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Sunday, 9 February 2014

Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman
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.
I first saw Mabel's Strange Predicament in a washed out public domain French print in a cheap DVD box set under the title of Charlot à l'Hôtel, or Charlie in the Hotel. This change of title is important because, even though it was surely done to reflect the bigger star at the time of reissue, it underlines an obvious truth: this is undeniably a Charlie Chaplin picture. Nobody watching today would remotely believe that anyone else was the lead actor, because he's clearly the focus of attention. He's rarely off screen, for a start, and he owns the opening scene, which runs long for a 1914 picture, let alone one from Keystone Studios. Mack Sennett, founder of Keystone, originally intended to have Chaplin stage some routines in the hotel lobby, presumably to warm up the film and to give his new actor some screen time. However, Chaplin made it obvious, even during the shoot, that his new character deserved more attention, which he promptly got. Sennett bulked up his role to appear throughout the story.

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.
Watching Mabel's Strange Predicament in 2014, especially in the restored version that Flicker Alley put out on DVD in 2010, we can't help but wonder what she thought she was doing here. She appears just like a silent movie stereotype, flailing her arms around in panic and chewing up every piece of scenery she can find. She isn't alone, of course, as most of the rest of the cast do the same, including Keystone regulars Chester Conklin and Alice Davenport as a husband and wife who find themselves inadvertently caught up in the assorted mishaps which set up the strange predicament of the title. However, all this merely makes it even more obvious that Charlie Chaplin doesn't chew up any scenery. Instead, he's a surprisingly realistic drunkard, a 'drunken masher' who sups too much in the first scene, so spends the rest of the film notably under the influence. It's a believable, grounded performance that makes good use not only of his hat and cane but of many other props in the hotel.

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.
While Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal has more of one of his most appealing traits, namely his eagerness to stick his nose up at authority, this has more of the rest. He's drunk for most of the film, making him an outsider wherever he goes, even if the hotel staff treat him with deference because he's aware how to tip. In playing this drunkard he gets to exercise his craft and show off his moves, but he also gets to do it at length within the confines of a story based picture. The superlatives some contemporary critics used to describe him in his earlier two films would have been far more appropriately used here. He got better, make no mistake, but he effortlessly and emphatically outclassed every one of his co-stars. He dominates, pure and simple, every movement an opportunity for another little nuance, whether it's to bash himself on the head with his twirling cane, fall off a chair or just hang up his tight coat on a hook that isn't there. He's the centre of his own universe, one that only we can appreciate.

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.

Important Sources:
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.

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