CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE, PART ONE

The first in a two-part series.

Watching Charlie Chaplin‘s work for Keystone Studios is a bit like watching the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons, and it may take a bit of adjustment for modern viewers.  Like Walt Disney’s rodent, Chaplin’s Tramp persona was slowly polished into a screen character that audiences loved and rooted for.  Populist tastes had much to do with this, but, in the process of refining the character for the masses, some of the Tramps’ rough edges were burned away.  Revisiting the earliest incarnations of either character leads to a disconcerting discovery: the earliest versions were roughly etched and somewhat underdeveloped, but less predictable; they possessed not altogether sympathetic personality traits that contemporary audiences may find uncomfortable, especially when compared to their later refinements.

Earlier this year, Flicker Alley released the restored Keystone Chaplin shorts.  That restoration was long overdue.  For years, public domain labels had churned out DVD prints that were so execrable as to be virtually unwatchable.

In 1914, his first year at Keystone, the Tramp is in his infancy, and his later self is only occasionally glimpsed.  Making A Living (1914) is notable mainly as Chaplin’s screen debut.  The Tramp is not yet born; rather, Chaplin appears as a swindling, Don Juan-like English dandy who foreshadows few characteristics of the famous persona.  This mess of a film was directed by the Austrian native Henry “Suicide” Lehrman (so nicknamed by stuntmen because Lehrman, unconcerned about the danger of stunts, was risky to work for).  Lehrman later dated actress Virginia Rappe.  At the time of her death in the infamous Fatty Arbuckle scandal, Lehrman testified against Arbuckle at the trial and capitalized on the publicity.  In the Chaplin at Keystone collection Lehrman appears as a reporter in Making a Living and as a film director in Chaplin’s second released film Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. (which he also directed).

Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. is the film in which audiences first saw Chaplin as the Tramp.  This vast improvement over Chaplin’s debut was entirely improvised, shot in less than an hour.  The Tramp shows up at an auto race and, spying a film crew, becomes obsessed with being the center of the camera’s attention.  The race crowd is at first curious and then entertained by the intruding Tramp, who interacts with them.  In his second film, Chaplin proves more innovative and considerably more talented than any of his co-stars or even his biggest influence at that time, Max Linder.  The Tramp is sparkling and animated as the unashamed egoist, an extroverted, defiant “little man” whose stubborn spunk and ambition rise to the forefront when he, unsuccessfully, tries to convince the director and crowd that he is far more interesting than a silly race.  This is one the funniest and most compact of the Keystone Chaplins.

Though released after Kid Auto Races, Mabel’s Strange Predicament was actually the first film in which Chaplin donned the Tramp persona.  This film co-stars Mabel Normand, whose home-spun shop girl persona is still unique in the annuls of film history.  Mabel’s tragic life and premature death is the stuff of legend, befitting Jerry Herman’s splendid, underrated 1974 musical “Mack and Mabel” (the CD recording features the inimitable Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters). Normand’s films are still neglected, although three of her features,  Mickey (1920), What Happened to Rosa (1921) and The Extra Girl (1923) have been released on DVD and are good showcases for her screen persona.  Normand herself (awkwardly) directed Mabel’s Strange Predicament.  Although Chaplin was undoubtedly the superior craftsman, Richard Attenborough’s unflattering portrait of Normand in his pedestrian biopic Chaplin (1992), starring Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin and Marisa Tomei as Mabel, is inaccurate and unfair.  Normand clearly influenced and mentored Chaplin, and she was actually the only one of his Keystone directors with whom he had a mostly amiable working relationship.  Chaplin does a convincing drunk act as the ever amorous Tramp who, after pursuing several other girls, comes across Mabel’s sexually provocative (for its time) after-hours pajama girl, locked out of her room by a dog and a bouncing ball.  Chaplin and Normand play off of each other fairly well here, though it’s solely due to their idiosyncratic mismatch.  Despite the stars’ odd chemistry, the film is melodramatic and overstays its welcome. Chaplin’s inebriated Tramp makes later lush acts, such as Dean Martin’s, seem comparatively cartoonish.

