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Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Fatal Mallet (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Mack Swain and Mabel Normand
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.
To suggest that Keystone Studios made Charlie Chaplin a busy man during his year there in 1914 is quite an outrageous understatement. They released five Chaplin pictures in February alone, four more in each of March and April and, eventually, the staggering total of 36 for the year. Yet, the first screenings of The Fatal Mallet on Monday, 1st June marked the end of a 25 day drought since the release of A Busy Day. At this point, the wait between Chaplin pictures had never exceeded 14 days, but studio head Mack Sennett had decided that the time was right to make a feature, the first American feature length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance. Shooting began on 14th April, the day after Chaplin wrapped Caught in the Rain, his solo directorial debut, and continued until 9th June. Chaplin worked on nothing else for a month, but then made rapid amends for his lack of new material on theatre screens by turning out four short films in just over two weeks. The Fatal Mallet was the first of them.

The strange thing is that it's far more notable as a Sennett picture than as a Chaplin picture. Not only did Sennett produce and direct the film, he also starred in it and as a lead actor too, functioning as the other half of a double act with Chaplin for most of it. In so doing, he kept more screen time for himself than he had done before and I can't help but wonder why. His substantial contributions to the art and science of American screen comedy cannot be overstated, but that wasn't because of his talents as an actor; even his biggest admirers would admit that he was one of the weaker actors on the Keystone set. It could just be that Harry McCoy was sick but, perhaps, after considering feedback from each of Chaplin's directors, all of whom had struggled with him, Sennett wanted to experience it first hand for a few pictures before allowing his star loose to consistently direct himself. Certainly, he was done giving him to others; from A Busy Day until his last day at Keystone, Chaplin only had to take direction from Sennett or himself.

Whatever the reason for Sennett's prominence on screen, his contributions can't be ignored and certain decisions ring down the years with the power of hindsight. Initially he's Chaplin's rival for the attentions of Mabel Normand, but with the arrival of a third suitor, played by Mack Swain, the two team up to take down the bigger man. Normand was a lovely young lady, who was one of Keystone's biggest draws long before Chaplin was hired and would remain so after he had left the studio, but she's remembered more today for her relationship with her boss than for her actual acting. Mack and Mabel were a couple, but it was never an easy ride and his inability to put a ring on her finger is surely why Sennett never married. For his part, Chaplin tried but failed to start a romance. 'We remained, unfortunately, only good friends,' he wrote in his autobiography. He admits a mutual kiss but sadly reports that attempts to build upon it failed: ''No, Charlie,' she said good-humouredly, 'I'm not your type, neither are you mine.''
Most of my reviews of Chaplin's Keystone films thus far have highlighted how he was bringing change to their comedic style, introducing subtleties and emotions that he knew well from the vaudeville stage to a studio that was, admittedly successfully, doing what it had always done with no will to do otherwise. Thus it can't come as much of a surprise to find that The Fatal Mallet, as near as any Keystone film ever was a creation of Mack Sennett alone, is what Jeffrey Vance called, 'One of the crudest of the Chaplin-Keystone comedies,' though he did add that, 'it nevertheless fascinates for the extended comic interplay between Chaplin and Sennett.' The underlying concept is simple: everyone wants in Mabel's pants. There are only five characters on screen: Mabel, three suitors and a young boy who wants Mabel as well, if perhaps in a different way. Only one can win out, so the title card could easily have read, 'Let battle commence!' That it does, with almost the entire running time built from kicks, shoves, thrown bricks and swung mallets.

