Cruel, Cruel Love (26 March 1914)

Chaplin09CruelLove

Released: 26 March 1914, Keystone

Director: George Nichols, Mack Sennett

Writer: Craig Hutchinson

Duration: approx. 10 mins (one reel)

With: Edgar Kennedy, Minta Durfee, Alice Davenport, Billy Gilbert

Story: A well-to-do gentleman runs into romantic trouble when his girlfriend discovers him in a clinch with the maid…

Production: The most obviously notable thing about Cruel, Cruel Love is that Chaplin is not playing the Tramp character. Recalling some of his stage work and even his first released film, Making A Living, Chaplin plays a gentleman, wearing a smarter frock coat, a top hat and sporting a longer moustache than usual. So, why the change?

Cruel, Cruel Love is a very different film from the recent releases featuring Chaplin’s Tramp. It’s more of a parody of a D.W. Griffith melodrama, with his gentleman pining for the woman who had left him, contemplating suicide, and envisioning his torment by the pitchforks of some pantomime-looking ‘devils’. There’s a race against time to save Chaplin’s poisoned fool (he’s only taken water, but believes it to have been poison) that only leads to violence upon the realisation of his mistake, and the ultimately expected romantic reconciliation. All in just 10 minutes.

Presumably, Chaplin felt this scenario was so specific in its aims and intentions that he felt his Tramp simply didn’t belong in the melodrama. It also points to his continuing fluidity in these early films: his persona is by no means fixed. Of the nine films released in the first three months of 1914, Chaplin’s Tramp featured (in some form) in six, with Making a Living, Tango Tangles, and Cruel, Cruel Love seeing him trying out different looks and characters. The Tramp features in the overwhelming majority of the remainder of the 36 films released in 1914, but every so often—whether through boredom, experimentation, or to fit better with the scenario—Chaplin abandons his basic look for something else altogether. We’ll be seeing this costume—or a variation of it—again in Mabel at the Wheel (18 April 2014).

There’s something of Ford Sterling in Chaplin’s exaggerated gestures here, a style of acting he had done much to avoid in earlier shorts, but one which is actually eminently suitable to a spoof melodrama. It’s especially appropriate in the section inter-titled ‘A vision of his destiny’ in which all the hand-waving and face-pulling serves to illustrate his torment. There are certainly some unique Chaplin expressions in this sequence that we don’t often get to see. It’s just a pity that the costumed devils are like something from a school play or Am-Dram production.

The comedy business with the false poison would be revisited much later in Chaplin’s career in the brilliant Monsieur Verdoux (1947) to much better effect—the late-1940s seemed to be a time when Chaplin was deliberately redoing some of his old Keystone gags in light of everything he’d learned about comedy film craft in the years since then.

Co-starring as Chaplin’s fiancee here is Minta Dufree, a Keystone stalwart and wife of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle—who’s already been seen opposite Chaplin in A Film Johnnie, Tango Tangles, and Making a Living. Her real name is used to sign the note to ‘Charlie’ explaining that all is well and their engagement is back on. She’ll be showing up quite a bit over the next few months, alongside both Chaplin and Arbuckle. There’s the beginnings of something of a small rep company here that would also frequently include Mabel Normand.

It’s wonderful to see the pair of dodgy doctors summoned to come to Chaplin’s aid arriving in a horse-drawn carriage, at a time when the transport infrastructure of Los Angeles was a lot more mixed between horse-drawn vehicles, new-fangled automobiles and the tram service (the latter two are seen in the background of some of the doctor’s dash to the house).

In many respects we should be grateful that we’re even able to see this comedy at all: it was thought to be missing in the 1970s, before a print in very poor condition was found somewhere in Latin America. The existing version, even after restoration, is by-far the most ropey print among these early Chaplin shorts.

Slapstick: There are a couple of tumbles—he manages to get himself entangled in a curtain pulled off a window—but Cruel, Cruel Love is very light on the slapstick front, apart from some energetic leaping about…

Verdict: It’s slight fare, but at least this spoof melodrama offers some variety in Chaplin’s growing persona, 2/5

Next: The Star Boarder (4 April 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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His Favourite Pastime (16 March 1914)

Chaplin08HisFavouritePastime

Released: 16 March 1914, Keystone

Director: George Nichols

Writer: Craig Hutchinson

Duration: approx. 12 mins (one reel)

With: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Peggy Pearce, Viola Barry, Edgar Kennedy

Story: Charlie likes a drink—it’s his favourite pastime—but it gets in the way of his attempts to woo a young woman…

Production: Following his drunk act in Tango Tangles, Chaplin was at it again in his very next film, in which it is the focus of the comedy. This is within the flimsy frame of a traditional Keystone comedy, with Chaplin’s character generally making a nuisance of himself. Unlike his previous director, Henry Lehrman, at least George Nichols—who also helmed A Film Johnnie and would directed the next two Chaplin shorts—seemed more willing to allow Chaplin to try out some more sophisticated stuff amid the falling over. The business of the swing door is a little beyond the usual, as is his incredible stunt in which he flips off a staircase, landing sitting up on a sofa still smoking his cigar.

