Bright Lights Film Journal

Two from Flicker Alley: Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, 1924) and Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies, 1915-16

Isn't Life Wonderful

From his very beginnings as a filmmaker, Griffith understood the efficacy of location shooting. Putting actors into real landscapes and streets not only went to authenticating the narrative but had a way of pushing performances away from theatrical hyperbole and into heightened realism.

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D. W. Griffith’s 1924 film Isn’t Life Wonderful hadn’t been available in home video since a VHS edition from Kino decades ago when, late last year, resourceful Flicker Alley issued it as part of their newly launched made-on-demand program. What’s best about Griffith the filmmaker is on full display here, in spite of the film’s surviving print being in rather rough shape.

Whatever his fascination – on an epic scale – with the Civil War (Birth of a Nation, 1915) or Persia’s invasion of Babylonia (Intolerance, 1916), Griffith didn’t shy away from embedding modern topicality in his narratives. Witness the oppression of the Dear One by the “reformers” in Intolerance’s Mother and the Law story, his treatment of the Great War in 1918’s Hearts of the World, or of alcoholism in The Struggle (1931). Isn’t Life Wonderful takes place during the hyperinflation-afflicted Germany of the early 1920s, in which a family of Polish immigrants face a daily threat of starvation.

Neil Hamilton and Carol Dempster

The family, which includes a father, grandmother, aunt, and two brothers, has raised in their midst an orphan, Inga (Carol Dempster), who is in love with one of the brothers, Paul (Neil Hamilton), a WWI veteran returning with lungs compromised from gas attacks in the war.

Griffith renders vividly the terrors of the family’s barely sustained existence, and of all the actors, Carol Dempster projects best the rigors of hope in the face of this slow annihilation. Against the director’s nubile, spirituelle discoveries like the Gishes, Dempster was different. Griffith had first engaged her in 1915 as one of the St. Denis group of dancers to perform oriental dance sequences in the Babylonian section of Intolerance. She was 14 years old and destined to become Griffith’s chief female lead – and his lover – for a good stretch in the 1920s.

Neither as innately talented as an actress nor as camera-ready beautiful as the unique Lillian Gish, Dempster could be awkward and self-conscious but at other times oddly affecting. In Sally of the Sawdust (1925), the film to follow Isn’t Life Wonderful, she plays the titular character, another orphan, who’s ward to W. C. Fields’s boozehound Eustace McGargle. As accomplished and graceful she is in her dance sequences, Dempster’s lack of romantic élan in her scenes with Alfred Lunt create an against-the-grain poignance; she’s more convincing as a plain adolescent girl struggling with her emotions than Gish had been in True Heart Susie (1919). Something of an ugly duckling as Lunt’s patrician character circles around her, she emerges at a masked ball, gowned and made over, as an elegant swan. Interestingly, once past his scenes with her, famous stage actor Lunt becomes instantly forgettable whereas Dempster’s strange presence stays with you.

In the impoverished world of Isn’t Life Wonderful, Dempster’s thin frame and narrow, somewhat pinched facial features fit right in. Aided perhaps by makeup and lighting, Dempster looks authentically undernourished (unlike beefcake Hamilton, as the gravely ill Paul, who looks well fed and healthy). When called upon to faint, the actress wafts bonelessly to the floor, as if starved nearly to weightlessness. More importantly, though, is the unaffected, unforced quality of her performance. As the anguished but ever hopeful and resourceful Inga, Dempster is consistently hitting the right emotive notes without having to reach for them or shout them out. Richard Schickel points out in his biography of Griffith that, in Isn’t Life Wonderful, “it’s a relief . . . to see a Griffith heroine assaulted not for her virtue but for a hoard of potatoes.”1 Roles like those of Sally and Inga may also have given Dempster the freedom to forget trying to be a Gish or Mae Marsh.

