Tillie’s Punctured Romance (21 December 1914)


Released: 21 December 1914, Keystone

Director: Mack Sennett

Writer: Mack Sennett

Duration: 74 mins (six reels)/85 mins (2003 restoration)

With: Marie Dressler, Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, The Keystone Kops, Charles Bennett, Charley Chase

Story: World-weary city man (Chaplin) meets fresh, innocent country girl (Dressler), and plots to get his hands on her father’s fortune…

Production: Widely regarded as the first proper ‘feature length’ comedy film made in Hollywood, Tillie’s Puncture Romance was created by Mack Sennett as a vehicle for stage actress Marie Dressler. If she’s recalled at all these days, it is more likely to be for her acerbic role in the brilliant Dinner at Eight (1933), co-starring Jean Harlow. Before 1914, the Canadian-born Dressler was a theatre and vaudeville veteran taking her first steps in the new-fangled world of movies. That Sennett built his film around the mis-cast Dressler and not his newest native movie star Charlie Chaplin betrays something of the projects lengthy and tortured gestation.

Sennett’s Keystone was only two years old when he embarked upon his first feature film production, inspired by news that his one-time mentor D.W. Griffith was working on a similarly lengthy project then called ‘The Clansman’ (later released as Birth of a Nation). Sennett employed most of his regular Keystone players in roles in the film, with Chaplin and Mabel Normand at the top of the list. The film, was, however, expressly designed to launch the then 44-year-old Dressler as a movie star. Sennett called her ‘a star whose name and face meant something to every possible theatre-goer in the United States and the British Empire.’ The project started shooting in April 1914, before Chaplin’s astonishing star status was fully established. Sennett feared that his regular Keystone performers, even Normand, would not automatically command theatre bookings, so he was relying on Dressler as a ‘known name’ to attract an audience. By the time the film was released at the very end of 1914, the audience were coming for Chaplin not to see some stage actress, although—as we’ll see—Chaplin wasn’t exactly playing his Tramp character.

Sennett secured Dressler for the film on a twelve week contract, paying her $2,500 per week. The film was based upon the musical play Tillie’s Nightmare by Edgar Smith with which Dressler had enjoyed some success on stage in 1910 (and she’d revive the production in 1920). Filming filled 45 working days across eight weeks, and the production had wrapped by June. All the while, the Sennett crew were continuing to produce their regular shorts. Sennett recalled: ‘I had to continue the steady flow of short comedies each week. This meant that I never had my Tillie cast all working together on any given day. One or two of them were constantly out of the picture acting in a two reeler.’

The film had a budget of $50,000, well in excess of the cost of six single-reelers. In fact, while Tillie’s Punctured Romance was in production Chaplin featured in no less than five other shorts: The Fatal Mallet, The Knockout, Her Friend the Bandit, Mabel’s Busy Day, and Mabel’s Married Life. That’s another reason why he wasn’t the star of the show: he had too many other Keystone commitments to be released to work solely on the feature film.

Dressler’s career was suffering one of it’s regular downturns, so the offer to star in a film couldn’t have come at a better time (she’d made two previous film appearances but as herself; Tillie’s Punctured Romance would be her first on screen performance as a fictional character). According to Glenn Mitchell in The Chaplin Encyclopedia, Dressler showed a great deal of business sense in organising distribution of the film through her husband’s company (this proved problematic later when distribution was actually handled by the Alco Film Company instead) and in claiming a co-ownership in the film itself. It was Keystone’s writer (or ‘scenario editor’, as they were then known) Craig Hutchinson who suggested filming the play that had brought Dressler great success, a notion no doubt welcomed by the actress as an opportunity to revisit past glories.

Sennett was determined to make a big success of America’s first feature length comedy film, but wanted to focus more on the character of Tillie rather than in making a straight adaptation of Tillie’s Nightmare. Every resource his studio had was put in service of the film, with production weaving in and out of the studio’s regular output. It wasn’t an easy task as Dressler, more used to the environment of the stage, found it difficult to adapt to the techniques of film acting, something that Charlie Chaplin had quickly grasped instinctively. He was, in fact, in the process of pioneering a whole new approach to screen acting, something Dressler seems to have failed to grasp. The film was promoted as ‘The Impossible Attained: a SIX REEL comedy!’

