorts (since it has two completely different parts, each with a separate premise.)

In the first half he’s a soldier who doesn’t realize World War One has ended, so he is still roaming around having misadventures in German territory.  He escaped from a prison camp just when the German troops were celebrating the end of the war but he didn’t understand. Now he is wandering around a country at peace in constant fear for his life. Coming upon an area where a farmer is using dynamite to blow up tree stumps, he thinks he’s being shelled. He, winds up accidentally dragging some dynamite with him. Sees it, throws it, tries to shoo a cow out of the way. When the cow does run by Harry has his eyes closed. Dynamite lands in smokehouse, sending pieces of meat flying over to Harry. He thinks it was the cow.

In the second half.  In the little country of Bomania…there is a king who looks exactly like Harry (How many movies have we seen with that premise?). The king is is drunken and dissolute, always insults his wife. The people are on the verge of revolution. A minister spies Harry and hires him to be a double for the king. It winds up with the King’s wife trying to kiss Harry so she can plunge a knife into his back. Harry wakes up in his bed with his wife shaking him. It’s the present day, it was all a dream.

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A Soldier’s Plaything (1930)

Harry Langdon co-stars with Ben Lyon in this World War One service comedy (with serious overtones — and a few songs, although most were cut prior to American release when musicals went out of favor. It’s a fairly routine service comedy, but it has its share of laughs – including several pre-code mounds of horse manure. Furthermore, Harry is playing a character not too removed from his silent one. The difference? He’s in the hands of a real director. Michael Curtiz keeps the reins tight on Harry here. He’s plausible comic relief in this major motion picture. It’s a rare chance to see Langdon starring in a major motion picture during the talking era.

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Doughboys (1930)

Doughboys, directed by Eddie Sedgwick, is Buster Keaton ’s Shoulder Arms. It’s probably his best talkie feature, certainly his best one for MGM. Buster plays a millionaire who accidentally enlists in the army during World War I. The movie was co-written by legendary comedy scribe Al Boasberg and co-stars Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (whose most famous role is Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio). Because Keaton’s character is more like a human being in this one, and the story hangs together better, it is closer in spirit to his silents even if there are still very few gags. Keaton has a funny musical duet with Cliff Edwards and a funny dance number in the army talent show. There are also a couple of Keatonesque gags. One of them–very grim—has Keaton propped up in a trench looking like a corpse and suddenly popping up awake. The whole movie is almost ruined by an extremely annoying drill sergeant who keeps yelling. What movie executive thought this kind of thing was funny, I’ll never know, but there sure is a lot of it in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Still, it’s a movie worth seeing.

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Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, Wheeler and Woolsey are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

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Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Laurel and Hardy‘s second feature for Hal Roach, is as close as the team came to organically being Chaplinesque, with the film mixing elements of Shoulder Arms and The Kid. In the first act of the film, they are drafted as soldiers — their drill sergeant is of course Jimmy Finlayson, with predictable results. They next go over to France to fight in The Great War, befriending a fellow soldier who happens to have a baby (a rather grown-up problem.) When Eddie is killed in action, the boys feel obligated to bring the infant back to the States to find the child’s grandparents (the baby’s mother too having been killed). This being a Laurel and Hardy comedy their actual attempts to achieve their mission will be pitifully fruitless; only coincidence will win the day.

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Blockheads (1938)

Originally intended to be Laurel and Hardy‘s last Hal Roach film (and it was their last Roach film for MGM though they made a couple more with Roach for other distributors) there would have been a nice symmetry to their career at Roach if it had been so, as Blockheads is essentially a remake of their first Roach talkie Unaccustomed as We Are (grafted onto We Faw Down). Like all of their features, it’s essentially the content of a short, stretched to go just over an hour. But this one works for me — it’s densely packed with comic material with little filler to speak of.

The pair are army buddies in WWI. Unfortunately Stan never gets the memo about the Armistice and winds up standing guard in a trench for 20 years. Returned to a convalescent home, he is taken in by Ollie — much to the perturbation of Mrs. Hardy (Minna Gombell). Left to fend for themselves, they find themselves entangled with the hotsy-totsy neighbor lady (Patricia Ellis), which gets them in Dutch with her shotgun wielding husband (Billy Gilbert). But just as life is all about the journey, comedy is all about the gags, and the pleasure of this movie is in just letting them wash over you, one after the other.

