Gentlemen of Nerve (29 October 1914)

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Released: 29 October 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 15 mins

With: Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen

Story: The Tramp and a pal visit a road race…

Production: After the breakthrough of Dough and Dynamite it seems odd that Chaplin should settle for a return to the ‘event’-based Keystone film for his next effort, which is what Gentlemen of Nerve appears to be at first glance. Filmed at the Ascot Park Speedway (the location for the earlier short featuring Chaplin, Mabel’s Busy Day), the film captures something of the Bert Dingley Special Exhibition Benefit Race which took place on 20 September 1914. Chaplin and the usual gang of Keystone misfits cavort in and around the action, taking advantage of the setting for a rather slight comedy (there is some nice historical footage of the race, with the drivers changing tires before zooming off, even before Chaplin appears on screen; it is over three minutes before he arrives).

However, looked at more closely Gentlemen of Nerve reveals that Chaplin is attempting to apply all that he has learned even to a routine Keystone outing such as this. His Tramp character has a name, ‘Mr Wow Wow’—suggesting that inspiration came from an old Fred Karno sketch he no doubt played in, The Wow Wows, adapted to fit the Keystone template. Even within this, however, Chaplin develops some skilful character material, including the delightful sequence in which he surreptitiously sips (through a straw) from the drink of the woman sitting next to him (a piece of business repeated and developed further in 1916’s Behind the Screen, and again with a child’s hot dog replacing the drink in The Circus, 1928).

Despite such character grace notes, the bulk of this one reeler is standard slapstick fare from the period. The key sequence sees Chaplin’s character attempt to help his large friend sneak into the race through a hole in the fence, only for the outsized man (Swain) to get stuck halfway through. This is basic stuff, combining the contrast between Chaplin’s smaller character and the proportions of the friend he’s trying to help with some standard slapstick business that extends the scene, but not so much that it outstays its welcome. In the end, the Tramp abandons his friend and attempts to gain entry himself. Once he’s through, he attempts to pull his friend inside with him, but a cop has the friend’s other end, and the two engage in a tug of war, unaware of each other’s presence.

There’s some romantic by-play between various characters, who all seem more interested in each other than in the actual race that provides the setting for the film. The ultimate connection is made between Chaplin’s character and Keystone’s star name, Mabel Normand (who hadn’t appeared in a Chaplin short for a good while following their falling out). Again, Chaplin engages some subtle character moments here (subtle, at least, in comparison to the usual Keystone boorish overplaying). He and Mabel connect with each other over an accident with his hat, making light of the destruction of his derby, and turning a potential antagonism into a moment of ‘meet cute’ attraction.

In directing the film, Chaplin contrasts his smaller physique and more considered manners with the larger sized and more outlandish Conklin and Swain and their overbearing approach to the women at the race. The director cross-cuts between the various romantic situations, and when Charlie is called upon to defend Mabel’s honour, he does so in a considered manner, rather than the more straightforward violent slapstick he might have invoked in the earlier days of his Keystone career. He wasn’t able to dump this aspect of 1914 filmmaking altogether, however, and Gentlemen of Nerve presents plenty of physical action of the type expected from a Keystone short, much of it delivered by Chaplin. In the end, however, he appears to get the girl (some lovely close ups seem to display Chaplin and Normand actually enjoying each other’s company…).

In Gentlemen of Nerve, Chaplin was able to effectively combine his newly emerging approach to filmmaking with Mack Sennett’s well-tested successful Keystone formula, producing one of his better films and one of the studio’s best formulaic outings along the way. Chaplin was beginning to find the $1000 budget to be a limitation on his creativity, as he developed the habit of working out comedy business on the spot then reshooting material to include any ‘discovered’ improvements. This was not the rough-and-ready Keystone way.

