The Rounders (7 September 1914)

Chaplin27TheRounders

Released: 7 September 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 13 mins

With: Roscoe Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Phyllis Allen, Al St. John, Charley Chase

Story: A pair of drunks debate their habits with their wives before setting out to get even more inebriated…

Production: The impersonation of a drunk was a long-lived vaudeville standby, a staple of the live entertainment circuit that just as quickly became a staple of screen entertainment in the early days of silent comedy. This film was the only one to properly team Chaplin with Fatty Arbuckle (they’d appeared together, but had minimal interaction before), and Chaplin biographer David Thompson saw it as looking back over ‘Chaplin’s whole gallery of inebriates from Karno to Keystone, and forward to A Night Out (1915) and ultimately to the Tramp’s night on the town with the millionaire in City Lights (1931).’

The title of The Rounders supposedly derives from the buying of drinks in rounds, so those who participate are ’rounders’, but it is a phrase that has long since fallen into disuse (although another explanation for the term suggests it derives from a combination of ‘rogue’ and ‘bounder’).

The result though is widely acclaimed as one of the best of Chaplin’s comedies at Keystone. It is surprising that the inspired teaming of Chaplin with Arbuckle did not develop further, but perhaps such ‘large’ personalities as this pair could not fit together. Arbuckle would eventually go on to work with Buster Keaton as a regular comedy partner, but he would regret not having worked more, and in more depth, with Chaplin. The BFI collection Chaplin at Keystone quotes Arbuckle on Chaplin: ‘I have always regretted having not been his partner in a longer film than these one reelers we made so rapidly. He is a complete comic genius, undoubtedly the only one of our time and he will be the only one who will still be talked about a century from now.’

In The Rounders, Arbuckle’s on-screen wife was played by his real life off-screen wife, Minta Durfee. Chaplin’s screen partner in marriage was Phyllis Allen, someone he’d worked with before in several Keystone comedies. Thrown together as a pair of drunks escaping their wives and looking for amusement, Chaplin and Arbuckle make a perfect teaming, as though they’d been working together as comedy partners for years. They clearly had great fun making this movie, although the final film is more akin to Arbuckle’s general work than Chaplin’s. Watch Chaplin’s face carefully at the film’s close, when he’s supposed to be unconscious or asleep in the sinking rowing boat: he’s so tickled by Arbuckle’s antics he’d can barely stop himself laughing.

Chaplin doesn’t appear to be the Tramp in this short: for a start, he’s married, and secondly his attire is something more befitting a better off drunk than many of those denizens of the park he’s played previously. His outfit of Top Hat, cape, and full evening attire suggests a figure from his old days on stage as part of the Karno troupe than any of the drunkards that filled his Keystone shorts. Still present, though, is his cane, although it is Arbuckle who uses his cane to filch a handbag. Chaplin is generous in his directing of Arbuckle, giving the larger man the space to exhibit his comic grace—both men were well aware that the work of a comedy partner could do much to enhance the finished film. Chaplin was by now quite secure in his own success, while his filmmaking abilities were improving with each short. The Rounders is less a Keystone movie (even though it follows the well-worn formula of climaxing in Echo Park, with the protagonists getting wet in the lake), and much more a Chaplin directed film in which he has been willing to give half the screen and many of the gags to Arbuckle (himself to become an accomplished director).

By now, Chaplin was aware of how moviegoers greeted his appearances on screen, and how they especially delighted in seeing his drunk act. He’d developed a habit of visiting movie theatres incognito (out of his make-up and Tramp outfit, he was largely unrecognisable) to observe how audiences reacted to his movies. His entrance in The Rounders appears to have been created with this knowledge in mind. Writer James L. Neibaur suggests that Chaplin deliberately timed his entrance to allow the audience to first recognise him, before hitting them with the first major laugh as he falls drunkenly upon the steps. In fact, in common with Arbuckle, Chaplin’s physicality is important throughout The Rounders. His balletic ability to spin, turn, and change direction is used, which contrasts nicely with Arbuckle’s much more lumbering presentation.

Overall, though, there is perhaps less slapstick in The Rounders than Chaplin’s earlier films. He was slowly moving away from this simplistic element of the Keystone formula, preferring instead to attempt to build convincing characters even within the brief running time of such shorts. He and Arbuckle could have formed a comedy double act not unlike Laurel and Hardy, building upon their characters in The Rounders and playing up even more their contrasting physicality. However, it was not to be. Chaplin had other plans, and a different, more unfortunate, fate awaited Arbuckle.

Slapstick: Entering the hotel where he’s staying, Mr Full (Chaplin) falls twice in thirty seconds as he attempts to make his way upstairs. When his angry wife pulls the chair away, Chaplin inevitably tumbles to the floor, twice, caught up in his cape. Arbuckle’s Mr Fuller, following in Chaplin’s footsteps, sits in the lap of a young woman waiting in the lobby. Meanwhile, Chaplin’s drunk attempts to take a lie down on the bed, with his feet hooked on the headboard. Both drunks are on the receiving end of comic beatings from their wives, who then end up fighting each other as the husbands flee together. Waddling down the street, Chaplin trips resulting in Arbuckle dragging him along the rest of the way to the cafe where they attempt to top up their alcohol intake but are soon asleep under a pair of liberated table cloths. Chased by their irate wives, they end up in the park and then (inevitably) the lake.

Verdict: Huge fun, a unique one-off pairing of two comedy greats, 4/5

Next: The New Janitor (24 September 1914)

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His New Profession (31 August 1914)

Chaplin27HisNewProfession

Released: 31 August 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 16 mins

With: Charley Chase, Cecile Arnold, Harry McCoy, Roscoe Arbuckle

Story: The Tramp has a new job opportunity—looking after a man confined to a wheelchair…

Production: Another largely improvised Keystone quickie, His New Profession saw a return of the somewhat callous characterisation of the Tramp figure (as seen most recently in The Property Man) which Chaplin would slowly eliminate in favour of a character who could elicit audience sympathy more easily. While Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo as a barman in a brief pub scene, this short does showcase a soon-to-be rising star at Keystone (and later with Hal Roach), Charley Chase, playing the nephew.