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The Great Dictator (1940)

While Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is the World War TWO comedy par excellence , it does begin with an extended World War One section, a sort of prologue in which the Little Barber grapples with a ridiculous cannon named Big Bertha and flies upside down in a bi-plane with Reginald Gardiner. Chaplin’s injured character will spend several years in a sanitarium, emerging to find that his country has gone insane. More about the film here. 

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

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Charles Chaplin, Sr.: No Slouch Either!

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by travsd

Born on this date in 1863: Charles Chaplin the Elder: the father of his better known namesake, comedian and movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not as well known today that in his time the elder Chaplin was a fairly successful performer in his own right.

The son of a butcher, Charles Senior was still a teenager when he went on the stage. It is said that he met Charlie’s mother Hannah Hall (a.k.a. Lily Harley) while performing in a sketch called “Shamus O’Brien” in the early 1880s. In 1885 he married her, despite the fact that in the intervening months she had taken up with another man and given birth to a child. Chaplin gave the boy his surname; he became Sydney Chaplin. By ’87, Charles Senior had worked up a music hall act and began getting bookings in the halls, with a repertoire of sentimental and comical songs. In 1889, his son Charlie was born.

So far so good, eh? Unfortunately (for the family) not long after that, Chaplin’s career began to take off — and so did he. By 1890, he was popular enough to tour America (notably, he played the Union Square Theatre in New York — this was his own foray into American vaudeville. The following year he ran out on Hannah and the boys for good.

Chaplin was popular enough by this stage that his name and visaged graced the covers of the published sheet music of songs he had made popular, such as “The Girl Was Young and Pretty”, “Hi Diddle Diddle” and the comical, suggestive “Eh, Boys!”

It’s a well known story by now. While Charlie the elder was cavorting and carousing in music halls, living the carefree life, Hannah (also an entertainer, and by her son’s account a brilliant one, the one he took after) went slowly insane and couldn’t work. Chaplin offered no financial support, even when the two children were packed off to workhouses.

By the end of the decade (and the century) Chaplin had become an alcoholic and was no longer working himself. Significantly, this was the juncture when he first seems to take an interest in his namesake. In 1899, he got ten year old Charlie his first proper show business job by getting him into an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads. The younger Chaplin was about to embark on an incredible life’s journey; the older one was just ending his. By 1901, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was dead of cirrhosis of the liver.

But his mark is there for all to see in Charlie Chaplin’s life and art. An alcoholic, performing dad is something Charlie had in common with Buster Keaton. But there are contrasts. You could say that Joe Keaton’s drinking hurt his career, but it didn’t end his life. And Buster followed in his footsteps, becoming a problem boozer himself. Whereas the elder Chaplin ended both his life and career through alcohol abuse. And Charlie, Jr. only ever drank in cautious moderation. But I find it significant that he played hilarious comic drunks on stage and screen for decades. And there is also the subject of Chaplin’s relations with him. For a good long while, like his father, he put his work first and neglected his women (following periods of intense wooing). This cycle was only broken when he finally married Oona O’Neill, quite late in life, when he only worked occasionally and chose to devote all of his energy into family life…as though he were making up for lost time.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film 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

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

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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.

100 Years Ago: Chaplin’s Mutual Period

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on May 15, 2016 by travsd

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100 years ago today Charlie Chaplin released The Floorwalker, the first of twelve classic comedy shorts he would make for the Mutual Film Corporation.

Mutual was the firm that had previously distributed Keystone comedies. Mack Sennett had just left to set up his new venture, the Triangle Film Corporation with D.W. Griffith and the “Father of the Western” Thomas Ince as the other two points of the triangle. Tasked with filling the void left by Keystone, Chaplin was set up with his own unit called The Lone Star Studio. With what amounted to unlimited resources at his fingertips, Chaplin was now to take all sorts of steps that boosted the quality of his films to unprecedented levels.

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For example, now he was able to construct more imaginative, original, and lavish sets.  Now we have a department store with a working escalator, a health spa with a revolving door, and a bi-level house with a treacherous cuckoo clock.  The construction of these playgrounds of comedy potential was also the genesis of the stories of the films themselves. Chaplin would start with nothing more than an idea for a locale and then order the set built. He would then devise the movie in situ, as though the whole apparatus of the film studio was his pipe organ to compose upon. Unlike even Sennett, he didn’t write a story out on paper. He showed up to work in the morning armed with nothing more than some ideas in his head, many of them vague. Then he created his movies on the fly. For a surprisingly long time, Chaplin was able to maintain the pace he had established at Essanay using this method. But then, starting with The Cure in early 1917 he started to take even longer to make each film. Instead of one month to make a two-reeler, it now took two or three. Here again, his working method was enabled by resources. He had the wherewithal to indulge his muse. He could actually do the unthinkable and wait for inspiration to come.

