Friday 4 April 2014

The Star Boarder (1914)

Director: George Nichols
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edgar Kennedy, Minta Durfee and Gordon Griffith
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.
The last of Charlie Chaplin's four films for director George Nichols, The Star Boarder is by far the most conventional. It could even be considered unrushed, a description that's hard to imagine applied to a Keystone picture, but it does speed up towards the end and even feels like it wants to continue on to Benny Hill levels, aided magnificently by a new score by Frederick Hodges which mirrors the pace well. Initially it's a elegant thing, as the scenes are set and the characters established, but it gradually gets more and more frenetic until we wonder if the pianist's nimble fingers are going to drop off. Maybe the experiment here was to play with control, to set up the jokes and build them, all the while refusing to allow the usual descent into chaos until the time is absolutely right for it. If so, The Star Boarder may have been just as experimental a piece at the time as Chaplin's other three films for Nichols, but feels less so today because it succeeded in nailing the future much better.

The main cast return from Cruel, Cruel Love, though shuffled around somewhat. Minta Durfee still has influence here, with Charlie remaining attentive to her every word and deed, but they're not lord and lady here; she runs a boarding house with her husband and he's one of the guests, the star boarder of the title. There's no reason for what appears to be a nautical pun, but perhaps there was another pun apparent at the time, as this was one of two films of the same title released in 1914, with another four following as the decade ran on. All appear to have unique stories. Edgar Kennedy is promoted from a mere butler to the man of the house, but he's under the thumb of his wife who clearly rules the roost with an unerring eye for any divergence from her preferences and a withering glance to ensure that he does what he's told. He's relegated to being the man in the outrageous moustache, which is a doozy even for Keystone's well known facial hair fetish. His first scenes are spent manipulating it for laughs.
After spending Cruel, Cruel Love away from it, Charlie is back in his familiar tramp outfit but apparently rather comfortable for a change. He's a paying customer and the apple of the landlady's eye. Chaplin's films usually had a whole slew of titles for their many reissues and one of them highlights his situation even better: not only is he The Star Boarder but also The Landlady's Pet. Initially we might believe that he plays up to her in order to get the first or the largest plate of food, but he persists beyond that, so it can only be assumed that he's flirting madly with this married woman at a time long before Production Code rules against such immoral behaviour. Another reissue title was In Love with his Landlady, which emphasises it a little much but makes the relationship crystal clear. Whatever the reason, the landlord is aware of it and far from happy, but his wife's withering glance puts him back in his place every time he tries to enforce his position and Charlie continues to get preferential treatment.

If Chaplin was the uncharacteristic chewer of scenery in Cruel, Cruel Love, he emphatically hands that role back to Edgar Kennedy here. Kennedy bristles and roils and looks menacing, while exercising his facial muscles far more than must have been comfortable in order to keep his moustache moving. It's so large that it's like a pair of caterpillars mating on his top lip and it's so active that it could have had its own credit, had Keystone ever used them. In comparison, Chaplin is back to being the Little Tramp, better off than usual but still the inveterate drunk, as is underlined by an odd scene where the story is put on pause so he can drink the kitchen dry for no apparent reason. Perhaps it's to allow him to build the routine from what he performed in vaudeville and in early Keystone pictures like Mabel's Strange Predicament or Tango Tangles into something a little more substantial. The clever scene that follows tasks him with hiding everything he spirited out of the kitchen from another guest.

While there are some laughs here for the drunken tramp and a few earlier on too, as he's clearly hung over when we first see him, trying to simultaneously charm his landlady and not fall over the stairs, it's the more sober scenes that work best here. Much of the fun is built out of the same gag, repeated over and over again in different settings, namely Charlie's attempts to get somewhere with his landlady and her husband's consistent ability to show up just in time and spoil his fun. These start at home, but soon head out for the tennis court and the park. The tennis match, which is so brief that I'm not convinced a ball ever crosses a net, isn't much but Jeffrey Vance highlights that it marks the first time that Chaplin and the game of tennis cross paths. It would become a lifelong passion for him, at least until a broken ankle and a series of strokes towards the end of his life prompted him to hang up his racket. Here it's just an excuse for him to spin around and fall over, a move used so often that we want to mimic it.
What elevates The Star Boarder from just a set of moustache twitching reruns of the same gag is the welcome addition of another character to spice things up. No, this isn't a fourth wheel, though one of those is hinted at, this is the landlady's young son whose hobby is to take highly embarrassing, often highly misleading, photographs with his clunky 1914 camera and then project them to the assembled boarding house guests as a free magic lantern show. It isn't rocket science to figure out what reactions that's going to prompt here, especially given that the boy has a strong talent for capturing exactly the moments that his subjects don't want captured. The bonus for us is that young Gordon Griffith was an infectious actor whose many cries of joy at being in the right place at the right time to snap the wrong picture soon find their way to our lips too. He's a joy and we laugh along with him, even as he's getting an expected spanking at the end of the picture.

Griffith hadn't even turned seven years old when he shot The Star Boarder, but he had already become an experienced actor, closing in on his twentieth picture. He'd started his screen career at Keystone in 1913, a year before Chaplin, and was often paired with Billy Jacobs, who was even younger still. Jacobs began his career at three and had his own series, the Little Billy series at four. He retired at the ripe old age of eight, with almost sixty pictures behind him. Griffith started later but lasted longer, appearing in serials like The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand as late as 1936, before switching to production and direction. This was the first of a number of films he made with Chaplin in 1914, before he moved on to his most famous role, as the first screen Tarzan, playing the junior lord of the jungle who appears for the first third of 1918's Tarzan of the Apes before handing the reins over to barrel chested 29 year old Elmo Lincoln. Griffith also played the screen's first Tom Sawyer. His charisma here explains why.
In fact, Griffith is far more watchable here than most of the cast. Minta Durfee is strong as the landlady, working well with Chaplin and ensuring that her performance was toned down enough to match. They're a good double act, hindered only by the stereotypical scenery chewing of Edgar Kennedy, whose talents as a capable actor are completely not on display here. He's so out of tune with the other leads that he's almost acting in a different movie, perhaps an animated one. In other circumstances, we'd call him the comic relief, but we never find ourselves laughing at Kennedy here; we laugh instead at the double act of Chaplin and Durfee and at the contagious mischief of Gordon Griffith. It's somehow odd to see Durfee such a natural foil to Chaplin, given that she was married in real life at the time to Roscoe Arbuckle, but she got to play his wife or sweetheart on screen often enough too, even in Chaplin pictures. They made thirteen of them together at Keystone in 1914.

The large Keystone output and small Keystone roster meant that actors appeared in the same pictures all the time. It becomes somewhat surreal to watch a lot of these films close together, especially as the characters rarely have names to delineate them and, when they do, they're the same ones. Chaplin was Charlie most of the times he ever had a name, just as Arbuckle was Fatty, Mack Swain was Ambrose and Chester Conklin was Walrus. So in one film, Durfee would be Chaplin's wife, in the next a girlfriend, then a flirtation and then someone else's wife entirely. It often feels less like the stock company a filmmaker might foster and more like a theatrical troupe of stage actors who swap costumes three times a day for different performances. In a way that's what they were doing, swapping roles until they found the ones that suited them best. Charlie is still a little on the obnoxious side here, but Chaplin's experimentation under George Nichols may have got him closer to the Little Tramp we know today than he'd come yet.

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

The Star Boarder 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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