Stars: Charlie Chaplin and Chester Conklin
|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.|
He also calls it 'perhaps the most important comedy Chaplin made in his early ascent to screen stardom and the most profitable of all the Keystone two-reel comedies.' These are powerful but deceptively simple words that deserve to be expanded. Most of Chaplin's Keystone films were one-reelers, which describes both their length and their importance. A reel is a single magazine containing one thousand feet of film. In the sound era, reels were projected at 24 frames per second, which meant that one reel amounted to eleven minutes or so of material. Back in the days of the silents, projection was slower, varying between 16 and 22 frames per second, so that reel played for longer, as much as fourteen or fifteen minutes. Two-reelers took up twice as much film and twice as much running time, so were reserved for more important pictures. While Chaplin had acted in a few, he had only previously made one as a director, The Property Man. Both Those Love Pangs and Dough and Dynamite were initially slated for one reel only.
In his autobiography, Chaplin explains that he went notably overbudget, never a good sign for a director. Mack Sennett expected each Keystone picture to cost under a thousand dollars, but Dough and Dynamite bloated up to eighteen hundred, losing Chaplin his $25 bonus for bringing it in under budget. That sort of thing might have cost him more, such as the creative freedom he had to continue writing and directing his own pictures, but the result was recognised by unprecedented success at the box office. In his own words: 'The only way they could retrieve themselves, said Sennett, would be to put it out as a two-reeler, which they did, and it grossed more than one hundred and thirty thousand dollars the first year.' With the film making that much money, no wonder Chaplin remained in charge of his own films. However, Sennett fought the idea that spending more opened up the possibility of earning more, one prominent reason why Chaplin was already seeking a new employer, even as he was bringing his brother, Sydney, to Keystone.
Charlie is a waiter again, this time at a bakery with its own restaurant, and he's about as effective at it as usual. He starts out collecting plates from tables but is so absent-minded that he collects one that's only just been delivered, scraping leftovers from other plates onto it before the customer is able to take a bite. Within forty busy seconds, he's reprimanded by the customer, apologises for his actions, returns his food, retrieves the leftovers with his fingers and drops some in the man's lap, samples what's left and wipes his fingers on both his own trousers and the customer's jacket. This scene highlights just how much is going on in this picture. While it's an ancient critic's cliché to suggest that viewers shouldn't blink or they'll miss something, it's fundamentally true in this picture as the detail continues to be this dense throughout and it rarely lets up. In fact, there's a great deal of prestaging going on here: often what seem like throwaway mistakes turn out to be carefully setting up later moments, but more of that later.
Of course the sense of hygiene is terrible: Gordon Ramsey would be horrified and we haven't even found our way down to the kitchen yet. That's downstairs, through a trapdoor set in the floor of the main dining area, opposite the door to the kitchen. There's no way that that could go horribly wrong, huh? Well, at this point, the place seems to be running very smoothly, Charlie being the only spanner in the works or fly in the ointment, driven both by laziness and an eye for the ladies. He promptly leaves that customer with a collection of plates because a lovely young creature has just wandered up to the front, its counter display neatly labelled 'Assorted French Tarts'. This allows him to both imitate her enticing sway and play havoc with a plate of pastries, one naturally flying through the air with the greatest of ease onto the face of the very same beleaguered customer Charlie had already caused so much trouble for. We're only two scenes in and both props and people (not that there's much difference) are already being re-used and built upon.
Chaplin's growing sophistication is highlighted not only through the number of participants who actually have something to do here but through how he introduces them. Keystone pictures were never known for their subtlety, so characters tended to have one function and they showed up just in time to perform it. In this picture, many have a whole bunch of scenes in which they do very little except act naturally until the moment they're called upon to shine. The story even has a grand sweep that actually makes sense within the logic of the film, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense outside of it. Even if the idea of Charlie and his partner in crime, played by Chester Conklin, being elevated from mere waiters to replace the entire staff of bakers, was prompted by industrial action really sweeping Los Angeles at the time, as Vance suggests, I'm at a loss to see how striking bakers might better find their demands met by blowing up the places at which they work. Chaplin was oustpoken politically but this doesn't feel like social comment.
Instead it feels like simplification. This unnamed bakery is run by Fritz Schade and his wife Norma Nichols. Chaplin and Conklin are their waiters, while Cecile Arnold and maybe Peggy Page are the waitresses. Jess Dandy in drag is the astoundingly homely cook, reminding very much of the female characters comedian Les Dawson would play many decades later. All these are portrayed in a neutral light, as neither good nor bad, as are the customers, played by Vivian Edwards, Phyllis Allen and Charles Parrott, who had not yet become Charley Chase. The bakers, led by Glen Cavender and including Slim Summerville and possibly Edgar Kennedy, among others, are the ones with emotional bias. They 'want less work and more pay', as an intertitle highlights, and though there's nothing to suggest whether their demands are fair or not, it's clear that their subsequent actions aren't. They storm out, gesticulating wildly, then buy a loaf of bread, stuff it with dynamite and have a little girl return it to the bakery for them. Oh yes, they're villains!
Some tied to reuse of props. Another apparently throwaway moment that I thought was a mistake arrived when a baker attempts to transfer dough from a vat to a table to knead and instead lets most of it fall on the floor. It's ignored for a while, as if it never happened, but later it comes into focus when Chester slips on it and then again when Charlie picks it up and throws it back into the vat, highlighting the ineptitude of the waiters and their horrible approach to industrial hygiene. Other subtleties tie to gradual discovery too, but by us catching up to them rather than the plot. One of my favourite moments came after Charlie finishes cleaning up the kitchen and sits down on a large sack of flour. Only then did I realise that Chester Conklin had been in the scene all along, still pinned underneath it after Charlie had dropped it down the stairs onto him a little earlier. To me, this highlighted just how much Chaplin was becoming totally aware of everything going on in his films, so that he could best use those details to this sort of effect.
Something else that leapt out at me here is the completely democratic manner in which abuse is dished out. While we know the Little Tramp today as a sympathetic creature, he could be and often was actively obnoxious in some of his earlier pictures. Critics have called out instances where he heaps violent abuse on some character or other in a completely one-sided act that's often impossible to justify. Here, nobody escapes! Chaplin is on the receiving end just as much as he's dishing it out, as is Conklin. The waitresses may escape more than most but they get theirs too, as does the boss, the cook and even the customers, some of whom also get a few notable shots in of their own. Of course, the bakers receive plenty, just as they dish out plenty, including the explosive grand finalé. I can easily imagine Sennett dishing some out to Chaplin too, off screen for notably failing to keep within budget, but Chaplin, who certainly delivered here his best film thus far, clearly had the last word: a hundred and thirty thousand of them.
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)
Dough and Dynamite can be viewed for free on 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.