Friday, February 22, 2013

Continued Look at the Chaplin-Keystones, Part 3

This is a good example of Chaplin dealing with subject matter that he'd worked with earlier in his tenure at Keystone, and giving a fresh spin on the material using what he'd learned in the intervening months. The premise is very simple: Chaplin and Chester Conklin play a couple of love-starved fellows on the search for pretty girls to flirt with.

It begins in a boarding house, where Charlie and Chester take turns flirting with a young woman. When Chester beats him to it, Charlie responds by sticking him in the rear with a fork. While this kind of material had been played to death in numerous earlier Keystones, Chaplin imbues it here with an inventiveness and subtlety not usually seen before. Before sticking Chester with the fork, he makes a number of subtle gestures with the utensil to emphasize its sharpness (all photographed in close shot). Similarly, when Chester retaliates in-kind, Charlie has the foresight to move himself away from the doorway to avoid the inevitable retribution.

It's little bits of business like this that make this otherwise standard stuff amusing here. The film then moves outdoor to a park, where Charlie runs afoul of a jealous boyfriend after he catches Charlie flirting with his girlfriend. Charlie is so love-sick that the sight of Chester flirting with a girl he's met is enough to drive him to jumping in the lake, but he's stopped at the last moment by a cop. Just when the viewer is expecting the situation to devolve into a fracas with everyone ending up in the lake, the scene shifts to another location. Charlie and the two girls he's met go into a little movie theater, where they are tracked by Chester and another jealous lover. In a memorable closing, Charlie is thrown through the movie screen.

Though it's a simple pleasure and not a laugh riot, THOSE LOVE PANGS represents a step forward for Chaplin in terms of performance and cinematic technique.

If THE NEW JANITOR had marked a new highpoint for Chaplin the performer and director, DOUGH AND DYNAMITE reinforces that he was making strides with each new film. Frequently cited as perhaps the funniest of the Chaplin-Keystone comedies, DOUGH AND DYNAMITE is a two-reeler, giving greater "breathing room" to develop the comedy.

Its setting is a bakery, where Charlie is a waiter. When we first see him, he is clearing plates away, and thoughtlessly dumps the scraps from one plate onto a diner's plate. He has some fun playing directly to the audience when flirting with a pretty girl and comparing her suggestive walk to a sign reading "Assorted French Tarts". There's plenty of slapstick in the kitchen involving fellow waiter Chester Conklin, whom Chaplin had worked so well with in his previous film. The two clearly have a lot of fun playing off of eachother, and it's little wonder that Chaplin would employ Conklin again later in his career, so memorably as the mechanic in MODERN TIMES and as a barbershop customer in THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, the two demonstrate extraordinary timing together, perhaps best seen in a gag where Charlie is washing dishes and, rather than waiting till Chester is ready to take them and dry them with a rag, lets them repeatedly fall to the floor, breaking. It's a simple gag, not terribly clever in itself, but the way in which Chaplin and Conklin performs it makes it far funnier than it normally would be. Of course, each mishap is followed by slapping, shoving and general roughhousing. Like the interplay with John Rand in THE PAWNSHOP, it seems that Charlie and Chester find fighting to be as good a way as any to keep themselves entertained at work.

As a result of a pay dispute, the bakers go on strike. Charlie is all too willing to helpfully put on an apron and take over for them, causing one of the bakers to threaten him with a knife. This is not the last time Charlie is shown to value his own job over the cause of the striking workers. There's a similar plot device in the Mutual comedy BEHIND THE SCREEN, when Charlie's fellow stagehands go on strike, and a prop men's strike figures in the plot of THE CIRCUS, leaving Charlie to fill in and make a disaster of the magician's act.

Charlie and Chester fill in for the striking bakers, leading to a great sight gags such as Charlie carrying an over-size sack of flour on his back like a beast of burden, which he drops down into the cellar, crushing Chester. Later, Charlie has to balance a large tray of desserts on his head with almost superhuman precision. He does a remarkable job keeping the tray steady, but when one of the rolls drops to the floor, he absent-mindedly bends over to pick it up, causing the rest of the pastries to follow. There's also some fun with the trap door leading to the cellar, especially when Charlie gets his head stuck in the doors, with Chester mightily trying to pull him out. Chaplin would get more comic mileage out of the trap door setup in the later BEHIND THE SCREEN.

There's trouble when the striking bakers decide to blow up the bakery with dynamite in revenge. They stick the dynamite into a loaf of bread, which is sent into the shop and placed in the oven. Meanwhile, Charlie and Chester flirt with the various waitresses and, eventually, with the manager's wife. An argument breaks out between Charlie and the manager but is put to an end when the dynamite inevitably goes off, allowing Charlie to make his escape.

