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Friday, 10 October 2014

Those Love Pangs (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.
After highlighting that Chaplin's famous perfectionism was starting to show in the way he was mastering individual aspects of filmmaking in his last four films, I should point out immediately that very little of the sort appears to be evident in Those Love Pangs, clearly a lesser entry in Chaplin's late Keystone period. I should add that there's a good reason for this. Jeffrey Vance cites studio boss Mack Sennett as explaining the changes that took place during development. Apparently Chaplin started out on this one reel picture with the simple idea of Charlie and Chester Conklin as rivals for the amorous attentions of their landlady. You can easily imagine some of where that idea would be likely to take them, but it quickly went a great deal further, so far that it expanded into a two reel comedy, Dough and Dynamite, often regarded as the best of Chaplin's Keystone pictures. With all that development diverted, Those Love Pangs became little more than an afterthought, devoid of much of the care and attention we're getting used to from Chaplin.

That's not to say that he didn't work on the little details, because there are still some magnificent points that fit into the progression we've been seeing. However the big picture is notably weak, rather unsure as to what it wants to be. The best part is the beginning, which is closest to the original goal of the short. With their landlady outside their door, each of the boys position themselves to be the one who will greet her. Charlie's first in line, but Chester outmanouevres him by suggesting that there's a woman under the table. When Charlie's curiosity, not to mention his gullibility, gets the better of him, Chester nips out to grasp the landlady's hand. Charlie's response is violence, as it so often was in the Keystone shorts, but it's a calm and thoughtful sort of violence for a change. He picks up a fork from the table, tests it, thinks about it, lines himself up and jabs Chester hard in the backside, spoiling his moment. He even puts it to his mouth afterwards to pretend that it's a makeshift mouthharp. It's very thoughtfully done.

Of course, if Chester has his moment to shine with the landlady, Charlie's surely going to get one too and this is even more thoughtfully done. Of course, Chester picks up the fork and prepares to reprise the gag, but Charlie's no fool. Realising that he's in precisely the wrong spot, he carefully switches places with the girl. Then he realises that he's inadvertently set her up, so tries to manoeuvre them both into positions of safety. Of course, it doesn't work as the landlady rejects his advances by pushing him backwards at just the right time for the fork to hit its intended target. Chaplin is superb here, pantomiming for sure, but in a much more subtle way than was usual at Keystone. Conklin isn't bad either and the pair of them do work well together, but not so well as Chaplin did with Roscoe Arbuckle in The Rounders. What's most notable about the rest of the film isn't so much where they go and what they do but who they meet while they're doing it. One scene in and the landlady is apparently forgotten.
Charlie's all set for the bar, cunningly conning his rival out of a coin, but he's immediately distracted by a slim brunette who waltzes past and looks enticingly at him. She's Vivian Edwards, in her sixth film, five of which were Chaplin pictures. This is the most audiences had got to see of her thus far and she's suitably delightful, as promised by her role as one of the Goo Goo sisters in The Property Man. Her fellow sister in that film, Cecile Arnold, promptly shows up here too, as a similarly delightful blonde who looks more than enticingly at Chester; she actively calls him over, by name too if I'm not very much mistaken. I'm no lip reader but it's so clear that I don't think I need to be. The difference, of course, is that Charlie is promptly run off by a tall man who shows up to steal the brunette's affections instead, while the blonde is all over Chester, so flagrantly that Charlie throws his hands up in disbelief at his rival's astounding success, then prepares to leap into the lake to literally drown his sorrows.

What's notable isn't who's playing the girls, as both were regulars at this point in Chaplin's pictures. Had Cecile Arnold appeared in The Rounders, it would have meant she'd been in as many as Edwards and in all the same ones too; presumably they came as a double act. What's notable is what they are, which is something that's generated something of a debate amongst silent film aficionados. In a silent film, with few intertitles, we can't know for sure, but the suggestion is that they're a pair of prostitutes. Or perhaps only one of them is, or maybe the other. Who knows? Well, beyond the suggestion that two such elegant ladies might possibly be interested in a couple of gentlemen who look like Charlie and Chester, who's in an outfit that somewhat mirrors Charlie's in that it clearly doesn't fit properly and in many similar ways, the blonde sticks her boot up on a bench that Charlie's sitting on, pulls a wad of cash out of it, counts it carefully and puts it into Chester's pocket. Are we to believe that she's paying him?

No, surely we're to believe that she's a lot more to Chester than just a blonde in a park. If she knows his name, lavishes him with kisses and gives him a chunk of cash to boot, Occam's razor suggests that he's her pimp. There are a number of other possibilities, of course, but that's by far the most obvious. Maybe he's really her boyfriend and he'd loaned her some cash, but then what's he doing chasing the landlady, what's she doing hanging out in the park on her lonesome and why does she have the cash secreted in her boot? Maybe she is only a random girl in the park whom Chester cleverly enlists into an elaborate scheme to pull a fast one on Charlie. Maybe there really is no accounting for taste and we shouldn't get so caught up in how to interpret an innocent situation. No, I don't buy it either, especially as the girls are with whoever has money at any time, even Charlie after they drift away to the nickelodeon and suddenly find him very agreeable company in the front row. They're prostitutes and at that point he has the cash.
While the quality of the material generally deteriorates as the film runs on, there are other moments that are worthy of note. Chaplin is still finding new and innovative uses for his cane. He reprises its use as the means to pull someone towards him that he did so notably in His New Profession, here dragging Chester along behind him as they leave the house and down its front steps. Later he does exactly the same thing to the tall man who hooked his brunette; he hooks him in return, right into the lake. Later still, he uses it repetitively on Chester, pulling him in to bounce him off his belly in a strange sort of fighting style that he might have learned from Arbuckle. A little more subtly, he also finds two uses for the other end: to clean his nails and pick his teeth. I'm less sure about another lauded moment, but I did find some charm in the way Charlie talks with his feet in the theatre because his hands are occupied around the girls' shoulders. The idea of using an upside down Chester as a temporary seat was more fun to me.

What all this means is that the details here are often praiseworthy, even if the film itself fails to maintain even a modicum of consistency. It starts out like the hotel pictures, hints at becoming a bar picture (one of the reissue titles is The Rival Mashers), becomes instead a park picture and eventually a movie theatre picture. Rather than building a frenetic pace by bouncing us between these settings, as Chaplin did in His New Profession, he merely shifts the action gradually from one to the next without any of them seeming to benefit. Most of it takes place in the park, where we're reminded of Chaplin's famous quote to Sennett that, 'All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.' Here he had all three and two of the latter to boot. The time spent at the nickelodeon is especially sparse, with the inevitable eventual chaos restricted to a few gags and a few seconds before Charlie finds himself thrown through the screen. He'd already made better films in each of these settings and some that used all of them.

Shooting was quick, taking only four days compared to the nine for The New Janitor before it and eight for Gentlemen of Nerve after it. The Rounders only took four days too, but it doesn't show its seams the way this one does. Sure, there was a crowd of people on the opposite side of the lake during the finalé of that picture, but there's little that Keystone could do about that in a public park. Here, there are at least two goofs that could have been fixed. The first is the number of obvious onlookers reflected in the door of the bar from whose delights Charlie is distracted by Vivian Edwards. My better half noticed the second a little later in the park, when Charlie first sits down on a bench; someone peeks over the bush behind him, only to vanish quickly, presumably when he realises that he's just interrupted a live shot. Surely the main flaw here lies in how quickly the film was put together. Chaplin had to finish up, so he could make Gentlemen of Nerve before shifting straight into Dough and Dynamite, which the original idea of this film became.

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

Those Love Pangs 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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