Charlie Chaplin in BY THE SEA (1915) – A comedy that’s all wet

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

By the Sea is a slight improvement over Chaplin’s only other Essanay one-reeler, In the Park. But like its predecessor, this “short” short has too many characters for its own good.

Among them: a man (Billy Armstrong) whose fight with Charlie begins over the entanglement of their hats; a girl to flirt with (Edna Purviance); the girl’s burly husband (Bud Jamison); and of course, a couple of cops. The best scene is probably where Charlie simultaneously flirts with Edna while having to keep knocking Billy unconscious.

The final shot perfectly encapsulates the movie’s possibilities and disappointments. In a brief frieze, Charlie, briefly oblivious to reality, sits in the middle of a park bench, and all of the people he has antagonized surround him. It’s a lovely shot, full of anticipation. Then the cop-out ending: Charlie looks up and sees his enemies, and the park bench collapses. As does the movie.

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BIG BUSINESS (1929) – Laurel & Hardy can’t see the forest for the Christmas trees

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Charlie Chaplin said in 1957: “Then there’s the gag about the man who goes to a very pompous dinner party. Everything goes wrong for him. The butler gets his name wrong; his neighbor at table drops butter on his coat; the serving maid pours soup down his neck. He suffers it all with a smile and polite reassurances: ‘Oh, please don’t bother — it’s quite all right.” Then finally, after the last indignity, he goes berserk, runs wildly around the room, breaking the china, scaring the guests, and at last, setting fire to the place.”

In a slightly altered form, that sums up Laurel & Hardy’s Big Business. The put-upon man is James Finlayson; the “pompous dinner party” is Stan and Ollie, who can’t hawk a Christmas tree at Finn’s door without getting it and/or their clothing caught in his door a dozen times or so. Just when all parties seemed to have escaped with their dignity, Stan gets a “big business” idea: He returns to Finn’s door and asks him, “Can we take your order for next year?”

This is too much for Finn. He briefly exits and returns with a pair of hedge-clippers, the better to denude Stan and Ollie’s tree. Stan evens the score by removing the street number from Finn’s house, and they’re off to the races.

This movie is a feast for Laurel & Hardy buffs and an acid test for the uninitiated. This mutual give-and-take — known as “reciprocal destruction” to L&H veterans — leave most others wondering what’s so funny. Probably what’s so funny is its single-mindedness of purpose. Each party is so intent on doing violence to the other that they don’t even keep score after a while. Stan throws pottery out for Ollie to bat with a shovel, while Finn tears their car apart piece by piece. Even the cop (Tiny Sandford) who eventually intrudes can’t bring himself to stop the whole thing immediately; the battle is so incredulous and ongoing, he figures he might as well sit and keep score for a while.

Laurel & Hardy rarely got down-and-dirty on a Marx Brothers level, so it’s all the more fun to see them freed of their usual inhibitions and self-imposed sense of dignity. Ostensibly, Big Business is about Laurel & Hardy selling Christmas trees, but in the end, you get the feeling that they’d rather just destroy their customers’ houses.

LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE (1939) – Popeye gets advice from a parrot

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After getting a major guilt trip upon seeing the caged animals at Olive Oyl’s Pet Shop, Popeye buys the lot of them and sets them all free. The only animal that doesn’t leave is a parrot, who conveys his thoughts about freedom to Popeye via the title tune.

A strange sense of melancholy permeates this cartoon, especially from the idea that usually-street-wise Popeye thinks he can help the animals by abandoning them in the street. It’s a sorry day when a talking parrot has more savvy than Popeye.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCan

Buster Keaton in ONE WEEK (1920) – How not to build a house

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The following is my contribution to Shorts! A Tiny Blogathon, hosted May 2-4, 2015 by the blog Movies Silently. Click on the banner above, and read bloggers’ critiques of short subjects from the dawn of film through 1970!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

“To sit through dozens and dozens of short comedies of the period and then to come upon One Week is to see the one thing no man ever sees: a garden at the moment of blooming.” –Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns

One Week was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008, and it darn well deserves it. This is the way to start a solo movie career.

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The movie begins with an astonishing scene in which Buster and his new bride (Sybil Seely) move themselves from one moving car to another in order to avoid the advances of Hank the chauffeur (who just happens to be Mrs. Buster’s ex-boyfriend). The scene works like a cinematic Moebius strip, as the couple exits the second moving car, conks a cop on the head so that the traffic will allow the first moving car to advance in their direction, frames Hank for the cop-bopping, and then re-enter the first car as if nothing had happened. And this is a throwaway gag. Never mind Keaton’s superlative physical gifts; a director (Keaton co-directed with Eddie Cline) who starts off a movie that spectacularly has nerves of steel.

