Between Showers (28 February 1914)

Chaplin05BetweenShowersReleased: 28 February 1914, Keystone

Directors: Henry Lehrman, Mack Sennett

Writers: Unknown

Duration: approx. 14 mins (one reel)

Filmed: Prior to 7 February 1914

With: Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Edward Nolan, Emma Bell Clifton

Story: Following the theft of an umbrella, two down-on-their-luck types come into conflict after they compete to help a woman across a huge puddle in the road.

Production: Even by the relatively low ‘churn-em-out’ production standards of Keystone, Between Showers is a very slight affair. Chaplin here is essentially co-starring in a run-of-the-mill Ford Sterling film, but the contrast between Sterling and Chaplin’s performance on screen is eye-opening.

The plot—such as it is—is something of a runaround concerning a stolen umbrella (Sterling lifts it from dozy policeman Conklin), and the attempts by Sterling and Chaplin to help Emma Bell Clifton’s damsel-in-distress across a huge puddle. After that, it’s a series of slapstick pratfalls as the pair come into Keystone’s generic pushing-and-pulling conflict.

It’s almost four minutes before Chaplin even appears, but when he does, Between Showers turns into something else entirely. He instantly lifts what has been a very ho-hum presentation up until that point. His facial and physical acting is so different, much more subtle than Sterling’s antiquated mugging, that viewers watching today (in order, as with this blog) might just begin to get an inkling of how Chaplin became such a big cinematic personality so quickly in 1914-1915.

In his interactions with an officious policeman (so much more impressive because Chaplin’s back is largely to the camera) and in his attempts to chat up Emma Bell Clifton in the park, Chaplin conveys a subtlety missing from the rest of the film. It’s nothing ground-breaking or revolutionary at this stage, but it is very noticeable. He’s on a completely different level in terms of being able to convey something of his character in the slightest smile, twitch or scowl.

While Sterling and Conklin continue the Keystone style of pantomime (their performances here are exactly the same as in any of their other Keystone appearances) in which they exaggerate and act out most of their motivations and intentions, Chaplin develops his character from within. His facial expressions show joy—laughing at Sterling’s antics, when he breaks through the girl’s frosty facade, and towards the end when he is simply happy to have apparently won possession of the disputed umbrella. He pulls faces at authority figures (the other policeman), but is is not in an exaggerated way, it’s much more natural, almost child-like. In the words of Chaplin biographer David Robinson, it is the triumph of expression over exposition, and we’ll be seeing a lot more of it in coming weeks.

The film had come about in the immediate wake of a series of torrential downpours that hit Los Angeles in late-January, early February 1914—the giant roadside puddle is evidence of Keystone’s practice of setting up a comic situation and grabbing footage when something crops up with potential. The umbrella is simply a MacGuffin (in the Hitchcock sense), something for the main characters to squabble over.

Filmed in LA’s Westlake Park, this was the first of many ‘park’ comedies for Chaplin, where the Keystone crew would head out with costumes and props to one of Los Angeles’s many parks and improvise a free-wheeling, knockabout comedy. Chaplin would rapidly tire of this way of working, and begin to develop not only scenarios before filming, but also begin to labour over comic business that was much more sophisticated than anything Keystone had yet attempted.

Between Showers was the final Chaplin outing for director Henry Lehrman, probably much to his and Chaplin’s mutual relief. Sennett had recognised that their antagonism was getting in the way of the work, so he brought in someone else for the next short—Sterling and Lehrman were both about to depart Keystone for Universal anyway. We’re still a few months away from Chaplin taking creative control of his own material at Keystone, but you can feel in his performance in Between Showers the beginnings of those stirrings. The only person who’d be able to do justice to the young comic’s screen ambitions would ultimately be himself.

Slapstick: There’s a lot of falling over and pushing going on here, but none of it is particularly extraordinary. However, a lot of the tramp’s physicality comes together in one film, including Chaplin’s turn on a skidding foot, his twirling of the umbrella as if it were his cane, and the trademark splay-footed walk.

