Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ben Turpin

Charlie Butts In (1920)

Unusual provenance explains this re-edited, re-titled version of Charlie Chaplin’s “A Night Out,” but it was once widely seen by audiences who had little access to new material from Chaplin during his long dry spells in the 1920s.

The movie begins by showing Charlie as a band conductor, with a trombonist who frequently hits him when his back(side) is turned. Then we cut to Charlie in his hotel, flirting with a woman behind a veil, apparently a bit drunk, impressed by her backside and horrified when her face is revealed. Next is a scene showing Charlie, evidently in a restaurant, using a decorative fountain for his evening ablutions. At the very end of this sequence, Bud Jamison appears to chastise him. Next is a scene of Charlie preparing for bed in a hotel room, tossing clothes out the window and nearly sleeping on the floor himself. Edna Purviance plays with a dog across the hall and this hides under Charlie’s bed. Edna follows it and Charlie finds a girl under his bed, only to find moments later, her husband (Bud Jamison again) at the door. Soon, Ben Turpin shows up with a bone to pick with Charlie as well. The ensuing fight ends with Charlie passing out in his bathtub.

Some unscrupulous type seems to have gotten ahold of discarded takes from “A Night Out” and edited it into a short movie. Again, since Chaplin wasn’t releasing much at the time (certainly not as much as the public wanted), it was easy to get a “new” Chaplin into distribution, even without his approval. It lives on in the guise of a Charlie Chaplin movie, although better prints of the originals have been released.

Director: Unknown (though Chaplin presumably directed all the footage)

Camera: Unknown (most likely Harry Ensign)

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Ben Turpin, Fred Goodwins

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His New Job (1915)

His_New_JobFor his first movie at Essanay studios, Charlie Chaplin decided to lampoon Keystone Studios and have a bit of an in-joke for his fans with the title. He was already being paid better, given more creative freedom, and working in a longer format, but apparently the cold weather of Chicago in January didn’t agree with him, and he soon relocated back to California to resume working there.

His_New_Job1In this movie, Charlie shows up for “open auditions at Lodestone studios,” looking for extra work. He flirts with an aspiring actress, feuds with the (male) production assistant organizing the interviews, and knocks out fellow-extra-wannabe Ben Turpin several times. He manages to get hired, in spite of some amusing confusion with the studio head’s hearing aid, and goes over to the set, spoiling a shot. To get rid of him, the director sends him over to work with the carpenter, leading to the usual physical comedy with board and mallets, etc. Then the director fires one of the uniformed actors and tells Charlie to get a costume. He can’t find one, so he borrows one from the absent star’s dressing room. Then he proceeds to foul up several scenes, bending his sword out of shape, nearly knocking over the set, and tearing the female star’s dress. Finally, the star shows up and find him in his costume, leading to a Keystone-style confrontation with him, the carpenter, the director, Ben Turpin, and Charlie. Guess who wins?

His New Job1As we might expect, this first effort in an unfamiliar studio is lighter than the better work Charlie would go on to during 1915, but it already shows some improvements. Charlie’s character is still quick to violence and mayhem, but he’s already developing that playful shrug that would become his sympathetic gesture. The gags are better developed and there’s a bit more running humor involved. Still, it’s not much above “The Masquerader” or “A Film Johnnie,” and lacks some of the hooks that make those films so memorable (like cross-dressing and seeing the inner workings of Keystone studios). There are some interesting tracking shots, mostly used to take the audience “into” the scenes Charlie is ostensibly shooting from behind the camera, and one tracking-backward shot to follow him and the female lead as they walk up-set. There are no real close-ups, and we don’t even get a good look at Turpin’s trademark crossed-eyes. The editing is pretty standard for the time as well, with just a bit of cross-cutting to get characters into the same scene together. Apparently, Gloria Swanson auditioned for the film (she would have been just fifteen at the time), but Charlie wasn’t impressed, so she was relegated to playing a typist in the background.

His New JobDirector: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Leo White, Robert Bolder, Gloria Swanson

Run Time: 30 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music, but 10 minutes short)

The Champion (1915)

Champion_1915Movies and boxing have gone together since the birth of American cinema. Boxing also lends itself to precisely the kind of physical comedy associated with slapstick, so it’s no surprise that Charlie Chaplin returned to the theme more than once in his career. The first time was in “The Knockout,” which is really a Fatty Arbuckle film that Charlie appeared in as a supporting character, but because of his higher name value, it tends to be associated with Charlie instead (See Silentology for another discussion of “The Knockout”). Less than a year later, and at another studio, Charlie made his first appearance as a headliner in a boxing comedy.

