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)