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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Chaplin and Keaton Celebrate Old Times


Theatres As Once They Were: A Night In The Show and Spite Marriage

Not a few comedians born in the 19th century dominated a next century’s humor. Better even than stage traditions they brought forward was re-creation, faithful by all appearance, of a performing world that formed them, but was no more. Of examples, more than I could list, are a pair Charlie Chaplin, and later Buster Keaton, did: A Night In The Show and Spite Marriage, both enjoyable as documentary or comedy. They played to a patronage that knew a stage-centered world the movies had or would supplant. Variety still was strong when A Night In The Show was released in 1915; there was even remnant of stock companies by 1929 when Spite Marriage came out. Both films, plenty good and funny even if we ignore context, give life to a period we’ll not see as there were no cameras or recorders to capture it. Talent who remembered put what they could into these and other meditations on ways of entertainment gone past. Road life must have been for most part a joy, based on upbeat depiction from Chaplin, Keaton, and scores of others who put memories to film. Need we ask if live performing was more fulfilling than doing the act for anonymous watchers who'd see it on screens? There’s why the most vivid, often wistful, chapters in autobiographies revolve around early life on stage. Begin with Chaplin … Keaton … the ribbon goes endlessly from there.




A Night In The Show was for me the funniest Chaplin so far seen (as of 1970, in 8mm from Blackhawk for $11.98). I knew it was based on a skit he had headlined for English Music Halls and later US vaudeville. Mumming Birds was what put Chaplin over in a big way, his drunk act a wow, and natural for him to re-do for movies, only now he could double effect by playing the inebriate plus a disturber in the gallery. I wondered at age sixteen if theatre-going was really like this in ye vanished age. There wasn’t real-life footage to confirm or deny; you had to take history books and old folk’s word for what went on so far back. Later reading taught that yes, “theatre” as it encompassed variety, legit performance too, could get wild and wooly. Even Shakespeare and opera got the hook from audiences aroused to self-expression. Much of mischief was contained after a first half of the 1800's when crowd demonstration hit a peak. Managers more vigilant took the ginger out of “gallery gods” that once ran shows from an onlooker’s distance. A first rule of polite vaudeville was to make environments safe for women and their children. A family-friendly place could swell its till way past receipts gotten from libertines on the loose. Chaplin with A Night In The Show looked back to time before his time (at least in the US) where watchers dealt ruckus to acts that displeased them, be it tomatoes, dead chickens or other fowl(!), whatever abuse bad performance had coming.


Mumming Birds on Stage, Later To Be Film-Adapted by Chaplin as A Night In The Show


What got me was behavior that seemed outrageous on the one hand, believable on the other. There would still have been playhouses, smallest-time vaudeville, in 1915, crowds taking liberty not permitted at sites where decorum held sway. First, Chaplin’s venue is small, a theatre in miniature, where you can imagine chaos turned loose (Fred Karno’s stage-upon-a-stage, where Chaplin romped in Mumming Birds, was its own unique creation). Cheap seats seemed a license for base conduct, and to such a place, it seems odd to see Charlie arrive in formal dress. He figured, I guess, that this would enhance comedy, and put him in starker contrast to the rowdy he also played. We must ask, though, if crowds comport better even in our own enlightened age? I admit to being part of a frisky matinee crowd when the Liberty hosted King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1963. My group of a half-dozen, so loud as to merit a pitch-out, were warned of getting just that unless we calmed down. So how much progress did this represent since 1915? Consider today's knowingly rude audience members who carry devices into theatres on which they text or chatter away during movies. A Night In The Show Charlie walks onstage to interact with, or assault, the performers. This happened lots once upon a time. Actors gone amiss with a line of Shakespeare ran risk of watchers coming onstage to give reproof. Audiences were once divided by ticket pricing, more so by class. Box seating was for swells, the pit for ones who aspired to that, or escape from chaos of the gallery section, where hard benches prevailed and company was coarse. Chaplin gets laughs from the contrast by letting his gallery group rain fruit and sprayed water upon victims in the pit, a very-real hazard of sitting below the balcony in an era before reforms were imposed.