Champion1Slightly longer, “The Champion” has a somewhat simpler plot than “The Knockout.” We open on Charlie with a pet bulldog, apparently down on his heels, but sharing a hot dog with his companion. A bit later, Charlie finds a “good luck” horseshoe just as he passes Spike Dugan’s (Ernest van Pelt) training quarters, which is advertising for a boxing partner “who can take a punch.” After watching others lose, Charlie puts the horseshoe in his glove and wins. The trainer prepares Charlie to fight the world champion, Bob Uppercut, played by Bud Jamison, who still seems to me to be filling Mack Swain’s shoes. A gambler (Leo White) wants Charlie to throw the fight, but Charlie knocks him out and takes his money anyway. He and the trainer’s daughter (Edna Purviance, once again, who seems to be dressing as a boy to sneak into the fights as Minta Durfee did in “The Knockout”) meet and fall in love. At the big fight, Ben Turpin takes on Charlie’s former role as the referee, and winds up getting hit about as often as the fighters. Broncho Billy Anderson, co-owner of Essanay Studios, is rumored to be in the fight audience, but I didn’t spot him based on the one Broncho Billy movie I’ve been able to see so far.

Champion2The opening of the movie, with Charlie and the dog, gives us a chance to identify with the “Little Tramp” more than we ever did when he was at Keystone, and, indeed, the character is cuter and more appealing, even if he is cheating at boxing and apparently robbing gamblers. The longer run time seemed to be handled better in this movie than in “A Night Out,” in part because the whole “training” storyline obviously points to a climax in the ring. Once we get there, all the stops are pulled out and ever single gag you can think of is thrown in. Each time the fighters go at it, something different happens. I was delightedly surprised, for example, when they “hugged” each other and danced, rather than hitting. Still, where “The Knockout” confuses people with so many things going in rapid-fire, “The Champion” at times seems drawn-out, with the gags getting in the way of forward motion of the plot.

Champion5

Shall we dance?

In terms of film making, this movie is still at a fairly simple level. Scenes are generally taken from a straight-on camera angle with little internal cutting. Occasionally, close-ups are used to emphasize Charlie’s emotional state. Cross-cutting, between the audience and the boxing ring, helps to liven up the fight sequence. All of the actors, except Edna, get a chance to show off their athleticism, and the dog puts in a good performance as well, attacking Jamison and biting the seat of his pants at a critical moment. During the “love scenes,” Charlie holds a large jug of beer up to insure Edna and him some privacy.

ChampionDirector: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Ben Turpin, Leo White, Ernest van Pelt, Broncho Billy Anderson, Lloyd Bacon

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Night Out (1915)

Night OutThis is one of the early films Charlie Chaplin made at Essanay Studios during his year there after he left Keystone. It has many of the familiar elements from Keystone – men with silly facial hair, women who seem to enjoy flirting with transients, a dull-witted policeman, a large jealous husband, hotels and bar rooms, and a world populated with people with a propensity for solving problems with physical violence – but has more measured timing and use of the individual gags, plus a much longer run time than most of the shorts he did there.

Night Out4To the degree that there is a plot, it concerns Charlie and his drinking buddy Ben Turpin, who apparently are out on the town for a while before the movie starts because by the time it does they are both staggering drunk. They make their way to a restaurant, where they get into fights with various patrons and ultimately are thrown out by the large headwaiter (played by Bud Jamison, who is doing his best to be Mack Swain). The two pals decide to get a room and sleep it off, and, after multiple pratfalls, Ben Turpin winds up in his bed, and Charlie winds up in a room with Edna Purviance (this was her first appearance in a Chaplin film, but they would work and sleep together for the next eight years). Then her husband comes home, and, of course, it’s Bud Jamison! So, Charlie packs up his pajamas and goes to another hotel, but he’s too drunk to sign the register and winds up on a park bench. Turpin wakes up alone and the desk clerk insists he pay since Charlie already left. He finds Charlie on the park bench, who replies to his request for rent money with several blows to the head with a brick. Meanwhile, some issue has come up at the original hotel with the headwaiter that involves holes being cut in his handkerchiefs, so they move to the second hotel. Now, Charlie heads back there and goes through an elaborate getting-ready-for-bed ritual that involves throwing his trousers out the window and spreading toothpaste on his slippers. Meanwhile, Edna has been playing with a dog in her room (across from Charlie’s, of course) and the dog runs under Charlie’s bed, where she follows it. Charlie comes out and discovers a girl under his bed, to some apparent glee, until she says something about her husband coming back and he looks out the door and sees Jamison again. They try to sneak her back into the room, but it’s no good, Charlie is caught and chased, and winds up going out a window. Ultimately, Turpin finds him again and they fight, ending with Charlie getting drenched in a bathtub.

