Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mabel's Busy Day (1914)

Another Keystone using the “racetrack” as a backdrop for their antics, MABEL’S BUSY DAY is nominally centered around Mabel Normand. Even at this point, 18 films in to his Keystone output, Chaplin was still seen as a supporting clown, as evidenced by the prominence of Normand’s name in this film’s title.

Mabel Normand was one of the greatest assets to the Keystone studio during this time; perhaps its biggest star, her natural charm and brilliant comic timing made her a favorite with audiences. She was also a highly skilled comedy director; she both wrote and directed this film. Her career was unfortunately later tainted by scandal (she was close to film director William Desmond Taylor, whose murder, along with a number of other high-profile scandals, would rock the industry in the early 20s). But to see even a relatively minor film like MABEL’S BUSY DAY is to see the charm, vitality and comic skill that made her a major star.

Here, she plays a hot dog vendor, who bribes policeman Chester Conklin to let her onto the racetrack grounds in order to sell her wares. Into this setting wanders Chaplin as a racetrack tout, cutting in line, entering the grounds without paying, and kicking a policeman to the ground when he tries to stop him. Meanwhile, Mabel’s customers are stealing hot dogs left and right, so Charlie intervenes, offering to protect her business, and promptly makes off with the entire tray of sausages, giving away free samples to the entire crowd! Confronted by Mabel and cop Chester Conklin, Charlie tries to explain everything, but a fight breaks out with Charlie and Mabel duking it out, as officer Conklin is repeatedly knocked down into the crowd of bystanders every time he tries to intervene. Finally, her entire business destroyed, the exhausted Mabel breaks down in tears as Charlie, exasperated from fighting, embraces and consoles her.

The film is interesting as an example of Chaplin playing a character other than his “tramp” persona. The costume is slightly fancier than usual, and he sports a boutonniere that suggests an air of false sophistication. At no point in the film does Chaplin work toward audience sympathy, instead playing a completely selfish (but hilarious) scoundrel, never thinking twice about kicking a policeman or stealing a hot dog. It’s fun to watch him interact with the various characters around the race track, too: early on, he annoys a trio of women watching the races, thoughtlessly blocking their view, then leaning on one woman’s shoulder before casually picking her purse. Chaplin’s skill at finding the humor in such bits of business is crucial to getting laughs from this kind of material. It certainly differs from his later interaction with the baby in THE CIRCUS, to give just one example, where we can sympathize with his character for stealing bites of the baby’s hot dog because we know he is a hungry tramp. Here, though, his actions are so thoroughly self-serving that they take on a kind of absurd quality that is quite funny in the universe of Keystone.

It’s interesting to speculate how much of the appeal of these “on location” comedies derived from the fun of watching the Keystone clowns interacting in recognizable, every day settings. Although of course many of the Keystone comedies, not to mention comedies from other studios during this period, utilized extensive location shooting around the Los Angeles area, the use of actual public events as a backdrop for the proceedings does make for a bit of interesting contrast, and serves to emphasize the craziness of the goings-on within the environment. There’s a moment in MABEL’S BUSY DAY, for instance, where Charlie mercilessly kicks and pummels a policeman as the crowd of actual bystanders looks on from the distance.

While MABEL’S BUSY DAY is a minor effort, it still contains the charm and verve that makes the work of master clowns like Chaplin and Mabel Normand so appealing almost a century later.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Knockout (1914)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was arguably the most popular comedian working at Keystone during the time that Chaplin was with the studio. An incredibly gifted comic performer and director, Arbuckle had a unique style that he developed within the roughhouse environment of Keystone. Unlike many of the interchangeable grotesques, Arbuckle took advantage of his size to project a boyish charm that belied his imposing physique. For example, in his introductory shot in THE KNOCKOUT, he emerges from a bakery carrying his dog, and the two share a doughnut. This imagery – pairing the comic with an animal sidekick - would later be used by Chaplin to establish audience sympathy in THE CHAMPION (in which he attempts to share a sausage with a dog), and in A DOG’S LIFE, which features a number of such scenes. It also helps, perhaps quite literally, to establish the clown as “underdog”.

THE KNOCKOUT is first and foremost an Arbuckle comedy, one in which Chaplin puts in what basically amounts to a supporting appearance. A fairly elaborate two-reel affair, the film begins with Arbuckle engaging in extended, roughhouse slapstick with a couple of tramps posing as pugilists to earn some extra cash. Arbuckle himself goes in to the ring to fight Cyclone Flynn (Edgar Kennedy) who offers to split the purse if Fatty throws the fight. He refuses, and the big fight is the highlight of the second reel. To add to the pressue, sheriff Mack Swain informs Fatty that he’s betting heavily on him, “so win or I’ll kill you.” Chaplin appears as the referee – taking a bow before the audience prior to falling backward in the ring, and accidentally taking a punch or two to the face when moving between the two pugilists. Things build to a frenzied climax when Fatty, getting knocked out and losing the match, angrily whips out two six-shooters, which he begins firing into the audience and chasing the rival boxers! The Keystone cops get word that a maniac is on the loose, and give chase with typically ineffective results. The chase leads the men through a high society party, in which they tear through in the middle of a musical performance. Finally, Fatty and the cops engage in a rather unbalanced match of tug-of-war, which ends with Fatty dragging the entire of team policemen down the street.

