Charlie Chaplin in A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN (1916) – Essanay’s burlesque on Chaplin’s contract

Carmen

This movie was intended to be Chaplin’s spoof on both Bizet’s famous opera Carmen and a popular contemporary film of the opera. Sadly, it was tampered with after Chaplin left Essanay; its two reels were expanded to four, via a dreadfully unfunny subplot involving cross-eyed Ben Turpin as the leader of a gypsy gang.

Thus, it’s difficult to judge what Chaplin’s own version would have amounted to. However, based on the extant footage here, parody isn’t primary upon Chaplin’s mind. More likely, Chaplin intended to get laughs by placing his usual stomach-kicking slapstick (and there are stomach kicks galore here) within the context of a high-culture opera.

As such, the quality of the comedy is rather in-and-out. Edna Purviance makes a plausibly seductive Carmen next to Chaplin’s Don Jose, and when the comedy fits (as with an extended sword fight between Don Jose and a gypsy), it fits perfectly. On the other hand, Chaplin’s usual comedy method of transposition doesn’t always work here. Two examples: When Carmen lies down in Don Jose’s lap to woo him, Don Jose unthinkingly rests his elbow on her chest while carrying on in conversation. That’s funny. But later, when Don Jose kills a man, he casually rubs the man’s arm for any faint sign of life and then turns the rubbing into an all-out massage. What’s the point of massaging a dead man?

The massage gag underlines the Mel Brooks-like “We’re only kidding, folks” aspect of the parody, as does the final scene, where Don Jose furiously murders Carmen with his dagger and then stabs himself as well. At first, the scene is played straight, and Chaplin plays the rage-and-remorse so plausibly, you forget you’re watching a comedy. Then, the movie’s ending takes great pains to show Don Jose and Carmen springing back to life, with Don Jose showing us that his dagger is made of rubber, and with everyone laughing cutely for the fade-out. Of course, one doesn’t expect a real murder in a Chaplin farce, but one doesn’t expect a cop-out ending, either.

The few seconds prior to movie’s end showed how well Chaplin could truly play drama. A few years and studios later, he’d be doing this sort of thing in earnest.

OUR WIFE (1931) – Don’t Laurel & Hardy make a cute couple?

ourwife

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Who says Laurel & Hardy don’t have subtext? The gist of Our Wife is that Ollie is eloping with his fiancee (Babe London). Watch Stan’s face when Ollie reminds him that he’s the “best man.” It could well be the first time in his life that Stan was best anything.

Our Wife is amiable middle-level L&H — not a classic along the lines of The Music Box or Helpmates, but still a sure-fire laugh-getter. For me at least, the reason it’s denied classic status is the horrible cutaway shots to Ollie’s wedding cake being gradually ravaged by more and more flies. (Couldn’t somebody have put a glass cover over the blankety-blank thing?) Ollie eventually chastizes Stan for spraying bug spray on the cake to eradicate the flies, but by that time, we in the audience are gratified that somebody did something to relieve our nausea.

There’s also the movie’s middle section, where Stan, Ollie, and Ollie’s bride try to squeeze themselves into a getaway car that’s slightly larger than a Matchbox model. (Those who think Laurel had no directorial finesse should view the movie’s first shot of the car sitting quietly under a street light, followed by Ollie’s bride coming into the shot and towering over the car.) The scene is a bit drawn-out (which is more than one can say for the car), though it’s still a hoot. (The car was probably crowded as soon as Stan got into it — it never occurred to him that two plus-sized people might not fit into it easily??)

The final scene at the preacher’s office is a nice, near-freak ending. No physical distortions here, but there is the parson’s wife (Blanche Payson, who gave her all in a single still shot in Helpmates) punching a deserving Stan in the chin, and cross-eyed preacher Ben Turpin performing a most unusual wedding (at least for 1931). (Let’s put it this way — the conservatives in “red states” probably won’t enjoy the joke.)

SAPS AT SEA (1940) – Laurel & Hardy blow their own horns

sapsatsea

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

As the final film of Laurel & Hardy’s Hal Roach era, one wants to like Saps at Sea more than one eventually does. It’s not as painful as, say, Utopia, but there’s certainly an awful lot of filler here — no small feat for a movie only 57 minutes long. Critics of L&H used to say that their weaker features suffered from “padding.” This one has enough padding to serve as L&H’s exploding mattress in They Go Boom!

The, er, story here is that Stan and Ollie work at a horn factory, and the loud noise from the horns eventually drives Ollie to a nervous breakdown. Reaching, maybe, but still plausible. But as soon as Ollie’s boss tells him to go home and relax, and Stan and Ollie leave the factory, laboriousness ensues. Stan and Ollie’s car horn gets stuck, and Stan semi-wrecks the car in his efforts to stop the horn, while a crowd of onlookers laugh at his antics.

