Bright Lights Film Journal

Looking at Charlie – The Year at Keystone, Part 1: An Occasional Series on the Life and Work of Charlie Chaplin

Charlie, Mack, and Mabel

Well, some of us more than others, Gordon, some of us more than others. In my long trek through Charlie Chaplin’s career, I have only two films left, Lime Light and A King in New York, easily the two weakest in Charlie’s oeuvre. Lime Light is the more frustrating of the two. The film’s never really entertaining, but for the first four reels it often seems about to become so, before falling completely to ruin in the second half. You don’t expect much from A King in New York, and you don’t get much, either. Which meant that when Flicker Alley released a state-of-the-art restoration of all (or almost all) of the 30-odd films that Chaplin made for Keystone in 1914, I breathed an immense sigh of relief. La-di-da gents with rarified cinematic palates like Gordon’s may not find much here to admire, but for those of us who love Charlie, there’s plenty of gold here amidst the dross. And to have these films, which I thought were lost forever, restored (for the most part) beyond my wildest expectation is a true delight.

For the first dozen or so films Charlie made for Mack Sennett, I must admit, there’s plenty of dross. Sennett founded Keystone in 1912, and, remarkably, considering the legendary name of the studio, only made Keystone films for five years, selling the name in 1917, when he began producing films as “Mack Sennett Comedies.”1 Most of the early films in which Chaplin appeared were a single reel long, and, in 1914, most movie houses were not equipped to show anything longer. A two-reel film was divided into two parts, to accommodate houses with a single projector. Some of the shorts have virtually no plot, other than flirting and fighting, while others have fairly elaborate plots that are thrown incoherently at the viewer.

Chaplin’s first film, Making a Living, is clearly in the latter category. Chaplin appears in what he called his “Desperate Desmond” character, a top-hatted toff who is definitely all hat and no cash. We meet him, incongruously, on the streets of LA, stopping a passer-by, Henry Lehrman,2 giving him a hard-luck story, even trying to steal Lehrman’s pinkie ring. Charlie then runs off to a fancy mansion, where he receives a delighted reception from mom Alice Davenport and daughter Virginia Kirtley. Who wouldn’t want an English lord in the family? Charlie whips out his own ring and, just like that, we’ve got a wedding. Then Lehrman shows up. Hey, that’s my girl! He tries to substitute his pinkie ring for Charlie’s sparkler, but that’s a serious nonstarter. Desmond and Lehrman go at it in approved Keystone fashion before Lehrman gets the heave-ho from the butler.

Charlie chats up bride and mother-in-law to be, and then we cut to Lehman entering an office, where, presumably, he works, although we have to guess at this. We then cut to a sign saying “Reporter wanted.” Charlie spots it and heads inside, giving a young kid a slap upside the head as he does so.3 We don’t really know it, but we’re inside the actual offices of the LA Times and getting a glimpse of pre-WWI newspaper technology in action.4 Charlie finds the same guys we saw Lehrman talking to a scene earlier and pitches himself as the answer to an editor’s prayer. Lehrman returns and, naturally, is pissed at the sight of Charlie. You again! You take my girl and my job? To show up Charlie, he rushes out in search of a story. To his delight, he sees a car go flying off a cliff. He races to the scene and takes a few pictures and then interviews the driver, helplessly tied up in the undercarriage of the overturned car. A crowd gathers, fascinated by the sight, but not bothering to provide any assistance. If the guy’s not in pain, where’s the drama? Charlie appears and climbs over the back of the mob. When he figures out what’s going on, he snatches Lehrman’s notebook and camera and races away.

As he runs down a sidewalk, Charlie collides with a policeman. Trying to act “normal” (I guess), he climbs up a back flight of stairs, as though returning from a day at the office. On the back porch he encounters a housewife (Emma Bell Clifton), who naturally doesn’t like the intrusion. As she drives him downstairs, he runs into her husband (Billy Gilbert5), who wants to know who’s visiting his wife.6 He chases Charlie back up the stairs, and Charlie runs into the apartment. Gilbert and Charlie grapple in the couple’s bedroom. Meanwhile, an Italian anarchist7 appears at the foot of the stairway armed with a knife, further complicating matters. Charlie comes down the stairs and is attacked by the anarchist. He wrenches the knife away from him and inadvertently stabs a policeman arriving on the scene. Funny! Charlie runs away and the anarchist runs up the stairs and into the bedroom, where Gilbert is either making love to Emma or trying to strangle her — probably the latter. The anarchist attacks Gilbert, who fends him off while his wife summons the police through an open window. The police arrive before anyone gets stabbed, and everyone falls down a lot.

While this is going on, Charlie arrives at the newspaper office, wild with excitement about his exclusive. As the story comes out in the late edition, we see him in a state of authorial ecstasy, grabbing great bundles of the late edition and hurling them at newsboys. Whether he wants to get his story out or just kill little kids isn’t clear. Lehrman shows up again and they have another fight, ending up on the cowcatcher of a streetcar. Whether Charlie and his fiancée ever get married is left unresolved.

After this frenzied hurly-burly, the calm and understated humor of Chaplin’s next film, the celebrated Kid Auto Races at Venice8 come as an enormous relief. This was, as many know, the first film in which Chaplin wore his famous Tramp costume, which appears complete right out of the box. There’s a great deal of information about the creation of this legendary outfit, all of it bogus, in my opinion. which Chaplin actually put together for Mabel’s Strange Predicament, his second film for Keystone, which, for whatever reason was released after Kid Auto Races at Venice. What counts, of course, is that it did come together, in a flawless mixture of fussiness, absurdity, and bumptious self-assertion. The moustache seemed to center Chaplin’s face and make it more expressive, while the cane and derby were props that he could implement for a thousand different gags. He came alive in the outfit as he did not in the other outfits that he wore for Keystone. The whole outfit was funny, from head to toe, and it gave him an instantly recognizable silhouette, a good thing to have in silent films, particularly in the early days, when they were often shown in less than ideal conditions.

