November 2, 2010
Flicker Alley has just released a monstrously funny box set of all extant shorts that Charles Chaplin made at the Keystone Film Studios. It is poetically titled CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE, and is now available for your perusal. The sketches housed therein are mean-spirited little scenarios of controlled chaos. Chaplin swats down the elderly and the teething with equal aplomb, playing drunks, con-men and resentful working class joes. Bricks are the weapon of choice, available in suspiciously convenient abundance. There is plenty of interest for those looking for evidence of his artistic development, from his control of narrative to the introduction of pathos to his work, but the real joys here are tumbles down stairs and unexpected blows to the face. The Keystones were the JACKASSes of their time.
The ringleader was Mack Sennett, who when Chaplin joined his company explained the Keystone method: “we get an idea, then follow the natural sequence of events until it leads up to a chase which is the essence of our comedy.” That is, there was no script, just a concept strung out with with improvisational business to get to the chaotic close. This was, as biographer David Robinson notes, not reassuring to Chaplin , who was “accustomed to the months of polishing that perfected the teamwork of a Karno sketch.” Fred Karno was Chaplin’s previous employer, a music hall peformer and director who formed “Fred Karno’s Speechless Comedians”, a hugely popular pantomime act that also produced Stan Laurel. They workshopped their sketches on the road for months until every last gag was milked for maximum hilarity. Now here he was in Hollywood with Sennett, completing a film in an afternoon with little time for tweaking.
It’s little surprise Chaplin clashed with his directors. On his first film, Making a Living, Chaplin was outraged at Henry Lehrman for cutting out some of his favorite gags, and he was famously chuffed at having to take orders from the younger Mabel Normand on some outings. Eventually his need for Karno-like perfection inevitably led to his taking the directorial reigns. His growing control of the material, and introduction of more dramatic elements, can be seen in The New Janitor (1914), in which Chaplin’s bumbling custodian almost tips out of a window but still manages to foil a robbery in progress and catch the eye of the secretary in distress. There is a dramatic and emotional arc to this piece absent in the earlier work.
But mapping an evolutionary arc on this point of his career would be a mistake. His development as a dramatic artist is not better, but simply marks a different path in his career. For pure comedy, I prefer the early fly by night Keystones, jury-rigged giddy contraptions of pure id. Later this week at Movie Morlocks David Kalat will single out Kid Auto Races at Venice, California (1914) as one of his favorites, and I concur whole-heartedly. It’s the first film in which audiences saw the “tramp” costume, although Mabel’s Strange Predicament was filmed first it hit theaters later. The Keystone team often filmed bits around live events in town, and for this scene Chaplin cavorts next to the second annual “Pushmobile Parade”, a children’s car race held on January 11, 1914. Allegedly filmed in 45 mintues (according to Jeffrey Vance’s DVD notes), it finds the Tramp continually blocking a news camera’s view of events as it pans right, variously posing and taunting the director of photography. His casual incursions into the frame build and build until he gives the lens the stink-eye in an extreme close-up.
What is equally interesting to the loose improvisation of the film is to watch the spectators reactions to the Little Tramp, whom they are seeing for the first time. Their reactions range from non-plussed to confused towards the shoddily dressed maniac who nearly avoids getting clipped by a toy car and incites a mini-riot with the newsreel crew. It is a loose, brilliantly executed bit of slapstick as well as a documentary depicting the birth of Chaplin’s skeptical but curious worldwide audience.
A similar routine is run through in A Busy Day, which was directed by Mack Sennett. This time they film in Wilmington on April 11, 1914 during a dedication ceremony and parade celebrating the Los Angeles Harbor expansion (from Vance’s DVD notes). Chaplin cross-dresses as the rather ill-tempered young wife of Mack Swain, who has a gigantic wandering eye. But she begins by obstructing another camera crew, posing mock seductively until someone tries to forcibly wrench her away from stardom. Her dream is forever deferred as she executes some limber kicks against these evil interlocutors before being tossed against the bandstand. Then her ire returns to her husband and a battale royal escalates to the pier and a final somersault into the water. From the start Chaplin is playing with ideas of fame, which he would wait to fully explicate until Limelight (1952).
While structurally something like Dough and Dynamite is a masterpiece, I found the blunt insanity of The Fatal Mallet to be more my style. A fever dream of male jealousy, Chaplin and Mack Swain battle over the hand of the always delightful Mabel Normand, at least until another guy comes along to divert their wrath. There are no character details beyond the cliche of their physical type, and it is structured around endless brickbats to the head. In its insistent refusal to acknowledge physical reality, it is both hilarious and sublime, a fusillade of cinderblock poetry. The men move to deathly lengths to subdue the others, as Normand looks on with increasing disinterest.
It is a box set to savor, for the minor moments of improvisational genius (like how he uses pliers to tip a girls head his way in Laughing Gas), as well as the gains in narrative and spatial coherence that clearly point to his feature length greats. Essential viewing.