Dempster’s especially memorable in a scene in which Inga waits in line at a meat market while anxiously comparing the meager funds in her purse to the steadily escalating prices chalked up every few minutes outside the store.2 Here, as with most of the film’s exterior scenes, Griffith films on an actual street in Berlin, giving Inga’s experience a hard-edged everyday feel. Dempster’s underplayed distress in such drab diurnal surroundings makes it all the more resonant with any viewer’s familiarity with existential dread. From his very beginnings as a filmmaker, Griffith understood the efficacy of location shooting. Putting actors into real landscapes and streets not only went to authenticating the narrative but had a way of pushing performances away from theatrical hyperbole and into heightened realism.

Isn’t Life Wonderful

One of Griffith’s strongest and most personal themes is the resilience of family when threatened by larger forces beyond their control. Before Birth of a Nation is overwhelmed by racist polemic in its second half, the domestic scenes of its initial sequences are delicately calibrated and brought to life by the players. Looking back as we can on his work, it appears that Griffith’s attempts at large, and what he thought eternal, statements are perhaps not what plays best in his films today, and there’s no effort in Isn’t Life Wonderful to spread a banner of some eternal verity in front of its storyline, except, of course, the one contained in its title.

How we get to that sentiment, spoken as a line of dialog by Inga, is through the last crisis suffered by the family, in this case by the lovers, Inga and Paul. Secretly, Paul has secured a small plot of land on which he’s harvested a goodly crop of the aforementioned potatoes, which he and Inga mean to deliver in a rude cart to the folks back in their cramped tenement apartment. Pushing and pulling the cart through a darkling wood – they are their own beasts of burden – they are chased and finally ambushed by a desperately hungry group of laid off workers. Again, Griffith delivers great location work in a landscape reminiscent of the pine barrens in which the renegade Gus chases Mae Marsh’s Flora Cameron in Birth.

Griffith relies on chases, usually races to the rescue, to quicken many of his films to their denouements, but this one’s unusual not just because, as Schickel has pointed out, the men aren’t intending to rape Inga – they just want the spuds. Once they overtake the lovers and the cart, Inga pleads for solidarity and sharing, and the men almost buy her we’re-all-in-this-together message, but in the end – big spoiler here – they go ahead and run off with the potatoes anyway, leaving Inga and Paul, knocked nearly senseless, sprawled beside their emptied cart. Paul’s despondent, but Inga isn’t. They’ve got each other, don’t they? “Isn’t life wonderful?”

Frame enlargement

But to leave Inga and Paul destitute in the dust, with nothing between them but love and an empty cart as darkness falls on the woods, is asking too much of Griffith. The film ends with an unnecessary coda that provides the joyously married couple a sweet little cottage and future prosperity for the immediate family. Throughout his career Griffith could never free himself of the demands of old-timey, theatrical melodrama – possibly one reason that his filmmaking floundered as movies grew more sophisticated in their story lines in the late ’20s.

At the same time, though, with the introduction of sound, the movies lost – for a time – much of the formal and technical sophistication that Griffith had so finely honed for two decades of silent film. One of those ironies, I suppose.

USA/1924/115 minutes/B&W/Silent, with original 1924 score performed by Robert Israel (piano) and Galina Golovin (violin). Made available in 2015 as a made-on-demand disc by Flicker Alley.

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Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies, 1915-16

Always a solo act, Charlie sought foils not equals. Enter Edna Purviance, who Chaplin reportedly spotted in a cafe.

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In 1914, when Charlie Chaplin left Mack Sennett’s laugh factory, Keystone, the split was ostensibly over money – Sennett was famous for being cheap – but it was also over creative control. Even then, Chaplin had grand ambitions. Several years later, and for similar but somewhat more complex, even personal reasons, Sennett superstar Mabel Normand abandoned Sennett (for a time) and signed with Sam Goldwyn.

At Keystone, Chaplin and Normand had made several shorts together and, just prior to Charlie’s departure, played fellow grifters in Sennett’s first feature length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914). Some believe that Normand, by suggesting to him a hobo’s outfit that might freshen his shtick and ingratiate himself with Sennett, had given Chaplin the spark to create the little tramp character, who first appeared before audiences as a nasty interloper aspiring to ruin the filming of an actual event in Kid Auto Races at Venice, Ca. (1914).

