Mabel’s Married Life (20 June 1914)

Chaplin20MabelsMarriedLifeReleased: 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)

Advertisements

Mabel’s Busy Day (13 June 1914)

Chaplin19MabelsBusyDayReleased: 13 June 1914, Keystone

Directors: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett

Writer: Mabel Normand

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Slim Summerville, Billie Bennett, Harry McCoy

Story: Mabel is a hot dog vendor at a race track who has to deal with a drunken nuisance…

Production: This is another of Mack Sennett’s rather slight ‘event’ films, this one filmed at the Los Angeles Ascot Park Speedway during a special exhibition race in mid-May 1914. Again, we get to see some real life audiences as they take in Chaplin and company’s antics, suggesting in their reactions that many in the crowd now recognised the screen’s newest comic talent. As the nominal star, Mabel Normand has the prime role as the inefficient hot dog seller, but the film really only comes to life when Chaplin arrives (billed as a ‘tipsy nuisance’) to cause her trouble.

Is the character Chaplin plays in Mabel’s Busy Day the little Tramp we’ve come to know a little better over recent films? He certainly looks the same, and broadly acts the same, but there are differences in the costume here that might subtly suggest that Chaplin wasn’t fully on board with playing the fool in Mabel’s latest trifle. He’s wearing a slightly smarter frock coat than usual, and on his head is a very different hat, a lighter-than-usual derby. Perhaps he’s dressed up for his day out at the races? As part of his deal at Keystone, Chaplin had to appear in supporting roles in standard fare like Mabel’s Busy Day, when he’d much rather be coming up with his own scenarios and creating films where he could control the material.

As always with these Sennett shorts, the race is not the film’s main concern, merely a scenic backdrop. Its just another event that has attracted a crowd into which Mack and Mabel can send their characters and their cameras to provoke some form of hopefully amusing carnage. Mabel is quickly out-of-her depth, attempting to sell her wares to a rowdy, possibly drunken crowd, who are more interested in messing her about than buying her sausages, and that includes Chaplin’s antagonist.

Despite it not being his film, Chaplin can’t help but bring much of himself to his performance. To describe his movements as ‘balletic’ is something of a cliché, a century later. Also, it’s early days and he hasn’t quite fine-tuned what he can do, but there is no other word that adequately describes the way he moves through this film. His encounters with the various cops, the way he dodges them and moves around them, can only be described as balletic. Chaplin moves completely differently from anyone else in the film. The jump in the air, faux wrestling moves, and spinning on the spot like a whirling dervish when Chaplin meets the first cop at the track are odd moments. It’s supposed to be a fight, but it is much more like a dance off. Not for Chaplin the standard Keystone slapstick of face-shoves and pratfalls—this film appears to be the first time we see Chaplin rolling his hat down the length of his arm, another little quirk (like sliding around corners on one foot) that would become a defining characteristic of the fully-evolved Tramp figure.

Watch carefully the faces of the crowd as Chaplin finds a hot dog on the ground and mistakes it for a cigar—this is clearly an audience for some of whom at least, the little Tramp (although he’s dressed slightly differently) is a recognisable figure. It’s all a long way away from the Kid Auto Races in Venice days, when he was just a genuine nuisance. Those who don’t know him probably find his antics strange, although it is unlikely they weren’t aware of the cameras, so would have known a film was being shot. Half the fun for us, 100 years later, from these Keystone ‘event’ films is to crowd watch, to see real people in a real environment reacting to Chaplin’s increasingly unreal antics. By this point, the assembled crowds are more interested in watching Chaplin in action than the races they presumably originally came to see.

While Mabel isn’t having much luck flogging her dogs, Charlie is having an equally tough time with the ladies. He tries to attach himself to a trio of racegoers, but stealing from one of their handbags might not be the right approach. Finally, over half way through, the film brings Mabel and Chaplin together, first as antagonists, then as partners against the rowdy crowd. He does a roaring trade in shifting his stolen sausages, but has trouble getting paid for his wares. The last minute or so sees the usual Keystone ruck bring things to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Slapstick: No sooner has Mabel made it into the racetrack than she’s knocking people down when they dare to touch her sausages. Chaplin’s dance off with the Kops rapidly follows. Chaplin’s besting of a ruffian makes him a short-lived hero.