Much was made over the recent discovery of the believed-to-be-lost A Thief Catcher, directed by Ford Sterling, who is actually the star here.  Chaplin has a bit part as a Keystone Kop, which is mainly of interest as a precursor to his role as policeman in the later Mutual masterpiece, Easy Street (1917).  Harold Lloyd once claimed that Sterling was the best of the silent comedians.  Today, looking at Sterling’s work in front of and behind the camera, Lloyd’s proclamation seems dubious.

Between Showers is the last Chaplin film directed by Lehrman.  It again stars Sterling, and it is one of the flattest of the Chaplin Keystones.  Sterling and Chaplin star as the Masher and the Rival Masher, who engage in embarrassingly rudimentary slapstick over damsel-in-distress Emma Clifton.  Clifton is seeking gentlemanly assistance  in crossing a muddy puddle.  Chester Conklin, in his typical and dull kop routine, disrupts the menage a trios.  Between Showers is mostly notable as the film which introduced the Tramp’s shoulder shrug, skid, the “Tramp walk”, the nose-thumbing, and the adolescent hand-over-mouth laugh.

A Film Johnnie was directed unimaginatively by George Nichols. The Tramp waxes amorous over Keystone girl Virginia Kirtley after seeing her in a western at the nickelodeon.  Charlie signs up as an extra in Kirtley’s latest film.  Not for the last time, the Tramp will mistake a film shoot for a real-life damsel-in-distress situation.  Naturally, chaos ensues.  Along the way, Keystone’s roster of stars, including Fatty Arbuckle (playing himself) appear to lend Charlie support.  Another Chaplin trademark bit is introduced here: utilizing a prop for something other than its usual purpose: a pistol is used first as toothpick and later as a lighter for his cigarette.

While Keystone founder Mack Sennett was uneven in his duties as a producer, he was even more uneven as a director.  Sennett was behind the camera for Tango Tangles, which mainly features Sterling and Arbuckle, with an out-of-costume Chaplin stuck on the sidelines.  Chaplin, fresh faced and appearing, uncomfortably, sans makeup, looks every bit the bland romantic lead type of the period.  Tango Tangles was filmed at the Venice Dance Hall and stars Minta Durfee (Arbuckle’s wife at the time) as the much fought over hat-check gal.  Despite his handsome looks and awkward exposure, Chaplin does a convincing drunk again, albeit briefly.  Arbuckle, perhaps surprising to contemporary audiences, is quite athletic, despite his girth.  In this, Arbuckle prefigures the equally athletic (and even more rotund) .

Nichols was back to directing Chaplin in His Favorite Pastime. Chaplin thankfully returns to the Tramp characterization, and although this is a better film than its predecessor, it is a sore spot in being one of the few Chaplin films which features blackface comedy.  Of course, Chaplin did not direct or write this one, and the star’s well-known disapproval of racist portrayals in film is in sharp contrast to peers such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and , all of whom had no qualms about resorting to blackface for yuks.  Chaplin’s discomfort with stereotypes placed him well ahead of his time.  Peggy Pearce was his love interest, and she is the first of Chaplin’s many co-stars with whom he had an off-screen relationship.

Cruel, Cruel Love is another Nichols-directed Keystone short.  Chaplin and this director had a turbulent working relation, and it shows.  The star was clearly out of Nichols’ league, and what little there to enjoy about Cruel, Cruel Love is most likely due to Chaplin’s contributions.  Chaplin plays the aristocratic Lord Helpus (indeed) who decides to poison himself after he mistakenly believes he has been rejected by Minta Durfee.  Thanks to his amused butler (Edgar Kennedy) Helpus mistakenly drinks water instead of poison and imagines himself (briefly) in a Georges Méliès-styled hell.  Always one to rework an idea, Chaplin later expanded on the mistaken poison gag in his black comedy, Monsieur Verdoux (1947).

