Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mabel at the Wheel (1914)

Even though it’s completely uncharacteristic (Chaplin is a top hatted, goateed villain who goes around pricking people with a pin), Mabel at the Wheel may very well be one of the sheer funniest films Chaplin appeared in during his tenure at Keystone, and is by far the most elaborately mounted production he’d appeared in up to this point. In a role clearly meant for Ford Sterling, Chaplin hams it up as a cartoonish villain that almost seems like a forerunner of Jack Lemmon’s Professor Fate in The Great Race. At two reels, this must have seemed like a veritable comic epic at the time, especially given the scale of the racetrack scenes, and the talent involved in the film (in addition to Chaplin and Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin and Mack Swain put in appearances, along with a cameo by Mack Sennett himself as a rube spectator).

Mabel Normand is the nominal star of the film, but it’s unquestionably Chaplin’s film all the way. It’s as if he just decided to go for broke, saying, “You want me to play Ford Sterling? Fine. Then I’ll out-Sterling Sterling!” He plays the entire performance at full energy, never missing an opportunity to mug into the camera, sticking out his tongue, crossing his eyes, and gesticulating wildly. There’s a fun scene in the beginning when Chaplin, attempting to steal Mabel away from her racecar driver boyfriend, takes her out for a spin on his motorcycle, and not even noticing when she bounces off the back into a mud puddle. This one also includes a great brick-throwing scene that gets really violent, sort of a brick-throwing battle to out-do all brick-throwing battles. The second reel of the film takes place at the racetrack, where villainous Chaplin orders his two henchmen to kidnap Mabel’s boyfriend. She takes over at the wheel, though, and saves the day by winning the big race. It’s here where Chaplin really amps up the performance, stealing the show from every single performer who happens into the same frame as him.

If it sounds as if I'm praising Chaplin for the exact qualities that I have criticized Ford Sterling for in previous reviews, it is worth noting that here, the strong elements of parody in the plot call for this kind of over-the-top take on the character. Sterling was a gifted comedian with a flair for exaggerating mugging, but his performance style rarely varied, at least during his time at Keystone. In some films his performance style worked fine; in others, less so. Chaplin's ability to vary between subtle character humor and this sort of exaggerated parody demonstrate the range he brought with him when he came to the movies from the stage.

Mabel at the Wheel may not be characteristic Chaplin (quite an understatement), but it remains one of his best non-“Tramp” performances, and a good example of what the Keystone crew was capable of when everyone was firing on all cylinders.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Star Boarder (1914)

Chaplin is back in his usual makeup and costume here. With a more structured plot than we’ve seen in the Chaplin-Keystones up to this point, Chaplin and his flirtatious landlady are unknowingly caught in a private moment by a boy with a camera. When the photo turns up in a Magic Lantern show that the boy projects that night for the amusement of the other boarders, the landlady’s jealous husband is none too pleased. Less farce than situation comedy, this is a good example of how a more structured plot allowed for better character development and for getting more mileage out of the situations as opposed to the off-the-cuff, improvisational approach. Still, it can’t help feeling like a warm-up for better things to come.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cruel, Cruel Love (1914)

Any film that opens with Chaplin playfully flirting has to be good, and Cruel, Cruel Love contains easily one of his finest performances from these really early shorts. Though sporting a top hat and slightly wider mustache than usual, there are strong traces of Chaplin’s great performances to come in films like Monsieur Verdoux. He gets a chance to play a character that might, in the hands of other, less-skilled performers, be labeled a “villain” or “heavy” role. Instead, Chaplin injects just the right mixture of charm and vulnerability, while at the same time overplaying things just enough to heighten the parody of the situation. Rather than aping Sterling, as had been called on to do in some of his early appearances, here Chaplin makes the character his own.

There’s a fun scene in which Chaplin is fooled by his servants into believing he’s swallowed poison, and has a delirious vision of himself in Hell being poked and prodded by two devils, gesticulating and overplaying to expert comic exaggeration. There’s also some effective cross-cutting, as both the doctors, and Chaplin’s love interest, race to his home before the poison takes effect. Overall, this is a highly effective parody of stage melodrama and contemporary film making, and perhaps the first film in which Chaplin is able to demonstrate his range as an actor.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

His Favorite Pastime (1914)

Though Chaplin’s character is pretty unlikable here, he does get some good comic by-play with the patrons of a bar toward the beginning of the film, including Fatty Arbuckle as a fellow drunk desperate for a drink. Arbuckle turns up in smaller parts in a couple of these early Chaplin-Keystone comedies, and it’s always a shame that he isn’t given more screen time to interact with Chaplin, as their scenes together hint at the skillful comic interplay that would become apparent when they were finally co-starred together in The Rounders.