Verdict: The signs of a revolutionary talent are just beginning to show, but they are still smothered by Keystone’s production-by-numbers approach, 2/5

Next: A Film Johnnie (2 March 1914)

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A Thief Catcher (19 February 1914)

Chaplin04AThiefCatcherReleased: 19 February 1914, Keystone

Director: Ford Sterling

Writers: Unknown

Duration: 6 mins

Filmed: 15-26 January 1914

With: Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy

Story: A pair of thieves fall out with a third gang member, then chase down a witness to their altercation. The Keystone Kops are soon on the case…

Production: This is an odd one, as it’s not really a Chaplin film as such and it is an incredibly recent rediscovery that has meant a major update to all the Chaplin filmographies. In his autobiography and various interviews Chaplin recalled playing a bit part as a policeman in a Keystone comedy, possibly as one of the famous Keystone Kops or perhaps a barber. Chaplin’s autobiography had long been regarded as unreliable, so his story of having once played a Keystone Kop was disregarded, largely due to a lack of filmic evidence. Now the previous list of 35 films made by Chaplin during his year at Keystone has to be expanded by one to 36—it’s always a shock to remember that (at best estimates) almost half of all silent cinema is irretrievably lost, making every discovery, no matter how incomplete, very important.

Evidence of Chaplin’s cameo was rediscovered in June 2010 when silent film comedy specialist Paul E. Gierucki paid $100 for a can of film at a Michigan antique sale on a hunch. He recognised it as a Mack Sennett comedy, but had little idea which one until viewing the 16mm film reel several months after the purchase (the reason for the delay was he’d reckoned it would be just another already existing Keystone short). Six minutes into what was obviously a Ford Sterling short, Gierucki recognised a previously unknown two-minute cameo by Charles Chaplin as a cop. Chaplin played this part during his first few months working at Keystone and was probably roped in to make up the numbers rather than actively cast as a specific individual ‘Kop’.

Apparently made some time after Mabel’s Strange Predicament, but prior to Chaplin’s next film Between Showers, A Thief Catcher is really a Ford Sterling short, the credited director and star. Sterling had started at Biograph with Sennett, and followed him when he left to set up Keystone. He played the ‘Chief’ of the Keystone Kops in the majority of their film appearances (although here he plays the innocent witness who is pursued), while other recognisable stars of the series included Edgar Kennedy (a frequent Laurel and Hardy co-star) and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, who’d be teamed with Buster Keaton and enjoy a mixed solo career.

Unfortunately, the currently available extract of A Thief Catcher on the BFI 2010 DVD set ‘Chaplin at Keystone’ cuts off just as Chaplin’s appearance begins, with less than 20 seconds of it included. The full film is due for later release. This makes it currently hard to judge, although it has enjoyed several public showings, mainly at silent film festivals in the US.

However, even the brief extract available suggests that Chaplin was even at this very early stage in his film career out to distinguish himself from the more outlandish performers around him. The Keystone Kops were never the most subtle bunch of performers, but Chaplin stands out among them because we instantly recognise him as the figure he more usually plays of the little tramp. Film historian Leonard Maltin sees evidence of Chaplin’s more subtle approach in Chaplin’s use of ‘his eyebrows for comic emphasis’ and how the actor ‘makes his points without resorting to broad gestures, as some other Sennett players did…’ Each of these films display, one after the other, the early work of an artist just beginning to master his craft.

The rediscovered film was a re-titled 1918 reissue by Tower Film Corporation called His Regular Job. When Chaplin’s success first took off, many of his older films were put out under new titles by unscrupulous distributors looking to cash in on his new-found celebrity by pretending that an older short was in fact a new film.

Slapstick: None, unless you count slapping a villain in the face.