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As his old mentor Fredo Karno had done, Chaplin’s method of direction was to show every player his part, literally. He was a mime, after all. Trying to communicate in words what he wanted to accomplish would only be a hindrance, a frustration, and ultimately less effective. So he would act out every role in the movie, show each actor in each scene precisely how they should do their part in each bit. Working in this method necessitated a special kind of stock company, one that would be willing to yield entirely to his control. Chaplin’s ideal cast members are either non-actors, i.e. tabulae rasae (such as most of his leading ladies and a certain famous five-year-old) or people from the same professional background who possessed the same gestural vocabulary as he, and to whom he could speak in a sort of shorthand. Edna Purviance answered the description of the first type. Officially his leading lady by this point both on and off the screen, there was no question but that she would follow Chaplin to the new studio.

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As to the second type, Chaplin was fortunate in recruiting two fellow veterans of the Karno company to anchor his new troupe at Mutual. As the heavy, he brought in Eric Campbell, a mammoth Scotsman with the grace of a gazelle and a comic instinct to rival Chaplin’s. Big enough (6’4”, close to 300 lbs) to make Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain or Bud Jamison seem like pipsqueaks, Campbell and his boss collaborated to make his characters as terrifying as possible, usually enhancing his impressive size with a garnish of Satanic facial hair. Campbell’s function was to torture and menace The Little Fellow in any given plot. Other than the Hero and The Girl, the heavy is the most important ingredient in any comedy cast, and Campbell proved to be the greatest Chaplin ever had. He is easily the most memorable and cherished member of any Chaplin stock company after Chaplin himself. Only his untimely death in 1917 would prevent him from going on to even greater stardom. The other Karno alum Chaplin brought on staff was Albert Austin, a tall, slim utility man who glides in and out of Chaplin’s stories like the well-trained Karno cog that he is, to help set the pace and tone of the proceedings for the rest of the cast and keep the machine moving forward. Also notable in the new cast was Henry Bergman, a musical comedy veteran with a wide range. Large enough to be a heavy in any company that didn’t include Campbell, to him were usually relegated authority figures: fathers and rich men, mostly, although he could also be relied upon to play something farther afield, like the violent masseur in The Cure or the pawn broker in The Pawnshop (October, 1916). Bergman was such an excellent character actor he would often play two or more roles in a single film and audiences would be none the wiser.  For comic variety in body types the company also included James T. Kelley, a diminutive Irishman (he looks scarcely over five feet tall) whom one sees in many Mutuals playing bellhops and elevator operators, usually with a beard that goes all the way down to his waist.

With all of these elements in place, Chaplin now inaugurated a string of pathbreaking films that would remain essentially unbroken for forty years. It was during his year and a half at Mutual that Chaplin got a handle on the storytelling—creating what many regard as the first silent film comedies that are still watchable as pure entertainment (as opposed to historical curiosities) even today. In these movies, for the most part, nothing is random. No gag is a throwaway. Everything contributes toward the whole. Others, like Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, and Laurel and Hardy would later excel at this form. Some would even exceed the master in keeping the gags germane to the plot (Chaplin was content to keep them consistent in terms of character, setting, and theme.) But the improvements these later comedians made were tweaks compared to the advances Chaplin made at Mutual. It is too strong perhaps to say that he invented the comedy short. But he did define it. It is the same basic structure the public knows well from the later shorts of the Three Stooges and animated cartoons, even if they have never seen the silent comedies that set the template.

We All Fall Down: "The Rink"

We All Fall Down: “The Rink”

Many consider the short the ideal form of comic cinema. Unburdened with any of the more earthbound elements necessitated by a longer narrative, the short is free to be purely comic, generating more concentrated laughter. Because the films are short, they can’t get too serious. In ten or twenty minutes there’s no time to get too deeply into character or relationships. The stress is on a structure of funny events. As a rough metaphor, it is very much like dessert.

