Making A Living (2 February 1914)

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ChaplinMakingLiving1Released: 2 February 1914, Keystone

Director: Henry Lehrman

Writers: Reed Heustis, Henry Lehrman

Duration: 13 mins (one reel)

Filmed: 5-9 January, 2014

With: Henry Lehrman, Virginia Kirtley, Minta Durfee, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport

Story: Womanising swindler Edgar English (Chaplin) battles a rival (Lehrman) for a woman’s (Kirtley) favours, then steals his rival’s news scoop photograph of a car accident, so winning the job of reporter.

Production: Making A Living packs an awful lot of incident into its one reel running time. However, the character Chaplin plays in his first released film is not the familiar tramp. Instead, he appears to be a down-on-his luck ‘gentleman’ or a tramp trying to rise above his station. He sports a top hat, instead of the later bowler, and a monocle (as well as a distinctly Jason King epic moustache). He does have the cane, but the rest of his ensemble—including a fetching frock coat—speaks of someone trying to maintain their sartorial dignity in the face of adversity.

The look is redolent of the kind of outfit Chaplin wore as part of the Fred Karno vaudeville troupe, which the comic had joined aged 19 after a tough childhood in London. He was spotted during an American tour with Karno by a Keystone representative and thought of as a possible replacement for their star comedian Fred Mace who was leaving the company. Although Chaplin regarded the Keystone comedies as ‘a crude melange of rough and tumble’ (an accurate description of Making A Living), He saw the possibilities of working in film. Hired in September 2013, he was signed up for a fee of $150 per week. At 24, Chaplin was thought to appear too young for movies by Keystone boss Mack Sennett. Chaplin learned the basics of filmmaking the Keystone way during December and January, before he featured in this one-reeler (which he later professed to dislike intensely). However crude and atypical this short is, it was the beginning of a steep learning curve for Charlie Chaplin.

Director Henry Lehrman was an early film pioneer, having emigrated from Austria and taken up a role at Biograph in 1909. He started as an actor, making a friend in fellow bit player Mack Sennett. He joined Sennett as one of the founders of Keystone, becoming the studio’s head director (he had a relationship with Virginia Rappe, the unfortunate ‘victim’ in the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921). Chaplin complained that Lehrman had cut all his best comedy business from Making A Living as he was jealous of how quickly the newcomer had figured out how best to use the medium of film.

This ‘Farce Comedy’ (as the title card has it) opens with Chaplin begging Lehrman’s passer-by for some money to buy some grub (Chaplin gets all that across through mime, so no intertitles are needed). He next encounters the same man when he proposes to Kirtley and gets into a well-pantomimed brawl with him. A third encounter follows when they both apply for the role of reporter on a newspaper. Lehrman lucks out in capturing a photograph of an automobile crashing off a cliff (a rather spectacular stunt) via his camera. Chaplin comes across the commotion, steals the camera and Lehrman’s notes, thereby getting the scoop and winning the job.

There are some curious ‘real world’ elements that make this early film even more interesting. The compositors at the newspaper (believed to have been filmed at the real offices of the Los Angeles Times) show a by-gone age of hot metal text setting, while the news boys queueing up with their bikes to get the next edition of the paper look authentic. The Los Angeles street scenes (complete with long gone trams, and the Fremont Hotel) provide the backdrop for a short chase (featuring Conklin’s solo Keystone Kop) and show a world not all that removed from today.

Slapstick: The first fight with director Henry Lehrman is amusing, but only Chaplin’s signature swirl recalls his yet-to-appear tramp character. Each encounter gets more ridiculous, including their spat in a strange woman’s room, and their final encounter in front of an approaching LA tram (they end up on the ‘cow catcher’ on front of the tram). At one point in the newspaper office, Chaplin almost sits on his own top hat.

Verdict: From small acorns…, 3/5

Next: Kid Auto Races at Venice (7 Feb 1914)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

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