The saloon door gag was analysed by Gerald Mast in his book, The Comic Mind. It was, he said, ‘the ancestor of every inanimate thing that Charlie later succeeded in bringing to life; he turns a piece of wood into a living opponent. He succeeds in treating one kind of object as if it were a different kind of being… the object is not instantly transposed into something else, but undergoes the complete transformation process before our eyes.’ This ‘transposition of objects’ would become ever more central to Chaplin’s comedy as he gained greater control over his films.

The girl who is the centre of the Tramp’s affections—he follows her home, and then gets into a fight with her husband—was 18-year-old Peggy Pearce, Chaplin’s then girlfriend, and apparently his first relationship in Hollywood. She lived at home with her parents, and Chaplin—at just 24—didn’t feel ready for a serious relationship culminating in marriage, so their dalliance didn’t last all that long. Pearce did not appear in any further Chaplin shorts. They apparently had fun, though, as the pair won a trophy in a dance contest (Walter Matthau’s wife found the engraved trophy in an antique shop decades later).

Although this short features some ‘blackface’ characters (mainly the maid, but also staff in the bar), where whites ‘blacked up’ to play ethnic stereotypes, it was a type of then-common film comedy that Chaplin generally did his best to avoid. His reasons for doing so were political, suggesting that his political sensibilities (that would do so much to get him into difficulties in later life) were formed rather early. ‘I never laugh at their humour,’ said Chaplin, of making African-Americans the subject of the joke. ‘They have suffered too much to be funny to me.’

There are some lovely old Los Angeles street scenes when the Tramp hitches a lift on a tram to follow the girl’s car home. I always find these glimpse of the city’s lost history fascinating, and although much has dramatically changed in the area (Los Angeles is a city that has always showed little interest in its own history), it is still possible sometimes to match locations from these one hundred year old films precisely. It’s a window on another world.

As with so many of these shorts, the end when it comes is rather abrupt. There is no climax to the story, no real payoff. The surviving prints of many of these early shorts come from later re-issues which often cut material from the originals. The discrepancy, therefore, might be down to missing material as original reviews of the film mentioned something to do with cheese and Charlie ending up atop a telegraph pole. If you can figure out how the story gets from where we leave it to that reported original ending, let me know!

His Favourite Pastime is very much of its time, a formless improvisation with very little in the way of a thought out plotline. It’s a series of incidents, but the interesting thing here is the way that Chaplin manages to dominate proceedings. Remember, this is not a ‘Chaplin film’ per se, just another run-of-the-mill Keystone featuring the studio’s newest comic signing. However, instead of his responding to the usual rote Keystone characters, this film turns on their responses to Chaplin’s antics. He quickly dominates whatever improvised scene he is in, and those around him just have to cope. Director Nichols allows this to happen, where previously Lehrman may have been more controlling in an attempt to force Chaplin to conform to the Keystone style. Instead, Chaplin was in the process of bending the Keystone films to his will.

Slapstick: There’s much falling over, as befits a comedy largely set in a bar, but it is in Chaplin’s battle with the bar bathroom swing door that livens things up at about the five minute mark: and he’s on the losing end of that fight. The stairway-to-sofa tumble would have made an effective capper to this picture, but instead we get another unthinking Keystone shoving match. Shame.

Verdict: There’s little improvement here over the previous shorts, 2/5

Next: Cruel, Cruel Love (26 March 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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Tango Tangles (9 March 1914)

Chaplin07TangoTanglesReleased: 9 March 1914, Keystone

Director: Mack Sennett

Writer: Mack Sennett

Duration: approx. 10 mins (one reel)

With: Ford Sterling, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee

Story: A night out in a dance hall, a few drinks, and a pretty girl… What could go wrong?

Production: Well, it’s hardly Strictly Come Dancing, is it… Even by Keystone’s lax standards, this is a film particularly lacking in a point. The biggest thing of interest here is the fact that Chaplin appears sans moustache, perhaps indicating that he was still experimenting with the look and character of the Tramp. Although he appears more or less fully-formed in the shorts immediately before this one, perhaps Chaplin still had reservations. In fact, perhaps he’s not playing the Tramp at all, as he appears just a little too well-dressed. The sight of him in Tango Tangles may suggest something of the shock that Mack Sennett suffered when he first saw Chaplin off-stage and out of make-up, as he’d supposed the performer to be an older man.

Chaplin had often performed the role of the polite drunk in touring vaudeville shows and with the Karno troupe (as in ‘Mumming Birds’), so that part of his performance here was clearly second nature. Despite his inebriated state, it is Charlie who claims the first dance with the hat-check girl who has attracted not only his attention but that of Ford Sterling’s band leader and Fatty Arbuckle’s clarinettist. Once again, in his awful, obvious, tiresome mugging and exaggeration, Sterling displays what a terrible film comic he was, especially when placed next to the much more natural Chaplin—thankfully this is Sterling’s final film with Chaplin.

