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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Cruel, Cruel Love (1914)

Director: George Nichols
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, and Eva Nelson
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.
As if to underline just how much he was experimenting with the cinematic medium at this early point in his career, Charlie Chaplin is completely recognisable but this film is a real shake up in many ways. For a start, he doesn't play the Little Tramp at all, though there are some quintessential Chaplin moments, especially early on, where subtle pratfalls bring that character to mind. Instead he plays a gentleman, a well to do sort with a butler and a much longer moustache than we're used to seeing on Chaplin, though it was trimmed down substantially from the outrageous one he wore in Making a Living. The character is not named in the intertitles, but sources list him as both Lord Helpus and Mr Dovey. The former appears to fit much better, as he's the epitome of the overly principled peer whose honour forces him to end his life when his fiancée calls the whole thing off, even when it's only because of a misconception which he could so easily have addressed with a little communication.

The wildest difference to what we might expect comes through the tone of the film, because it's really a melodrama masquerading as a comedy rather than the other way around, assisted by some of the most outrageous overacting that the usually subtle Chaplin ever did. His Keystone comedies, like all Keystone comedies, mostly ran through the same tried and tested routines and gags, something that Chaplin was keen to escape, even with only a few pictures under his belt. His keen attempts to do so are especially obvious in the four shorts he made for George Nichols, which couldn't be more different if they tried. A Film Johnnie was a meta movie that emphatically equated the Little Tramp with the audience as a sort of everyman character. His Favorite Pastime was a trip to the dark side, with an obnoxious Little Tramp in his cups, annoying everyone he could find, and reaching so far down the moral scale to stalk a lady to raise a laugh. Cruel, Cruel Love has him overact for effect. The Star Boarder was still to come.

Clearly, Chaplin was experimenting and I wonder if this film was original or simply a comedic riff on a more recognisable story, perhaps from a recent, higher profile, film. The way the melodrama escalates has been compared to the work of D W Griffith, the most important and influential early film director in America, whose first feature, Judith of Bethulia, had been shot a year before Cruel, Cruel Love in 1913 but released a mere couple of weeks before it. While it might seem to posterity that Griffith and Mack Sennett, the 'King of Comedy', operated at different ends of the spectrum, there are many connections that should be highlighted. Sennett learned his craft working for Griffith, for a start, at Biograph, as did many of the Keystone regulars, including Mabel Normand. In 1915, Sennett, Griffith, and Thomas Ince tied their autonomous outputs to the Triangle Film Corporation to control distribution. In 1919, Griffith founded United Artists, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and... Charlie Chaplin.
Whether Cruel, Cruel Love riffs off a specific D W Griffith film or just a general formula he used, it feels like it started out as a melodrama and had comedy shoehorned in. Perhaps this is mostly because the comedy doesn't stem as much from gags as was usual in Keystone farces. Instead, we find ourselves constantly reminded of the comedy through Edgar Kennedy, playing Lord Helpus's butler, laughing his ass off for the entire running time. Every time things get a little too serious, we're cut back to Kennedy slapping his thighs and splitting his sides, because he knows something that the main characters don't (and neither do we) and he's hardly going to let them in on the joke until the finalé because, hey, what fun would that be? Because it's a melodrama, this joke simply has to tie to the usual culprits, love and death, and the story arc shifts neatly from the former to the latter and back to the former again in the one reel that the picture ran, just short of nine and a half minutes.

The setup has Lord Helpus caught in an innocent but compromising situation that his fiancée can't fail to react to. He begins the film making sweet, sweet love to her (in the family friendly 1914 meaning of the phrase) in her parlour, going so far as to kiss her, though he takes her leave with a far more polite shake of the hand. They've been interrupted by the lady's maid, giggling up a storm from her position behind a thick curtain. It's this maid who sets the scene for Lord Helpus's downfall. Gossiping with the gardener in the driveway, she twists an ankle and stumbles into his lordship's arms. Of course he has the decency to assist the young lady, but helping her into a garden loveseat to check her injury can't fail to be misinterpreted if noticed and, sure enough, it's noticed. 'Take your ring,' he's informed with vigour. 'I never want to see you again.' Ever the honourable gentleman, he doesn't even put his case, merely walks off without a word, goes home and takes poison.