Playing a ‘city slicker’ type villain in a standard, if over long, Keystone caper probably did not appeal to Chaplin at this point. This film was made just as he was beginning to develop his Tramp character in new ways, taking ever more control of his own projects. Now, he was playing second fiddle to a theatre ‘star’ who employed the standard neo-Victorian over-emotive screen acting previously used by Ford Sterling (long gone from Keystone by this point). Under the direction of Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand’s role (she gets a significant close-up) was probably considered of more importance than Chaplin’s moustache twirler (his two piece minimalist moustache is not long enough for him to actually twirl it, nor is it full enough to hide his youth). It would be the last time (apart from guest appearances) that Chaplin would appear in a movie under someone else’s direction.

Even more irritating to Chaplin may have been Dressler’s later claim (in her own unreliable memoirs) to have ‘discovered’ the screen comedian. ‘I went up on the [Keystone] lot and I looked around until I found Charlie Chaplin who was then unknown,’ she said of beginning work on Tillie’s Punctured Romance. ‘I picked him out and also Mabel Normand. I think the public will agree that I am a good picker for it was the first real chance Charlie Chaplin ever had.’

The film’s theatrical origins are occasionally painfully obvious: it is split into six acts, separated by title cards. The opening sees Dressler appear in front of a curtain apparently as herself, before the scene dissolves to show her in character (a theatrical curtain also closes the film, and the principals, including Chaplin, take their bows). Despite being middle-aged, Dressler portrays Tillie as a ‘girl’ who quickly falls for Chaplin’s city slicker, although he’s only interested in her as a way to access the family fortune. He convinces the love-struck Tillie to elope with him and escape her abusive father, kicking off a series of adventures as the country ‘girl’ encounters city life. Cars and clothes give her problems, as does her new-love’s unexpected girlfriend (Normand). Plying Tillie with drink, Chaplin and Normand make off with her purse, buying themselves new clothes while Tillie deals with the law. After a brief stay with her uncle, Tillie finds herself homeless and penniless, finally winning a job at a local cafe. At the movies, Chaplin and Normand see a film in which a thief gets his just deserts. Feeling guilty, they track down Tillie—but learning of the family fortune they hatch a new plan. Much chaos follows, especially during a sequence set at a society ball in which Tillie pelts Charlie with ornaments and finally shoots off a pistol wildly in his direction. Tillie is then disenfranchised, so she pursues Chaplin and Normand, still waving the gun, and chase is soon joined by the Keystone Kops. Inevitably, in the way of Sennett and Keystone, several major players end up running off the end of the pier and splashing into the water. By the end, Tillie and Mabel are friends, and both turn their backs on the city slicker.

Chaplin’s character resembles more some of the earlier non-Tramp roles he played, people who have fallen low in society and are simply out for themselves. There’s enough comedy here, though, to make up for the absence of the Tramp character. His seduction of Tillie is well-done. Chaplin’s biographer David Robinson saw hints of a much later character in Chaplin’s performance here: ‘At moments, Chaplin’s characterisation of the deft, funny, heartless adventurer anticipates Verdoux, even though Verdoux could never insult the footmen and an effeminate guest at a party as Chaplin does.’ Robinson also noted that the screen experience of both Chaplin and Normand put them in a different league to Dressler whose ‘warm personality wins through’ nonetheless. Indeed, of the trio it was Normand who had the most film experience in front and behind the camera.

