Sunday 27 April 2014

Caught in a Cabaret (1914)

Director: Mabel Normand
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Harry McCoy
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
Chaplin's first two reel film was Mabel at the Wheel, on which he rejected Mabel Normand's direction and caused a major spat with Keystone Studios head, Mack Sennett. If Chaplin's account of why he didn't get fired over this is taken as gospel, it's because his popularity was soaring and it's easy to see that state of affairs backed up here. After he debuted as a writer with Twenty Minutes of Love, he made his second two reeler, Caught in a Cabaret, again under Normand's direction but with the writing split between them. Not only is this clearly a Chaplin picture with Normand little more than a love interest, it doesn't even feature the name of her character in the title of the film. Normand was the biggest star at Keystone at the time, a personal favourite of Sennett, with whom she was, shall we say, romantically entangled, and the titles of most of her pictures clearly stated who they were about. Even those in which Chaplin guested before this one followed that standard: Mabel's Strange Predicament and Mabel at the Wheel.

Comparing it directly to the previous two reeler, we see some similarities. Charlie has the hots for Mabel again, who is attached in some manner to an unnamed character played by Harry McCoy, who gets the worse of it for the duration of the film but nonetheless wins out in the end. The biggest difference is that this time Chaplin isn't playing a villain, let alone an outrageous Dick Dastardly prototype; instead he's a sympathetic character who goes a little beyond the boundaries he's been given. Here, that throws him into class territory, a topic that would be revisited many times in many Chaplin pictures. The Little Tramp was never going to be high class, at least not truly and never for long, but he could and often would play the part when he could get away with it. That's exactly what he does here, passing himself off to Mabel with a fake business card that identifies him as Baron Doobugle, the Prime Minister of Greenland. With a position like that, it's within the bounds of possibility that he could wheedle his way into other positions.

Of course, he's the Little Tramp not the Prime Minister of Greenland. He is employed here, but only as a lowly waiter at some sort of café and dance hall. It's clearly not a high class establishment, though the professional ladies who hang around may be taxi dancers rather than prostitutes. If so, this is an early depiction of an industry that sprang up only a year earlier in the Barbary Coast red light district of San Francisco, but would soon become commonplace in the American landscape throughout the twenties. If not, well, they're ladies of the evening and this dive is even more disreputable. The fact that next door's establishment is clearly Chinese may also highlight a low rent neighbourhood in 1914. Early on, Charlie doesn't appear to be happy with his lot, the beginning of his battle with a swinging door unfolding in a completely blasé fashion, unlike the violent altercation five pictures earlier in His Favorite Pastime. What he's happy to do is escape and take his little dachshund for a walk in the park.
Given that he only has ten minutes, the dance hall and park must be pretty close to each other, but they aren't remotely close socially. While he fits in well with his customers at work, he's obviously an odd man out in the park. It's perfectly acceptable for high class characters like Mabel to walk up and say hello to his dog, but it's never going to ever amount to anything more than that. Well, until a crook arrives in the presumed form of William Hauber, a Keystone stuntman and bit part actor who lost his life scouting for locations during the production of a lost Edward Everett Horton movie from 1929 called The Aviator. The British Film Institute credit him as a thief but he's more like a kidnapper as he takes down Mabel's lover and turns on her, but Charlie comes to the rescue, violently and rather effectively. Now when he preens at Mabel, she's willing to pay attention, especially after he hands her his fake business card. Her cowardly suitor, in the regular form of Harry McCoy, no longer gets a look in.

And so we have a story, albeit an easy one to figure out from here. Of course, Charlie is going to play up his newfound attention, while carrying on at his job. Of course, he's going to get found out. Of course, the whole thing will end with slapstick shenanigans. This is a Keystone farce comedy from 1914; what else do you think is going to happen? What's notable is how it unfolds. The scenes during the middle of the film, as Charlie takes his leave to run back to work with a new lease of life, unfold far smoother than any other scenes I've seen in these early Chaplins. The editing is far from sophisticated, but it's quicker and with a better sense of timing than in any of his previous pictures. The fact that it unfolds over two reels is a step up from those too, where it would have been crammed into a single reel. There's also a dream sequence, which is far more grounded than the visions of Hell which Chaplin's character conjured up in Cruel, Cruel Love. In fact, it's shocking to realise that that was only one month and four pictures earlier.

I'd also suggest that Chaplin's subtleties fit here better than in any of his previous films. In those, he was surrounded by old school hands in the silent comedy business, who mostly carried on just as they always had. Here, that's apparent in Harry McCoy's pantomiming that he'll get his revenge on the new challenge to his girl's hand, as he apparently didn't understand that subtleties were in. Most of the other actors are slower and less overt as the picture unfolds a lot more according to Chaplin's timing and pace, though it's fair to say that it's less that they match him and more that they keep more out of his way than usual. For Chaplin's part, he feels more confident here, more in control of his picture, even with Normand officially calling the shots. There are scenes full of little details that point to what he'd do in more substantial films to come. In one shot, for example, as he prepares to first leave work, he lets his hitherto unseen dog out of the cupboard, lifts him up and takes off his apron from under his jacket with the other hand.
None of this is to say that this isn't obviously a Keystone picture. It surely ends like one, with the first pie I've seen Chaplin throw in his career at the studio that invented pie fights. Mack Swain in particular goes wild during the finalé, throwing far more than pies. Are those bricks that he tosses in the vague direction of everybody else? While the park we see is quite obviously a park, the café we see quite obviously isn't a café; it's quite obviously a sparsely decorated set on the Keystone lot, very apparent even before Swain collapses against it and the walls move to accommodate his considerable bulk. He's not the only one to be wearing the traditional outrageous Keystone facial hair, though even that seems to have been toned down just a little. What's more, even when Chaplin is pretending to be the Prime Minister of Greenland, he still gets drunk and staggers through a good part of the picture. After all, it was his performance as a drunk on the vaudeville stage that prompted Sennett and Normand to hire him in the first place.