Night Out1I’m not sure if it was just me or if Charlie was still getting used to the longer format, but this movie felt more like three or four short movies stitched together than like a cohesive longer plot. At about six minutes in, I had laughed at least as many times as I have at any Keystone, but I was already feeling like it could wrap up and be fine. At fourteen minutes in (the length of the average one-reeler), I was really ready for it to be done. By the end, it seemed actually too long, even though the gags and the falls were entirely up to snuff. One thing Charlie did do was take the time to elaborate some of his gags, which he wouldn’t have done at the faster pace. For example there’s a sequence in the hotel room where Charlie has drunkenly confused the phone with a water dispenser, and keeps trying to pour into his cup from it. That’s the sort of little touch that rarely made it into a Keystone. On the whole, though, it isn’t up to the level of later “feature-length” work like “Burlesque on Carmen,” nor even the sustained zaniness of “The Tramp.” If you like Keystone Chaplin well enough to sit still for half an hour, then this will work for you, maybe even better than watching three Keystones would, but it still seemed to me to be a bit rough around the edges.

Night Out2Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

1915 and the Movie Star System

Cleopatra

Occasionally, in my reviews of early cinema, I’ve made comments like “this was before the star system was in place.” But what do we mean when we talk about a “star system?” When did it start and why? And how did it become so dominant that movie stars made gigantic salaries, and for a time, at least in the 1930s and 40s, seemed to transcend royalty and become truly gods and goddesses? By studying film from the Age of Attractions through the dawn of the Silent Classical Era, we have an opportunity to observe the birth of the movie star, and consider its trajectory.

In the earliest days of cinema, established celebrities like Annie Oakley and Eugen Sandow both exploited and were exploited by film in order to preserve the record of their accomplishments and lend moving pictures an aura of “respectability,” through its documentation of educational and popular subjects. Dancing stars like Annabelle Moore made good subjects, because their art involved movement, and could be shown without synchronized sound, or any sound. Audiences in remote locations could see people made famous in New York or Boston, and get a chance to get “close” to figures they had only read about before. William McKinley seems to have been the first Presidential hopeful to exploit the movies before election, another example of the growing power of the medium.

Of course, there was an already extant star system in live theater. Theater stars weren’t (and aren’t) the same thing as movie stars, but they were trained actors, and when the demand for narrative film boomed during the Nickelodeon Era, they were of course drawn on as experienced actors with potential box office draw. However, there was a perception (true or not) that this could “hurt” a serious theater actor’s reputation – the movies were still associated with low-class entertainment and not accepted as an art form – so there was resistance within the industry. By the same token, the more “progressive” film studios wanted theater stars to help legitimate the moving pictures and draw a higher class of audience, so they were willing to pay enough to lure at least a few for what was, after all, relatively easy work compared to touring around giving the same performances night after night.

Kid's_auto_races

Meanwhile, about halfway through the Nickelodeon Era (say, 1909-1911), there was an odd innovation in American filmmaking: cameramen started moving the camera a little closer to the action. Remember that the zoom lens, although invented in 1902, was not yet in wide use in movie making. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a zoom since I started this project, although I’d be happy to be corrected if somebody’s memory is sharper than mine. Anyway, the point is that generally if you wanted to see more detail on something, you had to physically move the camera closer to it. This had the effect, which we hardly notice today, of cutting up the actors so you can’t see their whole bodies – feet are cut off or legs up to the knees or further. But, it also meant that you could see the faces of actors much more clearly.

This change, so subtle that it’s hard for modern audiences even to notice it, had considerable impact at the time. The critics hated it. The established standard was to frame the picture to show a “stage” as in a theater on which the actors would enter, perform, and exit. Closing in meant that you weren’t seeing the “whole stage,” and several complained about not seeing the stage floor. Apart from that, you were dissecting people’s bodies when you didn’t show them head to toe. This was considered “unnatural” by sophisticated movie-goers. Luckily for us, apparently the unsophisticated masses paying their nickels to see the flickers didn’t mind so much.