Verdict: Not really a Chaplin film and it is hard to judge on the available footage, 1/5

Next: Between Showers (28 Feb 1914)

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Mabel’s Strange Predicament (9 February 1914)

Chaplin03.jpgReleased: 9 February 1914, Keystone

Directors: Mabel Normand, Henry Lehrman, Mack Sennett

Writers: Reed Heustis, Henry Lehrman

Duration: 17 mins

Filmed: mid-January 1914

With: Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Harry McCoy

Story: A tipsy tramp latches onto an elegant lady and her dog in a hotel lobby, following her to her room…

Production: There are a variety of legends surrounding Chaplin’s adoption of the trademark ‘little tramp’ costume that would serve him so well for over two decades. Although first seen on screen in the previously released trifle Kid Auto Races at Venice, it was actually put together for Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Chaplin’s second film made before Kid Auto Races, but released two days later.

His previous costume in Making A Living drew upon standard vaudeville ‘fallen gentleman’ attire, but Chaplin had not liked it much (nor his debut film, either). He claimed in his autobiography to have put together the tramp outfit on a whim, en route to filming, mixing baggy trousers with a tight coat, big shoes, a cane (already used well in Making A Living) and a derby hat. The droopy moustache of his first film was tamed for this one, although it is slightly wider than in subsequent appearances (including Kid Auto Races).

Keystone publicity was to claim (erroneously, and solely for media consumption) that the large trousers had come from ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, the tiny jacket from Charles Avery, and the size 14 shoes from Ford Sterling—all fellow Keystone comedians. Instead, Chaplin had drawn upon his time in Karno’s troupe, lifting elements from several regular comic get ups, with a dash of London comic Dan Leno thrown in. His drunk act in this short also dates from his vaudeville experience.

Although Chaplin claimed (in the same sometimes fanciful autobiography) that his character of the ‘little tramp’ came to him ‘fully formed’ upon adoption of the look, this is clearly not true. The character evolves across the year that he worked at Keystone. For example, he is rarely seen drunk yet in this film is to be seen swigging from a flask and falling over, clearly inebriated at the end. Additionally, he wears the derby hat at a jaunty angle in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, something he swiftly abandoned for subsequent films. His humour at discovering Mabel in her pyjamas locked out of her hotel room has an unkindness about it that he’d rarely show again.

His co-star here is Mabel Normand, and in fact (as suggested by the title) this is supposed to be her movie, another in a long line of Keystone vehicles. We now think of Mabel’s Strange Predicament as a ‘Chaplin film’, but his character is really incidental to the narrative, which is standard Keystone fare involving a mix-up in hotel rooms and suspicions of illicit romance (Chaplin would put his own spin on this narrative in A Night Out, 1915, at Essanay). Mabel was the leading actress of the Keystone group and the on-off partner of the studio boss, Mack Sennett. She’d started in films young, making her debut in D. W. Griffith’s Her Awakening (1911), but she found her home at Keystone. Unlike Henry Lehrman who jealously guarded his filmmaking secrets, Normand—who was writing and directing as well as acting at Keystone—happily mentored the newcomer Chaplin. They would appear in a dozen films during Chaplin’s time at Keystone, and his star would quickly come to eclipse hers.

Although a simple runaround in which Chaplin’s drunken tramp is caught up in Mabel’s odd adventures through a variety of hotel rooms, it is notably that Chaplin is starting to put his stamp on his comedy appearances. Many of the shots run longer than the Keystone average, which tended to be made up of fast cuts, with Chaplin’s extended comic business (such as his introductory scene in the lobby with the dog, his grabbing at its tale and its leash) making it very difficult for Lehrman to edit his material down as he’d allegedly done in Making A Living. Mabel had a strong hand in directing her own movies, and this one is often credited to her alone. Lehrman, however, was involved, as was Sennett himself who felt he had to keep an eye on his star director and his rapidly evolving new star turn who were becoming ever more antagonistic to one another.

