Saturday, September 24, 2011

Caught in a Cabaret (1914)

Caught in a Cabaret is the first Chaplin film that really feels like a Chaplin film. In it, he introduces a number of his favorite themes, as well as stylistic approaches, that give it the feeling of being the first film over which he had a strong degree of creative control. Indeed, it is the earliest film whose direction can be certainly attributed to Chaplin, though he actually co-directed the film with Mabel Normand.

The situation is set up that Chaplin is a lowly waiter in a rough cafe in a bad part of town. While on his lunchbreak, he saves society girl Mabel Normand from being menaced by a thief. Her parents and friends take Chaplin for a hero, and he is their guest at a garden party in which he is hilariously out of place, passing himself off as "Baron Doobugle, Prime Minister of Greenland". He must leave in a hurry to get back to the cafe as his lunchbreak is almost over. Mabel's jealous boyfriend tracks him back to the cafe, and sees his real identity. The boyfriend then returns to the garden party and suggests that they go "slumming", whereupon he brings them to the cafe and Mabel becomes enraged when she learns that the Prime Minister is really just a waiter.

In terms of performance, Chaplin gives his most nuanced, subtle performance yet. He immediately sets himself apart from the rest of the zanies in the cafe in which he works with his methodical bits of business. He is first seen, while waiting tables, stopping by the table of one customer to pour several unfinished drinks into one glass, which he drinks himself. He also playfully flirts with other female characters here in a genteel manner, rather than the aggressive pursuits seen in earlier films. There is none of the grotesque mugging directly in to the camera as there was in earlier films; everything here is played in full-shot to capture the whole of Chaplin's performance. One of the most remarkable aspects of Chaplin as performer is the way he always used his entire body - never just mugging or simply taking a fall. Rather, he puts his entire body to the service of every gag, his posture, stance, and facial expressions combining to produce a total comic effect.

There is a leisurely pace to the film, too, aided no doubt by the fact that it is a two-reeler, giving Chaplin more time to develop plot and pacing. Chaplin allows himself a little "sidekick" in the form of a dog, a nice touch that looks forward to Scraps the mut in A Dog's Life. There is some of his trademark hostility toward children, such as kicking a boy to the ground after he comes entangled with the dog's leash. There is also a fight between Chaplin and fellow waiter Chester Conklin that displays that almost balletic approach he would take to such rough slapstick, even at this early point in his career, combined with a kind of playful, "it's only a game" spirit that he would repeat with John Rand in The Pawnshop. Similarly, his tangle with tough Mack Swain in the cafe (which ends with Chaplin knocking him out with a mallet) looks forward to his later resourceful triumphs over big bullies like Eric Campbell in the Mutual series and Malcolm Waite in The Gold Rush.

The film is a study in comic contrasts as well. Chaplin, as the waiter, appears to be at first more refined than the characters surrounding him, wiping down tables with a rag - until he stops, and blows his nose into the rag, before continuing to use it to wipe down the tables! This is also the first Chaplin film to deal explicitly with class difference. Though a staple of comedy from this period, no comedian went further to the roots of the class differences in the United States at this time than Chaplin did. It is in this respect that Caught in a Cabaret marks one of his most important films in his development as a filmmaker.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Twenty Minutes of Love (1914)

This was the first film in which Chaplin reputedly had a hand in the direction and writing. It's difficult to say (the direction has variously been credited to Joseph Maddern and even to Mack Sennett), though various historians have pointed out that it's quite likely that Chaplin did at least have a hand in the story construction, since he practically remade the film at Essanay a year later as In the Park.

Either way, Twenty Minutes of Love is a slight little film, one of the many "park" comedies cranked out by Keystone. There are the usual mix-ups and confusions, but Chaplin's performance is already showing signs of his mature characterization, such as when he observes a young couple necking on a bench in the park, and, so overcome with a mix of frustration and repulsion, absentmindedly embraces and kisses a tree!

Twenty Minutes of Love also marks the first time that Chaplin's character is really at the center of the chaos. While he certainly creates mischief wherever he goes, he's almost like the calm eye of a comic hurricane, with just the perfect mix of innocence and an impish, sometimes devilish quality. There had been strong traces of this in his earlier appearances as the Tramp - his turns as comic heavies didn't allow for this kind of development - but here he seems more close than ever to being fully formed (which would finally happen with his next film).