Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Cure and The Immigrant

The Cure (1916)

This film is one of Chaplin’s most celebrated early films, and it is a genius of slapstick.  The setting, a spa with a spring well as the center of the health cult, is just perfect for Chaplin’s version of comedy.  He appears completely inebriated, attempting to navigate a revolving door.   As the film goes on, he becomes a chivalrous gentleman toward the ladies, and then a wise guy trying to get out of some uncomfortable situations.

It is just a set of gags, without much plot, but it flows quickly from one set to another, without giving us any time to be bored.  I didn’t laugh often, but the film kept me entertained, which, I suppose, is the point.

I’d like to make special note of Eric Campbell, who is the giant foil of most of Chaplin’s Mutual films, and a wonderful, if obvious bad guy.  Right at the end of the Mutual run, Campbell died in an auto accident.

The end of the film is missing, but it was found in 2013.  It should be included on DVD in some future release of the film.


The Immigrant (1917)

This is one of Chaplin's most acclaimed and popular shorts.  Certainly it is a jump ahead of his other films as far as cinematic stunts go-- tilting stages and live footage from ships. You can tell that his films are selling better than ever, allowing him to have the finances to attempt the new. 

Unlike many directors who take chances on a new look or special effect, but doesn't put any effort into making it entertaining, Chaplin puts his full imagination into presenting something the audience hadn't seen before, as well as putting a new spin on old gags.

Chaplin and Edna are immigrants into New York.  The first half of the film takes place on the boat in which there is a heavily tilting boat, sick passengers, money lost and won.  The second half takes place in a restaurant where the Tramp is doing is best to pay a bill at a restaurant with a grumpy waiter.  There isn't a single story that follows through logically the whole film, but especially the first half is funnier than most of Chaplin's early shorts.

It is no surprise, really, that the second half in the restaurant was shot first, because many of Chaplin's early shorts take place in an eating establishment.  But the fact that he invented the first half of the film while he was filming the second is amazing, since it really works and is quite innovative.

I learned something, too: The Tramp pantomimes "flute sandwich", which I looked up and found it is a name for a sub sandwich.  Why the waiter gave him beans and bread, I don't know.

The first half is great... I wish it would have followed through more.  3.5/5

The Floorwalker and The Vagabond

The Floorwalker (1916)

At Mutual Films, Chaplin finally is free from the demand to produce a film every week or two.  He now has a month to produce a two-reel film, which gives him the creative space he needs to create truly unique films.  He establishes a new setting and plot for each film, giving the Tramp the opportunity to develop as a character as well.  Here, the Tramp is neither a rake, nor a sad sack, but a homeless man trying to get by, taking what opportunities he gets with more than a little mischievousness.

The Tramp wanders in a department store, where he takes advantage of items on display to do his morning grooming, stunning the store employee to silence.  Meanwhile, the store managers, including the floorwalker (who bears some resemblance to the Tramp) is attempting to get away with 80,000 dollars they embezzled from the store.  The floorwalker decides to offer the Tramp his job, so he can get away with the money.  The Tramp saves the day, unknowingly, using silliness to keep the murderous manager at bay.

It’s a more coherent, complete story than we’ve seen Chaplin do for a while.  Also, we can see Chaplin’s influence on comedy of the future.  We see the first mirror sequence and the first moving stairway gags.  The persona the Tramp uses in this film clearly influences the Bugs Bunny cartoons of later years.  Perhaps I didn’t laugh at this film as much as some earlier ones (His New Job, The Tramp, Triple Trouble), but that is more because the best sequences are copied again and again by later performers and comics.

3/5, but 3.5 for effort and recognizing the ingenuity copied by many others.

Additional note about the quality of copies:  Some are trying to fill the wider horizontal size by cutting the top of the film.  That's awful, just awful.  I know I would have enjoyed this film more if I had been able to see the faces all the time.  I linked to a YouTube version that doesn't have it cropped.

The Vagabond (1916)

We truly see Chaplin come into his own as a filmmaker here.  Here we have a film that is somewhere between The Tramp and City Lights: It is a full story, with many interesting characters, full settings, and full scenes that give proper comedic impact without overstaying their welcome.  It took a while for him to become the director we recognize, but here he is.

The Tramp is busking outside a bar, but when another band steals his thunder, he passes the hat “for” them.  They get upset, there is a fight and chasing.  Although there is much we have seen before, there is some good choreography here.  But not as much fun as the next scene when he busks for a sole girl, and when that girl is beat with a whip, the Tramp can’t stand by idly.