When the finished film was screened at a trade show on 14 November 1914 (ads began appearing in the press during the previous week), it was Chaplin rather than Dressler who found himself the centre of attention. When the film had been completed in the summer, Chaplin’s star was only just beginning to rise. Now, as the year was coming to a close, he’d become the most famous screen personality on the planet, and his services were much in demand. It was Chaplin, too, who drew comment from the critics. ‘Chaplin outdoes Chaplin,’ wrote Moving Picture World of Tillie’s Punctured Romance. ‘That’s all there is to it. His marvellous right-footed skid … is just as funny in the last reel as it is in the first.’ While Variety rightly highlighted Dressler as the film’s putative star, their correspondent went on to note that ‘Chaplin’s antics are an essential feature in putting the picture over.’ While his supporting role was seen as essential to the film’s success. It wasn’t a production that Chaplin thought much of. ‘It was pleasant working with Marie,’ he wrote in My Autobiography, ‘but I did not think that the picture had much merit. I was more than happy to get back to directing myself.’ While Sennett was hailed for his groundbreaking move in producing the first comedy feature film, Chaplin had outgrown the Keystone way of making movies and was ready to further develop his craft elsewhere. Many kicks up the backside were to follow.

Slapstick: A brick tossed by ‘the girl’ knocks ‘the stranger’ to the ground—that’s a 1914 example of cinematic ‘meet cute’. The pair then play footsie. However, courting proves painful for the city swell. Traffic proves a baffling obstacle for the ‘country girl’ in the big city, as does alcohol. There’s a lovely Tramp-style foot skid as Chaplin and Normand exit the cafe having stolen the country girl’s purse. At the police station, she drunkenly puts the bite on the desk sergeant. Chaplin has his usual trouble with swing doors as he enters the clothes store. Chaplin doesn’t appreciate the musical accompaniment to the film-within-the-film, nor the appearance of his analogue on screen. The reveal of Charley Chase’s lawman badge (he’s sitting next to them in the cinema) is the final straw… When the girl recognises Chaplin in the cafe he gets a face full of food and makes a swift exit. In attempting to get to the new heiress first, Chaplin has to navigate a wet floor, with inevitable consequences. High society proves to be physically challenging for the new groom (and for new servant Mabel), especially on the dance floor. A run-in with Chester Conklin’s party guest unleashes the usual Keystone tit-for-tat slaps and punches. A follow-up encounter sees punches thrown around the punch bowl. Chaplin struts his stuff on and off the dance floor with Marie, while Mabel drains the punch bowl. Cakes then a gun are Marie’s weapons of choice when she discovers Charlie and Mabel in a clinch, kicking off the long-time-coming climatic chase sequence. Charlie and Mabel exit, pursued by a bear, sorry, by Marie Dressler. A footman calls the Keystone Kops, who chase everyone off the end of the pier.

Verdict: The ultimate Keystone-Mack Sennett movie, for good or ill… 3/5

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His Prehistoric Past (7 December 1914)


Released: 7 December 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 22 mins

With: Mack Swain, Sydney Chaplin, Fitz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Gene Marsh

Story: In the Stone Age, Charlie is still the Tramp…

Production: Spurred by the 1912 discovery of ‘Piltdown Man’ (early human remains later revealed to be a hoax), a host of films, comedic and more serious, dealt with the topic of ancient man and prehistory. For Biograph, D.W. Griffith had produced Man’s Genesis (1912). Buster Keaton included prehistory as one of his Three Ages (1923, spoofing Griffith’s Intolerance, 1916). Much later, in 1928 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared individually (before they were teamed up) as cavemen in Flying Elephants for Hal Roach. His Prehistoric Past—the last of his shorts released by Keystone—was Chaplin’s idiosyncratic take on the same subject matter.

Chaplin uses dreams as a way in to telling his story, with the Tramp falling asleep on a park bench and imagining his prehistoric adventure. This neatly explains the brilliant comic conceit of having Chaplin’s prehistoric figure sporting the same bowler hat, cane and moustache he always does (not that this would have particularly needed explaining, as it is such a brilliant move). His usual well-worn costume is replaced by movie-friendly animal skins. Chaplin’s character, called Weak Chin, comes across another tribe lead by Mack Swain’s King Low-Brow. Weak Chin quickly falls in love with the King’s favourite of his many wives, and then replaces the King when it is thought he’s died by falling off a cliff. The return of the King leads to comic violence and a rude awakening for the sleeping Tramp in the park.

The policeman at the short’s climax, whose taps on the head awakens Charlie from his alfresco slumbers, was played by Chaplin’s older half-brother, Sydney. It had long been believed that Syd had started work at Keystone after Charlie left, but in the early 1980s Bo Berglund (of Classic Images) identified Syd as the policeman in His Prehistoric Past. It would have been the first time the brothers worked together on film.

