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The Kid

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The Kid (1921)

     I find it difficult to think of Charlie Chaplin as anything but a comedic actor, but one of his most notable films is in essence a drama. The Kid was the silent star’s first feature-length picture at one-hour in length. Associated First National Pictures was reluctant to let the moneymaker do a longer movie because it was making so much revenue off his quick-to-produce short subjects. The Kid proved highly successful, however, with Chaplin as writer, director, producer, star and score composer.

     An unwed mother (Edna Purviance) who is unable to care for her child leaves him in a car outside a mansion but is unaware a couple of hoodlums take off with the vehicle. When the men discover the screaming child in the back seat they leave him in a dingy alley where our hero, the Tramp (Chaplin), finds him. He initially tries to get rid of the baby, but ends up taking him home.

     Five years later the Tramp and the Kid (Jackie Coogan) have a great relationship working as scam artists. The Kid throws rocks to break windows, and the Tramp arrives just in time to offer the installation of new glass. They live in a run-down apartment in a run-down part of town but are obviously happy together. The Tramp turns out to be a fantastic caregiver who has not only educated his child to act as housekeeper and cook, but grooms the child somewhat like apes do.

     The mother has in the interim become a famous actress with plenty of money. She regrets abandoning her child and gives away toys to poor children in the Kid’s neighborhood, including to the Kid himself. When the boy becomes ill, the mother comes around to check on him and becomes involved in welfare services’ fight to put the boy in an orphanage. During her time in the Tramp’s home, she finds the note she left on her baby and makes the connection. She offers a reward for the boy’s recovery, and he is eventually taken from the Tramp and delivered to her. In the end, however, the woman adopts the Tramp as well.

     The Kid is marked by a variety of adventures shared by the Tramp and the Kid. The two are so in sync that despite their down-trodden lifestyle, we can see no better parent for the boy. Coogan dresses like his father figure with oversized, ragged pants and suspenders. The child actor really outshines Chaplin in many regards as his performance is so mature for his character. The actor was seven years old at the time of the film’s release, which makes his acting all the more impressive.

     Although The Kid is full of humorous moments, what will strike audience members the most are the dramatic efforts of the actors. Chaplin is admirable in the unlikely role of father and makes us feel the devotion with which he looks after his adopted son.

  • The Kid is set for 6:30 a.m. ET April 16 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne

Matchmaking Mama

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Matchmaking Mama (1929)

Carole Lombard made probably just as many or more silent movies and shorts as she did talkies, but unfortunately, the hilarity in Matchmaking Mama has nothing to do with her role. This short subject features Lombard as a socialite with an eye for men, any men. Her mother (Daphne Pollard) has her sights set on Larry (Matty Kemp) as a suitable husband for daughter Phyllis, who is also cast in a play that requires he kiss the young woman.

As rehearsals for this musical play go on at the home of matchmaking mother Cornelia McNitt, her husband bungles about and is clearly not at home in his house, which is run by tyrannical Cornelia. When Cornelia learns via telegram that her husband’s daughter is coming to visit from the convent she attends, the tiny woman is livid.

In a case of mistaken identity, Phyllis sends Larry to the kitchen to have the maid sew up a tear in his trousers. When he enters the room, however, he comes upon Sally McNitt (Sally Eilers), having just arrived from the convent, who is trying to pull a smoking pan from the oven using her skirt as oven mitts. The man is entranced by her legs, but being a very modest girl, Sally scurries about trying to figure out how to put the pan down without further exposing herself.

The two fall instantly in love, but a scene later, Larry spies Sally on her father’s lap kissing him, and mistakes the man for her sweetheart. That confusion is cleared up but when Cornelia learns of the romance, she tells Sally that Larry is engaged to Phyllis and is a horrible flirt. This leads Sally to cast the man off and both parties are terribly unhappy.

Pollard even without sound plays an intolerable small woman with the fury of someone twice her size. We can see easily from her interactions with others how dominant she is, and the witty dialogue of the intertitles does wonders for this comedy. You can see her at her vocal best in Laurel and Hardy’s Our Relations. The story is adorable and romantic; I only regret Lombard was not featured more prominently. Her glamorous side was certainly played up over her comedic possibilities. Matchmaking Mama also features a scene photographed in color. Technicolor made possible a limited dance routine scene that features a bunch of young women in green and red hues.