But his first starring role as the tramp was with Normand in Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), which was shot before Kid Auto Races. Thereafter, whenever they worked together, he and Mabel were consistently wonderful but never formed a lasting, publicly adored partnership, as Mabel would with Fatty Arbuckle. Chaplin left Keystone before any such thing might’ve occurred, but there are reasons why it never would have anyway.

Mabel Normand and Charlie in Tillie’s Punctured Romance

Evidenced by the films that survive, Mabel was of the same high caliber of farcical performer as Chaplin, and she had an ego and ambitions to match (as early as 1912 she had ably directed herself in a Keystone one-reeler entitled Caught in a Cupboard). Normand, in addition, was no sweet young thing. A former Gibson girl, she could yearn and bat her eyelashes with the best of them, but under a thin veneer of saucer-eyed docility, she was feisty, combative, and funny in a way that left Edwardian ladylike behavior in the dust.

When Chaplin signed with Essanay in late December 1914, he had no interest in partnering with anyone on screen, much less with an equally funny woman, who, off set, had refused to go to bed with him. Always a solo act, Charlie sought foils not equals. Enter Edna Purviance, who Chaplin reportedly spotted in a cafe.

Beautiful, decorous, and above all compliant, Purviance was ladylike and had no compunction over bedding down with Chaplin, the rising star, whose Essanay characters, including the tramp, exhibit little of the nastiness and knockdown slapstick toward Miss Purviance that he heaped on Mabel Normand (who gave as good as she got) in the Keystone shorts. Indeed, who could be mean to Edna? She’s the all-American girlfriend, a Betty to Normand’s Veronica.

Edna Purviance

Purviance and Chaplin make cinema history appearing together in The Tramp, which, with its self-abnegating, “smile though your heart is aching” finish, seems to be the first of Chaplin’s attempts to meld poignance with farce, a trend that flowered in Chaplin’s later, full-length features like The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931).

In the 1915 film, Purviance plays a sweet country girl whose father, as a reward for saving her and a wad of cash from a band of hobo ruffians, takes Charlie on as a field hand. Much of the film mines its only moderate laughs from slapstick routines featuring the tramp’s total inability to do his job, until, in the climax, he’s accidentally wounded chasing the aforementioned hobo thieves off the property.

Quietly adoring her, the recuperating Charlie assumes the pretty girl has grown to love him too, until she introduces him to her beau. Once he stands next to the tall, well-dressed, handsome boyfriend, the tramp’s eyes are opened, much like the blind girl’s at the end of City Lights, whereupon Charlie takes to the road of lonely heartbreak. He leaves a hastily scribbled note explaining his feelings in disjointed grammar that nonetheless reads like a poem: “I thot [sic] your kindness was love but it ain’t cause I seen him.”

The Tramp proves the most adventurous of the 15 films, except perhaps for A Woman, which features Chaplin’s spectacular turn in drag, a common enough shtick among vaudevillians that survived into the fifties on TV with Milton Berle and even later with Monty Python. But like Harry Langdon’s southern belle in Sea Squawk (1925), Chaplin’s delicate features and slight build make him a plausible enough woman but at the same time – as the director favors himself with some close-ups – an exceedingly odd one, a quality that is expected in such a trope but one that Chaplin, as he sashays and flirts with abandon, takes to a new and perhaps never equaled level. Both the girl’s father and his acquaintance move in on the svelte, kittenish young lady who, in long shots anyway, is, well, kind of attractive.3

In those close-ups Chaplin’s drag act, which necessarily is sans mustache, is a startling lesson in how much the tramp persona owes to the facial prop; without the mustache (and with the eyebrows and eye makeup toned down a bit), Charlie is suddenly merely Charles Chaplin in a dress; whereas with the mustache, he’s the tramp in a dress. Experiencing this is like being Lois Lane and realizing Superman is Clark Kent, adding an additional frisson of disquiet to these sequences.