In his autobiography, Chaplin recalled how one simple joke had given rise to a two-reel short comedy: ‘I started with one gag, which was my first entrance. I appeared as a prehistoric man, wearing a bearskin, and, as I scanned the landscape, I began pulling the hair from the bearskin to fill my pipe. This was enough of an idea to stimulate a prehistoric story, introducing love, rivalry, combat, and chase. This was the method by which we all worked at Keystone.’ This may have been enough to get Chaplin started, but it is unfortunate that his final two-reeler is one of the less inventive from his time at Keystone, resembling nothing more than (as James L. Neibaur points out) ‘a disjointed version of a Keystone “park” comedy, with a different setting and costumes.’

In a series of appearances in Chaplin’s late-Keystone works, Mack Swain’s bulk had been effectively contrasted with Chaplin’s own slight frame, and in the previous two shorts with that of Mabel Normand, too. Here, Chaplin has the large man play against type as the King of this prehistoric tribe. Swain seems to have thrown himself enthusiastically into this role, following Chaplin’s acted-out directions fairly closely. This approach to coaching his co-stars to give exactly the performance he needed would follow Chaplin through his work at the next few studios where he set up shop.

The reception of Chaplin’s work was to change over the coming years, with his 12 month stint at Keystone often relegated to a long forgotten past. Even as soon as 1919, a mere five years later, Chaplin’s earlier work was being dismissed in comparison with his films for Essanay, Mutual, and First National. When His Prehistoric Past was revived in 1919, the New York Times dismissed it as ‘an early Keystone product of the time when Chaplin’s mastery of pantomime had not been developed or discovered’. Contrary to that opinion, it is clear that in re-viewing Charlie Chaplin’s first year of work in movies from Keystone in 1914, not only did his art develop dramatically across those 12 months but his ‘mastery of pantomime’ was, in fact, in place early on, even if the material didn’t always allow him to display it.

There may have been other good reasons why this short (made after Tillie’s Punctured Romance, but released before that feature film) was underpowered. Chaplin claimed that he was distracted both by the impending end of his contract at Keystone and by the offers now coming in from rival studios for his services. Chaplin notes in his autobiography that completing his final short was ‘a strain, because it was hard to concentrate with so many business propositions dangling before me.’ The comic had attended a Motion Picture Ball in November 1914, when both this and Getting Acquainted were made, and the offers from other studios seemed to gain new urgency around then. There was nothing Mack Sennett could do to either keep his star name ignorant of the possibilities of work elsewhere nor was there any offer he could make that would keep Chaplin at Keystone. He’d learned all he could within the limiting confines of that studio’s working methods, and while grateful for the education, it was time for him to try something else somewhere new.

Sennett was outbid for Chaplin’s services by Jess Robbins at Essanay who offered the comic star a $10,000 signing bonus and a weekly fee of $1250: that was enough for Chaplin and his business manager, half-brother Sydney, to sign on the dotted line. By the middle of December what the Washington Post described as ‘one of the most popular comedy artists in the motion picture industry’ had a new home. ‘It was a wrench leaving Keystone,’ Chaplin admitted. ‘I had grown fond of Sennett and everyone there. I never said goodbye to anyone; I couldn’t. I finished cutting my film on Saturday night and left the following Monday.’

Slapstick: An arrow in the rump gets the prehistoric Tramp’s attention, then the rocks start flying. Soon, the Tramp’s a (rather violent) jester at King Swain’s prehistoric court. A frolic in the waves with the King’s best gal pal gets the Tramp into trouble. A slap-happy duel follows and the King takes quite a tumble. A rock dropped on his head brings the Tramp back to all-too-modern reality.

Verdict: A soft end to Chaplin’s Keystone capers, 3/5

Next: Tillie’s Punctured Romance (21 December 1914)

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Getting Acquainted (5 December 1914)


Getting Acquainted

Released: 5 December 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 13 mins

With: Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Harry McCoy

Story: In the park, two couples find their romantic interests intertwined.