The scene where the inebriated Chaplin lets himself in to the woman’s home looks forward to the solo drunk act of One A.M. two years later, with his cane getting hooked on the furniture and trying to make his way up the staircase serving as a kind of warm-up for ideas he would explore and expand on later.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tango Tangles (1914)

Another one with a largely improvisational feel, here Chaplin appears out of makeup and usual costume, playing a drunk at a dance hall. There’s not much more to the set-up than Chaplin and Ford Sterling fighting over a girl on the dance floor, with much of Sterling’s trademark arm-flailing, frenetic gesticulations and nose-biting. The film ends when the two men collapse from exhaustion. Tango Tangles is primarily of interest for the chance to see a very young-looking Chaplin without his usual makeup engaging in the usual roughhouse stuff, apparently filmed at least partially on location at a real dance hall. Arbuckle actually almost steals the show with his understated performance style and impressive pratfalls. To paraphrase what Theodore Huff said about By the Sea, Tango Tangles is a slight effort enlivened by a certain impromptu charm.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Film Johnnie (1914)

This is the first of the Keystone comedies that uses the studio itself as a backdrop for the comedy. This one fails to take full advantage of the possibilities provided by turning Chaplin loose on the Keystone lot, and feels like a dry run for better things to come. After falling madly in love with the Keystone Girl (Virginia Kirtley) that he sees on the screen in a nickelodeon, Chaplin shows up at the Keystone studio, where he wanders around the set wreaking havoc, firing a six-shooter at the actors and crew. Interesting mostly for its glimpses behind the scenes of the studio, this still feels like a rushed effort that demonstrates little characteristic Chaplin humor. It does, however, contain perhaps the most extreme and exaggerated comic mugging that he ever performed on film. It’s also fun to watch his brief interaction with an out-of-costume Fatty Arbuckle and Ford Sterling as he hangs out in front of the studio, asking for handouts. Chaplin would return to this same basic idea several times in later films, including one at Keystone, with more success.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Between Showers (1914)

This is another one that feels like a throwaway effort, presumably shot very quickly to take advantage of the heavy rainfall that had hit LA, as indicated by the puddles on the road in the film. The premise is utterly ludicrous: Ford Sterling’s umbrella is broken, so he decides to steal one from a cop, who’s too busy making out with his girlfriend to notice. Then, in what feels like it could be a completely different film, Sterling tries to help a pretty girl cross a large puddle of water that has formed in the gutter from a torrential rain, and pretty soon he and Chaplin are fighting each other viciously for her attention. At some point, policeman Chester Conklin returns to get his umbrella back, linking the ongoing fracas between Sterling and Chaplin back to the opening scenes of the film. That’s about all there is to this one, plot-wise.

It’s the little touches by Chaplin that make it worth watching. By this point, he clearly had figured out that if he wanted to stand out from the rest of the Keystone zanies, he had to downplay his comedy with a degree of subtlety. That’s the thing here – Sterling seems to be trying too hard to be funny, and Chaplin appears to walk away effortlessly with the film’s best moments (one example: when a bystander is knocked into a pond and cries out for help, Chaplin leans over and cups his ear with his hand, as if he can’t understand what the man is saying!) Sterling’s wild gesticulations, jumping up and down, and mugging endlessly through each shot reveal a limited bag of tricks. This isn’t to say that Chaplin couldn’t mug just as shamelessly as the rest of them though – one of the delights of his performance here is when he will turn to the camera and giggle, as if he’s just done something terribly clever. He also shows what a scene-stealer he could be by extending many of his pratfalls for full effect by rolling backward or twisting his legs around in the air.

