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Friday, 5 December 2014

Getting Acquainted (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.
There's a particular irony in the title of this picture, as Chaplin's 34th of 1914 alone features many of the same faces as many of the 33 that predate it. Working through them on their centennials, mimicking the experience of an admittedly dedicated audience member of the era, has made this set of films feel like a television sketch show, where we fully expect the core cast to play a different role each week (even each skit), regardless of gender, race or age. Thus audiences had been getting acquainted with the players of Getting Acquainted long before it was made and they'd surely got very used to their respective traits by this point. There's nothing surprising about these characters played by Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and Phyllis Allen, as they had played similar ones in similar picture over the previous weeks. What's new here is really only the introduction of a Turk, apparently out of the blue, and the removal of the usual slapstick props and moves Keystone was known for, as Chaplin finessed his material.

The template for this one seems to be Gentlemen of Nerve, three pictures earlier in Chaplin's career and itself highly derivative of still earlier films. That one saw Chaplin and Swain at a racetrack, where Charlie picked up Mabel because her beau, played by Chester Conklin, was trying it on with Phyllis Allen instead. Mack Swain was in that picture too, but mostly just to get stuck in a wall, rather than to get embroiled in the tangled web of changing relationships. Here, he gets to join in, because Ambrose and Mabel are an item in this picture, while Charlie is with Allen's character, who is unnamed, as always. This time out the action unfolds in a park, but to emphasise the influence, Joe Bordeaux promptly drives up in a glorious automobile ('car' just doesn't cut it) which putters out in front of Ambrose and Mabel. Ambrose lends a hand in cranking it back into motion, thus leaving Mabel open to Charlie's unwanted attentions which, in turn, leave Ambrose able to try it on with Phyllis Allen and the dance of the flirts is in play.

In fact, the working title of the film was The Flirts and it makes a lot more sense than Getting Acquainted for the majority of the running time, at least until the combination of complex connections within such a small cast of characters means that the pairings change. We usually see what we saw in Gentlemen of Nerve, when Mabel showed up with Chester Conklin but left with Charlie, but here the connections aren't defined by relationship, rather by commonality. As Charlie and Ambrose begin to weave their respective ways in and out of scenes with increasing rapidity, Mabel ends up on the same bench around the same tree as Phyllis Allen and, as ladies who have new stories must, they naturally share them, so building a connection. Meanwhile, their respective husbands end up in the same place too but, rather than a neat bench, it's the shelter a bush offers them from the inevitable Keystone Kop that appeals. Both men are hauled off by their wives in the end, but the ladies have connected and so have the men.
What this leaves us with is something that feels rather more British than anything Chaplin had done yet. The structure reminds of the sophisticated English drawing room farces which would become the rage on stage, but translated into the setting of an early American film comedy. It's light years away from a Noël Coward comedy, as none of the characters are remotely sophisticated, but the format fits and the tone is a lot closer than usual because they don't indulge in any of the usual Keystone slapstick. While there is a Keystone Kop on hand, played this time out by Edgar Kennedy, and he is kept incessantly flustered, there are no pies or bricks hurled, no asses kicked and none of the wrong people slapped. Even more notably, this Keystone park comedy does not, I repeat not, end with at least one key member of the cast dumped unceremoniously into the lake. That's a little jarring, as we've been reinforced to expect it, over and over again, making this feel somewhat like a familiar joke whose punchline has suddenly been changed.

The point of course is that the comedy in Getting Acquainted isn't based on physicality, it's based on the characters and their interactions, here including 'a passing Turk', an exotic stage stereotype who comes complete with fez and dagger. The very first scene is a perfect example as, to the standard Keystone way of thinking, absolutely nothing happens but, to Chaplin, it sets the stage perfectly. Charlie and Phyllis are a couple, but clearly not a happy one, as Chaplin's face suggests. She trumpets and complains and blows her nose, while he merely reacts to her. What's more, he looks directly at us through the fourth wall as he does so, in an attempt to involve us in the conversation. In just over thirty seconds, his eyes switch back and forth between his wife and we, the viewers, over twenty times, as if to ask, 'You see what my world is like?' Without a single intertitle, the two of them provide us with their entire relationship. By comparison, Mabel and Ambrose look happier together, but he clearly doesn't listen to her in the slightest.

