Released: 20 June 1914, Keystone
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writers: Charles Chaplin, Mabel Normand
Duration: approx. 15 mins
With: Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Eva Nelson, Harry McCoy, Al St. John
Story: Mabel sets out to toughen up her ineffectual husband after he fails to protect her from a tough in the park.
Production: Chaplin’s Tramp is given a domesticated makeover in this comedy that he both wrote (with input from Keystone’s leading lady Mabel Normand) and directed. He’s not only married, but he has graduated to a better class of headwear in the shape of a fancy Top Hat (although his shoes are still in a terrible state). Chaplin would later repeat the role of husband in other Keystone titles, including The Rounders, His Trysting Places and Getting Acquainted (all 1914), while a full family life awaited him in the likes of A Day’s Pleasure (1919, not only married, but with two sons as well), and Pay Day (1922, in which he deal with a wife worse than Mabel).
Once again, for the early part of the film, the Keystone team were back on their familiar stamping ground of Echo Park Lake—this location, especially the iconic bridge, features as a backdrop to so many varied silent comedies that it has almost become a character in its own right. As always, with Keystone, the ‘park comedies’ were about making something quickly and cheaply, and nature tamed by Los Angeles’s finest groundkeepers was too attractive to resist.
Adding to the theory that Chaplin choreographed his refereeing of the boxing bout in Her Friend the Bandit are the scenes where he tackles the boxing dummy in this short, which he directed. When his wife (Mabel Normand) is accosted by a tough in the park (Mack Swain), there is little the Tramp can do against the larger man. Determined to toughen up her husband, Mabel acquires a punch-bag mannequin for the Tramp to train with. However, he’s gone to the pub, got very drunk, and taken part in a bar fight. When he eventually returns home, he thinks the dummy is an intruder and proceeds to take it on in a fight he almost loses.
After sizing up the dummy, and wondering if he’s in the right apartment, Chaplin proceeds to mistake the inanimate figure for the tough from the park. When the dummy refuses to leave, a bout of fisticuffs ensues, in which the dummy has the upper hand, knocking down the Tramp and his wife, much to the consternation of the neighbours. It’s only the final two minutes or so of the film, but it is easily the highlight of the piece and shows Chaplin developing an approach to comic material that he would hugely expand upon later.
There is more sense of a story in Mabel’s Married Life than in many of the more throwaway Keystones which tend to just be a series of barely connected events. In this one, Chaplin has evidently attempted to have events build on one another, for incidents to have understandable consequences, many of which help develop character. It would be the way Chaplin’s comedy would develop in the future. There’s a more leisurely pace to this short than in most Keystones, with Chaplin taking the time to develop gags and character. There’s probably more character stuff in connections with the Tramp figure in this one short than in several of the most recent combined.
The qualitative leap between Mabel’s Busy Day (Normand’s work) and Mabel’s Married Life (Chaplin’s work) speaks volumes about their respective responses to the challenges of filmmaking in the early silent era. Having found a reasonable formula, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand were happy to stick with it. Having learned the basics of filmmaking in a mere few months, Charlie Chaplin was determined to take the form in new, as yet unexplored directions. Ironically, Chaplin’s approach does Normand a favour and she comes across far better, more natural, and funnier (especially in her brief Chaplin impersonation) than in any of the films they’d previously appeared in together.
The dummy provides Chaplin with one of his most sustained conflicts with an inanimate object yet seen in his films (usually doors, or bits of equipment he fails to master). His drunken Tramp treats the dummy as just another character, one he can attempt to reason with, and when that fails, strong-arm. His actions and miming even suggest that the Tramp believes the dummy might be drunk, whereas he’s the one who’s had one tipple too many.
The improvement in this film was remarked upon in a contemporary review in Bioscope, calling it ‘extremely funny’ and praising Chaplin’s ‘study in inebriation’. At the heart of this little film, though, is the concept that it simply wouldn’t work if it wasn’t silent: the dummy’s failure to speak if this were a sound film would make the closing gag (and the whole picture) untenable.
Slapstick: Once again, the Tramp has trouble with a swing door as he enters the bar. There’s a lovely bit of sliding on one foot as he first confronts the tough in the park. Almost unforgivably, no one falls into the lake. During a second trip to the bar, and only after much provocation, the Tramp lunges into a full-on bar fight, which includes socking the bar tender.
Verdict: Amusing but not quite a knock-out, 2/5
Next: Laughing Gas (9 July 1914)