Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Hobo - 1917

Country: United States
Language: English
Director: Arvid E. Gillstrom
Stars: Billy West, Oliver Hardy and Leo White
Release Date: 1 November 1917 (USA)
Also known as: 4 Clowns (West Germany - reissue title), De landloper (Netherlands - DVD title), Der komischte Mann der Welt (West Germany - alternative title), Dick und Doof wie immer auf eigene Gefahr (West Germany - alternative title), Jubel, Trubel, Sensationen (West Germany), Mad Movies-Als die Bilder laufen lernten: Das Privatmuseum des Lachens (West Germany - TV title), Mad Movies-Als die Bilder laufen lernten: Im Scheinwerferlicht (West Germany - TV title), The Station Master (USA - working title)
Filming Locations: Bayonne, New Jersey, USA
Production Co: King Bee Studios
Sound Mix: Silent
Color: Black and White
Plot Keywords: Train | Tramp | Car | Car Theft | Dog  | Pancake | Food Fight
Genres: Comedy | Short
A tramp who has been hiding underneath a railroad car wakes up while the train is stopped, and follows a pretty girl into the train station. When he flirts with her, the girl's boyfriend becomes angry and provokes a series of confrontations with the tramp. When things calm down, the tramp winds up working at the station's lunch counter, where he soon runs into some new predicaments.
At the peak of Charlie Chaplin's success, his 'Tramp' comedies were such solid money-makers that several other film companies churned out counterfeit Chaplin films, featuring actors (including at least one woman) who copied Chaplin's costume, makeup, and acting technique as closely as possible. One counterfeit, a Mexican who billed himself as Charlie Aplin(!), was sued out of business by Chaplin: the others were mostly too obscure to be worth bothering with.
By far the most successful fake Chaplin (both artistically and financially) was Billy West, whose attempts to copy Chaplin exactly were so conscientious that he even slept with his hair in curlers to duplicate Chaplin's naturally tousled appearance. (Ironically, West's black hair was genuine: Chaplin's hair was prematurely grey, and he had to colour it to play the Tramp.) 'The Hobo' is probably West's best film -- funny in its own right, and extremely Chaplinesque -- because West places the Tramp in situations that emulate genuine Chaplin sequences. Leo White, who played a European fop in some of Chaplin's Essanay films, plays a similar role here.
Also on-hand in 'The Hobo' is Oliver Hardy -- pre-Laurel, sans moustache, and billed as 'Babe' -- playing the Tramp's hulking nemesis, clearly cast here as Billy West's counterpart to Mack Swain and Eric Campbell in (respectively) Chaplin's Keystone and Mutual comedies. But Swain and Campbell used their bulk to menace the Tramp; here, Hardy's character is depicted as a glutton -- Hardy does some business with a stack of flapjacks which I found genuinely disgusting -- and this makes him too weak an opponent for the Tramp's stratagems. Fans of Hardy will be disappointed at how little he gets to do here.
The plot is simple enough. West, as a Chaplinesque tramp, descends from a train on which he's been 'riding the rails'. (This is a very American premise, which the English-born Chaplin would not have used.) At a whistle-stop station, with amazing alacrity, the tramp persuades the stationmaster and his pretty daughter to let him take temporary charge of the lunch counter and the ticket office ... even having custody of the combination to the wall safe!
Whenever a Billy West film is seem, it’s tempting to spot the ways in which his tramp DIFFERS from Chaplin's. In 'The Hobo' we see one of these early on, when West alights from the train and runs afoul of a railway navvy. Straight away, the tramp becomes servile: dusting off the navvy and clearly trying to curry his favour. Chaplin's tramp would have handled the situation differently; PRETENDING to curry the man's favour, but then kicking him or otherwise defeating him. Also, in a genuine Chaplin film, the navvy would be played by someone who looked funny in his own right, such as Albert Austin or Bud Jamison: here, West merely plays against a very ordinary straight-man actor. When a carload of cops show up, they look like normal American constables ... not Keystone Cops. Most fatally, the film 'climaxes' with an argument, instead of a chase.
When West's tramp meets the love interest (Virginia Clark, very pretty) he demonstrates his passion by clutching his hands to his heart and pantomiming its heartbeat. I felt that Chaplin would have handled this scene more subtly. One thing that West gets right is Chaplin's comic trick which I call 'conversion': Chaplin's penchant for treating humans as objects, objects as humans, or one object for entirely another sort of object. Here, when West sells the railway tickets, he measures them out like yard goods: an echo of Chaplin's archetypal conversion sequence in 'The Pawnshop' in which he treated an alarm clock like nearly everything EXCEPT an alarm clock.
'The Hobo' briefly features an actor playing a Jewish stereotype. Even though I found this distressing, I had to give Billy West credit for accuracy ... since several genuine Chaplin shorts from this period also include Jewish stereotypes.
In one way, this faux Chaplin film is actually superior to the genuine article. Chaplin's skills as a director were minimal, and he famously boasted that he had 'no use for camera angles'. In 'The Hobo', director Arvid Gillstrom (who?) cleverly stages two sequences with the ticket window shot directly edge-on: this creates a 'split-screen' effect, with rival actions occurring simultaneously on both sides of the screen. In Chaplin's entire body of work, I can't recall one camera set-up which impressed me as much as this.
Reportedly, the real Chaplin -- in his civilian rig -- once happened to pass by a street where Billy West and his poverty-row crew were filming a 'tramp' picture. Chaplin stopped to watch the action, courteously waiting until a break in the filming. Then he went up to West and told him 'You're a damned good imitator, but that's all you are.' I'd put that as a good appraisal of West's career: a damned good imitation of Chaplin, but just an imitation. Still, 'The Hobo' is funny in its own right, and better made than some of Chaplin's early Keystones.
Babe Hardy's gag of eating a long link of sausages in one sitting have obvious stops and starts throughout.
Edited into The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy (1968)  

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