So Chaplin would impose a structure, a form on Keystone-style chaos. If Keystone was about throwing everything against the wall, Chaplin was now about gathering everything up, chucking away the chaff, and organizing the remainder into a coherent, organic whole. If a story element or a gag doesn’t relate to the theme of the film, it doesn’t make the cut. If the proposed action is something the character wouldn’t logically do, he doesn’t do it. Bizarre events are naturally countenanced—this is comedy after all. But when the unexpected happens we generally get a plausible explanation for it and it enhances rather than undermines the comedy. In The Vagabond (July, 1919), the Little Fellow plays a lively tune on his fiddle, causing Edna’s gypsy girl to go at her washing chores at a preposterous speed. Many are the comic minds of the day who would have been happy to direct someone to behave in that strange a fashion for no reason at all. But Chaplin believes in cause and effect. If a gag is not connected to what came before or what will follow, it takes us out of the story. And once out it’s very difficult to get back in.

There is nothing highfalutin about any of this. Chaplin may have had his pretensions, hob-knobbed with authors and scholars and so forth, but these little affectations came AFTER he’d already distinguished himself as an artist and attracted those people to him on the strength of his output. Contrary to what many people imply, you don’t have to be some egghead to make art. The reverse is closer to the reality. Art is about instinct. Visual art is about having an eye. The bird building her nest has such an eye: this twig goes here, that twig goes there—and no other place. The bird has no conscious thought about it. It is merely fulfilling the laws of nature and taking the required care to make something right. The same is true of how humans make art. There are some rules of composition that can be taught, but beyond that, at least at a formal level, it’s all instinct.

Chaplin’s new deal at Mutual would allow him for the first time enough freedom to take the necessary care to get it right. There was no one breathing down his neck pooh-poohing his integrity as he tried to work out his story problems. Thus he was able to solve them. And that’s why people are still watching his films, as opposed to those of his contemporaries who only wanted to turn over a fast buck.  

It all seemed to start with a spark inside him. You can see it in his performances. He is so bursting with life on occasion he’ll break out into balletic dance moves or curtsy like a girl. In The Adventurer he clambers up a sheer cliff face like one demonically possessed. He brings this same energy to how he conceives and directs the films. Burning with inspiration, Chaplin was easily the most imaginative filmmaker since Méliès. He wasn’t just punching a time clock. He seemed to say to himself, “I have all the power in the world at my fingertips. Where can my imagination go today? Because this is a movie. We can go anywhere.”

After seeing The Floorwalker (May, 1916), Chaplin’s first film for Mutual, the highlight of which is a series of pratfalls on an escalator, Mack Sennett famously asked, “Why in hell didn’t we think of a moving staircase?” Probably because you weren’t particularly thinking of anything at all, Mr. Sennett! After a certain point, innovation wasn’t on Sennett’s agenda. Crankin’ em out was. How many Sennett movies are set in, on, and around park benches? As an NYU film school alum, where 85 percent of the student movies are set in Washington Square Park, I can tell you that such a location isn’t arrived at because the filmmaker loves parks, and he’s so inspired that he’s just burning to make a movie that takes place in a park. It’s because the park is…right over there. You don’t have to rent it or build it. You just have to go a short distance, and there it is. At times this seems like admirable resourcefulness. At other times, it seems more like the filmmaker can’t be bothered to get off his ass. Look at the number of Keystones set in a movie studio. How lazy is that? In those ones, they couldn’t even be bothered to drive over to the park! They just yelled “roll film” and started fooling round right where they were already standing. With only Keystone films to go by (Lord knows how such a thing would come to pass) an alien from another planet might be forgiven for thinking that the entire human race either lives at the park, or works in a movie studio.

While Chaplin would regress a couple of times at Mutual (notably in Behind the Screen [May, 1916], his umpteenth comedy set at a movie studio), for the most part he takes us to a variety of interesting settings, places he and we are both curious about, and explores their possibilities: a health spa, a ship crossing the Atlantic, a gypsy caravan.

Again, there is nothing profound about any of this. Chaplin is simply a more creative person. He sees the possibilities in people, places, and objects. You see how his mind works as early as His Favorite Pastime at Keystone, in which he gets into a drunken fight with a pair of seemingly malevolent washroom doors. This is the same antic spirit that will lead to his escapades with an escalator in The Floorwalker, a revolving door in The Cure, an entire room in One A.M. (August, 1916), and an alarm clock in The Pawnshop. He likes to play with stuff.