Slapstick: The opening sequence in the hotel lobby in which the drunk tramp gets entangled with Mabel and her dog shows distinct development in Chaplin’s approach to physical comedy in movies. That only comes after he’s managed to slide off an armchair in the hotel lobby a couple of times. There’s also a pratfall or two as the tramp prepares to defend Mabel’s honour.

Verdict: Audiences in February 1914 had seen three Chaplin shorts in just one week. In this one, Chaplin’s present, but he’s not the driver of the story yet, 3/5

Next: A Thief Catcher (19 Feb 1914)

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Kid Auto Races at Venice (7 February 1914)

ChaplinKidAutoRacesReleased: 7 February 1914, Keystone

Director: Henry Lehrman

Writer: Henry Lehrman

Duration: 11 mins (split reel, with education film Olives and Trees/Olives and Their Oil)

Filmed: 11 January 1914 (the date of the public race in the short)

With: Henry Lehrman, Frank D. Williams, Billy Jacobs, Charlotte Fitzpatrick

Story: The ‘little tramp’, a spectator at a ‘baby-cart’ race in Venice, does everything he can to catch the attention of a film crew…

Production: This is the first film released to feature Chaplin’s signature ‘tramp’ character (or ‘the little fellow’, as he often referred to his cinematic alter-ego), but it was not the first made (see Mabel’s Strange Predicament, 9 February 1914: that entry also deals with Chaplin’s creation of his tramp costume). Largely an improvisation worked out by Chaplin and director Lehrman, the film was shot during a real race, the Junior Vanderbilt Cup, a motorised ‘soap box’ derby. The film features genuine spectators reacting to Chaplin’s antics, presumably under the impression he was a genuine tramp. This must’ve been just about the only occasion in which Chaplin could appear in public in his tramp outfit without being mobbed by fans. It would be lovely to know the response of members of that audience a few months later when Chaplin’s tramp figure had become a major star…

Overall, Kid Auto Races is a rather ignominious first appearance for the tramp. It is little more than just over 10 minutes of him mugging for the camera, getting in the way of the racers and the spectators, and occasionally coming to slight blows with the director. There’s no real plot or character development here, making the movie notable only for the fact that was the first released to feature the tramp. The whole thing was improvised during a period of around 45 minutes filming at the event.

This is a rougher, ruder version of the tramp than the character we would come to know over subsequent films. He’s a genuine nuisance to the spectators, the racers, and the cameraman. He repeatedly, deliberately ruins their shots, getting in the way of racers and blocking spectators’ view of the event. He’s surly, pulling faces directly into the camera, sticking his tongue out and strutting about as if he were already a movie star. He occasionally has a limp cigarette hanging from his mouth (and uses it do his first ‘cigarette kick’, tossing the butt over his shoulder and kicking it away with his heel). He’s certainly not likeable or very sympathetic, traits that Chaplin would rapidly adopt as defining characteristics of his on-screen persona.

Perhaps there’s a bit of genuine antagonism in the pushing and shoving between Chaplin’s tramp and Lehrman’s director in this short. The pair simply did not get on, with Lehrman determined to make Chaplin conform to the well-established Keystone way of making movies, while the British newcomer was keen to explore the new medium in ways that those around him had simply not yet conceived of. He was full of ideas, and was biding his time until he could fully exploit the medium of cinema.

In some ways, Kid Auto Races at Venice depicts Charlie Chaplin as just one man among the crowd, one who is drawn to the movie camera and emerges from the masses to become a singular face on screen and a great practitioner of the art behind the camera. In this film, we see him almost sizing up the instrument he will use to create his lasting cinematic art.

Slapstick: There’s little in the way of slapstick in this one, with the tramp being pushed out of the camera’s view several times, once falling backwards with Chaplin executing an inelegant backward roll. Near the end, Lehrman kicks the tramp’s backside, sending him sprawling. Chaplin has the twirling walking stick, splay-footed walk, and frequent tipping of the bowler hat down pat already, though.

Verdict: The costume arrives, but not the character, 3/5

Next: Mabel’s Strange Predicament (9 Feb 1914)

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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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