The first in a two-part series on “Chaplin at Keystone” (read the first part here).
Charlie Chaplin‘s first solo directorial effort, Caught in the Rain, is an inauspicious one. It starts off as another comedy in the “day at the park” subgenre. Alice Davenport flirts with Charlie after her husband, Mack Swain, walks off on an errand. Compromising positions follow, of course, taken straight from Keystone founder Mack Sennett ‘s gag assembly line. Sennett himself directed the next six Chaplin shorts.
A Busy Day features Charlie in drag, trying to disrupt a parade in a shameless rip-off of his previous Kid Auto Races At Venice. A Fatal Mallet also stars Sennett (a rare appearance, and for good reason—his acting is more uneven than his directing) fighting with Charlie over girly girl Mabel. They are both dull Sennett products exhibiting little craftsmanship or art.
The Knockout is a half hour long, an epic for Keystone. It is basically a Fatty Arbuckle boxing vehicle with Charlie coming between prize fighter Fatty and Edgar Kennedy. Chaplin’s ballet-like brand of slapstick (barely) salvages the film, and The Knockout again makes it abundantly clear why Chaplin quickly outshone his peers.
Mabel’s Busy Day is an eccentric step up. Mabel is the much put upon, unkempt hot dog vendor at a race track. Charlie, as a dandy, arrives amidst much shenanigans, including dance-like slapstick with some Keystone Kops. Charlie spies the patrons abusing poor Mabel. He comforts her and, when her back is turned, he steals her hardware to go into business for himself, with predictably disastrous results. Chaplin here is without sympathy, even if he ends up as abused as the girl he himself abused and, realizing what she has been put through, finds enough pity for her to accompany her through the iris out. Again, the odd chemistry between Charlie and Mabel inexplicably works, although Chaplin would find more apt female counterparts later in his career.
“Laughing Gas” (1914, unrestored)
Chaplin co-wrote Mabel’s Married Life with Norman and, although Sennett officially directed, it is moving towards the style film historians will later term “Chaplinesque”; it is easily the best of the Sennett-directed Chaplin Keystones. Charlie and Mabel are a married couple out on a Sunday promenade in the park. Charlie grudgingly shares his banana with the Mrs. He momentarily steps into an inn, which gives Mack Swain ample opportunity to stop and flirt with Mabel. The little fellow doesn’t have much substance compared to big Mack. Mack’s wife (Eva Nelson) arrives in time to put a temporary stop to the antics of the trio. Charlie blames Mabel and sends her home, which gives him plenty of time to return to the bar. On her way home, Mabel buys a life-size dummy (?) from a shop. When the store’s delivery boys arrive with the dummy, Mabel is embarrassed to be caught only in her PJs (it is 1914). She wraps a leopard skin rug around her torso and sends the boys packing. While Mabel engages in balletic slapstick with her new boy toy, Charlie is engaged in slapstick of a more, inebriated violent nature with Big Mack and locals at the inn. Worn out by the dummy, Mabel jumps into bed. Charlie staggers into their apartment and predictably mistakes the dummy for Mack. Charlie’s fight with the dummy is classic Keystone. When he believes Mabel has been unfaithful, Charlie starts straggling her, much to the horror of eavesdropping neighbors. The dummy gets in a few more whacks at both Charlie and Mabel before she pulls off the dummy’s hat, much to Charlie’s amusement. Charlie and Mabel end their silly fight with a kiss.
Laughing Gas was written and directed by Chaplin, and with him now fully in control, we see a vast improvement over the previous Keystone efforts. This is a frantic, delightfully amoral short with the Tramp as a janitor for a dentist, and he’s particularly cruel to his employer’s patients and to a dwarf assistant (Joseph Sutherland). Charlie’s boss is Dr. Pain (Fritz Schade) and Charlie is not above flirting with Mrs. Pain (the underrated Alice Howell, a favorite of Stan Laurel’s). On the way to the pharmacy Charlie knocks out Mack Swain’s teeth with a flying brick, thus giving Dr. Pain yet another customer (Chaplin later reworked that business in his debt feature, 1921’s The Kid, he and Jackie Coogan intentionally throw bricks through windows to drum up paying customers for their glass replacement business). There is quite a bit of erotic interplay between Charlie and Alice, then between Charlie and patient Helen Carruthers, whom Charlie takes advantage of when he takes pliers to her nose in order to plant a kiss on her lips. Charlie steps on customers, brutalizes them, mocks clergymen, and clearly only cares for the pretty girls. He is an unrepentant hedonist (a fact which predictably endeared this incarnation of the Tramp to many of the Surrealists).