It is Chase’s nephew character who hires Chaplin’s Tramp to look after his uncle (Jess Dandy), confined to a wheelchair due to gout, so he can spend time with his girlfriend. It is a simple set-up for a film that follows through on all the obvious, equally simple gags that the set-up suggests (and pre-figuring the later similar set-up of gout-victim Eric Campbell in Chaplin’s later short, The Cure, from 1917). Chaplin’s Tramp is less the committed to the new assignment, and is more intent on scraping together some change to feed his need for a drink. Having thus fortified himself, he returns to take charge of ‘uncle’, with his gout-stricken foot naturally hitting every possible obstacle. In the climax, the usual Keystone riot breaks out, as Chaplin’s Tramp flirts with Chase’s girlfriend and the inevitable cops arrive. His New Profession was the result of a day out in and around Venice and in Ocean Park on Venice Beach, later the site of an ill-fated nautical theme park.

Notable in the short is the Tramp’s interest in the National Police Gazette, consulted several times by the character, and a personal favourite of Chaplin’s. The notorious illustrated tabloid scandal sheet would re-appear in The Kid (1921) and pop up again in Limelight (1952), indicating Chaplin’s attraction to the title didn’t wane over time. He’s engrossed in his reading matter at the beginning of His New Profession, and later attempts to interest ‘uncle’ in its contents.

The Tramp’s beer fund comes from pinching the un-politically correct sign reading ‘Help a cripple’ he finds in front of a sleeping, begging unfortunate. Installing the sign in front of ‘uncle’ quickly brings in the coins he needs to fuel a trip to the Pier Bar where he can rest his weary feet, his toes having been bashed repeatedly while manoeuvring the wheelchair. While the Tramp is imbibing, the first ‘cripple’ awakes, reveals he’s not as ‘armless’ as his sign suggests and whacks the uncle for stealing his con. The Tramps return breaks up the fight, and secures himself additional cash for more booze later.

It is in the first few moments of His New Profession, however, that Chaplin displays his growing grasp of cinematic language. Clearly, the Tramp is the star character and the close up that opens this short takes its time to establish something about him. Not only is he reading the disreputable Police Gazette, he rips out the bathing beauty pin-up style front page and stuffs it into his pocket for later perusal. In a few moments of screen time, and without needing language, intertitles, or any over-emphatic ‘acting’, Chaplin immediately tells the audience all they need to know about the incorrigible character his Tramp is. His later activities over the fake ‘cripple’ see him redeemed after taking what appears to be callous action as the original beggar is equally revealed to be an active scam artist whose pitch has been invaded.

Essentially a throwaway piece of little consequence, His New Profession contributed to Chaplin’s growing profile. After a quiet July, he’d see four shorts released during August, thus increasing his visibility before an audience whom, it was becoming ever clearer, couldn’t get enough of the ‘little tramp’. As indicated in his autobiography, Chaplin was becoming ever more aware of his growing fame at around this time. ‘The stir and excitement at the announcement of [a] Keystone comedy,’ he noted of a visit to the cinema, ‘those joyful little screams that my first appearance evoked, even before I had done anything, were most gratifying. I was a great favourite with the audience. If I could just continue this way of life, I could be satisfied. With my bonus for directing, I was making two hundred dollars a week.’ Chaplin’s growing fame, however, would mean his days at Keystone (and his $200-a-week salary) would soon come to an end…

Slapstick: The grumpy and bad tempered uncle and the Tramp first meet when the wheel of the chair traps the Tramp’s foot, eliciting a swift jab to the uncle’s bandaged foot by the Tramp (the first of many, of course). Falling over on the pavement, the Tramp lands bum-first in some smashed eggs (twice). Entering the Pier Bar, the Tramp has his now traditional difficulty with the saloon’s swing doors, rapidly becoming trapped between them. The two wheelchair users get caught up in a fight where both wield their canes in a threatening fashion. Naturally, the uncle’s wheelchair almost runs off the end of the pier (twice!). When the nephew finds the Tramp chatting up his girl, he quickly dispatches him backwards over the bench. It then takes two cops to quell the rowing parties, one of whom ends up falling off the pier into the water (all viewers no doubt knew this would have to happen to someone: in other hands—such as Mack Sennett’s—he’d no doubt have had everyone in the drink by the end).

Verdict: A slight affair, but the opening and closing focus on the Tramp shows progress, 2/5

Next: The Rounders (7 September 1914)

 

The Masquerader (27 August 1914)

Chaplin25TheMasqueraderReleased: 27 August 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Charles Murray, Minta Durfee

Story: An actor working on a job on a movie screws up and is fired. Returning in drag, he’s able to charm the director to allow him back on the movie…

Production: After the throwaway ‘park’ movie that was Recreation, here’s the next favourite Keystone fallback for a ‘quickie’ filler, the movie studio-set film. Despite that, this one reeler (running at just over 12 minutes) is a decent effort, even if the only reason it exists was Mack Sennett’s desire to make sure there was plenty of new Chaplin on cinema screens across America in August 1914. Chaplin had been down this road before, in George Nichol’s A Film Johnnie—he’d learned much about filmmaking since then, so The Masquerader was his chance to make a film studio set comedy as he’d like it to be: he even plays a version of himself, rather than the more familiar Tramp character. Later Chaplin shorts set in and around a film studio would include His New Job (1915) and Behind the Screen (1916), so the concept remained popular.

Chaplin is first seen in his ‘civilian’ clothes, essentially playing himself, chatting with an unbilled Mabel Normand. He transforms into the then world-famous figure of the Tramp, but his eye is caught by a pair of young ladies, causing him to miss a cue and so ruin a take (it has to be wondered, given Chaplin’s later romantic reputation, how much of this might be straight-forward autobiography?). Fired from the movie, he returns, this time as the leading lady in a drag outfit that’s a lot better than the one he sported in A Busy Day back in May. Here, he’s actually trying to pass as a woman. He’d do it again later in A Woman (1915).