What this all means is that this is perhaps the point in Chaplin's career at Keystone at which it was most apparent that he was moving forward, both in front of and behind the camera, and starting to haul some of his fellow actors along for the ride. It's quite understandable, given the context. He'd finally been able to experience the power of direction for the first time on his previous picture, Twenty Minutes of Love, but he didn't direct all of it. He did, however, write that scenario and he surely built on the experience to contribute to the writing of this one. Given that the story arc is all about Charlie (along with the fact that there is a story arc to begin with), while Mabel is given next to nothing to do except react to his hiccups, it's clear that he contributed far more to the writing than she did. While Normand is usually credited as the sole director for this picture, Chaplin would be firmly in the director's seat for his next one, Caught in the Rain. It was all starting to happen for Chaplin, making this his lucky thirteenth movie.

The most obvious downside isn't the picture itself but its condition today. Even the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone, which brought us remastered editions of these films that are in an entirely different league to the public domain copies we've been watching for years, can't do much with the extant prints of Caught in a Cabaret. It claims that all surviving copies are fragmentary and of poor quality. What they include in the box is a composite of three prints, including the nitrate dupe negative at the BFI National Archive in London which is apparently the most complete. The original intertitles are believed to be lost, so are taken here from what is presumably a reissue. Certainly the versions easily available online at the usual places use different intertitles written by Chaplin's half-brother, Sydney. And so what we can see of Caught in a Cabaret doesn't have the picture quality of the other restorations, which is a shame. Of all Chaplin's pictures I've watched thus far, this is the one I'd like to see most in pristine condition.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Caught in a Cabaret can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of 35 of Chaplin's 36 Keystone films in all their glory (Her Friend the Bandit is a lost film, but the first half of A Thief Catcher was only previously thought so), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Twenty Minutes of Love (1914)

Directors: Joseph Maddern and Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin and Eva Nelson
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
While Mabel at the Wheel was twenty minutes of outrageous villainy, Twenty Minutes of Love is only ten minutes of relatively mild situation comedy, but it's an important entry in Chaplin's filmography because it represents the first time he was able to contribute something beyond acting to one of his movies. The power struggle that played out behind the scenes during Mabel at the Wheel ended with him able to take on more creative control because, after eleven pictures in under three months, he had become firmly in demand. He may still have been relatively new to the silver screen and he was obviously still developing the Little Tramp, which character he hadn't even portrayed in his previous film, but his star was already starting to eclipse that of Ford Sterling, whom he had replaced. That popularity gave him some clout, so he felt it was about time that a Chaplin picture featured his writing and his direction as well as his acting. Twenty Minutes of Love is the first time that happened.

Now, how much of that direction is evident in the finished movie is very much up for discussion as most sources also list Joseph Maddern as a director on Twenty Minutes of Love. Chaplin's very own words in his autobiography claim Caught in the Rain, two films and two weeks away, as 'my first picture' as a director, though his handwritten filmography, as reproduced in David Robinson's biography, Chaplin: His Life and Art, lists this one as 'my own'. That vague term has been interpreted to mean movies that he directed as well as acted in, but he also claims Mabel's Married Life, more often attributed to Mack Sennett. Perhaps it meant a film that he felt he contributed to in a more substantial manner than merely an actor, as most sources agree that he did at least write Twenty Minutes of Love. As he also claims in his autobiography to have made this film in a single afternoon but records suggest a six day shoot, perhaps the truth is that the single afternoon comprised his directorial contribution. We may never know.

However the responsibilities were split, the key is that this film served as a new beginning: Chaplin was finding some control over his work and he clearly felt that was immensely important. He doesn't devote much space in his expansive autobiography to his year at Keystone, surprisingly as it was also his first year in the film industry, but what he does allot mostly covers this particular point in time. He describes how he managed to convince Sennett during the Mabel at the Wheel brouhaha as conversation. Sennett was pleading with him to just get along with Mabel Normand when he suggested, 'Listen, if you'll let me direct myself, you'll have no trouble.' Sennett asked who would pay for such a film if it wasn't viable for release. 'I will,' Chaplin replied. 'I'll deposit fifteen hundred dollars in any bank and if you can't release the picture you can keep the money.' That idea, along with Chaplin's finishing Mabel at the Wheel under Normand's direction, was it. The very next movie up, he was behind the camera as well as in front of it.
There's another telling line in Chaplin's autobiography that's worthy of mention here. Later in 1914, as Chaplin's contract with Keystone was coming up for renewal, he asked Sennett for a thousand dollars a week. 'But I don't make that,' Sennett famously replied. Chaplin highlighted that it was he whom people queued up to see and Sennett responded that it took the support of an organisation such as Keystone to make that possible. In an oft quoted rejoinder, Chaplin suggested that, 'All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.' He probably didn't specifically have Twenty Minutes of Love in mind as he said that, because a great deal of his Keystone pictures fit that general set up, not least the earlier Between Showers, which started out in the flooded streets of Hollywood but surely enough found its way to a park with a lake in it for characters to end up in. However, this is a prime example of the formula, as there's very little but Chaplin, either Westlake Park or Echo Park, two policemen and a few pretty girls.

Given the circumstances around its creation, it's impossible not to watch Twenty Minutes of Love without attempting to figure out what Chaplin personally brought to it. Certainly there's whimsy from the outset, as the Little Tramp mimics the flamboyant antics of a pair of park bench lovers in parody by breathlessly embracing a tree. This couple, played by Minta Durfee and Edgar Kennedy, promptly become about as static as the tree by effusively throwing their arms around each other and locking themselves in a long kiss that involves almost no movement whatsoever. This could easily be a Chaplin touch too, as they're no more than a background for him to act against or a prop for him to use. While they're playing statue, he shows us plenty of movement, wandering over to them, examining them, sitting down next to them, highlighting their heat, ignoring them and eventually interrupting them. Only then do they get to move, and in Keystone style too, given that much of it is done by Kennedy's outrageous walrus moustache.