(It’s an unwritten law of cinema that the harder on-lookers laugh at the on-screen comic, the less funny his antics are; witness Jerry Lewis’s Hardly Working, where dozens of extras seem to have been hired for the sole purpose of guffawing at The Star.)

The situations at Stan and Ollie at their apartment are pretty mechanical, too. Ollie’s doctor (James Finlayson!) makes Ollie use his “lung tester,” a balloon that you know in a second is there only to explode the apartment. Then the apartment gadgets go haywire — water comes out of the left faucet when the right one is turned on, the refrigerator plays music while the radio freezes over, etc., etc., ad nauseum. L&H seem to be rehearsing some unsung 20th Century-Fox writers for future material here.

Things get a little livelier when Stan and Ollie board a dockside boat to calm Ollie’s nerves. An escaped killer named Nick (Rychard Cramer) hides out on the boat, which is inadvertently set to sea, and Nick “shanghais” Stan and Ollie. Cramer, whose best-known previous L&H stint was as the hostile judge in Scram!, is definitely one of the most memorable L&H villains ever. His scenes provide suspense and hilarity.

Even for its offhandedness, Saps at Sea provides some nice moments of nostalgia, including the final L&H appearances of Finlayson, Charlie Hall, and Ben Turpin. It even ends with Ollie telling Stan, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” (You think this is a nice mess, Ollie? Wait until you get to Twentieth Century-Fox!)

 

Charlie Chaplin in A NIGHT OUT (1915) – Wait for it…

NightOut

Appearances aren’t what they seem to be. If you’ve never seen A Night Out, the publicity photos and such would suggest that it’s a silly movie about two roundabouts (Chaplin and Ben Turpin) having a very drunken night out on the town. And the first half or so of the movie shows them doing just that – and that’s the most tedious part of the movie. This part of the plot comes to life only when the duo’s very assertive headwaiter (Bud Jamison, looking like an early role model for Eric Campbell) forcibly ejects first Ben and then Charlie from his restaurant for their disruptive behavior.

(There’s nothing particularly funny about the way Ben and Charlie are drunk, by the way. They start out as bosom buddies, then as soon as they start to get into a little trouble, Charlie ditches Ben as quickly as he can.)

What perks things up is when Ben and Charlie head for their hotel room. Across the hall from them alights a pretty girl (all hail the movie debut of Edna Purviance). Edna quickly enters her room. Charlie kicks Ben into their room and then knocks on Edna’s door, hoping to make a little time with her. Alas, Edna is married – and her husband is the headwaiter who threw Charlie out! As soon as the headwaiter makes his appearance, Charlie knows when he’s licked – without further ado, he packs his bags and heads for another hotel, Ben be damned!

After another long strand of plot (please don’t make me cough it up here, it’s too painful) comes the other gem of this short: Charlie and Edna end up, albeit most innocently, in Charlie’s room in their pajamas, when Bud calls for his wife! The reactions and timing here are just what the doctor ordered, and they show that, little by little, Chaplin was getting at something on his own that he couldn’t have gotten in the more frenetic Keystone atmosphere. It takes a while to get to the highlights of this short, but they’re more than worth the wait.

Charlie Chaplin in HIS NEW JOB (1915) – Autobiography as comedy

Chaplin

As Chaplin’s first short for Essanay Studios, His New Job can’t help seeming self-referential in several ways: first, with the film’s self-deprecating title; and second, with the plotline that has Charlie applying for a job at Lockstone Studios (an obvious kick-in-the-pants to his former employer).

Otherwise, the storyline won’t seem unfamiliar to anyone who saw Chaplin’s Keystone shorts A Film Johnnie and The Masquerader: The movie offers a supposed behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Chaplin movie, while Charlie-the-character wreaks havoc within the studio. And yet, just within the movie’s first few minutes, the familiar scenario seems more relaxed in Chaplin’s hands.

To be sure, there is plenty of slapstick violence, but somehow it seems more motivated than it was at Keystone. When Ben Turpin enters the scene as Charlie’s job rival, he’s just as malicious as Charlie and therefore deserves a lot of the harsh treatment he gets. (By the way, the byplay between Chaplin and Turpin throughout the film is hilarious, capped by a superb closing shot in which a semi-conscious Turpin tries to get up and strike Charlie but flounders like a fish.) When Charlie walks through the filming of a movie and mucks it up, it’s funny, but he does it by accident, innocently, rather than nastily gumming things up just because he can.

There are superb scenes and sight gags throughout, and sometimes Chaplin gets laughs strictly from non sequitors; when Charlie is made to dress up in a soldier’s uniform to act in a scene, he completes the dressing-up and then, just to top off the masquerade, salutes to nobody; when he’s finished his role and doesn’t even realize how much he has messed things up, he continues to ham it up to his own satisfaction. His New Job is a very satisfying start to…his new job.

Trivia: Gloria Swanson, in one of her earliest film roles, can be seen as the stenographer at Chaplin’s left at the beginning of the movie.