Charlie, Mabel, and Mack 2
In all of the films that Charlie Chaplin made for other people — Keystone, Essanay, Mutual, and First National — there is an ascending and descending arc — ascending as he first gains confidence and control and then descending when, lifted by his own success, he starts to lose interest in the current gig and begins looking forward to the next, offering more money and more freedom. At Keystone, Chaplin was a fast learner. Scarcely six months after first stepping before a camera, he had made a film, Laughing Gas, that was head and shoulders above the frenzied flailing offered by the rest of the Keystone gang. In the remaining six months, there would be a few missteps, like the doggedly unfunny Recreation, but also a number of films well above the high mark set by Laughing Gas, including a near-perfect one-reeler, The New Janitor, offering, for the first time in Chaplin’s work, a sweet touch, though only a touch, of sentiment.1
Chaplin followed Laughing Gas with The Property Man, his first attempt at a two-reeler. Twice as long, not too surprisingly, proves to be much more than twice as hard. To give himself some structure, Chaplin went back to something he had done on-stage with Fred Karno,
“The Mumming Birds,”2 billed in the U.S. as “A Night in an English Music Hall,” an elaborate meta-production in which members of the audience disrupt a series of deliberately atrocious performances. For Karno, Chaplin played a drunken upper-class twit who stumbles onstage either to ogle the showgirls or wrestle the lamer acts off-stage. In The Property Man, Chaplin takes us backstage, where he alternately harasses and is harassed by the glamorous Goo-Goo Sisters (Cecile Arnold and Vivian Edwards), Garlico the Strong Man and his assistant/wife (Jess Dandy and Helen Carruthers), and a Shakespearean pair, Lena Ham and George Fat (Phyllis Allen and Charles Bennett).
The Property Man begins with Charlie sharing a pitcher of beer with the “other” prop man, a bearded, bent-backed geezer (maybe Joe Bordeaux, who actually started with Sennett as a prop man). Lena and George are the first to arrive, mightily offended that they are not first billed.3 They naturally demand the star dressing room, guaranteeing a collision with the top-billed Garlico, who soon arrives as well, with several trunks packed with weights. Charlie staggers down the stairs with the first one. Having learned his lesson, he gives the other to Joe, thoughtfully providing the dude with his cane. Joe hobbles down the stairs and then collapses, with the trunk on top of him. Charlie struggles to remove the trunk, but it won’t budge, perhaps because he’s standing on it. Garlico swaggers to the rescue. He removes the trunk and sends it shooting across the floor with one shove of his mighty foot. Charlie, struggling for something comparable, knocks the old man down.
The Goo-Goo Sisters are the next to show, to Charlie’s delight, but he’s a bit embarrassed to be seen drinking beer out of a pitcher. To conceal his gauche behavior, he seeks to hide the pitcher in his voluminous trousers, which predictably proves to be not a good idea. Although Chaplin doesn’t actually show us himself with drenched trousers, he lifts his leg several times to let the liquid run out.
As show time approaches, Mrs. Garlico rushes to Charlie, scrubbing the floor on his hands and knees, with an urgent task. Garlico’s tights must be mended! Charlie nods absent-mindedly, takes the tights, and uses them for a scrubbing rag instead. He then forgets about the tights entirely once the Goo-Goo Sisters prepare to go on-stage. Entranced, Charlie follows them, but when they stick out their fannies and flip up their skirts, well, that’s more reality than Charlie wants to handle, and he retreats.
The audience, of course, featuring Mack Sennett in his “grinning rube” persona, applauds wildly. Back stage, Garlico, obsessed with his weights, doesn’t notice until the last second that he has no tights, so he is forced to go on in his underwear (more or less) and his socks and garters.4
Garlico’s act doesn’t go well, and by the time he gets off stage he’s ready to settle accounts with Charlie. A number of weights get tossed around, and the general tumult disrupts the performance of George and Lena.5 Eventually, Charlie takes a fire hose to the entire cast, to the immense delight of the audience. However, once the cast is drenched, he turns the hose on the audience as well. You like to laugh at us! Well, we like to laugh at you!
Chaplin recycled The Mumming Birds/The Property Man in his first short for Essanay after leaving Keystone, His New Job, in which he again plays a prop man, and in A Night in the Show, also for Essanay, which follows The Mumming Birds more closely. He concluded A Night in the Show with the firehose bit, which he reprised, weakly, in his last film, A King in New York.
Chaplin followed The Property Man with a one-reeler, The Face on the Barroom Floor, a bit of a curio and a relic, a parody of a well-known sentimental poem, “originally written by the poet John Henry Titus in 1872,” according to Wikipedia, but put in its most familiar shape by a dude with the seriously Gallic moniker of Hugh Antoine d’Arcy. The poem is a story within a story about a drunk who walks into a bar and cadges a few drinks in exchange for his tale of woe: he once was a successful portrait painter, who fell in love with a client, the bewitching Madeline, who then ran off with one of his friends.
