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Monday, April 12, 2021

Chaplin Heats Up For a 30's Revive

Where Right Music Makes Them Funnier

Chaplin did twelve comedies for Mutual during 1916-17. They are, as a group, the best things he made. I forget how many iterations have gone through my hands, starting with 8mm, to 16, video, laser, DVD, more DVD, then Blu-Ray, Regions One, then Two. That is how high I regard them. Silent comedy in its day, and for revivals after, aimed at “Happy Times and Jolly Moments” (to cite a title of one clip compilation), music a must to enhance mood whether live or canned on a track. Popular tunes might be used, or “old-timey” piano tracking salted with stingers for each fall, crash, shot, bark. Same tricks applied to cartoons were used also to juice live action bereft of talk. Hal Roach applied music-effects to comedies soon as he practically could, via synchronized discs. Just watch ’28-29 releases Habeas Corpus, We Faw Down, Liberty, That’s My Wife, other Laurel-Hardys that used hits of the day to liven backdrop. Slapstick seems unearthly where no sound comes with it. The Mutuals were less recognized classics than simple sure things to please a crowd, including ones gathered well after sound took over. Independent producer and former exhibitor Amadee Van Beuren found he could sell these comedies as well as if new … they were still that funny … more so with V for vigor scores he commissioned from hot jazz makers Gene Rodemich and Winston Sharples. Van Beuren rolled dice in buying six of the twelve at $10K apiece, guessing that test screenings would pave way toward RKO agreeing to distribute the group, plus remaining half-dozen should initial ones click, which they assuredly did.

Idea was to challenge contagion of double features by making shorts uniquely attractive, theatres using enough one and two-reelers to fill much of time a second full-length would run. Chaplin had stayed a meaningful name in old two-reelers even as his current policy was features. There was him, then all the rest, not a wonder he was bowed to as master of all slapstick surveyed. Press beyond trades lauded Chaplin regular, one NY sheet calling for return “of those old custard pie throwing pictures that Chaplin used to be seen in.” Never mind he seldom had thrown pies, perception being all, as one exhib in Provincetown, RI found when A Dog’s Life showed “plenty of life” for a 1931 encore (the short dated to 1918). Rurals used Chaplin where he could prop up weak sisters, never mind how far back footage went. Van Beuren knew all this and so felt his investment a safe one. Silent comedy apart from Chaplin was less sure. I don’t know a group other than his Mutuals revived so prominently once talk came. Did patrons miss Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon, mutely tossing their pies? Never mind, as few seemed willing to gamble on names other than Chaplin.

A test for Easy Street in September 1932 put it with minor accompany of Radio Patrol, a Universal programmer no one expected to leap fences, so credit, or blame, would rest with the comedy. Old-school promotion was used, Chaplin lookalikes sought among attending kids, a best resembler in receipt of “a fine saddle horse” (but what would Mom say when he/she rode the nag home?). Appeal having been proven saw “all RKO circuit houses” getting Easy Street with The Phantom of Crestwood, a nice mood switch from slapstick to spine-tingling. Showmen were happy, as in very. The Mutuals, all twelve, ran from fall 1932 into 1934. Here was “Chaplinitis” again, others sniffing money from other of the comic's residue, getting what they could of even older Keystone and Essanay comedies he had made, these rolled out through the 30’s and well after, bunched by however many a theatre could want. So what if they played primitive, so long as tricked out with music, any music, be it stock, bought, or improvised. Call them Parades, A Night With ..., Laff Shows. Charlie was still King, “Wonderful, Lovable, Laughable.” The man himself was even known to attend these paste-ups and laugh the loudest.

The Mutuals modernly look better --- never so vivid as now --- but freewheel is largely out of their music (a lot of current scores still are plenty good however). I was sent a couple sets with Van Beuren tracks (ported from old lasers and/or analog transfers), having not experienced them for years. It was like a plate of Mexican jump beans. So what is “appropriate” accompany for these? Give me VB vitamins from here on. I played The Cure A-B between jazzed-up ’32 and one of the Blu-Ray treatments … no contest, one hot, the other a chill. Restored-to-the-sky falls to earth where music belongs less to Chaplin than Caligari. The Van Beurens were scored to zip-speed of 24 frames-per-second, standard sound projection, thus Charlie at a dead run while accompany tries to stay ahead of him. Tracks were recorded on the east coast, musicians hired out of bands a block, or subway, distant. It is said Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, among later-prominent others, performed for the Chaplins, no doubt glad to get the work. Who knows how fast frames are suppose to pass through apertures? Cameras were cranked by hand, so scratch hope of uniformity. Same with projectors giving patronage a bum’s rush where shows ran overtime and for that reason or other you had to clear the house. With editing so rapid-fire as movies practice today (heck, it’s been that way for twenty years), does Chaplin at 24 fps seem too fast? --- I mean to a modern audience, not fossils wanting to slow silent shows down. Think those raised on video games push brakes? Complaining that they should reveals more about us than them.

