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.

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