Released: 9 November 1914, Keystone
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 20 mins
With: Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen
Story: Romantic complications follow when the Tramp (Chaplin) and Ambrose (Swain) mix up their coats…
Production: This short is unusual for Chaplin’s Keystone period in that it shows the Tramp in a domestic setting with both a wife (Normand) and a baby son. However, this is not the sympathetic father figure of Chaplin’s later The Kid (1921). Here, he seems rather indifferent, if not cruel to his young charge, hoisting him about by his clothes, letting him play with a gun, and ignoring the child’s proximity to a lit stove. Chaplin would develop the softer side of the Tramp character over time, and there are some aspects of his demeanour here that hark back to the earliest days of the character when he was certainly much crueller to those around him. In his autobiography (as noted in the notes to the BFI collection of Chaplin’s Keystone shorts), Mack Sennett pointed out that Chaplin ‘preceded W.C. Fields by many years with scenes in which he got laughs by being mean to a baby.’ At one point, Charlie dumps the baby on the hard wooden floor and climbs into its crib himself.
That said, His Trysting Places remains one of Chaplin’s more accomplished two-reelers from Keystone. Across its extended running time, the film tells a fairly complete story with somewhat deeper characterisation and character interaction than was evident in the likes of the preceding His Musical Career. Domestic life doesn’t seem to suit this version of the Tramp: his home life seems rather claustraphobic, as if he misses the freewheeling adventure on the streets and in the parks (an oft-visited Keystone venue the film returns to for its climax). Mabel is seen to be doing housework and looking after the baby, while Charlie lolls in an armchair perusing a magazine. Their tiny apartment barely gives them room to move around without bumping into each other, in stark contrast to the wide yonder the Tramp has most often previously inhabited.
There has historically been some confusion over whether the title of this film should be a singular ‘Place’ or plural ‘Places’. Contemporary advertising, and the original Keystone title, would seem to indicate ‘Place’ is correct, however beginning with a WA Films reissue with new titles by Chaplin’s half-brother, Sydney, the film’s title seems to have become ‘Places’. This was the title used by Blackhawk films for their home movie re-issue, and is indeed the contemporary title given to this short in the BFI DVD restoration (which neglects to address the variant title history in its notes). Many Chaplin movies were re-issued, officially and unofficially under a variety of titles over the years (His Trysting Places was put out again as ‘The Hen-Pecked Spouse’ and ‘Family House’ at different times). I’ve gone with the current BFI usage here, but it should be noted that some older reference texts and biographies will use the singular version of the title.
The plot is kicked off when Charlie leaves to get a new bottle for the baby, with the narrative cutting to the other two, more happily married characters, Swain’s Ambrose and his wife, played by Phyllis Allen. This pair don’t have any children, and their relationship still appears to be in its early stages of mutual attraction, a stark contrast to the seemingly fraught home life being endured by Charlie. He and Ambrose meet in a diner, where they come into conflict. They accidentally leave with each other’s heavy overcoats, meaning that Ambrose has Charlie’s baby bottle (leading his wife to suspect he has a child hidden away somewhere) while Charlie ends up with the love letter from Ambrose’s coat which he was delivering for a neighbour (and which leads Mabel to suspect he has another woman). The romantic mix up is well established, and setting it up and following through on the consequences provides the bulk of the narrative material for this accomplished short.
Character and incident compliment one another throughout, with their reactions and behaviour flowing naturally from the crazy mixed-up situation all the protagonists find themselves in. The longer two-reel format gives Chaplin, as director, the chance to delve more deeply into the background situations of each of his sets of characters before throwing them into the usual rowdy Keystone park-set confrontation. The scene in the cafe, for example, between Charlie and Ambrose as they clash over their respective meals, builds slowly to the climax rather than rushing straight to a physical slapstick confrontation as an early Keystone short might have done. All this is in service of the main plot point of the resulting confusion caused when the men mix up their respective coats. Chaplin was now happier to take his time over comedy ‘business’ establishing deeper character through action and allowing the storyline room to unfold and breathe, unlike most of the breakneck paced Keystone output favoured by studio boss Mack Sennett.
Chaplin was nearing the end of his time with Keystone when this film was released. His next released short, Getting Acquainted, was the last one made at Keystone while the final short released from the studio, His Prehistoric Past, was the penultimate one shot. Then there was his appearance in the feature film Tillie’s Punctured Romance (directed by Mack Sennett) which ended the year. ‘I had a month to go with Keystone,’ Chaplin recalled in his often unreliable My Autobiography, ‘and so far no other company had made me an offer. I was getting nervous and I fancy Sennett knew it and was biding his time. He usually came to me at the end of at the end of a picture and jokingly hustled me up about starting another. Now he kept away from me. He was polite, but aloof. In spite of [that] fact, my confidence never left me. If nobody made me an offer I would go into business for myself. Why not? I was confident and self-reliant.’ In fact, unknown to Chaplin at this time, other studios were showing interest in hiring him, but Sennett was able to keep that from his star performer (for a while, at least), realising that if Keystone lost Chaplin, Sennett would have lost one of his major star assets.
Writing in Moving Picture World, a cinema trade journal, Louis Reeves Harrison wrote of Chaplin’s His Trysting Places: ‘Productions of obvious merit need no publicity. They take care of themselves, whatever critics, favourable or carping, may say. Their commercial value lies in their inherent opposition of good structure, better treatment and the best of acting. The comic spirit is entirely too deep and subtle for me to define. It defies analysis. The human aspect is certainly dominant. It is funniest when it is rich in defects of character. The incongruity of Chaplin’s portrayals, his extreme seriousness, his sober attention to trivialities, his constant errors, and as a constant resentment of what happens to him, all this has to be seen to be enjoyed.’ Even at this early stage in his long career, Chaplin’s comedy was beginning to be seen as critic-proof.
Slapstick: A spilled pot and an open flame cause Charlie some pain. The baby ends up with a dough diaper. Charlie and Ambrose get in a tangle at the lunch counter, which turns into a full-on brawl during which an innocent by-stander gets a pie in the face. A furious Mabel pelts Charlie with laundry (and the ironing board). Having followed him to the park, Mabel knocks Charlie into a bin, twice. When Ambrose comforts Mabel, Charlie very delicately prepares to kick him up the backside. The trio resume their altercation, only subject to the interruption of a passing policeman.
Verdict: Domestic strife and romantic mix-ups come to a head in a clever-than-usual Keystone park frolic, 4/5
Next: Getting Acquainted (5 December 1914)