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Sunday, 9 March 2014

Tango Tangles (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Ford Sterling and Roscoe Arbuckle
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.
Even seven films in, I'm still at the beginning of Charlie Chaplin's career and it's even more clear in this one than its predecessors that he was still experimenting with his character. Either that or there was a bizarre bet on at Keystone Studios in early February 1914, because that Keystone perennial, facial hair, is notable for its absence. It's utterly surreal to watch Chaplin without his toothbrush moustache, which had been firmly in place for the first four films he made as the Little Tramp and, as we well know with a century of hindsight, would remain firmly in place for most of his career. He isn't the only one to lose his facial hair either, as Ford Sterling appears without goatee, as recognisable a trademark for him as the toothbrush moustache was for Chaplin, one that was far more established at this point in time. Roscoe Arbuckle was a rare Keystone comedian to not need such things to stand out, as his rotund frame was recognisable enough. Surely if he'd had facial hair, he'd have lost it here too. Why, we don't know.

Tango Tangles was another location film, for the most part, though it's less tied to opportunity than Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal or Between Showers. Mack Sennett explained the thought: 'We took Chaplin, Sterling, Arbuckle, and Conklin to a dance hall, turned them loose, and pointed a camera at them. They made like funny, and that was it.' This particular location was the Venice Dance Hall on Abbot Kinney Pier in Santa Monica, part of a concerted attempt by Kinney, a noted American developer, to create 'a Venice of America'. The pier was built in 1904 and the 14,560 square foot dance floor added in 1906 in a mere seventeen days, rushed to meet a 4th July opening date. Perhaps Sennett chose the location as Kinney spent $100,000 in improvements in 1914, but, if it was publicity (and there's a short clip of real dancers on the floor before the fictional side of the film kicks in), it didn't help for long, as the mostly uninsured pier burned down in 1920 with damages totalling over a million dollars. It was never rebuilt.

Keystone scripts were never complex affairs, though as scholars start to work through the Mack Sennett papers at the Margaret Herrick Library, funded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the one that hands out Oscars), we're discovering that they were often less improvised than early historians have led us to believe. This one feels scripted during the first section, but then clearly improvised from then on as the top comedians at Keystone traded whatever gags seemed appropriate to reach the final desired scene in a similar way to how professional wrestlers trade moves until the predestined moment of truth. The camera just sits back and captures it all, leaving only a little work for an editor to piece the important bits together into a usable form to be shipped out to theatres. The furthest this one goes to a story is to have Sterling and Arbuckle play together in the same house band. Chaplin merely stumbles in 'a little the worse of wear'. From there, it's just minor setup to get them onto the dance floor to scrap.
That minor setup revolves around Sadie Lampe playing a hat check girl who finds herself the centre of at least a love rectangle. It apparently wore her out, as it appears to mark the end of a short career that spanned four of Chaplin's early films for Keystone. It's a toss up between this one and Between Showers for her finest moment. She was the housemaid who enthralled Chester Conklin enough in the latter for him to fail to notice Ford Sterling's sneaky replacement of his umbrella, thus sparking the plot. Here she is enough of a vision to make the story viable, but not enough of an actress to steal our eyes back from the trio of stars who literally duke it out for her attentions, especially as Chaplin plays drunk, Sterling is manic and Arbuckle gets impressively energetic. The likelihood of anyone remembering this as a Sadie Lampe picture is nonexistent, though she does steal a moment from Chaplin by apparently laughing for real when he drunkenly misses a table.