The crux of the story is the couple’s attempt to put together a do-it-yourself house from a kit they received as a wedding gift from Buster’s uncle. We already have misgivings when we see Buster saw off the end of a beam on which he’d been sitting, one story above the ground.

A harbinger of things to come.

A harbinger of things to come.

Then jealous Hank sneaks in and sabotages the kit, and from then on, it’s quite clear that Buster would have been better off if his uncle had just bought him a toaster.

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The biggest and funniest sight gag is the completed, deformed house, which endlessly produces gags like a slot machine spewing out coins. One can imagine Keaton viewing a house from all angles like a prism, uncovering every building-a-house gag imaginable. (In some of the set-ups and in Keaton’s spectacular stunts, one can also see the genesis of the wild climax of Keaton’s final independent movie, Steamboat Bill Jr.)

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Praise should also be given to Sybil Seely who, as Buster’s bride, makes the first of five appearances with Keaton. Most of the Keaton canon is not very complimentary to women (perhaps reflecting Keaton’s contentiousness with “real” women in the 1920’s and ’30s). By contrast, Seely is sunny and holds her own with Keaton here. When Buster is baffled by the house’s awkward construction, or when a raging storm turns the house into a frantic merry-go-round, Seely truly seems a partner with Buster, trying to help him or sharing in his sorrows. She grounds the movie in domestic bliss, which makes the more farcical elements that much more plausible.

(There’s also a funny non sequitor where a naked Seely is about to step out of a bathtub, when suddenly an anonymous hand helpfully covers the camera lens to help Seely avoid embarrassing herself. Keaton would probably have called this “directorial commentary.”)

Whoops!

Whoops!

In a New Yorker article celebrating the centennial of Keaton’s birth, critic Anthony Lane gave up all pretense to modesty and called One Week “a strong candidate for the perfect short subject.” I’m not prone to such superlatives, but every time I watch the movie, I’m less and less inclined to disagree with Lane.

(If you have enjoyed this blog, I heartily invite you to visit The Love Nest – A Buster Appreciation Cult, my online, encyclopedic tribute to Keaton’s glorious silent movies from 1920 to 1928. Click here to visit.)

My interview with cartoon director Chuck Jones – February, 1988

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It’s amazing, what you can get in life if you only ask.

I had admired the work of Chuck Jones (creator of The Road Runner and Pepe LePew) ever since I became one of those movie nerds who read credits. The interview below was obtained after only a couple of calls to the office of Jones’ daughter Linda (who was handling her father’s cartoon work at the time). I freely admit that the interview didn’t set the animation world on fire, but it was certainly one of the highlights of my life.

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Steve Bailey: So how does it feel to have influenced an entire generation of filmmakers?

Chuck Jones: Well, I don’t like to look at it that way. If you start to take yourself very seriously, you don’t go very far. When one of my colleagues was given an Academy Award, he said, “What do I do now? I’ve earned the highest honor possible. There’s nowhere else to go.” And you have to think, Well, it’s just an award!

SB: But certainly you’re aware of your influence, when you can go to a record store and buy a Leon Redbone album with your drawing on the cover, or you see a Mel Brooks movie [Spaceballs] where an alien sings the same song your frog sang [in Jones’ 1955 cartoon One Froggy Evening].

CJ: I’d say I did a lot of good cartoons that were enjoyed by a lot of people, and someone else pegged me as an “artist.” We certainly didn’t regard ourselves as artists when we were doing them — we were making films that we thought would last maybe two or three years. We didn’t know what the audience wanted. And it probably still doesn’t know what it wants — this business of testing and marketing is pretty silly. We made the pictures for theaters, and for ourselves.

SB: Well, then, let’s say your cartoons had an impact on people. Were you aware of an impact when you were making them?

CJ: Oh, no. In fact, when UPA [creators of Mr. Magoo] first came about, their P.R. man decided they needed an enemy, so he said, “Our enemy is Disney. We’re doing ‘modern’ animation, and we’re against fuzzy animals.” Well, we never did fuzzy animals to begin with — you can hardly draw them. But people were impressed with UPA, and so all the local schools hired people from UPA. They never bothered with us. We were recognized in Europe long before we were in the United States, and I think the Californians were the last to notice.

SB: What’s the most surprising response you ever received to your work?

CJ: To be asked to lecture at Oxford is pretty startling. But then again, they’re all pretty startling. I don’t know how many languages we’ve been translating into. I saw a comic strip of the Coyote once in Copenhagen. It was a printed comic where the Coyote is falling, and as he fell off the cliff, he was saying in big letters, “HJELP!” I said, “What do you know? We can write in Danish!”

SB: What does an animation director do?