Initially Sennett appears like a junior version of Chaplin. He's another tramp, as evidenced by the string holding up his trousers. He has a similar hat and a similar jacket, later seen buttoned in a similar way to Chaplin's, with a lone button straining to keep the garment closed. However, where Chaplin is crisp and assured in his movements, Sennett is not; they're generally slow and overdone. Given that he obviously kept laughing throughout the entire three day shoot, the constant half smile on his face makes him look idiotic, what Yorkshiremen would call 'gormless'. As the picture moves on, he seems more and more like Tweedledee or Tweedledum; maybe we could call him Tweedledumber. He has Mabel's attentions at the outset, to give a great example, but it doesn't take much for Chaplin to woo her away from him. He just pulls the old 'look over there' trick. Sennett's response, once he's caught up with what just happened to him, is just as old: he kicks Chaplin in the ass and runs away.

What follows is exactly what you might expect, bereft of pretty much anything in the way of subtlety, in fact just the least subtle parts of Caught in a Cabaret expanded out to be the entire picture. The bricks thrown during the finalé of that film are thrown during the majority of this one, and the large mallet that Chaplin uses to knock out Mack Swain there may just be the very same mallet he uses to knock him out again here. Keystone was all about reusing gags that worked; if one got an audience to laugh, it would surely do the same thing in the next twenty pictures it got hauled out for. Here Sennett throws the first brick at Chaplin, but it merely starts a brick throwing war between the two rivals, growing in intensity as Swain arrives on the scene and Mabel escapes her twin suitors to preen for a third. By this point, they've descended to what can only be described as animalistic territory protection, Chaplin hopping at Sennett in a threatening manner that involves an outrageous pelvic thrust to emphasise his intentions.
Why this film was called The Fatal Mallet I have no idea, because nobody dies in this movie, whether by mallet or any other instrument. It was originally shot as The Knockout, but perhaps got changed when it became clear that the title would work better for the Roscoe Arbuckle boxing short which began filming the day before this one wrapped, with Chaplin making a guest appearance as a referee. Beyond making more sense there anyway, that was also a two reel picture so surely took priority over this one reeler. If we factor in how incredibly empty this one is, it must have felt like a no brainer. If Chaplin had crammed into the one reel of Caught in the Rain enough material to fill three, here Sennett really only had enough to make a split reel feel weak. I actually prefer one of the reissue titles, because Hit Him Again sums up the picture magnificently, certainly more emphatically than The Rival Suitors, which is accurate but far too genteel, or The Pile Driver, another title that makes no sense whatsoever.

Chaplin does make an effort, but there's so little framework here that it's clearly a struggle, especially if we factor in who he's stuck working with. Working a double act with Sennett would have held everyone back. What the Little Tramp does manage to achieve is obvious in any scene featuring the pair of them, none of which could fail to stand witness as a comparison in Chaplin's clear favour. With Swain stuck in the same brick throwing rut as everyone else, he doesn't get much of a chance to elevate things, which leaves Mabel Normand, the focal point of The Fatal Mallet, with the best opportunity. She does far better than I'm used to seeing her do in these Chaplin pictures, taking bricks and kicks better than her boss for a start but also smiling agreeably and adding some charm to proceedings. Chaplin wrote of 'full lips that curled delicately at the corners of her mouth, expressing humour and all sorts of indulgence.' Stuck in a role that could easily be described as the MacGuffin, those attributes are very much on show.

And really, at the end of the day, it's Normand who walks away from this one. Given that the entire film takes place in a park, anyone who's been paying attention to my previous Chaplin at Keystone reviews will know precisely where the majority of the characters will end up and precisely how it will happen as well. Yet Mabel, for all that she's spent the picture being clobbered in almost every way, from accidental fists to unearned kicks via a careless run in with a swing and never forgetting those wayward bricks, she isn't among those left floundering in the lake, instead walking away arm in arm with her boss, lover and co-star, Mack Sennett. I couldn't help but remember Howard Hughes, secluded away in his later years, screening The Conqueror over and over, so conquering again and again his former lover Susan Hayward. The Fatal Mallet has a dream ending for Sennett, clearly getting the girl he cared about most but wasn't able to wed. He outlived her by thirty years and I wonder how often he screened this to remember.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

The Fatal Mallet 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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