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Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Recreation (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Charles Bennett, Helen Carruthers, Edwin Frazee and Edward Nolan
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.
If Chaplin was experimenting with new approaches to cinema in The Face on the Barroom Floor, he surely wasn't experimenting with anything new at all with Recreation. While Chaplin newbies may get a kick out of it, being a six minute distillation of everything they might imagine a silent slapstick short to be, those who have seen any of his earlier Keystone films will disregard it because, hey, it's a six minute distillation of everything he'd already been doing over and over up to this point. Fans could describe it simply as yet another of his 'park comedies' and other fans would know exactly what unfolds. When Chaplin famously suggested that, 'All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl,' Recreation is the epitome of that comedy, merely with a sailor and a second policeman added for good measure. There's no doubt that it's the most predictable and familiar of Chaplin's Keystone films thus far with maybe only one single shot early in the film providing anything new, as Charlie considers suicide by drowning.

Advertising copy calls his character here a 'down-and-out young man who finds a new zest in life in park flirtations conducted with inimitable vigour and humour, in which the police materially assist.' That's an exaggeration, of course, as is the ensuing summary, 'A short but uncommonly good one', but it's not far off the truth if you visualise that description. It's the 'down-and-out' bit that stands out, because Chaplin is initially not merely the Little Tramp here, he's the suicidal Little Tramp. Resting one leg on top of the guardrail of a bridge, he uses both hands to attempt to lift the other to match it, so he can topple over and plunge to his doom. In a neat bit of physical humour, he inevitably ends up sprawled on the wrong side. He's about to take another shot when the inevitable pretty girl walks past and that's it for the real darkness in this film. For the rest, we're firmly back in routine slapstick territory, however much throwing bricks at people would be surely interpreted as a dark act rather than 'routine' today.

I should add that there's another form of darkness here, literal darkness, because the surviving copies of Recreation are, in the accurate words of Flicker Alley, 'fragmentary, very damaged or of terrible quality picture.' Restoration was performed from 'the most complete element available, a 16mm dupe negative held in the Blackhawk Film Collection, Los Angeles, completed by the only surviving fragment of a nitrate positive print held by the BFI National Archive in London.' They really aren't kidding about the quality, as I'm not even convinced that we're seeing the whole frame. That scene on the bridge, and those ensuing with Charlie and the pretty girl he plans to hit on, unfold with the tops of their heads chopped off by the top of the picture. This continues to be the case for a little while whenever anyone stands up, so we feel that we only see things properly when they're sitting down. Somehow that seems much more annoying than the washed out picture quality in which faces are reduced to vague blurs of white.
Of all the films Chaplin made at Keystone to suffer this particular fate, this one is perhaps the safest, as even audiences of the time clearly knew how generic it was. A few months after the picture's release, in January 1915, the British trade paper, Bioscope, suggested that, 'This quaint actor is here seen in one of his most typical parts.' More tellingly, the same review described the location of Westlake Park, renamed in 1942 to MacArthur Park, the one later commemorated famously in song by Jimmy Webb, as 'that very beautiful park, which seems to be most frequented by Keystone comedians'. With the suicide flouted, not one surprising moment can be found. The pretty girl is with a sailor, who's passed out on a park bench, so she moves to another where Charlie hits on her. When the sailor wakes, the two men have at it, from the initial standard slap, slap, duck, girl gets slapped by mistake routine to brick throwing time. When both are hit by enough bricks, a couple of Keystone Kops appear out of nowhere to get hit by bricks too.

The only surprising aspect, if you can call it that, is how quickly this all happens. Usually Chaplin had one whole reel to let this sort of thing take its course, but here he only had half that. Recreation ran 462 feet, which made it a 'split reel', six minutes of slapstick comedy distributed to theatres on the same film reel as a documentary short of similar length entitled The Yosemite, naturally about the national park, which sounds as generic in its own way. Given that the similarly generic title of this film would appear to have precisely nothing to do with the plot, clearly improvised during a one day shoot, I wonder what it aims to describe. Is it subversively suggesting that every Keystone character dreams only of chatting up a pretty girl, stealing her away from her boyfriend, throwing bricks at him, escaping from policemen and booting them into a lake? Or is it suggesting that Chaplin and his cast of lesser Keystone names were themselves indulging in a little recreation shooting something so basic so quickly?

When the picture quality kicks in, five minutes into the six, presumably from the BFI print, we're reminded just how much better Chaplin's Keystone shorts have played when not presented with washed out picture quality such as we remember from so many cheap public domain DVDs. It's a strange feeling to witness this change happen while we're actually watching one of these films, but the sudden shift in quality does bring back to mind that this may well seem far better if seen as it was intended. I believe that Recreation is a capable film that ably demonstrates Chaplin's mastery of the simple gags that constitute the building blocks of Keystone comedy, both as an actor and a director. While it's certainly an inconsequential and a redundant one to us today, given that we're able to watch all these gags time and time again in the films that came before this one, it may have been important to Chaplin at this point in his directorial career to knock out one of these just to prove to himself how easily he could do so.
If it was just an experiment to show how confident he was with the basics, it would seem appropriate that it was a one day location shoot with no other major Keystone names. The girl is Helen Carruthers, whose brief career from 1914 to 1915 was dominated by Chaplin pictures at Keystone. She appeared in thirteen of them, only eight short of her total. Her sailor boyfriend is Charles Bennett, who beat Chaplin to the big screen by two years and went on to major features like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Citizen Kane and Mrs Miniver, before his death in 1943, but only in bit parts. He was a lot more memorable playing George Ham, the cheap actor who looked like a romantic poet in The Property Man than in the overeager shot he gives his role here. That leaves only Edwin Frazee and Edward Nolan as the two Keystone Kops, the short one and the tall one respectively. Both were actors with short careers: Frazee shot 22 films in two years, Nolan only twelve, plus a single feature in 1920. Nine of Frazee's and eight of Nolan's were with Chaplin.

And that's about it. Being so relentlessly generic, there's very little of interest to add about Recreation, a film that could almost be entirely restored by copying and pasting scenes from other Chaplin Keystones together. With this picture quality, nobody would likely notice the difference. Is it worth mentioning that Chaplin's initial pratfall may well have influenced Buster Keaton, who performed the same move often in his career, which wouldn't begin for another three years? Is it noteworthy that there are two policemen in this film, rather than just one, and that they have a brief tussle of their own before teaming up to hone in on the real brickthrowers. Could it be important that when the short ends, as perhaps every one of these 'park comedies' ended, with people getting pushed, pulled and kicked into a lake, the end intertitle rolls with every single character in the film in the water? Only the first instance has any validity. This really is no great historical piece, it's just a solid example of the Keystone archetype conjured up in a single day.

Important Sources:
Anonymous review in Bioscope, 21st January, 1915
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Recreation can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive. Be aware that most instances of Recreation online are actually Charlie's Recreation, a reissue of an earlier film, Tangle Tangles.

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 is now available in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

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