The increasing success of Chaplin’s films at the box office, especially following Dough and Dynamite, saw other studios approaching the star with a view to having him make films for them. At this stage, he didn’t appear to be willing to entertain such offers, content with Keystone’s $200 per week salary to attend what was actually for him a comprehensive learning-on-the-job filmmaking course. His growing creative freedom and the roster of star names available for him to use in his films at Keystone were other factors in his decision to remain where he was for the time being… however, Charlie Chaplin’s days at Keystone were soon to come to an end.

Slapstick: The Tramp/Mr Wow Wow and Mack Swain exchange blows as they attempt to sneak in past the ticket gate. The hole in the fence is discovered as the Tramp nearly falls through. Kicks up the backside don’t help the larger fellow navigate the tight space. The Tramp sees off a policeman with a squirt of soda water, but remains oblivious. Exchanging glances with Mabel, the Tramp puts the bite on Chester, before picking a fight with the crowd (it has to be wondered how many were in on the joke…). The Tramp loses a fight with a propeller-driven car.

Verdict: Chaplin’s influence sees a maturing of the Keystone formula, 3/5

Next: His Musical Career (7 November 1914)

Dough and Dynamite (26 October 1914)

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Released: 26 October 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 28 mins

With: Chester Conklin, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Edgar Kennedy, Charley Chase

Story: When the cooks go on strike at the restaurant where they work, waiters Chaplin and Conklin become inept bakers…

Production: Spun off from the aborted first version of Those Love Pangs, Chaplin’s Dough and Dynamite is the culmination of everything he’d been learning during his year at Keystone up to this point. It would also prove to be the most profitable of all his releases from Keystone. An eventual 14-day shooting schedule (or just nine, according to Chaplin’s often questionable autobiography) went $800 over the $1000 budget, according to the booklet accompanying the BFI release of Chaplin’s Keystone titles. Chaplin’s $25 directing fee was withheld by Mack Sennett as punishment. In his autobiography, Chaplin noted: ‘The only way they could retrieve themselves, said Sennett, was to put it out as a two-reeler.’ Despite the budget-busting nature of this production, it went on to gross in excess of $130,000 during the first year on release.

Dealing obliquely with contemporary labour relations—an issue on which Chaplin was developing some firm views—Dough and Dynamite plays up the comedy of the situation rather than the politics. There was an actual strike among the bakers of Los Angeles at the time the film was in production, providing the initial inspiration, but the filmmaker steered clear of engaging with the specific issues (around working conditions) involved. Strikers or labour disputes would reappear in Chaplin’s work in Behind the Screen (1916) and, especially, in his masterpiece Modern Times (1936).

Slow to start, the comedy has Chaplin enacting various pratfalls and mistakes as an incompetent waiter. Things hit a higher gear when in taking over from the striking bakers in an attempt to keep up production, Chaplin and co-star Chester Conklin find the bakers have engaged in sabotage. A loaf Chaplin puts in the oven contains a concealed stick of dynamite, leading to an explosive conclusion for this two reeler (a late in the day cuckold romance storyline goes nowhere). The result was previewed in Motion Picture News on 24 October 1914 as ‘slapstick comedy of the highest order’. As a director, Chaplin was clearly improving in his construction of shots, pacing and editing. Dough and Dynamite is fast-moving, but still finds time to further develop the character of the little Tramp.

Letting his character loose in a bakery clearly provided much comic inspiration for Chaplin. There is much material in the Tramp’s interaction with the ingredients of baking, from dough and frosting, to unwieldy sacks of flour and the seemingly endless parade of smashed dishes. Rapid cutting within scenes keeps things lively, while the budget breach occurred due to re-takes that became necessary as the comic situations were developed organically from the inspirational setting. This would become Chaplin’s key way of working, a slow, meticulous process in which much celluloid was sacrificed in search of comic perfection.

As well as directing performances in the studio, Chaplin must have been working closely with Keystone’s film cutters to develop his editing techniques. It all comes together in Dough and Dynamite which displays a more sophisticated approach to the construction of comic scenes from individual elements, including significantly more use of close up than he’d employed before. Cinema was evolving as a technical tool, and so Chaplin’s filmmaking techniques were also evolving to take advantage of a growing awareness among filmmakers of just what could be achieved with movie cameras. This film is a million miles away from the often formulaic run around the park Keystone short, and was a sign of things to come.