Kid Auto Races at Venice is one of the funniest of the early Keystones, largely because it’s so short,9 so simple, and because it’s almost entirely Chaplin. It was one of many Keystone films to use an auto race as a backdrop — cars were the mechanical marvel of the age.10 The kid auto race shown is an early version of the “Soap Box Derby,” once a beloved, corny American institution that, though still in existence, never really made it across the great cultural divide of the 1960s.11Kid Auto Races at Venice is, in effect, a meta-film — we see a film crew trying to film the race, and Charlie keeps getting in the way.12

Despite the fact that it’s simply one gag over and over again, Chaplin makes it work. Occasionally, he wants to be in the shot, mugging for the camera. More often, he simply wants to spoil the shot, pretending he doesn’t see the camera, but always managing to place himself directly in the middle of things. On other occasions, he’s aware of the camera but contemptuous of it — “yes, I know you fellows are making a film here, but I’m walking here!” Every once in a while, the director (Lehrman again, who was director on both sides of the camera) knocks him down, but, surprisingly for Chaplin, he never responds in kind. He’s a gentleman, even if others are not.

Mabel’s Strange Predicament is a much more elaborate film, twice as long as Kid Auto Races at Venice and half as funny, directed by 20-year-old Mabel Normand,13 who’d been in the business since she was 15. Mabel is staying in a hotel whose lobby is haunted by Charlie, pursuing every woman who enters it. Mabel has a boyfriend (Harry McCoy), but he remains chastely downstairs when she retires. Alone, and in her pajamas, Mabel amuses herself by bouncing a ball for her dog to play with. The ball bounces through an open door, Fido slams the door shut, and Mabel is in her strange predicament. In approved French farce fashion, she finds another open door, hiding under the bed of quarreling old folks Chester Conklin and Alice Davenport. Naturally, Charlie shows up as well, but things end happily. Harry, still chaste, bids Mabel goodnight and stands nobly outside the door, a gentle smile of affection on his face, and a very rare moment of real emotion in a Sennett film.14

The plot is more coherent than Making a Living — you’re never asking yourself “who are these people?” — but like all the Keystones before Chaplin was able to take charge of his own films, the gags are very repetitious and overstated. Keystone stars like Mabel — who of course was very popular — garnered attention through “wild” histrionic excess, which seen today rarely raises a smile.15

Chaplin’s next film, Between Showers, is seriously unfunny, largely because of the large presence of Ford Sterling, my least favorite silent film comedian.16 In the opening scene, Sterling spends about five minutes trying, and failing, to squeeze a laugh out of the theft of perennial policeman Chester Conklin’s umbrella, killing about five billion of my brain cells in the process.

Sennett was famous for using real events as settings for his films, and here the real event is one of those Los Angeles downpours that, in the old days at least, would leave the streets flooded with runoff. Sterling and Charlie fight, in a rarely funny manner, over the right to assist Emma Bell Clifton across a puddle. Emma makes it on her own, and manages to obtain Sterling’s umbrella as well. When she refuses to give it back, he throttles her and then bites her pretty viciously on the cheek.17 Funny! Chaplin also does a lot of unfunny mugging, looking directly at the camera and laughing at the other characters. Aren’t they silly! It doesn’t work. Between Showers, directed by Lehrman, who obviously did not know not funny when he saw it, does feature both the “Chaplin walk” and the “Chaplin skid,” which were to become trademarks for Charlie.

Chaplin’s next film, A Film Johnnie, is more or less Keystone exploiting/exposing itself. Charlie, in Tramp18) costume, is seen staring at the posters outside a 1914 theater. He’s besotted with “the Keystone Girl” (Peggy Pearce). Inside the theater, which seats about 50 on folding chairs, he applauds wildly as soon as she appears, much to the disgust of the rest of the audience — probably not an original gag, but funny.19 Seeking the reality behind the image, he descends on the Keystone studio, where we see Keystone stars acting out as Broadway big shots — arriving in fancy cars and weighted down with expensive overcoats, which clash just a bit with the palm trees. All the Keystone stars are on parade — Mabel, Ford, Peggy, and Lehrman, along with Fatty Arbuckle and Minta Durfee, whom we haven’t seen before with Charlie.

Charlie gets inside the studio, of course, where he behaves like the stereotypical rube, taking all the make-believe as real. Then he gets hold of a prop revolver, which the showfolk, of course, take as real. Shooting, and mayhem, ensue. After the shooting dies down, the film heads off in another direction. A Keystone actor, away from the studio, spots a real-life house on fire. He alerts the gang, who rush out to get some action shots, and Charlie, ultimately, gets drenched by a fire hose, a “big” finish that has no connection with the original premise of the film. As for Peggy, well, if she was there, I didn’t see her. A Film Johnnie was directed by George Nichols, who’d been in the biz since 1909 and would direct Charlie in several more shorts.