Spite Marriage might be characterized as Buster Keaton’s Romance Of The Stock Companies. No film I know of captures so well the magic local players brought to communities where they did role after role to achieve something very like stardom within confines of their small town or city. Stock companies disappeared by inches. It’s said there were 2,500 of them in 1910. Feature-length movies made inroads so that by the Great War, far less survived, let alone thrived. Still, there were ones that hung on, if on a modest scale and with less revenue for members to divide. Clark Gable got his start with a stock company, as did many others who ended up in movies. We see echoes of stock in Playmaker groups even if these are composed mostly of volunteers. A great writer, Edward Wagenknecht, born 1900 (and lived till 2004!), had a book called As Far As Yesterday, where he recalled growing up in Chicago and being enamored of the stock companies, and in particular an actress named Marie Nelson, “locally famous and nationally almost unknown.” Stock work was the hardest there was, and for never enough money. What was fame where you had to remain within county lines to enjoy it?




Dorothy Sebastian in Spite Marriage is Buster’s actress ideal. He is starstruck as are other eligible men of the town. When a small part player drops out, Buster takes his place in a Civil War melodrama to be near her, and makes a shamble of it. Backstage foolery of a first third are Spite Marriage’s comic highlight. I want to think that Keaton devised the most knowing gags, but I suspect all hands well understood stage struggle, on-set suggestion boxes filled to overflowing. The director was Edward Sedgewick, he of years with a vaudeville family act and writing for comedy. I can see he and Buster laying track for all of Spite Marriage, at least this marvelous section where Keaton gave on screen the kind of exhibition he had spent much of a lifetime performing on stage (Buster as a child did melodrama in addition to slap-down comedy, playing Little Lord Fauntleroy on occasion, and a doomed boy in East Lynne). You get a sense of everyone in Spite Marriage reliving some past or other. For all the story’s drift toward a less engaging second half, this affectionate salute-to-stock rates a favorite among Keaton work for Metro. It is also a record of how a typical Civil War melodrama (“Carolina”) might have played before an audience that knew the format and wasn’t inclined to laugh at scenes done straight. It is only where Buster bungles his part that they break up (our cue to do so as well). The melodrama is not ridiculed for being melodrama, 1929 still short of a time where it was incumbent upon crowds to laugh at anything a past generation took seriously. Don’t forget that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had only lately been (1927) a Universal Super-Jewel played with all due reverence. Spite Marriage is a priceless artifact of days when traditions from before a turn of the century could still walk hand-in-hand with modern modes of entertainment, even motion pictures with sound, or in this case, recorded music and effects.




First-runs furthered the accommodation. Three acts of vaudeville (“Direct From Chicago’s Loop”) accompany Spite Marriage as well as three short subjects, several with talk, to make up a “Mammoth 7 Unit Show” at the Rex Theatre. This, mind you, was a One Day Only show, a populace figured to put all else aside so as not to miss a grandest of all stage-screen aggregations. Imagine the sheer logistics of moving all this talent and their props, then reels to-from the booth, a projectionist’s nightmare, as was customary in those days. No wonder they got up a strongest union to protect sanity of membership. It would have pleased Buster Keaton to see the brotherhood of vaude artists still getting work, and on a same bill with him. Line-ups like what the Rex had were proof that variety was not dead so long as audiences spoke up for live acts with willingness to pay for seeing them. There were even tab versions of melodrama on some bills, and who knows but what local stock companies didn’t contribute to the live programs that went with Spite Marriage and other features that needed propping with something other than film. Spite Marriage is available on DVD in a box with The Cameraman and Free and Easy. It streams at Vudu in HD, which I have not yet seen. TCM has not so far run a High-Def transfer. Chaplin’s A Night In The Show can be had in a beyond-belief transfer both in an Essanay Blu-Ray box set, and as an extra with Criterion’s Limelight. You’d not dream for these last 104 years that anything so old and printed-to-pieces could look so good.