It’s not much of a story, and you have to wend your way through about a hundred lines of lame doggerel to get it, but The Face on the Barroom Floor does end with a bang:
Say boys, if you give me just another whiskey and I’ll be glad,
I’ll draw right here the picture, of the face that drove me mad.
Give me that piece of chalk with which you mark the baseball score;
You shall see the lovely Madeline upon the barroom floor.
Another drink and with chalk in hand, the vagabond began,
To sketch a face that well might buy the soul of any man.
Then, as he placed another lock upon that shapely head,
With a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture — dead!
Chaplin’s parody never really takes off until the final, very funny, five minutes, when he drunkenly attempts to “sketch a face that well might buy the soul of any man,” not making a very good job of it, and getting kicked in the ass several times by unsympathetic patrons. But artists, and the nudes that they, alone among men, were allowed to behold,6 held a particular fascination for Chaplin, and they will reappear frequently in his work.7
After The Face on the Barroom Floor came Recreation, one of Chaplin’s weakest “late” Keystones, another romp in the park,8 a one-reeler with only five characters, all of whom end up in the lake, as anyone who’s seen half a dozen Keystones might expect. Chaplin famously told Sennett that “all in need to be funny is a girl, a cop, and a park bench,” but in fact he generally isn’t that funny in the park. The Keystone gang made so many “in the park” comedies that they seemed to think that all they had to do was show up and act crazy. There’s very little structure or development — just a lot of flirtin’ and fightin’, all of which we’ve seen before.
The Masquerader is a much better film, the one time Chaplin presents himself, however briefly, as “Chaplin” rather than the Tramp. The film is quite similar to A Film Johnnie, except that this time Charlie is an actor rather than a fan. We see him, well dressed for once, entering the studio, but, in the manner of a star, taking his time about it, until he’s hurried along by director Charles Murray. Once inside, he sits down at a makeup table with Fatty Arbuckle, which leads to a lot of predictable but very funny slapstick.
Once he’s in costume, Charlie gets called on the set by director Murray. Since Chaplin notoriously did not like being directed, one might expect Chaplin to make fun of directors, but instead it’s Charlie who’s the screw-up, missing his cue to save a baby from knife-wielding fiend Jess Dandy (formerly “Garlico”) when a couple of cute young actresses9 start flirting with him. Arriving late, Charlie naturally makes a cheerful hash of things, wrenching the knife from Dandy and poking him in the ass with it.
Incensed, Murray throws Charlie of the picture and replaces him with Chester Conklin.10 Charlie, naturally incensed as well, puts a hammerlock on Conklin and prevents him from answering his cue, showing up himself and beating Jess on the head with the endangered baby.11
Doubly provoked, Murray fires Chaplin, kicking him out of the studio, but shortly thereafter a charming ingénue appears, hoping for a chance to break into pictures. It’s Charlie in drag, of course, wearing a bonnet that looks like a white-washed coal scuttle studded with roses. Murray is instantly charmed by the coquettish newcomer, who has smiles for all the men, the boss man in particular, and sneers for the competition — those “old” actresses, who are, after all, so old. Well, there’s nothing like a new hen to put a rooster in the mood, and Murray quickly takes the new girl into his office. Charlie deftly avoids the casting couch, but, after two or three circuits around the desk to satisfy convention, agrees to sign a contract.
After having brought his drag act this far, Chaplin unfortunately couldn’t, or at least didn’t, come up with a closer that would keep him in costume. He changes back into his Tramp outfit for no other reason than to allow the gang to chase him around the studio, eventually jumping into a well to elude them, the film ending with Charlie all wet and the gang laughing at his predicament. Chaplin would do even better in drag the following year in The Woman, for Essanay, but unfortunately never repeated the stunt.12
Chaplin followed The Masquerader with a funny, well-constructed all-out farce called rather grandly His New Profession, although Charlie’s new profession involves nothing more than pushing around gout victim Jess Dandy, so that Jess’s nephew, an unrecognizably young Charlie Chase,13 can romance his girl friend, Cecile Arnold, by the seaside.
When we first meet Charlie, he’s sort of an outdoors lounge lizard, lounging on a park bench and reading The Police Gazette, then famous for its “racy” front-page photos of chicks in bathing suits. Charlie tears off the front page for further perusal and tucks it inside his vest. Meanwhile, Charlie II, finding that he can’t tend to both Jess and Cecile at the same time, is searching for assistance. Charlie doesn’t look terribly reliable, but he’s there, and the odds are he’s cheap as well.
