Caught in a Cabaret (27 April 1914)

Chaplin13CaughtCabaretReleased: 27 April 1914, Keystone

Director: Mabel Normand

Writers: Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 22 mins (two reels)

With: Mabel Normand, Harry McCoy, Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy, Minta Durfee

Story: A waiter (Chaplin) takes on the role of a foreign dignitary to impress a girl (Normand), only to be invited to a society garden party…

Production: Over the final weeks of April and the first few weeks of May 1914, Charlie Chaplin would more-or-less alternate between appearing in standard Keystone efforts churned out by either Mabel Normand or Mack Sennett and movies where he came up with the original scenario and took charge of how it would be staged. In some cases the difference between Chaplin in the regular Keystone shorts and the tentative steps he begins to take controlling his own material are like night and day.

Caught in a Cabaret is very much a bog-standard Normand/Sennett effort, with Chaplin straight-jacketed into playing a Keystone character any number of clowns could fulfil. There is some evidence, though, to suggest that Chaplin was having an effect on the work of those who employed him—remember, he was the ‘new boy’ and had only been at Keystone and even making films for a few months at this stage, although it is likely he didn’t think much of the even-at-this-point cliched pie throwing that features towards the end of Caught in a Cabaret: Mabel gets it in the kisser.

In his charade as a high-flying foreign dignitary (Baron Doobugle, Prime Minister of Greenland, according to a close up of his business card), it is possible to see some of the seeds of themes and issues that Chaplin would explore in more depth in his later work, such as class difference, something that wasn’t supposed to exist in America but which Chaplin was all too aware of from his lowly London origins. Elements from Caught in a Cabaret would be replayed in much of Chaplin’s later work, including in The Count, The Rink (both 1916), The Idle Class (1921), and in one of his mature films, Modern Times (1936). There’s some business with a dog sidekick in Caught in a Cabaret as well which looks forward to Chaplin’s pooch pals in Champion (1915) and A Dog’s Life (1918), although here his dachshund is little more than another prop. It’s the first film in which Chaplin’s Tramp has a regular job, and features him in various confrontations with his boss (larger than him) and a co-worker (who is much smaller), setting up contrasts of scale that would reoccur in later movies.

Chaplin’s clearly in command of his own performance here, and when he’s off-screen he is sorely missed. It’s evident just from the way he walks, puts on his hat and jacket, and the way he tips his hat in the street that he knows his Tramp character inside and out. The waddle as he walks, the skidding around corners, the fading gentility—it is all part of a distinctive character unlike any seen in movies before, and although it would be developed and changed over time, Chaplin had hit upon the basic core of his Tramp character this early in his cinematic work. His hero moment with a mallet where he evicts a surly bar patron is a nice touch, but it feels like it is from a completely different story (The Fatal Mallet, 1914, perhaps?) than the one this movie, as Normand no doubt originally conceived it, is trying to tell.

Done up in a more presentable frock coat and top hat ensemble, Chaplin’s Tramp arrives at Mabel’s garden party, where he is quickly the centre of attention and begins drinking the place dry. A return visit by Mabel and her coterie of debutant friends (engineered by her jealous boyfriend who’d earlier followed him to his workplace) reveals Charlie’s fraud and leads to the riotous climax. It was clear that in working together on Caught in a Cabaret, whatever the dynamics of the power relations within Keystone, that Chaplin and Normand had reached an accommodation with one another. In classic form, the result of all this industry would be a future in which Chaplin would triumph and Normand would fall, as scandals and ill-health plagued her until her early death at the age of 37 in 1930.

Slapstick: A swing door (a consistent inanimate adversary across several films, which he appears to have mastered by the end of this one) and some spilled food gives Charlie the waiter some trouble right at the start, and he (briefly) loses his little dog when he gets tangled up in its lead. There’s plenty of falling about when he sees off a ruffian who is bothering Mabel, while her boyfriend stands by doing nothing. A brick in the face and a slap from Mabel both put Chaplin on the floor at the film’s end.

Verdict: Some interesting moments and further signs of the progress to come, but not exceptional, 3/5

Next: Caught in the Rain (4 May 1914)

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Twenty Minutes of Love (20 April 1914)

Chaplin1220MinutesLoveReleased: 20 April 1914, Keystone

Directors: Joseph Maddern, Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 12 mins (one reel)

With: Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Emma Clifton, Chester Conklin 

Story: The Tramp is relaxing in the park, envious of those around him enjoying romantic interludes. The theft of a pocket watch allows him to try his own hand at this seduction racket…

Production: As a tentative beginning for Charlie Chaplin as the controller of his own cinematic destiny, Twenty Minutes of Love is an interestingly safe choice. Not only is it based upon the standard Keystone ‘park’ comedy format, in which a series of incidents occur in a public park, but while Chaplin took full creative control of this one reeler and contributed to the direction, he had Joseph Maddern on hand to make sure things went smoothly—and everything took place under the close (perhaps concerned) supervision of Keystone head Mack Sennett.

