Friday, February 22, 2013

The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)

Coming between the frothy cinematic confection of TO CATCH A THIEF and the lavish, suspenseful remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY easily gets lost in the shuffle. A droll, quirky and off-beat film from the Master of Suspense, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY is actually a pleasant little black comedy, with some charming performances set against gorgeous production values (especially the location shots of Vermont in the fall).

Despite the darkness of the premise (a dead body is found and several innocent people believe they are responsible), THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY displays Hitchcock's penchant for comedy which was really present in his films all along. The film is aided by strong performances all around, including veterans Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick, and newcomer Shirley MacLaine.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY ultimately feels like a throwback to Hitchcock's earlier, British films, which often reflected a more diverse approach from their director in the days before he became so strongly identified with the suspense film. The comedy recalls moments of films such as THE FARMER'S WIFE and RICH AND STRANGE, with their emphasis on quirky characters and charming domestic humor. The humor won't be to everyone's taste, but to those who like their comedy on the dark side, it works.

While the film can be considered something of a low-key, minor work coming between much larger and commercially mainstream efforts, one still clearly detects the assured hand of a master filmmaker working at his peak period of creativity.

Continued Look at the Chaplin-Keystones, Part 3

This is a good example of Chaplin dealing with subject matter that he'd worked with earlier in his tenure at Keystone, and giving a fresh spin on the material using what he'd learned in the intervening months. The premise is very simple: Chaplin and Chester Conklin play a couple of love-starved fellows on the search for pretty girls to flirt with.

It begins in a boarding house, where Charlie and Chester take turns flirting with a young woman. When Chester beats him to it, Charlie responds by sticking him in the rear with a fork. While this kind of material had been played to death in numerous earlier Keystones, Chaplin imbues it here with an inventiveness and subtlety not usually seen before. Before sticking Chester with the fork, he makes a number of subtle gestures with the utensil to emphasize its sharpness (all photographed in close shot). Similarly, when Chester retaliates in-kind, Charlie has the foresight to move himself away from the doorway to avoid the inevitable retribution.

It's little bits of business like this that make this otherwise standard stuff amusing here. The film then moves outdoor to a park, where Charlie runs afoul of a jealous boyfriend after he catches Charlie flirting with his girlfriend. Charlie is so love-sick that the sight of Chester flirting with a girl he's met is enough to drive him to jumping in the lake, but he's stopped at the last moment by a cop. Just when the viewer is expecting the situation to devolve into a fracas with everyone ending up in the lake, the scene shifts to another location. Charlie and the two girls he's met go into a little movie theater, where they are tracked by Chester and another jealous lover. In a memorable closing, Charlie is thrown through the movie screen.

Though it's a simple pleasure and not a laugh riot, THOSE LOVE PANGS represents a step forward for Chaplin in terms of performance and cinematic technique.

If THE NEW JANITOR had marked a new highpoint for Chaplin the performer and director, DOUGH AND DYNAMITE reinforces that he was making strides with each new film. Frequently cited as perhaps the funniest of the Chaplin-Keystone comedies, DOUGH AND DYNAMITE is a two-reeler, giving greater "breathing room" to develop the comedy.

Its setting is a bakery, where Charlie is a waiter. When we first see him, he is clearing plates away, and thoughtlessly dumps the scraps from one plate onto a diner's plate. He has some fun playing directly to the audience when flirting with a pretty girl and comparing her suggestive walk to a sign reading "Assorted French Tarts". There's plenty of slapstick in the kitchen involving fellow waiter Chester Conklin, whom Chaplin had worked so well with in his previous film. The two clearly have a lot of fun playing off of eachother, and it's little wonder that Chaplin would employ Conklin again later in his career, so memorably as the mechanic in MODERN TIMES and as a barbershop customer in THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, the two demonstrate extraordinary timing together, perhaps best seen in a gag where Charlie is washing dishes and, rather than waiting till Chester is ready to take them and dry them with a rag, lets them repeatedly fall to the floor, breaking. It's a simple gag, not terribly clever in itself, but the way in which Chaplin and Conklin performs it makes it far funnier than it normally would be. Of course, each mishap is followed by slapping, shoving and general roughhousing. Like the interplay with John Rand in THE PAWNSHOP, it seems that Charlie and Chester find fighting to be as good a way as any to keep themselves entertained at work.