There's some well timed slapstick here, as Kennedy prominently inserts himself between his girl and the interloper and bumps him off the bench, only to be set up to bump himself onto the ground in return. It's a traditional Keystone scene, though there's a subtle moment here too that could well be another Chaplin contribution: while he sits there, enjoying the results of his interruption, Kennedy puts his head so close to Chaplin's that his moustache literally tickles his ear. The phrase 'he bristled at him', one that could be applied to many Keystone moments, has never felt quite so appropriate as it does here. That Chaplin is promptly done with these two well known and established Keystone stars in this relatively meaningless scene in favour of the story he's about to become part of could easily be read as meaningful in itself, a rejection of the unsubtle facial hair approach to screen laughs in favour of an intricate situation comedy with characters that feel more real. Of course, maybe that's just hindsight talking.
The story proper revolves around a pocket watch which is a perfect MacGuffin. Another girl on another bench won't accept her deadbeat admirer's love without a token to prove it, so he picks a pocket watch from the pocket of a sleeping man to give to her. Coincidentally Chaplin takes a fancy to the very same girl, so picks the pocket of the pickpocket to give the pocket watch the pickpocket picked to her himself. Of course, you can see where this is going, even if you haven't seen Between Showers, which ended up in a very similar situation, merely with an umbrella instead of a pocket watch. Just as the policeman the umbrella was stolen from ends up being the arbiter of the fight over it, here the Little Tramp attempts to sell the watch back to its owner, which merely adds more players to the chaos. There's very little that's new here and those who have seen Between Showers can't fail to notice the deep similarities, but it's a well constructed piece that plays out confidently and effectively.

The acting is still the weakest link at this point, because many of these actors are still firmly adhering to the old pantomiming ways. While Chaplin wrote, 'There was a lot Keystone taught me and a lot I taught Keystone,' he saw the latter as technique, stagecraft and movement. His peers 'knew little about natural pantomime' and 'dealt little with subtlety or effectiveness,' something very obvious here. The difference between the two instances in which the pocket watch is lifted are wildly different. Chester Conklin lifts it from its owner, but pantomimes what he'll do before he does it and proves almost unable to to keep his fingers off it from that moment on. Chaplin does the same when he lifts it from Conklin, but with a much quicker and smoother action. We can't fail to realise that Conklin only succeeded because his victim was asleep at the time; he's far more believable when he becomes a victim himself. No wonder Chaplin said that his own skills 'stood out in contrast' when audiences inevitably compared the actors.

Like Chaplin's pocket picking over Conklin's, Twenty Minutes of Love itself is far smoother than the earlier version that was Between Showers, but its unoriginality sinks it. Chaplin's first shot as a writer highlights that he really did know where he wanted to go with his character and the stories that he would be part of, but was only beginning to learn how to get there. 'Like a geologist,' he later wrote, 'I was entering a rich unexplored field.' If it wasn't a bad pun, given how almost every character ends up in this film, this could easily be seen as a chance for Chaplin to get his feet wet as a director. Two films later, he'd be given the opportunity to dive in fully, to write and direct a Chaplin picture, Caught in the Rain. When Chaplin wrote that, 'I suppose that was the most exciting period of my career, for I was on the threshold of something wonderful,' I believe he was talking both about his year at Keystone in general and the month between mid-March and mid-April when he made these two films and the pendulum of control swung his way.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
David Robinson - Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Twenty Minutes of Love can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Dust of War (2013)

Director: Andrew Kightlinger
Stars: Tony Todd, Steven Luke, Bates Wilder, Jordan McFadden, Gary Graham and Doug Jones
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I left Dust of War with painfully mixed feelings, most of which stemmed from the script. It was written by director Andrew Kightlinger from a story by Adam Emerson and Steven Luke, credited here as Luke Schuetzle to hide that he's also the leading man. This script is one of the best things about the movie, because it continually uses imagination to successfully avoid clichés and elevate a clearly low budget production beyond the norm. Unfortunately, the very same script is also one of the worst things about the movie, because at the few points where it doesn't succeed in avoiding clichés, it revels in them so gleefully that I wanted to cringe. To suggest that these are incredibly frustrating moments would be to understate the case. Watching the film felt like walking up an isolated mountain with a refreshing view that gradually captivates us with its uniqueness, only to turn a corner and be slapped in the face with a McDonalds, a WalMart and a Starbucks together like the lowest common denominator of wet fish.

The introduction sets the scene like a blitzkrieg, explaining that an alien invasion has been and gone, leaving the world in a sort of post-apocalyptic state. An evil despot has arisen in the dust left behind by the war, Gen Chizum by name, but he's countered by a mysterious child growing up as a harbinger of peace. The impression is that the battle of good and evil between them holds the fate of the world in the balance and we focus in on this battle in microcosm as two bounty hunters search for her in the general's stronghold. I particularly liked the little picture here. This is no sweeping epic of army versus army, it's a character driven tale of two wills against one, with a few interesting supporting characters. We only get the slightest glimpse of the aliens, all wrapped up in red armour, masks and attitude. This isn't about them, so we don't need countless man years of CGI; this worthwhile indie picture unfolds in the echo of that imaginary blockbuster's drift through the second run theatres into online streaming.

