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Friday, 20 June 2014

Mabel's Married Life (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Mack Swain
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.
Mabel's Married Life arrived at the point where Chaplin was really starting to gain a semblance of control over his work. Most authorities list Mack Sennett as the film's director, thus marking the last time Chaplin would appear in a short film that he didn't direct himself, while others, like the British Film Institute, claim that it was Chaplin himself in the director's chair. Chaplin's handwritten filmography, reproduced in David Robinson's biography, Chaplin: His Life and Art, lists it as 'my own', though, as with his first possible foray into direction, Twenty Minutes of Love, this could well mean that he contributed as a writer rather than a director; certainly there's no argument that he wrote this with Mabel Normand. There's also little dispute that he took over as his own director as of his next short, Laughing Gas, and his only future movies which he didn't direct himself are Tillie's Punctured Romance, the one feature he made at Keystone, and a few odd others later on, like Camille or Souls for Sale, which contained Chaplin cameos or guest appearances.

Certainly this feels far more like a Chaplin film than a Sennett film, because the pace is surely the slowest of any of his twenty pictures thus far and the comedy is light enough that it almost plays out as a drama for much of the running time. It's firmly rooted in the Keystone standards, but they're often either ignored as mere background or handled in a slightly different way to usual. As Jeffrey Vance highlights in Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, it's yet another Keystone short to be shot predominantly in Echo Park, located only five blocks south of their studios in Edendale, but, however close folk get at points, not one of them ends up in the Echo Park Lake. Another Keystone standard, the kick in the ass, is stunningly ineffective in this picture, Mack Swain shrugging off Chaplin's best efforts to distract and provoke him. Mabel Normand gets to spit on her hands and knuckle up and Chaplin gets to visit a bar, getting drunk yet again. He was a dab hand at this but it does start getting tiring after so many repetitions.

He clearly plays the Little Tramp here, though his usual derby is swapped out for a battered top hat, but the internal consistency seems a little lost. He's in his regular tight coat, dilapidated shoes and an even more baggy pair of trousers than usual, but he's living in what appears to be decent accommodation and he's married to the title character played by Mabel Normand. Harry McCoy, who played Mabel's boyfriend or husband in a number of 1914 pictures at Keystone, as early as Mabel's Strange Predicament, Chaplin's third film, is sidelined into a bit part as just a man in the bar which Charlie frequents. Putting Charlie and Mabel together as man and wife isn't just a combination of the two biggest draws at Keystone, it was also a counter to the antagonism of their last film together, Mabel's Busy Day, in which Charlie destroyed poor Mabel and her fledgling business with deliberate intent. Surprisingly, they're not a bickering couple here, not a happy relationship either, given Charlie's taste for the bottle, but one he's willing to fight for.
And it certainly seems like he needs to. His opponent here, yet again, is Mack Swain, credited to posterity as 'Sporty Ladykiller' which means that he carries a tennis racket and hits on Mabel, even though his own wife is mere yards away on a different Echo Park bench. In fact he rather emphatically hits on Mabel, not remotely taking no for an answer, and with Charlie getting drunk in a nearby bar, there's apparently not a soul to stop him. The comedy arrives when Charlie leaves the bar, notices what's going on and drunkenly attempts to do something about it. Here's the ass kicking scene, because Swain just shrugs him off, using his bulk to keep him away from Mabel. Charlie can't get round him, so resorts to punching, then kicking him in the ass, only to be completely ignored for his troubles. This isn't a bad scene, because it tries to do something a little different from the norm, even if it's otherwise so reminiscent of scenes in a whole host of other Keystone films of the era. It does show a little imagination, at least.