I don’t know if people got the gout more often before World War II than after, or whether acute inflammatory arthritis of the metatarso-phalangeal joint at the base of the big toe due to crystallization of excess uric acid in the blood just stopped being funny after Hitler’s demise, but at any rate film comedies don’t feature cranky, cane-wielding old dudes with bandaged feet the way they used to. Jess does make an excellent victim, and, during the course of the film, Charlie does almost as much damage to himself as he does to Dandy’s gouty foot, which is saying something. Dandy’s wheelchair has an unfortunate “tricycle” design, with a small rear wheel that is forever running over Charlie’s toes.
Pushing an ungrateful old geezer around in a wheelchair for five minutes can definitely work up a man’s thirst, but Charlie is unfortunately short of cash. Reluctantly passing up the Pier Bar, he pushes the snoozing old man out on the boardwalk, where he comes across another dude in a wheelchair, also asleep, with a sign bearing the singularly non-PC inscription “Help A Cripple,” along with a tin cup resting on the wheelchair’s arm. Charlie checks the dude’s empty right sleeve to make sure he’s really missing an arm. After that, well, the script writes itself. Charlie switches the sign and the tin cup, and when a generous cutie comes along, Charlie scores the dime or quarter or whatever it is and rushes off to the bar, leaving sleeping Jess to gather more cash.
While he’s refreshing himself, Charlie II and Cecile arrive, Charlie II not much amused to see his uncle being used as a revenue source. Cecile, apparently thinking that the situation was Charlie II’s idea, is both amused and dismissive. He takes her to the Pier Bar, apparently to soothe her, but she seems to feel she can do better, and departs alone, leaving him to find solace inside.
Meanwhile, back on the pier, the clink of a second coin wakes the original “cripple,” who, once he sees what’s happened, indignantly reclaims his cup and sign, revealing as he does so that he actually has both his arms. After he has his sign and cup back he uses his cane to give Jess a whack across his bum foot. This naturally wakens Jess and the two engage in a cane battle. At this point, Charlie returns, a bit unsteady after his visit to the Pier Bar. He absent-mindedly intervenes, managing to score the coin that set the whole contretemps in motion and then wheels Jess off to safety.
Charlie parks the old man and, after first sitting on his bad foot, finds a bench instead and gives the old man the Police Gazette cutie to keep him amused. In the meantime, Cecile wanders on the scene, seemingly distraught over her inability to find a replacement for Charlie II14 — so distraught, in fact, that she sits right down next to Charlie without even realizing that he’s there, putting her hand on his knee and absent-mindedly kneading it with her fingers.
Charlie, of course, is delighted to find a young woman who doesn’t stand on convention. Cecile, at first embarrassed, decides that if Charlie is glad to see her, she’s glad to see him. Dandy, tiring of the Police Gazette, demands that Charlie pay some attention to him. Charlie gives the old coot’s wheelchair a shove that carries it to the end of the pier. Returning to Cecile, he hooks her arm with his cane to draw her near, behavior that first upsets but then amuses her, her amusement not amusing Charlie II, who shortly arrives on the scene.
Charlie II sends Charlie I flying, right into “the cripple” (I guess “other guy in a wheelchair” would be better), also arriving on the scene, knocking him to the ground and horrifying a passing policeman. The cop helps right the wheelchair, giving the cripple the opportunity to send Charlie flying. In the meantime, Dandy has returned from the end of the pier, colliding with Cecile, who’s arguing with Charlie II. Charlie II gives the old man another shove, sending him back to the edge, and continues his argument with Cecile, provoking another cop, who chivalrously sends Charlie II packing. In the meantime, Charlie, still getting it on with the cripple, gives his wheelchair a mighty shove, sending the second cop into the drink. Well, it had to happen to someone.
Chaplin followed His New Profession with The Rounders, his one pairing with Fatty Arbuckle, largely Charlie and Fatty acting outrageous. The Rounders was one of the few Keystones available in decent restoration before the Flicker Alley release, and I reviewed it in my first discussion of Chaplin’s early work here. The Rounders is funny, because Charlie and Fatty are funny. It doesn’t have much structure, because it doesn’t need it, and because Chaplin probably couldn’t do much more with Fatty than let Fatty be Fatty.
Chaplin was much more in control in his next film, The New Janitor, which for my money is his best film for Keystone, a one-reel gem that also contains the first notes of sentiment in a Chaplin film. We see Charlie as the new janitor, wearing a collarless coat and sans hat and cane, to let us know that he is in fact a janitor. He tries to get on the elevator, but wise guy lift attendant Al St. John,15 who had the same role in The Rounders, shuts the door before Charlie can get to it, leaving him to laboriously climb the stairs. Even though he’s young, he walks like an old man, as if he’s somehow been injured, and inviting our pity, which Charlie has never done before. For the first time, Chaplin presents himself as “he who gets slapped” rather than “he who slaps.”
