Directors: Henry Lehrman, Mack Sennett
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)
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.