Tango Tangles uniquely features Charlie without any facial hair at all. He comes across as a fresh-faced, amiable young man with nothing in particular to recommend him. His behavior as a kid in a tux isn’t that much different from his tramp act, but the magic isn’t there. He comes across as a nice guy rather than a troublemaker, and anyway he’s upstaged by a furiously overacting Ford Sterling, who’s remarkably unwhiskered as well, though no funnier for the shave.20 Sterling’s main antagonist is Fatty Arbuckle in this film rather than Charlie, who isn’t given much to do by the script, although the concluding punch-out involves Charlie and Sterling, Fatty having quitted the scene. This is the first of Chaplin’s films to be directed by Mack Sennett, and apparently Mack still wasn’t that impressed by Charlie.21

His Favorite Pastime, directed by Nichols again, is a step up from Tango Tangles, not the least because Charlie’s back in his tramp costume, hanging out in a bar and chasing skirts. There’s a curious amount of blackface in this film — Billy Gilbert plays a bootblack (in blackface, of course), and Helen Carruthers is a blackface maid. Fortunately, their makeup omits the white lips that were the most offensive part of stage blackface, and there’s nothing “black” about their performances. Charlie, pursuing Carruthers’ mistress (Peggy Pearce again), assaults Helen by mistake. She grabs him by the hair and slings him across the room.

Cruel, Cruel Love deprives Charlie of his tramp costume, and we fall almost as low as Tango Tangles. Nichols is at the helm once more, and once more he doesn’t seem to be paying much attention. Charlie is “Lord Helpus,” wearing a getup rather similar to his “Desperate Desmond” outfit and passionately wooing Minta Durfee, who returns his devotion, much to the amusement of snickering servant Eva Nelson. She and Gardener William Hauber decide it would be funny for Eva to maneuver his lordship into a compromising position and have Minta catch them at it, a ruse that, these being Keystone people, requires about 30 seconds to execute. Minta tells Charlie he’s history. Seriously overwrought, Charlie goes home to commit suicide by drinking poison — we have to figure this out for ourselves, because the film doesn’t explain it.

Charlie’s servant, Edgar Kennedy,22 finds this hilarious, because he knows, as we don’t, that he’s substituted water for the poison! Charlie drinks the glass and goes into hysterics as his death approaches, mugging furiously, and unattractively, for the camera. When a remorseful Eva confesses to Minta that she rather than Charlie was the guilty party (for the most part, anyway), Minta rushes over to tell him that she does love him after all! Now that he has something to live for, Charlie summons a pair of farcical doctors (Glen Cavendar and Harry Russell), who provide no help and few laughs. Finally, Kennedy lets everyone in on the good news! Charlie’s not going to die! Charlie “rejoices” by wildly attacking the rest of the cast, the doctors in particular, and we end with the sort of aimless, slam-bang finish typical of so many Keystones.

The Star Boarder, also directed by Nichols, is the first film to give us a taste, though only a taste, of the classic Chaplin. Minta runs a boardinghouse, and we see her preparing the breakfast table with the help of husband Edgar Kennedy. She rings the breakfast bell to summon the household, but there’s one resident who isn’t in a hurry. We see Charlie lying in bed, conducting himself with the fastidious aplomb that would soon become his hallmark. He may have passed out fully clothed the night before, but he’s still a gentleman of leisure who abides by his own schedule, rather than that of others.

Star boarders or lodgers — “Mama’s favorite” — were a staple of English music hall humor,23 with the obvious sexual innuendo that is followed up persistently though not explicitly in this film. Minta and Charlie bill and coo and have a brief, energetic game of tennis. Edgar fumes, but strays from the straight and narrow himself with Alice Davenport. Minta’s young son, Gordon Griffith, records it all for posterity with his Brownie, constantly convulsed with laughter at his own cleverness, and then puts it all on display in a magic lantern show. The revelations lead to another Keystone free-for-all, with Minta giving Gordon a good spanking while Charlie bites Edgar on the leg.

Chaplin’s next film, Mabel at the Wheel, his first two-reeler, is built entirely around an auto race. Mabel’s boyfriend Harry McCoy is a racecar driver. Charlie, out of his Tramp costume, has a stock role as a melodramatic villain, “Desperate Desmond” once more. Charlie rides a motorcycle, virtually his only foray into the world of mechanical vehicles that so fascinated his twenties rivals Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. After trying, and failing, to convince Mabel of the superiority of two-wheeled transportation, Charlie enlists his henchmen (Dave Anderson and Grover Ligon) to kidnap Harry on the day of the big race. Naturally, Mabel takes over. Sennett, who co-directed with Mabel, appears as a spectator and spits tobacco juice on people. Charlie jumps up and down a lot, and we watch Mabel go around a lot of curves.24) Mack Swain shows up and, pace Gordon Thomas, does not fall on his ass.

Charlie gets partial director’s credit for Twenty Minutes of Love, a very typical, and not very funny, Keystone “wacky kids in the park” comedy, filmed, like so many Keystones, in Echo Park, near the studio and featuring a lake for people to be thrown into. Twenty Minutes of Love begins with just a hint of later Chaplin — Charlie’s alone, watching two happy lovers on a park bench — but the humor’s so broad — he parodies their affection by embracing a tree — that there’s no room for sentiment. The lovers are Edgar Kennedy and Minta Durfee, looking very cute in an outfit that is half Little Bo Peep and half Gibson Girl. Charlie joins the couple on the bench, but Kennedy deftly switches places with Minta, limiting Charlie’s opportunities for assault. Minta, in any event, seems unusually attached to the man she’s actually with — by Keystone standards, at least.

Charlie departs, and we depart as well, to watch another pair of lovebirds, the less well attached Chester Conklin and Eva Nelson. Eva demands some proof of Chester’s devotion, and he decides to obtain it by stealing the watch of a sleeping Josef Swickard.25 Because what gift is more romantic than a man’s pocket watch, probably inscribed with a stranger’s initials? Eventually, Charlie relieves Chester of the watch,26 and there’s a funny bit when a passing policeman innocently asks Charlie “What’s the time?”, inspiring a strikingly guilty reaction on Charlie’s part whose significance the cop fortunately fails to comprehend.27

Eventually, Charlie and Eva hook up, and he gives her Swickard’s watch, which she proudly displays on her bodice. Chester, when he arrives on the scene, is both baffled and enraged by the watch’s presence. Charlie, rethinking his feelings for Eva, decides he’d rather have the watch, which he retrieves and eventually attempts to sell to Swickard, who, when he figures out what is going on, summons the police. A lot of people get thrown in the lake, most of them several times. Eva eventually departs with Charlie, since he’s the only dude left in the picture with dry clothes.

