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Sunday, 9 November 2014

His Trysting Places (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and Phyllis Allen
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 His Musical Career often felt like a two reel comedy crammed into a single reel, often with the funniest bits skipped over too quickly or left out entirely, His Trysting Places feels more like a coherent story which unfolds at a more appropriate pace. It's clearly not up to the levels of Dough and Dynamite, but it is very much a success and it ably shows how Chaplin was enjoying the opportunities that he found in character and story from simply doubling the length of his pictures. If anything, this could have easily be expanded to a third reel, as he set up four characters but wasn't consistent in how well he explored them. Also, the introduction of a baby to the mix, for the first time in the context of Charlie being a father, adds a whole new dynamic that he found he couldn't quite explore. The baby is less of a character and more of a prop, ironically emphasising how he wasn't ready for this sort of thing; The Kid was seven long years away. It's obvious that the baby should either have been excised entirely or built up to a more substantial role.

Little Peter is introduced right at the beginning, a chunky little kid who cries quite a bit. Then again, that's hardly surprising given that he's found himself in a Keystone picture with Charlie and Mabel as his screen parents. The astounding scene that sets the film in motion unfolds in their cramped kitchen as they cook dinner. Charlie, distracted by a newspaper, is tasked with supervising the open range with a powerful fire blazing under the saucepan. Mabel, right next to him, is preparing food on the table with the baby in her arms. Gags almost write themselves and Charlie runs through a whole bunch of them. He sits in the fire, leans his elbow and hand on it, puts his feet up on it, you name it. In 1914, it was good riffing on a prop but, a hundred years later, all we can fearfully wonder is how close that baby is going to get to that fire, especially given what Mack Sennett said in his ghostwritten autobiography, King of Comedy, that Chaplin 'preceded W C Fields by many years with scenes in which he got laughs by being mean to a baby.'

Jeffrey Vance ably highlights the major difference between Charlie as a father here and in later films with reference to his 'frequently cruel screen characterization'. Certainly he's far from a model father, hauling his baby around by the scruff, then giving him a real gun to play with while he relaxes with the paper in the kid's crib. I wonder how much of it is really cruelty though and how much a combination of laziness, distraction and incompentence, not to mention the yawning abyss of a hundred years between then and now. Today, this couldn't be shot without CGI for safety reasons, but back in 1914 I doubt anyone thought twice about it. Two of my grandchildren are under a year old today but, back then, my own grandfather was only five years old. It's sometimes difficult to imagine how much has changed in a mere century, but this fabulous medium of film helps us to see it in scenes like these. It wouldn't surprise me if kids today were as surprised by the presence of a newspaper here as by the open range. Perspective is everything.
Charlie and Mabel are one of two couples in play. They're hardly living in poverty, especially if we look at future Chaplin pictures for comparison; they have a decent home with a well dressed child and numerous comforts to hand. Charlie's trousers seem to fit better than usual, even if his coat is still notably too tight. However, they're not living in the lap of luxury, which is far more apparent in the other couple they run into here, Ambrose and his unnamed wife, played respectively by Mack Swain and Phyllis Allen. They live in what seems to be a swanky hotel and it's as Ambrose leaves for a walk that the situation comedy that drives His Trysting Places starts to fall into place. Clarice is a young lady working in the lobby, presumably some sort of secretary, who knows Ambrose and asks him to post a note for her. Naturally, it's a smoking gun letter, a 'meet me in the park this afternoon at our little trysting place' love note, addressed only to 'my darling'. It's a great foundation stone from which to build a slapstick comedy and it's put to good use.