As a result of a pay dispute, the bakers go on strike. Charlie is all too willing to helpfully put on an apron and take over for them, causing one of the bakers to threaten him with a knife. This is not the last time Charlie is shown to value his own job over the cause of the striking workers. There's a similar plot device in the Mutual comedy BEHIND THE SCREEN, when Charlie's fellow stagehands go on strike, and a prop men's strike figures in the plot of THE CIRCUS, leaving Charlie to fill in and make a disaster of the magician's act.

Charlie and Chester fill in for the striking bakers, leading to a great sight gags such as Charlie carrying an over-size sack of flour on his back like a beast of burden, which he drops down into the cellar, crushing Chester. Later, Charlie has to balance a large tray of desserts on his head with almost superhuman precision. He does a remarkable job keeping the tray steady, but when one of the rolls drops to the floor, he absent-mindedly bends over to pick it up, causing the rest of the pastries to follow. There's also some fun with the trap door leading to the cellar, especially when Charlie gets his head stuck in the doors, with Chester mightily trying to pull him out. Chaplin would get more comic mileage out of the trap door setup in the later BEHIND THE SCREEN.

There's trouble when the striking bakers decide to blow up the bakery with dynamite in revenge. They stick the dynamite into a loaf of bread, which is sent into the shop and placed in the oven. Meanwhile, Charlie and Chester flirt with the various waitresses and, eventually, with the manager's wife. An argument breaks out between Charlie and the manager but is put to an end when the dynamite inevitably goes off, allowing Charlie to make his escape.

What's remarkable is how the second half of the film is structured so that the audience has a pretty good idea of how it will end (the inevitable explosion), but takes its time getting there, allowing for some extended comic interplay between Chaplin and Conklin. The two-reel format gives the film a relatively relaxed pacing compared to the frenetic pace a one-reeler would have demanded. Even with the longer format to work in, Chaplin is still eschewing unnecessary farcical plot twists, and is instead focusing on the inherent comic ideas offered by the set-up.

Like THOSE LOVE PANGS, GENTLEMEN OF NERVE returns to a familiar setting and premise - misunderstandings at a racetrack - and breathes new life into the material. It also features a stellar cast, including Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and Chester Conklin.

At the auto races, Chester (here playing "Mr. Walrus") delivers a swift kick to burly Mack Swain when he catches him flirting with his girlfriend, Mabel. But no sooner do they take their seats than Chester begins flirting with hatchet-faced Phyllis Allen. We next meet Charlie (playing "Mr. Wow-wow", probably an homage to the Fred Karno show). He agrees to help Swain sneak into the races, but has quite a time getting his mammoth frame through the opening in the fence.

Eventually, Charlie and Mabel find themselves together in the stands, and wander off to look at the cars. It's particularly fun seeing Chaplin interact with the real racecar drivers, being scared off by a propeller-driven car, and doing his trademark skidding run on the racetrack. When Chester comes across Charlie and Mabel flirting in the stands, Charlie kicks Chester into the crowd of bystanders, where he is led off by the police, and the film ends on a charming two-shot of Charlie and Mabel playfully smiling and laughing at the chaos that has gone down. It's a rare moment for a Keystone comedy but points in the direction that both Chaplin and Mabel Normand would go with their work.

The film has clear similarities with other Keystone films taking advantage of "public" events as a backdrop for the comedy, such as KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, MABEL'S BUSY DAY and A BUSY DAY, but is more polished in its blending of the comedy into the setting. Chaplin makes use of an excellent cast here, giving each performer plenty to do. Unlike in the previous "event" films, the performers never seem overwhelmed by the backdrop.