Caught in a Cabaret, another two-reeler, was written and directed entirely by Mabel, according to the credits. If this is even half-accurate, Mabel did Charlie an enormous favor. The film, which keeps the spotlight on Charlie throughout, marks a turning point in his career. He would remake Caught in a Cabaret a dozen times, playing the little fellow who gets swept up among the big shots. Here he plays a waiter in a seedy café, run by Edgar Kennedy. When Charlie isn’t being rude to the customers, he’s beating the crap out of fellow waiter and semi-midget Chester Conklin. Clearing a table, Charlie dumps the dregs of half a dozen glasses into a beer mug and downs the contents thoughtfully. Well, whatever gets you through the morning.

We cut to “A Society Bud” — Mabel, of course — radiant in the sunshine and headed for a walk in the park with boyfriend Harry McCoy. Back at Cutthroat Alley, it’s time for Charlie’s lunch hour. Rather remarkably, he gathers a dachshund28 from a cupboard and heads outside. The exterior shots give us a taste of “ugly Los Angeles” — unpaved streets lined with wooden sidewalks, with gullies trenching through the center of the road. Charlie makes his way to, naturally, the same park as Mabel and Harry. The dachshund proves a babe magnet, of course, and a little boy magnet as well, in the form of Gordon Griffith, who gets the beatdown from Charlie that he managed to avoid in The Star Boarder.

Eventually, Charlie’s and Mabel’s paths cross, when he rescues her from mugger William Hauber, who has proved himself too much for Mabel’s high society, sissy-britches boyfriend. A woman in distress needs a real man! While McCoy fumes helplessly, a grateful Mabel takes Charlie home to meet the folks.29 Fortunately, he’s armed with a high-falutin’ calling card that identifies himself as “Baron Doobugle,”30 the prime minister of Greenland, no less. Mabel doesn’t seem to be alarmed by the incongruity between Charlie’s dress and his title and invites him to a party that evening. McCoy, still seething (and can you blame him?), follows Charlie and is amazed and delighted to see that he’s the lowest waiter in the lowest dive in town.

Returning to the cabaret, Charlie gets a chewing out from Kennedy and then is given the task of taking care of bad boy Mack Swain, who grabs hostess Minta Durfee and makes her sit on his lap and then waves a gun in Edgar’s face when asked to pay for his tab. Charlie picks up a massive wooden mallet in the kitchen and brains Swain with it, a gag that proved so funny that he and Sennett would build an entire one-reeler on the subject, The Fatal Mallet.31

With his evening free, Charlie goes to Mabel’s party, where, despite an occasional gaucherie, he’s a smash.32) He can’t stay for long, but as he leaves, Mabel is still glowing, and McCoy, still seething. With Charlie gone, McCoy plays his ace. Hey, kids, this party’s a bore! Let’s go slumming! I know the perfect place!

As the swells arrive, Edgar pumps up his crew. Rich folks like to see some action! Let’s give it to them! The piano player starts pounding the ivories, and Minta, wearing a long, tight skirt, shakes her booty hard enough to give William Howard Taft a bone.33 Charlie, back in the kitchen, doesn’t know what’s going on. When he comes out to take the gang’s order, he tries to fake it, but eventually he’s outed and the situation deteriorates. Charlie throws a pie and hits Mabel in the face, which puts an end to their romance.34 A minute later, bricks start flying, apparently torn from the wall by an enraged Kennedy, who does seem to be overreacting. But even bricks aren’t sufficient to express his anger. He grabs a pair of six-guns and starts shooting up the place. Charlie bides his time, and when Kennedy’s guns are empty, he beats him senseless with a hail of bricks. He makes one last bid for Mabel’s affections, but she decks him, twice. Fin.

Chaplin’s next film, Caught in the Rain, a one-reeler, was apparently his first as sole director. The results are not terribly impressive or original. Despite the film’s title, it’s not a remake of Between Showers, taking more inspiration from Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Mack Swain and Alice Davenport are husband and wife, enjoying a day in the park. Whenever a Keystone couple are in a park, the husband immediately leaves so that his wife can flirt with another man. While Mack is off buying sarsaparilla, Charlie comes along and starts putting his feet in Alice’s lap. She can’t decide if this is charming but forward or forward but charming. Mack returns and is not amused. Alice’s day in the park is over. Unfortunately for Mack, Charlie lives in the same apartment building, right across the hall, or else he takes a room in their hotel. Whatever. Anyway, he’s there. Alice walks in her sleep (doesn’t everybody) and of course manages to walk into Charlie’s room. To avoid a compromising situation, Charlie goes out on his balcony and is caught in the rain.

Caught in the Rain is far from Chaplin’s best Keystone, but it’s head and shoulders above A Busy Day, which is in fact his worst. Mack Sennett directed this one, a six-minute throwaway, and Mack was probably drunk or else had a hangover. Charlie’s in drag, playing Mack Swain’s wife, which sounds promising, but in fact it isn’t at all. Chaplin makes no effort to play a woman, as he would do, brilliantly, only a year later in the short A Woman. Instead he’s a gross harridan, kicking everyone with his oversized “Charlie” shoes, worn under his skirt. A Busy Day is a shameless remake of Kid Auto Races in Venice, Charlie interfering with the filming of a parade instead of kid auto races. At the end of the film he gets pushed off a pier and mugs wildly in close-up before disappearing beneath the waves.

