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Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Rounders (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Phyllis Allen and Minta Durfee
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.
Charles Parrott's pre-Charley Chase appearance in His New Profession reminded me yet again how early Charlie Chaplin's work was when compared to the other great silent comedians. The Rounders highlights what else could have been: a great comedy double act, not only because the characters of Mr Full and Mr Fuller display some notable chemistry between Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle that could easily have been built upon in future films, but because there's little else here except that double act, the story threadbare but the laughter acute. Arbuckle was established before Chaplin, of course, starting out five years earlier at the Selig Polyscope Company and later switching to Keystone in 1913, where he established Fatty, his regular character. His double act with Mabel Normand, which ran from late 1914 into 1916, maybe began with his title role in Mabel's New Hero in 1913. Had Chaplin not left Keystone, it all could have been very different, as this film ably highlights. Instead Arbuckle teamed up with Buster Keaton in 1917.

There were many double acts in the slapstick age but none come quicker to mind today than Laurel and Hardy, one that outlasted the silent era by decades, their final film together arriving as late as the 1951 feature, Atoll K. It's perhaps worth highlighting that they were young men in their early twenties in 1914, Stan Jefferson still with Fred Karno's vaudeville troupe, the very one which Chaplin had left for Keystone, and Babe Hardy starting out on screen in split reelers for the Lubin Company in Florida. Their double act wouldn't officially debut for thirteen years in 1927's Putting Pants on Philip, though they did appear in a couple of earlier films together. The first of them, The Lucky Dog, wouldn't arrive until 1921 and Laurel's debut on screen wasn't until 1917's Nuts in May. As Arbuckle and Chaplin pioneered the little and large double act in The Rounders, the latter's former understudy, Stanley Jefferson, seven years before taking his stage name of Stan Laurel, was doing impersonations of him on stage for Fred Karno.

Chaplin, of course, was too independent to be locked down to a mere partnership. He was the epitome of a solo artiste, even if he proved as early as his fifth film, Between Showers, that he could work well with a partner, albeit the actor he was replacing at Keystone, Ford Sterling. Within a couple of weeks these two would do more work together worthy of a double act in Tango Tangles, most obviously the superb scene towards the end where they try to put on the same coat at the same time. Arbuckle and Chaplin were big names at this point for Keystone and they had already shared the screen in six previous pictures, though none are real partnerships. The most time they shared together before this was either in Tango Tangles, in which they literally battle on the dancefloor for a pretty hat check girl, or The Knockout, a film starring Arbuckle as a man who ends up in a boxing match officiated over by Chaplin in one of his guest slots in other Keystone stars' pictures. However, after this success, they'd never share the screen again.
Beyond the obvious potential for an ongoing double act that never happened, what leaps out here is the pacing. Chaplin's script may have had very little to say but it had a lot to say about how it should unfold. We're introduced to each of the four major characters individually, so that they have the opportunity to develop before they start colliding with the others, collisions which grow naturally too. Chaplin is Mr Full, yet another opportunity for him to haul out his drunk routine, as he's three sheets to the wind as he first staggers onto screen; the odd word in the title comes from an old slang term for drunkards, presumably those who make the rounds of bars. Jeffrey Vance describes this as 'the best of Chaplin's drunk roles for Keystone' and I'm not going to argue with that, especially as he's notably better at it than Arbuckle, who would have sold his drunk routine more effectively if he wasn't tasked with trying to match an actor who was hired by Mack Sennett on the basis of his stage role as a drunk in Karno's Mumming Birds.

Chaplin's introduction is very reminiscent of Mabel's Strange Predicament, his third film, in which he stole all the early scenes by stumbling around a hotel and getting in the way of everyone else in the film. Here he's stumbling around a new hotel but its geography is exactly the same. In both films, he stumbles into the lobby, where he interacts with a lady in a chair to his right and another in one on his left. Eventually he makes his way up the stairs at the back which lead to a hallway with a pair of rooms on each side. We find our leads in the two rooms nearest to the camera. Here, Mr and Mrs Full have the room to our right, while Mr Fuller and his wife occupy the one opposite. These characters are bounced between them, often quite literally, as the story progresses. In the earlier film, Mabel and her significant other had the room to our right, while the couple they get caught up with are on the other side of the hallway. Some things are apparently clearly defined in the cinematic comedy rulebook; even the carpet is identical.

