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)