Chaplin’s biographer David Robinson calls The Masquerader ‘a simple knockabout set in a film studio, mainly notable for its behind-the-screen glimpses of the Keystone lot’. That’s a fair summing up of the movie, and like many of the earlier films that offered views of the now long-gone open spaces of Los Angeles, or glimpses of the city under construction, The Masquerader does open a window onto exactly what life behind-the-scenes at Keystone might have been like (allowing for comic exaggeration). Assuming it would have been easier simply to shoot in a real dressing room rather than construct one for the film, it seems likely the one on screen seen being shared by Arbuckle and Chaplin was, indeed, the real thing. Whether they really played pranks, such as that pulled by Fatty with the hair tonic bottle, remains unconfirmed… The scene of the pair putting on their character make-up, though, anticipates a similar one between Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the elegiac Limelight (1952) towards the end of the great clown’s film career.

The film we see being made looks like the kind of melodrama Chaplin simply wasn’t making at this stage (although he’d get there with The Kid, 1921). Charged with dashing in to rescue a baby from a knife-wielding villain, he’s distracted by two pretty actresses, only to foul up the filming. After trying to stop Chester Conklin from stealing his part and kicking the director in the pants, Chaplin finds himself out of work (something unlikely to have happened for real at this point in his career, no matter how many takes he ruined).

The curious mix of Chaplin-as-himself and Chaplin-as-the-Tramp doesn’t really work, as he quickly adopts the role of the Tramp and sticks to it during the filming and after he’s fired, rather than reverting to the role of ‘Charlie Chaplin, struggling film actor’. It’s an odd conceit that the film doesn’t really pull off, as if Chaplin himself hasn’t thought too deeply about the difference between the two: himself and the character he’d come to call ‘the little fellow’.

The transformation into a woman is achieved with a quick cut, relying on the audience recognising the leading man has now dragged up to wangle his way back into the film studio. Dan Kamin, writing in The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion, makes the point that ‘Chaplin’s art begins and ends with movement. Chaplin isn’t just pretending to be a woman, he becomes a woman—and a very attractive one at that. The effect is at once startling, unnerving, and very funny.’ Soon he’s turning heads throughout the studio and a contract is quickly proffered by the same director who fired him. Chaplin’s subtle wink at the audience at this point co-opts the viewer in his masquerade.

As he transforms back into the Tramp, it is fascinating to be given a glimpse of Chaplin applying the trademark make-up on Keystone’s premises, something that must’ve been a near daily occurrence for the increasingly world famous movie star.

Chaplin had only been working at Keystone for about eight months when this short was made, but he was now the biggest star on the lot and a young man (aged just 25 by now) who was in a hurry to apply what he was learning about the possibilities of film to his own productions, feeling increasingly hampered by the well-worn Keystone formula which he has clearly begun to evolve beyond.

In The Masquerader, Chaplin had completed the trajectory he’d been on from a neophyte visiting the studio in A Film Johnnie to the key member of Keystone’s comedy team. His time at Keystone, however, was slowly drawing to an end as his fame grew ever larger.

Slapstick: Chaplin and Fatty bump heads in the dressing room, while during the filming he uses the unfortunate baby (thankfully a dummy or doll) as a weapon, before sticking the (presumably equally fake) knife in the villain’s backside. Thrown out of their dressing room to make way for the ‘lady’, Keystone’s actors rebel, leading to a fast and frantic finale in which a melee, a chase through the studio, and the requisite brick throwing concludes with Chaplin/the Tramp stuffed down a well.

Verdict: Movie making as Keystone slapstick, 3/5

Next: His New Profession (31 August 1914)

Recreation (13 August 1914)

Chaplin24Recreation

Released: 13 August 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 7 mins (split reel with educational short The Yosemite)

With: Charles Bennett, Helen Carruthers, Edwin Frazee

Story: The Tramp enjoys a day out in the park, where he contemplates the ultimate escape until his eye is caught by a young lady…

Production: There had been only a single Charlie Chaplin short released in the entire month of July 1914, the predictable dentist caper Laughing Gas. Chaplin had completed two more shorts, with the knockabout nonsense of The Property Man and the rather experimental The Face on the Bar Room Floor. However, as Chaplin’s fame began to grow, the clamour from distributors and exhibitors for more Chaplin ‘product’ could be heard loud and clear at the Mack Sennett studios. Hence Recreation, perhaps the ultimate Sennett/Keystone park movie, a seven minute item improvised in the course of a single day.

Chaplin’s twenty-or-so movies were in constant release, often promoted by cinemas not by their title but by a simple picture of the star. It didn’t seem to matter which Chaplin short was showing, or if it had been seen before, the attraction was simply the chance to see America’s latest movie comedy sensation in action once again. Sennett was keen to meet this demand, seeing ‘park’ productions like Recreation as a quick and easy way to keep new films flowing (August would see a marked increase of new films to five, over July’s single release) into cinemas and the exhibition fees flowing back to Keystone.

The result is the ultimate park movie, the old Keystone stand-by. The Tramp has apparently had enough of life and is spending his time in the park contemplating suicide. He’s quickly shaken out of that notion by the sight of a pretty girl. Cue the arrival of her sailor boyfriend, a posse of cops, the required brick throwing and the necessary grand climax when everyone falls in the lake. It really is that simple, and it is made up of elements often seen in Keystone shorts and in many previous Chaplin efforts.

