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)
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.