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.