What's remarkable is how the second half of the film is structured so that the audience has a pretty good idea of how it will end (the inevitable explosion), but takes its time getting there, allowing for some extended comic interplay between Chaplin and Conklin. The two-reel format gives the film a relatively relaxed pacing compared to the frenetic pace a one-reeler would have demanded. Even with the longer format to work in, Chaplin is still eschewing unnecessary farcical plot twists, and is instead focusing on the inherent comic ideas offered by the set-up.

Like THOSE LOVE PANGS, GENTLEMEN OF NERVE returns to a familiar setting and premise - misunderstandings at a racetrack - and breathes new life into the material. It also features a stellar cast, including Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and Chester Conklin.

At the auto races, Chester (here playing "Mr. Walrus") delivers a swift kick to burly Mack Swain when he catches him flirting with his girlfriend, Mabel. But no sooner do they take their seats than Chester begins flirting with hatchet-faced Phyllis Allen. We next meet Charlie (playing "Mr. Wow-wow", probably an homage to the Fred Karno show). He agrees to help Swain sneak into the races, but has quite a time getting his mammoth frame through the opening in the fence.

Eventually, Charlie and Mabel find themselves together in the stands, and wander off to look at the cars. It's particularly fun seeing Chaplin interact with the real racecar drivers, being scared off by a propeller-driven car, and doing his trademark skidding run on the racetrack. When Chester comes across Charlie and Mabel flirting in the stands, Charlie kicks Chester into the crowd of bystanders, where he is led off by the police, and the film ends on a charming two-shot of Charlie and Mabel playfully smiling and laughing at the chaos that has gone down. It's a rare moment for a Keystone comedy but points in the direction that both Chaplin and Mabel Normand would go with their work.

The film has clear similarities with other Keystone films taking advantage of "public" events as a backdrop for the comedy, such as KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, MABEL'S BUSY DAY and A BUSY DAY, but is more polished in its blending of the comedy into the setting. Chaplin makes use of an excellent cast here, giving each performer plenty to do. Unlike in the previous "event" films, the performers never seem overwhelmed by the backdrop.

In his remaining Keystone comedies, Chaplin would continue to re-visit similar ideas and situations, many of which were standard plots at Keystone. Rather than feeling repetitive, these later efforts provides us with an interesting glimpse as to how he handled the material at various stages of his cinematic development.

Often compared to Laurel and Hardy's THE MUSIC BOX because of its premise of delivering an unwieldy piano up a flight of stairs, HIS MUSICAL CAREER is also of interest for its class-consciousness theme that Chaplin would return to again and again in his work.

Charlie and boss Mack Swain are given orders to deliver a piano to a Mr. Rich at 666 Prospect Street, and re-possess a piano from a Mr. Poor at 999 Prospect Street. Predictably, confusion ensues. The fun comes in seeing Chaplin and Swain in a prototypical version of the "David and Goliath" dynamic between boss and worker that he would explore several times again. He would return to this in the Essanay comedy WORK, where boss Charles Insley forces Charlie to pull the work cart like a mule, even whipping him when he doesn't move fast enough. In THE FLOORWALKER, THE FIREMAN, BEHIND THE SCREEN and THE COUNT, all made at Mutual, Charlie would play opposite burly Eric Campbell as the brutal boss, with Charlie always causing Campbell some kind of pain and coming out on top despite his disadvantage in size.

When the pair inevitably deliver the piano to the wrong address, they have to move it up a flight of stairs. It's impossible to watch this sequence now and not be reminded of the celebrated THE MUSIC BOX. But whereas Laurel and Hardy's piano seems to take on a life of its own, tormenting the two protagonists on almost mythic levels, the piano in HIS MUSICAL CAREER is simply cumbersome and unwieldy, its comic potential lying more in the physical difficulties of such a situation. Eventually, they get it up the stairs, with Charlie bringing the piano into the house by carrying it on his back while the residents take their time in deciding where to put it.

Next, they arrive at the home of Mr. Rich, believing they are to re-possess his piano for failure of payment. Finding no one home, they let themselves in. The irate Mr. Rich arrives, and when he demands to know where they are taking his piano, he gives them a swift kick that sends Mack, Charlie and the piano rolling down an incline and into the lake.

There is some very clever physical comedy in this film, especially the great sight gag of Charlie single-handedly carrying the piano, and throwing his back out, leaving him unable to stand upright. There is another moment when the cart carrying the piano becomes top-heavy, causing the mule, pulling the cart, to be lifted into the air. And the final shot, of the piano careening out of control as it zips down the sidewalk, is a strong topper to the slapstick that has come before.

HIS MUSICAL CAREER demonstrates Chaplin's talent for exploring the inherent comic possibilities in a simple set-up. He had really proven the effectiveness of this method back in KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, where he got such mileage out of the simple premise, compared to the heavy plotting of the previous film, MAKING A LIVING.

Chaplin would make three more shorts for Keystone, and would also see the release of TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, before the year was out, solidifying his place as a comedy superstar.

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