9 Comments:

Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Years ago I bought a huge collection of 16mm prints which included two battered and largely unplayable prints OF THE ADVENTURER and something else with Chaplin.

Both prints were originals. They had a photographic beauty that was stunning to the eye. I had no idea they had once looked so richly wonderful.

I applaud the magnificent Blu-ray restorations of Chaplin's Keystone, Essanay and Mutual film as well as Buster Keaton's work (I did an improvised 2 1/2 hour performance piece based on Buster's life for several weeks in the 1980s which had folks in tears at the end when Buster died. It had to be done improvised and without rehearsal as, according to Buster, that was how Buster worked. I trusted in what I had learned from years of watching his films as Buster had learned as a boy in the theater from years of watching others.

I had all of those Chaplin films in 16mm prints from Blackhawk, EMGEE and others.

They had never looked this good except in those very rare originals I once had.

As I say again, again, and again, we are living in a golden age of film restoration and preservation. Don't bitch about the prices. Buy the Blu-rays. That's how we support the work.

A single bad 16mm print of a Chaplin one reeler cost more than these drop dead gorgeous Blu-rays.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Chaplin's Karno appearance in "A Night at the Show" was where the Marx Brothers first saw him onstage; Groucho said Charlie's performance was the funniest thing he had ever seen.

As for the romance of touring... In his autobiography, Harpo said that if he had known it would take the "unmitigated hell" of vaudeville to become successful, he never would have done it. And having recently read "Four of the Three Musketeers", I believe him. George Burns must have been the only entertainer who truly loved working in vaudeville.

11:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Life on the road seems like hell on earth when we read about it, but the entertainers who came up in vaudeville very often romanticized their experiences and gave the impression that these were indeed happy times, despite the hardships. I guess anything seems more tolerable when we're young and more adaptable.

11:49 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Frank Capra's "The Matinee Idol", made the year before, treads similar territory to "Spite Marriage". The stories are different, but both offer a cliched Civil War melodrama beset by disaster.

In Capra's film, a celebrated blackface comedian is a suave womanizer with his makeup off. One day he happens upon a threadbare stock company doing a show. When they lose their leading man, he auditions under a fake name and pretends to be an amateur. He still beats the sub-amateur competition. He then contrives to bring the company to Broadway as part of his big new show. Once there, he suddenly appears in his famous blackface guise and purposely makes a comic shambles of their earnest drama before a roaring audience. The actors -- especially the girl -- are humiliated and return to the road. But of course the comedian, chastened and in love, follows. There's a nice DVD.

This is not a comedian's vehicle; you have a romantic lead playing a comedian and doing what the script tells us is brilliant comedy. The plot machinations are less persuasive or interesting than "Spite Marriage", and there's little Capra or his actor can do to make the comedian character anything but a jerk. There are bits where you have to wonder if Capra was deliberately going for less funny, intending a light romantic drama rather than a vulgar comedy with genuine big laughs. Or if he was saddled with a script he couldn't mess with.

"Spite Marriage" has the set piece of one actor ruining a Civil War potboiler, complete with a scripted kiss from the angry leading lady, but improves it on every front:
-- Way better gags, executed by Keaton instead of a straight actor.
-- The screwup is not a star using the heroine and her family as unwitting stooges, but a terrified accidental sub trying desperately to get it right.
-- The setup is quick and simple: Keaton's a fan who's seen the show dozens of times; when the actor goes AWOL he thinks it'll be simple enough to fill in. He's wrong.
-- The onscreen audience knows it's laughing at a fiasco. None of this accidental-comedy-star bull (Keaton himself played that cliche in "Speak Easily". There are many -- too many -- movies built on the premise of a "dramatic" actor (or non-actor) being so incompetent he/she is acclaimed as a genius comedian. Jerry Lewis went to that well at least three times).