As Mr Full, Chaplin is apparently doing much better for himself than he has for a number of shorts, even if he forgot to change his shoes along with the rest of his costume. We have no idea why he's so drunk, but we get one when we meet his wife, who's a formidable battleaxe in the form of Phyllis Allen, overbearing and violent. No wonder he has eyes for the fluff in the lobby! It's telling that she uses his cane to pull him towards her in a similar way to how Charlie pulled his employer's girlfriend to him only a week earlier in His New Profession, albeit with completely different intent. Charlie was getting fresh in that film; Mrs Full is merely trying to keep him upright so she can upbraid him some more. Once we have their relationship down, Mr Fuller and his wife can make their entrances, introduced in a similar way that highlights both similarities and differences. Fuller enters like Full, only instead of ogling the girl he sits on her. His wife is initially as weepy as Mrs Full is violent, but only initially. When she gets going, she really gets going.
If this setup is completely reminiscent of Mabel's Strange Predicament, fortunately the ensuing chaos is not. The earlier film had a more substantial plot, but it was a stupid one, better suited to the pantomime stage with its hide and seek shenanigans. This doesn't go far beyond two drunks dealing with their upset wives, in a way that brings them together, when they realise that they're masonic buddies or some such and escape their collective wrath of their wives arm in arm for a nearby café. The gags are improved too, Chaplin's in particular. One has him unable to get up from the floor as he's standing on his coat; another sees him thrown bodily onto the bed, where he finds himself upside down because his feet have caught on the headboard. Arbuckle does well in the scene with his wife too, though perhaps partly because she really was his wife. Minta Durfee and Roscoe Arbuckle made a strange couple, but they wed in 1908 and remained married until 1925, though they were estranged before his legal turmoil in 1921.

The best and worst moments of the film unfold at Smith's Café. The latter is clearly the decision to have Billy Gilbert play the doorman in blackface, something that admittedly wasn't offensive at the time but is still completely unnecessary to the picture as a whole, which makes it all the more offensive in hindsight. The former arrives when we find ourselves trying to figure out which of the two leads we're supposed to be watching. After Mr Fuller attempts to lift an almost paralytic Mr Full off the floor using not one but two canes, their action splits in two. Arbuckle is trying to disentangle his jacket from his hat, drinking tabasco sauce or something similar and using the the champagne bucket as a footstool. Meanwhile, Chaplin is at the next table causing problems for Jess Dandy's unnamed diner. Only when both of them end up using their respective tablecloths as blankets and collapsing onto the floor into drunken sleep does the action bring them back together again, quite literally and with a thump.

This would have been a good ending, especially as the slower, more methodical pace makes it seem like we've already reached the end of a reel, but there's the traditional Keystone chase to come, another one that takes us into Echo Park where characters end up as always in the Echo Park Lake, but with a notable change: this time we see a growing crowd of onlookers on the other side of the lake as the action moves on. They're too far away for us to see details, but California locals had been apparent in a number of the films Chaplin made at Keystone which were shot in public spaces and how those everyday folk interacted with them changed over time. Initially they were disinterested, even annoyed, by the distraction Chaplin was at the beginning of Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal, but they moved to enjoyment by the end, then on to casual acceptance in Tango Tangles, grinning awareness in Mabel's Busy Day and now on to standard tourist activity here in The Rounders. Such was Chaplin's rise through 1914.
As always, there are problems with the film, which is another strong step forward in terms of pacing and structure, as well as the manipulation of more emotions than were usually found in comedies of this era. Rounders are dissolute drunks, debauchers, but Mr Full and Mr Fuller aren't as obnoxious as many of the drunks Chaplin had played at Keystone. These rounders certainly become sympathetic by the point they swap their secret handshakes and we're with them all the way to the end, but we didn't need Arbuckle's attempt to strangle his wife to stop her beating him up. Phyllis Allen is overly violent to her husband as well, throwing Chaplin across the room with a vengeance. At least her performance is far more consistent than that of Minta Durfee, who pantomimes a great deal too much, the old school overdone silent acting she throws out in her solo scenes reminding at once of how much of that we got early in Chaplin's 1914 films and how much it gradually decreased. Allen and Durfee rage well at each other though.

Chaplin is the star here, of course, as writer, director and lead actor, but he plays very well with Arbuckle, who brought a new level to his co-star's regular routine as a drunk, one of my favourite moments in this film being when Mr Full trips on the welcome mat outside the hotel and Mr Fuller keeps on going, literally dragging his colleague along behind him because they're arm in arm. Arbuckle was a big man, hence the nickname he never appreciated that became the name of his regular character, but he was often able to use that attribute to his advantage. He's not loose enough to be as believably drunk as Chaplin and he's too obviously aware of his surroundings when he's bouncing people off his belly. Yet the pair of them are great on screen together. Arbuckle later praised Chaplin, saying that, 'I have always regretted not having been his partner in a longer film than these one-reelers we made so rapidly.' He's not alone. Lack of story aside, I got a real kick out of this one and wish they'd have been a double act for longer.

Important Sources:
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

The Rounders 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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