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
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.