For everyone who watches a silent film, there are that many different notions of how to present them. I’ve presented talkless shows more often wrong than right. A local art guild invited me and my Eumig 8mm projector to a 1972 gathering, my choice for delectation The General. The Eumig offered two speeds, 18 and 24 frames-per-second. I was green enough to assume all silent movies ran properly at 18, while talkies went 24. The show was agony, my advantage in projecting the fact I did not have to face the audience and observe their suffering, it being dark enough for me and the walkouts not to exchange disappointed looks. Did I learn from the experience? Evidently not, for less than a year later I inflicted Phantom of the Opera upon fellow collegiates who at least had recourse of that evening’s BYOB policy. Not a few would ask Why do you watch these? At times I found it hard to answer. It took home video to make latter-day silent movie presentations idiot-proof.

Music was for many as much an issue as speed. What worked best? An audience would realize quick what didn’t; that turned lots off silents barely in. I used to play Chopin against all my 8mm, and yes, sometimes it was against, Etudes lagging always behind Keystone chases. How many of us had record libraries from which to select ideal mood? Moon Mullins used a 78 of calliope music to go with his, no matter what silent he showed. It was easier then to accept aural anomalies, for how often did we get opportunity to view pre-talk? No two theatres accompanied the same when Chaplin’s Mutuals were new, the man or woman at keyboards having it their way (did cue sheets go out with these comedies? I’ve not seen any). Some theatres drew patrons on the reputation of who provided music, local stars born by such means. Imagine getting applause all day, every day, from neighbors who came as much to hear you as watch movies. I had a prodigy aunt who accompanied 20’s shows when she was still a kid. Here was practical reason for youngsters to take piano lessons. Work your way up to playing for Charlie Chaplin … now there’s motivation to learn.

So what was initial accompany for Mutuals in 1916-17 --- Fox Trots, the Bunny Hug, Grizzly Bear, other fad tunes of the time? You wonder if anyone still digs out yellowed song sheets to tee off Easy Street or The Rink with what was popular over a hundred years ago. Imagine too how many music styles have escorted Chaplin to parties since. Van Bueren’s jazz, “hot” before it later became “swing,” seems ideal to my ears. These scores staked an early 30’s claim on films otherwise elderly. Chaplin's Mutual comedies were thus renewed, would "belong" thanks to music that gave them fresh voice for those who remembered plus ones arriving new to the Chaplin experience, a fusion of energetic “now” wedded to still enjoyed “then.” Maybe some at the time deplored such an update, but for most I suspect it more than pleased. And for us, what’s the difference between Bunny Hugs and Hot Jazz? Chaplin’s comedy was timeless, stayed that way … he rises even above mournful modern scores. Dizzying are rebirths the Mutual lot has had. So many. Public domain status will do that. Footage found here, lost there, intertitles as they initially were, or faked to look that way, “Slo-mo” applied to fury of those who want Charlie to pick up his pace (reverence overkill?). For all of time kid-watching, for instance, The Pawnshop, I could have paved four more lanes to Winston-Salem, given application to asphalt rather than apertures. The game now, or call it obsession, is to achieve state of Mutual grace, but where is consensus as to that? Find me two, let alone more, in Mutual harmony.

Many thanks to Scott MacGillivray, who made this column possible. For further info re the Chaplin Mutual series, consult Michael Hayde's definitive account, Chaplin's Vintage Year, a great read, as are all books Hayde has written. 