Production: Getting Acquainted is something of a spiritual sequel to His Trysting Places, released immediately before it. It features the same core cast playing similar characters, but it takes the romantic complications to another level. It’s actually a wife swap situation, as Charlie is now paired off with the frumpy Phyllis Allen, while Swain gets to canoodle with Mabel Normand. This was the last short Chaplin shot at Keystone (the next one released, His Prehistoric Past, was shot weeks before this in October 1914), and it was all filmed in one day in Westlake Park. While that might conjure up images of yet another pointless Keystone park runaround, Getting Acquainted is a park-set comedy made by a far more experienced Chaplin. This one doesn’t feature much in the way of brick tossing, nor does it end with one or more of the participants predictably falling into the lake just before the end. As Glenn Mitchell noted in The Chaplin Encyclopedia: ‘The inter-shubbery intrigues are better choreographed than usual.’

The plot is basic stuff. On a day out in the park with his wife (Allen), Chaplin’s Tramp can’t help himself from flirting with other women, including Cecile Arnold and Mabel Normand. In the process he falls foul of an improbable Turk brandishing a knife and an irate cop (Edgar Kennedy), while Mabel’s husband Ambrose (Swain) turns his attention on Charlie’s wife. It’s an odd film, with Chaplin’s Tramp acting like a dog in heat, pursuing anyone in a skirt regardless of the consequences (some might say this would also be part of Chaplin’s real life character in years to come).

There’s not a lot else to this one. Chaplin works in one of his trademark anthropomorphising of inanimate objects when he deliberately lifts Mabel’s skirt with his cane, but when caught proceeds to thwack the cane and give it a telling off, as though it had acted without his volition. It’s a cute moment, and while this is a superior example of a Keystone ‘park’ comedy, it’s one of the high points of an otherwise run-of-the-mill short.

There is a feeling here that this was the work of a man who knew he was coming to the end of his time working with Keystone, keen to meet a contractual obligation and move on to something new. It feels as though Chaplin was chomping at the bit to get on with developing his cinematic craft. While he’d claimed to be ignorant of the interest other studios had in him at this time, it must’ve been become clear that he was being held back (financially and artistically) at Keystone. He’d exhausted all that Mack Sennett’s bright and breezy outfit could offer him.

Aware that his star turn was threatening to leave, Sennett offered Chaplin a raise to $450 per week to continue toiling at Keystone. Chaplin writes in his autobiography: ‘About this time, Sennett began to talk of renewing my contract and wanted to know my terms. I knew to some degree the extent of my popularity, but I also knew the ephemera of it and believed that, at the rate I was going, that within a year I would be all dried up, so I had to make hay while the sun shone. “I want a thousand dollars a week,” I said deliberately. Sennett was appalled. “But I don’t make that,” he said. “I know,” I answered, “but the public doesn’t line up outside the box office when your name appears as they do for mine…”’ Chaplin was beginning to get an idea of his own appeal to audiences, and was determined to get his current worth in salary. He wouldn’t get it at Keystone, however.

There’d be one more short, His Prehistoric Past, and a final appearance as the Tramp for Keystone in the Christmas-released feature film Tillie’s Punctured Romance (directed by Sennett), and that would be it for Chaplin and Keystone. A chance to refine and further develop his craft was on the horizon, and the man who was well on his way to becoming the biggest film star in the world was not going to miss the opportunity.

Slapstick: Ambrose struggles with the hand crank on a car stalled in the park. A knife in the backside makes the Tramp retreat from the Turk. Propositioning Mabel earns the Tramp a smack in the face. An enthusiastic cop chases the Tramp around the Mulberry bush. Ambrose gets familiar with Charlie’s wife and he too gets a slap in the chops. The Tramp runs between the Turk, the cop, and his wife, spinning on his heels as he does so. Husbands meet wives and wives meet husbands, with the cop knocking some sense into the menfolk.