The Star Boarder again co-stars Minta Durfee.  Nichols directs Chaplin for the last time and Chaplin’s later, daintily OCD Tramp who would appear in his pictures for Mutual is briefly glimpsed.  Durfee is the Tramp’s landlord and she clearly likes him better than her brutish husband (Edgar Kennedy) or her terror of a son (Gordon Griffith).  There is a brief, out of place tennis-match-as-aphrodisiac between Chaplin and Durfee.  As in many later Chaplin films, it is a sequence that fits poorly with the rest of the narrative that is most memorable.

Mabel at the Wheel was the first of Chaplin’s two-reelers, and was co-directed by Normand and Sennett .  As written by Normand, Chaplin here is in a Ford Sterling-like villain role (at which Chaplin is far betterthan Sterling).  Normand is the nominal star, but Chaplin steals every scene he is in, and Normand the director lets him (she was far more generous to ‘competitive’ talent than Chaplin ever would be).  This is a handsomely mounted film dealing with an auto race and has Chaplin atypically behind the wheel (unlike Keaton, Chaplin was a bit of a technophobe who never learned to drive).  Although Mabel at the Wheel cannot be categorized as a “Chaplin” film, it is Keystone at its near-best, chock-full of period spectacle and dastardly villains.

Chaplin once said “all I need to make a picture is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl.”  Twenty Minutes of Love is the first film for which Chaplin gets co-directing credit (along with Joseph Maddern).  Chaplin uses that already well-worn formula but, unfortunately, it results in a too-standard park comedy with co-star Minta Durfee hopelessly cute in her Mother Goose-like getup.

Caught in a Cabaret is another Mabel Normand film and Chaplin’s second two-reeler.  Again,Normand the director points the actor’s spotlight on her co-star.  Additionally, she co-wrote the film with Chaplin, and was instrumental in building up his character.  Caught in a Cabaret is superior to the previous Mabel’s Strange Predicament and feels, at times, like a precursor to what is, arguably, Chaplin’s greatest feature, The Gold Rush (1925).  The Tramp is fully encased in Keystone edginess here as he is determined to impress an out-of-his-league high society girl.  He works as a waiter in a cabaret under the dictatorial Edgar Kennedy.  Although we are meant to root for the Tramp here, our sympathies are not unreserved.  He is rude and selfish and the film opens with him mistreating a female customer by stealing her drink.  During lunch break, the Tramp is taking his canine out for a walk (to attract the fairer sex) when a young boy (Gordon Griffith) tries to steal his dog.  Charlie does not hesitate to violently knock the tyke to the ground.  Next, the Tramp comes upon a “society bud” (Normand) as she is being mugged in the park.  The Tramp chases off the mugger while Normand’s sissified, rich boyfriend (Harry McCoy) helplessly cowers from afar.  Charlie passes himself off as the Greenland ambassador Baron Doobugle and Mabel takes her hero home to meet the kinfolk.  Mabel invites “The Baron” to a party and Charlie hurries back, quite late, to his job with the jealous McCoy following him.  Fellow waiter Charles Conklin is quick to inform Kennedy of the Tramp’s tardiness, which will reap Conklin a thorough beating from the Tramp shortly after.  Of course, Kennedy gives Charlie a firm scolding.  Regular Sennett heavy Mack Swain appears to annoy hostess Minta Durfee; Chaplin puts a stop to that with the end of a mallet.  Charlie plays the ladies man at Mabel’s soiree and he is literally the life of the party, further arousing Kennedy’s jealousy.  Once Charlie leaves (to get back to work again) Kennedy hauls the partygoers off to the cabaret to expose his nemesis’ true identity.  A barroom brawl results and Mabel ends the film by taking a brickbat to her phony Baron.

Chaplin’s next film for Keystone would be Caught in the Rain.   It would be his first real film as both director and star.  Caught in the Rain will lead off the second part of the “Chaplin at Keystone” series next week.

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