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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Masquerader (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle and Charles Murray
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.
Undoubtedly the most sophisticated of the shorts he had directed thus far, The Masquerader shows that Chaplin was developing his skills quickly and he was more than ready for this meta story that reminds of a few earlier films but sets its sights firmly on the bigger and better films of the future. Like his previous picture, Recreation, it plays with traditional Keystone slapstick, but unlike that short where there was little else on show, those elements are firmly restricted to the background here. Like A Film Johnnie, the first of Chaplin's pictures to stand up on its own merits rather than as another historic first in his career, it uses Keystone Studios as a backdrop. However, it goes much further than merely introducing the Little Tramp to the studio as an outsider to cause chaos; it tasks Chaplin with playing a studio employee, effectively himself, who in turn plays the Little Tramp. Fired for being too distracted by the ladies to do his job, he returns as one for the second time in 1914 after his previous turn in drag in A Busy Day.

What impressed me most was the way in which Chaplin refused to restrict the comedy that unfolds to the fictional characters. Sure, initially he paints the 'real people' seriously, as they prepare for a day's shoot, but their change into the characters you might expect to see in a Keystone film doesn't only happen with the application of make up. When Chaplin is late for work and so gets hauled away from the ladies by his ear, the act is something we might expect of the Little Tramp but he hasn't become the character yet. As he does so, on the other side of a dressing room table to Roscoe Arbuckle, the slapstick they indulge in is exactly what we might expect of their characters, but they're still themselves when they begin. This is a melding of the real actors with the characters they play and it's neatly subversive, notably deeper than anything that he'd done previously and far beyond what anyone else was doing. Recreation, as capably built as it was, suddenly feels like an antique from a different era, but it was made only a week earlier.

Of course, while Chaplin initially plays an actor similar to himself, as do Arbuckle and Chester Conklin and others, not all of these people are that close to their real selves. Charles Murray plays the director driven to fire Chaplin and he did briefly wear that hat in real life, but not quite yet. He didn't sit in the director's chair for real until December, when he quickly churned out three short films at Keystone before giving up that role for six years. Perhaps, what happens to his character in this film aside, he found that he enjoyed the idea and had a chat with Mack Sennett to make it happen for real. Fortunately the shorts he did direct don't appear to be anywhere near as outrageous as the fictional one he attempts to shoot here, with its villain outrageously threatening a sleeping baby with a knife. Keystone comedies did find their way into notably dark territory on occasion, but this would seem to be one we can be thankful never made it from fictional plot device to real picture.
It's rendered even more outrageous by the fact that this is where Charlie fails to notice his cue because he's too distracted by the kisses of the ladies backstage, leaving the villain stuck with his knife aloft and the baby unaware of the grisly fate hovering above it. Fed up with waiting for Charlie to rush in and save the child, the director throws it at him instead, another dark moment in a light film. Highlighting how the actors at Keystone were interchangeable on a moment's notice, his next action is to substitute him with Chester Conklin. 'He's rotten,' says the director. 'You play the part.' Of course Chaplin, who reminded of his regular character even before he put on the tramp's outfit, sabotages his replacement and treats us to another round of meta slapstick. Of course, it's no surprise that Chaplin would be drawn to this sort of multi-level portrayal, given that he came to Keystone's attentions through his work in Fred Karno's stage sketch, Mumming Birds, with its play within a play, but this is a much more modern take on the concept.

In fact, after kicking his director through a stage window and playing a number of tricks on him that we'll assume he borrowed from the Little Tramp, Chaplin is promptly fired and thrown bodily out of the studio in scenes that are reminiscent of the end of Blazing Saddles, their fight continuing through a completely unrelated set. While that film was notably ahead of its time in 1974, it may well have borrowed from this one made six decades earlier. Film historians really aren't kidding when they emphasise the importance Chaplin has to screen comedy! Of course, if his multi-levelled meta antics are ahead of their time, where he goes next is very much rooted in the past. Male actors had been playing female characters on stage for centuries, of course, but they'd also been doing it on film since its early days. Often they were quite obvious about it, but I can imagine great swathes of the audience in 1914 not realising that the leading lady who shows up after Chaplin's departure is Chaplin himself returning in drag.

And so, after playing an actor based on himself, then the character he usually plays, Chaplin now takes on the role of a female actor to find his way back into the studio that fired him. He's overdressed, with a big ruff and an extravagant hat, but he's very believable, looking rather like a more feminine version of Liza Minnelli. While his more transparent turn as a woman in A Busy Day was notably shrewish, violent even in the tradition of Mrs Punch, his return to drag here is far more coy and coquettish. No wonder his director's hands start roaming and he throws all the actors out of the dressing room so the new leading lady can have some room, before chasing her around a table with amorous intent. If, at this point, 1914 audiences hadn't seen through the ruse, they would have been shocked to discover this lady ripping off her wig in what looks like rather painful fashion. If this scene is anything to go by, female impersonators a hundred years ago must have had a streak of masochism.
And so returns the Little Tramp for a second run at the studio, albeit an inevitably brief one because even he can't have imagined he'd have been rehired after exposing his ruse. Instead the discovery just sets up the more traditional aspects of the film, prompting the inevitable chase finalé complete with a quick bout of brick throwing and a rapid fire slapfest that made me burn up calories merely watching it. It should be emphasised that it's done well, however traditional it all is and however inferior these last few scenes are when compared to the majority of the film. There's a lot of slapstick humour dotted throughout this short but it's done slowly, deliberately and in the holy name of character. The early scene with Chaplin trying to steal Arbuckle's drink but falling short in every way is cleverly done and can't fail to raise a laugh. Yet the more frenetic action at the end of the picture is so generic and throwaway that it's not worth mentioning in the same breath except to say that it pales in comparison.

I wonder if Chaplin was wondering how much he could get away with, how far he could take this concept and how forward looking he could become without jeopardising his newly found status as the writer and director of his own pictures. If he finished up with some generic slapstick and a chase, nobody would say a word against it, right? It's the Keystone way, so he must have been following the guidelines. I'd suggest that it may have been even more important to Chaplin that this particular film be received well, because it had a higher profile cast than Chaplin had been trusted with thus far. Sure, Laughing Gas starred Mack Swain and Slim Summerville, but those films in between were with lesser known actors new to the studio. This one, however, features Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee and Roscoe Arbuckle, all recognisable faces at Keystone before Chaplin was ever hired. I believe that's even Mabel Normand at the very beginning too, playing herself in a few frames in the 'pleasure before business' scene before things get going.

It appears to have been well received, but with most praise given to Chaplin's 'really remarkable female impersonation', as Bioscope described it. Perhaps its script was so far ahead of its time that it didn't get proper recognition in 1914. Of course, with the magical power of hindsight, we don't only recognise how innovative Chaplin's writing was, we also bear witness to the many little ragged edges that demonstrate just how far he still had to go before the undying classics we know would come later. Watching each film from 1914 at the speed they were released, this feels like yet another step forward, underlining the fact that this new screen comedian was someone to watch. The pacing is especially notable, as the picture is neither too fast to feel rushed, at least until the finalé, nor too slow to drag. It's easy to imagine Chaplin feeling that he mastered the basics with Recreation and was ready for something much more ambitious in The Masquerader. It's far from perfect but it's his best and most sophisticated film up to this point.

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

The Masquerader 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 debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

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