It's a refreshing ride for a while, though the size of Chizum's stronghold unfortunately highlights the lack of budget. The general is a huge man with a bald head and knotted beard, someone brutal but controlled enough to believably rise to this sort of position. He looks like he's going to be a cliché on legs, WWE's candidate for president, but he successfully avoids a hinted descent to the level of a live action action figure to remain a refreshing villain throughout. Bates Wilder is the actor, who I haven't seen play a part this substantial before; previously I've only caught him in smaller roles in top notch but very different films like Shutter Island and Hachi: A Dog's Tale. He's made a number of films since his first part as Loud Mouth Cop in Mystic River, but it's his stage background that has surely lent the structure to build character roles like this one. I hope the next time I see him on screen, it'll be in a lead role or, at least, one with enough time for him to flesh out his character the way he clearly can.
If Wilder is refreshing as the villain, Steven Luke is a revelation as the hero. He's Abel, a quiet, strong, meaningful leader who doesn't seem to want to lead. We soon find that he's been there, done that, as a legendary soldier who led a famous attack against the alien invaders, but he has no need of dwelling on past glories, whether he won or lost. Just as Wilder played a very believable despot, Luke is just as believable as his foil. What impressed me was how he does this: not through rippling muscles or cool dialogue but by inspiration, something tough to show effectively through the abstraction of a screen. He isn't the buff action hero stereotype and he doesn't have superstar looks; what he has is charisma that makes men want to follow him. As he rescues his partner and the girl they've been seeking from Chizum's brig, he gets an AWOL soldier as a bonus and it's this comic relief character who sets the stage hint. 'You're him?' he asks. 'You're supposed to be dead.' Luke lives up to awe by shrugging it off.
And so the chase begins, through the prairies of South Dakota. Abel and his partner, Tom Dixie, lead the way, with Ellie, the girl who might just save the world, initially as a prisoner but soon a companion, and Klamp, the AWOL soldier. They get a decent start but Gen Chizum is soon hot on their trail, aided by the talents of a Native American tracker called Dark Horse. Also worthy of mention in the general's crew is Giger, his torturer. All these are characters, not just in the movie but also in the world that they occupy; none would ever fade into the background, except perhaps Ellie who uses that approach as a defence mechanism. None are so overt that they become stereotypes; they feel more like stereotypes carefully adjusted to not feel like stereotypes, enhanced in every instance by solid performances. The script may throw obstacles in their way, starting with a minefield, but even as Kightlinger ratchets up the tension, it's always his characters who we watch. They're easily Dust of War's biggest success.
If Abel is the one we find ourselves naturally following, it's Dixie who most effectively steals attention. Gary Graham's is surely the most recognisable face after those of Tony Todd and Doug Jones, after his long run as Det Matthew Sikes in the Alien Nation TV show and succeeding movies. He's a quarter of a century older here than he was starting out there, having grown into a vague cross between Fred Ward and Billy Bob Thornton. He's an endearing sidekick because he's never just a sidekick, he's a capable lead who just happens to follow because he's found a man worthy of following. While Ellie is surely the character with the most expected story arc, it's Klamp who ends up with that instead. He's a waste of space early on, but the script keeps finding reasons for him to be in it and he grows well to meet them. I don't know if Hank Ostendorf as Klamp does a better job than Jordan McFadden as Ellie or whether his character just has more to do. Ellie's promise sadly becomes an afterthought, which diminishes her.
On the chasing side, David Midthunder is note perfect as Dark Horse, mixing the inevitable talent of his role as tracker with an agreeably dry humour, while Tristran Barnard plays Giger more overtly. The name suggests dark Austrian art, but he's an English-educated Irishman portraying a rather Spanish character, an unholy coupling of twisted mediaeval inquisitor with silent era swashbuckler. If we ever need Zorro to go undercover in the Spanish Inquisition, he'd surely feel exactly like Giger. I wonder if there should have been another notable character in Chizum's party to balance the two sides. I can't remember who else was chasing, but nobody else was memorable enough to make my notes and the only one I can recall is a disposable one quickly lost to a pressure mine. It could be argued that three notable characters chasing four leaves subconscious hints as to how things will play out, but maybe I just didn't buy into others being notable characters.
And that leaves the major names to discover on the road, populating a deceptively calm oasis in the desert. Tony Todd, who is top credited here above all the real leads, does add something to the story, unlike many of his guest appearances nowadays; for every characterful contribution like The Graves, there's a wasted one like Kill Her, Not Me. Todd is more versatile than most realise (just see The Man from Earth for a completely different side of him) and he brings an agreeable depth to this role. I just wanted more of Crispus because I felt he had more to bring. Doug Jones, however, is exactly right as Jebediah Strumm; while he doesn't actually get much screen time, it resonates gloriously so that he's one of the most memorable things about the film. I'm finding that that happens a lot with Jones. Ever quirky, we meet him carrying dead snakes and he later leads a tea party for children at a crucial point in the story. He's clearly not all there but he has talents beyond the obvious. How could we not like?
Unfortunately the same frustratingly doesn't go for the film as a whole. It's a highly promising picture with an enticing premise, a strong vision and a thoughtful use of a low budget. It has a great lead, well written supporting characters and a pair of impressive names guesting late in the picture. Yet its flaws cannot be ignored. Painfully clichéd scenes in an original movie grate all the more because they stand out; If I'd seen these in a less promising film, I wouldn't care because my expectations wouldn't be high, but here they spoil. The ending is a vague afterthought, as if Kightlinger wrapped the picture then remembered he had a prophecy to explain. In fact, the pace is off a little throughout; it's a slow film with a quiet score ('Mad Max bitchslapping Terrence Malick', says Kightlinger), but it slows more, even when we hit a fight/chase scene shot surprisingly close. All in all, it aims to be a great sci-fi flick and it does well for most of the film. It's so sad to highlight that the other bits are cringeworthy.

Friday 18 April 2014

Mabel at the Wheel (1914)

Directors: Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett
Stars: Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin and Harry McCoy
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
Charlie Chaplin made 36 films in his debut year of 1914, steadily building towards a status of the most recognised man in the world. If the legend is to be believed, though, his career almost ended after his eleventh picture, Mabel at the Wheel. He was still young, having reached his quarter of a century only two days before this film reached theatres, and he was still inexperienced, having arrived at Keystone just over four months earlier, even if he had already churned out ten movies in that time. However he had firm ideas about the directions he wanted his screen character to take and he was finding that his ideas rarely matched those of his directors. In fact he'd learned this before ever making a movie, just watching them be made on the Keystone set. The studio's standard methodology was to build gag on gag until they reached the point where they became a chase. Chaplin mentions in his autobiography that, 'little as I knew about movies, I knew that nothing transcended personality.'

He famously failed to get on with his first director at Keystone, Henry Lehrman, who 'used to say that he didn't need personalities' and he failed to get on with his second regular one too, even though his four films for George Nichols proved to be a burst of creative experimentation. 'He had but one gag,' Chaplin later wrote, 'which was to take the comedian by the neck and bounce him from one scene to another.' Compared to these two though, he really butted heads with Mabel Normand, not merely the biggest star at Keystone (and the lover of studio head, Mack Sennett), but one of the earliest female directors. Her technique on Mabel at the Wheel depressed Chaplin immediately and her disregard of his comedic suggestions prompted 'the inevitable blow-up.' While he claims to have 'secretly had a soft spot in my heart for her,' he emphatically refused to continue on. 'I'm sorry, Miss Normand,' he explained. 'I will not do what I'm told. I don't think you are competent to tell me what to do.'

