Sunday, March 10, 2013

Continued Look at the Chaplin-Keystone Comedies (Final Part)

HIS TRYSTING PLACES sees Chaplin in one of his rare domestic comedies. As the film opens, we find him happily married to Mabel Normand - well, perhaps not happily - but it's certainly presented as a believable marriage compared to the cartoonish pairings of Chaplin with Phyllis Allen that we've seen in previous films. The film opens with a lengthy sequence in which Charlie tries to read the paper, while Mabel tends to the baby. There's plenty of comic business, with Charlie absentmindedly placing his foot on the open flame of the stove. Chaplin stages this entire scene from the same shot, without closeups or cutaways, reminiscent of the way in which he shot another domestic scene more than 30 years later for the opening of MONSIEUR VERDOUX.

Some of the most delightful moments in HIS TRYSTING PLACES comes not from the overly comical parts, but rather the charming shots of Mabel playing with the baby. However, the highlight is an extended sequence in which Charlie goes to a cafe and eats next to Mack Swain, who noisily slurps his soup, while Charlie reacts. Watching the two master clowns doing something as simple as eating a meal becomes a richly-developed string of gags, culminating in a food-throwing match that ends with Charlie kicking Swain backward off his stool and knocking down the other patrons in a domino effect. (The scene also contains one of the rare moments of actual pie-throwing in a Chaplin comedy).

The second half of the film finds Charlie accused of infidelity, after his wife finds a note in his coat (belonging to Swain), arranging an illicit tryst. After a few moments of frantic domestic violence, including breaking an ironing board over his head, Charlie is thrown out of the house. He wanders into a park, where he finds himself on a park bench next to Swain's wife (played by Keystone's house battle-ax, Phyllis Allen). However, Mabel has also taken the baby to the park, and when she spies Charlie on the bench with Phyllis, launches into an attack. Meanwhile, when Phyllis finds the baby's bottle in Charlie's coat, which she's mistaken for Swain's, she too suspects her husband of infidelity. Soon, everything is explained, until Charlie absent-mindedly hands Phyllis the note belonging to her husband, which lands him in even more trouble. The film ends on a charming shot of Charlie, Mabel and baby.

HIS TRYSTING PLACES takes the usual Keystone farce comedy and gives it a human edge, rather than playing the material in the broadest, cartoonish way possible. There's a real tenderness to the scenes with Charlie and Mabel, which makes it all the funnier when she explodes on him after suspecting him of having an affair. Chaplin is given the chance to engage in some of broad mugging, which he uses to good effect here (particularly the moment after the ironing board is cracked over his head). There is also a clever bit of choreography in the park, as Mabel swings punches at Charlie, and he ducks down into a trashcan each time to narrowly avoid being hit.

The film also represents Chaplin's growth as a director. The shot choices are very economical, particularly in the early scenes in the house, and in the cafe with Mack Swain. In both of these cases, the shots indicate how Chaplin was already maximizing composition and camera placement to heighten attention on the performers and their bits of business within a scene. HIS TRYSTING PLACES was probably the last really strong comedy Chaplin would direct at Keystone. His final two efforts would exhibit signs of a hurried and rushed quality that suggest his mind was already looking forward to his coming work with Essanay.

A slight park comedy, this film represents another re-visiting of material that Chaplin had already dealt with earlier in his tenure at Keystone. In this case, however, there isn't enough to really warrant a return to the park setting, which he'd already used to better effect in films such as TWENTY MINUTES OF LOVE and CAUGHT IN THE RAIN. GETTING ACQUAINTED, on the other hand, re-hashes the farce elements of those earlier films, with Charlie dodging cops and jealous suitors. This film also has Charlie married to the hatchet-faced Phyllis Allen, a silly plot device that draws on the obvious contrast in size between the two and feels forced compared to the expert domestic humor of the proceeding short, HIS TRYSTING PLACE. There is a nice panning shot toward the end, as Mack Swain and Charlie are led off by a cop after bidding farewell to their wives. It's the kind of shot that could have easily been broken into two or three static shots, but shooting it this way keeps the viewer's attention on Chaplin.

Overall a not terribly inspired effort, though to be fair, coming as it did at the end of an incredibly prolific year, Chaplin was no doubt finding himself increasingly suffering from the limitations of the Keystone methods of production.

HIS PREHISTORIC PAST alternately feels like a weak, throwaway effort, but at the same time, a film designed to allow for a little experimentation. As Chaplin's final short film for the Keystone company, he was no doubt eager to wrap up his contractual obligations and move on to greener pastures. HIS PREHISTORIC PAST is neither a particularly inspired or funny comedy, but it gives Chaplin the chance to indulge in some cartoon-like humor, playing a caveman complete with his derby, cane, and slapshoes. The whole film is framed as a dream sequence (though many copies of the film omit the scene in the very beginning in which Charlie is seen falling asleep on a park bench). Chaplin has fun with the concept - stuffing his pipe with fur from his pelt, striking a flint stone against the back of his leg to light it, flirting with pretty cave girls in grass skirts, etc. When King Mack Swain finds Charlie flirting with his favorite wife, he challenges him to a hunting contest during which Swain is kicked over the edge of a cliff. Charlie proclaims himself king, and immediately begins to take advantage of the king's harem. However, Swain regains consciousness and conks Charlie on the noggin with a big rock, waking our hero up as he's roused from his sleep by a cop.

