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Sunday, 26 October 2014

Dough and Dynamite (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
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.
If Those Love Pangs was a lesser film in Chaplin's filmography, there's good reason; all the best material had been left out, marked instead for this film. That picture had aimed to set him and Chester Conklin up as screen rivals for the attentions of their landlady, without any real idea of how that was going to unfold. Chaplin developed the idea of them working at a bakery and that soon grew into such promising material that it was shifted out to be a separate picture, this one. Those Love Pangs was therefore developed once again, was shot quickly in only four days and ended up feeling much like an afterthought, albeit one that benefitted from Chaplin's continued growth as a filmmaker; he endowed it with enough interesting detail that it doesn't feel unworthy of attention. It's immediately obvious that Dough and Dynamite completely overshadows it, though, as Jeffrey Vance ably highlights: 'In the early silent-film era,' he explains, 'Dough and Dynamite was generally regarded as one of the greatest of all Hollywood comedies.'

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.
If he was spending more money than his boss wanted, Chaplin was at least becoming more efficient as a filmmaker. Shooting of The Property Man ran over seventeen days, not counting any taken off, but Dough and Dynamite took only fourteen, beginning on 29th August and ending on 11th September, unfortunate for a film that ends with a successful terrorist attack. Chaplin's autobiography cites nine of those days as being shooting days, but there's so much crammed into the film, which runs almost half an hour, that it's amazing to think of how quickly the complex choreography must have been mastered. It's that interplay between characters that leaps out the most in this picture, not only in how well it's done but in how much of it there is and how constantly it continues. While the action does escalate, as we might expect, to that explosive finalé, it feels much more natural in its progression than usual and it's paced magnificently. We breathe easily throughout, even as we're given a constant barrage of slapstick.

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.
It's not surprising to see why audiences loved this one. The slapstick arrives quickly and while it's hardly high brow stuff, it's impeccably timed, carefully choreographed and continues on unabated. Even though many of these moves, especially those within fights, are routine ones that we've seen many times before and not only in Chaplin's films either, they're put to use magnificently and, if the film is a piece of music, they serve ably as its beats. There's a real rhythm here that goes far beyond anything achieved in any of the earlier Chaplin shorts and it persists for much longer. Where most Keystone films begin with an idea that spawns action and escalates rapidly into a frantic chase scene, Chaplin had already been aiming for a different approach for some time and here finally mastered his counter. This feels more like a dance, in which the tempo is just as important as the choreography and the end result grows as much through the expansion of participants and scope than the moves they make.

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!
With that framework outlined, you can imagine the rest yourselves. However, your imagination might fall short for a change, as this one's a marvel, the scenario written by Chaplin but apparently in collaboration with Sennett, who didn't have any of the subtlety on show here. The choreography, tempo and attention detail surely all belong to Chaplin; I can't see what Sennett might have contributed, unless it was gags. There are strong setpieces, like one where Charlie parades up and down in front of Schade with a tray of loaves on his head. We're impressed by his achievement but still believe that he slips up and drops one until we realise that it's all a setup; he leans over to retrieve it and promptly loses the rest. Another has Charlie effectively handcuffing himself behind his back with dough, having to climb through his arms to escape. There are setpieces in many of Chaplin's early films though; more of them, however well done, aren't groundbreaking. What I found new here were the more subtle things in the background.

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.

Important Sources:
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.

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