SLAPSTICON – day 1
The grades are now up through Day 3 of this 4-day fest. Here’s thoughts on the first day of films.
THAT SPRINGTIME FEELING (F. Richard Jones / Syd Chaplin, USA, 1915) 4
THE MISSING LINK (Chuck Reisner / Syd Chaplin, USA, 1927) 7
These two films — a short and a feature respectively — were 12 years apart in time and light years apart in sensibility and the “character” played by the movies’ 3rd-most-famous Chaplin. In the earlier much-simpler film, Syd plays a character with some strong resemblances to the Little Tramp. Mack Sennett obviously sent the Keystone crew out to a nearby park to film a reel’s worth of pratfalls — broad types jumping up and down, running into each other, knocking each other over the head. It’s not my favorite style of comedy, and frankly my reaction to early Sennetts is based on whether there any sustained sequences, any gags allowed to build and develop. FEELING has one, but it’s very good — involving Syd trying to seduce a young maid on a park bench, while trying to keep modesty in front of the toddler she’s minding. Brilliant timing, especially with the 2-year-old (you do wonder “how are they getting the kid to hit his cue”). LINK came much later as part of a Syd comeback after he retired to look after his brother’s business affairs. Here, he plays someone more indebted to Charley Chase than Charlie Chaplin — a klutzy bourgeois coward who’s terrified of animals. So the plot requires him to go off to Africa posing as a legendary huntsman, trying to capture the missing link. The show is stolen by the animals though — an organgrinder’s monkey at the beginning, and a chimpanzee when they get to Africa — and like with the toddler, you’re amazed at these creatures’ timing. Not that Syd is worthless — he does well overseeing a fight among an African tribe’s warriors as if it were a boxing match (gesturing “no clubbing below the belt,” say), and he’s not bad at some of the pratfall humor. But he never have the amazement factor that Akka the chimpanzee can, who acts one scene, of messing with Syd and love interest Ruth Hiatt, with mechanical precision of gesture and timing that would do a Feydeau farce proud.
STUPID BUT BRAVE (Fatty Arbuckle / Al St. John, USA, 1924) 8
Another of the “finds” for me at Slapsticon is how much more I enjoy Fatty post-scandal, as a director of other actors, than an actor himself (although I’d see my favorite acting work of his to date on Day 3). The plot is a little more complicated than a lot of 10s stuff — it involves poor young lad Al St. John getting his dream job (a funny sequence in itself) and then having to travel to claim it. But the gags are brilliantly and ingeniously set up with both the precision plot logic and an eye for audience anticipation and underplay that I like — as in a lengthy sequence at a barber shop. Fatty also has a good visual sense of where to place the camera and how to fill the frame to set up the joke and make the impossible look possible, as during that barber shop sequence, when I saw for the first time ever, a human head (Al St. John’s) do a 720-degree twist. One bit player — the boss’s secretary — steals the movie despite basically performing just three gestures — holding a door, a yawn, and a line to the camera. The line is not hard to lip-read, and frankly my dear, it came 15 years before Clark Gable
PLAY SAFE (Joseph Henabery / Monty Banks, USA, 1927) 7
Actually released near-simultaneously with Buster Keaton’s famous THE GENERAL, PLAY SAFE ends with a two-reel looks-like-location-shot chase involving a train — and horses and tram cars and a racing car and a man being dragged by a horse, plus running on top of the train and playing with the tracks. The sequence is is often anthologized and is fully the equal of Keaton’s train chase in terms of kinetic energy, sustained suspense, athleticism and inventive gags. My favorite gags involved a water tower and the race car. And if you’ve ever wanted to see a man outrun a dog, unfaked, this movie is your chance. But the rest of the movie is not in THE GENERAL’s class. Monty Banks plays a nebbish who becomes a man — again, rather like Buster, and it invites an impossible standard of comparison. He’s not as sympathetic and he doesn’t have That Stone Face. And in fairness to PLAY SAFE, it was hard to judge the plot because the setup reels got scrambled. But that closing chase scene belongs with the greatest ever.