The Property Man is the first two-reeler solely written and directed by Chaplin. He plays a prop man at a vaudeville theater. Charlie likes to drink beer backstage, smoke cigarettes, bark orders, and brutally abuse his elderly, Quasimodo-like assistant (Josef Swickard). Charlie gets kicked around by the Strong Man (Jess Dandy), but Charlie, in turn, callously kicks his assistant in the face. Charlie flirts with the Goo Goo Sisters (Vivian Edwards and Cecile Arnold) and cleverly utilizes the stage props in numerous slapstick gags. Mack Sennet shows up as a patron who boos the bad acts and cheers the (unintentional) funny man Charlie. Chaplin would later rework and draw out this idea in The Circus (1928). The chaos climaxes with Charlie taking a hose to all, another gag he would revisit in the inferior A King in New York (1957). Despite the crudeness, Chaplin’s sharpening skills paint him as our protagonist.
The Face on the Barroom Floor is an oddity in the Chaplin Keystone cannon. It is a satire of the Hugh Antoine d’ Arcy poem, telling the tale of an anti-social vagabond who strolls into a tavern and (after spitting on the ass of a sleeping patron?!?) solicits multiple drinks from the local sailors as he recounts his fall from grace. Through flashback Charlie narrates his life as a successful painter (painters were a lifelong source of romantic fascination for Chaplin), ruined when his love (Cecile Arnold) runs off with his model (Jess Dandy). The d’ Arcy poem is quoted throughout the short, and Chaplin contrasts the tuxedoed painter with the filthy, dejected vagabond. The painter unwittingly sits on his palette, eats his paint, and sullies his clothes. As the vagabond, Chaplin obsessively sketches the image of his lost love on the tavern floor, but, in his drunken state, he only manages a shoddy smiley face. Violent barroom antics ensue when the locals try to kick him out. The vagabond collapses, falling face down in his own drawing (in the poem, the vagabond falls down dead). Barroom Floor is not so much a comedy as a brief, dramatic sketch in which Chaplin’s screen persona acknowledges and celebrates being an annoyance. Although Chaplin’s acting here is more advanced than in the earlier efforts,this is a film which would have benefited from the nuanced pathos of later Chaplin. Still, it’s an interesting, ambitious attempt to break free of formula.
Recreation is another park comedy, in badly deteriorated condition. The Tramp is suicidal until a pretty girl (Helen Carruthers) happens along. Charlie’s newfound zest for life gets short-shifted when her sailor boyfriend and the Kops come along to spoil things. It all ends with brick throwing and everyone in the lake.
In The Masquerader Chaplin and Arbuckle start off, as themselves, in a typical day at the film studio. Fatty inexplicably vanishes after Charlie transforms into the Tramp and the cameras roll. Charlie flirts with a couple of dishy tomatoes, misses his cue, and gets sacked by the callous director. What’s a Tramp to do? Charlie dons his best Mrs. Doubtfire, gets a job as an actress, and flirts with the boys before his ruse is discovered and he winds up at the bottom of a well! Since it’s a one-reeler, there is no real time to milk the potential (Chaplin will do that in Essanay Studio’s 1915 A Woman), but this is a resplendent sketch.
Two Sinatra-styled duets: His New Profession teams Chaplin with Charley Chase. Chaplin is looking through the Police Gazette in the park when Chase hires the Tramp to look after his inconvenience: a wheel-chair bound uncle, thus freeing Chase to tend to a pretty girl. Chaplin wheels the annoying crippled guy around the pier. The Tramp wants a beer and steals money from another annoying crip. Predictably, chaos escalates with the two paraplegics engaging in wheel-chair slapstick, and Chaplin trying to steal Chase’s girl. Throw in a couple of Keystone Kops and bodies falling from the pier and this winds up as a representative example of early cinema anti-PC amoralism. The Rounders is Chaplin’s only genuine teaming with Arbuckle, and that is regrettable because they make a charismatic pair. Charlie and Fatty are a couple of married rounders. Charlie is married to the abusive dyke Phyllis Allen, while Fatty abuses Minta Durfee. Al St. John and Charley Chase make cameo appearances, but it’s Chaplin and Arbuckle who serve as rudimentary precursors to the Laurel and Hardy brand of team comedy. The scenario is thin, but primitively amusing. The two disdainful hubbies pair up for a night of the town and much pouring of liquor. The wives will come a-hunting; the boys will find refuge in a park and a sinking rowboat.
The New Janitor has a more intricate plot. Charlie is a janitor working in a bank firm. One of the junior managers (John T. Dillon) is being blackmailed for unpaid debts, and plans to steal money from the vault to pay off his blackmailer. Meanwhile, Charlie gets fired for dumping a bucket of water onto the bank president (Jess Dandy). Bank employee Helen Carruthers catches Dillon in mid-thievery. She yells for help. Charlie, on the verge of clearing out, hears her, foils the robbery and gets mistaken for the thief. The real culprit is finally revealed and Charlie is rewarded with a raise. Chaplin would remake the film, as The Bank (1915), at Essanay Studios. Chaplin’s later trademark sentimentality is in evidence here, albeit subdued.
Those Love Pangs pairs Chaplin with Charles Conklin again as rival mashers, fighting over a bevy of women. First they compete over their landlord (Helen Carruthers), then reliable Keystone regulars Cecile Arnold and Vivian Edwards (as prostitutes!). The girls prefer Conklin, which prompts suicide attempt by Charlie, put a stop to by a Kop. Chaplin winds up with the girls and, of course, it ends in chaos at a local cinema. Chaplin alone makes it watchable with idiosyncratic vignettes which have nothing to do with the narrative. He perfects his cigarette kicking here and turns his cane into a toothpick.
