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Friday, 28 February 2014

Between Showers (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman
Stars: Ford Sterling and Charlie Chaplin
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
Between Showers, the fifth and last film in Charlie Chaplin's busy debut month, was a transitional film, highlighting both the evolution of his Little Tramp character and his growing importance at Keystone Studios. Like A Thief Catcher, it's a Ford Sterling movie, but Chaplin is elevated from a minor supporting role as a Keystone Kop, just helping out on a day when the studio was short of actors, to Sterling's co-star. In fact, if we didn't know that Sterling was preparing to leave Keystone to form his own studio, we might be forgiven for seeing this as the start of a new double act. At just over fourteen minutes, it's the longest short Chaplin had yet made, though it was still only a one reeler; it would remain the longest until his first two reeler, Mabel at the Wheel, six pictures away in mid April. It's also the last of his films to be directed by Henry Lehrman, who left for L-Ko Studios after this one. Lehrman had directed four out of his first five pictures, just as his replacement, George Nichols, would direct four out of his next five.

The framework of the story is as flimsy as Keystone got and highlights how quickly they made pictures. Hollywood had been experiencing torrential rain in early February 1914, so Mack Sennett, producer and studio head, had the unknown writer conjure up a comedy about it. He did so quickly enough that they could use a particularly large puddle at the side of a road as a prominent prop, but that's not surprising given how little there is in what passed for a script at Keystone. The story arc follows an umbrella, which Sterling's character steals at the beginning of the film, daringly from a Keystone Kop. He leaves it with a lady in distress, who he's eager to help across that prominent puddle, only to find that retrieving it from her again is a tough proposition, one complicated by the involvement of Chaplin's Little Tramp, who also wants to help the lady. As was usually the case in Keystone shorts, slapstick comedy is improvised until the umbrella is reunited with its rightful owner through a particularly dumb move by the thief.

And, of course, the umbrella is a MacGuffin, an object that drives the characters but has no importance to the audience. This was a couple of decades before Hitchcock popularised the term, but it had other names back in the silent era; Pearl White, the 'Queen of the Serials', called it a 'weenie'. We don't care about the umbrella at all, but we're very interested in the shenanigans that the characters get up to in order to have it, starting with Sterling's antics as the film begins. He wants it because more rain is due and his own umbrella is shredded and useless. Given that he's a thief, Mr Snookie by name in the print I saw, he's happy to steal one and there's one close by in the hands of a cop, who is clearly distracted by the attentions of a pretty girl. The cop is Keystone regular Chester Conklin, who has little to do here, and the lady is probably Sadie Lampe, who decorated the screen nicely in small supporting roles in a few of Chaplin's early shorts. Sterling dominates this scene though and it's interesting to see how.
Sterling was a pantomime artist, the sort of actor people see in their mind if they're asked to think of a silent screen comedian. He never stops moving, even when he can't go anywhere. His very expressive hands are always in motion, just like his mouth and the rest of his face. He telegraphs every move with flamboyant gestures and indulges in overt internal conversation to get that across, as if he's explaining himself to an imaginary companion. If this was animation, there would be a little devil on his shoulders, goading him into a heinous act, and a little angel making a little effort to stop him before it's too late. He doesn't walk; he creeps portentiously. Later in the film, as the action speeds up, he jumps in the air before running. Here, he turns round and runs on the spot for effect before making his escape. Oddly, we never see him in the same frame as the cop and his lady friend; just his hand in their shots and the end of the umbrella when he's on screen. It helps to highlight how this is all about him.

And so to the vast puddle, where he measures its depths with the umbrella and wonders if he can cross the road without getting soaked. Before he tries it, a young lady shows up, played by Emma Clifton, and wonders the same thing; our thief is instantly smitten. He goes in search of a plank to use as a bridge, only to discover that during his absence, the Little Tramp shows up and runs through exactly the same setup. Now they are rivals for this young lady's affections, but they both lose out to a helpful policeman who politely carries her over the road. He's played by Eddie Nolan, a lesser name at Keystone Studios who debuted with Chaplin in Making a Living; his first five films were all Chaplin shorts and he'd play a number of roles in their first feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance. Nolan's acting style is even more realistic than Chaplin's, but it's much more limited. He's subdued and comfortable in his actions, but doesn't have the expressions of the lead comics; he served best as a tall prop for them to work off.

Five minutes in, Sterling and Chaplin return to the puddle with their respective planks to interact for the first time. We've already contrasted them in our minds, as their styles are completely different, but we can't fail to do so afresh as they share a screen. At the time, the most obvious contrast may have been between Sterling's goatee and Chaplin's toothbrush moustache, but today it's between styles, the old one that Sterling did so well and the new one that Chaplin was pioneering. Like Sterling, Chaplin never stops moving, but his movements are all small ones, much more restrained. Instead of jumping up and down, he shuffles on the spot. Instead of flailing around, he gestures calmly and builds his portfolio of personal tics. He interacts with the other characters rather than imaginary ones for our benefit. As the pair share both screen and gags, it's impossible not to see the difference between them. Only in more active moments does Chaplin imitate a lighter version of Sterling.
Another major difference that becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on is in the tone of their characters. Both play mashers, an archaic term for men who make advances to women they don't know, but they do so in completely different ways. Mr Snookie is a long way from the lovable rogue that the Little Tramp was quickly becoming; he's an angry and violent would be rapist, literally hopping mad, attacking the young lady who won't return his stolen umbrella. He orders her around, grabs her by the hair and even bites her nose. By comparison, Chaplin uses subtlety to woo her, gently taking her elbow and tipping his hat, and offering protection that she doesn't need. Women are strong in this short. The cop's lady friend at the beginning emphatically sends him packing when she sees the broken umbrella Mr Snookie left him. This former lady in distress saves herself, belting her assailant, pushing him around and knocking him down, all while two other women applaud in the distance. Emma Clifton had fun.

Chaplin does well in the slapstick fight scenes, but his most memorable moment is a charming one that helps to build his pixielike anti-establishment character. Both mashers face off against the gallant cop who carried the object of their affections over the road and both inevitably lose out, but how they do so is very telling. Sterling looks threatening but backs off like a coward when the cop slowly draws out his truncheon and their scene is over and forgotten by the character. Chaplin, by comparison, dominates his scene even with his back to the camera. He's just as wary and he doesn't back down, but he never threatens so the cop doesn't need to react. He also maintains control after the cop leaves, as his arms record the story of what he'd like to have done. He cocks a snoot at the departing cop, then breaks the fourth wall and grins his cheeky grin to the audience, sharing the event with us before covering that grin with his hand as if embarrassed by his thoughts. It's charming and infectious.

Audiences didn't know it then but we'd see this movement repeated a lot in future Chaplin films, along with a number of others that he makes here. Some might have looked familiar even at this point, such as the way he twirls the umbrella and knocks himself in the head; he did this a couple of times with a cane in Mabel's Strange Predicament and he would return to it again and again in later films. The well known Chaplin run is debuted here, as he skids into turns and makes them balanced on one foot. He'd get better at it later on but it arrived fully formed here. They're quirky little character depths that are so much more memorable than the inevitable slapstick antics that populate the fights and pratfalls. Yes, the Little Tramp literally kicks Mr Snookie in the ass and both of them are knocked down more than once. Between Showers isn't a great film, but it's a decent one that serves well as a hint of the future. The Little Tramp was clearly coming into his own and it's not surprising that audiences responded.

Important Sources:
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Between Showers can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

1 comment:

Tom Degan said...

Emma Clifton would pass away quite young in 1922 at the age of 47. When she made Between Showers she was a few months shy of 40.

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Tom Degan