In his remaining Keystone comedies, Chaplin would continue to re-visit similar ideas and situations, many of which were standard plots at Keystone. Rather than feeling repetitive, these later efforts provides us with an interesting glimpse as to how he handled the material at various stages of his cinematic development.

Often compared to Laurel and Hardy's THE MUSIC BOX because of its premise of delivering an unwieldy piano up a flight of stairs, HIS MUSICAL CAREER is also of interest for its class-consciousness theme that Chaplin would return to again and again in his work.

Charlie and boss Mack Swain are given orders to deliver a piano to a Mr. Rich at 666 Prospect Street, and re-possess a piano from a Mr. Poor at 999 Prospect Street. Predictably, confusion ensues. The fun comes in seeing Chaplin and Swain in a prototypical version of the "David and Goliath" dynamic between boss and worker that he would explore several times again. He would return to this in the Essanay comedy WORK, where boss Charles Insley forces Charlie to pull the work cart like a mule, even whipping him when he doesn't move fast enough. In THE FLOORWALKER, THE FIREMAN, BEHIND THE SCREEN and THE COUNT, all made at Mutual, Charlie would play opposite burly Eric Campbell as the brutal boss, with Charlie always causing Campbell some kind of pain and coming out on top despite his disadvantage in size.

When the pair inevitably deliver the piano to the wrong address, they have to move it up a flight of stairs. It's impossible to watch this sequence now and not be reminded of the celebrated THE MUSIC BOX. But whereas Laurel and Hardy's piano seems to take on a life of its own, tormenting the two protagonists on almost mythic levels, the piano in HIS MUSICAL CAREER is simply cumbersome and unwieldy, its comic potential lying more in the physical difficulties of such a situation. Eventually, they get it up the stairs, with Charlie bringing the piano into the house by carrying it on his back while the residents take their time in deciding where to put it.

Next, they arrive at the home of Mr. Rich, believing they are to re-possess his piano for failure of payment. Finding no one home, they let themselves in. The irate Mr. Rich arrives, and when he demands to know where they are taking his piano, he gives them a swift kick that sends Mack, Charlie and the piano rolling down an incline and into the lake.

There is some very clever physical comedy in this film, especially the great sight gag of Charlie single-handedly carrying the piano, and throwing his back out, leaving him unable to stand upright. There is another moment when the cart carrying the piano becomes top-heavy, causing the mule, pulling the cart, to be lifted into the air. And the final shot, of the piano careening out of control as it zips down the sidewalk, is a strong topper to the slapstick that has come before.

HIS MUSICAL CAREER demonstrates Chaplin's talent for exploring the inherent comic possibilities in a simple set-up. He had really proven the effectiveness of this method back in KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, where he got such mileage out of the simple premise, compared to the heavy plotting of the previous film, MAKING A LIVING.

Chaplin would make three more shorts for Keystone, and would also see the release of TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, before the year was out, solidifying his place as a comedy superstar.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Continued Look at Chaplin's Keystone Comedies, Part 2

One of the strongest Chaplin-Keystones, THE MASQUERADER is notable as one of the times Chaplin performed in drag (quite convincingly) on film. The story is slight: Charlie is an actor at Keystone, and after botching a scene, is fired. He returns, in drag, playfully flirting with director Charlie Murray, in an effort to demonstrate what a good actor he really is. However, when his cover his blown, the irate director and the rest of the cast and crew give chase through the studio, which ends with Charlie being knocked down into a well during a brick-throwing battle.

Despite its relatively slight plot, THE MASQUERADER features one of Chaplin's best performances up to this point, particularly in his female impersonation. The film's opening scene has a gentle charm to it, with Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle in their dressing room engaging in some comic byplay. It's impossible to watch this scene and not get a sense of the respect and admiration these two men must have had for each other.

THE MASQUERADER is also notable as one of the Keystone comedies that looks behind the scenes of the studio. Chaplin had explored this territory before in A FILM JOHNNY, and would return to it again in his first comedy for Essanay, HIS NEW JOB, and perhaps most memorably in the later Mutual comedy, BEHIND THE SCREEN.

