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Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Knockout (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Roscoe Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin
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 as a new face on the Keystone lot, Charlie Chaplin was thrown in at the deep end as a leading man. Most of the films he made were Chaplin films, pure and simple, beginning with his first, Making a Living, and especially with his second, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. When he made a guest appearance in a another star's picture, such as Mabel's Strange Predicament, the first of various Mabel Normand films in which he appeared, it generally turned into a Chaplin film anyway by sheer force of his performance. We rarely think of him being a minor cast member, whether in a cameo role or really filling a supporting role as a guest, mostly because it rarely happened but perhaps also because the best example is the one we didn't have until recently. Chaplin's brief performance as a Keystone Kop in A Thief Catcher was, for the longest time, regarded as a faulty memory on his part until the picture was rediscovered in 2009. Until then, The Knockout, clearly a Roscoe Arbuckle vehicle, was the best example we had.

It's Arbuckle we see immediately and who dominates the film throughout, whether that be as the large presence on screen during the first reel or as what can only be described as the force of nature blitzing through the second. Chaplin doesn't show up until that second reel, officiating (if that term can remotely be applied here) over a boxing match between Arbuckle and Edgar Kennedy. Until then a relatively slow and not particularly interesting Keystone picture, this is when it speeds up substantially and grabs our attention, Chaplin's contributions surely being a large part of that. Initially I felt like the two thoroughly different reels played like two thoroughly different, albeit linked, films, as their tones couldn't be more out of whack. However, with more thought, I realise that the boxing match plays like a finalé, wrapping up a consistent story arc before The Knockout descends into the chaos for which Keystone were rightly known, with the resulting chase marking the real departure, somewhat like a tacked on extra.

Ironically, it's the entire second reel, the boxing match finalé and the insanity fuelled chase scene that follows it that resonates today. I couldn't help but be reminded of the famous ending of Blazing Saddles, in which a sprawling fight scene in an admittedly already unconventional western bursts, quite literally, through the walls of the studio in which it's being shot and, in so doing, transforms the film entirely. This doesn't quite go that far, though there is a neat scene earlier in which Arbuckle ventures into this sort of territory, having the cameraman temporarily point the camera away from him while he gets changed for his fight. Even if it doesn't escape the confines of the film, this chase scene, as sprawling as the brawl scene in Blazing Saddles, does veer away from its story arc and spills over into others, which are never explained, such as a fancy party in a mansion. While this mansion could just be an unrelated building in town, it could easily have been seen as another movie set if they'd broken only one more rule.
Who was responsible for The Knockout is surprisingly unclear to us today. Historically it's been seen as a Mack Sennett picture, whether he's listed as the film's director or after a more vague credit like 'made under the supervision of'. More recently, Charles Avery's name has been associated with The Knockout as its director, by as reliable a source as the British Film Institute though for as unreliable a reason as an unsupported claim at Wikipedia that Avery directed 35 of Arbuckle's pictures at Keystone. Similarly, who wrote the film is open to debate. Some sources say that Chaplin was responsible for the story, though it doesn't ring true. It's far too wild and inconsistent, not to mention traditional for Keystone, to be entirely his, though anyone watching the scene he's in can't fail to recognise that he must have contributed in a major way to that part. Jeffrey Vance highlights that it 'borrows from bits in Karno sketches', namely The Yap Yaps and Mumming Birds, the latter of which Chaplin performed and the former of which he knew.

And so we're left with what's on screen, which is quite a bit in a long two reeler that runs thirty minutes, the longest film Chaplin had been in thus far except for the feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance, which wouldn't be finished for another six months. Most of the enjoyment comes from the second frantic reel, because the first is slow and poor. Arbuckle plays a character named Pug rather than Fatty, surely a hint at the pugilism he'll soon be getting up to, but for now he just eats a burger with his dog and flirts with his girlfriend, played by his real life wife, Minta Durfee. Incidentally, keeping it further in the family, his nephew, Al St John, reportedly plays three bit parts in the film too. One of them starts the action, as the leader of a gang that hones in on Pug's girl, who was therefore really his aunt. After Pug leaves to get more cigarettes, his attentions escalate in his absence and turn into a full fledged fight after his return, with Pug proving victorious over a gang of four, even with bricks flying every which way.

