Released: 13 August 1914, Keystone
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 7 mins (split reel with educational short The Yosemite)
With: Charles Bennett, Helen Carruthers, Edwin Frazee
Story: The Tramp enjoys a day out in the park, where he contemplates the ultimate escape until his eye is caught by a young lady…
Production: There had been only a single Charlie Chaplin short released in the entire month of July 1914, the predictable dentist caper Laughing Gas. Chaplin had completed two more shorts, with the knockabout nonsense of The Property Man and the rather experimental The Face on the Bar Room Floor. However, as Chaplin’s fame began to grow, the clamour from distributors and exhibitors for more Chaplin ‘product’ could be heard loud and clear at the Mack Sennett studios. Hence Recreation, perhaps the ultimate Sennett/Keystone park movie, a seven minute item improvised in the course of a single day.
Chaplin’s twenty-or-so movies were in constant release, often promoted by cinemas not by their title but by a simple picture of the star. It didn’t seem to matter which Chaplin short was showing, or if it had been seen before, the attraction was simply the chance to see America’s latest movie comedy sensation in action once again. Sennett was keen to meet this demand, seeing ‘park’ productions like Recreation as a quick and easy way to keep new films flowing (August would see a marked increase of new films to five, over July’s single release) into cinemas and the exhibition fees flowing back to Keystone.
The result is the ultimate park movie, the old Keystone stand-by. The Tramp has apparently had enough of life and is spending his time in the park contemplating suicide. He’s quickly shaken out of that notion by the sight of a pretty girl. Cue the arrival of her sailor boyfriend, a posse of cops, the required brick throwing and the necessary grand climax when everyone falls in the lake. It really is that simple, and it is made up of elements often seen in Keystone shorts and in many previous Chaplin efforts.
Weirdly, the girl in this short is variously credited as Helen Carruthers, Gene Marsh, or Norma Nichols, depending on the source consulted. The film was billed in contemporary ads as featuring ‘Chas. Chaplin as the down-and-out young man who finds new zest in life in park flirtations conducted with inimitable vigour and humour in which the police materially assist’. The UK paper Bioscope noted that Chaplin was taking ‘a stroll in that very beautiful park [actually Westlake Park] which seems to be most frequented by Keystone comedians…’
No-one would ever argue that Recreation was a significant or important film, either in its own right or as part of Chaplin’s ongoing cinematic development. Nonetheless, it is a shame that the surviving material that makes up Recreation as we see it today is so poor. Fuzzy and badly framed throughout (even in the BFI’s release, using the best sources available), it is thanks to an extract used in a television series called Silents Please that about a minute and a half from the end the quality improves immeasurably. It is a reminder of how lucky we are that the majority of Chaplin’s material has survived for us to enjoy viewing his development as the quintessential screen clown, over 100 years later.
Slapstick: Attempting to throw himself from the (low) bridge in the park, the Tramp simply ends up falling on his backside. As the Tramp and the sailor engage in face slapping, the girl also gets one in the chops. Bricks from the park kerbs quickly become weapons that take down a cop or two. When the battle resumes by the lakeside, the Tramp quickly follows the others into the water when the girl pushes him in, only to be dragged in herself.
Verdict: By the numbers and in poor shape, 2/5
Next: The Masquerader (27 August 1914)