Sunday 16 March 2014

His Favorite Pastime (1914)

Director: George Nichols
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Velma Pearce and Frank Opperman
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.
Not the worst film Charlie Chaplin had made thus far, it may be however his most inconsequential. Each of his first seven films brought something new and interesting to the table, even if it was just a brief slot as a Keystone Kop, but this one doesn't really add anything. The only thing that comes close is the idea of the Little Tramp veering a little further down the sliding moral scale from anti-establishment rogue to just rogue, pure and simple. He's pretty obnoxious in this one, doing nothing except torment a growing parade of innocents, beginning mildly by teasing a fellow drunk who's out of beer but progressing as far as to hoist his unwanted attentions onto a married woman in her own house, to which he isn't invited. It isn't quite as morally dubious as it's been made out over the years, mostly because the characters in blackface have been seen out of context, but I'd challenge anyone to argue that it isn't morally dubious. Uno Asplund, in Chaplin's Films, calls it 'the prototype of the 'unpleasant' tough film' in his early career.

None of that suggests that His Favorite Pastime is without merit, because we can see the progression of some of Chaplin's regular gags, there are some neat acrobatic moments and there's a strong battle with a swinging door in a restroom, but it's weaker than its predecessors and feels more like it was knocked out without much care and attention. To be fair, much of that comes through the post-production, such as the notably intrusive editing, which is brutal, but some of it may have arisen from the clash between Chaplin, a growing star at Keystone, and George Nichols, yet another director with whom he did not see eye to eye. It's possible to read Chaplin's progression through 1914 just by looking at who directed his films as, with minor exceptions, it breaks down into sections. He started out with Henry Lehrman, who he didn't agree with, so Lehrman was replaced by Nichols, who he didn't agree with. A brief period with different directors later, studio head Mack Sennett took over until he finally let Chaplin direct himself.
So what we have here is Chaplin trying to build gags into more clever and complex routines, while the film keeps stealing him back into a traditional setting. Perhaps the best example of Chaplin's approach is the one take opening scene which pits him against Roscoe Arbuckle. It's easy to see why Chaplin is a drunk, because that's what he was playing when Sennett and Mabel Normand first saw him perform on the vaudeville stage with Fred Karno's troupe and why they felt he was someone they ought to hire for Keystone Studios to replace their departing star, Ford Sterling. He does it effortlessly, with a good eye for detail, and he's consistent enough for us to completely believe that he's in his cups. Arbuckle is fair, though clearly not up to the same standard, and the two have a fine altercation. Chaplin has a half full glass of beer, while the unshaven Arbuckle is dry and cheeky enough to try to steal it, so Chaplin plays with him for a while, letting him think he has a chance, until it's all gone and Arbuckle got none.

Sadly Arbuckle exits the film at this point, because it's clearly never about him. In his place enters the leading lady, known today as Peggy Pearce but at the time under her real name of Velma. Chaplin, who describes her in his autobiography as 'an exceptionally beautiful girl with delicately chiseled features, a beautiful white neck, and a ravishing figure,' was his 'first heart-throb'. They met some time during his third week at Keystone, which puts the moment around the turn of 1913 to 1914, and, as Chaplin saw it, they 'ignited; it was mutual, and my heart sang.' Standard filmographies list this as the only film they made together, before Pearce left for the L-KO studio, but there's a lot of confusion as to whether she was also the Keystone Girl in A Film Johnnie. Keystone films at this time had no credits, but official lists suggest that Virginia Kirtley, who played the daughter in Making a Living, took that role. Comparing all three films in their restored versions, my vote is with Pearce, meaning that they made two together.
Here, as the ham fisted editing sets up, she's standing by her car waiting for her husband. The drunken Little Tramp is instantly besotted and promptly shows off, by turning his bowler hat into a homburg with a hit of his cane. Her husband, of course, won't have any of it and so back to the bar goes the tramp for some less sophisticated slapstick, at least for now. After he causes too much trouble there, including for the lady's husband, he decides to pursue her afresh. What he fails to notice is that, as her car drives off, she's walking away in the other direction, so it's her servant he pursues with notable vigour. Missing the car and taking a tumble into the street, he leaps onto a moving trolley and eventually off it again. His most ambitious tumble comes inside the lady's house though, as he falls over a bannister to land on the couch underneath, nonchalantly following up by lighting a match on the sole of his boot as if nothing had happened. It's not as polished as his movements would become, but it's impressive nonetheless.