Verdict: Familiar stuff, but well enough done, 3/5

Next: His Prehistoric Past (7 December 1914)

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Tillie’s Punctured Romance: A note on release dates


Although many sources cite today—14 November—as the release date for the first feature length comedy film Tillie’s Punctured Romance, it is generally now taken to have been a trade screening only. I’ve decided to go with the BFI and accept the Alco Film Company (the film’s ultimate distributors) official release date as 21 December 1914, so will publish an entry on the movie on 21 December 2014. This means that Chaplin’s first feature film appearance will be the final entry in my series on his 1914 Keystone work, following his final two shorts, Getting Acquainted (5 Dec) and His Prehistoric Past (7 Dec).

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His Trysting Places (9 November 1914)


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)

His Musical Career (7 November 1914)


Released: 7 November 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 13 mins

With: Mack Swain, Charley Chase, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Frank Hayes

Story: The Tramp (Chaplin) is hired for a job in a piano store and with his boss Mike (Swain) has to deliver one piano and repossess another…

Production: The most obvious thing about this Chaplin short is its uncanny similarity to the later Laurel and Hardy Oscar winner The Music Box (1932). The Stan and Ollie connection is further emphasised by the presence of Charley Chase (billed as Charles Parrott) as the piano store manager, then a rising comedian who’d appear beside Laurel and Hardy in their feature film Sons of the Desert (1933) and whose brother, James Parrott, was the credited director on The Music Box (although by that point Stan Laurel was really the creative driving force behind the boys’ shorts).

The hazards of moving any large, unwieldy object were easy pickings for silent comedians, and a piano is an obvious choice. However, whereas Stan Laurel would make his and Ollie’s attempts to get a piano up an extensive flight of stairs the centrepiece of The Music Box, Chaplin treats a similar scene in His Musical Career as little more than a brief throwaway moment. Of course, both shorts feature sequences in which the piano is let go and runs out of control—in the Chaplin short it goes down a steep road and into a lake.

Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box was itself a remake of their earlier 1927 short Hats Off (in which they attempt to deliver a washing machine, rather than a piano, up the same set of iconic stairs), and as that is a lost film it is difficult to determine whether it more closely followed the Chaplin version or not. Others made variations on the same theme, with Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy co-star Edgar Kennedy featuring in It’s Your Move (1945), a version of Hat’s Off from the same director, Hal Yates, and even the Three Stooges had a go in An Ache in Every Stake (1941), in which a melting block of ice supplants the pianos and washing machines of the previous pictures. However, of all these films, it was Laurel and Hardy’s memorable version which scored the Oscar.

The scenes of Chaplin and Swain loading the piano up were filmed at a real piano store then extant on South Broadway called Wiley B. Allen Co. However, the loading of the donkey wagon, supposedly immediately outside the store, was filmed five blocks away on 9th Street, presumably because filming on South Broadway was in someway problematic (the detective work on this was done by silent movie locations chronicler John Bengston).

Throughout His Musical Career, Chaplin focuses on the difference in size between his Tramp character and that of his boss, piano-mover-in-chief Mack Swain, as well as the bulky piano itself. Almost all the gags in the film revolve around this contrast, with camera angles carefully chosen by Chaplin to further enhance the disparity and so elicit viewer sympathy for the ‘little fellow’. It is Charlie, the smaller of the pair, who does the bulk of the work in moving the piano around, especially in the home of the instrument’s owners who cannot decide precisely where to place it.

Collecting the other piano from the second house proves just as problematic, due to the cluttered nature of the home. In the course of moving this piano, items are broken and a servant knocked to the floor.

It is also evident from viewing His Musical Career that Chaplin was once again relying on far fewer individual shots compared to the number that usually featured in a Keystone comedy. Chaplin biographer David Robinson noted this in Chaplin: His Life and Art. ‘The single reel consists of a mere 27 shots; usually Chaplin and the other Keystone directors used up to 90 shots in a film of the same length. Here, as Buster Keaton was later to do, he bypassed the current fashion in editing, recognising that each shot needed to be a stage for his own extended comedy routines. [Chaplin] declared this early that cutting was not an obligation, but a convenience.’