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Like Ovid he is infatuated with the concept of metamorphosis. Like theatrical wizards from Shakespeare to Artaud he is enchanted with the actor’s alchemical ability to transform people and objects. The most frequently cited example, probably because it is his most lengthy and overt “dissertation” on the subject, is the section in The Pawnshop where a 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 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.

In Chaplin’s hands a mere prop can even become another character. This was surely an instinct strong within him his entire performing career. It appears in some of his earliest films, such as Getting Acquainted where he lewdly pokes a woman with his cane and then spanks and scolds the naughty walking stick. This anthropomorphizing is really a puppeteer’s instinct and it makes any Chaplin film not just funny but magical.

Charlie is whoever she needs to be

Charlie is whoever she needs to be

This preoccupation, which has its origins in simple playfulness, has profound implications when Chaplin applies it to his own character. Unlike a lot of screen comedians of the time, Chaplin’s Little Fellow assumes a wide variety of interesting guises from picture to picture:  a fireman, a waiter, a rich man, a burglar—sometimes a tramp. The fact that he is often a tramp adds yet another level of masquerade, for the tramp, closely related to the American archetype the confidence man, is himself a person of malleable, shifting identity. In The Tramp circumstances temporarily make him a farm hand. In more movies than you can count (including The Count [September, 1916]) he misrepresents himself as some nobleman or other important person. To add a third level of complexity, in any given moment Chaplin’s Little Fellow can magically transform as the need arises, as when he dons drag in A Woman, or disguises himself as a floor lamp in The Adventurer. This mercurial property of Chaplin’s would find later manifestations in the screen characters of the Marx Brothers and Bugs Bunny. Adapting one’s very identity to circumstances, adapting one’s surroundings to fit one’s needs.

There is something distinctly American about this aspect of Chaplin’s screen character. A dynamic of constant change is the mode not only of the actor or the con man but of any ambitious person in the free enterprise system, where one’s status is in constant shift, either through the result of one’s own actions, or simply by the cruel hand of Fate. One’s position is not rigidly fixed, as in an aristocracy. A poor man can become a rich man, and vice versa. Chaplin knew about this firsthand. He himself had transformed from a Cockney pauper to one of the world’s richest men in just a few years.

Such alteration in a character’s circumstances, and the internal transformations that go with them, are the essence of what makes a compelling story. Here is where Chaplin makes one of his primary contributions to cinema. What journey have we really taken when we reach the end of a Sennett comedy? We’ve had some laughs, that’s about it. The odds are pretty good we’ll have forgotten what we’ve just seen on the way home from the theatre. We have formed no emotional attachment. Chaplin showed that in following a character’s ups and downs, it was possible to make the audience care about the outcome without killing the laughs.

And it didn’t have to have a happy ending. The conclusions to Chaplin’s pictures seldom were. The closest to such during the Mutual period perhaps would be Easy Street (January, 1917), in which he becomes a policeman, cleans up the most notorious neighborhood in the city single-handedly, and then marries the girl.

But in a Chaplin film we have the impression that such transformations are at best temporary. Yes, the Little Fellow may become someone else by the end of the picture, but the odds are good that if we were to look in on him sometime after, we would find him experiencing new reversals and undergoing future adaptations and transformations. He’s never in any one place for very long. He always has one eye on the back door.

For example, I’ve always found the end of The Immigrant (June, 1917) unsettling. Not only does the Little Fellow coerce Edna into marrying him (using his cane to grab her, no less), but he starts off the relationship by sponging off the two dollars she is earning as an artist’s model. I can’t help but imagine a third act in which he transforms into something like the Eric Roberts character in Star 80.

Underneath the penguin suit lies the soul of an escaped prisoner

Underneath the penguin suit lies the soul of an escaped prisoner

Perhaps the more rewarding and realistic Chaplins are the cyclical ones, where we go on a long, winding journey and end up back at the same place: the road. The best example of this may be Chaplin’s last film for Mutual, The Adventurer. Charlie plays an escaped criminal who has the good fortune to save the lives of several members of a wealthy family mere minutes after having evaded the army of prison guards who were chasing him. Even better, he seems to have tremendous romantic chemistry with the millionaire couple’s daughter, played by Edna. In an alternate universe perhaps, this might be his last stop, the end of all his worries. Change his name, marry the daughter, blend in, go straight, and be set for life. But that’s not who he is, and that’s what he can never be. His rival for the girl’s hand (Eric Campbell) rats him out to the cops. After a lengthy and hilarious chase, we get our happy ending, but it’s not the usual one. The Little Fellow does escape. But he doesn’t get the girl, nor will he ever be able to. And in houses like these, he is ever an interloper. Which is how Chaplin, a poor immigrant who came to America and lucked into a fortune, must have ever felt, even in his own house. The question is always, “When will the other shoe drop?”