All this was very sensible, with Chaplin taking great precautions to make things easier for himself before taking the reins fully with his next but one short, Caught in the Rain (which Chaplin calls his directorial debut in his autobiography, although in a letter to brother Sydney he referred to Twenty Minutes of Love as ‘my own’, suggesting a sense of authorship). He would use the same basic material about a year later at Essanay when he made In The Park, at a time when Chaplin was recreating better versions of some of his earliest Keystone output.

Formerly a Broadway actor, as a director Maddern was much more willing to bend to Chaplin’s vision than either Henry Lehrman or George Nichols, or his most recent directors, Mable Normand and Mack Sennett (on Mabel at the Wheel). Maddern’s time at Keystone was brief, and in 1914 he was focused on producing educational shorts rather than the studio’s trademark comedies. With Chaplin taking creative charge of the project, it seems to have been Maddern’s job to function as more of a producer than director, making sure everything was done on time, on budget and produced useable footage. Chaplin was given a $25-per-film raise by Sennett for writing and directing, but also offered up a $1500 guarantee to the studio in case his efforts failed to produce a releasable film. He didn’t have to pay up…

Chaplin claimed in his autobiography to have shot Twenty Minutes of Love in a single afternoon, and this is entirely plausible as this is how Keystone generally approached these ‘park’ pictures. It all starts innocuously enough, with Chaplin’s Tramp observing the amorous pursuits of several couples in the park. In a lovely touch, he is driven to emulate the ecstasy of a kissing couple, except his partner is the trunk of a large tree. When one woman demands a gift from her would-be suitor (Chester Conklin), he steals a watch to give to her. This allows the Tramp to enter the action directly re-stealing the watch and presenting it to the woman (Emma Clifton) himself.

The slapstick free-for-all that climaxes the film is standard fare, but throughout there are little touches that clearly came from Chaplin that lift this above the usual Mack Sennett runaround-in-the-park caper, although everyone ends up in the lake, as per usual (with the notable exception of Chaplin’s Tramp and the girl). The film was shot in Westlake Park in Los Angeles, a frequent venue for filmmakers at this time—it’s a wonder that film units weren’t constantly running into each other when out there shooting these ‘quickie’ shorts.

For probably the first time in the Keystone series, Chaplin’s Tramp is truly the central character in this short. He’s not part of a larger story, it is through him and his antics that we, as the audience, are brought into the film. Playing alternately interested and shy when caught in the girl’s gaze, Chaplin is clearly beginning to give his signature characters more depth than he has previously been allowed—there are the beginnings of a true character here. Unlike his turn as a standard Keystone villain in the previous short (Mabel at the Wheel), Chaplin reverts to the subtlety of movement he was previously starting to display, rather than the florid over-acting personified by the likes of Ford Sterling.

Notably, Twenty Minutes of Love relies far less on inter-titles than most other Chaplin films previously did. The actor seems far happier to rely on his abilities in pantomime to convey the story, which in some of the past films could be hard to grasp, even with the aid of title cards. When confronted by a policeman, Chaplin effectively gets across the notion that the Tramp believes he is about to be arrested, when in fact the policeman is simply admiring the (stolen) watch and wants to know the time. Compare it with the pickpocket’s terribly obvious mime as he plans to steal the watch from the sleeping man on the bench. Chaplin realised that no on-screen text and no over-the-top theatrics were required to communicate his feelings: he does it all himself. It was a sign of things to come.

There is some interesting ‘hat business’ in this short as well, from the Tramp tipping his hat to a tree he bumps into (treating inanimate objects as though there were alive once more, enacting the idea of ‘transformation’), and puts a crease in the top of his bowler to affect a more sophisticated appearance as he approaches the pickpocket’s girlfriend, hoping to impress. By the end, it is Chaplin’s Tramp that is triumphant, as he’s stolen the picture as well as the young lady’s heart.

Slapstick: Bumped off a bench by an angry suitor (Edgar Kennedy) early on, most of the slapstick mayhem in Twenty Minutes of Love is saved for the climax. Chaplin’s corner-skid is present once more as he runs into the policeman for a second time, and again as he flees from the real owner of the watch. He’s knocked down several times as fights erupt by the lakeside, yet he’s the one who walks away dry (and gets the girl) as everyone else hits the drink.

