Sunday, July 15, 2012

Mabel's Married Life (1914)

One of the better Keystone efforts up to its time, MABEL'S MARRIED LIFE begins with a familiar premise: In Echo Park, burly Mack Swain abandons his wife on a park bench in order to flirt with pretty Mabel Normand, who is married to the top-hatted (and inebriated) Chaplin. A rivalry ensues, and Charlie plays spoilsport by telling Swain's wife of her husband's shenanigans. Of course, Charlie and Swain bond over alcohol in the local bar afterward, until another fight breaks out that ends with Charlie kicking the customers backward through the saloon's swinging doors.

But then the film turns interesting. Mabel purchases a mannequin that resembles Swain in physique and wardrobe. Charlie, the worse for wear, returns home and is confronted by the dummy, which he takes for Swain. He proceeds to order it of his apartment, and but he is defeated by the dummy, which keeps spring back into place, knocking him down, each time he throws a punch to it or delivers a kick. The film (or at least surviving copies of it) end rather abruptly, presumably as Charlie realizes it is only a dummy and makes amends with his wife.

It is this character by-play in its second half that makes MABEL'S MARRIED LIFE a memorable film. The flirting-in-the-park opening is basically a re-tread of similar situations in so many previous Keystones, and Chaplin still seems to have some remnants of Ford Sterling's performance style in his appearance here (including the use of the top hat), but the scenes in which he is confused and confounded by the dummy in his inebriated state are pure Chaplin.

The direction, by Chaplin, demonstrates his keen eye for composition, getting the maximum amount of information across in each shot, with little cross-cutting to interrupt the physical comedy. MABEL'S MARRIED LIFE also pointed to the cute (though sometimes violent) domestic comedy that Chaplin and Normand would explore in future films such as HIS TRYSTING PLACE.