Conceivably the overlap was accidental, with writers on both films recalling some hapless road company of their youth (although "Spite Marriage" insists its melodrama is a long-running Broadway smash rather than a tank town tour). Maybe a gagman who worked on "The Matinee Idol" was in the MGM writers' room, and pitched it as a sequence when they were mapping out the story of a besotted fan of a stage star. Or just maybe, Keaton or one his team saw the Capra film and came out thinking of all the missed laughs.

5:11 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

William Frawley, whether playing Fred Mertz in 'I Love Lucy' or Bub O'Casey in 'My Three Sobs', always seems to have a tear in his eye when fondly reminiscing about his characters' vaudeville days which I always assumed mirrored his actual experiences.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I have two more nominations for fond re-creations of the old stock companies.

THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY with W. C. Fields taking his bleakly resigned company from one tank town to the next, where they perform "The Drunkard." Fields was one of the most well-traveled performers in vaudeville, and knew firsthand about the usual adventures of transient actors, including the tradition of "leg pulling" (finding the local stage-struck citizen with money to invest). Fields loved "The Drunkard," and the Hollywood company that played it in revival. Jan Duggan became one of his regulars in movies, and villain Henry Brandon told me that Fields was undecided about whether he would take the title role or the villain's role. He decided on the villain's role, which is why Henry Kleinbach (Brandon) isn't in the movie. Those who would like to see the "original cast" of "The Drunkard" should catch GASLIGHT FOLLIES, Joseph E. Levine's 1945 paste-up of nostalgic footage. One of the episodes is taken from the Weiss Brothers' 1935 version of "The Drunkard," with James Murray as the drunkard and Theodore Lorch as the villain.

THE FACE AT THE WINDOW with Tod Slaughter -- actually, any Slaughter picture demonstrates what he does. He committed to film the obsolescent Victorian-era melodramas in which the dainty damsel is endangered by the crew-el villain. (He was the screen's original Sweeney Todd.) In these costume pieces Slaughter is always the blackest of villains, playing his parts in the grand manner and enjoying himself thoroughly. By THE FACE IN THE WINDOW in 1939, the producer prefaced the film with a title card inviting the movie audience to enjoy the dated drama as a product of its time, either as a thriller or a satire.

9:15 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

And in The Old-Fashioned Way, we get to see Fields juggle!

11:30 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When Fields lets a cigar box drop in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY he nudges it gently with one foot while kicking out violently with the other foot causing our eyes to split as the box flies away in the direction opposite the violent foot action. Watch it.

I saw a fellow kicking an empty cigarette box along a subway platform. It landed perfectly at my left foot. I nudged it sending it flying off while kicking violently in the opposite direction with my right foot.

The poor fellow seeing this just melted not in laughter but in rage,

It was awesome. He jumped up and down, screamed, totally lost it.

I watched those films every time I showed them which was many, many times. I learned a lot from Fields. He was a master. The next time someone says to you, "I did what you told me and it didn't work," reply with Field's line using your own voice, "Next time don't do what I tell you, DO WHAT I TELL YOU!" The person will say, "Yes," walk away and do a full Grady Sutton.

Always use your own voice when delivering W. C. Fields' line. You will find you get the reaction from the person you deliver them to that Fields got in the films (at least I do). Great fun.

Had Chaplin maintained the Keystone Charlie he would have advanced neither himself not Charlie. We would not have THE KID, THE GOLD RUSH, THE CIRCUS, CITY LIGHTS, MODERN TIMES, THE GREAT DICTATOR, MONSIEUR VERDOUX, LIMELIGHT nor A KING IN NEW YORK.

When, however, he returned to the Keystone mould in his shorts he got his strongest laughs. Love those Blu-rays. A real service has been done for the art, culture and history of film.

8:47 AM  
Blogger antoniod said...

The makers of the Documentary THE GREAT BUSTER sell SPITE MARRIAGE short(along with THE CAMERAMAN), saying that the "Putting a drunk Woman to bed" scene was the only memorable one. At least they didn't diss his 50s/early 60s TV career, which even Orson Welles(but especially David Thompson)was wont to do.

8:28 PM  

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