Something I hadn't noticed before this viewing: during the scene on the film set, there is deep focus shot that shows another company working on an adjoining stage in the background. It's little moments like these that make these "behind the scenes" Keystone comedies such an interesting glimpse into the workings of the studio.

In HIS NEW PROFESSION, we see Chaplin using the closeup very effectively to capture the subtle facial gestures of his performance. The opening scene (which is often misattributed to RECREATION for some reason) is a good example of this, with more nuanced facial gestures that the kind of grotesque mugging he demonstrated in earlier films such as BETWEEN SHOWERS and A FILM JOHNNY.

The premise finds Charlie, enjoying a relaxing afternoon in the park, recruited to look after Charley Chase's uncle, laid up in a wheelchair and suffering from gout so that Chase can spend some time alone with his girlfriend. Predictably, the old man is subject to all kinds of abuse; then Chase finds Charlie flirting with his girlfriend after almost rolling the uncle off the end of a pier, and chaos ensues as all involved get into a fight.

The film features some uncharacteristically cruel and mean-spirited humor, or at least a more extreme version of the brash, vulgar behavior we see of Charlie in these early films. Aside from the aforementioned physical abuse of the invalid uncle, there's the moment when Charlie, desperate for some quick change to get a drink, steals a crippled beggar's sign and collection cup to help raise the money by placing them with the uncle, fast asleep in his wheelchair.

One of the few times in his career in which Chaplin was actively "teamed" with another comedian, this is also one of the best. Chaplin shares the screen with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, playing a couple of inebriated gents ("Mr. Full" and "Mr. Fuller") who get into no end of misadventures in their intoxicated state. After domestic disputes with their respective spouses, the men head out on the town.

Chaplin's drunk act is comparable to his fine work in ONE AM and CITY LIGHTS, displaying a wonderfully precise performance that trades careful and deliberate physical comedy for roughhouse knockabout. His partnering with Arbuckle results in some particularly inspired clowning, their perfectly mis-matched sizes creating a strong comic contrast. A scene in which the drunken Charlie wreaks havoc in a cafe especially looks forward to the similar scene in CITY LIGHTS. It's easy to see Chaplin here developing material that he would expand and refine later on.

Unlike many of the Keystones which end quite abruptly (to be fair, this could be the result of battered prints), THE ROUNDERS ends with a fitting denouement, as the two inebriates, having been found out by their wives, dive into a lake, and fall asleep in a canoe, which sinks under their weight as they obliviously doze off.

And with THE NEW JANITOR, Chaplin becomes The Little Fellow. There had been strong hints of things to come in the films leading up to THE NEW JANITOR, from the dual identity mixup of CAUGHT IN A CABARET, to the "domestic" farce of MABEL'S MARRIED LIFE, to the nuanced performance of HIS NEW PROFESSION and THE ROUNDERS.

THE NEW JANITOR reveals what really separated Chaplin from the other clowns at Keystone: an emphasis on performance. Whereas other comics emphasized physical humor defined, in some cases, by a recognizable "type" (Arbuckle's size, Conklin's Walrus mustache, etc.), Chaplin reveals in THE NEW JANITOR an absolute total control over his performance, and introduces a new element of pathos to the comedy.

His byplay with brash, obnoxious elevator boy Al St. John early on establishes Charlie as the underdog, with the janitor forced to climb several flights of stairs after being refused a spot on the elevator. Rather than immediately attacking St. John in retaliation, Charlie seems to accept his station, however reluctantly, showing real signs of fatigue as he reaches the top of the stairs, suggesting that perhaps this is not the first time this has happened.

Chaplin then introduces another familiar element: the crooked boss. By making authority figures immediately suspect, Chaplin is again drawing a contrast between his character and those around him. He may be a poor janitor, but he does not resort to the crooked shenanigans of the more well-off upper management. It seems the manager owes a large gambling debt, and the audience immediately suspects he will be using company funds to pay it off.