Weirdly, the girl in this short is variously credited as Helen Carruthers, Gene Marsh, or Norma Nichols, depending on the source consulted. The film was billed in contemporary ads as featuring ‘Chas. Chaplin as the down-and-out young man who finds new zest in life in park flirtations conducted with inimitable vigour and humour in which the police materially assist’. The UK paper Bioscope noted that Chaplin was taking ‘a stroll in that very beautiful park [actually Westlake Park] which seems to be most frequented by Keystone comedians…’

No-one would ever argue that Recreation was a significant or important film, either in its own right or as part of Chaplin’s ongoing cinematic development. Nonetheless, it is a shame that the surviving material that makes up Recreation as we see it today is so poor. Fuzzy and badly framed throughout (even in the BFI’s release, using the best sources available), it is thanks to an extract used in a television series called Silents Please that about a minute and a half from the end the quality improves immeasurably. It is a reminder of how lucky we are that the majority of Chaplin’s material has survived for us to enjoy viewing his development as the quintessential screen clown, over 100 years later.

Slapstick: Attempting to throw himself from the (low) bridge in the park, the Tramp simply ends up falling on his backside. As the Tramp and the sailor engage in face slapping, the girl also gets one in the chops. Bricks from the park kerbs quickly become weapons that take down a cop or two. When the battle resumes by the lakeside, the Tramp quickly follows the others into the water when the girl pushes him in, only to be dragged in herself.

Verdict: By the numbers and in poor shape, 2/5

Next: The Masquerader (27 August 1914)

The Face on the Bar Room Floor (10 August 1914)

Chaplin23FaceBarRoomFloorReleased: 10 August 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin, based upon poem by Hugh Antoine d’Arcy

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Cecile Arnold, Fritz Schade, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy

Story: A former painter, now a drunken indigent, laments his lost love with a group of fellow drinkers.

Production: For his entire time at Keystone, Charlie Chaplin had been learning his craft while struggling to fit in with the limitations of Mack Sennett’s usual mode of production. Many of the shorts to this point displayed some evidence of Chaplin’s ambition, which would later be realised in films such as The Kid (1921), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). With The Face on the Bar Room Floor, Chaplin appears to have thrown caution to the wind and simply made a movie for himself, almost irrespective of the needs of Keystone.

The Face on the Bar Room Floor features Chaplin’s first substantial use of flashback (also used briefly in Caught in a Cabaret) as his film tells the tale of the downfall of an artist thwarted in love within the accepted structure of a Keystone knock-about in which the climax is always a big ruckus—Chaplin was at least willing to humour his employer that far. Flashbacks would re-occur in Shoulder Arms (1918) and the much later Limelight (1952).

The unusual source material for the film is an 1887 poem by French-born Hugh Antoine d’Arcy, who was also formerly a juvenile actor and eventually a pioneering executive in American moviemaking as the publicity manager for Lubin Studios (he’d married into the Lubin family). Chaplin used several lines directly from the poem for the original intertitles, as suggested by Bioscope’s December 1914 review that claims it was based upon ‘a distinctly humorous poem (cleverly distributed among the sub-titles)…’

Chaplin uses the sentiment of the poem as a jumping off point for his short. Here, beyond any possibility of doubt, his character is presented as a Tramp (described in the intertitle as a ‘vagabond’)—though lacking his usual tie and cane. To prove it, we see the artists life in flashback before he came to his current station in life, providing the background drama to what would otherwise be a simple gathering of lamenting barflies. This structure was the most ambitious attempted by Chaplin to this point, although it is actually lacking much in the way of comedy as Keystone audiences might have recognised it until the very end. This is Chaplin’s first direct attempt to elicit an emotion from his audience other than simple laughter, making it an important movie in his overall development.

Despite the seeming signposts to the future of Chaplin as cinematic artist in this film, biographer David Robinson has little time for it, describing it as ‘technically the least interesting of Chaplin’s films’ being ‘a parody… simply alternating lengthy titles with tableaux in comic illustration of Hugh Antoine d’Arcy’s pathetic and then popular ballad of love betrayed’.

There is some humour in the man that the artist’s great love, Madeline, runs off with being fat and balding, not the usual object of romantic fixation. When Chaplin’s artist gets her note, there are the beginnings perhaps of the filmmaker’s first real attempt at straight acting, reacting to the situation in a somewhat realer way than usual, refusing to play it for easy comedy as might be expected in a Keystone short. Later, in the park when the artist sees the woman now married to the man she ran off with, and with a brood of children following in their wake, there is a moment when he seems caught up in the melancholy of life, seeing this family as rightly his, as an opportunity missed, The moment passes quickly though, as the artist opts to few that missed opportunity as more of a narrow escape. The final section in which the drunken artist attempts to sketch his lost love on the bar room floor in chalk reveals him to be not so much of a pictorial artist but perhaps more of a bullshit artist, conning free drinks from the assorted rubes by his story.

The Face on the Bar Room Floor was released and re-released in various remixed and cut up versions, with WH Productions reissuing the short under the title The Ham Artist and Official Films putting it out under the correct title, yet having moved around the scenes that make up the film into a nonsensical order (such that the portrait of the woman is shown before we see the artist actually painting it!). The BFI/Flicker Alley DVD release is constructed from three separate prints and is the best available effort to reconstitute the short in the manner it probably originally appeared: it certainly has the best quality material (certainly compared with Chaplin’s next release, Recreation).

Slapstick: Very little to speak of here, until the climax. Apart from stepping in or sitting in his own paints and tripping over a polar bear rug, there’s little falling down from the artist in his pre-inebriated days. He does destroy the portrait of the man his paramour has run off with. It’s only when drawing the portrait in the bar room floor that Chaplin’s trademark slapstick kicks in, with a roll, a tumble through some swing doors, and the climatic free-for-all bar room brawl.

Verdict: An unusual effort and a sign of things to come, 3/5

Next: Recreation (13 August 1914)

 

The Property Man (1 August 1914)

 

Chaplin22ThePropertyManReleased: 1 August 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 24 mins

With: Phyllis Allen, Alice Davenport, Charles Bennett, Mack Sennett, Harry McCoy

Story: The Tramp has a job, as a props man for a second rate vaudeville theatre and a troupe of theatrical players…

Production: There can be little doubt that Chaplin’s time in vaudeville as part of Fred Karno’s troupe heavily influenced his work on The Property Man. It was Chaplin’s first attempt at a two reeler entirely under his control, so the familiarity with backstage life was probably something of a reassurance to him, even if there is perhaps not enough truly comedic material to sustain the full double-length running time.