She smiles engagingly for what seems like everyone in the film. Initially she smiles engagingly for some random patron to whom we're never introduced. She steps forward to smile engagingly for Sterling, who acts out his strong feelings overtly with his hand literally on his heart. Finally, she smiles engagingly for Fatty Arbuckle, who storms onto the scene, angered at Sterling taking advantage of his absence. 'Keep away from the girl,' he demands in a pointless intertitle. Eventually, of course, she smiles engagingly for Chaplin and the story is in motion. At least Lampe is good at smiling engagingly; she isn't particularly good at cringing in horror when Arbuckle literally lifts another random patron up over his head as if he weighed only a few pounds. I was stunned when I first saw this scene. I knew Arbuckle had moves but this is so effortless that today we'd expect it was done with wirework; he just had muscles and hopefully a talented stuntman to bounce around above his head and just let go apparently without warning.
No wonder Sterling runs from the scene, in the familiar style that involves him jumping in the air before moving forward. It's little details like this and a later episode of nose biting, which he also demonstrated in Between Showers, that render his slide into obscurity unsurprising. No wonder Sterling would soon be in the shadow of his replacement at Keystone. He doesn't have much chance to evade Arbuckle in this film, given that they both play in the same band. Sterling is the bandleader, with a trumpet that keeps getting the better of him; at one point he even attempts to play it backwards by mistake. Arbuckle has a clarinet and wields it with a more realistic air; his character is obviously playing rhythm in this scene while Sterling plays a lead solo, and that holds true whether we're reading it literally or metaphorically. Eventually, of course, they both have to notice that while they're fiddling, Rome is burning. Chaplin has returned to the hat check girl and coaxed her out for a spin on the dancefloor.

It may be that Tango Tangles features no tangos, though I'm far from an expert on dance. The title was primarily meant to play alliteratively on words and hint at the new dance craze that was sweeping the nation: the tango. Originating in the 1890s on the border of Argentina and Uruguay, it found its way to New York in 1913 via Europe. The ever receptive and exploitative cinema of the day responded straight away. The 1913 Essanay picture, A Tango Tangle, appears to have nothing at all in common with Tango Tangles, released only a year later, except for dance; the same goes for a 1914 British film also named A Tango Tangle. Other foreign films seem to have jumped on the same bandwagon, but the high wave quickly foundered; after three titles in two years, there seems to have been nothing similar since. Even if there are no tangos to be found, there are certainly plenty of extras dancing around behind the stars and clearly having a ball, pun intended, until they decide to stop and watch the action instead.

And it's the action that Sennett was most interested in. The centerpiece of the film, Sterling vs Chaplin, isn't great, not only because today it looks bizarrely like Buster Keaton against Harold Ramis doing an Eraserhead impression. Back in 1914 it wasn't great because Chaplin plays up to Sterling's style rather than Sterling playing down to Chaplin's. Perhaps the thought was that Chaplin, out of his Little Tramp costume, would take on a completely different character and adopt a completely different style. If so, the experiment mostly fails because this particular drunk is a broad exaggeration of the Little Tramp, who was so popular because of his subtleties. Sans subtleties, he's less interesting and less engaging, though still the side we're probably all rooting for because, hey, at least he isn't biting his opponent's nose. It's one thing to build a character out of a healthy disrespect for authority, as Chaplin did, but it's just not cricket to resort to nose biting. What sort of cultural background does that have?
It's much more interesting when the battling pair end up back in the cloakroom, where they attempt to put on the same coat at the same time, managing to get in one arm each. The resulting chaos is far from inspired though, just more routine destruction until that final move where they collapse in unison. One interesting note is that Lampe ends up with Roscoe Arbuckle, whose real life wife, Minta Durfee, is one of the dancers, not, as some accounts would have it, the hat check girl. Durfee would stick with her husband throughout his notorious trials, though they were separated at the time. Another is that Jeffrey Vance has suggested that the fight choreography used here was sourced from the Inebriate character Chaplin played in the Mumming Birds sketch while touring the vaudeville circuit with the Fred Karno Troupe. If that's true, which is entirely believable, Chaplin was looking backwards rather than forwards here, an odd decision when set against the forward looking framework of most of his other early films.

Finally it's notable that the director here was Mack Sennett himself, head of Keystone, taking the helm for the first time in a Chaplin pictur. Chaplin had made four films under Henry Lehrman and was one into four he'd make under George Nichols; with the only exception being Mabel's Strange Predicament, which was directed by its nominal star, Mabel Normand. If accounts are true, Chaplin didn't get on with any of these directors, who he saw as either stuck in an old mindset or responsible for ruthlessly editing down his footage. He was still seeking the opportunity to take over that role himself, and he finally got there in April 1914 when he wrote and directed the one reel comedy, Caught in the Rain. A couple of weeks earlier, he got his feet wet co-directing Twenty Minutes of Love with Joseph Maddern. Surely Sennett's guiding hand on this film was very different from his predecessors, but it was heavy handed and most interesting for the lack of facial hair. That's not a good reason to remember a movie.

Important Sources:
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Stanton - Abbot Kinney Pier (1998)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Tango Tangles 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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