The other side of this, again, was seeing faces more clearly, being able to distinguish features and expressions. This meant that the tradition of pantomime began to be replaced with more subtle use of the actor’s faces to show emotion. Actors could stop flailing their arms and using exaggerated body language, and perform in a more natural manner. More than that, it meant that audiences began to recognize their favorite actors, even without the benefit of credits to give them names, and started to ask exhibitors when they would get another film showing “The Biograph Girl,” for example.

Ben Turpin.

Ben Turpin.

One of the first to benefit from this was a comedian named Ben Turpin. He had crossed eyes as a result of an accident in childhood, and was very good at making silly faces. Once movies started being made where you could see how funny he looked, he rapidly became a sought-after property and made a much better living than most movie actors at the time. He went so far as to take out an insurance policy against his eyes ever becoming uncrossed.

It’s important to note here that the close up had been used before this, as in the case of “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) and that Méliès had replicated a zoom by moving the camera closer to his disembodied head as early as “The Man with the Rubber Head” (1901) and probably before that. Seeing actors’ faces wasn’t “invented” in 1909 or any such nonsense, but it gradually became more of a standard, as did inter-cutting close ups to the point where they become major narrative elements, as in the case of “The Golden Chance,” by the end of 1915. As audiences acclimated to a more intimate standard of photography, they increasingly became fascinated by the faces of the people on the screen.

You can track this change in the pages of “Moving Picture World,” one of the first important industry periodicals, which published from 1907 to 1927. In the early issues, there are few illustrations, and very few actors’ names. Even the ads, meant to promote pictures to exhibitors would emphasize the humor, educational value, or novelty of the movie, and rarely include names or pictures of people in it. Over time, this shifts, with more ads showing stills, and increasing numbers of faces, in particular, shown. By 1915, you will start seeing familiar names and faces, with the fact that Charlie Chaplin stars in a film being given precedence over the reputation of the studio or the quality of its innovations. Meanwhile, other publications had begun to spring up that were intended for movie fans, and these heavily emphasized beautiful head shots of famous stars. The star system, while not as powerful as it would become in later decades, was firmly established at this time.

Mr. Flip (1909)

Mr Flip

This fairly primitive slapstick comedy starring Ben Turpin has the distinction of being believed to contain the first example of a character hitting another character with a pie in the face for comedic effect. It wouldn’t surprise me if there actually is an earlier example, or indeed if the trope had been invented in vaudeville before hitting the movies, but this is the earliest one I’ve seen so far, so I’ll go along with it. The plot is quite thin. Turpin is a goofy-faced “masher” who goes to a variety of establishments which employ women and annoys them until they take revenge or humiliate him in some way. I laughed as much with surprise as with humor when the lady at the general store has him removed on a hand truck. The bit with him sitting on a pair of scissors at the manicurist is made funny by his body language, though it’s drawn out more than necessary. In addition to the pie-in-the-face at the restaurant, he is also sprayed with seltzer (another classic bit, though I’m not sure if this is the first instance) by the bartender and several patrons at a bar. It struck me that there is a kind of statement here about the harassment women working with the public had to put up with, and the humor comes in their being able to defend themselves, but Mr. Flip is certainly not a charming character.

Director: Gilbert Anderson

Starring: Ben Turpin

Run Time: 3 Mins, 45 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

Happy Times and Jolly Moments (1943)

Comedian Ben Turpin in 1914.

Comedian Ben Turpin in 1914.

This turned up on TCM yesterday, and since my ability to download movies is limited, I thought I’d make an exception and talk about it. It wasn’t made in 1914, but it claims to be about 1914 movies – in particular the movies of Mack Sennett Studios. It’s a look at how the movie audiences of nearly 30 years later recalled our period. It even includes a recreated look at a Nickelodeon Theater, including a kid reading the Intertitles aloud to his little brother, confirming some of my ideas about audiences of the time. One name you’d expect to hear in a retrospective on Keystone is Charlie Chaplin, but no dice here. I think Charlie had re-acquired the rights to all his old movies at this time, and wouldn’t have allowed it. So, instead, we get clips of Billy Bevan, Ben Turpin, and even Fatty Arbuckle (with no mention of the scandal that brought him down). There’s a brief flash of Mabel Normand, and we also see Gloria Swanson as a Sennett Bathing Beauty, although she’d have denied ever holding that title. The Keystone Kops are featured, but for some reason are called “policemen.” The new score is beautifully timed, but not really appropriate to the period, while the narration swings from annoying to interesting. I suspect a lot of the footage is post-1914 Keystone.

Written by: James Bloodworth

Run Time: 18 Min

Not available for free viewing at this time.