The source for this film is Karno’s regular routine The Mumming Birds, which toured in America under the title A Night in an English Music Hall. It was a production which broke the ‘fourth wall’ of theatre, presenting a series of deliberately awful stage turns which were frequently interrupted by planted members of the audience (really other members of the Karno troupe) who took against what was being presented.

Chaplin often featured in this presentation as an upper class drunk who finds his way on stage, attracted by the showgirls and offended by the terrible performances in equal measure. Having perfected his drunk act, he was to put it to good use from his earliest days in American filmmaking—in fact, the first thing we see the Tramp do in this short is take a drink before the action begins!

However, for The Property Man, Chaplin puts himself backstage, very much a part of the theatrical team attempting to stage an entertainment. His role is to make sure the acts get on stage on time and with the right props for their performances. However, he frequently finds this difficult getting entangled with an old man (the assistant property man, apparently played by one Joe Bordeaux who genuinely was once a props man for Sennett) who also works backstage, as well as various on stage acts, including the glamorous Goo Goo Sisters, the strongman and his wife, and a pair of snooty, would-be ‘legitimate’ Shakespeareans. In trying to do his job against the odds, Chaplin’s Tramp ends up on stage himself several times, culminating in him turning a fire hose on the lot of them to the amusement of the audience (which includes among their number Chaplin’s boss, Mack Sennett, playing his country yokel role once more), until the hose is turned on the audience, too.

This was good solid material for a comedy short, so much so that Chaplin drew upon elements of the original Karno show and his reinvention of it in The Property Man for his first Essanay short, His New Job (1915) and in A Night in the Show (1915, a more faithful version of The Mumming Birds). The fire hose climax even turns up in A Night in the Show and was echoed in Chaplin’s late film, A King in New York (1957). Even such films as A Dog’s Life (1918) and, most obviously of all, Limelight (1952) drew heavily upon Chaplin’s early experiences in vaudeville in the UK and the US.

Backstage hi-jinks takes up virtually the first half of the short, with much fumbling with luggage trunks as the various acts arrive, argue over dressing room allocations, and prepare for the show. The remaining 15 minutes sees Chaplin’s Tramp prepare the stage area and scenery before the acts are given a less-than-reverential welcome by the assembled paying audience. Throughout we see Chaplin’s character struggle to get things done, with little help with those around him, but also—it has to be said—to little genuine comic effect. Some of the pratfalls are amusing, but The Property Man really doesn’t come into its own until the final few minutes.

Chaplin’s prop man’s unexpected appearances on stage—innocently following the underwear-flashing Goo Goo sisters, appearing amid a squabble between the strongman and his wife—make him the hit of the show as far as the audience are concerned. Subbing for the strongman’s assistant (knocked out in a backstage squabble) Chaplin then finds himself genuinely part of the show, which he proceeds to sabotage by ripping a handkerchief so giving the strongman the impression he’s torn his pants. Chased by the strongman and interrupting the final, serious dramatic act on the bill, Chaplin ends the chaos off and on stage by turning the fire hose on everyone, audience included. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the final drenching, Sennett’s audience member had already stormed out: that’s the boss’s privilege, I guess.

Oddly, there was a contemporary complaints about the violence depicted in The Property Man. David Thompson notes in Chaplin: His Life and Art that “contemporary critics were shocked by the cruelty of the prop man’s treatment of his aged and decrepit assistant and shocked by the nursery rudeness of a scene in which having concealed a glass [note: it’s actually a pitcher] of beer down the front of his trousers, he inadvisedly bends over…” In truth, this “violence” is cartoonish, nothing that wouldn’t be seen in a Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, or even Three Stooges short. Moving Picture World complained that “there is some brutality in the picture and we can’t help but feeling this is reprehensible. What human being can see an old man kicked in the face and find it funny?” The odd thing is, the violent acts are presented in such an unreal, cartoonish style, it is difficult to see who could mistake them for realism.

Ted Okuda and David Maska in Charlie Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay note the irony in the coming medium of film being used by Chaplin in The Property Man to catalogue the highlights of another, older form of entertainment: “[it] utilizes an emerging entertainment form (motion pictures) to document one that would fade from view (vaudeville theatre).”

Slapstick: Chaplin’s attempts to move the strongman’s trunk results in a tumble down the stairs, takes in several other casualties, then traps the old man under the trunk. Having lowered a curtain on him, Chaplin sweeps the MC off the stage. Battling the old man in the wings sees many violent blows swapped between the pair, as well as fun with the strongman’s weights.

Verdict: John McCabe sees Chaplin’s The Property Man displaying a “cheerful cruelty”, and that about sums it up, 3/5

Next: The Face on the Bar Room Floor (10 August 1914)

 

Laughing Gas (9 July 1914)

Chaplin21TheDentistReleased: 9 July 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Fritz Schade, Alice Howell, Joseph Sutherland, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh

Story: A visit to the dentist is more fun if Charlie Chaplin is the dentist’s assistant.

Production: A comical trip to the dentist became almost ubiquitous in the early days of silent film comedy and drew heavily on many vaudeville and music hall sketches, and the idea has been maintained through such talkie classics as Laurel and Hardy’s Leave ‘Em Laughing (1928) and the bit in their prison picture Pardon Us (1931), W.C. Fields’s The Dentist (1932, also produced by Keystone’s Mack Sennett) and Steve Martin and Bill Murray’s film stealing scenes in the remake of Little Shop of Horrors (1986, Murray replacing Jack Nicholson in the 1960 Roger Corman original).

