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)
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.