In his 1973 book The Comic Mind, Gerald Mast singled out ‘Chaplin’s style of paying close attention to what he can do with a bit of inanimate matter…’, especially the sequence in which the Tramp carries a tray of loaves aloft without dropping a single one. ‘He runs, dances, twirls, pirouettes, and somersaults,’ wrote Mast of Chaplin’s increasingly balletic antics throughout Dough and Dynamite. The scene climaxes in disaster as, stooping to pick up a single loaf from the floor, the Tramp loses balance, tipping his tray over. Comedy drawn from the act of balancing (or failing to balance) objects would reappear in such Chaplin works as Shanghaied (1915) and—much later—in Monsieur Verdoux (1947).

Playing opposite Conklin seemed to bring out the best in Chaplin. Willing to play ‘second banana’ to the Tramp, Conklin was more often the leading player in his own Keystone shorts. Here, however, both comics seemed to realise they’d hit upon comedy gold and they worked hard to develop and exploit it as much as they could; Conklin was instrumental in contributing some key sequences in Dough and Dynamite. Conklin turned up later in small roles in Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940), and had persuaded Chaplin not to quit Keystone when his frustrations at working with Mabel Normand were beginning to show in the early days.

Although he was rapidly learning his craft as Keystone, at the expense (literally here) of Mack Sennett, it would be Essanay and Mutual, Chaplin’s next two studios, who would ultimately benefit from his maturing comic style.

Slapstick: Chaplin’s Tramp gets into a violent tangle with Conklin’s other waiter, before the pair team up to take over the bakery. A hatch in the floor leads to trouble, with the Tramp getting stuck into (and stuck in) dough. Dish washing mishaps follow, during which the Tramp has a smashing time. A bag of flour proves near-fatal for Chester. A loaf to the face knocks the Tramp to the floor. The Tramp gets his head stuck in the trap door to the basement bakery (another example of Chaplin’s repeated problems with doors of all kinds across these early shorts; here the film’s first significant close-ups come in to play). The ovens prove too hot for the Tramp to handle. Putting out the rubbish, Chester gets conked by the strikers; the Tramp inadvertently gives them a soaking. There’s more dealing with dough, during which Chaplin demonstrates his unique way of making donuts, a young Charley Chase (as a customer) gets hit in the face with a pie, and then things end with an almighty bang as Chaplin’s Tramp emerges dazed (and floured) from the wreckage.

Verdict: Finally cooking on all fronts, Dough and Dynamite is one Keystone short that rises properly, 4/5

Next: Gentlemen of Nerve (29 October 1914)

Those Love Pangs (10 October 1914)

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Released: 10 October 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Chester Conklin, Cecile Arnold, Vivian Edwards, Helen Carruthers

Story: Charlie’s in love—with his landlady, but he also has a rival…

Production: Those Love Pangs began with a simple idea. According to co-star Chester Conklin’s recollection, Chaplin simply wanted to build a film around the idea of two men who were rivals in love, always pursuing the same women. Their first romantic target was to be Chaplin’s landlady (Helen Carruthers). In his memoirs, Mack Sennett recalled that production on the largely improvised short was shut down after only a few days and a few simple shots. After a street car he was riding stopped outside a local baker, Chaplin decided that his character and that played by Conklin should be seen working together in a bakery-cum-cafe. That element proved so successful, comically speaking, that it was spun-off into the next, separate Chaplin release, Dough and Dynamite (26 October 2014). This stop-start production process would increasingly become Chaplin’s basic working method, especially after he quit Keystone at the end of 1914.