For Charlie Chaplin the horrors of a trip to the dentist were all-too-real, with members of his family remembering how difficult it was to get him to visit one, his resistance resulting in very few experiences like that depicted in Laughing Gas. All the more remarkable, then, that Chaplin was able to put aside his own feelings and exploit the idea for all its comic worth, although as late as King in New York (1957), Chaplin still used film to complain about dentists. As well as drawing upon the wide range of real life topics film comedies were beginning to exploit, Chaplin was also recalling a well toured Fred Karno sketch that he’d seen on many occasions although never featured in himself.

In adapting that source material to film, Chaplin opened things up beyond the stage set, adding a trip to the drug store to get the film out of the dentist’s surgery itself. Despite this, and despite the advances Chaplin was showing in his filmmaking, Laughing Gas is a rather typical, straight forward Keystone slapstick comedy in which Chaplin takes the leading role, but he does little that is truly innovative. Perhaps time was against him, given the speed with which these films were produced? Or perhaps his increasing problems with Mack Sennett and Keystone (he’d soon jump ship to set up shop at Essanay, where he’d be offered much more creative freedom) were restricting his willingness to be inventive while still under the Keystone banner?

Chaplin is the assistant to Dr Pain, the dentist, (some sources claim Chaplin’s merely a janitor), who takes the first chance he gets to have a go at the patients himself. Dispatched to the drug store, he manages to create some new patients (one of them is Chaplin/Keystone regular Mack Swain) by hitting people in the face with bricks—this is clearly the crueller, more self-absorbed version of the Tramp. There’s a lot of running and falling about and plenty of slapstick business which probably kept contemporary audiences amused, but there is precious little in the way of character development or unique comedy situations, the kind of things Chaplin had begun exploring in film.

From today’s more sophisticated viewpoint, the tooth pulling shenanigans on display in Laughing Gas appear particularly primitive; it’s all pliers and heavy tugging to solve any dental problems. Despite its nickname, nitrous oxide—the ‘laughing gas’ of the title—doesn’t actually lead to outbreaks of hysterics as depicted here.

The street scenes give us a more traditional setting for the Tramp character, and his encounter with Mack Swain, who is blocking the way in to the drug store, is one of this short’s highlights. Chaplin gets to do his typical walk and roll his hat along his arm, while wielding his cane as an impromptu weapon. A pretty girl—later revealed to be the dentist’s wife (Alice Howell)—causes Chaplin to go skidding off in pursuit, leading to her losing her skirt (a bizarre subplot that also involves a visiting vicar!) and the brick tossing that sees Swain become a dental patient.

With the dentist away dealing with his wife’s wardrobe malfunction, Chaplin returns to the dentist’s office and takes the opportunity of his absence to take on the role of dentist himself. This leads to the funniest section of the short, with Chaplin beginning his treatment of a young female patient (the appealing Gene Marsh, later seen as a cavewoman in His Prehistoric Past) by shining her shoes. His contortions as he tries to pretend to be examining her teeth while (literally) getting his leg over get to the heart of the developing character of the more compassionate Tramp than anything else in the film.

Inevitably, in the Keystone way the climax is chaos as Swain and the other man hit by a brick recognise their assailant when they eventually arrive at the dentist’s office for treatment. Laughing Gas is formulaic comedy-by-rote, a by-the-numbers Keystone short only lacking a climax in the park. Chaplin doesn’t particularly do anything interesting from a scenario that was far from new. Perhaps the only really interesting thing to note is the way that in casting certain roles Chaplin went for significant contrasts in height, from the extremely tall patient who falls victim to his brick throwing to the tiny man (who looks like a young boy dressed up) who plays the other dental assistant and is tossed around by the larger characters. It’s just a shame that these odd choices have no relation to the theme or setting of the film.

Slapstick: Within a minute, Charlie’s flat on his back after an encounter with another dental worker. The climax features much pushing, shoving, and slapping around the dentist’s chair and waiting room.

Verdict: Better than a trip to the dentist, but only just…, 2/5

Next: The Property Man (1 August 1914)

Mabel’s Married Life (20 June 1914)

Chaplin20MabelsMarriedLifeReleased: 20 June 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writers: Charles Chaplin, Mabel Normand

Duration: approx. 15 mins

With: Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Eva Nelson, Harry McCoy, Al St. John

Story: Mabel sets out to toughen up her ineffectual husband after he fails to protect her from a tough in the park.

Production: Chaplin’s Tramp is given a domesticated makeover in this comedy that he both wrote (with input from Keystone’s leading lady Mabel Normand) and directed. He’s not only married, but he has graduated to a better class of headwear in the shape of a fancy Top Hat (although his shoes are still in a terrible state). Chaplin would later repeat the role of husband in other Keystone titles, including The Rounders, His Trysting Places and Getting Acquainted (all 1914), while a full family life awaited him in the likes of A Day’s Pleasure (1919, not only married, but with two sons as well), and Pay Day (1922, in which he deal with a wife worse than Mabel).

Once again, for the early part of the film, the Keystone team were back on their familiar stamping ground of Echo Park Lake—this location, especially the iconic bridge, features as a backdrop to so many varied silent comedies that it has almost become a character in its own right. As always, with Keystone, the ‘park comedies’ were about making something quickly and cheaply, and nature tamed by Los Angeles’s finest groundkeepers was too attractive to resist.

Adding to the theory that Chaplin choreographed his refereeing of the boxing bout in Her Friend the Bandit are the scenes where he tackles the boxing dummy in this short, which he directed. When his wife (Mabel Normand) is accosted by a tough in the park (Mack Swain), there is little the Tramp can do against the larger man. Determined to toughen up her husband, Mabel acquires a punch-bag mannequin for the Tramp to train with. However, he’s gone to the pub, got very drunk, and taken part in a bar fight. When he eventually returns home, he thinks the dummy is an intruder and proceeds to take it on in a fight he almost loses.

