Sunday 27 April 2014

Caught in a Cabaret (1914)

Director: Mabel Normand
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Harry McCoy
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.
Chaplin's first two reel film was Mabel at the Wheel, on which he rejected Mabel Normand's direction and caused a major spat with Keystone Studios head, Mack Sennett. If Chaplin's account of why he didn't get fired over this is taken as gospel, it's because his popularity was soaring and it's easy to see that state of affairs backed up here. After he debuted as a writer with Twenty Minutes of Love, he made his second two reeler, Caught in a Cabaret, again under Normand's direction but with the writing split between them. Not only is this clearly a Chaplin picture with Normand little more than a love interest, it doesn't even feature the name of her character in the title of the film. Normand was the biggest star at Keystone at the time, a personal favourite of Sennett, with whom she was, shall we say, romantically entangled, and the titles of most of her pictures clearly stated who they were about. Even those in which Chaplin guested before this one followed that standard: Mabel's Strange Predicament and Mabel at the Wheel.

Comparing it directly to the previous two reeler, we see some similarities. Charlie has the hots for Mabel again, who is attached in some manner to an unnamed character played by Harry McCoy, who gets the worse of it for the duration of the film but nonetheless wins out in the end. The biggest difference is that this time Chaplin isn't playing a villain, let alone an outrageous Dick Dastardly prototype; instead he's a sympathetic character who goes a little beyond the boundaries he's been given. Here, that throws him into class territory, a topic that would be revisited many times in many Chaplin pictures. The Little Tramp was never going to be high class, at least not truly and never for long, but he could and often would play the part when he could get away with it. That's exactly what he does here, passing himself off to Mabel with a fake business card that identifies him as Baron Doobugle, the Prime Minister of Greenland. With a position like that, it's within the bounds of possibility that he could wheedle his way into other positions.

Of course, he's the Little Tramp not the Prime Minister of Greenland. He is employed here, but only as a lowly waiter at some sort of café and dance hall. It's clearly not a high class establishment, though the professional ladies who hang around may be taxi dancers rather than prostitutes. If so, this is an early depiction of an industry that sprang up only a year earlier in the Barbary Coast red light district of San Francisco, but would soon become commonplace in the American landscape throughout the twenties. If not, well, they're ladies of the evening and this dive is even more disreputable. The fact that next door's establishment is clearly Chinese may also highlight a low rent neighbourhood in 1914. Early on, Charlie doesn't appear to be happy with his lot, the beginning of his battle with a swinging door unfolding in a completely blasé fashion, unlike the violent altercation five pictures earlier in His Favorite Pastime. What he's happy to do is escape and take his little dachshund for a walk in the park.
Given that he only has ten minutes, the dance hall and park must be pretty close to each other, but they aren't remotely close socially. While he fits in well with his customers at work, he's obviously an odd man out in the park. It's perfectly acceptable for high class characters like Mabel to walk up and say hello to his dog, but it's never going to ever amount to anything more than that. Well, until a crook arrives in the presumed form of William Hauber, a Keystone stuntman and bit part actor who lost his life scouting for locations during the production of a lost Edward Everett Horton movie from 1929 called The Aviator. The British Film Institute credit him as a thief but he's more like a kidnapper as he takes down Mabel's lover and turns on her, but Charlie comes to the rescue, violently and rather effectively. Now when he preens at Mabel, she's willing to pay attention, especially after he hands her his fake business card. Her cowardly suitor, in the regular form of Harry McCoy, no longer gets a look in.