Verdict: Chaplin biographer David Robinson called Mabel’s Busy Day a ‘rough and rowdy little piece’, and that about sums it up, 2/5

Next: Mabel’s Married Life (20 June 1914)

 

The Knockout (11 June 1914)

Chaplin18TheKnockoutReleased: 11 June 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Avery

Writers: Mack Sennett, Charles Avery, Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 29 mins (two reels)

With: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Al St. John, Mack Swain

Story: Pug (Arbuckle) takes on Cyclone Flynn (Kennedy) in a boxing match, but an over zealous referee (Chaplin) manages to come between the fighters.

Production: Like many of the early Mabel Normand films in which Chaplin appeared, The Knockout is not really a Chaplin picture. It’s an Arbuckle-starring vehicle in which Chaplin has a smallish part as a referee in the second of the two reels. That didn’t stop Keystone’s Mack Sennett (who appears in the film as a spectator at the fight and had a hand in devising the scenario) giving his new rising star top billing on the film’s posters, in a larger font and above the film’s true star, Fatty Arbuckle. It does appear likely that Chaplin also had a hand in writing the film’s scenario, as it seems to draw on material form his early stage experience, including such Fred Karno vaudeville routines as Mumming Birds and The Yap Yap.

Boxing was a stock subject for such comedians, with Laurel and Hardy using such scenarios, as well as Chaplin himself in later films like The Champion (1915) and the feature City Lights (1931). The actor himself appears to have been something of a boxing fan, attending prize fights in Los Angeles for recreation.

Arbuckle, who’d later go on to co-star in a series of shorts with Buster Keaton, plays an exceptionally strong man nicknamed Pug who after single-handedly dealing with a quartet of ruffians decides to try his hand in the ring, entering a boxing contest in which Cyclone Flynn (Kennedy) is taking on all comers. In some ways, Arbuckle would go on to become the comedy foil that Mabel Normand was perhaps expecting Chaplin to be. If Chaplin had not been determined to forge his own cinematic path, it would have been perfectly possible to see him playing the role amply filled by ‘Fatty’ in such films as Mable and Fatty’s Married Life (1917) and Mabel, Fatty, and the Law (1917).

There’s a lovely bit of fourth wall breaking when Fatty is changing clothes and signals for the camera to pan up as he lowers his drawers (a gag re-used by Arbuckle in his 1917 film Coney Island). There’s also a cute bit of female-to-male cross-dressing, as Pug’s girlfriend (played by Chaplin regular Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s wife) dresses as a man (but fools no-one) to blend in with the fight crowd. Oddly, the boxing rigs appears to be more of a theatre stage than a proper fight arena.

Chaplin’s appearance is a long time coming (almost 20 minutes into the film), but it is easily the highlight of the whole piece. Bounding onto the stage, Chaplin is made-up as his Tramp character, but lacking his coat, hat, and cane, and brings the film’s first proper laugh as he instantly falls on his backside. He has an utterly different physicality from everyone we’ve been watching for the past 20 minutes—this might be expected in contrast with Arbuckle, but Chaplin’s performance (without sound, remember) is simply way ahead of any of the rest of the cast (with the possible exception of Durfee who is quite fetching in both her outfits, but has little to do, despite being married to Arbuckle at the time). As Chaplin’s perceptive biographer David Robinson notes in Chaplin: His Life and Art: ‘Chaplin’s refereeing is balletic, and introduces gags of a sophistication alien to the rest of the film’.

After the standard warnings to the fighters, it’s Charlie’s job to referee the fight in a fair manner, but he can’t help but come between the two pugilists, becoming the target of several of their punches. Naturally, he can’t resist fighting back, making the bout a three-way scramble.

The Knockout is disappointingly directed as Charles Avery (although some blame Sennett or even Arbuckle, as they may have had a hand in the direction as well as the scenario) shoots the fight in a long shot rather than getting in closer to the action. This may be down to the speed with which these shorts were churned out, but it’s possible that a more adventurous director, such as Chaplin himself, would have been able to make much more of the fight action. It especially poor if, as suspected, Chaplin choreographed the entire fight scene himself (as suggested by Harry M. Geduld in Chapliniana Vol 1), only for it to be shot with a locked off camera and from a great distance.