As Charlie makes his way up the stairs, we cut to the top floor, we see “villainous manager”16 John T. Dillon opening a note, which of course we see in close-up, informing him that his gambling debts are overdue and “Luke Connor” will be coming to collect! Dillon reacts with appropriate melodramatic alarm, so that it’s clear to us that he doesn’t have the money, but what’s striking is that he actually looks like a businessman. He doesn’t have baggy pants or a bushy moustache, and his acting, though hardly subtle, is by Keystone standards minimalist in the extreme.
Charlie arrives and naturally makes a hash of things, emptying the wastebasket on the floor and then tossing a book in the trash when Dillon accidentally drops it, but he isn’t combative in his usual manner. In a separate shot, we see sweet secretary Helen Carruthers arriving in the hallway. She briefly takes a straw hat down from the hatrack — Dillon’s, we presume — and touches it briefly to her bosom before heading into the president’s office. So, very quickly, Chaplin has defined three characters for us: the sweet, clownish janitor, the bad boy businessman in over his head, and the sweet secretary in love with the wrong guy. It’s very simple stuff, but it’s done very cleanly, without the standard frenetic Keystone horseplay. And it’s obviously going somewhere.
Charlie enters the president’s office and meets Helen. For the first time, sexual arousal expresses itself via fear and trembling rather than assault, though when he sets busily to work with a featherduster to conceal his agitation he accidentally dusts her fanny. Fortunately, she doesn’t notice, so there’s no embarrassment.
Carruthers leaves on some errand, and Charlie sets to washing the windows, giving us an early dose of height humor when he almost falls out of one. Struggling with a full bucket, he drips water on passersby, including bank president Jess Dandy, eventually deluging poor Jess with the entire bucket. Jess is able to figure out that the water came from his office window and he rushes upstairs to confront and then fire poor Charlie, who begs for another chance to no avail.
Both Charlie and Jess quit the office, giving Dillon his chance to attempt a raid on the office safe. However, Helen interrupts him, at the point where he looks suspicious, but not necessarily guilty. He retreats awkwardly, and then they play an intriguing cat and mouse game, each spying on the other and trying to trick the other into thinking that s/he has left. It’s standard stage melodrama, but again the action and the editing are much crisper than the Keystone standard.17
Eventually, Helen “wins” — she hides behind a desk and watches while Dillon sneaks in to steal the money. Unfortunately, he spots her and they struggle. He throws her to the floor unconscious, but not before she pushes the button for “janitor.” Downstairs, Charlie is changing into his street attire, including his derby and cane, when he hears the buzzer. Why should he answer? He’s not the janitor! But Charlie, dutiful for once, trudges off and again has to take the stairs, because the elevator still isn’t available.
Once he’s on the top floor, he hesitates. Does he really need to do this? But he trudges on, interrupting Dillon before he can make his getaway. Dillon’s got a gun, but Charlie disarms him with one flourish of his cane, and thereafter takes charge of matters with wonderfully deft and unexpected maneuvers. Thwarted in his attempt to call the cops because Dillon has pulled the phone out of its jack, Charlie fires off a couple of rounds, figuring that that ought to summon one, which it does. The cop arrives, but Jess does too and naturally assumes that Charlie, holding a gun on Dillon, is the bad guy. Once that’s straightened out, Charlie shyly accepts a reward from Jess in the presence of Helen. So there’s a happy ending, but as for Helen and Charlie, well, Charlie wasn’t ready to take things that far.18
Chaplin followed this brilliantly constructed film with a ramshackle one, Those Love Pangs, presenting himself as the rival to Chester Conklin, who pants seem to be riding lower than ever. Charlie and Chester take turns flirting with boardinghouse landlady Helen Carruthers. When she proves unresponsive, they head out to the park, where Chester hooks up with a remarkably friendly blonde, Cecile Arnold. Charlie can’t believe that Cecile can really be that into Chester, first getting down on one knee to propose marriage and then, putting her treasure where her heart is, hiking up her skirt and taking a thick wad of bills out of her comely boot and giving it all to Chester.
In the meantime, Charlie has met Vivian Edwards, unfortunately encumbered with boyfriend Fred Hibbard, about a foot taller than Charlie. When Cecile gives Chester the wad, Charlie decides it’s time to end it all, with a visit to the lake. A cop talks him out of it, and Charlie decides that he should confront his frustrations like a man. He returns to the park bench where he saw Cecile and Chester, only to find that Fred and Vivian have joined them. Charlie “challenges” Fred by slamming him on the foot with a brick, causing Fred to chase him back to the lake. Fred gives Charlie several sharp pushes, as if threatening to throw him into the lake, but, thanks to some shrewd misdirection on Charlie’s part, it’s Fred who ends up in the drink. As he attempts to clamber out Charlie smacks him on the head with his cane, apparently knocking him out, if not drowning him. With the larger adversary disposed of, Charlie rushes off to take on Chester, who by this time is enjoying the aggressive affections of both Cecile and Vivian.