CJ: It depends on where he works — a director at Warners didn’t work the same way as at M-G-M. At Warner Bros., you’d work with a writer, though you’d find that you’d have to be about half of your own story department. Most of the writers at Warners didn’t draw very well, and really, I didn’t want them to — I wanted them for storylines and gags.

After we finished the story — and of course it wasn’t really finished, just like a director isn’t finished just because he has a script — then I’d take the storyboard into my room. And I’d ask Maurice Noble [Jones’ layout artist at Warners] to do “inspirational” sketches to see what worked visually. I’d do three or four hundred drawings myself, out of a cartoon with maybe four thousand drawings, and then I’d write the dialogue. Then I’d call in Mel Blanc [legendary voice artist for most of Warners’ cartoon characters] and direct him with the dialogue.

Then I’d time it before it went to animation. This is the part that amazes directors like Steven Spielberg. They can’t see how we’d do it. We’d time it in our heads so that it would come out pretty close to 540 feet, the average length of a six-minute cartoon. We had to time it ourselves, because we didn’t have the luxury of shooting it and then not using it, as was done at Disney. The director makes all the decisions.

SB: Is the humor in your cartoons based on your triumphs and failures?

CJ: Totally. Where else can you go for inspiration? You act on what you know. I’d like to think I’m Bugs Bunny or Pepe LePew, but in my heart I know I’m more like Daffy Duck or the Coyote. Or take the Grinch [from Jones’ 1966 TV special based on Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas]. Everyone hates Christmas a little. Someone who hates Christmas a lot is a real character find!

SB: What amused or influenced you when you were growing up?

CJ: Mostly reading — anything. My father always said, “If you read, you’ll get in the habit.” If you read The Bobbsey Twins, you’ll probably throw up. But in doing so, you’ll discover what is good. Beatrix Potter, on the other hand, is wonderful and can be read by children and adults, and that’s the key. If you try to write just for children, you’ll talk down to them, and I don’t think that’s the way to go.

SB: What sort of comedy do you find funny?

CJ: I loved Chaplin and Keaton. We didn’t consciously copy them, but a lot of it got in there, I guess. City Lights and Modern Times are two of my all-time favorite comedies, but then Chaplin started regarding himself as an artist and trying to be profound. I’m not even sure The Great Dictator is good social commentary, much less comedy. Woody Allen was wonderful until he tried to become Ingmar Bergman, and that’s a pity, because there aren’t enough talented comics around.

SB: There seems to be a resurgence of high-quality animation in the past few years. Do you think animation will ever return to the level it was when you were working at Warner Bros.?

CJ: Well, it’s possible — there are some great things going on. You have guys like Ralph Bakshi [Fritz the Cat] and Don Bluth [Anastasia] doing some wonderful things. I may not like a guy’s particular style, but if he likes animators, I’ll follow him to the end. I liked The Duxorcist [Daffy Duck’s 1987 “comeback” cartoon], but it was rather imitative of the old style. You have to find something new.

SB: Your work seems to reflect your philosophies. Do you subscribe to any particular religion or philosophy?

CJ: Oh, no. As the man once said, I have some suppositions but no facts. I prefer to live with the questions.

SB: If you had a choice, would you do anything differently?

CJ: No, not at all. You know, I don’t get residuals from my movies or videocassettes of my work, but it’s silly to complain about not making money from it. All those years, somebody paid me for what I wanted to do!

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Charlie Chaplin in CAUGHT IN A CABARET (1914) – Another discount Count

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Chaplin plays a not-so-great cabaret waiter. During his break, Charlie fights off a man who is bothering a woman (Mabel Normand), and she gratefully invites Charlie to her home, where he announces himself as a Greek ambassador.

(Charlie’s business card helpfully explains: “O.T. Axle – Ambassador to Greece.” This posing-as-a-count/ambassador/officer routine got heavy mileage in silent comedies [see also Chaplin’s Mutual short The Count]; the closest thing I’ve seen to it in modern movies is the Count in the Coen Bros.’ Intolerable Cruelty [2003]. One wonders how often this ruse was tried in real life and if anyone outside of silent movies was ever fooled by it.)

Anyway, Mabel’s parents are impressed enough by the fake Count to invite him to Mabel’s garden party. Meanwhile, Mabel’s jealous lover (Harry McCoy) follows Charlie back to work to discover his true origins. After Charlie becomes the hit of the party before returning to work, the lover “casually” suggests to the other party guests that they go “slumming” at a local cabaret. Charlie briefly tries to keep up the Count ruse, but it’s all over once Mabel beats him unconscious.

As always, Chaplin’s sheer force of personality puts the silly “farce” element across, at least until the ending. We know perfectly well what’s going to happen; couldn’t Chaplin have pulled just one more trick out of his sleeve – maybe, him crossing paths with a real Count who helps him complete the ruse – just to relieve the finale of its predictability?