Less impressive is the use of blackface, the process by which white actors played black characters, as personified by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Jeffrey Vance explains in Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema that Chaplin used this convention less often than the other great silent comedians, adding a quote to back it up. 'I never laugh at their humour,' Chaplin explained. 'They have suffered too much to be funny to me.' At this point of his career, Chaplin was contributing material but hardly in charge of the finished product so it's easy to cut him some slack. I see nothing racist here, though some have applied that epithet to the interactions he has with each character in blackface. Firstly, he leaves Billy Gilbert, the attendant in the bar's restroom, a lit cigarette for a tip, a nasty trick but one probably due to the tramp being out of money. Secondly, he gives an overblown reaction to the discovery that he's been following the lady's black maid rather than her. Both seem eminently explainable merely as gags, not racist ones.

Another factor in this judgement call is that Chaplin gets the worst of most of his encounters in this film and deservedly so, which hardly underlines him as the hero of the piece. He's too obnoxious to be a real villain here, which at this point in time was someone with deliberate evil intent, but he's far from a hero. He's a sort of proto-stalker, though, to be fair, he has no conception of who the lady is, just that he likes her and, as under the influence as he is, he can't believe that she won't like him too. He gets walloped hard by everyone here, however well and often he manages to duck; even the black maid gets in more than a few shots before he escapes to the next hiding. In one of the best scenes in the picture, even a swinging door has it in for him and it's only very careful positioning on Chaplin's behalf that ensures he keeps all his teeth. It's easy to see how he did it when watching frame by frame, but at regular speed it's highly effective, enhanced by the fact that he plays drunk throughout the entire film.
Masterful choreography was one of the skills that was helping Chaplin stand out at this point. The other household names of silent comedy hadn't really arrived yet. Harold Lloyd technically beat Chaplin to the screen by a year but by this point he was still doing bit parts in odd films like The Patchwork Girl of Oz, coincidentally in blackface, while Buster Keaton's first films were three years away in 1917. The famous names at this point were mostly Chaplin's peers at Keystone such as Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, none of whom had the precision that Chaplin was demonstrating. Their routines were more like the larger tussles here, with lots of swinging arms and falling over, including more jumping in the air and, in Sterling's case, his bizarre nose biting habit. Arbuckle's more restrained moves were a better fit with Chaplin's, but it's not difficult to see who had the better control in this film. I wonder who was learning more from whom at this point.

That's not to say that Chaplin wasn't still learning. Clearly, given the change in style of Tango Tangles and the tonal shift of His Favorite Pastime, he was still experimenting with the medium of film and his next few pictures would underline that. That he had reached his eighth film suggests he was becoming experienced, but those eight films were shot in as many weeks and we can only imagine how frenetic the Keystone factory was by watching titles like A Film Johnnie. As we know, the Little Tramp became a lovable character but he certainly hadn't got there by this point. He was endearing to different degrees in a few of his early films, but hadn't yet become quite as obnoxious as he was here. Today, we tend to think of the Little Tramp as a frequently sad, but usually lovable, character, the everyman of the silent screen. He's far from that in this film. Having drunkenly hit on women far more endearingly in Mabel's Strange Predicament and Tango Tangles, here he becomes someone we'd call the Keystone Kops on.

Important Sources:
Uno Asplund - Chaplin's Films (1976)
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
James L Neibaur - Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios (2011)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

His Favorite Pastime can be watched for free at 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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