This is an almost perfect little film, with a good number of laughs, and some good romantic drama.  Chaplin has finally entered the realm of the modern comedy, a genre he helped invent. (Keaton is still a year away from his first film).


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Triple Trouble

Triple Trouble (1918)

After Police, Chaplin worked on his first full-length feature Life.  Essanay Studios decided that his film was taking too long, and that he needed to keep on his schedule of a two-reel every other week.  Chaplin disagreed, and so left the studio, going to Mutual Studios, where he could run his own division Lone Star Pictures.    

Meanwhile Essanay still had many reels of outtakes, as well as the unfinished picture Life.  So a year later they requested Leo White to compile a film from the old footage, which is Triple Trouble.  Chaplin sued Essanay, but the court ruled that the footage belonged to the studio, so they could do as they pleased with it. In Chaplin’s autobiography, he listed Triple Trouble as one of his official films.

And rightly so.  Although it holds together as a single story poorly, and the end is just tacked on, it contains some of the best material Chaplin did at Essanay, especially the chaos at the flop house, and the choreography of the “free for all” at the flop house is one of the best scenes Chaplin’s ever done.

Charlie is hired as a janitor at the Nutt House, where Professor Nutt is working on his wireless explosive, which the politician Hun wants to get his hands on (remember, this was filmed in 1916/17 when World War I was still going strong).  The focus, though, is on the Tramp who makes more of a mess than cleans up.  After his work is done, the Tramp goes to a flop house where there is a drunk shouting in the middle of the night, and a thief picking people’s pockets.  That same night, we follow the Tramp back to the Nutt house, where there is criminal activity and a well organized, if clueless, police force.

I laughed more at this one picture than possibly the whole set of films at Essanay.  Although the Tramp is a better film, this has some of the most entertaining stunts.  How I wish Life had been finished, because I think it might have been the best of Chaplin’s work in this time period.

4.5/5 with .5 taken off because there wasn’t enough material to make it coherent =   4/5

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Tramp

The Tramp (1915)

This film is going to get a high rating.  Not because it's popular, or because it is named after Chaplin's beloved character.  But because it is only the second film that really expresses the character of The Tramp, as we have known him.  In most of the films previous, Chaplin's tight-vested, baggy-trousered often-impoverished character is either a drunk, a coveter of women or a criminal.  Not just an unsavory character, but also not a particularly likable one, for he has very few redeeming qualities. 

In The Tramp, however, our tramp does lust after the girl and her money, but proves himself heroic and chivalrous. He could have taken money, many times over.  Mind you, he is still clumsy and lazy and a horrible worker, but we like him despite all that.  That is the charm of the Tramp, and the only time his character really works.  We saw this character in The New Janitor, and we see it again, even more so, in this film. 

This doesn't mean that the film is a complete winner.  Most of the gags aren't funny, and the film seems pieced together.  We have the events around the Tramp and the country girl, and we have the tramp trying unsuccessfully being a farm hand.  Neither are deeply funny, but the country girl story is adorable and the plot is strong.  It holds together as one piece.  And the bittersweet ending is perfect for future Chaplin films, and it works well here.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Tillie's Punctured Romance

This film is very significant in cinema history.  It is the first full-length feature comedy (at 115 minutes), and it is the first film that features Charlie Chaplin, although in a co-starring role.  The film was clearly meant to feature Marie Dressler, who is a great comic, but Charlie stole the show in small ways, again and again, showing him to be the star he later would be.

Marie Dressler plays Tillie, a country girl from wealthy roots, but she remains naive.  Charlie plays the city con, who escapes from the city on the lam, finds Tillie and her wealthy father and decides to play at romance with the poor, homely, but strong, girl in order to get at her father's money.  With some help from a female accomplice (Mable Normand), he succeeds, only to find that there were bigger fish to fry in Tillie's family-- an uncle who is a millionaire.

Dressler is certainly a comic who deserved her celebrity status.  Especially in the scene where she plays drunk and all the binds of character are loosed, she is hilarious and unique.  But it is Normand who is the character actor here.  She is the only one who is believable, who refuses to mug for the camera and is actually interested in acting instead of playing a series of comic sketches.