Sennett also directed Chaplin’s next film, The Fatal Mallet, and also takes an uncharacteristically large role in the film.35 The film is given an improbably rural setting, Charlie and Mack taking turns flirting with Mabel and fighting with each other, but joining forces when Mack Swain, sporty in a boater and blazer and looking like he just got back from the boardwalk at Atlantic City, shows up to woo her as well. Putting Swain down requires more than the cloth-covered beanbag bricks the Keystones frequently threw at one another. Eventually, Charlie and Mack find the fatal mallet, which Charlie naturally applies to Sennett as well,36 but by the time Swain goes down, Mabel’s found a new interest, Gordon Griffith.

Chaplin had a walk-on as a prize-fight referee in The Knockout, a 27-minute (it seems a lot longer) Fatty Arbuckle vehicle, featuring Fatty pummeling virtually everyone in the cast ad nauseam (except Charlie). Then he was back with Mabel in a rather odd film, Mabel’s Busy Day, in which she cast herself in an unglamorous role, a poor, earnest hotdog sales girl who is mercilessly exploited by her customers. Mabel’s working a racetrack, and the assembled gamblers regard her as an easy mark. Charlie shows up, surprisingly well dressed. His jacket and pants actually fit him, though he’s still wearing his trademark derby and big shoes. Charlie ultimately steals Mabel’s vending equipment, which she carries suspended from a heavy strap around her neck, and goes into business for himself, but finds that the assembled touts are just as willing to steal from a man as they are from a woman.

Charlie was in charge of his next film, Mabel’s Married Life, in which he and Mabel are married. Like so many Keystone couples, they go for a walk in the park, which leads to an imbroglio with Big Mack (Swain), looking sporty once more in a turtleneck and cloth cap, sans moustache and swinging a racquet. Mack’s married too, to Eva Nelson, but that never slowed a Keystone man down. Mabel’s unusually resistant to Mack’s charms, but Charlie lacks the muscle to send the big guy packing, booting him several times in the ass to no effect. Ultimately, it’s Eva who puts an end to Mack’s persistent assaults. With Mack gone, Mabel seeks a reunion with Charlie, but he dismisses her rudely. Disgusted by both his attitude and his lack of mass, she goes home alone, stopping along the way to purchase a sparring dummy, which audiences had seen earlier in The Knockout.

Charlie, of course, goes to a bar, where he gets pushed around rather brutally by Mack and others before finally turning the tables on his tormenters. While he struggles, we see Mabel at home, imitating Charlie’s “Chaplin walk” and changing into her pajamas, which she naturally forgets she’s wearing when the delivery dudes show up with the sparring dummy. Embarrassed at being seen with only one layer of clothes, she wraps herself in a leopard skin rug to ward off their leers. Stressed out by the encounter, Mabel goes to bed, so that a drunken Charlie can confront the sparring dummy alone.

What follows is probably the first taste of the “great Chaplin,” the wonderful pantomime that only Chaplin could do — the wonderful arrogance with which he confronts the dummy, and the complete amazement he registers when the rebounding dummy sends him sprawling, over and over again.37 The disturbance wakes Mabel, who comes out so that she can be knocked down as well.38 She’s funny, sure, but she’s no Charlie Chaplin. At the very end they’re about to share a kiss when the film ends. Although the Keystone couples frequently exchange pecks and occasionally imply passionate kisses while hugging one another, an explicit romantic kiss was apparently felt to be “too hot.”

Mabel’s Married Life was a warm-up to Chaplin’s next film, Laughing Gas. He was both director and star in this one as well, and with Mabel not in the film, he surely had more control over what happened. One of the many things I am not is an expert on early screen comedy, but I will go out on a limb and say that at the time of its release, Laughing Gas was probably the funniest film ever made. There is no sentiment in Laughing Gas, unless you get choked up over guys getting their teeth knocked out with bricks. There is also very little in the way of plot development or resolution. What there is is a remarkable flow of well-structured gags, most of them very violent, but with very little repetition, and much, much less Keystone mugging. This is a very smooth film, with each scene leading to the next. The substance of Laughing Gas is the standard Keystone flirtin’ n’ fightin’, but the steady coherence and progression of the film — one thing always leading to the next, instead of everything thrown together in an aimless melee — shows how carefully Chaplin was thinking about how to structure a film.

The film begins with Charlie entering a dentist’s office (Dr. Pain, naturally). Even though he’s wearing his basic tramp outfit, he carries himself with a certain professional dignity and aloofness that convinces us that he is in fact Dr. Pain. When he enters the waiting room, patients Gene Marsh and Josef Swickard crowd around him, but he doesn’t react. He is the doctor, after all. They do not summon him; he summons them. Then, after another second of hesitation, he gets down to business — picking up the cuspidors. He’s not the dentist, he’s the janitor!

Charlie takes the cuspidors into the back room, where he encounters, and beats half senseless, fellow servant Joseph Sutherland, a tiny man who must have been about four foot six. Well, the smaller they are the harder Charlie pounds them. In this film, Chaplin’s motiveless malignity knows no bounds. Fortunately, Joe convinces us that he’s indestructible, more or less, so we don’t wince too much at the incessant beatings he receives from Charlie.

Once he’s finished slapping around little Joe, Charlie heads back into the waiting room with a carpet sweeper, naturally getting into it with one of the patients (Swickard) before another patient, a lumbering, Rasputinish figure,39 intervenes. Choosing the better part of valor, Charlie returns to the back room, where he can safely pick on Joe.

While this unregenerate slapstick is going on in the back room, Dr. Pain himself arrives (Fritz Schade), in top hat, Prince Albert coat, and Van Dyke beard. He takes patient Swickard into his office, puts him in the chair, and gives him a shot of laughing gas.