Mabel’s Married Life & Face on the Barroom Floor

Mabel’s Married Life (1914)

Gasser

Life is rough for the Tramp, but perhaps some of his follies can be blamed on his excessive drinking. Charlie Chaplin in his first year making movies subjected his star character to a lot of bar time. In the short Mabel’s Married Life, Chaplin collaborated with Mabel Normand in writing  and directing one of a handful of flicks that year that dealt with the predicaments of “Mabel”. Mabel and the Tramp get mixed up with another couple in this one as the bulky spouse of another makes advances toward Mabel while her husband is stealing booze at a bar. When the Tramp returns to find the two together, he punches the man in the dusty rear several times but gets no attention. He eventually dukes it out with the bloke but is already worse for the wear.

Later, to get back at her husband, Mabel purchases a mannequin and positions it inside their apartment so her drunk spouse will mistake it for another man. Although it takes a few minutes, the Tramp does eventually notice the “man” and finds himself berated by the wobbling dummy that once pushed comes careening back towards its foe. The situation becomes increasingly absurd as Mabel joins the argument and finds herself knocked about by the dummy.

Face on the Barroom Floor (1914)

The next short, Face on the Barroom Floor, was a difficult-to-follow tale of a man who spends half his time staggeringly drunk in a bar and the other half in his flat painting subjects. The best I can tell is that one man whose portrait he is constructing meets in passing the artist’s next subject, a lovely woman. The two eventually take off together and we learn that the woman was the Tramp’s girlfriend.

The most comical moments for me are the Tramp’s instances of oblivion with regard to his paintbrush. Coated in black paint, the man taps it against his chest, marking up his white suit shirt, or puts it in his mouth thoughtfully as though a pencil before realizing he’s just painted his tongue.

Having watched a handful of Buster Keaton movies recently, I cannot help but note the differences between that silent comedian and Chaplin. Unlike old stone face, Chaplin was wonderfully expressive, as was necessary with these shorts that had an abject lack of intertitles to explain the circumstances. His wonderful “tramp” style is particularly emphasized in Mabel’s Married Life as barmates mess with his tie and jostle his oversized trousers. With all the experience he got in 1914 making an almost endless number of shorts, Chaplin certainly had his style down to a science.

  • To watch YouTube videos of the short movies, click on the related photos.

The Haunted House (Buster Keaton)

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The Haunted House (1921)

    If you need a criminal hideout, what better place to set up than a “haunted house”? At least that’s what a gang of baddies think in The Haunted House short silent film. Buster Keaton is a bank teller, and I think we can say right off that this is a bad profession for such a clumsy dope as he. While trying to count money out to a client, the man spills a large jar of glue inexplicably situated without a lid on the counter. The contents land upon his pile of money which is now becoming stuck to just about every part of Buster’s body.

     When a host of bank robbers arrives, Buster struggles to put his hands up as they are adhered to his pockets. The man foils the robbers but others think he has just held up the establishment, so he is chased and ends up at the haunted house. Also driven to this locale are a couple of actors who have been run off the stage for a bad performance. The domicile is not actually phantom-ridden as the criminals see their ruse merely as a way to dissuade police from investigating it. They pull pranks, such as a staircase that becomes a slide, but Buster is ultimately scrappy enough to tackle the obstacle and elude the bank officials and police. Buster meets a whole host of ghouls, including a couple of creepily dressed skeletons who reassemble a man, and he event battles satan.

     When the man realizes the ghosts are merely actors, he borrows one of their outfits and holds up the bank official who is after him. That man, however, knocks our hero out with a blow to the head, and Buster ascends to heaven, then to hell, before awaking.

     I think what made Keaton such a good entertainer is that he acted as writer, director and star. Just as Keaton could not have written or directed another actor into giving the same performance or one that is so effective, so too could no other writer or director have known at this early stage how to write to the man’s strengths to create such a unique outcome. Keaton’s greatest asset was his athleticism and acrobatic skill. No one else could make slipping on a banana peel or sliding down a staircase look so natural despite its exaggeration. Keaton knew what he was capable of and how he could make people laugh, so he wrote his stories and conceived of sets around that. The plot of a Keaton story is much like that of a good Marx Bros. movie: It does not really matter. What will make you laugh are the stunts (and in case of the Marx Bros. the dialogue) that has nothing to do with the plot.

Sherlock Jr.

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Sherlock Jr. (1924)

     In a time when cinema technology had yet to advance to the point that we could synchronize sound with moving images, I find it amazing the effects movie makers were able to create during this very rudimentary stage of the medium. Buster Keaton in directing himself in Sherlock Jr.  in 1924 boggles the mind with the special effect he was able to create. No only does he duplicate himself on screen, but he walks into another movie and magically changes his surroundings in the blink of an eye.