Verdict: Here it begins, the true start of the proper ‘Chaplin’ shorts, 3/5

Next: Caught in a Cabaret (27 April 1914)

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Mabel at the Wheel (18 April 1914)

Chaplin11MabelWheelReleased: 18 April 1914, Keystone

Directors: Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand

Writers: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett

Duration: Approx. 23 mins

With: Mabel Normand, Harry McCoy, Chester Conkiln, Mack Sennett, Al St. John

Story: Mabel takes the wheel in a car race after her racing driver boyfriend is kidnapped, and has to contend with the attempts of the villain to thwart her winning style…

Production: Mabel at the Wheel is an odd throwback production, in so many ways, and very oddly timed just before Chaplin began to seize the reins and start to control his own material. Not only is this not really a ‘Chaplin’ film—it’s one of many in the Keystone Mabel Normand series—but it doesn’t even feature Chaplin as a variation of his by-now rather well established Tramp character. Having been hired as a replacement for Ford Sterling, it is the stereotypical, moustache-twirling Sterling-style villain that Chaplin is playing here.

It’s the first two-reeler that Chaplin appeared in, so its all the more annoying that he’s so out-of-character. Top-hatted and in a light frock coat Chaplin even has a goatee, so clearly marking out this character from his Tramp. He enters the picture on a motorised bike, only the first of several vehicles featured. It is so odd to see him delivering such an exaggerated performance in the style of Sterling, as for the past few pictures it had been something he’d been reacting against, succeeding in delivering a performance in a more subtle style. Partly this diversion was down to the fact that this was a Mabel Normand picture. Having squabbled with his two previous directors, head of Keystone Mack Sennett thought it would be good to team Chaplin up with the star of the studio, who had creative control over her own pictures.

In the style of a Pearl White melodrama, Mabel is cast as the ingenue who drives her boyfriend’s car to victory in a race after he is kidnapped by the evil villain, played in over-the-top fashion by Chaplin, and his two henchmen (notably, one of these henchmen is William A. Seiter, later a director of features for Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers). If teaming Chaplin with Normand was supposed to satisfy Chaplin’s cravings to innovate in motion pictures, it failed. He rapidly fell out with Normand as director, just as he had done with George Nichols and Henry Lehrman previously. The fact that Normand was a woman several years younger than Chaplin didn’t help.

About six minutes into this so-so slapstick farce comes the footage that makes this film of slightly more historical interest. In the usual Keystone way, Mabel at the Wheel appears to have been built around film of a specific event, the Vanderbilt Cup road race that took place in Santa Monica towards the end of February 1914. It’s a great backdrop for the action (such as it is), definitely a step up from Kid Auto Races. It was also the location where Chaplin reportedly threw a sulk when Mabel wouldn’t let him include a joke in which he stands on a hose, then peers into the dry nozzle, just as he steps off the hose, so soaking himself.

It’s odd that Chaplin should have taken a stand over this piece of unoriginal business (it’s the archetypal early film joke, first used by the Lumiere Brothers almost 20 years before), but he did, and shooting was abandoned for the day. Perhaps the frustrations of having to imitate Sterling and being forced into such a cliched role as the villain in this picture had pushed Chaplin to breaking point, and his stubbornness over this trivial bit of business was staged to make a point?

He and those around him assumed that Chaplin’s days at Keystone were numbered, as he’d caused trouble for the boss’s girlfriend and star of the studio. However, Chaplin was as surprised as anyone when Mack Sennett and Normand forgave him the following day—actions that may have been connected to the huge numbers Chaplin’s films were producing at the box office. The orders from the head office in New York were clear: make more Chaplin! Sennett took over from Normand as director, in order to placate Chaplin, who began making representations about wanting to direct himself.

Shooting at the Santa Monica races put Chaplin and the rest in the middle of some wonderful backgrounds, from the crowds sitting on the bleachers to Chaplin hanging out in the pit stop area, with the car engineers. Watching closely the faces of some in the crowd, it has to be asked how many may have recognised Chaplin, despite his non-Tramp appearance? The shots of the cars lining up for the race really add great atmosphere to what is otherwise a standard Keystone runaround.

Mabel at the Wheel is 1914’s Need For Speed, built around the fad for racing cars and a variety of vehicles and car races. With her driver missing, Mabel herself takes the wheel and wins the race, despite Chaplin’s interference. The race footage stretches out and makes more interesting what is otherwise a rather slight film, certainly in terms of plot or character. The high point comes when Mabel’s car crashes—a scene that looks all too real. As a result of following the Sennett/Normand line on Mabel at the Wheel, Charlie Chaplin won the right to begin directing his own films, truly the start of something big.