Charlie not only defeats Chester, but relieves him of the wad that Cecile bestowed on him. The girls, appalled by the violence, depart while the battle is still going on, Cecile being remarkably casual about the fate of what looked to be her life’s savings. They leave the park and decide to take in a movie. Charlie somehow tracks them down and joins them, sitting between them and giving a highly colored account of how he apparently defeated both Fred and Chester at the same time, which they appear to find highly entertaining. He is pretty cute, after all, and maybe he’ll buy them dinner afterwards.19
But then Fred and Chester arrive on the scene. In a fairly meta bit, they grab Charlie and hurl him directly at us. The camera does a one eighty and then shows Charlie’s head sticking through the torn screen. Chester and Fred pelt him with bricks, and the film ends.
According to Flicker Alley, Chaplin’s original “script” called for the Tramp and Chester to be employed at a bakery as well as living in the same boardinghouse, but he came up with so many ideas for the bakery that he decided to develop them independently in a separate short, which became the much longer Dough and Dynamite. It’s likely that he lost interest in Those Love Pangs while he was still shooting it, which could explain why there’s no setup for boardinghouse scenes and why the film simply turns into another in the park film for no good reason.
Dough and Dynamite, a two-reeler that ran for over 28 minutes, is one of Chaplin’s most famous shorts. In his autobiography, Chaplin says the film took nine days to shoot, and the final cost, $1,800, was almost double the original budget of $1,000. He claims it was his most successful film for Keystone, earning $130,000, surely a huge sum at the time.20 Unfortunately, to my mind, the picture doesn’t have much to offer. The plot, such as it is, puts Charlie in a French restaurant/bakery as a waiter. When the bakers, who appear to be a gang of French anarchists, go on strike, Charlie turns scab. He may be an anarchist in practice, since he insults and assaults bosses, co-workers, and customers with equal enthusiasm, but he’s also a compulsive individualist. Any group action, even group action in the name of anarchy, is anathema to him.
The anarchists don’t bother to picket. Destruction, not higher wages, is their goal, and they plan to blow up the bakery with a bomb hidden in a loaf of bread — returned, apparently, for being too heavy. This isn’t much plot for a 28-minute film, which means that while we wait for the bomb to be delivered Charlie and fellow scab Chester Conklin spend a lot of time beating each other senseless in a funny but repetitious manner until the final explosion, which leaves Charlie struggling to emerge from an enormous mass of dough. I can only guess that Charlie thought that guys hitting each other with wads of dough was funnier than guys hitting each other with bricks — and, apparently, audiences agreed with him. For some reason, I’m just an outlier on this one.
Chaplin’s next film, the one-reeler Gentlemen of Nerve, is a return to Sennett staple, the auto race. Mabel and Mack are back in this one too, but, perhaps for reasons of cost, they’re all in the stands rather than at the wheel, flirtin’ and fightin’ as usual. Gentlemen of Nerve is a bit of a throwback to the Keystone ensemble comedies of the past — Charlie doesn’t even appear until almost one third of the way through the film, and we’re given lots of shots of the auto races themselves, which have nothing to do with the “plot.”21 Chaplin may have felt a little exhausted after Dough and Dynamite and was just pacing himself.
His next short, the one-reel His Musical Career, which paired him with Mack Swain, is much better — a tight, well-plotted film with lots of clever gags, much like The New Janitor, though without any of sentiment. Seen today, His Musical Career looks like a perfect anticipation of the films Laurel and Hardy would be making a dozen years later — a big man and a little man struggling to complete some demanding physical task. Charlie and Mack are piano deliverymen, prefiguring Stan and Ollie’s 1931 Oscar-winner, The Music Box, by almost twenty years.22
His Musical Career‘s plot is set in motion by a classic mix-up. They’re sent out to deliver a piano to Mr. Rich (Fritz Schade) and reclaim one from Mr. Poor (Frank Hayes), a long-haired, histrionic music “professor.” Unfortunately, or not, Mr. Rich lives at 666 Prospect and Mr. Poor lives at 999, and the tasks are reversed. During the delivery, Mack predictably carries most of the load and catches most of the abuse, though the donkey pulling the load gets plenty as well.23 Once they lug the piano up the two flights of stairs to Mr. Poor’s apartment, however, it’s Charlie who carries the piano in all by himself, patiently enduring the ecstatic recipients’ indecision — “Over there!” “No, that’s not right! Maybe by the window!”