     Buster works as a movie projectionist and is reading up on how to be a detective. He is in love with a young woman whose affections are also sought by another man. That man, “The Rival” (Ward Crane), steals a pocket watch to get money enough to buy “The Girl” (Kathryn McGuire) a gift and frames the crime on Buster. While sleeping in the projection booth at the theater, Buster walks out of his own body and gazes at the screen where he sees the main characters transformed into his love interest and his rival. He walks through the theater and enters the movie screen where he is then transported from a garden, to a desert, to a cliff, etc., all while stumbling and nearly falling off said cliff. He eventually enters the movie’s plot as Sherlock Jr., a great detective, out to solve the case of the missing pearls. The villains in the movie, which include The Rival, have all sorts of deadly traps set for the sleuth, but he defies them all. His assistant, Gillette, also helps him in stalking the criminals.

     In one scene, Sherlock Jr. arranges some clothing –a dress, shawl, wig and hat– inside a flat round package and places it upright on the outside windowsill of a building where the criminals are hiding. He enters the place, angers the villains and leaps through the window to escape. When he hits the ground, however, he is slumped over disguised as an old woman. Later Sherlock will leap through an open briefcase held by Gillette at his abdomen. It is not terribly difficult to deduce how this stunt is accomplished, but it is fascinating to see nonetheless. Not only does Sherlock win the battle, but Buster is woken from his dream by The Girl, who has herself solved the real-life mystery of who actually stole the pocket watch. An adorable ending has Buster in the projection booth taking pointers from the lovers on the screen as he embraces and kisses The Girl.

     The most interesting and complicated effect used in Sherlock Jr. was after the man enters the movie screen and finds his background changed a dozen times. Buster had to remain absolutely still while the sets were altered around him and the shots were then compiled to make the transitions look instantaneous. The result, for instance, is Buster moving to step down a set of stairs only to step off a garden bench and fall flat. The sets could not have been easy to change either as they were not simple. The desert set up has a sandy hold the man hides in while a train rushes by. Another makes him appear in the middle of the ocean. I cannot imagine the labor required for that few-minute exchange.

     Of the Keaton films I’ve seen so far, this hour-long flick is certainly the most fascinating. Movie makers were so creative from the very start of the motion picture industry in finding unique ways to expand the possibilities movies presented. Besides being greatly funny, Sherlock Jr. stands as a prime example of movie history.

Source: Turner Classic Movies: Feature Presentation

The Cameraman

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The Cameraman (1928)

     How many windows can Buster Keaton break with his movie camera before the joke gets old? That seems to be at least part of the plot of the first movie the silent star made under a studio contract, The Cameraman.

     Buster’s profession of making tintype photographs for the occasional person on the street is insufficient in a world of motion picture cameras, or so he finds upon meeting Sally, played by Marceline Day. After tracking down this lovely lady, whom he met in a crowd where their bodies were crushed so closely together that the man took the occasion to repeatedly smell Sally’s hair, Buster decides a job in moving picture journalism could be for him. As MGM News Bureau receptionist Sally informs him, however, he must have his own camera. Unable to afford a $2,000+ device, Buster instead trades in his still camera for a run down, old version.

     In trying to find his way to his first potential assignment –a fire– Buster instead confuses a police officer who will throughout the film be befuddled by this lunatic’s shenanigans. Buster manages to score a date with Sally, and the two head to a swimming pool/beach area. Here, Buster spends an extended amount of time sharing a dressing room with a burly gent (Edward Brophy) as the two tangle in one another’s clothes and limbs in attempts to change into their swimwear. The routine is absurd but full of laughs for the audience as the two go about this task as if it were utterly natural, if not inconvenient. Once out of the dressing room, Buster’s overly large bathing suit becomes a pickle for him in the waters as the outfit wades away and he is forced to steal pants off a large woman donned in full-body waterway. Buster nearly loses his girl to another at the pool, but the man sends his competition swimming after a handkerchief instead.

     Buster gets his big break with a tip on a likely violent outbreak during Chinatown’s new year celebration where he finds himself running his camera in the midst of flying bullets. He also picks up an eerily human-looking chimp dressed as a sailor, who also escapes harm on the back of Buster. Too bad the film cartridge was empty.

     The Cameraman is among the great Keaton silent, full-length flicks. It contains that famous sequence when the cameraman positions himself atop some scaffolding only to have it tilt and collapse forward to the ground (what a shot that would have been on his film!). All his efforts are for the love of the girl, but a profession involving a three-legged prop is doomed to disaster for such a clumsy character. Keaton does a great job of playing those blokes who while not necessarily dumb are at least oblivious to the impact of their actions.