At this point we cut to pretty Alice Howell, stepping smartly out of a house that conveniently bears a sign with Dr. Pain’s name written on it. She’s so pleased with herself that she can’t help flirting, even though there’s no one to flirt with. She winks at the sun, as if to say “What a pretty day! Almost as pretty as me!”

Back in the dental chair, the tooth comes out40 but Swickard stays under. The Doc starts to panic and he calls for help. Charlie comes, eventually, but first stops to flirt with cute new patient Helen Carruthers. The erotic build-up that Charlie’s feeling has to find some outlet, so he hits the Rasputin dude with what appears to be a newspaper before joining Dr. Pain.

The good doctor, growing increasingly distraught as Swickard continues comatose, puts Charlie in charge. It won’t help Swickard, but it might reduce the doc’s liability. Charlie tries to wake Swickard by hitting him gently upside the head with a relatively small wooden mallet. It doesn’t work, but Swickard does start laughing and flailing his arms convulsively, hitting Charlie in the face. Okay, that’s too much consciousness. Charlie put Swickard back under with a hard mallet blow to the cranium. Doc Pain comes back in and hands Charlie some coin. “Go out and buy something that will wake this man up!”

A man with a mission, Charlie flies out the door into the waiting room, first knocking over the Russian dude and then walking over him as he rushes to the back room, where he knocks over and walks on Little Joe in order to fetch his coat. He then races outside, heading for the pharmacy, fortunately not stepping on anyone this time around.

When he reaches the pharmacy, what are he and the audience confronted with but the mighty ass of Mack Swain. Such a target demands to be hit, and Charlie lashes out with his cane. He faces Mack down and heads into the drugstore, emerging just as Mrs. Pain walks by. Big Mack gives her the big eye, which she obviously enjoys, and Mack responds with a classic display of big guy satisfaction, grinning broadly while hooking his thumbs in his suspenders and letting his massive gut protrude. Again, the larger the protrusion, the larger the provocation. Charlie lashes out with his foot this time, and then chases after Mrs. Pain.

Mrs. Pain, who clearly prefers to be admired from a distance, rushes up a flight of stairs to escape Charlie’s presence. He chases after her and, stumbling, reaches out with his hand to steady himself, unfortunately ripping off her skirt, a form of naughty humor far more prevalent in 1924 than 1914. Mrs. Pain is hardly naked — whatever undergarments she’s wearing (bloomers? knickers? step-ins? I’m totally guessing here) plus her stockings keep her completely covered, but she’s also completely embarrassed. She races off, leaving Charlie free to throw bricks at Mack, taking out a handful of teeth and doing similar damage to a painfully tall, thin actor whom I’m not able to identify.41

We then cut to Dr. Pain’s home and see the maid receiving a minister and his wife. Just as they’re seated, Mrs. Pain arrives, sans skirt, and the sight of her causes the poor rev to flip over backwards in his chair — the first, and tamest, Chaplin joke at the expense of the clergy.

Dr. Pain’s maid calls the doctor to tell him of his wife’s plight, and he races home to comfort her. As he’s leaving, Swickard finally awakens, and he departs. When Charlie returns, he seizes the opportunity to play dentist, and, a bit implausibly, the patients are willing to play along as well. Frumpy Gene Marsh has been waiting patiently from the get-go, but she’s old and fat while Helen is young and cute, something she draws Charlie’s attention to with a well-timed wink. Helen gets the chair and Gene gets nothing, so she leaves. The tall, skinny guy shows up, desperately needing some emergency care, and sits down in the waiting room, joining the Rasputin guy, who’s gotten so tired that he’s stretched out on a couch.

Once Charlie gets Helen seated, he spins the chair around a couple of times, puts his foot in her lap, and then uses dental pliers to hold her by the nose while he kisses her. While this is going on, Joe walks in on some errand. Naturally, Charlie gives him the boot, sending him flying into the skinny guy, who picks him up and throws him bodily42 on top of the Rasputin guy, who at this point decides to find another dentist. As he leaves, Big Mack arrives. After some cogitation, he figures out that he and the skinny guy both got their teeth knocked out by the same guy! Quelle coincidence!

Back in the dentist’s chair, Helen seems to enjoy Charlie’s attentions, except for the foot in the lap part, but when he suddenly jerks the chair backwards, causing her feet to fly up and giving us a brief, tantalizing glimpse of her ankles, she decides she’s had enough and splits without having done to her teeth whatever it was that she wanted done to them, surely a wise choice.

As she exits, Mack catches a glimpse of Charlie. There’s something familiar about the dentist, but he can’t put his finger on it. Charlie puts the tall, skinny guy in the chair and gets out a huge pair of tongs to perform an extraction, sitting on the guy as though he were a horse in order to do so. Meanwhile, Mack has identified Charlie and enters the dentist’s office. Charlie grabs a heavy leather bag and hurls it at Mack, knocking him out the door and sending him crashing into Dr. and Mrs. Pain, who were just arriving. Charlie grabs another bag and throws that one too, knocking Mrs. Pain to the floor. Mack throws a bag back at Charlie but hits the skinny guy, who throws it back at Mack, knocking him out the waiting room door and onto the sidewalk. Charlie comes into the waiting room and throws both the doc and the skinny guy out the door and onto Mack. Joe, ever a glutton for punishment, intervenes. Charlie picks him up and throws him on top of Mack, the doc, and the skinny guy. Mrs. Pain regains her feet and belts Charlie. She succeeds in knocking him down, but the force of her blow flips her on her back, giving us one more glimpse of her sexy legs. Again, fin. OK, not exactly The Gold Rush, but funny!