That clearly wasn't going to help him. Extras apparently wanted to slug him, but Normand kept them at bay. They retreated to the studio where Sennett blistered at him. 'You'll do what you're told,' he told Chaplin, 'or get out, contract or no contract.' Chaplin wondered if he'd been fired, but the next day, it was completely different. Now Normand and Sennett were calm and composed, eager to hear his gag ideas. Mabel at the Wheel was a go. What prompted the change? Chaplin didn't have a clue but later he claims to have discovered the reason and he outlines it in his autobiography. He was indeed about to be fired, he explained, but the next morning, Sennett 'received a telegram from the New York office telling him to hurry up with more Chaplin pictures as there was a terrific demand for them.' Sennett was above all a businessman and he knew what sort of money his new star was starting to generate. His average picture warranted twenty prints, while Chaplin's were reaching forty and growing.
Whatever the reason for the bust up and the reconcilement, it's clear that this is far from the pictures Chaplin wanted to make. He may not have got on with Nichols, but he was able to play a varied set of characters and explore a number of possibilities in the four films they made together. This must have felt like a backward step, even though it was his first two reel film. He plays what can only be termed a serial villain or a proto-Dick Dastardly. He's not the Little Tramp, of course, dressed instead in a top hat and an odd goatee that resembles a pair of demonic horns sprouting from his chin. The character was clearly based on Ford Sterling, but there's much taken from the sharper he played in Making a Living too. Chaplin dominated both Mabel's Strange Predicament and Mabel at the Wheel, regardless of the supposed star announced in their titles. We can hardly believe these are Normand films in hindsight; the former saw her flail around as if pleading for laughs; here she doesn't really aim for them at all.

She's less a comic lead in this picture and more of a heroic one, as well as being the love interest who drives (pun not intended) the plot along. You see, Mabel has two admirers. One is her boyfriend, in the form of Harry McCoy, moving up from being merely her admirer in Mabel's Strange Predicament. He's not just her boyfriend in this picture, he's also a race car driver and with 1914 vehicles that means a true daredevil indeed. He plays a decent, all-American, nice guy, daredevil race car driver here, which may have led to further roles as her sweetheart in both Mabel's Nerve and Hello, Mabel. However, he soon descended to bit parts in later Mabel pictures like a hot dog thief, a man in a bar or even, in the following year's Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator. That's ironic because here this atypical Chaplin is his competition for Mabel's attention and he's a dastardly competitor who will stop at nothing to wreck McCoy's chances.

In fact, he'll stop at nothing to wreck McCoy. This is an odd Keystone comedy in that it seems to forget that it's a comedy for the majority of its running time and seems content to play up the villainy angle against the backdrop of a real event, a common setting for Keystone pictures. Here it's the Vanderbilt Cup road race in Santa Monica, the adult version of the soap box derby event at which Chaplin's Little Tramp debuted in Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. Documenting the race constituted the first day of the shoot, on 26th February, but they continued on until 16th March to add in all the dastardly deeds that Chaplin's villain could do. He starts with a pin to flatten one of his rival's tyres outside Mabel's house, all to guarantee that she'll ride to the track on his motorbike instead, and that pin finds its way into a substantial proportion of the backsides that present themselves during the film. He escalates quickly though, to the degree of kidnapping the poor lad and prompting Mabel to take his place in the race.
Chaplin is a very deliberate villain here, confident enough that he wears his villainy on his sleeve. He gesticulates, glowers and gibbers his way through the first half of the picture, posing outrageously at each opportunity as if we might forget how emphatically he can't be trusted. As if that wasn't enough, he has a dubious pair of henchmen with outrageous walrus moustaches. Fortunately, the evil edge is tempered a little by his general lack of success. He may succeed in kidnapping his rival but he has a hard enough time taming his heavy 1914 motorcycle. After he falls off the thing, he even needs help from a passerby to just get back on. He's also outnumbered in a rock fight, which looks very painful indeed. That great invention of Mack Sennett, the pie fight, wouldn't have fit in the scene, so they go at it with rocks instead. I'm sure they were really beanbags or some such but these actors really knew how to aim and hit square in the face more often than not.

If the early scenes play up the pain, Normand getting in on the act too with a tumble off the back of Chaplin's bike into a puddle, the later ones play up the comedy. The catch is that these scenes aren't particularly funny, with the height of sophistication here revolving around the villain spraying oil onto the track so that Mabel spins out and drives a lap in reverse, only to spin out again at the very same spot and, in doing so, restore her car to the right direction. While Dick Dastardly was clearly based on Terry-Thomas with a side of Jack Lemmon's character in The Great Race, that role was just as clearly based on the sort of villains in silent movie serials who tied damsels in distress to railway lines. What might be surprising and worthy of note here is that famous serials like The Perils of Pauline, also shot in 1914, didn't have such scenes; one of the earliest that did was Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life, a 1913 picture made at Keystone with Mabel Normand as the damsel and Ford Sterling as the villain.

Rewatching these early Chaplins, this sort of quandary keeps on showing up. On one side, the comedy on show is hardly sophisticated, Mack Sennett and his directors content to recycle both old stories and the gags that populated them again and again. Yet on the other, they were by far the most successful comedy studio in the business, churning out films that made audiences split their sides, in the process inventing so much that would come to be taken as routine. This one doesn't feel like it's either original or funny, so Chaplin was presumably right when he suggested that the 22 year old Normand wasn't a competent director but, at only three years older, he was about to get his own chances. That was the deal he struck with Sennett; if he completed this film how Normand wanted, he'd be able to helm his own. He'd dabble in direction on his next film, Twenty Minutes of Love, and go solo on Caught in the Rain, two pictures after that. By July, he'd direct every short film he appeared in at Keystone.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Mabel at the Wheel can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats (though each much abridged) from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

The Shower (2013)

Director: Alex Drummond
Stars: Kurt Ela, Rachael Drummond, Rob Norton, Andy Hoff, Alexandra Fatovich, Adam Karell, Stephanie Beran, Tony Rago, Stephanie Tobey, Katerina Mikailenko, Suzanne Sena, Drew Benda, Evan Gamble, Paul Natonek, John Brody, Liz Loza, Ted McKnight, Neil Rodriguez, Meredith Lyerla and Audrey McKenna
This film was an official selection at the 10th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
People who hate clowns are going to hate this movie. My niece Harriet, as tough as she really is, would have kittens who have kittens before the opening credits, as we're shown a particularly mild mannered clown with multi-coloured hair, so mild mannered that we can't fail to grok that he's a psychopath. Of course, the blood dripping off his chin makes it a gimme. That's him on the poster up there: see what I mean? I've never had a problem with clowns, but fate threw me a curveball in that I watched this as a screener on the morning before going to my first baby shower. I had no idea, of course. The film isn't titled Baby Shower, just The Shower. I was expecting a cheap Psycho knockoff or a creature feature where a shark bursts through the bathtub but is snagged by the shower curtain and dispatched with the broken rail. But it turns out to be about a baby shower, which flavoured my day perfectly. At least there wasn't a clown at the one I went to! Other than me, of course, and I wasn't drooling blood.

