The Saphead

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Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature film was playing Bertie Van Alstyne in The Saphead. Saphead sure is a disparaging way to refer to someone. It refers to a weak-minded stupid person. Is Bertie Van Alstyne really a saphead? His tycoon father certainly thinks so, but Agnes, Bertie’s adopted sister disagrees. She’s smitten. When she returns home Bertie defies his wealthy father and tries to elope with Agnes. Their plans are comically foiled and Bertie shows his father that he’s no wimp or fool (well not completely either) so the wedding proceeds until Mark, Bertie’s lazy, crooked, philandering brother-in-law plants a letter from his dead mistress on Bertie.

Bertie is framed. His father stops the wedding so that sweet Agnes isn’t married to a philanderer with an illegitimate daughter. Crushed, but noble, Bertie goes to the cosy house he bought for his new bride. His solo dinner amidst the wedding decorations is a sad scene indeed.

The next day Bertie tries to lift his spirits by going to the Stock Exchange where he’s recently purchased a seat. Of course, the traders laugh at his expense and play him for a fool. Yet the tables get turned when Bertie, inadvertently saves the day when he foils his brother-in-laws plot to take over the family fortune.

The version I got from the library needs restoration. Many of the outdoor scenes looked green, while the indoor ones were black and white.

The Saphead charmed me with it’s innocence and simplicity. Keaton’s facial expressions and physical humor stole the show. The plot took turns I didn’t expect and other than forgetting all about Henrietta’s poor orphan child, the story was a delight.

Modern times

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I loved Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times with Paulette Goddard. A year ago, I wouldn’t have bothered to watch, but I’ve gotten intrigued, if not hooked on silent films from the Criterion Collection.

Released in 1936, in a time when the Marx Bros. and W.C. Field’s films were full of jokes and dialog, Modern Times isn’t completely silent. A distant boss speaks in broadcasts to alienated factory workers and Chaplin himself sings. Still there’s no dialog and remarks are conveyed with cards. That seems risky for a studio in the 1930s. I hadn’t realized there was such an overlap between silent films and talkies.

As some experts have pointed out, the film is more like a series of short films (2 reelers) rather than a story with one arc. We see Chaplin as his famous Tramp for the last time he’ll play that character. He gets a job in a factory and in scenes that are similar to À Nous la Liberté ecomically exposes the system as dehumanizing as the Tramp gets caught in the gears of the machinery. In another scene the Tramp tests out an eating machine with disastrous effects. (Since workers have taken to grabbing lunch at their desk there’s little need for this machine.) Inadvertently, the tramp gets arrested and mixed up in labor disputes. The cops’ violence against the workers shows us how times were back then. It’s a part of history rarely taught.

Along the way the Tramp meets a “gamine” played by Goddard, who’s stunning and joyful, yet ever bit an outsider. I can’t think of an actress today who could play this role. The gamine has two siblings, who’re rounded up by the police and put into an orphanage, she barely escapes their clutches. There’s a sweetness and affinity between the Tramp and the Gamine, the only two who are on each other’s wave.

The Criterion Collection DVD’s contain lots of extras: a home movie made on a boat during the shooting of the film trailers, commentary and a separate film commentary with more background on the making of Modern Times. Watching that I saw how dapper the gray haired actor was without his Tramp suit. While I expected a certain élan from Chaplain in his real life, I also expected dark hair. Nope he was gray and distinguished in real life.

All in all, it’s a delightful thoughtful film. hard to imagine that Chaplin still entertains.

Mr Selfridge Background: Mabel Normand

Earlier I posted some background information on Mabel Normand who’s in the next episode of Mr Selfridge. Here are a couple of her short silent films. These two are both from 1912 so the real Selfridge folks might have seen them.

On Harold Lloyd

h lloydeAfter watching Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, I became curious about what the newspapers of the day said about him. So I went to my library’s website and searched for him and the years 1922 – 1923 (when this film was made and was released in the Chicago Tribune archives.

I was struck by the tone of the paper – very casual. The movie Gal Friday seem realistic. One article I found was “The Real Inside Dope on the Movie Stars: Yes, Hard Knocks Made Harold Lloyd What He Is Today.” I chuckle at the “The Read Inside Dope” phrase. The article begins:

Harold Lloyd is one of those intrepid, joyous young persons who would attempt to dig a transcontinental canal with his fingernails if he thought the effort would benefit anybody. His character has been battered into shape by hard knocks — into such shape as he is spoken of as “the finest chap in Hollywood.”

The article goes on to explain how he isn’t conceited like Conway Tearle, whoever he was, nor a “rounder.” He exemplified the rags to riches archetype as he started work at age 11 selling popcorn at train stations. Later he sold newspapers, was a waiter, and an amateur boxer. As a teen he had the savvy to enlarge his paper route and then hire other boys to deliver segments of it.

Lloyd’s father owned a restaurant, which failed. The family was in dire straits and Lloyd wanted them to move to New York so he could work on the stage. The father thought Los Angeles and movies would be better. The father decided to flip a coin to determine where they’d go. I can’t imagine flipping a coin for such a decision. The coin decided they’d go to L.A.

Getting a foot in the door was tricky. Lloyd couldn’t get past the guards. He figured out that if he put on his grease paint and walked in with the extras returning from lunch, he could breeze by the “fish-eyed guards.” That trick worked and eventually Lloyd was hired for $3.50/day. Opportunities came his way after than and he rose from extra to star. He got the idea for his signature glasses from a comic he saw. His were specially designed so his expressive eyebrows could be seen.

How did he lose his thumb and index finger, I wondered. Seems he was posing for a still ad. The concept required that he be holding a bomb. It was supposed to be fake but wasn’t. Lloyd had a cigarette at the time and BOOM! He was blinded for 4 days and lost his fingers. If you’ve seen him scaling the walls in Safety Last, you can see he didn’t let that stop him.

Next I read the Chicago Tribune’s review of Safety First. I didn’t realize that movies would be shown at Orchestra Hall, a rather posh site. Then again those were posh-er times than ours and the era of the movie palace. The reviewer, Inez Cunningham admitted to not watching the half hour of the film when Lloyd has to scale the building because she was afraid of such exploits and didn’t see why anyone would like them. I’m wondering how such a stick in the mud got a job as a movie critic in the era of Lloyd, Keaton and Chaplin. Upfront she writes that she doesn’t generally like Lloyd, but admits that on this film he was on his best behavior and left out his usual vulgarities and “blythe.” I suppose I’ll have to watch some of his earlier films to see these vulgarities.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Inez. “Harold Must Be Good: Even Critic Laughs.” Chicago Tribune. 28 May 1923: Print.

Harpman, Julia. “The Real Inside Dope on the Movie Stars: Yes, Hard Knocks Made Harold Lloyd What He Is Today.” Chicago Tribune. 3 Aug. 1924: Print.