Chaplin exits the film when the fight ends once Fatty gets hold of a gun (which seems to have a never-ending supply of bullets). The remainder is a frantic chase sequence through town and across the roof tops and through a rich family’s home, until the ever reliable, if somewhat dozy, Keystone Kops bring the whole thing to a crashing (or should that be splashing?) halt. Chaplin’s material is funny as far as it goes, but it really is a missed opportunity, something he’d put right in such films as The Champion (1915). As pointed out by Glenn Mitchell in his indispensable The Chaplin Encyclopedia, one of the posters outside the venue appears to be for Chaplin’s own earlier film Caught in a Cabaret!

Slapstick: Almost immediately, Charlie is punched in the face, and things escalate from there. He knocks down Fatty himself, and starts counting the fighter out. Back on his feet, Fatty is swinging for Charlie, and even prayer can’t save him from the pugilist’s wrath. He ends up sitting out much of the rest of the fight in the corner of the ring.

Verdict: Easily the highlight of the film, there’s just not enough Chaplin, 2/5

Next: Mabel’s Busy Day (13 June 1914)

Her Friend the Bandit (4 June 1914)

Chaplin17BanditReleased: 4 June 1914, Keystone

Directors: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 12 mins (one reel)

With: Mabel Normand, Charles Murray

Story: A bandit (Chaplin) captures a Count (Murray), stealing his identity to infiltrate a society party held by Mrs. De Rocks (Normand)…

Production: This is the only completed and released Charlie Chaplin film that is not believed to exist in any form. Others have been missing in action, such as the recently recovered A Thief Catcher (the full version of which has still not been released, but should be seen this year). There were also films undertaken but never actually released, such as The Professor (1919) whose one and only scene can be seen as part of the documentary series Unknown Chaplin. Finally, the 1926 film A Woman of the Sea, starring Edna Purviance and directed by Josef von Sternberg, was made but never released—as its producer Chaplin is reputed to have destroyed the film himself sometime in the 1930s as a tax write-off for his studio. All that remains are around 50 production stills.

So, without being able to see it, what can be said about Her Friend the Bandit? Perhaps contemporary reports of the release 100 years ago can help? Moving Picture World called the short ‘a bit thin’ but said it featured ‘the rough whirling of happenings usually found in farces of this well-marked type’. In contrast to that lukewarm write-up, the Lexington Herald acclaimed Chaplin’s work as ‘one of the funniest and most hilarious comedies in a decade’.

If those comments aren’t helpful, perhaps looking at some later works of Chaplin that apparently draw upon Her Friend the Bandit might be enlightening. Such work as The Count (1916), The Rink (1916), and The Idle Class (1921) can all claim some inspiration from this lost movie. In The Count, Chaplin’s lowly tailor’s assistant impersonates an aristocrat, while in The Rink his waiter character similarly takes on the role of a titled ‘Sir’. The Idle Class has Chaplin playing doubles, a poor man and an aristocrat, making one being mistaken for the other inevitable. Most likely a direct influence on this film was Chaplin’s most recent previous masquerade in Caught in a Cabaret.

There is, however, an element of doubt about whether Her Friend the Bandit can truly be considered a Charlie Chaplin film… Was it simply another Mabel Normand vehicle in which he was involved? That’s hard to say, without seeing how involved in the action his character is. The film’s absence from various older filmographies, including one drawn up by Chaplin himself, and the specific fact that Chaplin’s name does not appear to be mentioned in many contemporary reviews has helped blow a cloud of additional confusion over the provenance of this short.

Many now available Chaplin films were once lost, including Mabel’s Strange Predicament, A Busy Day, and Cruel, Cruel Love, so there is every hope of a future recovery. In 2012 there was some confusion when it was widely claimed that the film had been found, but it turned out to be a short called His Day Out featuring Chaplin imitator Billy West. Her Friend the Bandit was, like many of Chaplin’s early movies, re-issued to cinemas at least twice and was released in foreign editions, so there is every chance that a print may one day turn up, so completing the Chaplin filmography once and for all… Unless another previously unknown appearance should make a surprise entrance.

Slapstick: Probably, after all the climax did involve the arrival of the Keystone Kops at the party, so mayhem was guaranteed.