After sizing up the dummy, and wondering if he’s in the right apartment, Chaplin proceeds to mistake the inanimate figure for the tough from the park. When the dummy refuses to leave, a bout of fisticuffs ensues, in which the dummy has the upper hand, knocking down the Tramp and his wife, much to the consternation of the neighbours. It’s only the final two minutes or so of the film, but it is easily the highlight of the piece and shows Chaplin developing an approach to comic material that he would hugely expand upon later.

There is more sense of a story in Mabel’s Married Life than in many of the more throwaway Keystones which tend to just be a series of barely connected events. In this one, Chaplin has evidently attempted to have events build on one another, for incidents to have understandable consequences, many of which help develop character. It would be the way Chaplin’s comedy would develop in the future. There’s a more leisurely pace to this short than in most Keystones, with Chaplin taking the time to develop gags and character. There’s probably more character stuff in connections with the Tramp figure in this one short than in several of the most recent combined.

The qualitative leap between Mabel’s Busy Day (Normand’s work) and Mabel’s Married Life (Chaplin’s work) speaks volumes about their respective responses to the challenges of filmmaking in the early silent era. Having found a reasonable formula, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand were happy to stick with it. Having learned the basics of filmmaking in a mere few months, Charlie Chaplin was determined to take the form in new, as yet unexplored directions. Ironically, Chaplin’s approach does Normand a favour and she comes across far better, more natural, and funnier (especially in her brief Chaplin impersonation) than in any of the films they’d previously appeared in together.

The dummy provides Chaplin with one of his most sustained conflicts with an inanimate object yet seen in his films (usually doors, or bits of equipment he fails to master). His drunken Tramp treats the dummy as just another character, one he can attempt to reason with, and when that fails, strong-arm. His actions and miming even suggest that the Tramp believes the dummy might be drunk, whereas he’s the one who’s had one tipple too many.

The improvement in this film was remarked upon in a contemporary review in Bioscope, calling it ‘extremely funny’ and praising Chaplin’s ‘study in inebriation’. At the heart of this little film, though, is the concept that it simply wouldn’t work if it wasn’t silent: the dummy’s failure to speak if this were a sound film would make the closing gag (and the whole picture) untenable.

Slapstick: Once again, the Tramp has trouble with a swing door as he enters the bar. There’s a lovely bit of sliding on one foot as he first confronts the tough in the park. Almost unforgivably, no one falls into the lake. During a second trip to the bar, and only after much provocation, the Tramp lunges into a full-on bar fight, which includes socking the bar tender.

Verdict: Amusing but not quite a knock-out, 2/5

Next: Laughing Gas (9 July 1914)

Mabel’s Busy Day (13 June 1914)

Chaplin19MabelsBusyDayReleased: 13 June 1914, Keystone

Directors: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett

Writer: Mabel Normand

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Slim Summerville, Billie Bennett, Harry McCoy

Story: Mabel is a hot dog vendor at a race track who has to deal with a drunken nuisance…

Production: This is another of Mack Sennett’s rather slight ‘event’ films, this one filmed at the Los Angeles Ascot Park Speedway during a special exhibition race in mid-May 1914. Again, we get to see some real life audiences as they take in Chaplin and company’s antics, suggesting in their reactions that many in the crowd now recognised the screen’s newest comic talent. As the nominal star, Mabel Normand has the prime role as the inefficient hot dog seller, but the film really only comes to life when Chaplin arrives (billed as a ‘tipsy nuisance’) to cause her trouble.

Is the character Chaplin plays in Mabel’s Busy Day the little Tramp we’ve come to know a little better over recent films? He certainly looks the same, and broadly acts the same, but there are differences in the costume here that might subtly suggest that Chaplin wasn’t fully on board with playing the fool in Mabel’s latest trifle. He’s wearing a slightly smarter frock coat than usual, and on his head is a very different hat, a lighter-than-usual derby. Perhaps he’s dressed up for his day out at the races? As part of his deal at Keystone, Chaplin had to appear in supporting roles in standard fare like Mabel’s Busy Day, when he’d much rather be coming up with his own scenarios and creating films where he could control the material.

As always with these Sennett shorts, the race is not the film’s main concern, merely a scenic backdrop. Its just another event that has attracted a crowd into which Mack and Mabel can send their characters and their cameras to provoke some form of hopefully amusing carnage. Mabel is quickly out-of-her depth, attempting to sell her wares to a rowdy, possibly drunken crowd, who are more interested in messing her about than buying her sausages, and that includes Chaplin’s antagonist.

Despite it not being his film, Chaplin can’t help but bring much of himself to his performance. To describe his movements as ‘balletic’ is something of a cliché, a century later. Also, it’s early days and he hasn’t quite fine-tuned what he can do, but there is no other word that adequately describes the way he moves through this film. His encounters with the various cops, the way he dodges them and moves around them, can only be described as balletic. Chaplin moves completely differently from anyone else in the film. The jump in the air, faux wrestling moves, and spinning on the spot like a whirling dervish when Chaplin meets the first cop at the track are odd moments. It’s supposed to be a fight, but it is much more like a dance off. Not for Chaplin the standard Keystone slapstick of face-shoves and pratfalls—this film appears to be the first time we see Chaplin rolling his hat down the length of his arm, another little quirk (like sliding around corners on one foot) that would become a defining characteristic of the fully-evolved Tramp figure.

Watch carefully the faces of the crowd as Chaplin finds a hot dog on the ground and mistakes it for a cigar—this is clearly an audience for some of whom at least, the little Tramp (although he’s dressed slightly differently) is a recognisable figure. It’s all a long way away from the Kid Auto Races in Venice days, when he was just a genuine nuisance. Those who don’t know him probably find his antics strange, although it is unlikely they weren’t aware of the cameras, so would have known a film was being shot. Half the fun for us, 100 years later, from these Keystone ‘event’ films is to crowd watch, to see real people in a real environment reacting to Chaplin’s increasingly unreal antics. By this point, the assembled crowds are more interested in watching Chaplin in action than the races they presumably originally came to see.