With that job taken care of, they head over to Mr. Rich’s house, somehow gaining entry without alerting the inhabitants. “They walked right in!” exclaims an astonished title card. They set to work re-arranging the fancy digs like Stan and Ollie returning Blue Boy (the horse, not the painting).24 Mrs. Rich (Cecile Arnold) appears and tries to call a halt to the proceedings. She summons a periwigged servant who looks like he stepped out of a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro. Mack gives the fairy a shove and he lands on his fanny. With that threat disposed of, they lug the piano outside. Mr. Rich arrives, just in time to receive a kick in his fanny. As they head for the wagon, they lose control of the piano on the steeply inclined sidewalk, and end up in the drink.
After His Musical Career came His Trysting Places, easily Chaplin’s best two-reeler, the first half in particular an endless flow of outrageous gags. Charlie and Mabel are married, with a young son, and we meet the little family sharing a moment in their kitchen, a moment more hair-raising, or perhaps scorching, than cozy. Charlie is warming, and frequently burning, his feet on the kitchen’s old-fashioned wood-burning stove, which has been stoked to near-bonfire proportions. When Mabel gives Charlie the baby, things get worse. He swings the kid around like a sack of potatoes, almost toasting him. Then he takes the kid into the next room, gives him a revolver to play with, and climbs into the kid’s (large) cradle to catch up on the news.25
Then we cut to a much calmer scene, pretty Helen Carruthers sitting in a hotel lobby writing a note to her beloved, asking him to meet her “at our little trysting place.” She puts it in an envelope and is just about to go out to mail it when she spots Mack Swain. He’ll be glad to post it for her, won’t he? Of course he will. He slips the letter in his pocket and goes about his business.26
Meanwhile, Charlie discovers that giving your kid a gun to play with can piss off your wife. He decides he’ll have to spend a little cash to calm things down, which will have the added bonus of getting him out of the house, so he rushes off to buy Baby a present.
What follows is a very strange gag that comes out of nowhere and then disappears. “A dark omen,” a title card informs us. Charlie enters a store, passing a teen-aged black kid, dressed in fancy clothes, almost a Little Lord Fauntleroy, if you know who he is.27 A minute later, Chaplin comes out with a baby’s bottle.28 Spotting the bottle, the black kid furiously ridicules Charlie for being a damn sissy. And that’s all we see of him.
We next cut to Mack, entering a cheap diner. Naturally, Charlie enters as well. He helps himself to what looks like a roll from an old man’s plate and takes a bite out of it. When the old man starts to protest Charlie glares him down and contemptuously wipes his hands on the old geezer’s beard. This is too much for the geezer, who stomps off. Charlie takes his seat and he and Mack take turns grossing each other out with their terrible table manners. One thing leads to another, and Mack gets a faceful of soup. Charlie also throws a pie at Mack but doesn’t hit him.29 Their confrontation degenerates into an all-out war involving everyone in the diner. Mack rushes off, taking, of course, Charlie’s coat instead of his own. As Mack departs, Charlie rushes outside and launches another pie, hitting a top-hatted passer-by rather than Mack, much to the amusement of the dude’s date.
A distressed Mack catches up with his wife, the mountainous Phyllis Allen, who comforts him as they sit on a bench in the park. In the meantime, Charlie returns home, where Mabel is catching up on her ironing. She checks inside his (actually Mack’s) coat to find Baby’s present and of course finds Helen’s note instead. She tries to maintain a cool front at first, but, well, beating Charlie over the head with the ironing board is so much more satisfying!
Charlie escapes, heading for the park, of course, where Mack has deserted Phyllis in search of sarsaparilla, after first shedding his/Charlie’s topcoat on the bench. Charlie joins her on the bench, moaning that his wife has gone nuts. Phyllis, clearly the sympathetic type, comforts him. Mabel quickly appears, carrying a large lump of blankets, clearly intended both to represent the baby and to let us know that it really isn’t the baby. When she spots Charlie he spots her and departs the bench. Mabel gives the lump to an obliging policeman and first attacks Phyllis, throttling her briefly before catching up with Charlie and tossing him in a trash can. Mack, taking the long way back from the sarsaparilla stand, appears. Mabel gives an earful on Charlie’s misbehavior and Charlie gives him a boot in the ass.
The struggle between Mack and Charlie escalates, attracting the attention of the policeman. Eventually, Mack takes charge of the baby, allowing Mabel to settle accounts with Charlie. In the meantime, Phyllis, searching for a handkerchief to mop her fevered brow, decides to go through Mack’s coat and discovers, of course, the baby bottle! And now here comes Mack, carrying a baby! Wow!
When we cut back to Mabel and Charlie, we see Mabel confronting him with the note. Charlie, rather surprisingly, is able to figure out what has happened, and he shows Mabel that he has the wrong overcoat. Not only that he returns the overcoat to Mack, retrieving the baby, the bottle, and his overcoat as well. With the mix-up resolved, both couples are at peace, until Charlie realizes that there’s still one more piece of the puzzle. “This belongs to your husband,” he says to Phyllis, handing her the note. So Charlie, Mabel, and baby enjoy a peaceful moment together in the park, while Mack enjoys a beatdown from Phyllis.
