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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.