All in all, a minor, throwaway effort with some of the touches that Chaplin would bring in to full effect later in his tenure at Keystone.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914)

A fairly typical bedroom farce, this one is significant as the first time Chaplin used his “Tramp” costume (though this film was actually released after Kid Auto Races at Venice), and also demonstrates that – even though he’s essentially a supporting player here – he had the ability to steal the show from such established performers as Mabel Normand and Chester Conklin.

Bedroom farce might at first seem all wrong for Chaplin, but he actually gets a lot of mileage out of the situations here, and would return to elements of farce all throughout his career, right up to A Countess From Hong Kong. Certainly at Keystone, bedroom farce was one of the standard plot setups that would get used over and over again. Here, Chaplin wisely plays the rather calm center of the frantic goings-on surrounding him. As a drunk staying in a hotel, his inebriated state provides the perfect excuse to wander around obliviously, stopping only to flirt with any girl who happens to cross his path. It’s easy to pinpoint why Chaplin walks away with the film – shamelessly mugging for the camera and inserting little bits of business wherever possible, he’s easily the most interesting part of the film, and his absence is always felt when the scene shifts back to the other characters. Mabel Normand’s appealing performance adds much to the proceedings, livening things up whenever Chaplin isn’t on-screen. She’s one of the only few other performers in these films who comes across as a real character, as opposed to the grotesque types of Sterling, Conklin, et. al.

Perhaps the most notable part of the film are the scenes toward the beginning taking place in the hotel lobby, where director Henry Lehrman wisely lets the camera roll while Chaplin does his stuff, rather than insisting on a frantic pace. The scene where the drunken Chaplin interacts with guests in the lobby before trying to get himself seated in a chair demonstrates what made him so unique compared to every other performer on the Keystone lot.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. (1914)

Watching Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., two things immediately come to mind: the irony that the crowd watching the film being made is watching the man who, within the year, would become the most famous person the world had ever known, and yet watch his antics here without the slightest clue as to who he is. The other is that the film, despite its obvious importance as the first public appearance of Chaplin's "Tramp" character, really lacks any strong comedy. The last time I blogged about this film here, I praised it for kidding Keystone's own habit of taking advantage of public events as a backdrop for their comedies, and for demonstrating an awareness of the medium itself by having Chaplin play directly to the camera.

Watching it again, though, the fact that the same basic idea is repeated over and over becomes all too clear. It really is the cinematic equivalent of an infant who's discovered a home movie camera and starts making obnoxious faces. By the time the film arbitrarily ends on a giant close up of Chaplin pulling faces into the camera, it's clear that this was a throwaway effort, made to take advantage of a public event that could serve as a backdrop. It also had the unintended advantage of allowing Chaplin to test out his character in front of a "live" audience. This is the first in a series of the Chaplin-Keystone comedies shot at a racetrack, and could have benefited from a fun impromptu feel, but the film ultimately suffers for a lack of inventive comic business, made even more apparent through endless repetition.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Making a Living (1914)

Chaplin's first film only occasionally demonstrates the little comic flourishes that would contribute to his later acclaim. With a breakneck pace and lots of rough, crude slapstick, Chaplin hardly has time to be "Chaplin" in this film, and instead spends most of it frantically pursuing or being pursued by rival Henry Lehrman. The plot, such as it is, seems to revolve around showing as many situations as possible in which Chaplin's character makes his rival's life miserable, stealing his girlfriend, his job, etc. and always followed by a massive fight between the two of them.

Making a Living is really too rough and crude to stand as an example of the kinds of trademark bits of business that would make Chaplin's performances so unique, even in the weeks and months to come at Keystone, though there are a few moments that look forward to his later work, such as when the down-and-out Chaplin compares himself to a scruffy bum, maintaining an air of dignity that the bum mocks. This pose of dignity, of course, would later become a trademark of his tramp character. There's another particularly funny moment in which Chaplin - eager to get his plagiarized story into the papers before his rival finds out - feverishly distributes copies to all of the newsboys on their bicycles who are getting ready to make their rounds.

Chaplin and director/co-star Lehrman reportedly hated each other, and it's fair to assume that these tensions spilled over in to their first couple of collaborations together, perhaps limiting the comic potential of the ideas. Still, Chaplin earned quite a bit of praise for his performance in this film, most famously when an anonymous critic referred to him in a review as "a comedian of the first water" (Moving Picture World). Seen today, Making a Living is important as the first work of an important artist, but ultimately offers little more.