MANY SCRAPPY RETURNS (James Parrott / Charley Chase, USA, 1927) 8
It was a very good first day, as I think I also saw one of Charley Chase’s best (LIMOUSINE LOVE is the only one I’d rank ahead of it). Charley and his wife are happy, while his brother is unhappy in his quarrelsome marriage (My favorite exchange of the weekend: “Why did you ever get on you knees and propose? … If I was sober enough to stand up, I’d have known better.”) Charley and wife decide to fake a fight to embarrass them back. Of course, things go further than intended and lap over into other relationships — it’s like a merry-go-round that caroms off its supports, leaving Charley increasingly flustered and desperate and inventively scheming. Their initial quarrel has a couple of quick gestures — let’s just say they involve some currency notes — that go far toward demonstrating how even in a hurtling torrent of physical movement and “flow,” one quick moment of “ebb” can be the funniest thing in the movie.
CHICKEN FEATHERS (Walter Graham / Jack Duffy, USA, 1927) 6
Not bad at all for an unscheduled time-filler involving nobody I knew anything about. It’s the simplest of premises — not-all-there old grandpa hides $5,000 in a pillow that someone else in the house gives away to a charity sale, only to have one of the sale organizers salvage it, then give it to someone else, etc., like “THE PILLOW OF MADAME DE …” It wasn’t innovative or the first time I’d seen it at all (and even far more elaborately), but one neat small-things-around-the-edges feature of the Christie Comedies is how their titles cards use chalk stick-figure drawings (think Simon and the Land of Chalk Drawrings) to illustrate and better yet comment on the drama. Coming to my mind from CHICKEN FEATHERS, when we get the title card saying “I gave the pillow to so-and-so,” the drawing has someone throwing a pillow at someone else, as if in frustration (something which does not happen in the film). FEATHERS as a whole is consistently amusing and entertaining (if never exactly brilliant), and in a massive pillow fight near the end so covers one character with feathers that he has to deal with an inamorata from the local ostrich farm. “I’m just an old rooster,” he protests.
BRIDAL BAIL (George Stevens, USA, 1934) 5
Another unscheduled filler, expertly done though trading on a very thin premise. Girl and boy want to elope but then, after a complicated series of machinations, she marries her boy’s best friend as part of a ruse to allow her to marry her boyfriend (don’t ask). BRIDAL BAIL is fine when it sticks to the conventions of boudoir farce, misunderstandings, hair-breadth switcheroos and keeping up appearances. But I kept telling myself after the marriage, “why are they resorting to games THIS elaborate and desperate to keep knowledge of the marriage from the boyfriend.” And then to have him be so understanding sand have everything cleared up so quickly and simply when the script and the reel length requires the movie end. In other words, we have a specimen of the idiot plot.
CALLING ALL TARS (Lloyd French / Bob Hope, USA, 1935) 3
LET’S FACE IT (Sidney Lanfield / Bob Hope, USA, 1943) 4
Can’t say these films turned me into more of a Bob Hope movie fan. (True fact: I have never seen any of the Road pictures.) The short TARS has a couple of cute moments involving Hope and semifore (which is not followed up on) and co-star Johnny Berkes with gunpowder. But it’s completely disposable and is before Hope really shaped his standup persona. LET’S FACE IT is obviously not much better (4-vs.-3), Hope himself used it as fodder for “bad film” jokes and the film is also little-seen because of Copyright Limbo. But FACE at least has a couple of critical points worth making. There is a couple of wonderful Cole Porter songs — Betty Hutton’s performance of the debate-spread song “Let’s Not Talk About Love” is probably the film’s high point. And here, I finally saw what Woody Allen was getting at when saying he modeled his own persona in LOVE AND DEATH and other early films on Hope (something that made no sense to me from Hope’s standup). But I can truly say I will never forget this movie, and not for the best of reasons. The plot involves a scheming Hope as an Army soldier getting into debt and having to dig his way out of it, in order to marry and avoid the brig. So he gets a committment from a local dowager that he and two of his buddies will, for $300 (Hope also plans to bilk his buddies out of their share), “spend some time” with her and two of her elderly friends. Three girlfriends and three husbands with three young babes of their own complicate matters on the rendezvous time. Formally, it’s generally not very well handled; not as lickety-split as it needed to be. But this premise, which drives the movie’s whole second half, just felt so … weird. I’d be willing to bet there never was another studio-era American comic film premised on a basically sympathetic (if rascally) leading character turning himself and his best buds into prostitutes. If another such film exists, I’m unaware of it and frankly can’t even imagine its existence (FACE is also post-Hays-Code, keep in mind). It made the whole experience of the film … ill-fitting.
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