Released: 9 July 1914, Keystone
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 12 mins
With: Fritz Schade, Alice Howell, Joseph Sutherland, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh
Story: A visit to the dentist is more fun if Charlie Chaplin is the dentist’s assistant.
Production: A comical trip to the dentist became almost ubiquitous in the early days of silent film comedy and drew heavily on many vaudeville and music hall sketches, and the idea has been maintained through such talkie classics as Laurel and Hardy’s Leave ‘Em Laughing (1928) and the bit in their prison picture Pardon Us (1931), W.C. Fields’s The Dentist (1932, also produced by Keystone’s Mack Sennett) and Steve Martin and Bill Murray’s film stealing scenes in the remake of Little Shop of Horrors (1986, Murray replacing Jack Nicholson in the 1960 Roger Corman original).
For Charlie Chaplin the horrors of a trip to the dentist were all-too-real, with members of his family remembering how difficult it was to get him to visit one, his resistance resulting in very few experiences like that depicted in Laughing Gas. All the more remarkable, then, that Chaplin was able to put aside his own feelings and exploit the idea for all its comic worth, although as late as King in New York (1957), Chaplin still used film to complain about dentists. As well as drawing upon the wide range of real life topics film comedies were beginning to exploit, Chaplin was also recalling a well toured Fred Karno sketch that he’d seen on many occasions although never featured in himself.
In adapting that source material to film, Chaplin opened things up beyond the stage set, adding a trip to the drug store to get the film out of the dentist’s surgery itself. Despite this, and despite the advances Chaplin was showing in his filmmaking, Laughing Gas is a rather typical, straight forward Keystone slapstick comedy in which Chaplin takes the leading role, but he does little that is truly innovative. Perhaps time was against him, given the speed with which these films were produced? Or perhaps his increasing problems with Mack Sennett and Keystone (he’d soon jump ship to set up shop at Essanay, where he’d be offered much more creative freedom) were restricting his willingness to be inventive while still under the Keystone banner?
Chaplin is the assistant to Dr Pain, the dentist, (some sources claim Chaplin’s merely a janitor), who takes the first chance he gets to have a go at the patients himself. Dispatched to the drug store, he manages to create some new patients (one of them is Chaplin/Keystone regular Mack Swain) by hitting people in the face with bricks—this is clearly the crueller, more self-absorbed version of the Tramp. There’s a lot of running and falling about and plenty of slapstick business which probably kept contemporary audiences amused, but there is precious little in the way of character development or unique comedy situations, the kind of things Chaplin had begun exploring in film.
From today’s more sophisticated viewpoint, the tooth pulling shenanigans on display in Laughing Gas appear particularly primitive; it’s all pliers and heavy tugging to solve any dental problems. Despite its nickname, nitrous oxide—the ‘laughing gas’ of the title—doesn’t actually lead to outbreaks of hysterics as depicted here.
The street scenes give us a more traditional setting for the Tramp character, and his encounter with Mack Swain, who is blocking the way in to the drug store, is one of this short’s highlights. Chaplin gets to do his typical walk and roll his hat along his arm, while wielding his cane as an impromptu weapon. A pretty girl—later revealed to be the dentist’s wife (Alice Howell)—causes Chaplin to go skidding off in pursuit, leading to her losing her skirt (a bizarre subplot that also involves a visiting vicar!) and the brick tossing that sees Swain become a dental patient.
With the dentist away dealing with his wife’s wardrobe malfunction, Chaplin returns to the dentist’s office and takes the opportunity of his absence to take on the role of dentist himself. This leads to the funniest section of the short, with Chaplin beginning his treatment of a young female patient (the appealing Gene Marsh, later seen as a cavewoman in His Prehistoric Past) by shining her shoes. His contortions as he tries to pretend to be examining her teeth while (literally) getting his leg over get to the heart of the developing character of the more compassionate Tramp than anything else in the film.
Inevitably, in the Keystone way the climax is chaos as Swain and the other man hit by a brick recognise their assailant when they eventually arrive at the dentist’s office for treatment. Laughing Gas is formulaic comedy-by-rote, a by-the-numbers Keystone short only lacking a climax in the park. Chaplin doesn’t particularly do anything interesting from a scenario that was far from new. Perhaps the only really interesting thing to note is the way that in casting certain roles Chaplin went for significant contrasts in height, from the extremely tall patient who falls victim to his brick throwing to the tiny man (who looks like a young boy dressed up) who plays the other dental assistant and is tossed around by the larger characters. It’s just a shame that these odd choices have no relation to the theme or setting of the film.
Slapstick: Within a minute, Charlie’s flat on his back after an encounter with another dental worker. The climax features much pushing, shoving, and slapping around the dentist’s chair and waiting room.
Verdict: Better than a trip to the dentist, but only just…, 2/5
Next: The Property Man (1 August 1914)