[Update for 20th August, 2016: the movie is now being released as Killer Party, which gets round that shower misconception and sneaks a neat pun into proceedings too. It's now available on VOD and iTunes. Here's its new website.]

The key name here is Alex Drummond, not only because he wrote and directed the movie but because he wrote what he knew. In 2011 he was given a couple of grand to write a screenplay, even winning a contest, but the sponsor went bankrupt and it was never turned into a picture. So Alex Drummond did what any writer worth his salt would do; he wrote another picture about a writer, Nick Drummond, who was given a couple of grand in 2011 to write a screenplay, which was never turned into a picture. This sort of similarity doesn't stop there. To play Mary Drummond, the heavily pregnant wife of this slightly fictional version of himself, he cast his heavily pregnant wife, Rachael Drummond. To play a varied set of friends to attend Mary's baby shower, he cast a varied set of friends. As producer Andy Hoff, one of those friends who plays one of those friends, points out, there's a strong connection between them: a restaurant where they all worked on their respective arrivals in Hollywood.

Beyond being true, this sort of story rings true, backed up by the comments of every local actor I know who got big enough in the small pond of Arizona to hightail it down I-10 to LA and see how they would fare as small fish in the big pond of Hollywood. Reality in Tinseltown is described simply: everybody you meet is in the movie business. They're actors, writers and directors, people who are almost famous but for now have to settle for shining your shoes or cleaning your windscreen outside a 7-Eleven. These folk happened to work in a restaurant, not only the ones who play people who work in restaurants. In a neat touch, Drummond captures this simple reality by introducing each of the ensemble cast of characters played by his ensemble cast of friends with a few little snippets to detail how they tie to the industry, thrown up on the screen neo-grindhouse style so we can't miss them. It works well. We're deluged with characters early on, but we never get lost. That's a major plus point in Drummond's favour.
Nick and Mary Drummond are as happy as Larry waiting for their second child to show up, even though she's a daughter they can't afford. They're obliging, mild mannered and polite, even when threatened, and they're just the sort of couple you'd expect someone to throw a baby shower for. This one is hosted by Joanne, a former child actor who only dates men born after 1980. No, we're never told how old she is but it doesn't take much googling to discover that actress Suzanne Sena was born in 1963, even if she doesn't list it at IMDb. She looks good, though she's notably older than Zach, her personal trainer and boy toy. Joanne is a talent agent, who treats Beth, her PA, like absolute crap. The guests flood in: Sara, who did an episode of CSI, and Pat, who played a cop in a car commercial; Caroline and Edmund, who met in improv but now have real jobs; Viola, who's a doctor, and Dave, who played one on TV; Ryan, a TV star with his own show, and Kim, a hostess, actor and model. Even Mary did national commercials.

All these folk are nice, at least on the outside, but things aren't going to stay polite for long; we grasp that when Tommy shows up and brings tension with him. He's a bartender who played a bartender in a beer commercial but, more importantly, he used to date Kim and dearly wishes he still did. This hint at romance never goes away; this isn't quite a zomromcom, but it has all the elements. These folk half get on and half really don't and we watch the cracks appear in their facades. The guys feel bad about not living their dreams, so hide inside watching golf and drowning their sorrows, while the girls hang round the pregnant chick in the hope that her condition might be contagious. It's only when Viola, Dr Froman, is called into work for an emergency, presumably the one that will soon overwhelm this baby shower, that we start to move forward. If we've been paying careful attention, we'll have seen it already take down a few background characters, but there are many to go. There's an enjoyable apocalypse in store.

For a while it plays it by numbers, with some comedy thrown in for good measure; this is very much a comedy horror film, where the former trumps the latter, but not by too much. The TV signal turns into static, the radio reports riots all over the city and folk who've already left show back up because all the roads are blocked. All the phones die just as Doc Viola rings her husband with news of an outbreak, so communications are clearly being stopped and our shower guests have to go out for background. One neighbour standing oddly in the back yard has a police scanner: he says that the LAPD is on full tactical alert and the national guard is coming in. But then he beats Zach to a pulp and the clown takes a chunk out of Joanne's arm; they throw him out, so he takes down the neighbour and howls at the imaginary moon. The apocalypse clearly wanted an invite to this baby shower and the guests start shrinking to a much more manageable number, reimagining their relationships as they go.
To find out where this goes, you'll need to watch the film, but it's a mixture of the routine tropes and a slightly original take on the end of the world. While zombie movies used to be grounded as horror films, centred around the outbreak or whatever caused their particular paradigm shift, they've been gradually shifting of late to the sci-fi model of post-apocalyptic movies, especially short ones, where nobody has a clue about who, what or where, let alone how or why, because what really matters is how they deal with it. This has that sci-fi grounding, an slightly original one where most but not all of our expectations are pandered to. For instance, characters are turned into zombies through the regular bites of the infected, but they're not the usual mindless shambling braineaters. They retain some semblance of who they are; they may eat people and indulge in violent rampages, but they also talk and reason and carry on a little of their former routine. The clown makes balloon animals all night.

However much it's grounded in sci-fi, The Shower clearly plays out as a horror movie with a strong dose of comedy. Many of the characters were clearly set up to interact in certain ways, so their story arcs are hardly surprising, but they unfold well nonetheless, aided by the fact that these actors know each other and are able to bounce off each other capably. The character interaction also makes some of the more violent scenes expected too, but they also unfold well with a healthy black humour. All this renders The Shower an enjoyable ride, especially in good company, but the lack of many surprises is a flaw which is impossible to overlook. There are other problems too. While the first act sets everything up capably, the second drags a little as the film tries to establish where it wants to go. The ending is a good one, but it arrives a little too emphatically, suggesting that the pacing wasn't quite right. The picture runs short at 78 minutes and there could easily have been another ten before it wrapped up.

