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.

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