But Chaplin is the star.  He is more funny than not, and his movements look fluid and spontaneous, a breath of fresh air in the midst of tired cliches.  Yes, I know it is 1914, but since the country/city comedy sketch gets played out again and again as does the naive v. con man.  They are classic tropes, initiated in the ancient world (Aesop used them, for instance), but you can see how tired some of the players are of doing this routine again.  Chaplin keeps it fresh and the fact that his now common stances and pratfalls are still interesting and funny is part of the reason he is one of the best performers of cinema to this day. It is nice to see him play a role outside of the Tramp character, and he does it well.

An additional benefit is the use of the Keystone Kops at the end of the film.  Again, their shtick is familiar, but fun to watch.

Overall, this is not only a historically significant film, it's a pretty funny one as well.  It is certainly worth watching for both reasons, and a good, short entertainment.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Masquerader

The Masquerader (August 1914)

The best disguise Chaplin has in his makeup box is to take off his mustache.  A different mustache, I can recognize him in, but if he's clean shaven, I have no idea who he is.  Clearly that's the case of his fellow filmmakers at Keystone, as well.

Chaplin plays himself, famous movie star, who is a bit too into himself and he makes enemies of his fellow actors (Arbunkle has great repartee with Chaplin in his early scene) and his director (Charles Murray) and so is fired.  So Chaplin does a Tootsie, dresses as a woman who is so convincing that the director makes a pass  tries to rape her.   It's a funny gag with some great small moments, including one at the end where Chaplin is fighting with a Keystone staff member and the staff tries to hit him in the face and he keeps ducking... well, you'd have to see it.

In the process of them really improving, this has a coherent story, excellent sight gags, but the ending is too rushed.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Face on the Barroom Floor

Face on the Barroom Floor  (August 1914)

Just a couple weeks before the creative low point of Chaplin's time at Keystone, Recreation, they decided to adapt a poem going around at the time "The Face on the Barroom Floor".  The original poem is about a man who enters a bar, and for a bit of whiskey (and then a bit more) he promises to tell them a funny story, and he tells them about his love who ran away from him with another man.  He then draws her face on the floor of the bar and collapses and dies.  Not exactly comic material.

And, interestingly enough, the film doesn't make a comedy out of it.  They tell a slightly different story, just to the side of the poem's story.  Chaplin, is, of course, the man telling the story, and emphasis is placed on his days as an artist, where he is looking at his past through the sorrow of his present.  There are a few sight gags, but it frankly works better as a melancholic piece with a good punchline two thirds in.   They finish it off with a fight and Chaplin drawing and dying on the painting, but it doesn't fit the story.

If I hadn't read the poem first, I'm not sure I would have understood the film as well.  I think it was really meant to be for those who already appreciated the poem, and so offers commentary and humor to the side of the poem, without actually tackling the poem as a straight adaptation.  That's a great way of adapting a work to film-- not ignoring the original work, but assuming that the audience experienced the work already, and providing tone and humor and side stories to the heart of the work. 

I'm torn about this short.  In the end, I feel positive toward it, although I think the end of the film was unnecessary.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

The New Janitor

The New Janitor (1914)

Although still in 1914, this is Chaplin's 27th film for Keystone Studios, and the first where we see The Tramp as being the character we recognize as the classic character.  The first we see as a full-fledged character at all, sympathetic, clumsy, well-intentioned, at times pathetic, at times heroic.  Even so, the film is at times comedic and at times dramatic, with the action being played for laughs and thrills, sometimes at the same time. We can see the mixed emotions and sympathy for a sorry plight we will often find in Chaplin-directed films.

The Tramp gets a job as a janitor in a tall office building, which he finds himself completely incapable at.  While washing windows, he drops a bucket on the head of the owner, which gets him fired.  In another office, an important employee of the office is threatened with gambling debts, and he decides to take a desperate action.

This was a pleasure to watch, an almost perfect gem of a film, which could easily be remade into a longer film.  And it was, another longer Chaplin short, The Bank.  Jess Dandy played the boss well (reminding me of a later Lionel Barrymore).


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Mabel's Strange Predicament

Mabel's Strange Predicament (February,1914)

Here, the first time the Tramp was filmed, we have a complex short, in perfectly timed comedy, with Mabel Normand as the star.  Mabel Normand had a series of films that she starred in and sometimes directed.  The films are of mixed quality, but they were among a number of films directed and presented from a woman's perspective, along with films by Alice Guy-Blache and Lois Weber.

The Tramp is drinking himself silly in the lobby of a hotel, where he pays his rent for a chair which he keeps falling out of, driving other customers away with his presence (and we assume, his smell).  Mabel happily passes through with her dog and goes upstairs to play with her pet.  Soon, she is locked out of her room in her bedclothes with a lecherous Tramp after her and her boyfriend to visit and a couple across the hall to further her embarrassment.