Dough and Dynamite is another two-reeler and became the biggest hit among Chaplin’s Keystone films. Charlie is a waiter who outdoes himself in his abuse towards a customer. He and fellow waiter Conklin are forced into the kitchen when the bakers go on strike. Naturally there is frantic slapstick hijinks aplenty, but it’s Chaplin’s slower paced characterizations that make this a Keystone stand-out. He turns dough into bracelets and rings, and with powder on his hands he intentionally and unintentionally gets his floury hands on the daily duties of several dames, including the boss’ wife (Norma Nichols). Big boss man (Fritz Schade) sees Charlie’s handprint where it don’t belong, and it ends in an apocalyptic, dough-slinging finale. The boys are unaware that the striking bakers have planted dynamite in a fatal loaf, and at the end the war-weary Tramp emerges from a sea of bread, bricks and mortars.
Mabel was back with Chaplin in Gentlemen of Nerve and, although a nominal film, it is good to see them together again. Charlie is Mr. Wow Wow who, with Mr. Walrus (Mack Swain) sneaks into the track. Charlie spies a pretty girl with a soda, plops down next to her, and steals sips. Mabel is saddled with the roving eyes of Charles Conklin; eventually she winds up with the more appreciative Chaplin.
Chaplin is a piano mover in His Musical Career, a precursor of sorts to Laurel and Hardy‘s Music Box (1932). It’s exactly what you would expect, with Charlie having an extremely rough go of it, ending up in a lake. Laurel and Hardy improved on the subject, but Chaplin’s influence on the later film is undeniable.
His Trysting Places is a two-reel ensemble piece and all the better for it. Chaplin and Mabel are a not so blissfully wedded couple. She is stuck with the cooking and the infant. She hands the baby to Charlie who takes the tyke in arm like an old suitcase. Charlie clearly can’t be bothered with the brat, and hands his son a real pistol to play with so he can read the paper uninterrupted. In striking contrast, we see the happy domesticity of Mack Swain and Phyllis Allen. Chaplin edits these sequences like a string duet, and laces it with swelling cynicism. Charlie and Mack run into each other in a nearby restaurant, and there is a scene with them fighting over food, including a chicken leg (prefiguring their starvation scene in Chaplin’s masterpiece, The Gold Rush, in which Mack imagines Charlie to be a chicken). On their way out of the ensuing chaos, Charlie and Mack mistakenly grab each other’s coats. In Mack’s coat is a letter, to his wife, suggesting a romantic meeting at their trysting place in the park. In Charlie’s coat is a list for baby’s grocery needs. Naturally, Mabel finds Mack’s letter in the coat she believes belongs to Charlie. Convinced her husband is having an affair, she wallops him and then goes to find the other woman at the rendezvous spot. At the park, Phyllis discovers the grocery list in her husband’s pocket and is convinced he is hiding an illegitimate child. It all plays out like an identity mix-up from “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Charlie and Mack do a wife swap in Getting Acquainted. Here, Charlie is married to Phyllis and Mack is married to Mabel. This movie is noteworthy as the last teaming of Chaplin and Normand. It all takes in the park, and the respective husbands are ambitious about dropping their wives to flirt with other girls around. A Kop from the flirting patrol tries to quell the Don Juan syndrome. The usual park slapstick is present, but it’s subdued for a Keystone comedy, and there is a prevailing farewell sentiment hovering over the film.
His Prehistoric Past was Chaplin’s final film for Sennett, and it sounds far more promising than what it actually delivers. Chaplin dreams he is strolling through a prehistoric park. Mack Swain is a rival neanderthal. It could have used a Raquel Welch or a dinosaur or two.
Tillie’s Punctured Romance was Keystone’s first feature, and the first feature comedy film of any kind. Although made before Getting Acquainted, it was released several months later. The star here is Marie Dressler, who also starred in the Broadway musical on which the movie was based. Chaplin, as a city slicker, steals everything but the camera. Mabel is Charlie’s ex, and knows that Charlie is after Marie because of a potential inheritance from her rich uncle. The Keystone Kops are also on hand, and although feature length slapsticks usually outstay their welcome, Tillie does not (neither do most of the Abbott and Costello features, or any of the Three Stooges movies).
“Chaplin at Keystone” also features a 1916 animated French short, Charlie’s White Elephants, which crudely pays homage to Chaplin and Arbuckle. “Inside the Keystone Project” is a documentary which follows the painstaking, eight year restoration of the films.
Chaplin perfected the short film format during his stay at Mutual Studios. Many critics consider his Mutual shorts to be his best. There is much to be found as well in the Essanay shorts, made between Keystone and Mutual. Keystone co-stars Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle would each have tragic falls from grace, while Chaplin went onto unparalleled success. Indeed, he is almost the only silent star whose films are still regularly revived.