Though it's not without some fun moments here and there, HIS PREHISTORIC PAST is simply too protracted, with too many needlessly drawn out scenes that go nowhere, particularly those in which Charlie flirts with the women of the king's court, and those with the king's rather effeminate jester performing a silly dance routine.

As the first feature-length motion picture comedy, TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE represents landmark in the history of film and more specifically within the art of comedy. Produced and directed by Sennett, it is something of an anomaly in Chaplin's Keystone filmography, in that it was made over a period of about 14 weeks, and thus does not represent a clear chronological development as Chaplin's other films do. Also, Chaplin does not appear in his unusual makeup, but rather with a shorter mustache, and a straw hat, suggesting a more dapper character than usual. The plot is a parody of standard melodrama topes involving the virtuous country girl corrupted by the big city. As with most Keystones, it derives its humor from combining farce comedy with slapstick.

The film tells the story of a simple country girl (Marie Dressler) who's seduced by a big city con man (Chaplin) into taking her father's money and fleeing with him to the city. Once there, Charlie takes the money and ditches Tillie, hooking up with his partner in crime Mabel Normand. Lost and alone, Tillie tries her hand at different jobs, and even gets arrested, before it's revealed that her uncle has died in a mountain-climbing accident and left her a fortune. When he sees this in the papers, Charlie suddenly re-appears in her life, and the two move into the uncle's mansion. When the uncle turns up alive, he is horrified to see what has become of his mansion, and chases his niece, along with her high society guests, out into the streets, six-shooters a-blazing.

Adapted by Hampton Del Ruth from the play "Tillie's Nightmare" (by Edgar Smith and A. Baldwin Sloane), this six-reel comedy was quite an undertaking, and represented a risk on the part of Mack Sennett. It was unsure if audiences would sit through six reels of slapstick comedy. The film was a wild success, however, and even though Chaplin was nominally a supporting player in the film, it was probably TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, more than any other comedy he made for Keystone, that really launched him into superstardom (a position that would be solidified the following year with his work for Essanay). Marie Dressler lends her larger-than-life screen presence to a role that calls for grotesque mugging, frantic gestures and slapstick falls, and extreme, wild reactions to everything going on around her. Dressler was an incredibly gifted performer who really found her niche with the arrival of talking pictures, appearing in memorable parts in such films as MIN AND BILL, DINNER AT EIGHT and TUGBOAT ANNIE. Although she was a star on the stage at the time that TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE was produced, it would take another 15 years or so before she would reach her peak in motion pictures.

In addition to Chaplin and Dressler, TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE also presents Mabel Normand in a fine role, displaying the range of her comic skills as Charlie's long-suffering partner in crime and love interest. The film is a virtual "who's who" of most of the major Keystone clowns, including Mack Swain, Chester Conklin, Charley Chase, Slim Summerville, Charles Murray, Phyllis Allen, Edgar Kennedy, Minta Durfee, Hank Mann, and Al St. John in various supporting parts (Roscoe Arbuckle and Ford Sterling are conspicuously absent, though there is a character in the party sequence toward the end of the film made up to look like Sterling). Because Sennett still owed his exhibitors short subjects during the weeks that TILLIE was in production, the cast had to film their parts on alternate days so that they would be available to work on the studio's regularly-scheduled output as well.

The picture can be difficult for modern audiences to sit through, who aren't accustomed to the style of knockabout slapstick, especially when sustained over feature length. Later feature-length comedies, such as Mabel Normand's MICKEY, Chaplin's THE KID, or any of the features Arbuckle made for Paramount, combined elements of "genteel" humor to balance the moments of slapstick and vulgar humor. TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE may have represented a path not taken by future feature-length comedies, but it was certainly crucial in laying the groundwork and developing the art of screen comedy.

Unlike the rest of the Keystone product at that time, which was distributed by Mutual, TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE was distributed on a states' rights basis, and had it premiere a few days before Christmas 1914 in Los Angeles. It would turn out to be a starmaking role for Charlie Chaplin.

By this point, Chaplin was gearing up for bigger and better things at Essanay, where he would continue to develop his art with greater creative control and freedom to work at a pace more suited to his approach. His year at Keystone had seen Chaplin's meteoric rise to superstardom, and the formative works he made there had allowed him the opportunity to learn the craft of directing and performing for the screen.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Hmm. I can kind of see the grandiose claims for Tillie, but I don't see that its daring pays off-- it's more like a really long two-reeler, with no expansion in terms of character depth or narrative complexity. For me the comedy that really rates a description like that is The Kid-- that's where slapstick and drama come together seamlessly for the first time.

But I'll grant you, it's a tough one to see with fresh 1915 eyes.