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Friday, 7 November 2014

His Musical Career (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain
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.
His Musical Career isn't a bad picture but it's far more notable for what it inspired than for what it is. Most obviously it's one clear inspiration for the Laurel and Hardy comedy, The Music Box, which won the debut Academy Award for Live Action Short Film (Comedy) in 1932, eighteen years after this film was released. Technically, The Music Box was a vague remake of their 1927 short film, Hats Off, which is sadly now lost; in that film, Stan and Ollie hauled a washing machine up a long flight of steps in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, but they reverted in the later short to the piano that Chaplin introduces as a prop here. They did retain the same stairs though, which are unsurprisingly a tourist attraction today and which had been already used by Billy Bevan in Ice Cold Cocos in 1926, as well as Charley Chase for Isn't Life Terrible? one year earlier. His Musical Career isn't another one, but the stairs which Chaplin and Mack Swain climb here with their piano appear longer, narrower and steeper.

Many connections exist between His Musical Career and The Music Box, even if we bypass Hats Off as an intermediary step. Chaplin and Laurel knew each other well, of course, having both worked for Fred Karno in England and travelled to the States with him in 1910, when the latter was still Stan Jefferson, Chaplin's understudy. The Music Box was also made at Hal Roach Studios, directed by James Parrott, the brother of one of the studio's biggest stars, Charley Chase. The latter, under his birth name of Charles Parrott, which he continued to use as a director, started out as an actor at Keystone Studios in 1914, as did Chaplin, and the two appeared in many of the same films. In fact, his first three confirmed roles were in Chaplin shorts, Mabel at the Wheel, The Knockout and Mabel's Busy Day, which were Chaplin's 11th, 18th and 19th films respectively, giving the latter a little head start. What's more, Parrott was in this picture too, briefly as the manager of the music store which hires Swain and Chaplin to take care of deliveries.

The most obvious connection though is the gag that involves one large man and one small man hauling a piano up a long and narrow flight of stairs. However, The Music Box treats this as the core of its story and tasks its leads with handling just one piano over three reels of film; here, Swain and Chaplin handle a pair of them in only one reel, with this being just one gag to play with. In fact, while it's played well, it may not even be the best gag in the film, that honour going to the one that follows it as Charlie staggers around the apartment of Mr Poor with the whole weight of it on his back while the three other people in the room dilly dally about deciding where he should put it down. So, while Laurel and Hardy's Oscar winning short isn't a remake of this film, it's still clearly inspired by it. It's also a much better picture, not just because it had three reels and a lot more money and time to play with. Chaplin had one more single reeler left after this one at Keystone but, after Dough and Dynamite, his mind was clearly on longer material.
We open in relatively lackluster fashion, with Chaplin getting a job working for Mack Swain, both of them presumably in their regular personae as Charlie and Ambrose, even though they're sometimes credited as Tom and Mike. The main gag here is a routine prank which Charlie plays on Ambrose by switching two identical tins of liquid so that he takes a swig of the piano varnish instead of the water. It's hardly high art and it's followed only by Charlie taking a nap on the keyboard and falling off. What's most important here is how Chaplin strips off his shirt to emphasise the size difference between him and his co-star. He was a mere 5' 5" tall, while Swain was 6' 2" and much larger in every direction. With this setup, the contrast is even more obvious than it was between 5' 8" Laurel and 6' 1" Hardy. Chaplin even flexes his muscles, but only serves to show how scrawny he was compared to Swain. Naturally, it's Charlie stuck underneath the piano on its way up those stairs and once it makes it to the top.