What remained to make up Those Love Pangs was a mishmash of elements familiar from a handful of then-recent Chaplin shorts, including the boarding house setting of The Star Boarder, the romantic goings on at the centre of Twenty Minutes of Love, and in the cinema-set climax, elements of A Film Johnnie. It’s clear that in the trade off in comic material between Those Love Pangs and Dough and Dynamite, it was the second film that came off best.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing notable about this largely improvised, off-the-cuff short. It’s not as innovative or as interesting as the one that followed, but it did show—albeit in small details—that Chaplin’s art, especially his performance, was continuing to grow and develop beyond the confines of the formula of Keystone slapstick (although he still manages to include the inevitable lake-in-the-park scene, where his forlorn romantic contemplates suicide).

Clearly there was not enough mileage in the two boarders pursuing the landlady, although it is possible to imagine the kind of comedy Chaplin might have featured in during his first few months at Keystone with exactly this premise. At this stage in his development, though, he’d clearly become bored by these formulaic approaches to single reel comedies. That is evident in the lacklustre opening to Those Love Pang which has Chaplin and Conklin clowning around (Chaplin sticks a fork in Conklin’s bum to sabotage his attempt to chat up the landlady; Conklin then does the same to Chaplin) to no great comic effect. There is none of the comic spark here to match that between Chaplin and Arbuckle in The Rounders.

Evidence of the lack of focus comes when the scene rapidly changes, first to the local park (as if Chaplin had panicked and simply fell back on the Keystone park film formula to fill a quota), then to a nickelodeon. Throughout, Chaplin develops the use of his cane as a more significant prop, perhaps following Arbuckle’s use of it during The Rounders. He pulls a slow-to-keep-up Conklin along with the hook of the cane, then uses it to send a rival into the lake (someone had to fall in). That cane is one of the instantly recognisable props associated with Chaplin, a key element of his costumed ‘look’, but not a prop he’d done a lot with prior to this point. He also applies his skills of transformation to the cane (making regular objects appear to be things they are not or were never intended to be). During Those Love Pangs, the cane becomes both a toothpick and a nail cleaner. It had been part of his comic persona almost from the beginning, but would now become a more obvious element that Chaplin would come to rely upon going forward.

It may not seem obvious from the distance of a full century, but it seems likely that the two women the boys encounter in the part were intended to be read as prostitutes, as first pointed out by Glenn Mitchell in The Chaplin Encyclopaedia. Cecile Arnold, whom Conklin encounters first, is clearly made-up and hair-styled to suggest sexual availability (she also appears to give him a substantial amount of money which suggests he might be her pimp), while Vivian Edwards, whom Chaplin encounters, looks him over before he even clocks her. The cinematic depiction of women in this way would have been something rather unusual, especially in a comedy, but Keystone did have something of a habit (in many of their non-Chaplin shorts) of implying that women wandering about in the park were generally available…

The climax in the cinema offers another glimpse of the way in which audiences would be watching Chaplin’s first shorts back in 1914, including the rather uncomfortable folding chairs that made up many of the improvised performance or shop-front spaces used as nickelodeons. Chaplin does some wonderful pantomiming here, using his feet to express his ecstasy at being positioned between the two women he’s got his arms around. The sodden boyfriend and dazed Conklin follow their prey into the cinema, leading to the final scene in which, amid the usual Keystone melee, they throw Chaplin through the screen and pelt him with bricks.

There are all the elements here of the usual Keystone fare, but they simply don’t coalesce. This was perhaps a result of the disrupted production process, with many of the best ideas for Chaplin and Conklin’s characters being put into Dough and Dynamite instead. What remains in Those Love Pangs is neither new nor particularly interesting.

Slapstick: An initial spat sees Conklin kick Chaplin to the floor. Chaplin drops a brick on the foot of the brunette’s boyfriend in the park, then uses his cane to push him into the lake. In their second spat, it is Chaplin who knocks Conklin to the ground, emptying his pockets of cash and sitting on him as if he were an armchair. Head poking out of the torn cinema screen, Chaplin his hit by a fusillade of bricks…

Verdict: The same old Keystone stuff, unfortunately, 2/5

Next: Dough and Dynamite (26 October 1914)