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)