Mack Swain is here a fully-fledged co-star alongside Chaplin, rather than just one among several comic foils. As in his brief past teaming with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, in Swain Chaplin found a comic partner he could work with, much of the humour being based around their contrasting sizes. Swain, who would die in 1935, featured in many Keystone shorts as a character known as ‘Ambrose’, always sporting his trademark walrus moustache, and that’s basically the who he plays in His Musical Career. Although he was later replaced by another ‘big fellow’ in Eric Campbell, Swain did feature in several Chaplin shorts after his Keystone period, notably The Idle Class (1921), Pay Day (1921), and The Pilgrim (1923), all at First National. However, Chaplin’s best use of Swain was as his foil in The Gold Rush (1925).

The ending of His Musical Career is rather perfunctory, with the pair of removal men losing control of the piano and watching as it runs down hill and into a lake. As speculated by James L. Niebaur in his book Early Charlie Chaplin, it is as though Chaplin suddenly realised he was coming up against the limits of his budget for a one reel short, and wary of incurring the wrath of Mack Sennett once again (as he had down over the expensive Dough and Dynamite—it’s box office success hadn’t happened at the time His Musical Career was in production)—he opted to wrap things up as quickly as possible with an easy gag.

These longer shots mean that His Musical Career has a more relaxing, less frenetic pace than some of the other (and some of the earlier) Chaplin Keystone shorts. This was a maturing of Chaplin’s style as a director, which marked him out from his fellow filmmakers at Keystone. He frames each shot carefully to fully account for all the action that is to take place within each sequence, especially evident during the delivery of the piano by Charlie. As ever, Chaplin was using his time at Keystone to experiment, try out new filmmaking approaches and working on his own developing skills as a director.

Slapstick: Gearing up for the prospect of some physical work, Charlie oils himself before punching Mack, which in turn earns him a kick up the backside. Resting on a piano keyboard, Charlie tumbles to the floor. Dragged by Mack, Charlie is happy to slide along hanging onto the piano they’re moving (note the faces of the crowds watching the filming, just visible reflected in the piano shop window). Tying up the piano in rope sees the pair getting themselves caught up in knots. Charlie drops the piano on top of a recumbent Mack, then gets his own foot trapped (another crowd of curious onlookers can be seen as they load the piano onto the wagon). Mack thwacks Charlie with his cane, then Charlie tries to use the cane to push the piano up a flight of steps, which the piano promptly plummets back down (as does Charlie). The Tramp buckles under the weight of the piano and is then unable to straighten up without a helping hand from Mack (note that the Tramp sports a clay pipe rather than his usual cigarette). As the lake-bound second piano slides out of their control, both Mack and Charlie are carried into the water with it.

Verdict: Strikes many of the right notes, 3/5

Next: His Trysting Places (9 November 1914)

Gentlemen of Nerve (29 October 1914)


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)


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)


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)

The New Janitor (24 September 1914)


Released: 24 September 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Minta Durfee, Jess Dandy, John Dillon, Al St. John

Story: The Tramp is a clumsy janitor who loses his job, but saves the day when he foils a robbery.

Production: Shot in August 1914, The New Janitor is the most mature work that Chaplin had produced up to this point. Since he took over direction and devising the scenario, Chaplin’s films had been experiments with film form, moving increasingly further away from the very limited Keystone formula. There’s a marked upswing here in Chaplin’s control of storytelling and the clear beginnings of what would become his trademark combination of comedy with sentiment. He’d develop this short further in a remake a year later called The Bank Job (1915), after he’d moved on from Keystone.

More unusual here is Chaplin’s use of comic danger, or ‘thrill comedy’ as it is sometimes known. As film as an art developed some comedians would regularly use the ‘thrill comedy’ form, such as Laurel and Hardy, but its prime exponent would be Harold Lloyd. In The New Janitor, Chaplin is seen precariously hanging out of the bank building (actually the Marsh-Strong building at Ninth and Main streets in Los Angeles) and in jeopardy on a window sill. It wasn’t a form that Chaplin would much explore, but he did revisit it in sequences in later feature films like The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928), possibly in an effort to match the work of Lloyd who’d made ‘thrill comedy’ his speciality.