Monday, April 05, 2021

WB Leads a Pigskin Parade


When College Ball Captivated Us All

The role of Pat O'Brien's career. He'd be asked about this one all the way to the end, sport buffs regarding the biopic as almost a religious totem. Football as embodiment of the American spirit was never so keyed as here. Part of that was gear-up to coming war, Rockne's big speech about grid standing-in for needed combat among male youth being no coincidence. Here was training for more than mere whipping of opposer teams, stakes having widened to an arena that was worldwide and poised to boil over. These boys would soon enough trade leather helmets for steel ones. Rockne as presented by Warners personified preparedness in addition to character and sportsmanship. A screen bio could not have been better timed. There was initial effort to have James Cagney play him, but neither the Rocknes nor Notre Dame administrators liked the idea of a badman playing such a good man, so scotch went that proposal. O'Brien worked up the mannerisms and speech patterns, trying hard to put over singularity of a persona many remembered to last detail. As Rockne had a sort of Bull Montana look, so too would Pat with help of facial appliance. Were Knute Rockne --- All American made ten years later, they probably wouldn't have gone to such length toward authenticity.

Rockne-devised plays are tendered as revolutionary to the game. Did he really invent the forward pass? My knowing nothing about football doesn't help, so why do movies about the sport appeal more as I get older? Maybe it's regret for not having embraced it sooner, but not to extent of playing. I hear guys can get hurt doing that. Notable names besides Rockne are on and off quick. No sooner do we know Ronald Reagan's George Gipp than he's breathing his last, but you could hardly tell Rockne's story without Gipp. Don't know if Gipp's deathbed speech was actual, or Rockne's repeating it later. Anyhow, it works from sentiment angle. There's "scandal" for third-act suspense, upon which no suspense hangs as we know Knute would never have paid off his players or rigged their academic sheets. This was all-the-way white rinse with the Rockne family looking on, not unlike what Universal dealt when it told the Glenn Miller Story in 1954. If there was a dark side to this man, certainly we get none of it here.

There's a good sense of the coach having to renew his brand every three years as star athletes graduate. The pressure to keep winning must indeed have been enormous. Rockne thinks at one point he's all washed up for losing just one match, a reaction typical, I'd guess, of any coach who got out-scored. Warners wanted to widen appeal of Knute Rockne --- All American by making it as much about America as land of opportunity for immigrants seeking upward mobility, and that's thrust of at least an opening reel where we meet Knute and Norwegian family back in the old country. Patriotic music accompanies all this. America as ultimate dreamscape would be defended with arms soon enough. Toward Rockne as an almost sacred figure came priestly O'Brien whose public image was pristine as reverse-collar parts he played in major hit Angels With Dirty Faces and more recent, and even bigger, The Fighting 69th. In a long run, he was probably the better choice for this role over Cagney, it being easier to subsume the O'Brien personality in deference to legend and icon that was Knute Rockne.

Warners' campaign was their customary massive for the time. Knute Rockne --- All American was culmination of far-flung premiering that dated back to 42nd Street and continued through to junket opens for Dodge City and The Fighting 69th. War would curb some of such extravagance, but for now, skies were the limit so far as making events of these bows. Knute Rockne --- All American got an Indiana launch and proclamation from the governor of that state of "Knute Rockne Week" to coincide with a star-studded premiere. Such occasion was great for local economy as train-loads rolled through and spent heavy along the way. Tens of thousands lining streets would after all get hungry and need lodging. Since when had Indiana merchants and tradesmen had it so good? South Bend's three theatres were booked and sold out. O'Brien pal Jim Cagney came along to personal appear, with Bob Hope acting as M.C.

Famous coaches who'd known Rockne appeared in, and were saluted by, the film, bringing out hordes who had worked with these and entire student bodies besides. It was a collegiate round robin and word-of-mouth snowball, the kind you couldn't buy no matter the ads placed or dollars put forth. Focal point for promotion was Notre Dame, where Rockne hung his helmet for the whole of a coaching career and where his name was revered above all others. Warners sent addresses of every alumni association to showmen across the country, goal being for each to make contact and have clubs attend en masse. Schools were targeted with tie-in rallies, proms, and the inevitable goal-kicking contests.

WB hedged bets by holding costs down to $646K. Domestic rentals were a gratifying $1.5 million, but foreign was an expected bust --- $128K --- as what did they care about our colleges or football? The Rockne story with Cagney would indeed have done better, but then Warners would have been obliged to spend more making it, thus a more-less dog fall in the end. The thing was about football, after all, and that wasn't stuff of widest audience appeal. TV prints of Knute Rockne --- All American were for years truncated because of dialogue that had to be taken out, including the "Gipper" speech. Controversy began with a radio scribe who sued Warners years before, and they had failed to settle in terms of TV use of disputed footage. It's only been recent that vital stuff has been put back to make Knute Rockne --- All American at last play as it did in 1940. TCM runs a nice HD transfer of the complete version.
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