While Mabel isn’t having much luck flogging her dogs, Charlie is having an equally tough time with the ladies. He tries to attach himself to a trio of racegoers, but stealing from one of their handbags might not be the right approach. Finally, over half way through, the film brings Mabel and Chaplin together, first as antagonists, then as partners against the rowdy crowd. He does a roaring trade in shifting his stolen sausages, but has trouble getting paid for his wares. The last minute or so sees the usual Keystone ruck bring things to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Slapstick: No sooner has Mabel made it into the racetrack than she’s knocking people down when they dare to touch her sausages. Chaplin’s dance off with the Kops rapidly follows. Chaplin’s besting of a ruffian makes him a short-lived hero.

Verdict: Chaplin biographer David Robinson called Mabel’s Busy Day a ‘rough and rowdy little piece’, and that about sums it up, 2/5

Next: Mabel’s Married Life (20 June 1914)

 

The Knockout (11 June 1914)

Chaplin18TheKnockoutReleased: 11 June 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Avery

Writers: Mack Sennett, Charles Avery, Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 29 mins (two reels)

With: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Al St. John, Mack Swain

Story: Pug (Arbuckle) takes on Cyclone Flynn (Kennedy) in a boxing match, but an over zealous referee (Chaplin) manages to come between the fighters.

Production: Like many of the early Mabel Normand films in which Chaplin appeared, The Knockout is not really a Chaplin picture. It’s an Arbuckle-starring vehicle in which Chaplin has a smallish part as a referee in the second of the two reels. That didn’t stop Keystone’s Mack Sennett (who appears in the film as a spectator at the fight and had a hand in devising the scenario) giving his new rising star top billing on the film’s posters, in a larger font and above the film’s true star, Fatty Arbuckle. It does appear likely that Chaplin also had a hand in writing the film’s scenario, as it seems to draw on material form his early stage experience, including such Fred Karno vaudeville routines as Mumming Birds and The Yap Yap.

Boxing was a stock subject for such comedians, with Laurel and Hardy using such scenarios, as well as Chaplin himself in later films like The Champion (1915) and the feature City Lights (1931). The actor himself appears to have been something of a boxing fan, attending prize fights in Los Angeles for recreation.

Arbuckle, who’d later go on to co-star in a series of shorts with Buster Keaton, plays an exceptionally strong man nicknamed Pug who after single-handedly dealing with a quartet of ruffians decides to try his hand in the ring, entering a boxing contest in which Cyclone Flynn (Kennedy) is taking on all comers. In some ways, Arbuckle would go on to become the comedy foil that Mabel Normand was perhaps expecting Chaplin to be. If Chaplin had not been determined to forge his own cinematic path, it would have been perfectly possible to see him playing the role amply filled by ‘Fatty’ in such films as Mable and Fatty’s Married Life (1917) and Mabel, Fatty, and the Law (1917).

There’s a lovely bit of fourth wall breaking when Fatty is changing clothes and signals for the camera to pan up as he lowers his drawers (a gag re-used by Arbuckle in his 1917 film Coney Island). There’s also a cute bit of female-to-male cross-dressing, as Pug’s girlfriend (played by Chaplin regular Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s wife) dresses as a man (but fools no-one) to blend in with the fight crowd. Oddly, the boxing rigs appears to be more of a theatre stage than a proper fight arena.

Chaplin’s appearance is a long time coming (almost 20 minutes into the film), but it is easily the highlight of the whole piece. Bounding onto the stage, Chaplin is made-up as his Tramp character, but lacking his coat, hat, and cane, and brings the film’s first proper laugh as he instantly falls on his backside. He has an utterly different physicality from everyone we’ve been watching for the past 20 minutes—this might be expected in contrast with Arbuckle, but Chaplin’s performance (without sound, remember) is simply way ahead of any of the rest of the cast (with the possible exception of Durfee who is quite fetching in both her outfits, but has little to do, despite being married to Arbuckle at the time). As Chaplin’s perceptive biographer David Robinson notes in Chaplin: His Life and Art: ‘Chaplin’s refereeing is balletic, and introduces gags of a sophistication alien to the rest of the film’.

After the standard warnings to the fighters, it’s Charlie’s job to referee the fight in a fair manner, but he can’t help but come between the two pugilists, becoming the target of several of their punches. Naturally, he can’t resist fighting back, making the bout a three-way scramble.

The Knockout is disappointingly directed as Charles Avery (although some blame Sennett or even Arbuckle, as they may have had a hand in the direction as well as the scenario) shoots the fight in a long shot rather than getting in closer to the action. This may be down to the speed with which these shorts were churned out, but it’s possible that a more adventurous director, such as Chaplin himself, would have been able to make much more of the fight action. It especially poor if, as suspected, Chaplin choreographed the entire fight scene himself (as suggested by Harry M. Geduld in Chapliniana Vol 1), only for it to be shot with a locked off camera and from a great distance.

Chaplin exits the film when the fight ends once Fatty gets hold of a gun (which seems to have a never-ending supply of bullets). The remainder is a frantic chase sequence through town and across the roof tops and through a rich family’s home, until the ever reliable, if somewhat dozy, Keystone Kops bring the whole thing to a crashing (or should that be splashing?) halt. Chaplin’s material is funny as far as it goes, but it really is a missed opportunity, something he’d put right in such films as The Champion (1915). As pointed out by Glenn Mitchell in his indispensable The Chaplin Encyclopedia, one of the posters outside the venue appears to be for Chaplin’s own earlier film Caught in a Cabaret!

Slapstick: Almost immediately, Charlie is punched in the face, and things escalate from there. He knocks down Fatty himself, and starts counting the fighter out. Back on his feet, Fatty is swinging for Charlie, and even prayer can’t save him from the pugilist’s wrath. He ends up sitting out much of the rest of the fight in the corner of the ring.

Verdict: Easily the highlight of the film, there’s just not enough Chaplin, 2/5

Next: Mabel’s Busy Day (13 June 1914)