If the pacing and lack of surprises are the weaker links, the stronger ones are the comedy and the cast. While the horror violence is sometimes extreme, this never feels disturbing (unless you're one of those people who are freaked out by a combination of clowns and blood) because it's always funny, in a real, or at least a surreal way. The laughs are generally good ones, written well and delivered well by a solid ensemble cast. Kurt Ela is most notable as Nick, not the usual lead but one who transforms from Henry the mild mannered janitor into something far more, even if he would never get his own cartoon series. Suzanne Sena isn't as strong as Joanne, but she has the most overt character and appropriately makes herself very noticed. All these characters are real and recognisable, grounding this low budget success. Producer Hoff, who also plays Tommy, described the making of the film as 'the right blend of arrogance and ignorance' and I hope that blend carries through to their next picture.

Friday 4 April 2014

The Star Boarder (1914)

Director: George Nichols
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edgar Kennedy, Minta Durfee and Gordon Griffith
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
The last of Charlie Chaplin's four films for director George Nichols, The Star Boarder is by far the most conventional. It could even be considered unrushed, a description that's hard to imagine applied to a Keystone picture, but it does speed up towards the end and even feels like it wants to continue on to Benny Hill levels, aided magnificently by a new score by Frederick Hodges which mirrors the pace well. Initially it's a elegant thing, as the scenes are set and the characters established, but it gradually gets more and more frenetic until we wonder if the pianist's nimble fingers are going to drop off. Maybe the experiment here was to play with control, to set up the jokes and build them, all the while refusing to allow the usual descent into chaos until the time is absolutely right for it. If so, The Star Boarder may have been just as experimental a piece at the time as Chaplin's other three films for Nichols, but feels less so today because it succeeded in nailing the future much better.

The main cast return from Cruel, Cruel Love, though shuffled around somewhat. Minta Durfee still has influence here, with Charlie remaining attentive to her every word and deed, but they're not lord and lady here; she runs a boarding house with her husband and he's one of the guests, the star boarder of the title. There's no reason for what appears to be a nautical pun, but perhaps there was another pun apparent at the time, as this was one of two films of the same title released in 1914, with another four following as the decade ran on. All appear to have unique stories. Edgar Kennedy is promoted from a mere butler to the man of the house, but he's under the thumb of his wife who clearly rules the roost with an unerring eye for any divergence from her preferences and a withering glance to ensure that he does what he's told. He's relegated to being the man in the outrageous moustache, which is a doozy even for Keystone's well known facial hair fetish. His first scenes are spent manipulating it for laughs.
After spending Cruel, Cruel Love away from it, Charlie is back in his familiar tramp outfit but apparently rather comfortable for a change. He's a paying customer and the apple of the landlady's eye. Chaplin's films usually had a whole slew of titles for their many reissues and one of them highlights his situation even better: not only is he The Star Boarder but also The Landlady's Pet. Initially we might believe that he plays up to her in order to get the first or the largest plate of food, but he persists beyond that, so it can only be assumed that he's flirting madly with this married woman at a time long before Production Code rules against such immoral behaviour. Another reissue title was In Love with his Landlady, which emphasises it a little much but makes the relationship crystal clear. Whatever the reason, the landlord is aware of it and far from happy, but his wife's withering glance puts him back in his place every time he tries to enforce his position and Charlie continues to get preferential treatment.

If Chaplin was the uncharacteristic chewer of scenery in Cruel, Cruel Love, he emphatically hands that role back to Edgar Kennedy here. Kennedy bristles and roils and looks menacing, while exercising his facial muscles far more than must have been comfortable in order to keep his moustache moving. It's so large that it's like a pair of caterpillars mating on his top lip and it's so active that it could have had its own credit, had Keystone ever used them. In comparison, Chaplin is back to being the Little Tramp, better off than usual but still the inveterate drunk, as is underlined by an odd scene where the story is put on pause so he can drink the kitchen dry for no apparent reason. Perhaps it's to allow him to build the routine from what he performed in vaudeville and in early Keystone pictures like Mabel's Strange Predicament or Tango Tangles into something a little more substantial. The clever scene that follows tasks him with hiding everything he spirited out of the kitchen from another guest.

While there are some laughs here for the drunken tramp and a few earlier on too, as he's clearly hung over when we first see him, trying to simultaneously charm his landlady and not fall over the stairs, it's the more sober scenes that work best here. Much of the fun is built out of the same gag, repeated over and over again in different settings, namely Charlie's attempts to get somewhere with his landlady and her husband's consistent ability to show up just in time and spoil his fun. These start at home, but soon head out for the tennis court and the park. The tennis match, which is so brief that I'm not convinced a ball ever crosses a net, isn't much but Jeffrey Vance highlights that it marks the first time that Chaplin and the game of tennis cross paths. It would become a lifelong passion for him, at least until a broken ankle and a series of strokes towards the end of his life prompted him to hang up his racket. Here it's just an excuse for him to spin around and fall over, a move used so often that we want to mimic it.
What elevates The Star Boarder from just a set of moustache twitching reruns of the same gag is the welcome addition of another character to spice things up. No, this isn't a fourth wheel, though one of those is hinted at, this is the landlady's young son whose hobby is to take highly embarrassing, often highly misleading, photographs with his clunky 1914 camera and then project them to the assembled boarding house guests as a free magic lantern show. It isn't rocket science to figure out what reactions that's going to prompt here, especially given that the boy has a strong talent for capturing exactly the moments that his subjects don't want captured. The bonus for us is that young Gordon Griffith was an infectious actor whose many cries of joy at being in the right place at the right time to snap the wrong picture soon find their way to our lips too. He's a joy and we laugh along with him, even as he's getting an expected spanking at the end of the picture.

Griffith hadn't even turned seven years old when he shot The Star Boarder, but he had already become an experienced actor, closing in on his twentieth picture. He'd started his screen career at Keystone in 1913, a year before Chaplin, and was often paired with Billy Jacobs, who was even younger still. Jacobs began his career at three and had his own series, the Little Billy series at four. He retired at the ripe old age of eight, with almost sixty pictures behind him. Griffith started later but lasted longer, appearing in serials like The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand as late as 1936, before switching to production and direction. This was the first of a number of films he made with Chaplin in 1914, before he moved on to his most famous role, as the first screen Tarzan, playing the junior lord of the jungle who appears for the first third of 1918's Tarzan of the Apes before handing the reins over to barrel chested 29 year old Elmo Lincoln. Griffith also played the screen's first Tom Sawyer. His charisma here explains why.
In fact, Griffith is far more watchable here than most of the cast. Minta Durfee is strong as the landlady, working well with Chaplin and ensuring that her performance was toned down enough to match. They're a good double act, hindered only by the stereotypical scenery chewing of Edgar Kennedy, whose talents as a capable actor are completely not on display here. He's so out of tune with the other leads that he's almost acting in a different movie, perhaps an animated one. In other circumstances, we'd call him the comic relief, but we never find ourselves laughing at Kennedy here; we laugh instead at the double act of Chaplin and Durfee and at the contagious mischief of Gordon Griffith. It's somehow odd to see Durfee such a natural foil to Chaplin, given that she was married in real life at the time to Roscoe Arbuckle, but she got to play his wife or sweetheart on screen often enough too, even in Chaplin pictures. They made thirteen of them together at Keystone in 1914.

