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…
According 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)