First, of course, we have to get it into the wrong hands, which happens at a restaurant. Charlie heads out to buy something for the baby (and thus perhaps impress his wife who's clearly fed up with him) and he ends up at the same restaurant as Ambrose, the pair ending up seated next to each other over bowls of soup. Charlie hasn't endeared himself to the establishment as, after hanging up his coat, he steals from a customer's plate and then dries his hands on the man's long beard, but it'll soon get worse. Ambrose, it seems, is unable to slurp quietly, so the meal, itself cleverly choreographed, promptly turns violent and becomes a fast paced fight with all the expected Keystone moves delivered rapidly, right down to the pie that Charlie hurls at a departing Ambrose, only to instead catch a well dressed passer by right in the face. Of course, in the kerfuffle, Ambrose escapes with Charlie's coat and Charlie ends up with Ambrose's and we're in business just as the first reel gives way to the second.
Perhaps the best aspect of the film is its pacing, which devotes its first half to setup and its second to the increasingly fraught misinterpretations which drive the comedy. The scripts reproduced by Simon Louvish in Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett, put paid to the long standing belief that Keystone films were almost entirely improvisations leading up to chase finalés, but they were still generally episodic in nature and without any real structure. Chaplin's scripts were already clearly moving beyond Sennett's, most obviously with his two reelers, and this is a great example. It introduces characters and sets up the gags to come, pivots halfway to allow those gags to play out, then escalates all the way to the finalé, with one extra gag held in check until the very end. It's not Dough and Dynamite, but it's yet another example of how Chaplin was gradually mastering his art. While there are flaws to be found in the structure, there is little to argue about with the pacing.

Those flaws mostly tie to the disparity between the characters. Thus far, it's been predominantly Charlie and Ambrose, with a little attention given to Mabel and some distraction with the baby. Ambrose's wife is almost unseen in the first half, only on screen to bid him farewell as he wandered off for his stroll. All that changes in the second half, with the ladies given just as much time as their husbands, even if one never does get a name. Mabel, a subservient character in the first half, begins this shift as Charlie arrives home and she wonders what he brought for the baby. Of course, she finds Clarice's note and immediately takes charge, letting him have it to the degree of breaking her ironing board over his head, until he flees home and makes for the park. Meanwhile, already in the park, Ambrose is getting plenty of attention too, from his wife, who cuddles him on her ample bosom. I've never been a big fan of Mack Swain's goggling eyes but they're highly appropriate here, as is his widow's peak which becomes more of a proto-devilock.
It's no chore to guess how everyone's going to meet up. Charlie actually sits on Ambrose's wife, before he starts to unload his troubles on her instead. 'My wife's gone foolish,' he begins, while setting the stage for Mabel's imminent arrival; she's hot on his heels, having paused only to leave their baby with a Keystone Kop. Mabel Normand has a fair shot of stealing this part of the film, but Chaplin holds his own with the aid of a dustbin put to glorious use as a prop. To give him credit as a screenwriter, while he gives himself and his side of the story great moments, he doesn't forget that Ambrose and his wife are the other half of that story and he gives them great moments too. Phyllis Allen never underacted, even by 1914 standards, but she does faint well when she discovers the baby bottle in her husband's coat and assumes that he has a child that he's hidden from her. That husband gets a few moments of his own too, in both halves of the action, before they all catch the error and start to put things to rights.

There's a lot to like here, in a two reeler that is somehow full and yet unhurried at the same time. Chaplin does a lot with His Trysting Places but he lets it unfold naturally, his gags playing out well and the regular Keystone actors easily up to the task. The lesser side of the film comes with how the baby is so ruthlessly used as a prop rather than a character, something Chaplin would soon switch around, and how that time was stolen from Ambrose's wife, who deserved as much build up as the other leads. It's easy to imagine her unable to have children, hence her babying of her husband and her fainting dead away after finding the baby bottle in Ambrose's coat, but that's never called out because she doesn't even have a name, let alone a background. Glen Cavender has less to do here than perhaps any Keystone Kop ever did, mostly there as a suggestion that's never put to real use. It could easily be argued that Nick Cogley had more to do as the bearded customer at the restaurant, who vanished to vacate a seat for Charlie.

The BFI resource pages on Chaplin carry various dates for his films, including when they were shot, when the negatives were sent from Los Angeles and received in New York and when they were first released to theatre audiences. If they're to be trusted, this was the first of Chaplin's films to be shown out of order. It wasn't uncommon for some to overlap, especially one day shoots that enabled Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal to reach audiences before Mabel's Strange Predicament, for example, but this was the first time that a film completely shot before another would be exhibited after it. His Trysting Places was shot before His Musical Career, concurrent with the post-production of Gentlemen of Nerve. That film was in production between 20th and 27th September, although the race at which it was shot took place on day one, while this is listed from the 19th to 26th. I have no idea why this picture was effectively sat on in New York for over a month but it was certainly worth the wait, better than Chaplin's previous two films combined.

Important Sources:
Simon Louvish - Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (2003)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

His Trysting Places 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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