Stars: Mabel Normand, Charles Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport and Harry McCoy
|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.|
It's important to remember that at this point in time, Chaplin had only hinted at what he could do. This film hit screens on Monday, 9th February, 1914 and he wasn't yet the world famous star he would soon become. He'd debuted on screen only a week earlier, in a role that didn't fit him, but five days later he showed up again, this time as the Little Tramp. Theatre audiences were beginning to notice this funny actor who did things a little differently from the norm, and this was an emphatic follow up to the oddity that was Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. In reality, he shot this film before that one, but it took longer to reach theatres because it was a far more sophisticated production. That's not to suggest that anything Keystone produced at this point was particularly sophisticated, but everything feels sophisticated when compared to a 45 minute shoot at a public event where the height of comedy is when the Little Tramp walks in front of the camera. It was groundbreaking and historic, but it was hardly high art.
At this point, as the title suggests, the star was Mabel Normand, who was perhaps the biggest name at Keystone Studios. Not incidentally, she was also four years into a tumultuous relationship with Sennett, who she had met at Biograph when both were working for D W Griffith, Normand in front of the camera and Sennett behind it. He brought her with him to California in 1912 to found Keystone and he quickly made her a star. By the time her character found herself in this strange predicament, she had become the establishment, with nearly 150 pictures behind her, many as her regular character, Mabel. She was also a pioneering female writer and director, who would have her own studio by the end of the decade. Her career derailed though, aided by two major scandals: the unsolved murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, possibly through a hit to stop him helping authorities bring down her cocaine dealers, and the shooting of millionnaire Courtland Dines by her chauffeur, Joe Kelly. She died from TB in 1930.
Officially, of course, it's all about Mabel and the fine mess that she gets into. It's hardly a complex idea to build a film on; she just checks into a hotel, changes into her 1914 pyjamas and plays with her dog: bouncing a ball, falling over a lot and generally driving the couple across the hall nuts. The fun begins when she bounces the ball into the hallway; she goes to retrieve it and the dog shuts the door behind her, locking her out of her own room. That's probably as far as the script got, because that's how they worked at Keystone and the rest was gags built upon gags. The next scene, in which drunken Charlie stumbles upon her and decides to woo her results in her hiding under the bed. In the room across the hall. The one that houses the couple who are already complaining about her. It's hardly sophisticated, even by Keystone standards, but it moves along capably enough, with opportunities for Davenport to rage, Conklin to gesture and Harry McCoy to get crazily jealous as her lover.
None of them impress. It's great to see them properly in a well restored print but they do nothing here that hadn't been done many times already, such as in most of the dozen one reel comedies Keystone churned out every month, usually featuring the same actors. What makes this particular film special is Charlie Chaplin, not because he does anything we wouldn't see him do again later on in better pictures with better scripts and better performances, but because he hadn't done it before this. This is the film that first showed us just what Chaplin could do. He didn't do much in Making a Living, because he was stuck playing a clichéd villain in a movie that refused to slow down and director Henry Lehrman cut out most of his best bits. I enjoyed Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal a lot more when I saw the restored Flicker Alley version, but it's still far more important than it is enjoyable, as it's our first experience of the Little Tramp. It's a shame that film reached theatres first, because this would have been the better debut.
With three films reaching theatres in eight days, Chaplin was well on the way. This movie in particular showcased his talents, highlighted how he could steal every scene from his far more experienced and established fellow cast members and clearly emphasised that the future was his to grasp. Yet he was still new at Keystone Studios and he was still adapting his stage expertise to screen. Mabel's Strange Predicament demonstrates that he had an instinctive feel for the camera, but he would hone his skills over many further pictures until he had mastered not only the role of actor but most of the other roles needed to make a film work. David Robinson, author of a number of books on Chaplin, wrote that 'no other filmmaker ever so completely dominated every aspect of the work, did every job,' adding that 'If he could have done so, Chaplin would have played every role and (as his son Sydney humorously but perceptively observed) sewn every costume.' From here, we can start watching him grow.
And I'm really looking forward to doing that over 2014. I've seen most of Chaplin's Keystone pictures before, but only in the generally poor prints that have circulated for years. I'm finding the Flicker Alley restorations eye-opening because I'm seeing things in each of these films that I've never seen before, even if I watch my older copy immediately before its new restoration. Each one of Chaplin's first three pictures has played better to me than last time and I've laughed more and more often. However, I'm still only at the beginning; I know his films got better as the year progressed and as he gradually took over as actor, writer and director. I wonder if this is why Mabel Normand is so frequently cited as his mentor. Clearly it isn't because of her acting, because he effortlessly eclipses her in their first pairing. There are twelve more to come in 1914, culminating in the first feature length screen comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance. It's going to be an interesting year.
David Robinson - Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)
Mabel's Strange Predicament 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.