Light drama takes over from comedy for a while, with laughs present but notably milder than usual, even if we factor in Chaplin's continual attempts to ratchet down the more overt slapstick for which Keystone was justly known and introduce more subtle character-infused humour in its place. Eventually though, we find Charlie teaming up with Sporty Ladykiller's wife to rescue Mabel from his clutches. Whether Swain's screen wife is played by Eva Nelson or Alice Howell, it's clear to everyone involved that she's much more capable of dealing with the situation than Charlie the Little Drunk Tramp. This surely resonates in Mabel's mind, so she buys the boxing dummy on display in front of a sporting goods store to stir things up later. While we can't expect the Keystone prop department to throw things out after a single use, this is clearly the very same boxing dummy that audiences saw Roscoe Arbuckle take on only nine days earlier in The Knockout. They could at least have put it in a different turtleneck or perhaps turned down the collar.

Given that Charlie has trouble getting through the bar's swinging door, in yet another recurring Keystone gag, it'll be no surprise to figure out what happens next. Yes, he's drunk as a skunk by the time he gets in and Mabel's already in bed. Perhaps he thought the onions he stole from the bar were a bunch of flowers, but he gets waylaid by the boxing dummy, which... suspend your disbelief here... he mistakes for Sporty Ladykiller, who must surely have followed her home to stand like a sentinel just inside their front door. It's hardly the most surprising set up for a set of gags, not one moment after she bought the dummy coming as anything close to a shock, but Chaplin and Normand were both consummate professionals and they played it all out with the sort of pristine timing required. It's a shame they didn't get a better scene to end the picture, which marked the last time they'd act together in a film carrying the name of Mabel's regular character. Otherwise they had a couple of shorts and a feature together still to come.
It's telling that there's so little to say about Mabel's Married Life. Beyond being made at a crucial point in Chaplin's career, it's notably unworthy of note. Chaplin is capable, but he'd played a drunk so often thus far that we can't fail to realise how routine this was for him. Normand is capable too, but is given next to nothing to do. She'd taken a surprising back seat to Chaplin from the first moment they appeared in film together, but at least she tried to steal her films back early on. By this point, she'd apparently decided it wasn't worth the fight and let him run the show. She plays her few scenes without him well, but not quite so well as to elevate the film. Mack Swain is on lecherous autopilot and his wife is exactly the crotchetty old spouse that might just have him under her thumb, however large he is. The only other character who gets a moment to shine is a supposed friend who torments Charlie in the bar. He's played by Hank Mann, who, years later, would play a far more memorable foil for Chaplin in the boxing ring in City Lights.

Perhaps Mabel's Married Life suffered from the sheer speed at which folk were working in mid-1914. After wrapping Caught in the Rain on 13th April, Chaplin went straight into work on Keystone's comedy feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance, which shot from 14th April to 9th June. He didn't work on a short for a month, then caught up with a vengeance by shooting three pictures in a mere nine days in May: The Fatal Mallet from the 10th to the 12th, then Her Friend the Bandit and The Knockout back to back between the 11th and the 18th. Work began on Mabel's Busy Day on the 17th and continued until the 26th. It looks like he took a breather for a few days and then knocked out Mabel's Married Life between the 30th and 2nd June, a four day shoot. In all, five Chaplin pictures reached cinema screens in under three weeks in June, surely an unimaginable pace to us with a century of hindsight. By comparison, there would only be a single one in July, before another five arrived in August, though spread out at least from the 1st to the 31st.

No wonder this was hardly a stellar period in Chaplin's career. After a few poor early pictures as he found his feet, he settled into a routine of capable comedies that occasionally warranted more attention, like A Film Johnnie, The Star Boarder or Caught in the Rain. However, his previous film, Mabel's Busy Day, was surely the weakest he'd made thus far and this is almost the epitome of an OK movie, probably the most forgettable film he'd made yet. It's notable that this down period corresponds with the presence of studio boss Mack Sennett in the director's chair. However badly Chaplin got on with George Nichols, he did find a way to experiment in the films he directed. Under Sennett, his only experimentation was to appear in drag in A Busy Day, though we don't have Her Friend the Bandit to review. So Mabel's Married Life is only notable as a marker at the end of the first phase of Chaplin's career, in which he was directed by others. As of his next picture, Laughing Gas, he'd begin to have the creative control he had fought so long for.

Important Sources:
David Robinson - Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Mabel's Married Life can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered. The full version will debut in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1 in July.

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