Verdict: One day we may be able to judge this film, just not yet, ?/5

Next: The Knockout (11 June 1914)

The Fatal Mallet (1 June 1914)

Chaplin16MalletReleased: 1 June 1914, Keystone

Director: Mack Sennett

Writer: Mack Sennett

Duration: approx. 13 mins (one reel)

With: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Mack Swain

Story: A woman (Normand) is the object of attention from three men, the Tramp (Chaplin), a suitor (Sennett), and a third rival (Swain).

Production: If A Busy Day seemed like an odd film for Chaplin to tackle just as he was beginning to take control of his own films with Caught in the Rain, then The Fatal Mallet is even stranger. Chaplin’s Tramp character is tossed into the middle of a standard Mabel-and-Mack Keystone comedy, with little regard for the new depth that the actor-director was bringing to the character. This is a runaround-bash-em-up of the most crude kind, and was a template of the kind of comedy that Chaplin was resolutely not interested in pursuing.

Initially, the Tramp and Sennett’s suitor are rivals for Mabel’s attention, but with the arrival of Swain, the pair team up against him employing all sorts of weaponry—bricks, and finally, the mallet of the title—against him. The Tramp can’t make up his mind, however, to whom he owes allegiance and ultimately loses out; in typical Keystone fashion, he ends up dunked in the lake at the climax.

The Fatal Mallet is of interest as it presents Sennett and Chaplin together on screen: they didn’t often share scenes, even when appearing in the same short. Given that Sennett was Chaplin’s boss (that’s probably why he’s in this film at all) and had taken a gamble on him as a film comedian, Chaplin probably felt beholden to the older, more experienced filmmaker. That was still the case, even though he was beginning to explore making films in a completely different way to his mentor. Here, there’s less genuinely funny comedy than simple slapping, hitting, and tossing of bricks, the worst kind of unthinking slapstick that nonetheless seemed to go down a treat with 1914 audiences, for some reason. A write-up in Bioscope magazine suggested ‘the employment of a deadly mallet gives these indescribable comedians the opportunity for another genuinely funny farce’. See? Easily pleased, obviously.

The Fatal Mallet is a backward step for the character of the Tramp, as Chaplin was carefully evolving him. Here he’s resorting to physical violence without a care once more, kicking a kid in the stomach, something the more sophisticated Tramp character would never contemplate, yet par for the course for a Sennett-driven short. Although widely credited to Sennett as writer and director, this was probably put together on the spur of the moment, so features the worst moments of all the Keystone ‘park’ comedies, and there is little sign of any distinctive input from Chaplin.

There is a genuine mystery hidden within The Fatal Mallet, however. The mysterious initials ‘I.W.W.’ pop up twice, first scrawled on the side of a wooden hut, then again later written on the inside of the door of the same hut. Presumably, the hut is the headquarters for whatever the ‘I.W.W.’ might be, or their local meeting place…

Chaplin16Mallet2IWWAccording to Simon Louvish in his Chaplin biography The Tramp’s Odyssey, the use of the initials ‘I.W.W.’ were a contemporary 1914 reference to the Industrial Workers of the World. Known as the ‘Wobblies’, they were (and still are) a revolutionary American organized labour group who in the pre-First World War days were campaigning for all labour unions to unite into one uber-union in order to effectively take on the might of the employers. In January 1914, an activist in the Wobblies, Swedish immigrant itinerant worker Joe Hill, was accused of murder in Utah, convicted in a controversial trial, and then executed by firing squad in 1915.

Was the addition of the initials ‘I.W.W.’, seemingly chalked on the side of the hut, an expression of support for the I.W.W. by the always-radical Chaplin?; the film was made and released just weeks before the Hill trial began in mid-June 1914. Or is it simply a coincidence and they were there already when the Sennett gang turned up to film?; tramps were known to add the ‘I.W.W.’ initials widely in their travels. Were they added by a disgruntled crew member protesting against Sennett’s non-union filmmaking practices, and would Sennett not have been aware of their significance given the high press profile given to the upcoming trial? Louvish raises the question, but his research provides no answers: ‘We still do not know who scrawled “I.W.W.” on Mack Sennett’s shed door during The Fatal Mallet‘.

Slapstick: Plenty: from beginning to end, The Fatal Mallet is an orgy of not particularly funny violence, with bricks tossed about willy nilly and the title implement brought into play at the climax.

Verdict: The mallet is no Mjolnir and Chaplin ain’t no Thor!, 2/5

Next: Her Friend the Bandit (4 June 1914)