Released: 7 September 1914, Keystone
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 13 mins
With: Roscoe Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Phyllis Allen, Al St. John, Charley Chase
Story: A pair of drunks debate their habits with their wives before setting out to get even more inebriated…
Production: The impersonation of a drunk was a long-lived vaudeville standby, a staple of the live entertainment circuit that just as quickly became a staple of screen entertainment in the early days of silent comedy. This film was the only one to properly team Chaplin with Fatty Arbuckle (they’d appeared together, but had minimal interaction before), and Chaplin biographer David Thompson saw it as looking back over ‘Chaplin’s whole gallery of inebriates from Karno to Keystone, and forward to A Night Out (1915) and ultimately to the Tramp’s night on the town with the millionaire in City Lights (1931).’
The title of The Rounders supposedly derives from the buying of drinks in rounds, so those who participate are ’rounders’, but it is a phrase that has long since fallen into disuse (although another explanation for the term suggests it derives from a combination of ‘rogue’ and ‘bounder’).
The result though is widely acclaimed as one of the best of Chaplin’s comedies at Keystone. It is surprising that the inspired teaming of Chaplin with Arbuckle did not develop further, but perhaps such ‘large’ personalities as this pair could not fit together. Arbuckle would eventually go on to work with Buster Keaton as a regular comedy partner, but he would regret not having worked more, and in more depth, with Chaplin. The BFI collection Chaplin at Keystone quotes Arbuckle on Chaplin: ‘I have always regretted having not been his partner in a longer film than these one reelers we made so rapidly. He is a complete comic genius, undoubtedly the only one of our time and he will be the only one who will still be talked about a century from now.’
In The Rounders, Arbuckle’s on-screen wife was played by his real life off-screen wife, Minta Durfee. Chaplin’s screen partner in marriage was Phyllis Allen, someone he’d worked with before in several Keystone comedies. Thrown together as a pair of drunks escaping their wives and looking for amusement, Chaplin and Arbuckle make a perfect teaming, as though they’d been working together as comedy partners for years. They clearly had great fun making this movie, although the final film is more akin to Arbuckle’s general work than Chaplin’s. Watch Chaplin’s face carefully at the film’s close, when he’s supposed to be unconscious or asleep in the sinking rowing boat: he’s so tickled by Arbuckle’s antics he’d can barely stop himself laughing.
Chaplin doesn’t appear to be the Tramp in this short: for a start, he’s married, and secondly his attire is something more befitting a better off drunk than many of those denizens of the park he’s played previously. His outfit of Top Hat, cape, and full evening attire suggests a figure from his old days on stage as part of the Karno troupe than any of the drunkards that filled his Keystone shorts. Still present, though, is his cane, although it is Arbuckle who uses his cane to filch a handbag. Chaplin is generous in his directing of Arbuckle, giving the larger man the space to exhibit his comic grace—both men were well aware that the work of a comedy partner could do much to enhance the finished film. Chaplin was by now quite secure in his own success, while his filmmaking abilities were improving with each short. The Rounders is less a Keystone movie (even though it follows the well-worn formula of climaxing in Echo Park, with the protagonists getting wet in the lake), and much more a Chaplin directed film in which he has been willing to give half the screen and many of the gags to Arbuckle (himself to become an accomplished director).
By now, Chaplin was aware of how moviegoers greeted his appearances on screen, and how they especially delighted in seeing his drunk act. He’d developed a habit of visiting movie theatres incognito (out of his make-up and Tramp outfit, he was largely unrecognisable) to observe how audiences reacted to his movies. His entrance in The Rounders appears to have been created with this knowledge in mind. Writer James L. Neibaur suggests that Chaplin deliberately timed his entrance to allow the audience to first recognise him, before hitting them with the first major laugh as he falls drunkenly upon the steps. In fact, in common with Arbuckle, Chaplin’s physicality is important throughout The Rounders. His balletic ability to spin, turn, and change direction is used, which contrasts nicely with Arbuckle’s much more lumbering presentation.
Overall, though, there is perhaps less slapstick in The Rounders than Chaplin’s earlier films. He was slowly moving away from this simplistic element of the Keystone formula, preferring instead to attempt to build convincing characters even within the brief running time of such shorts. He and Arbuckle could have formed a comedy double act not unlike Laurel and Hardy, building upon their characters in The Rounders and playing up even more their contrasting physicality. However, it was not to be. Chaplin had other plans, and a different, more unfortunate, fate awaited Arbuckle.
Slapstick: Entering the hotel where he’s staying, Mr Full (Chaplin) falls twice in thirty seconds as he attempts to make his way upstairs. When his angry wife pulls the chair away, Chaplin inevitably tumbles to the floor, twice, caught up in his cape. Arbuckle’s Mr Fuller, following in Chaplin’s footsteps, sits in the lap of a young woman waiting in the lobby. Meanwhile, Chaplin’s drunk attempts to take a lie down on the bed, with his feet hooked on the headboard. Both drunks are on the receiving end of comic beatings from their wives, who then end up fighting each other as the husbands flee together. Waddling down the street, Chaplin trips resulting in Arbuckle dragging him along the rest of the way to the cafe where they attempt to top up their alcohol intake but are soon asleep under a pair of liberated table cloths. Chased by their irate wives, they end up in the park and then (inevitably) the lake.
Verdict: Huge fun, a unique one-off pairing of two comedy greats, 4/5
Next: The New Janitor (24 September 1914)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.