02 June 2009

Chaplin at Keystone (1914)

d. Various / USA / Four shorts, one feature: 145 mins.

Mack Sennett, founder of Keystone Studios, plucked Charles Chaplin from Fred Karno's touring American troupe in 1913, but the path to stardom of the man many consider the greatest silent comedian of all time was anything but easy. To begin with, Sennett — the founder of American slapstick — almost immediately regretted the decision. Chaplin was a replacement for Ford Sterling, one of the original Keystone Cops, and apparently didn't live up to the high hopes of Sennett. It was director and comedienne Mabel Normand who apparently argued for Chaplin to stay, and thankfully she did or the name Charles Chaplin might have been lost to the ages.

Chaplin's year at Keystone Studio, his first year in cinema, is as historically important as his later years at Essanay (where he grasped creative control for the first time) and Mutual (where he produced what many consider his first truly great short comedies). Once saved from firing, Chaplin's rise was meteoric. He appeared in 35 films at Keystone — all shorts except one, all released to the public at the rate of nearly one per week throughout 1914. More than half of those films he directed, and later he began to trend away from Sennett's superficial focus on mere slapstick and begin to insert genuine emotion into his characters. At Keystone there was also the genesis of Chaplin's Tramp character, which appeared in Chaplin's second short, Kid Auto Races at Venice (directed by Henry Lehrman). The short thrives as a literal showcase of Chaplin's new character: as a cameraman attempts to capture an auto race (often in point-of-view shot), the Tramp continues to wander in front of the lens and anger the crew. In this early incarnation the Tramp is a little scruffier than we're used to, but still naive and innocent in the ways we know and love, and the short, while narrowly imagined, is effective.

By the time Chaplin began directing himself, he'd starred in ten shorts. He rubbed many directors the wrong way and they didn't sit well with him (ironically, although Normand saved his job, Chaplin resented being directed by her because she was a woman). His directorial debut is the throwaway one-note short Twenty Minutes of Love, in which the Tramp marauds around in a park and makes passes at women in front of their men. The Rounders, directed by Chaplin and co-starring Fatty Arbuckle, is among the first films where Chaplin roots nearly all of the laughs in his character being drunk — or, in silent cinema parlance, being "thirsty." At times it feels like a rough draft for the sort of drunk humor Chaplin sharpened later in his career, most notably in Pay Day and City Lights. The jokes here are fairly typical: missing chairs, feuding with his wife, going to a restaurant and causing a commotion. Aside from its minor authorial importance (and the co-starring of another prominent comedian, something that wouldn't happen again until the appearance of Buster Keaton in Limelight), the short is only adequate.

The film that proves itself worthy of all audiences is Chaplin's best at Keystone, The New Janitor. Not only is it quite funny (without question I laughed aloud for the first time watching the Keystones in the scene of the Tramp attempting to clean a window high from the sidewalk by sitting on the sill and leaning outside), but it served as a general outline for the direction Chaplin would take silent cinema. While Sennett focused almost exclusively on nearly anonymous slapstick, in The New Janitor Chaplin slows down the antics and lets the story lead the way. The comedy — and our empathizing with the Tramp and understanding of the supporting characters — is rooted back into the narrative in a way that Keystone hadn't yet accomplished. Though certainly no masterpiece, it does pack multiple layers into its brief 16-minute running time, as opposed to other Keystone shorts that feel as if the material is being stretched perilously thin to merely fill a reel.

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Under different circumstances I'd give a full review to Tillie's Punctured Romance, the Sennett-directed slapstick-fest that is widely considered to be the first feature comedy in American film. But the film has more in common with the shorts Chaplin starred in than it does with many other feature films. Because so many of Sennett's jokes could originate in gags practically unrelated to the underlying action, Tillie's Punctured Romance unrolls in the fashion of a few shorts surgically stitched together. In the film Chaplin plays a shameless con artist named Charlie from the city who woos a country girl named Tillie (Marie Dressler) to make off with her father's money. Once they arrive in town, however, he promptly leaves her so he and another woman, Mabel (Normand), can buy new clothes. Tillie ends up in jail for alcohol consumption and becomes a waitress. Of course, Charlie and Mabel are later visitors at the restaurant and the antics continue, driven forward by Tillie's scorn for Chaplin (one of the most heartless characters of his career). There's a hell of a gag in the first few minutes involving a thrown brick, but the comedy generally fails to rise above the level of most Keystone shorts. The Keystone Cops do show up, but it's only their scenes toward the end where numerous characters go careening off a dock that come off as fresh. It's certainly recommended for those interested in the history of silent comedy or the career of Chaplin, but otherwise mid-level Keaton or Harold Lloyd would be a better use of valuable viewing hours.


John 03 June, 2009  

What amazed me after watching Chaplin's early works was how violent the comedy was; then again, most comedy from that period leaned on violent behavior. The tramp character was also a bit on the malicious, cruel side. In later works Chaplin refined the tramp character toning down these traits and making him a more a three dimensional character. In watching the tramp develop and change from these primitive works to his most sophisticated late films is to watch the growth of one of the great artists of our time.

Terrific post T.S.

T.S. 04 June, 2009  

Great point, John! How violent indeed, although certainly not without the possibility of humor. (I must admit I laughed the hardest in Tillie's Punctured Romance when Chaplin is accidentally hit in the face with the brick, and then the brick begins to make the rounds on everyone's head; but, alas, not many other laughs to be had.)

And I wholeheartedly second your point about watching the Tramp mature. It may be the sole reason I find The New Janitor so compelling and why, outside of the Sennett-oriented films, that particular short might not stand out. When compared to how the comedy and narrative had gone in the previous shorts, that one is subtle and quasi-sophisticated. (He still had a while to go before he "became Chaplin" and everything that means.)

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