The large Keystone output and small Keystone roster meant that actors appeared in the same pictures all the time. It becomes somewhat surreal to watch a lot of these films close together, especially as the characters rarely have names to delineate them and, when they do, they're the same ones. Chaplin was Charlie most of the times he ever had a name, just as Arbuckle was Fatty, Mack Swain was Ambrose and Chester Conklin was Walrus. So in one film, Durfee would be Chaplin's wife, in the next a girlfriend, then a flirtation and then someone else's wife entirely. It often feels less like the stock company a filmmaker might foster and more like a theatrical troupe of stage actors who swap costumes three times a day for different performances. In a way that's what they were doing, swapping roles until they found the ones that suited them best. Charlie is still a little on the obnoxious side here, but Chaplin's experimentation under George Nichols may have got him closer to the Little Tramp we know today than he'd come yet.

Important Sources:
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

The Star Boarder can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Uhomo (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Michael Hanelin, Colleen Hartnett and Michael Coleman

A new month means a new Running Wild review at Apocalypse Later and I have a couple remaining until I blitz into the 52 Films/52 Weeks project in July. So which titles to review until then? Well, this particular new month coincides with April Fools Day, the day of movie horrors which, this year, saw NPR cover the remake of Citizen Kane, starring and directed by Keanu Reeves, and Full Moon Features announce the long awaited big budget reboot of their Puppet Master franchise with Justin Bieber as Andre Toulon. By comparison, Running Wild merely announced that their close partnership with 5J Media was ending and they were going their separate ways. Like they're going to dump James Alire? I'd buy into Charlie Band casting the Bieber before I'd buy that one. The icing on the cake though was a faux commercial posted yesterday for an awkwardly named eau de toilette, Uhomo, a direct spoof of a commercial for the very real and just as awkwardly named (at least in English) eau de toilette, Uomo, from Ermenegildo Zegna.

I watched the original earlier today and wasn't surprised. It's the usual mix of short beards, open shirts and continental European coastal roads, shot for the most part in classic black and white but with some colour scenes to spice it up and make it contemporary. The editing is fast and the music thoughtful but, in case we didn't catch that, we're given some tumbling chess pieces to ram the point home. Of course there's a lovely young lady for our hero to drive home to. There's even a spectacularly modern piece of architecture that receives its own on screen credit, the Casa Malaparte on the isle of Capri, which was prominently used in Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Le Mépris or Contempt. Why the marketing maestros working for Ermenegildo Zegne remembered Contempt when puzzling over their ad campaign, I have no idea, but it works well enough. In Italian 'uomo' means simply 'man', and it's a quintessentially male conceit to have carved out a house like this on top of a dangerous cliff in Mussolini's Italy.

No wonder Angela Merkin Haines and Michael Hanelin felt that it was ripe for a spoof. The name itself cries out for a dubious joke in poor taste, but the commercial itself underlines it. Clearly, it isn't fooling anyone, this GQ cover model paying lip service to his Vogue counterpart, while delivering the requisite poses to us, as if to say that he'd much rather be warming our beds than that of the lovely lady who he happens to be stuck with. As they used to say, it's as queer as a three bob note, so that's what Running Wild promptly made in response. Of course, when bringing the video up tonight, I searched for 'Ohomo' instead of 'Uhomo' by mistake, which I certainly don't want to do again. The hateful folk at Chimpmania define the term 'inappropriate', which doesn't leap to mind here. Given the amount of gay characters Michaels Coleman and Hanelin have played for Running Wild lately, without any hint of homophobia, it seems safe to say that they can get away with a spoof like this without being called inappropriate.
The Running Wild team do a great job at mimicking the pretentiousness of the original, while adding in the sense of humour that it sorely lacked. Instead of chess pieces, we get tumbling chips. 'Poker' is an obvious pun in this spoof, even before the pair of queens are turned over. Instead of Casa Malaparte, it falls to the Tempe Center for the Arts to look contemporary, with a bestubbled Michael Hanelin winding his way to the inevitable Colleen Hartnett, who emerges from nowhere like a ghost. Of course, she's on screen only to look good and set up the finalé, which arrives in the form of Coleman as she exits stage downwards. If Uomo plays with a stairway to Heaven, perhaps she's taking the highway to Hell as she provides the piece with its ending. That's what the late, unlamented Fred Phelps would say, right? God Hates Travis. I was waiting for him to stage the double suicide that I felt was the clear next step in the original commercial, but he goes for the more obvious and, to be honest, more appropriate ending.

With Hartnett the female presence in a male gay fantasy and Coleman only arriving as a punchline, it's Michael Hanelin who has to sell the piece. I hadn't quite realised how uncomfortable he looks when he walks, but slow motion might just do that to the best of us, especially when walking up concrete steps in black and white. Where he absolutely nails his role is in the close up glances he gifts the camera, slowly turning towards it with an eye that carries ultimate confidence. It's as if he knows that it'll only take one look for the cameraman to strip naked and fall pleading at his feet. It isn't deliberate seduction, because there's no persuasion going on; it's natural seduction, all about the absolute surety that he doesn't need to persuade, merely make eye contact. No wonder Coleman is sold. Of course, it's a linguistic irony that in order to make a particularly gay fragrance commercial, Hanelin's crowning achievement was to play it straight. A bad pun isn't a bad way to end a review of a spoof for April Fools Day, right?

Running Wild's spoof commercial, Uhomo, can be watched for free at YouTube. Uomo, the original commercial for Ermenegildo Zegna can also be watched for free at YouTube.