This description of the film exemplifies the way in which Arbuckle’s comic universe could get exceedingly cartoonish, even by Keystone standards. He uses a number of creative devices, including a rooftop chase and a number of shots taken with a moving camera, to heighten the lunacy. Arbuckle was a master at creating this sort of controlled chaos. Even as he roars through the streets firing his guns at anything that moves, there is a method to his madness, at the center of which is his clearly defined character. Like Chaplin, Arbuckle recognized the need for the audience to at least identify with him as a character beyond the broadest slapstick mugging, which no doubt contributed to Arbuckle’s immense popularity with audiences before his career was cut short by an unfortunate scandal in 1921. Combined with his creative use of filmic technique, Arbuckle takes a place beside Chaplin as perhaps the leading slapstick comic filmmaker of the WWI era. It is uncertain, however, who directed THE KNOCKOUT; a number of sources credit Charles Avery, while other, more recent sources credit Mack Sennett. It is fair to say that, regardless of who directed the film, it demonstrates much of the technique and craftsmanship that Arbuckle himself would later develop further.

There is an interesting moment where Arbuckle, witnessing a tramp harassing girlfriend Minta Durfee, mugs angrily and moves toward the camera until his face fills the frame in a giant close-up that is at once menacing and comical. There is also a closeup of Minta Durfee used in a reaction shot in the first reel, as well as a later close shot of an anxious Mack Swain cheering on the boxing match from his ringside seat. In fact, THE KNOCKOUT contains several moments where the framing suggests greater care than the average Keystone comedy of this period. Subtle but creative use of camera angles, and the use of medium shots to bring the audience a little closer to Arbuckle, serve as evidence of this. These little moments are crucial in establishing the connection between the clown and the audience; Chaplin clearly knew this, and used such moments sparingly throughout his career. While some critics have seen this as evidence of Chaplin’s lack of technique, it is rather a sophisticated use of such techniques by limiting their use, thereby increasing their effectiveness when used.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Fatal Mallet (1914)

THE FATAL MALLET is perhaps the roughest and the most shapeless of the Chaplin-Keystone comedies. The plot, such as it is, revolves around rivals Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett, battling Mack Swain for the hand of Mabel Normand.

In a rural setting, rube Mack Sennett is busy flirting with Mabel, when Charlie spies them, and initiates the rivalry by hurling a brick at the couple. As Charlie and Sennett battle it out, burly Mack Swain swoops in and walks off with Mabel. The two men join forces against their common enemy, and after Swain gives chase, they hide in a barn where they find a mallet to use as a weapon. Knocking Swain out and dumping him in the barn, Charlie moves in on Mabel, and after Swain regains consciousness, both he and Sennett retaliate against Charlie, with the three of them fighting on the bank of a pond. Both Swain and Charlie take the plunge, leaving Sennett as the nominal “champion” of this particular rivalry.

The plot description alone gives an idea of how arbitrary much of the action is in this film. It seems to move beyond the usual farcical premises of the Keystones of this period and brings to mind the senseless violence of the Jules White-Columbia two-reelers of thirty years later. Rarely can any of the characters go more than a few seconds without hitting, smacking or otherwise assaulting whoever happens to be standing closest at that particular moment. The arbitrary nature of the “rivalries” between the three men indicates how their allegiance can turn on a dime. And even a young boy (played by Gordon Griffith) who shows infatuation with Mabel is subject to a swift kicking by a jealous Charlie!

There is little time for character development in a film like this. Like the film directly before this (A BUSY DAY), THE FATAL MALLET was directed by Mack Sennett. It has the appearance of a casual, almost improvisational effort dashed off in a single day. There is some indication, even in a roughhouse, knockabout effort like this, that Chaplin was trying to emphasize little bits of business to set him apart from the broad grotesques of the Keystone lot. There is the moment when he sizes up the young boy before delivering the swift kick that knocks him to the ground. There is also the moment in the barn when he holds rival Sennett at bay with the mallet, assuming a “tough guy” stance and posture, jerking quickly forward to intimidate his rival, that recalls his confrontation with the driver of the orphanage wagon at the conclusion of the chase sequence in THE KID. Ultimately, these little moments are fleeting, and only stand as a mere hint of the carefully crafted comedy that Chaplin would begin developing later on in his tenure at Keystone.

*Note: Chaplin’s next Keystone comedy, HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, is considered lost; therefore, I will not be reviewing it in this series.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Busy Day (1914)

In the development of many comedians’ screen personae, the trajectory of reaching their mature screen character seems to be a case of “One step forward, two steps backwards.” While some comics (Buster Keaton in particular) seemed to emerge almost fully-formed from the get-go, others took a little longer to arrive at the characters that audiences would forever remember them for. Chaplin falls into the latter category, and A BUSY DAY is an example of this phenomenon at work.

Coming off of the characteristic and well-constructed CAUGHT IN THE RAIN, Chaplin’s next appearance was in this loosely constructed comedy shot at an actual parade, with a largely improvisational feel to it. This was a fairly standard Keystone approach - to choose an actual public event (a racetrack, parade, etc.) and turn the comedians loose to wreak their unique brand of havoc in otherwise "natural" surroundings. Here, Chaplin plays the lead character in drag, but aside from this switching of genders, the film is largely a re-tread of situations he had already explored more creatively in earlier efforts, and even partially recycles the premise of KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, with Chaplin-in-drag interrupting the filming of a newsreel. The story revolves around Chaplin's jealous rage when he spots husband Mack Swain flirting with another woman (Phyllis Allen), and goes on a rampage, fighting with Swain, the police, and other bystanders before finally getting kicked off the pier and into the water.

A BUSY DAY was directed by Mack Sennett, who also appears in the film as the newsreel director. Sennett’s presence behind the camera may explain the hectic pace and uncharacteristic humor. That said, A BUSY DAY still delivers laughs in the best knockabout tradition of Keystone.