There's another contrast in play, a simple but effective one. Mr Rich buys a piano from the store and Mr Poor is unable to keep up the payments on the one he already has, their names being as representative of their financial status as you might expect. That's fair enough for 1914, especially as they both live on Prospect St, but it doesn't raise the laugh that accompanied the inspired names in The Rounders, a mere two months earlier, of Chaplin as Mr Full and Roscoe Arbuckle as Mr Fuller. Mr Rich's place is number 999 and Mr Poor is at 666; the two unsurprisingly get mixed up, albeit by the store manager not Ambrose and Charlie as is usually claimed, given that we clearly see the house number at Mr Rich's. Character names aside, these early scenes are notable less for Chaplin, Swain or Chase and more for Frank Hayes, another actor hired by Keystone in 1914. His flamboyant overacting, in which he doesn't really act so as much as he dances with the air, ably highlights why his career trajectory didn't match Chaplin's and Parrott's.
And so to business. The first hints at the real Chaplin arrive when they move the piano outside, where we discover a real storefront belonging to the Wiley B Allen Co on South Broadway in Los Angeles, only a few blocks away from the Marsh Strong building out of which Chaplin had hung precariously four films earlier in The New Janitor. In fact, as John Bengtson, 'the great detective of silent film locations' notes, we're able to see that very building here as Swain and Chaplin load the piano onto their mule-drawn cart outside the store. There's a great moment here as Ambrose pulls the piano off the shop floor and Charlie slides along behind it, another one follows immediately as Ambrose stops and Charlie discovers that he can't move it himself whatever amount of effort he puts into the task. Unfortunately this scene is let down with a return to the infamous one in The Property Man when Charlie's aged assistant gets stuck under a heavy trunk. In this film, it's Swain under a piano, but there are less shenanigans and even less to be offended by.

In the restored print made available by Flicker Alley in the Chaplin at Keystone box set, it's easy to see an abundance of members of the public reflected in the shop window. Presumably they're merely passers by eager to see the filming in progress and we can see how they were moved back for the next shot in which the dynamic duo load the piano onto a rickety looking cart. We can also see the shadows of whoever tilts the cart after it crawls to a stop, given that the drivers have fallen asleep and the mule can't be bothered any more. Up goes the mule into the air a couple of times before they move on. It's a memorable shot, if not one that could perhaps be accomplished today with animal safety laws that were notably absent back in the silent era. And so, we finally reach 666 Prospect St with over half the picture already behind us, for the supposedly dangerous looking scene where Ambrose and Charlie haul the piano up those steep and narrow stairs. It would seem more dangerous if only the piano wasn't clearly a light and hollow shell.
It's still pretty effective though, with Swain leading the way and Chaplin following on behind, ambitiously attempting at one point to hold the piano above him through the use of only his bamboo cane. Of course it doesn't work and down comes the piano, but they do make it on the second try, which, as we discover later with Laurel and Hardy, lets the instrument off far too easily. Rather than build the gag, Chaplin sees it as done and he promptly moves on to the next one, which memorably sees Charlie floundering around with a piano on his shoulders, fervently wishing that someone would decide where he should put it down. I liked the delays here and Chaplin makes the most of them, staggering around, wiping his brow, almost doing the splits. It's impressive physical humour, however light the piano shaped prop really was. I liked how he couldn't stand up straight afterwards too, requiring Swain to tip him over onto his head and push him back into shape with his big boot. So much for the flight of stairs.

The whole segment at 666 Prospect St took less than four minutes to unfold, pretty impressive given that it took Laurel and Hardy three reels to do the equivalent, but that leaves even less time for the dynamic duo down the road at 999. At least here we don't have to put up with Frank Hayes gurning up a storm as if he was being paid by the facial expression; instead we get the lovely Cecile Arnold wondering why they seem to be taking a piano away instead of delivering one. There's a little fun with the rich and expensive knicknacks and furnishings in a set as lavishly decorated as Mr Poor's wasn't and they do get to violently push over an employee and even disrespect Mr Rich himself, but mostly this seems like an afterthought because the film was a one reeler and time was running out. The very last scene, in which the piano and its handlers descend a hill and end up in a lake, could have been a reel all on its own but has to settle for a few seconds instead because that's all there is left.

I wonder why Chaplin felt he should cram all this material into one single reel of film. He was experienced in one reelers by this point, having acted in a bunch, then written and directed a bunch more, but he had at least a few two reelers behind him as well, so he knew how much could comfortably fit in each format. It's always possible that it was supposed to be a two reeler but became one, but I doubt it; it's much more likely that Chaplin was still learning what worked and what didn't. Perhaps this was an experiment to see how much he could viably fit into a reel and the end result was that he found out that this was too much, with many scenes truncated far beyond viability. By the end of the film, it's not difficult to blink and miss a gag, if not an entire scene. Could that be deliberate escalation on Chaplin's part, especially as the pace does speed up consistently throughout? Again I doubt it, even if he was avoiding the traditional Keystone chase finalés. Whatever it is, this is too much and not enough all at once, capable but hardly essential.

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

His Musical Career 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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