There is a wonderful bit of business as Charlie enters the boss's office, knocking on the door to attract the boss's attention after he has already entered, before proceeding to accidentally spill trash on the floor while emptying out the wastepaper basket. Some wistful comic romance is introduced in the form of a pretty office girl, whom Charlie admires from across the room before absent-mindedly brushing her bottom with his feather-duster.

The crooked Luke Connor (Glen Cavender, later so memorable as the Yankee Captain Anderson in Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL) shows up at the office to collect the gambling debt. The boss promises him the money by close of business that day. Meanwhile, the oblivious Charlie is fired after accidentally spilling some water on the company president. Rather than retaliating with a kick to the stomach or a brick to the face, the scene is punctuated with only mild humor, instead emphasizing Charlie's disappointment at being let go. Chaplin remarkably blends some very funny pratfalls with the pathos of the situation, demonstrating his ability to move deftly between the two extremes in the same scene.

The boss, meanwhile, is absconding with the money to pay off his debt, when he is caught in the act by the office girl, who hides in the office to phone the police. The boss catches her, however, and begins to physically manhandle the girl, finally holding her at gunpoint. Charlie hears the commotion, and makes his way back up the stairs to the office, where he bravely confronts the thieving boss.

Charlie fires a warning shot out the window to get the attention of the police. However, when the officer shows up, he immediately suspects Charlie is the culprit, kicking him out into the hallway. The girl tells them the truth, showing Charlie to be a hero. The boss is led away by the police, while Charlie is given a reward by the grateful company president.

This ending reveals a move away from the wild slapstick finales typical of Keystone. Chaplin again heightens the audience's concern for his character by having him momentarily falsely suspected of the embezzlement, which also emphasizes the class concerns that were such an important part of Chaplin's mature work - the assumption being that the well-dressed, middle class boss couldn't possibly be guilty of theft, while Charlie's little janitor is proven to be of stronger character and integrity.

THE NEW JANITOR was the best film Chaplin had made up to that time, and demonstrates clearly the directions he would go as a mature artist, and its sharp contrast with the other product of the Keystone studio demonstrated his need for further creative control and independence.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Continued Look at Chaplin's Keystone Comedies

More than a year ago, I had begun writing reviews of the one- and two-reel comedies that Charlie Chaplin made for the Keystone studios, during the incredibly productive year of 1914, when he turned out no fewer than 35 comedies for the company, including the landmark feature film TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. (The previously published notes can be found by clicking on the label "Chaplin at Keystone", either at the footer of this post or in "labels" column on the right-hand side of the page).

Initially intended to be little more than notes of my impression of each film after watching them (on DVD, courtesy of the "Chaplin at Keystone" set produced by Flicker Alley), I found myself getting into greater and greater detail in writing about each short, which slowed the pace considerably. Combined with the fact that the amount of time I had to watch the films was becoming limited because of other commitments, I put this series on hold. However, I recently picked up where I left off watching the films last year, and have decided to resume posting my reactions to them, albeit in much shorter form, and combining several films in a single post.

These are not meant to be comprehensive critical essays on the films, nor are they production histories, but rather just brief impressions upon revisiting the formative work of this comic genius.

This is a particularly brutal little comedy that finds Charlie working as an assistant to Dr. Pain - though just what it is he does beside flirt with the pretty female patients is unclear. When a patient fails to wake up from the laughing gas, the dentist sends Charlie to the local pharmacy to pick up something to help revive him. While there, he proceeds to get into a fight with burly Mack Swain. A brick-throwing battle ensues, which knocks out Swain's teeth as well as those of innocent passerby Slim Summerville. Both men show up at Dr. Pain's office to have their remaining teeth fixed, and chaos ensues when Swain finds that his attacker was the dentist's assistant.

No stranger to dental surgery myself, dental humor is always good for some laughs with me - W.C. Fields' THE DENTIST being perhaps my favorite example, though Laurel and Hardy got some great mileage out of the situation in both LEAVE 'EM LAUGHING and PARDON US. More recently, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom had a wonderful dental scene together in THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN. And of course Steve Martin's turn in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is worth a mention. Here, Chaplin employs some painful looking processes to extract the broken teeth, straddling the poor patient and twisting the teeth out of his head with a massive set of pliers.