Of course, from these first two scenes, we fully expect that Phyllis is going to go to sleep and Ambrose is going to drift away, leaving Charlie and Mabel free to connect yet again, but Chaplin didn't want to keep things so obvious. Sure, Phyllis goes to sleep and Ambrose works on the automobile, but Cecile Arnold is the first distraction for Charlie. She's blatant enough that after Charlie shimmies away from his sleeping wife, she bends over right in front of him but, following her, he finds himself blocked by a fearsome Turk. Why we have a Turk in this movie, I have no idea, but he appears out of the bushes as a defender of the lady's virtue, with his arms crossed, his stare wicked and his dagger quickly forthcoming. Charlie is quick to take the back foot but the Turk promptly stabs him, almost in slow motion, in the nether regions and the chase is apparently on. From here on out, it's merely a question of how intricate that chase will get, as it gradually involves Charlie, Ambrose, the Turk, the Keystone Kop and a variety of ladies.

If this sounds like Chaplin was moving forward yet again, you'd be right. Keystone comedies didn't tend to have a structure beyond the general format of slapstick shenanigans leading to a chase, but this is a complex creature with intricacies put together more cleverly than anything Chaplin had done thus far. If anything, the minimalist setting aids this magnificently. Dough and Dynamite had a lot going on too, but it was staged in an environment that built a story, with bakers pitted against their boss, waiters against customers and all them caught up in a whole set of escalations to reach the literally explosive finalé. In this film, there are people and a park and that's it. None of the luxuries of the earlier picture exist here. There are names in the intertitles, but we aren't given professions. There are no sets and no props, just the park itself and anything the characters brought with them, like Charlie's cane and the Turk's dagger. Everything has to be conjured out of thin air and, as Chaplin ably demonstrates, that's all he needs.
Emotionally, we don't really feel for the beleaguered women, for various reasons. Phyllis is the battle axe she usually is, so it's always fun to watch her bubble burst. Mabel is sympathetic, of course, but we can't fail to appreciate the extravagant set up Charlie employs to get her lips close to his, involving removing a stray hair from her shoulder and balancing it on his nose until she's near enough to grab. She's also both able and willing to slap him when he goes too far, which he does more frequently than usual, even using his cane to pull up her skirts. If anything, we feel more for the Keystone Kop, who Kennedy unfortunately overplays with silent era gusto, literally leaping into action, because he just can't keep track of who he's to chase. With two ladies suffering from the unwanted attentions of men (hardly gentlemen), he has two to pursue and the fiery Turk makes three. It's a hard life being a Keystone Kop, that's for sure! The ladies do find confusion of their own too, as the dance progresses.

And this really is a dance, as much as anything else. While silent era movies were clearly not written for dialogue, they often did revolve around intertitles, the equivalents of the day, to varying degrees. That's true for many Chaplin films too, where an intertitle would set a scene of improvisation in motion, but it's not true here. This film was clearly written entirely around the choreography, which is pretty astounding given that, according to Jeffrey Vance, Getting Acquainted was shot in a single day. The BFI details four days, a long weekend from Friday to Monday, with the negative shipped to New York the next Sunday. It has to be said that the Keystone crew had spent so much time in Westlake Park during 1914 that it must have been viable to choreograph the whole picture from memory. It's understandable that we might see the park as Keystone property, but it wasn't, and the glimpses of what we might believe to be extras or the dogs of extras are probably just other patrons of the park straying into shot.

If the obvious standout here is the choreography, following rapidly behind is the editing. Just as the way this comedy of errors proceeds like a dance, so does its editing, which is as fast paced as anything that I've seen from 1914, especially during the second, frenetic, act. The introductory scenes are just as long as usual, as are the final scenes to wrap things up, but in between them the cuts come thick and fast, to keep all the characters in play and to telegraph where they're going next. As these cameras don't move, it might seem like a foreshadowing of what Russ Meyer would later become famous for, but there's little to suggest specific motion here, merely that there's a lot of it happening. Certainly, it's far ahead of the editing at the beginning of Chaplin's 1914, where it was notable only in how unnotable it was. Chaplin's mastery of the medium clearly wasn't just restricted to being in front of the camera. This highlights yet another aspect that he was starting to understand and nail down for future work.

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

Getting Acquainted 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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