Charlie in drag

Purviance has a wonderful scene with Chaplin when the girl unexpectedly comes upon the tramp en regalia but still with mustache, a sight that causes her to collapse to the floor in hysterical laughter. Whether this is mime or the real thing, its effect is gleefully meta: it’s as if we’re seeing Edna’s fresh reaction, before the cameras roll, to Chaplin’s surprise tryout of the tramp in drag. Here Purviance becomes something of a real person, that is, herself, in Charlie’s bizarro universe, like Lucille Ball would forty years later in hers with Desi. And like Lucy, she’s immensely likable.

Purviance is also delightful as the titular gypsy in Burlesque on Carmen (1916), which might claim distinction as the first filmed parody of a movie, in this case Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen (1915), starring opera celebrity Geraldine Farrar. I’ve not seen DeMille’s film, but having taken in the same director’s Joan the Woman (1916), also starring Farrar, I can imagine the singer’s performance as Carmen might be ripe for lampoon, not to mention DeMille’s awkward theatrical stagings in his early films being an easy target.4

Produced as a two-reel film, Burlesque on Carmen was completed in January 1916, but not released until April of that year as a four-reel comedy, padded by outtakes and newly shot scenes – none of which were approved by Chaplin, who had since left the company. Following a reconstruction by David Shepard, the version on Flicker Alley’s release purports to be as close to Chaplin’s original as possible.

As it stands – and I’m sure Essanay’s extended cut was no improvement – Chaplin must navigate a complex narrative in twenty-odd minutes, and the comedy sometimes seems constrained by the effort. But as Darn Hosiery, Chaplin need only to appear on screen to garner laughs, looking certifiably ludicrous in his dragoon outfit, fitted as it is with an outsized tufted helmet that’s nonetheless a good match to the one worn by Wallace Reid as Don José in the DeMille film. Charlie executes a number of great bits, including an extended dance on the table (taking over from Carmen) at Lilas Pastia’s, and perhaps the highpoint, a deftly timed and very funny sword fight with the rival Morales. Displaying their mutual chemistry, Chaplin and his co-star deliver a witty last-minute, happy-ending twist on the story’s murderous finale.

Released in 2015, Flicker Alley’s set of 15 Essanay comedies is the anticipated follow-up to the company’s deluxe, completist editions of Chaplin’s Keystone and Mutual films. As in those releases, the restored, century-old Essanay films have been stitched together from many sources – some of them far-flung – but the results are always watchable and often quite more than just that. The restoration of The Bank, for example, has been sourced from a wide spectrum of surviving fragments – from battered, murky 16mm elements, to fine-grain nitrate prints, but also, remarkably, to a partial original camera negative held by the UCLA Film Archives. The sequences derived from the OCN announce themselves with a sudden pristine clarity that has the effect of making Chaplin and all his brilliant comic artifice startlingly real and present.

Thinking of all the years we experienced these films as if viewed through cheap, distorted, grimy window glass, which conferred upon them what seemed to be the justifiable murk and damage accumulated through time – old things should look old, shouldn’t they? But the 26-year-old Chaplin performs and the decades vanish. The effect is joyfully disorienting.

USA/1915-16/405 min./B&W/music performed by Robert Israel, Timothy Brock, and The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. (His New Job, A Night Out, The Champion, In the Park, A Jitney Elopement, The Tramp, By the Sea, His Regeneration, Work, A Woman, The Bank, Shanghaied, A Night in the Show, Burlesque on Carmen, Police) Released in 2015 as a dual format set (DVD and Blu-Ray) by Flicker Alley.

  1. Schickel, Richard. D. W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Limelight Editions: 1996, p. 501. []
  2. The scene resonates with a sequence in G. W. Pabst’s 1925 film about the ’20s depression in Vienna, Joyless Street (1925) in which a meat market’s proprietor plays a harrowing game with the availability of meat and causes a riot. []
  3. Having the ingenue’s dad go in on Chaplin’s vixen presages the major gag in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982), in which Charles Durning pursues the affections of Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy Michaels. []
  4. Both films are available from Flicker Alley as made-on-demand discs. []