     This flick was the first Keaton made under a studio contract as he had created all previous films under his own direction and writing. He was strongly advised against signing with MGM, but saw the opportunity to relieve himself of certain duties, including securing financing, as a plus. Although The Cameraman was not negatively impacted by the arrangement, the studio would prove to be a headache for the star down the road.

Source: Turner Classic Movies

What to Watch Tonight: Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

I do not think there is a classic movie-loving person or anyone who has even moderately studied film on the academic front who is not aware and likely a fan of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The picture serves as a great example of silent, horror and German movies as well as an illustration of the German expressionist period.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Besides being a tale of murder and insanity, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also made especially eerie with its sets, designed by prominent Expressionist artists of the day. Depending on the copy you get your hands on, it might also feature tinting, a process by which the frames of film were tinted with a color –in this case three different ones marking daytime, night-time, Jane’s house, and the plot’s framing device. This also works to make everything look additionally off-center.

The story is framed through a man recounting the plot to another person. It is a story of love, murder and a somnambulist –that is to say, a sleep-walker. The Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) of the title operates a circus sideshow (which is also called a cabinet) at which he offers the somnambulist Cesare who will waken and answer any question asked. When one of our characters asks how long he will live, Cesare says not for long. The somnambulist later wanders off in the night to accomplish this task. Cesare is notably portrayed by Conrad Veidt who would go on to play many a Nazi in American-made films, most markedly in Casablanca.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most visually stunning films in history, which is quite a feat given how early into the history of motion pictures it was produced. The film’s use of chiaroscuro was largely created by having shadows painted directly onto the sets rather than producing them with lights. Although not horrifying by the standards of later fright films, the flick is certainly unsettling and thrilling and accomplishes all this without sound. So if you want to kick of the Halloween season right, and can stay up until 3:30 a.m. ET tonight/Tuesday morning, this is a must.

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is set for 3:30 a.m. ET Oct. 4 on TCM.

The Farmer’s Wife

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     Alfred Hitchcock entered the movie business essentially as soon as it started. He rose quickly in the British ranks to the director status and so it goes without saying he has a few silent movies under his belt. The Farmer’s Wife is among those early Hitchcock films that are essentially forgotten because it does not fall under the typical style we have come to associate with the master. This movie, one of many Hitchcock pieces that would be drawn from a stage play, is a comedy, nothing more. No suspense here, but that is not to say Hitchcock did not illustrate early on his adroit approach to this lighter genre.

     Farmer Sam Sweetland’s (Jameson Thomas) wife dies at the start of our picture and her final words are to the housemaid Minta (Lillian Hall-Davis) to remember to air out her master’s pants. Our next scene is of Minta helping Sam and his daughter prepare for the young girl’s wedding. We are introduced to a host of characters at the ensuing party and we hear the handyman Churdles (Gordon Harker) remark that with the daughter out of the house, Mr. Sweetland will be looking to remarry. From the film’s inception we see Minta as the perfect new wife for the man as she runs the household and takes care of his every whim already. It will, however, take the rest of the film for Sweetland to come to that conclusion.

     Sitting down with Minta, Sam crafts a list of four women he can picture sitting in his wife’s chair opposite him by the fireplace. First up is a widow, but she says she is too independent for the man, which leads Sweetland to curse her and forbid her visit his home again. The next is a virginal spinster to whom he proposes just before she is to host a party –at which Minta and Churldes are helping out– and the woman shivers and quakes from the shock. Again fuming, Sweetland lulls outside while the rest of the party guests arrive and Churdles struggles with some trousers that have no button to keep them on.

     While still at the party, Sweetland makes his move on a young, fat gal who insists he is to old for her. This leads him to spew a number of insults resulting in the woman screaming and flailing her limbs while the rest of the partygoers try to figure out her hysterics. Finally, Sweetland makes one last effort with a barmaid, but we do not see how that results before the man returns home. He has given up, but when Minta sits down in his wife’s chair, the chemistry finally clicks and the two happily agree to wed. Adding to the hilarity, however, are the middle two women to whom Sweetland had proposed –the virgin and the hysterical one– who upon arguing with each other about the proposals change their minds just to spite the other. They show up at the Sweetland home and the young one says she is willing to accept the proposal, to which Sweetland says he will announce his bride shortly, fooling her into thinking she has won. When Minta re-enters the scene in fine dress, that crazy one again screams and flails about.

     The Farmer’s Wife is really full of fine performances. The middle two potential mates Sweetland approaches are the source of much laughter, but Churdles as a baboon-like man is really essential to this movie’s comedic success. The only struggle I faced was in thinking that I would actually like the hotheaded Sweetland to end up with sweet Minta. He proves himself a royal ass in his reactions to rejection, but his manner of treating Minta at the close is endearing enough to make it work.