Charlie and Mack traded wives, so to speak, for Getting Acquainted, his last one-reeler and actually his last film for Keystone, other than the feature-length Tillie’s Punctured Romance, although it was released before His Prehistoric Past, his last two-reeler. Getting Acquainted was shot in one day and, unsurprisingly, looks it, more flirtin’ and fightin’ in the park, with numerous unexplained bits, including Glen Cavender as a “passing Turk” with a dirk who keeps poking Charlie in the ass. Chaplin had already decided to leave Keystone because Sennett would not give him a thousand dollars a week and was negotiating with Essany over an offer for twelve hundred fifty dollars a week plus a ten-thousand dollar bonus. Getting Acquainted does not end with everyone getting thrown in the lake, which was a plus, and Chaplin’s own performance was constantly growing more confident and assured, but otherwise the film doesn’t have much to offer. It does include one fairly famous bit, when Charlie accidentally hooks Mabel’s skirt with his cane.30
His Prehistoric Past is twice as long as Getting Acquainted and half as funny, featuring Mack Swain as King Lowbrow, and Charlie wearing a bearskin and a derby, with Fritz Schade doing a turn as the effeminate medicine man Ku-Ku.31 Once Charlie makes his entrance, the film is pretty much over.32
Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the first full-length comedy, starred Marie Dressler rather than Chaplin and has been out on DVD for a long time. The ever-erudite Gordon Thomas generously sums up both Dressler’s performance and the film as follows: “Dressler takes on monstrous makeup and clown-like costumes, using her bulk to create a grotesque burlesque that panders to the taste back then for country bumpkin humor, which here involves never-ending fat jokes and swipes at how ugly and stupid she is. This kind of thing shouldn’t play at all these days, but it does — kind of — helped enormously by the often subtle, but always hilarious, byplay between Chaplin and Normand.”33 See here.
Only a year or so ago I was bemoaning 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)
The Year at Keystone, Part 1
Keystone and Essanay Days
First National, Shoulder Arms, and The Kid
The Idle Class, Pay Day, The Pilgrim, and A Woman of Paris
The Gold Rush
The Great Dictator
Simon Louvish’s Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey (book review)
- In Part I of my review of Charlie’s Keystone career I said there was no sentiment in any of his films for Sennett. Well, I was wrong. [↩]
- According to this website, “The Mumming Birds” played for forty years in a dozen countries. [↩]
- The poster offers a fascinating glimpse at 1914 price points for seating: 9¢, 19¢, 29¢, 49¢, and 98¢ for box seats. [↩]
- In 1914, stretchy synthetic fabrics did not exist. Gentlemen kept their socks up with little garter belts worn just below the knee. Showing an important guy in his underwear, socks and garters was standard comic fare as late as the fifties. [↩]
- It wasn’t clear to me what they were performing. (The official title is “Sorrow.”) George looks sort of like Simon Legree, but there are, fortunately, no darkies on stage. [↩]
- Naturally, we don’t see Charlie working with a nude model, but his studio contains several nude sculptures. [↩]
- And in my reviews of his work as well. [↩]
- Westlake rather than Echo, according to Flicker Alley. [↩]
- Cecile Arnold and Vivian Edwards, aka the “Goo Goo Sisters,” once more, cute as ever. [↩]
- Conklin, who started with Keystone the year before Chaplin, was now borrowing Charlie’s baggy pants shtick. Conklin’s pants were even baggier than Charlie’s, hanging open to the extent that they leave his crotch half-exposed, in a less than appetizing manner. Conklin appeared in hundreds of shorts during the silent era, and occasionally scored bit parts in films as late as 1966 (A Big Hand for the Little Lady), probably for sentimental reasons. Preston Sturges used him in three of his films, and Chaplin used him in The Great Dictator as the bald customer who gets his head polished to the tune of Lizt’s Hungarian Rhapsody. [↩]
- A baby doll, of course. [↩]
- Surprisingly, it was the much more robust Sid Chaplin who really scored as a woman, appearing in the 1925 film version of the mother of all drag acts, Charlie’s Aunt. There’s a very funny photo of the two brothers, Charlie as the Tramp and Sid as Charlie’s aunt, eyeing each other in a not terribly brotherly manner. Sid’s film career ended rather abruptly in 1929 when he bit the nipple off of actress Molly Wright (during a sexual assault rather than on the set). He was working in England at the time, filming a version of The Mumming Birds that was never finished. Ten years earlier, Sid made history of sorts when he formed the very first airline company in the U.S., named, appropriately enough, the Sid Chaplin Airline Company. He abandoned the company a year later when the government introduced legislation requiring pilot’s licenses and other boring shit, including, you know, taxes. [↩]