I am disappointed to see the Tramp in such an unsympathetic light, but really the star is Mabel, whom I might watch more of because she is a perfect victim here.  Although Chaplin isn't the star, he is the cause that moves the "predicament" to such hilarious heights, and his perfect timing along with Normand, Harry McCoy and Alice Davenport really keeps it going.  In a modern film, we might see this comedy stretched to a half hour of a film, but it is perfect at just over ten minutes with many laughs.   

This is certainly the better introduction to the Tramp, between this and The Kid Races, but we see that the Tramp was first imagined as a completely unsympathetic character.  We were meant to feel superior to him, as well as of the people who blindly reject him with prejudice.  We are to see in him the people we are irritated by, the drunk or the person who insists being in the film.  That's a good start, but of course, I prefer the more sympathetic Tramp of later years.

Chaplin says that as he was on his way to dress the part for the film, "I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennet had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small mustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression."  Mark Sennet was the producer of the film.

Note: this is the funniest of these films from 1914 I've seen so far, as well as the best choreographed.  And it is the only one directed by a woman, for Mabel Normand directed it herself.

4/5 -- Check it out!  It's short and funny!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Introducing Chaplain: Making a Living and Kid Races at Venice

Making a Living (February, 1914)

A strange short, but it is Chaplin's first starring role, and occasionally funny.

Chaplin is a poor man, dressed to the nines with a long mustache, trying to obtain an engagement with a wealthy woman.  He only does so through stealing a ring from his rival (Henry Lehrman, who also directed the short), and after fighting, Chaplin comes out the victor.  But he still has another obstacle before he can be wed-- getting a job.  So he battles with his rival over getting a reporter's job at the local paper.

The strange part of the film is the editing.  Clearly, there are portions of this film left out.  It drops us in the middle of the story without context (which isn't so bad), there are cards for what we can tell from the context, but no cards for scenes that would be useful to have them.  It feels as if part of the story was cut out, it just feels perfunctory.  It turns out, the director admits that he purposely made cuts to Chaplin's role because he disliked Chaplin and wanted him to fail.  So, rivals both in front of and behind the camera.  Unfortunately, this did little to improve Lehman's role, either.

Despite this, Chaplin still shines.  Somehow, although his rival is the hard working, upright one, we root for Chaplin because the rival is more of a buffoon, and Chaplin is just more likable, although deceptive.  But this film isn't very funny, except for a couple scenes, and is sometimes confusing. What is clear that it isn't the fault of the performers, all of whom did well, but the director/editor.

This film shows up under many names, including Doing His Best or Busted Johnny.  


Kid Auto Races at Venice (February, 1914)

It is 101 years since the Tramp first made his appearance in this film.  From this time, the Tramp has been an icon, at times center in the world stage.  Hitler probably borrowed his mustache style from the Tramp, being a huge fan, which Chaplin used to great effect in The Great Dictator, at the other end of the Tramp's career.  Yet the Tramp's beginnings were small, an inside joke between two people, with him doing nothing more than mugging for the camera.

The plot is simple.  The Tramp is doing his best to get in front of the camera, posing, and Henry Lehrman, the director of the film, is doing his best to keep him out of it.  By itself, the film is kinda dull.  But the meta-meaning of the story is what really brings entertainment to it.
Just as background, the races were a "kids" version of the Vanderbilt Cup, an auto race of some importance in 1914 Santa Monica, CA. The children's version were mostly soap box races, using a ramp to give speed.  A few motorized cars were also used in a separate race.

As we saw in the last film, Making a Living, Lehman didn't care for Chaplin and tried to edit the better part of the star's role out of the film.  So here is a throwaway film, six and a half minutes (the "longer" version is simply the film twice in a row, as above), of Chaplin trying to force himself in front of the camera and Lehrman pushing him out of it.  To me, it is funny to think of them coming up with this film as the only one the two of them could agree upon.  It is also funny to think of the filming, where Lehrman is directing himself as a director, doing the same thing in front of the camera, beside a camera, which is also capturing Chaplin.

Unfortunately, I can't imagine it being too entertaining for the audiences watching it for the first time in 1914.  This film isn't given great applause, and certainly Chaplin's performance is relatively poor.  It isn't even the first time the Tramp was filmed, because the movie Mabel's Strange Predicament, which also stars the Tramp, was filmed first.  This short was released first, though, so it is given first credit.

4/5, just as an inside joke.