For Chaplin the man, the other shoe wouldn’t drop almost another forty years.

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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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.

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Charlie Chaplin’s “Burlesque on Carmen”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2015 by travsd

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December 18, 1915 was the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen.

Chaplin’s last official film for Essanay,  Carmen would represent the fruit of his dawning ambition, of the new direction he hoped to take. 1915 had seen two cinematic versions of the opera Carmen, one by Cecil B. de Mille, one by Raoul Walsh. Chaplin decided that he, too, would throw his derby hat into the ring by making his own parody version, Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen. This master stroke would allow Chaplin to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, the film was just what he said it was: a Mack Sennett style burlesque of a popular hit of the day. At the same time, it allowed Chaplin to get his hands on a tragic narrative, to feel his way through the story points, to get inside a real work of art, even if only to caricature it.

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Unfortunately, Essanay butchered the film, ignoring Chaplin’s own cut, adding many of his out-takes and a subplot featuring Ben Turpin, in order to pad it to a longer running time. From the existing version it is hard to tell what its merits might have been. Nor was this the last of their villainy. The enterprising grave robbers at Essanay would manage to make three additional movies out of discarded Chaplin footage after he left the studio. Following this, Chaplin made sure contractually that this indignity would never happen to him again.

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.  To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Chaplin, Swain, Normand et al are GETTING ACQUAINTED

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Mabel Normand, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on December 5, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Keystone comedy Getting Acquainted, written and directed by Charlie Chaplin. Though Charlie is at the helm and the titular star of this short, like most of his Keystone pictures (and most of the Keystone product) it’s an ensemble picture. And like so many films from this period, it’s a farce set in a park. Mack Swain (as his usual character Ambrose) and Mabel Normand play one couple, Chaplin and Phyllis Allen play another. Charlie starts flirting with the fetching Cecile Arnold, who is there with “a Passing Turk”, dressed in what looks like a wizard outfit (Glen Cavender). Then Charlie flirts with Mabel as Ambrose helps a stalled driver get his car going. Irritated by Charlie’s attention, Mabel calls a cop (Edgar Kennedy), who starts chasing Charlie and then accidentally hits the Turk with his nightstick. Meanwhile Ambrose returns and begins flirting with Charlie’s wife. Then SHE calls a cop. The wives sit together. Then Charlie and Ambrose meet and are nabbed by the cop, who proceeds to bring them over to the ladies to ID as perps. The wives reclaim their husbands…who then continue to hit on each other’s wives as they are led off.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my 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 To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Charlie Chaplin’s “A Night in the Show”

Posted in British Music Hall, Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy A Night in the Show (1915).

This short from Chaplin’s Essanay period is extremely interesting for two reasons. One is that it is essentially a filmed adaptation of the Karno music hall sketch A Night in an English Music Hall or Mumming Birds, the one in which Chaplin starred as a drunk and which brought him to the attention of Mack Sennett. Thus it is the closest thing we have to a record of the performance that led to him becoming a movie star. Secondly, the film is set at a vaudeville theatre. Thus we get to see one of the few contemporary efforts by a filmmaker to dramatize a vaudeville setting. As the film was made in 1915, even though it is fiction, it offers up many valuable details about what the experience of attending a vaudeville show was like, not just the stage performances, but what it was like to be an audience member. And, a third intriguing element – -Chaplin plays two roles: a drunken rich swell, and one of the hoi poloi up in the balcony.

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The film may contain Chaplin’s best drunk turn, in a career full of the cinema’s best drunk turns, as the top-hatted inebriate, annoys everyone else all the way into the theatre, onstage and off. In addition to a balcony full of ethnic stereotypes (blackface, a Hebrew, a guy in drag playing a woman with a baby), we get the performers onstage: a plump belly dancer, a snake charmer, a comedy team named Dot and Dash, and a fireater. That’s a show I’d like to see!

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.

 

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