Afterwords

Chaplin, though often evasive in his autobiography about the year at Keystone, remembered it with great affection. Writing about his first visit to the shooting stage at Sennett’s studio, he said: “I was enthralled. A soft even light pervaded the whole stage. It came from broad streams of white linen that diffused the sun and gave an ethereal quality to everything.” Here in this magic space, secure from the prying eyes of the public, one was free to murder and create, to define and refine a reality far simpler and more pleasing than anything the real world could or would ever offer, even as Chaplin’s mother used to perform for him as a boy, escaping for an hour or two the sad failure of her life.43

From my very limited perspective, Sennett’s greatness appears to have been as a talent scout, producer, and “ringleader.” He loved to laugh, and his enthusiasm for his stars’ performances pushed them forward. “He was a great audience and he laughed genuinely at what he thought was funny,” according to Chaplin. “He stood and giggled until his body began to shake.”

Chaplin responded as well to Sennett’s approach to making films. “Under Sennett’s direction I felt comfortable, because everything was worked out spontaneously on the set. . . . I began to offer suggestions which Sennett readily accepted. Thus grew a belief in myself that I was creative and could write my own stories. Sennett indeed had inspired this belief.”

Once Chaplin began to make a name for himself at Keystone, Sennett “practically adopted me and took me to dinner every night. He would discuss stories for the other companies [other Keystone productions] and I would suggest crazy ideas which I felt were too personal to be understood by the public. But Sennett would laugh and accept them.”

Sennett thrived through the twenties, even though he was never able to succeed with features and never seems to have been comfortable with the star system. Like Chaplin, he liked the old way of making films, when it just was a bunch of kids acting crazy, running around in the park in the warm California sun. Unlike Chaplin, he lacked the genius needed to keep doing it the old-fashioned way when the rest of the world is 25 years ahead of you.

Pretty much everything you would want to know about Mack Sennett (probably) is available in Brent Walker’s Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, a massive tome that retails for $125. There are more reasonably priced bios available, but web reviews don’t make them sound too entertaining.

Only a year or so ago I was moaning the lack of availability of Chaplin films. Well, then is not now. The problem is sorting through it all, because the copyrights on all of Chaplin’s films have expired. My earlier reviews, listed below, give some guidance, except that by now they’re out of date. Bargain compilations are likely to be awful. High price generally means high quality, but I don’t see the point of paying Blu-ray prices for these old films.

In addition to Chaplin’s films, there’s a nice documentary, The Unknown Chaplin, a three-disc set of out-takes, interviews, and other material compiled by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, which is well worth seeing. Chaplin’s autobiographical My Early Years, out of print but available secondhand through the web, makes fascinating reading. His My Life in Pictures, also out of print, has wonderful photos and memorabilia. Joyce Milton’s 1996 biography Tramp regards Chaplin short of idolatry, which is as it should be. Jeffrey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003) is pricey but has wonderful photos as well and probably can be gotten used at a reduced price.

My earlier reviews of Chaplin and his films are as follows:

Why are they all ugly little men? (Overview of silent film comedy)
Keystone and Essanay Days
The Mutuals
First National,Shoulder Arms,, and The Kid
The Idle Class, Pay Day, The Pilgrim, and A Woman of Paris
The Gold Rush
The Circus
City Lights
Modern Times
The Great Dictator
Monsieur Verdoux
Simon Louvish’s Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey (book review)