His success against such odds is how he connects to the main plot, which revolves around a pair of new conmen in town setting up a fake boxing match. Spying a theatre with a Caught in a Cabaret poster on display, they talk the owner into letting Cyclone Flynn take on all comers and Pug soon becomes the first of them. Pug's size leads to complications, but it's the arrival of the real Cyclone Flynn which really stirs it up. Arbuckle looks laughable in his short tank top, shorts, tights and girly belt, more like a poorly dressed drag queen than a boxer. Flynn, however is played by Edgar Kennedy, who had serious experience in the ring, to which he gravitated after school. In his obituary, The St Petersburg Times reported that he'd once gone twelve rounds with Jack Dempsey, losing by decision rather than knockout. Only a single picture for Selig separates his boxing career from his much longer career in film comedy, which began at Keystone Studios with a 1912 picture called Hoffmeyer's Legacy, in which he played a Keystone Kop.
He certainly looks completely at home in the ring, unlike Arbuckle and especially Chaplin, who breezes onto our screen just before the twenty minute mark to officiate in a suitably inept fashion. He retains his toothbrush moustache but otherwise doesn't seem to be an incarnation of the Little Tramp, being neatly dressed in regular sized clothes. In reality Chaplin knew the ring well, not as a boxer but as a regular at prizefights in Los Angeles. He'd play a fighter in future films but here restricts himself to fighting in a set of highly inappropriate ways, both taking and giving as many punches (and kicks) as he would if he was supposed to. Even guest referees in WWE title bouts don't get caught up in quite this much action! The choreography is clever, because it's clearly dangerous to walk in between two fighters, however careful you're doing so, but Keystone was always strong on choreography. It was less strong on cinematography and there were odd decisions made here on that front that aren't all easily explainable.

I can understand shooting the audience separately to the ring, because they were using a fixed camera. It's easy to shoot the two angles separately and edit them together later, even linking them through our perception by having Pug's mouthful of milk spray the guy in the front seat of the audience. I'm less on board with why they chose to shoot the ring from such a bizarre angle. We're not close to it, for a start, but we're also far enough off to the side that it's condensed into must be about only half of the screen's available real estate. The only reason I can see for this choice is so that we can also watch Mack Swain's western style gambler sitting in his box to the left of the ring. He's only just been brought into the story but he has a crucial part to play in it. Quite why he couldn't have stayed off screen throughout the fight until the moment he's needed, I have no idea. The Knockout followed that precise approach elsewhere, as a Keystone Kop walks on screen only to be hit by a flying brick and knocked into a horse trough.

In the absence of nuanced decisions in these matters, it falls, as always, to Chaplin to throw in many of the little touches that light up the second half of the film. At one point, the ring becomes soaked, maybe to wake him up from one of his periodic knockouts (only the referee gets knocked out in this picture), so he hauls himself along on his backside using the bottom rope. Another instance has him look up to the roof and pray for God's aid in dealing with these two monsters. Compared to what Chaplin gets up to in the ring, the ensuing chase across the rooftops is merely blatant, fuelled by a pair of pistols somehow easily holdable and fireable by a man wearing boxing gloves. Needless to say, its almost endless supply of bullets is almost glossed over. This is a great chase sequence just for Arbuckle and Kennedy, who is reminiscent at points of a swashbuckling hero, but the Keystone Kops inevitably join in and make it still more fun. It's thoroughly enjoyable, just not for its subtlety. It wins out through sheer exuberance.
At this point, it's almost unbelievable that the second reel follows the first. Where that was slow and plot driven, for the most part, this is mile a minute Keystone insanity. It's also where the real ingenuity comes into play, not only through Chaplin's brief segment. Arbuckle, never a small and insignificant flower, is a force of nature here, a behemoth who successfully takes on half a dozen Keystone Kops at once, not in a fight but in a bizarre tug of war. One manages to lasso him, but he carries on regardless. And on and on, hauling them, dragging them and swinging them around as if the laws of physics don't apply to him. The subtletly in this film may belong to Chaplin, but the film itself belongs to Arbuckle, whose relentlessness and boundless energy are as infectious as they are humorous. By the time it was over, I felt like I could challenge Cyclone Flynn myself, after I stopped for a breather of course. There's a full half hour of chaos in The Knockout; however, it's merely compressed into the last fifteen minutes.

Important Sources:
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)
Edgar Kennedy, Film Actor, Dies, The St Petersburg Times, 10 Nov 1948

The Knockout 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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