Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Rag Man (MGM, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Rag Man, a 1925 production from MGM — or rather billed as “Metro-Goldwyn” because, in a rather curious bit of legerdemain, for the first year or so after Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer merged in 1924 productions could either be billed as “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” or as “Metro-Goldwyn,” but ordinarily with the proviso that the ones billed as just “Metro-Goldwyn” had also to be credited as “produced” or “presented” by Louis B. Mayer. Some films escaped that — among those the independent productions of director Rex Ingram, whom Metro founder Marcus Loew had allowed to work at his own studio in Nice on the south of France; Ingram hated Mayer so much — and had so much clout with Loew as the discoverer of Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro — he didn’t want the hated name of Mayer on his films, and Loew said he didn’t have to endure it. The Rag Man didn’t have Mayer’s name on it either, which seems odd because it was a much less controversial production, a film aimed at capitalizing on the soaring popularity of child star Jackie Coogan. Coogan had been the son of a vaudeville performer who introduced the kid at the end of his act; Charlie Chaplin saw the Coogans perform in 1919 and wasn’t especially interested in Coogan père but immediately saw the possibilities of Coogan fils co-starring with him. Then he heard Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had signed Coogan for a supporting role in one of his movies, and he despaired of ever getting to work with the boy until someone on Chaplin’s staff discovered it was Jack Coogan, the father, whom Arbuckle had signed; the kid was still a free agent. Chaplin approached Jack Coogan for permission to cast his son in a feature-length film, and Jack Coogan responded with the sort of dedicated loving, fatherly affection he always showed his son: “Why, of course you can have the little punk.” The result was a masterpiece, The Kid, in which Coogan was a foundling raised by Chaplin’s “Tramp” character, both living on the thin edge of starvation (much the way Chaplin and his older brother Sidney had in Chaplin’s own childhood in London after their father abandoned his family and their mom went insane) until the ending, when the Kid is reunited with his birth parents and Chaplin says a fond adieu to the boy whom he raised. The Kid was an enormous hit that changed the face of comedy filmmaking forever — it proved that a great clown could sustain interest over a film of feature length and that comedians no longer needed to cut short their aspirations to fit into a two-reel (about 20 minutes) running time.

Coogan went on to a popular free-lance career, including playing the title role in Universal’s 1922 adaptation of Oliver Twist (with Lon Chaney, Sr. as Fagin), and in 1925 he ended up at MGM doing The Rag Man, which is basically The Kid lite: Timothy Kelly (Jackie Coogan) survives a fire that burns down the orphanage in which he’s been living (we’re not told how he became an orphan but we really don’t need to be) and ekes out a living on the streets until he’s picked up by Jewish junk dealer Max Ginsberg (Max Davidson). Years before Ginsberg was working at a garment factory and developed a revolutionary new manufacturing process, only the two attorneys he hired to patent it for him stole the rights and left him scrambling for survival. One of the attorneys who did that to him died in Denver in 1910 but on his deathbed wrote a letter to his former partner, Mr. Bernard (Robert Edeson, the character actor who made his reputation by filling in for the late George Christians in the role of the American tourist in Monte Carlo whose wife is tempted by Erich von Stroheim in Foolish Wives; Stroheim spent so long shooting that picture that Christians croaked just before completing his role and Edeson had to step in for him). Kelly declares himself a partner in Ginsberg’s junk business and takes Ginsberg’s pushcart — pulled by a horse named “Dynamite” who himself becomes a significant character in the film and got a separate line on the credits — to upscale Fifth Avenue, where unbeknownst to him he buys an old coat of Mr. Bernard’s from Mrs. Bernard (Ethel Wales). He also meets up with Reginald, son of Ginsberg’s own lawyer, and together the two kids empty 25 bottles from Reginald’s dad’s wine cellar (which must have struck audiences in 1925, during Prohibition, as a real waste!) to sell the empties for a penny each. Kelly finds the letter from Bernard’s former partner in his old coat and uses it to stuff a hole in a hatbox so he can use it to feed Dynamite, but he thinks he’s burned the letter for kindling. When he appeals to Bernard, the attorney pushes him out of his house and says that without the letter, he has no evidence that Ginsberg was swindled — but eventually Bernard has a change of heart and offers Ginsberg $200,000 for his rights even before Kelly rediscovers the letter. The final scene shows Ginsberg and Kelly playing golf at a time when that was considered exclusively a diversion of the rich, and when someone is about to hit a ball in Kelly’s direction and calls, “FORE!,” Kelly snaps back, “I wouldn’t give you more than $3.98 for it.”

Written by Willard Mack (who also acted and directed, though here he served only as a writer) and directed by former Keystone Kop Eddie Cline (a slapstick specialist who proved here he could do a situation comedy as well), The Rag Man isn’t much of a film plot-wise, and not surprisingly it’s considerably softer than The Kid (the terror of the scene in The Kid in which Coogan is threatened with being taken to an orphanage is hardly matched by the analogous scene in The Rag Man, in which the Irish priest who ran the orphanage comes on Kelly in the street and tells him he needs to go back, but eventually relents, though there’s a nice gag in Robert Hopkins’ titles in which Kelly explains that his guardian takes him to church — “Every Saturday we go to the synagogue” — and when the priest looks shocked Kelly adds, “And every Sunday I take him to Mass”), but it has its peculiar charm. Part of it might have been personal — being Irish on my father’s side and Jewish on my mother’s I had my own reasons for responding to the two particular ethnicities between which Kelly is whipsawed — but it’s also quite a well-made film, even if predictable. Coogan’s performance at age 11 (when his face, angelically beautiful in the Chaplin film, was already starting to hint at the puffiness it would famously have in his middle-aged comeback role as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family TV show in 1964) is hardly in the same league as his acting at age six in the Chaplin film, but he’s still eminently watchable and director Cline and scenarist Mack are able to use him to advantage in a story that, though sentimental, never descends into either bathos or the sort of gooey sweetness that marred Shirley Temple’s vehicles and set the mold for the movies’ depiction of children for decades afterwards.

The Rag Man was presented in 2004 as a much-ballyhooed rediscovery on Turner Classic Movies (they showed it again last night as part of their month-long tribute to silent films), mainly because at the time they were running a contest for composers to score entire silent films and presenting the movies with the winner’s score attached. The winner for The Rag Man was Linda Martinez, who, like Robert Israel in the previous night’s featured silent on TCM (Harold Lloyd’s Dr. Jack), composed sentimental rather than blatantly funny music for the film — in his autobiography Chaplin recalled having arguments with music directors because he wanted his films scored with sentimental, bittersweet music and they wanted the music to be funny, and when he released City Lights in 1931, though it remained technically a silent film, he was able at last to record his own musical accompaniment and thereby control the mood the music created. Martinez’ score is remarkable in its unobtrusive rightness for the on-screen action; a pity that just a year after composing it she took her own life at age 29 (the obituary I downloaded from the Los Angeles Times at http://articles.latimes.com/2005/may/26/local/me-martinez26 offered no clue why other than that her father had died shortly before and she had “suffered from insomnia and back pain”), a fate even worse than that which befell Jackie Coogan. After a career that had made millions — for his parents, who had supposedly put his income into a trust he would inherit when both of them died — he found they had blown through virtually all the money, mostly on bad racetrack bets by Coogan’s dad. The California legislature responded by passing a bill that actually became known as “Coogan’s Law” which required half of a child star’s earnings to be put in trust, but child stars continued to get screwed — Shirley Temple recalled in her autobiography that in 1949 she received a lump-sum payment of $100,000 after a career that had made millions, which only reinforced her determination to get out of show business altogether.