     Hitchcock was reluctant to take credit for early films like The Farmer’s Wife because he essentially just filmed a play. The script for this one was nearly word-for-word the successful stage production of the same name, and so Hitch even once said, “It was a routine job. A stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue.” Those intertitles were in fact how Hitchcock got his start in films. He was an “captioneer” in 1920 and 1921 and would design the intertitles and embellish them with drawings. From there he moved up to “art director” in mid-1921. He would meet future wife Alma Reville during this early studio work, although she was more advanced than he at the time. She entered the profession in 1915 as an “assistant continuity girl” working on cutting the pieces of film together. She can often be found on the credits of Hitchcock’s earlier films as the person responsible for “continuity” and she was always listed by her maiden name. Alma was “floor secretary” or a first assistant director by the time Alfred entered the trade. It would be several years of seeing each other around the studios before they would begin to date.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

The General

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The General (1927)

     I have spotted Buster Keaton in a number of talking pictures later in his career when he showed up as a supporting player, but I have now had my first silent Keaton experience –and it was a doozy. I have yet to really delve into the major comedy acts of the silent era, which is to say I have also only seen Charlie Chaplin in a speaking role. So to my slight surprise, I found The General to be supremely entertaining and funnier than I thought silents could really be.

     Keaton as Johnnie Gray, a southerner, operates a train engine called “The General” and has a girlfriend whom he might love second to his train. When the Civil War breaks out, girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), pushes Johnnie to, like her brother and father, enlist in the Confederate army. Seeking his gal’s approval, Johnnie races to the enlistment station and fights to be the first in line, but upon hearing he is a train engineer, those in charge think the small man would better serve the cause in his current position. Annabelle thinks her boyfriend is just a coward and a liar and so tosses him aside.

     Later, Union soldiers storm Johnnie’s train when all passengers have exited for a meal break, all except Annabelle, that is. So Johnnie chases after his engine on foot, on bicycle and on those little push carts that move on railroad tracks (whatever they’re called). He eventually reaches the next depot and calls the soldiers stationed there to hop on another train and chase after the enemy. Foolishly, Johnnie forges ahead with only one car attached to the engine, leaving the army behind. An absurd chase ensues with Keaton most famously sitting on his engine’s cow catcher and picking up large wooden debris from the tracks.

     When the Union soldiers discover Johnnie’s train is in fact only occupied by the one man, they laugh and stop for the night in the midst of some rain why Johnnie runs away to hide. Unfortunately, he hides in the home where the enemy soldiers will camp. It is only at this point that he even discovers Annabelle has been kidnapped. Heretofore he has just been trying to get his train back. So in the night, Johnnie and his gal escape into the rain and in the morning steal back “The General.” Now it is the northern army that is chasing Johnnie and a host of additional bad and good luck leads our hero to safety and to the South winning a battle against the North.

     Buster Keaton performed his own stunts, which in itself makes up a huge amount of this film’s appeal. All of his leaping, falling, climbing, and hauling of firewood is impressive. Obviously with a silent movie, the physical humor reigns supreme, but for some instances, Keaton makes us laugh just with the expression on his face.

     There is an impressive scene after Johnnie sets a bridge ablaze when the Union army’s train crosses it and the structure collapses into the river. The scene cost something like $42,000 to film and would remain as a tourist attraction in Oregon where the movie was filmed until the scrap metal remnants were collected for WWII efforts. The battle scene at the film’s end was also responsible for a fire that took over the surrounding woods. Keaton, who also directed, stopped filming so cast and crew could douse the blaze.

     Released in 1927, The General came out the same year as the first “talking picture”, The Jazz Singer. By 1929, the sound film era was truly in full swing, thus putting many movie stars unable to adapt to the new form out of work. Keaton, as I mentioned, was not one of them, although his parts would be much smaller as his career went on.

Sources: Bill Hader for TCM, TCM.com

CAPA Summer Movie Series (Columbus, Ohio)

For those of you who live in central Ohio as I do, you will be glad to hear CAPA has posted its lineup for this year’s Summer Movie Series. I have seen a lot of these but am always willing to rewatch something if it’s on the big screen.

I’ll definitely be seeing Hitchcock’s Frenzy as I’ve been meaning to give that another chance. Other must sees if you haven’t already include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Grapes of Wrath, High Noon, Bringing Up Baby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Big Sleep.

Sadly, no Audrey Hepburn movie this year as there usually is. For those who have not experienced a favorite or classic movie on the big screen in a theater full of people who love the movie as much as you, it really is a memorable experience. I recommend it.

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