Overall, the whole film feels very much like a vaudeville routine, and it's easy to imagine this kind of thing being played on the stage, where the humor might come alive more with the exaggerated painful gasps and screams of the patient.

This seems to be one of the more celebrated Chaplin-Keystones, giving him ample room to play around behind the scenes of a vaudeville theater. He has some fun with the various theatrical types who come in, including a strong man by the name of Garlico. Their scenes together play like something of a dry-run for his interplay with Eric Campbell in the later BEHIND THE SCREEN, with the burly Garlico bossing around Charlie's property man and being on the receiving end of some of his more violent mishaps.

It's also slightly reminiscent of Keaton's later (and more sophisticated) THE PLAYHOUSE, right down to its set of performing twins. Chaplin's comedy plays out mostly behind-the-scenes, at least until he makes his way on stage and begins wrecking the performances. Finally, a hose is turned on the stage and eventually onto the audience (which includes a cameo by Mack Sennett as a typically wild and incredulous spectator).

THE PROPERTY MAN has been criticized for its meanness, particularly in regard to Charlie's bad treatment of the decrepit, elderly stage hand (who more than once ends up pinned under a heavy trunk). This is the sort of brash vulgarity and - even for its time - "insensitive" humor that Chaplin was exploring during his year at Keystone. Of course, he would later move away from this sort of outright aggressiveness, but traces of it remained in his mature work and were all the funnier precisely for the fact that they came out on much less frequent occasions.

Now this is a real deviation from the usual Keystone formula. A parody of the popular poem by Hugh Antoine D'Arcy, which tells of the downfall of an artist jilted by the model he loves when she falls for another man, the film must have seemed strange to audiences at the time. While it never goes nearly as far as later parodies of melodrama such as Fields' THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, there is a similarly strange quality to the film in that the story is largely played straight, punctuated only periodically by bits of slapstick or other comic business designed to yank the carpet out from underneath the dramatic proceedings. Rather than playing with form as Fields did in THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, Chaplin gives us a more or less straight send-up of the original work, perhaps more similar to Fields' affectionate kidding of that hoary old melodrama "The Drunkard" in THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY.

Structurally, the whole thing is told in flashback (the intertitles retaining the text of D'Arcy's poem), with Charlie, the broken down artist, telling his tale of woe to the other barflies in the corner tavern. The ending contains some trademark slapstick as he drunkenly attempts to scrawl the girl's face with chalk on the floor of the bar, drawing only a hilariously amateurish smiley face before being tossed out on his rear.

Perhaps not one of the funniest Chaplin-Keystone efforts, but an interesting effort and an attempt to do something different, reminiscent of the kind of parody Chaplin would explore again the following year with his BURLESQUE ON CARMEN.

One of the crudest and most disposable efforts from his year at Keystone, RECREATION feels very much like a "filler" film. In fact, it was released on a split-reel with a travelogue about Yosemite. Charlie flirts with a girl in the park, running afoul of her sailor boyfriend (appearing to be the same actor in the exact same costume and makeup who played the passed-out drunken sailor at the bar in THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR). A fracas ensues, the police intervene, and all involved end up in the lake.

Watching this one on the DVD set, the first thing that hits you is what awful shape the first few minutes of the source print are in, before switching to another source print of positively stunning quality. It's an excellent reminder of the need for proper preservation, as well as a reminder of how great these films can look when properly preserved and presented, compared to the atrocious dupes on public domain editions that have been making the rounds for years.

RECREATION is the kind of crude, throwaway effort that can sometimes, as Theodore Huff said of the later BY THE SEA, possess a certain "impromptu charm". RECREATION, however, feels rushed and sloppy, like an effort cranked out solely to satisfy a release schedule. These were clearly the kinds of production circumstances that Chaplin would react against when he achieved independence.