Tango Tangles was, in fact, shot in a real dance hall—the Venice Dance Hall on Abbott Kinney Pier, although some inserts are clearly shot in studio—filled with real patrons (watch the people in the background to see them genuinely reacting to the mayhem that occurs). More or less improvised on the spot, this typical low-rent Keystone number is exactly the kind of film that Chaplin would soon be reacting against as he took control of his movies. His more sophisticated clowning and considered slapstick is a particularly poor fit with the standard Keystone knockabout nonsense practiced here by Sterling.

The three principals are wearing their usual street wear and appear without make-up (hence the reason for Chaplin’s non-Tramp appearance), suggesting this was a very spur-of-the-moment enterprise on behalf of Mack Sennett. There are hints here of the more sophisticated comedy to come in such boxing or fight films as The Champion (1915) and City Lights (1931), while Charlie’s drunk act would reappear frequently, most notably in His Favourite Pastime (1914), A Night Out (1915), One A.M. (1916), and Limelight (1952).

While Tango Tangles is an unsophisticated little film, it is unique in offering a real-life glimpse of the then just 24-year old Charlie Chaplin immediately before he was consumed by worldwide fame (and later, notoriety).

Slapstick: As soon as he enters, Charlie is tangling with chorus girls and then falling flat on his backside. Later, there’s the usual contretemps between Sterling and Chaplin that sees them both landing on the dance floor. Attempting to put on the same coat sees the pair have a riot in the cloakroom—but Charlie gets in the last punch.

Verdict: Murder on the dance floor, 2/5

Next: His Favourite Pastime (16 March 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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A Film Johnnie (2 March 1914)

Chaplin06.AFilmJohnnieReleased: 2 March 1914, Keystone

Director: George Nichols

Writers: Craig Hutchinson

Duration: Approx. 14 mins (one reel)

With: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Virginia Kirtley, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling

Story: The Tramp falls in love with a film actress, so visits the Keystone studio to track her down…

Production: It was an obvious idea, and a great place to put Chaplin’s Tramp—from the early scenes where he causes havoc in the cinema through to his disruption at the Keystone studio, A Film Johnnie is the perfect vehicle for Chaplin at this early point in his movie career.

From retrieving a coin from within an old sock to his ecstatic behaviour when Virginia Kirtley’s ‘Keystone girl’ appears on screen (check out those facial expressions), Chaplin instantly displayed how far advanced he was in terms of screen acting (and re-acting) over the likes of Ford Sterling (who turns up later in this one, doing his usual exaggerated Victorian schtick, the poor man couldn’t even play himself adequately).

Visiting the studio—those arriving in the cars are real Keystone personnel, including Chaplin’s hated erstwhile director Henry Lehrman—the first ‘star’ the Tramp encounters is the rotund Fatty Arbuckle, who promptly gives the poor fella a coin (quickly lost to another wiley employee). Straightening up his attire, the Tramp joins the influx of people through the studio gates…

What follows is a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at the Keystone studio in action, with Chaplin wandering from place-to-place falling foul of prop men, directors and actors. Cost saving measure this film may have been, but it has preserved a glimpse back in time revealing how a unique workplace functioned almost exactly 100 years ago.

A Film Johnnie (the name refers to fan who used to loiter outside theatre stage doors) can perhaps be read almost as a sequel to Kid Auto Races, with the Tramp’s ambition to star in pictures taken one step further. In fact, this film feels like the first time that the focus has really been on the Tramp as a character in his own right, a sign of where the Keystone Chaplin series would go in the future.

The difference between screen fiction and reality seems to elude the Tramp as he attempts to rescue a damsel-in-distress, thereby ruining a take, followed by much use of a prop gun. The lighting of a cigarette using the gun which follows is an early instance of Chaplin’s propensity to transform objects through their use into something else entirely.

Then A Film Johnnie goes all meta on us, with a ‘real world’ fire being used to form the climax of the film-within-the-film (as well as the one we’re watching) as Keystone dispatches a camera crew to capture a real (or is that reel?) event—something they often did. As everyone rushes to the scene of the action, we are treated to some lovely shots of Los Angeles in its early days (another example of the propensity of film to turn into a time machine).

Working with a new director didn’t make Chaplin any happier than when he’d been poorly served by Lehrman, according to Chaplin’s autobiography. Nichols ‘had but one gag which was to take the comedian by the neck and bounce him from one scene to another. I tried to suggest subtler business, but he too would not listen. “We have no time, we have no time!” he would cry. All he wanted was an imitation of Ford Sterling.’

Thankfully Chaplin was simply too good to be a poor-man’s Sterling. While at the end of this short, his Tramp clearly indicates he’s had it with the movies, the same was not at all true of Charlie Chaplin. He just needed to become master of his own destiny in order to do his best work and revolutionise film—this instalment was one of the baby steps on that long road.

Slapstick: Ejected from the cinema for hitting too many people with his hat, a flailing Chaplin lands on the sidewalk. Fighting with the director, a plank is wielded and the Tramp ends up on the floor, before being doused by a fire hose.

Verdict: A vast improvement but still not a classic, A Film Johnnie puts the focus firmly on Chaplin’s Tramp. 3/5

Next: Tango Tangles (9 March 1914)

Available Now!

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.

Amazon US | Amazon UK