And so we have a story, albeit an easy one to figure out from here. Of course, Charlie is going to play up his newfound attention, while carrying on at his job. Of course, he's going to get found out. Of course, the whole thing will end with slapstick shenanigans. This is a Keystone farce comedy from 1914; what else do you think is going to happen? What's notable is how it unfolds. The scenes during the middle of the film, as Charlie takes his leave to run back to work with a new lease of life, unfold far smoother than any other scenes I've seen in these early Chaplins. The editing is far from sophisticated, but it's quicker and with a better sense of timing than in any of his previous pictures. The fact that it unfolds over two reels is a step up from those too, where it would have been crammed into a single reel. There's also a dream sequence, which is far more grounded than the visions of Hell which Chaplin's character conjured up in Cruel, Cruel Love. In fact, it's shocking to realise that that was only one month and four pictures earlier.

I'd also suggest that Chaplin's subtleties fit here better than in any of his previous films. In those, he was surrounded by old school hands in the silent comedy business, who mostly carried on just as they always had. Here, that's apparent in Harry McCoy's pantomiming that he'll get his revenge on the new challenge to his girl's hand, as he apparently didn't understand that subtleties were in. Most of the other actors are slower and less overt as the picture unfolds a lot more according to Chaplin's timing and pace, though it's fair to say that it's less that they match him and more that they keep more out of his way than usual. For Chaplin's part, he feels more confident here, more in control of his picture, even with Normand officially calling the shots. There are scenes full of little details that point to what he'd do in more substantial films to come. In one shot, for example, as he prepares to first leave work, he lets his hitherto unseen dog out of the cupboard, lifts him up and takes off his apron from under his jacket with the other hand.
None of this is to say that this isn't obviously a Keystone picture. It surely ends like one, with the first pie I've seen Chaplin throw in his career at the studio that invented pie fights. Mack Swain in particular goes wild during the finalé, throwing far more than pies. Are those bricks that he tosses in the vague direction of everybody else? While the park we see is quite obviously a park, the café we see quite obviously isn't a café; it's quite obviously a sparsely decorated set on the Keystone lot, very apparent even before Swain collapses against it and the walls move to accommodate his considerable bulk. He's not the only one to be wearing the traditional outrageous Keystone facial hair, though even that seems to have been toned down just a little. What's more, even when Chaplin is pretending to be the Prime Minister of Greenland, he still gets drunk and staggers through a good part of the picture. After all, it was his performance as a drunk on the vaudeville stage that prompted Sennett and Normand to hire him in the first place.

What this all means is that this is perhaps the point in Chaplin's career at Keystone at which it was most apparent that he was moving forward, both in front of and behind the camera, and starting to haul some of his fellow actors along for the ride. It's quite understandable, given the context. He'd finally been able to experience the power of direction for the first time on his previous picture, Twenty Minutes of Love, but he didn't direct all of it. He did, however, write that scenario and he surely built on the experience to contribute to the writing of this one. Given that the story arc is all about Charlie (along with the fact that there is a story arc to begin with), while Mabel is given next to nothing to do except react to his hiccups, it's clear that he contributed far more to the writing than she did. While Normand is usually credited as the sole director for this picture, Chaplin would be firmly in the director's seat for his next one, Caught in the Rain. It was all starting to happen for Chaplin, making this his lucky thirteenth movie.

The most obvious downside isn't the picture itself but its condition today. Even the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone, which brought us remastered editions of these films that are in an entirely different league to the public domain copies we've been watching for years, can't do much with the extant prints of Caught in a Cabaret. It claims that all surviving copies are fragmentary and of poor quality. What they include in the box is a composite of three prints, including the nitrate dupe negative at the BFI National Archive in London which is apparently the most complete. The original intertitles are believed to be lost, so are taken here from what is presumably a reissue. Certainly the versions easily available online at the usual places use different intertitles written by Chaplin's half-brother, Sydney. And so what we can see of Caught in a Cabaret doesn't have the picture quality of the other restorations, which is a shame. Of all Chaplin's pictures I've watched thus far, this is the one I'd like to see most in pristine condition.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Caught in a Cabaret can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of 35 of Chaplin's 36 Keystone films in all their glory (Her Friend the Bandit is a lost film, but the first half of A Thief Catcher was only previously thought so), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

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