If you can believe it from that synopsis, this is the subtle part of the movie, because it's underplayed indeed compared to where it soon goes. If its effects are anything to go by, the poison acts on Chaplin more like a superpowered energy drink, prompting him to ham it up for the camera like he never did before. Perhaps he felt he had to because the situation has no inherent humour, our laughs prompted far more by his outrageous reaction to imminent death than the fact that he's apparently going to die horribly. Well, that and the fact that Edgar Kennedy's butler convulses in paroxysms of laughter from the outset, just outside the door, because only he knows that the poison is really water. I grew up with the mystery novel cliché that the butler always did it, but that referred to murder. In Keystone's take on the landed gentry, butlers were apparently for standing out of sight and laughing up a storm, maybe in the hope that we'd eventually follow suit, if only through peer pressure, no pun intended.
The most overtly Chaplinesque part of the affair comes just shy of halfway in a brief vignette presaged by an intertitle announcing 'A Vision of His Destiny'. Faced with his imminent demise, Lord Helpus sees himself condemned to Hell, where he's trapped between the pitchforks of devils and, for some reason, bounced up and down, like he's on some sort of demonic trampoline. His reaction to taking the poison can't be described as anything less than overblown, but it's even more so afterwards, as he exercises enough facial muscles to keep an anatomy class busy for weeks. And so we're set for the race against time that constitutes the third act, with Lord Helpus gradually destroying his bedroom with histrionics, his butler finding it the most hilarious thing he's ever seen in his life and the rest of the cast, especially the lady's gardener, played by William Hauber, attempt to undo the stack of mistakes that have been committed, one by one.

Chaplin is front and centre on this one, as he was with each of the four films he made for George 'Pop' Nichols, and he's backed by regular Keystone faces. Most obvious here is Edgar Kennedy, who came to film in 1911 and, over the course of over four hundred films, appeared with almost all the great movie comedians: Chaplin, Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey, Our Gang, the Marx Brothers, Harold Lloyd, etc. He became best known working for Sennett's biggest competitor, Hal Roach, who become a producer in 1915, and for a series of RKO shorts called Average Man, which presaged television situation comedy; he turned out six Average Man shorts every year for seventeen years. It was for Roach that he developed the technique that brought him his professional nickname of Slow Burn, attempting to keep his temper in check by rubbing his hand over his bald head and across his face. By this point he had become the movie archetype of the frustrated everyman.

The other major name worth mentioning is Minta Durfee, playing Chaplin's fiancée who here, through a hotheaded faulty reaction sparks the entire plot. Like Kennedy, Durfee was a Keystone regular whose face is easily recognisable in many of Chaplin's early shorts; in fact, she was there when he began, in Making a Living. She made comparatively few pictures for an early silent star, just over a hundred in a film career that ran almost sixty years, from 1913 to 1971; forty of those were released in 1914 alone. She outlasted most of her contemporaries, including her only husband, Roscoe Arbuckle, who she had married in 1908. They didn't divorce until 1925, but they were separated before the infamous scandal that rocked Hollywood in 1921, when Arbuckle suffered through three trials connected to the death of Virginia Rappe, the fianceé of Chaplin's first director, Henry Lehrman. History has come down squarely on Arbuckle's side, but at the time Durfee was one of the few to stand by him, even separated.

Cruel, Cruel Love has a reputation of standing alone in Chaplin's early filmography, very different from the usual films he was quickly turning out. However, working through them in order, at the speed they were released, it's clear that it was part of a strong experimental phase in his work that is particularly fascinating to hindsight. Chaplin, who quickly formed his own ideas about how his movies should work, famously didn't get on with his directors, but it was Lehrman who has borne the brunt of criticism over the years, for running roughshod over his suggestions and even editing out his funniest bits. Nichols is often lumped in with Lehrman as a traditional director who couldn't understand why comedy needed to change and mature. This project highlights that Chaplin's films for Nichols are actually some of his most ambitious: if they fail to define the future of comedy, they do at least involve heavy experimentation in a clear attempt to search for it.

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

Cruel, Cruel Love 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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