Sunday 2 February 2014

Making a Living (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman
Stars: Charles Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Minta Durfee, Virginia Kitley and Henry Lehrman
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.
Monday, 2nd February, 1914 turned out to be one of the most important dates in the history of cinema, though nobody knew it at the time and very few even glimpsed the possibility. However, the release by Keystone Studios of Making a Living, a one reel comedy, marked the debut on screen of Charlie Chaplin, whose regular character, the Little Tramp, would quickly become the most recognisable image in the entire world, the equivalent perhaps of Mickey Mouse's ears today. The tramp wouldn't show up until Chaplin's second picture, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal, although that arrived a mere five days later. To suggest that he was a busy man at Keystone understates the case; he made no less than 36 pictures in 1914, as many as he made for other companies over the following seven years. This wasn't anything he was used to; as a vaudevillian for the Fred Karno troupe, he spent months rehearsing new routines, but Keystone didn't even work with scripts. They took ideas, improvised them into chases and were done.

The man behind Keystone Studios was Mack Sennett, known in his day as the 'king of comedy' because he was synonymous with the genre, at least as far as Americans were concerned. Before him, the art of comedy was a European, often a French, creature: the Lumiére Brothers had invented it as far back as 1895 and the first international comedy star was Pathé's Max Linder, whose screen debut was in 1905; amazingly, he had made 170 films before Chaplin had made one. Even in the US, Keystone weren't the originals; when Sennett left Biograph, where he learned his craft under the greatest American director of the day, D W Griffith, to become the production chief at Keystone in 1912, there was an established comedy star already. That was John Bunny, a rotund but engaging actor who worked for Vitagraph, but his star had waned even before his death in 1915. Under Sennett, however, Keystone were prolific and reliable. They became comedy, pure and simple, but at a time when comedy meant slapstick.

If you've ever heard of any early American film comedians, chances are they worked at Keystone. Major stars at the time included Mabel Normand, Louise Fazenda and Harry Langdon, all regulars at Keystone. Some were known by their nicknames, such as Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Swain and Chester Conklin, who were respectively Fatty, Ambrose and Walrus. Some Keystone players went on to greatness elsewhere, such as Gloria Swanson, Harold Lloyd and future Academy Award winner Marie Dressler, the star of the first feature length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance, which was made by Keystone at the tail end of 1914. Less remembered names today, like Slim Summerville, Al St John and Edgar Kennedy, are still as recognised as ever as members of the Keystone Kops, perhaps the one name that conjures up slapstick best. Needless to say they worked at Keystone Studios. However, it was Ford Sterling, their lead star in 1913, who inadvertently paved the way for Chaplin, by planning to leave to form his own company.
Needing a new face, Sennett and Normand remembered an actor who had impressed them on stage as an 'Inebriated Swell'. He was part of Fred Karno's London Comedians, so they sent a telegram asking for a man called 'Chaffin... or something like that' to contact Kessell and Baumann at the Longacre Building in New York. This reached Chaplin, who realised that the Longacre Building housed lawyers, so believed his great-aunt had died and left him an inheritance. He was disappointed to find that he was only being asked to join a motion picture company, though he signed a year's contract for two reasons: his salary would immediately double to $150 a week, to increase again after three months, and he recognised the power of film to reach a large audience. He intended to use this year at Keystone to build publicity. 'A year at that racket and I could return to vaudeville an international star,' he wrote in his autobiography. By the end of 1914, he was even more of an international star than he could have dreamed.

This concept wasn't in anyone else's mind during the filming of Making a Living and it didn't arrive once it had been completed. Most of those involved thought it would be a flop. Henry Lehrman in particular, who served both as the film's director and Chaplin's on screen foil, was furious with his co-star and cut most of his best material out of the finished product. Neither Sennett nor anyone else at Keystone were impressed. Even Chaplin himself had choice words to say about it later. 'It broke my heart,' he said, 'for the cutter had butchered it beyond recognition'. In reality, it isn't that bad, merely showing us yet again what any other Keystone movie showed us. Only one contemporary review is known, but the unknown writer for the Moving Picture World proved rather prophetic. He singled out Chaplin for praise, though as no actor was given credit in a Keystone film at this point, he had no idea of his name. He called him a 'comedian of the first water, who acts like one of Nature's own naturals.'

He's recognisable to us, of course, with the benefit of a hundred years of hindsight, but only just. With the Little Tramp still in the future, he drew on an old vaudevillian costume for his role as a 'sharper', a sort of middle ground between beggar and conman. He wears a top hat, monocle and tight frock coat and he carries a cane; all of which was designed to make him look like an English gentleman who had fallen on hard times. Unfortunately he also has a thick and drooping moustache, of the sort we see as silent movie cliché. Surely American audiences of the time wouldn't have seen the English gentleman but the serial villain with his inevitable dastardly schemes. Given that Chaplin plays the opportunistic villain here, that wouldn't have felt out of place, but he's still the most watchable character. While the Moving Picture World journalist saw something that most wouldn't have seen, Chaplin steals the film from Lehrman without appearing to try and even though his best material was cut.
His best scene is the first one, which runs surprisingly long for a Keystone short. Jeffrey Vance, author of Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, highlights that Chaplin's first scene in Mabel's Strange Predicament, the next film he would shoot at Keystone though the third to be released, was allowed to run uncut for a full 75 feet or about a minute. However, he doesn't mention that the same thing happened here as Chaplin is introduced not only to this particular story but to the world at large. The sharper, apparently named Edgar English in the idea, stops a random stranger in the street in an attempt to persuade him out of some money. For a full minute, we watch him ply his trade while Lehrman, playing the stranger, seems flummoxed by the whole affair. Clearly we're watching the sharper play his mark, but also an actor play his director. There's no doubt as to who will win in each instance. He breaks the ice, engages in chatter, raises an unsavoury topic. He even refuses the offered gift before quickly grabbing it. It's good stuff.

Unfortunately it goes downhill from there. After taking money from Lehrman's character, he finds that he bumps into him again and again. Chatting up a young lady, clearly under the suggestion that he's a rich and important man, he finds that Lehrman is wooing her too. Deciding to seek work, he tries for a job as a journalist, only to find that Lehrman already works there. And, for no better reason than it's the way Keystone films always work, this is all riffed on until it becomes a chase. As impressive as Chaplin was in the first, notably static, scene, he's unable to match that as things get progressively frenetic. It must be said that he still dominates every scene that he's in, not least because he's the only character with three dimensions; everyone else in the film might as well have been a cardboard cutout. When he isn't on screen, we start to wonder why we're watching. Even the Keystone Kops, who show up towards the end, don't seem to have as much to do as usual and scenes arrive and depart with abandon.

Making a Living was completed and shipped on 14th January, but didn't see screens until 2nd February. That's a gap of less than three weeks, but by the time the first audiences saw this picture, Chaplin had completed and shipped another three. Like I mentioned, Keystone weren't interesting in hanging about. When Chaplin joined their roster, they were churning out a dozen one reel comedies every month, plus a couple of two reelers. His second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal, followed his first by a mere five days, with his third, Mabel's Strange Predicament, so hot on its heels that it reached theatres only two days later. Technically the latter was started first, so it features the first appearance of the Little Tramp, while the former is where audiences saw him first. Because of how that was shot, guerrilla style at a public event, it could be said that the people in the background are the first footage of a Chaplin audience. However they saw it a century ago, to us these films mark the birth of modern film comedy.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Making a Living can be watched for free on YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

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