Slapstick: Mabel falls off the back of the villain’s motorised bike, right into a huge puddle—the roads of Los Angeles left a lot to be desired back then. That’s followed by Chaplin falling off the bike a couple of times. A brick-throwing fight results in much falling over. Mabel bites Chaplin’s hand to escape a kidnapping attempt. Tangled up in a hose, Chaplin takes a tumble at the side of the race track. As Chaplin’s henchmen turn on him, a final bomb knocks the trio for six.

Verdict: Mabel at the Wheel may have been a good enough star vehicle for Mabel Normand, but it wasn’t for the ambitious Chaplin who’d begin to show his true colours in his next short, 3/5

Next: Twenty Minutes of Love (20 April 1914)

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The Star Boarder (4 April 1914)

Chaplin10StarBoarderReleased: 4 April 1914, Keystone

Director: George Nichols

Writer: Craig Hutchinson

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Gordon Griffith, Alice Davenport

Story: Living in a boarding house, the Tramp takes the fancy of the landlady, much to the annoyance of her family and the other boarders.

Production: Gordon Griffith, who plays the camera-mad kid in this short, was one of the first successful child actors in American cinema. He not only made the switch from child star to adult actor, but also navigated the change from silent cinema to the talkies and, indeed, from appearing before the camera to working behind-the-scenes. As well as starring here with Chaplin (and in other later shorts, as well as an appearance in Tillie’s Punctured Romance), he’d go on to be the first actor to portray the character of Tarzan (as a child, in a 1918 film) and he played Tom Sawyer (in Huckleberry Finn, 1920). He worked as an assistant director in the 1930s and 1940s as the screen roles dried up, then became a producer through to the mid-1950s. His sparky and sly youngster is the catalyst for the drama in The Star Boarder as his ‘picture show’ at the short’s climax feeds the confusion of those watching—he’s the first of Chaplin’s child co-stars, a trend that would culminate in The Kid (1921) with Jackie Coogan.

Edgar Kennedy (who also features in Tillie’s Punctured Romance) is the husband who fears that Chaplin’s lodger is usurping him in his wife’s affections. Like Ford Sterling before him, at this stage Kennedy is firmly wedded to the over-emoting Victorian school of acting that permeated much of early silent cinema. The eccentric moustache he sports only helps to exaggerate his features and grimaces, and he has great fun emoting away and over-signalling his feelings and intentions. Kennedy started as one of the original Keystone Kops and would later go on to star opposite the likes of Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, making his mark in a series of classic sound films and becoming well-known for his patented ‘slow burn’ reaction to the antics of the clowns he featured beside, as well as for directing a series of two-reel comedies for Hal Roach.

Chaplin has great fun here playing the boarder—who is dressed as the Tramp figure, but doesn’t act the same way—who can lord it over the rest due to the attentions of their landlady (Minta Durfee), often pulling faces at others when they fail to get their way or capture her attention. Chaplin once again displays the fleet-of-foot physicality that marked him out from so many of the other screen clowns of this period: the little dance he does when left alone in the pantry and goes looking for something to eat (or rather, drink) is a delightful moment. That’s followed by another outing for his ever-graceful drunk act. His face conveys everything we need to know about his discomfort when he has to sit upon the stolen pie in order to hide it (and the two bottles of beer) from a visiting friend of the landlady.

For the first time perhaps we see Chaplin playing the most sympathetic role in the picture: gone is the violent tough that the early Tramp appeared to be. Out of everyone in this boarding house, he’s perhaps the least objectionable (even if he helps himself to all the beer and pie he can carry). It’s a trait that future films would build upon and develop, turning the Chaplin character into someone the film audience would root for (in his next short, Mabel at the Wheel, Chaplin would—in dramatic contrast—play the villain). Although directed by Nichols (seemingly with some input from Sennett), this is a slower paced, less frenetic Keystone short and more room is given over to character development by Chaplin, suggesting he was having an effect on his films even when he wasn’t in full control (a state of affairs that’s only a few films off).

Slapstick: The tennis match affords much opportunity for falling over while swinging the racket and failing to hit any balls. A fall from a ladder sees the landlady and the boarder caught by the boy with the camera in yet another compromising situation, if viewed from the ‘right’ angle. Naturally everything ends in the usual Keystone rumble, but Chaplin manages to effectively separate himself and enjoys a personal struggle with the sheet that made up the screen. Finally, a one-on-one tussle with Edgar Kennedy brings the whole thing to an exhausting close.

Verdict: Growing in confidence, Chaplin is beginning to display many of the attributes that would make him the figure we know today, 3/5

Next: Mabel at the Wheel (18 April 1914)

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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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