  1. Like so many silent film pioneers, Sennett never really made it into the talking era, []
  2. Lehrman also directed the film. Chaplin’s reminiscences about his Keystone days, which sound to me to be largely the product of hindsight, are particularly uncomplimentary regarding Lehrman. Chaplin claimed that Lehrman featured himself and cut out Charlie’s best moments, though that hardly seems to me to be true. It was Chaplin’s very first film and he’s the lead! How many actors get that? I suspect that Chaplin was embarrassed, in retrospect, by his unsubtle, unfunny performances, both in Making a Living and other Keystone films, and was seeking excuses. []
  3. The amusingly earnest notes supplied by Flicker Alley have frequent reason to bemoan the rampantly incorrect humor that Chaplin indulges in throughout these films. As a little guy, Charlie enjoys nothing more than beating the crap out of anyone littler than him. Welcome to the way of the world! []
  4. I think we’re seeing a linotype machine, a mechanical keyboard that allowed the operator to assemble the letter molds of an entire line of type, which would then be filled with molten metal to create the “slug.” The letter molds could be used over and over again without interruption. The linotype machine, plus steam-driven presses, etcetera, created the modern newspaper. According to Wikipedia, prior to the linotype, no newspaper in the world was longer than eight pages. []
  5. Not the same Billy Gilbert who played “Herring” in The Great Dictator. []
  6. How we’re supposed to know that Billy is Emma’s husband is beyond me. The first couple of times I saw Making a Living I thought Gilbert was Lehrman, and I couldn’t figure out why he was throttling this woman in her bed when he’d never even met her. []
  7. I guess. He has a knife and wears a Chico Marx hat (pre-Chico, of course). []
  8. Venice, California, a seaside resort near LA that includes canals and Venetian-style gondolas, built as tourist bait back in 1905. []
  9. The film, only half a reel long, was paired with a brief documentary, Olives and Their Oil. []
  10. Ford started selling the Model T in 1908. In 1914, he sold over 250,000 cars, more than half of all cars sold. []
  11. Riding around in an unpowered car? It’s not better than sex, or drugs, or rock and roll. []
  12. Sennett made many films about films. Cars were one mechanical marvel of the age, but films were another. []
  13. Unsurprisingly, Chaplin found being directed by a woman four years younger than himself even more off-putting than being directed by a man four years older than himself. []
  14. Sennett either didn’t understand emotion or didn’t think audiences would respond to it. He never tries to make us like his characters, whereas modern films do little else. Maybe he thought everyone was a shit. []
  15. Mabel, to me, is often cute but rarely funny. []
  16. Amazingly (to me, at least), Sterling, famous as the captain of the Keystone Kops, virtually defined screen comedy at Keystone, according to Chaplin. When he first visited the Keystone studio, Chaplin went from set to set, watching all the films in progress. “They all seemed to be imitating Ford Sterling. . . . every story or situation conceived in the studio was consciously or unconsciously made for Sterling; even Roscoe Arbuckle was imitating Sterling.” Chaplin was hired to replace Sterling, who was supposed to be leaving Sennett to start up his own studio. Apparently, Ford found the going rough, and Sennett was willing to hire him back. []
  17. Women get hit a lot in the Keystones, frequently by accident but frequently on purpose. But rarely do they get bitten. Chaplin occasionally bites men and, unattractively, sometimes kicks his victims when they’re down. We’re probably lucky not to see the stuff they cut out. []
  18. Although Charlie is (usually) poor in the Keystones, he’s never an actual tramp, never homeless and hungry, unless you believe the “starvation” gestures he employs in the beginning of Making a Living. (But then how did he get the engagement ring he gives to Virginia Kirtley two minutes later. Steal it? []
  19. The film Charlie watches starts out as a Civil War epic, but not Birth of a Nation, which wasn’t filmed until 1915. The scenes involving Peggy Pearce, clearly shot in Hollywood, have nothing to do with the Civil War picture. []
  20. Sterling almost always wore a “Dutch” (i.e., Deutsch, or German) beard, famous from the shots of him as captain of the Keystone Kops. Before WWI, Germans were the largest single immigrant population in the U.S. During WWI, this population was subjected to a hysterical hate campaign that was well remembered by my grandparents’ generation, who lived through it, but which has now been almost forgotten. (Check through the writings of H. L. Mencken if you want to learn something about it.) During WWI, many Germans Anglicized their names. American high schools stopped teaching German, and “Dutch” acts disappeared from the vaudeville stage. Germany’s abysmal record under Hitler further encouraged German-Americans to keep a low ethnic profile. []
  21. The best thing about Tango Tangles is about 15 seconds of footage at the start of the film, showing some 1914 professional dancers at work. []
  22. Edgar “Slow Burn” Kennedy never had a major role but was extremely well-known through appearances in over 400 films, playing against Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and W. C. Fields, among others. []
  23. See Our Lodger’s Such a Nice Young Man.” []
  24. The film does show off one of Mabel’s real comedic talents: she was very good at throwing things. In one scene, she brains Charlie with a half-dozen bricks in a matter of seconds. (Since they’re both in the shot, we can see that she’s really doing it. []
  25. Swickard appears not so much sleeping as dead, but he does wake up eventually. []
  26. When he steals the watch, Chaplin seems to be channeling the stunningly unfunny antics engaged in by Ford Sterling when he stole Conklin’s umbrella in Between Showers, which I whined about earlier in the review. []
  27. Chaplin would exploit the basic idea for this bit far more ingeniously in the beginning of The Circus, some 13 years later. []
  28. Since he hated children, why did Chaplin care for small dogs? Maybe it was Mabel’s idea. Chaplin featured “Scraps” heavily in his 1918 semi-feature A Dog’s Life, but never seemed to summon up much emotion for the beast. []
  29. The dachshund disappears from the film at this point. When you’ve got a woman, who needs a dog? []
  30. Maybe this was funnier in 1914 than it is today, but I wonder. []
  31. In His New Job, his first film for Essanay after leaving Keystone, Chaplin concludes the film by beating half the cast senseless with a huge wooden mallet. When he left Sennett, did he take it with him? []
  32. Music at the party is supplied by a hilariously period ukulele band. God only knows what they sounded like. (Ukuleles became huge in the twenties, thanks in part to the enormous popularity of “Ukulele Ike,” Cliff Edwards, later the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio. []
  33. I once saw a cut-down, cannibalized version of this film. Minta’s brief dance was repeated five or six times, each time preceded by the title card “Setting a Motion Before the House.” []
  34. This is the only pie that’s thrown in the Chaplin Keystones. It’s a rather clever way of painlessly draining the emotion out of their relationship. Mabel has an excuse for ending the relationship, but Charlie isn’t really “bad” because he didn’t intend to hit Mabel. []
  35. I’ve read the Sennett didn’t think much of himself as a performer. If so, he was right. []
  36. Like the British Empire, Charlie had interests rather than allies. []
  37. Chaplin diagnosed the flaws of his early performances at Keystone thusly: “When I walked into a tree, I reacted to it before I hit it.” []
  38. The repeated crashes cause their neighbors to assume that they’re having a fight, a good gag that isn’t really developed as well as it should be, in large part because the “grammar” of film was still in its infancy. []
  39. I’m not sure who this actor is. The casting credits for Laughing Gas are less than complete. []
  40. In the good old days, dentists did little except pull teeth. Preventive dentistry? What’s that? You sit in my chair, you’re going to lose a tooth! Maybe two! []
  41. Charlie only throws two bricks. In a standard Sennett set-to, there would be at least a dozen. Sometimes, less is more. []
  42. Since Joe is a midget rather than a dwarf, this is, strictly speaking, midget rather than dwarf tossing, but I suppose the moral distinctions are minimal. []
  43. What did Chaplin come up with in the early days? In his autobiography, he proudly quotes the praise of a nameless bit-player: “That was a wonderful gag, dipping your fingers in the finger-bowl, and then wiping them on the old man’s whiskers — they’ve never seen that kind of stuff around here.” []