What Chaplin is demonstrating in this short is his growing command of structure, of telling stories on film, balancing humour, slapstick, drama and sentiment. His character in The Face on the Bar Room Floor was a victim, but here he is both (initially) the victim and the hero, in losing his job and then his foiling of the robbery at the climax. He allows the audience to be both sympathetic to his unfortunate plight and to rally behind his heroism in the end. He starts as the lowest of the low, a mere janitor, dismissed by his fellow employees (see how the lift operator treats him), only to be the one to whom circumstance gives an opportunity. The character arc is in the fact that he’s ready to take advantage of that opportunity and act, thereby saving the day.

There is a complicated situation at the base of The New Janitor: an employee sets out to steal from his own company safe in order to pay off accumulated gambling debts after being threatened by hoodlums. None of this matters to the janitor, as James L. Neibur noticed: ‘While he is the centre of the film, Charlie is on the periphery of the plot’. Those characters pursuing the narrative drive of the film almost don’t notice the janitor in their midst, until he takes action at the climax.

Even more interesting is that the scenes where the robbery begins play like any other silent melodrama would; there’s no comedy here, simply straight drama. As the safe is being robbed, a secretary walks in and has a gun pulled on her. They tussle, activating the janitor call button, so summoning the Tramp. He’s been fired, however, due to earlier incompetence, and is heading out the door—should he respond to the call for assistance if he no longer works there? The moment of hesitation in the foyer is exquisite; it is only a second, but it is all in Chaplin’s body language. There’s no comedy here, only drama and suspense. This is Chaplin learning and displaying he can do so much more on film than merely fall over or fall into that damn lake one more time. He can engage the audience directly in the events on screen; audiences at the time were said to have shouted at the figure of the Tramp to rush to the rescue of the secretary. When he does engage, it is Charlie’s trusty cane that proves necessary to deal with the raider’s gun. The only problem is, when the police arrive they take Charlie to be the criminal… (The notion of mistaken identity and how appearances can deceive in this way would be central to not only City Lights, 1931, of course, but also to Chaplin’s later turn as a family man who is also a serial killer in Monsieur Verdoux, 1947).

Writing in his biography of Chaplin, His Life and Art, David Robinson noted: ‘Only seventeen days separated the release of The Rounders and The New Janitor, yet in that short space of time Chaplin’s art seemed to take a massive leap forward both in approach to film narrative and in appreciation of the character that was developing within the Tramp make-up and costume. … Chaplin fashions a brilliant little narrative; clear, precise, with drama, suspense, and an element of sentiment that goes deeper than the flirtations of West Lake Park. … Gags and character touches are developed without the Keystone rush and [are] integrated into the story.’

Despite his flurry of activity at the end, when he comes into physical conflict with the boss and the policeman (they suspect he’s the robber, initially), Chaplin is largely noticeable by his absence through much of The New Janitor. Here was an artist, a rising international film star, willing to take a back seat to tell a story, confident in the fact that he was the star attraction that would bring audiences to the film. Chaplin’s films were a hit, so Keystone’s Mack Sennett appears to have been happy to let his star signing go his own way. There nothing to indicate he had any problems with Chaplin’s divergence from the Keystone formula: it was making money, so why worry. He should have been paying more attention—by the end of the year and the end of his Keystone contract, Charlie Chaplin would be off to studio pastures new, looking for new challenges and new ways to further advance his cinematic art.

Slapstick: Interestingly, Chaplin was clearly playing down the physical comedy in The New Janitor. There’s no physical battling with others here. He gets in a kerfuffle with the bin, and blocks his way through a door with a mop, and puts his foot in a bucket of water, but otherwise stays mostly upright. That is until he almost falls out of a window by leaning backwards, unaware it is open. It’s then he tips a bucket of water on the company boss, leading to his employment being terminated. After being fired, Charlie promptly falls down twice tangling with his mop. That same bucket is Charlie downfall when he reaches the ground floor the long way down (by the stairs). A cigarette kick with the heel and a spin of the cane accompany Chaplin’s entry into the lion’s den, where the robbery is underway.

Verdict: Proper storytelling and emerging control of structure and the medium of film are beginning to come through, 3/5

Next: Those Love Pangs (10 October 1914)