Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Continued Look at Chaplin's Keystone Comedies

More than a year ago, I had begun writing reviews of the one- and two-reel comedies that Charlie Chaplin made for the Keystone studios, during the incredibly productive year of 1914, when he turned out no fewer than 35 comedies for the company, including the landmark feature film TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. (The previously published notes can be found by clicking on the label "Chaplin at Keystone", either at the footer of this post or in "labels" column on the right-hand side of the page).

Initially intended to be little more than notes of my impression of each film after watching them (on DVD, courtesy of the "Chaplin at Keystone" set produced by Flicker Alley), I found myself getting into greater and greater detail in writing about each short, which slowed the pace considerably. Combined with the fact that the amount of time I had to watch the films was becoming limited because of other commitments, I put this series on hold. However, I recently picked up where I left off watching the films last year, and have decided to resume posting my reactions to them, albeit in much shorter form, and combining several films in a single post.

These are not meant to be comprehensive critical essays on the films, nor are they production histories, but rather just brief impressions upon revisiting the formative work of this comic genius.

This is a particularly brutal little comedy that finds Charlie working as an assistant to Dr. Pain - though just what it is he does beside flirt with the pretty female patients is unclear. When a patient fails to wake up from the laughing gas, the dentist sends Charlie to the local pharmacy to pick up something to help revive him. While there, he proceeds to get into a fight with burly Mack Swain. A brick-throwing battle ensues, which knocks out Swain's teeth as well as those of innocent passerby Slim Summerville. Both men show up at Dr. Pain's office to have their remaining teeth fixed, and chaos ensues when Swain finds that his attacker was the dentist's assistant.

No stranger to dental surgery myself, dental humor is always good for some laughs with me - W.C. Fields' THE DENTIST being perhaps my favorite example, though Laurel and Hardy got some great mileage out of the situation in both LEAVE 'EM LAUGHING and PARDON US. More recently, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom had a wonderful dental scene together in THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN. And of course Steve Martin's turn in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is worth a mention. Here, Chaplin employs some painful looking processes to extract the broken teeth, straddling the poor patient and twisting the teeth out of his head with a massive set of pliers.

Overall, the whole film feels very much like a vaudeville routine, and it's easy to imagine this kind of thing being played on the stage, where the humor might come alive more with the exaggerated painful gasps and screams of the patient.

This seems to be one of the more celebrated Chaplin-Keystones, giving him ample room to play around behind the scenes of a vaudeville theater. He has some fun with the various theatrical types who come in, including a strong man by the name of Garlico. Their scenes together play like something of a dry-run for his interplay with Eric Campbell in the later BEHIND THE SCREEN, with the burly Garlico bossing around Charlie's property man and being on the receiving end of some of his more violent mishaps.

It's also slightly reminiscent of Keaton's later (and more sophisticated) THE PLAYHOUSE, right down to its set of performing twins. Chaplin's comedy plays out mostly behind-the-scenes, at least until he makes his way on stage and begins wrecking the performances. Finally, a hose is turned on the stage and eventually onto the audience (which includes a cameo by Mack Sennett as a typically wild and incredulous spectator).

THE PROPERTY MAN has been criticized for its meanness, particularly in regard to Charlie's bad treatment of the decrepit, elderly stage hand (who more than once ends up pinned under a heavy trunk). This is the sort of brash vulgarity and - even for its time - "insensitive" humor that Chaplin was exploring during his year at Keystone. Of course, he would later move away from this sort of outright aggressiveness, but traces of it remained in his mature work and were all the funnier precisely for the fact that they came out on much less frequent occasions.

Now this is a real deviation from the usual Keystone formula. A parody of the popular poem by Hugh Antoine D'Arcy, which tells of the downfall of an artist jilted by the model he loves when she falls for another man, the film must have seemed strange to audiences at the time. While it never goes nearly as far as later parodies of melodrama such as Fields' THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, there is a similarly strange quality to the film in that the story is largely played straight, punctuated only periodically by bits of slapstick or other comic business designed to yank the carpet out from underneath the dramatic proceedings. Rather than playing with form as Fields did in THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, Chaplin gives us a more or less straight send-up of the original work, perhaps more similar to Fields' affectionate kidding of that hoary old melodrama "The Drunkard" in THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY.

Structurally, the whole thing is told in flashback (the intertitles retaining the text of D'Arcy's poem), with Charlie, the broken down artist, telling his tale of woe to the other barflies in the corner tavern. The ending contains some trademark slapstick as he drunkenly attempts to scrawl the girl's face with chalk on the floor of the bar, drawing only a hilariously amateurish smiley face before being tossed out on his rear.

Perhaps not one of the funniest Chaplin-Keystone efforts, but an interesting effort and an attempt to do something different, reminiscent of the kind of parody Chaplin would explore again the following year with his BURLESQUE ON CARMEN.

One of the crudest and most disposable efforts from his year at Keystone, RECREATION feels very much like a "filler" film. In fact, it was released on a split-reel with a travelogue about Yosemite. Charlie flirts with a girl in the park, running afoul of her sailor boyfriend (appearing to be the same actor in the exact same costume and makeup who played the passed-out drunken sailor at the bar in THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR). A fracas ensues, the police intervene, and all involved end up in the lake.

Watching this one on the DVD set, the first thing that hits you is what awful shape the first few minutes of the source print are in, before switching to another source print of positively stunning quality. It's an excellent reminder of the need for proper preservation, as well as a reminder of how great these films can look when properly preserved and presented, compared to the atrocious dupes on public domain editions that have been making the rounds for years.

RECREATION is the kind of crude, throwaway effort that can sometimes, as Theodore Huff said of the later BY THE SEA, possess a certain "impromptu charm". RECREATION, however, feels rushed and sloppy, like an effort cranked out solely to satisfy a release schedule. These were clearly the kinds of production circumstances that Chaplin would react against when he achieved independence.

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