- Chase appeared in well over a hundred shorts, the last in 1940, and directed over a hundred as well, under his real name, Charles Parrott. He did almost all of his work for Hal Roach. His brother, James Parrott, also worked there as a director, and directed Laurel and Hardy in many of their shorts, including the Academy Award-winning The Music Box. Both brothers died young as a result of alcoholism. [↩]
- We see her come to the entrance of the Pier Bar, hesitate, and then give it a pass, suggesting that she was thinking about trying to make up with Chase but then rejected the idea. This is the sort of story-telling that is usually absent from the Keystones. [↩]
- St. John appeared in hundreds of shorts, often with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. When talkies came in, he became “Fuzzy St. John,” preeminent sidekick in hundreds of B westerns, working with both Hopalong Cassidy and the ever-stylish Lash La Rue (he carried a whip). I watched hundreds if not thousands of these films as a child on TV, via “Sagebrush Theatre” and other venues, and Fuzzy was my favorite sidekick. I guess he had an engaging persona. [↩]
- The Internet Movie Database’s term, not mine. [↩]
- Chaplin’s first big acting job was the role of “Billy the Page Boy” in a stage production of Sherlock Holmes, so he was surely familiar with this sort of thing. [↩]
- Despite its overall polish, there are few details that remind us of how quickly Keystone films were shot. When Charlie enters Dillon’s office, there’s a wad of paper on the floor that obviously “should” have been in the wastebasket. It never gets picked up. In a more striking error of continuity, when Charlie enters the hallway on the top floor, Dillon’s hat is not on the hat rack, even though Dillon is already in his office. [↩]
- As several critics have remarked, the two women behave remarkably like prostitutes, albeit refreshingly unmercenary ones. [↩]
- In 1920, a full-length picture that earned a million dollars was considered huge. [↩]
- Among other things, we see a race where the drivers have to “completely change a tire” before starting, midget auto racers (“just as important as their big brothers,” a title card assures us), and a propeller-propelled “Franklin Wind Machine,” which naturally blows Charlie and Mabel away. [↩]
- Other classic examples are A Finishing Touch (building a house), Hog Wild (putting up a radio antenna), Towed in a Hole (repairing a boat), and Helpmates (cleaning up a house after one of Ollie’s “wild” parties). [↩]
- It’s doubtful that the ASPCA would be amused. In Charlie’s classic “Marxist” film, entitled simply Work, it’s Charlie himself who’s pulling the wagon. [↩]
- “Just put him on the piano,” says the owner, calling down from his bedroom. Rich folks! [↩]
- Almost as funny as Charlie’s waaay non-PC behavior are the hugely embarrassed stammers from the Flicker Alley folks, desperately apologizing for Chaplin’s willful disregard for the kid’s safety. One can imagine Chaplin on the set: “I know what I’m doing! For God’s sake! I’m trying to be funny here!” When Chaplin was making his enormous WWI hit Shoulder Arms, there’s a famous story of him trying to direct a frog, shouting “Left! Left!” when the little fucker insisted on jumping to the right. [↩]
- Of course, it doesn’t make sense for Helen to mail her note since she wants to meet her beau that day, but never mind. [↩]
- Little Lord Fauntleroy was a children’s novel published in 1885 by Frances Hodgson Burnett, set in New York. The novel, and its illustrations by Reginald Birch, created a long-running fad for formal dress for young boys among middle-class folks in the U.S., so Wikipedia tells us. Even for geezers like me, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” is simply an epithet, rather than a story. I have no idea what happened to the little schmuck. Mary Pickford starred in a 1921 film version, while Freddie Bartholomew starred in the 1936 “classic.” [↩]
- Baby bottles in 1914 don’t look like they do today, or even sixty years ago, so I had to see the film twice to figure out what Charlie had. [↩]
- Earlier, I said that the only pie-throwing in a Chaplin Keystone occurred in Caught in a Cabaret. Well, I was wrong there as well. [↩]
- Once legendary humorist Clarence Day (now not so much) said that his mother didn’t approve of Chaplin because of the way he used his cane to lift up girls’ skirts. Though Chaplin presents the hooking as accidental, it surely gave 1914 audiences a thrill. [↩]
- Why we’re supposed to think of him as a medicine man was not clear to me. [↩]
- Much of the action takes place on a beach rather than in a cave, and Lowbrow’s harem constitutes a sort of preview of the once-famous Sennett bathing beauties, who didn’t really exist as a corps until 1915. [↩]
- Chaplin, though he wrote brother Sid that he “hogged the picture,” later said sourly that it was lacking in merit. Tillie’s Punctured Romance was enormously successful, and probably encouraged Sennett to believe that he didn’t need Chaplin, as indeed he didn’t throughout the silent era. [↩]