Sunday 20 April 2014

Twenty Minutes of Love (1914)

Directors: Joseph Maddern and Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin and Eva Nelson
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.
While Mabel at the Wheel was twenty minutes of outrageous villainy, Twenty Minutes of Love is only ten minutes of relatively mild situation comedy, but it's an important entry in Chaplin's filmography because it represents the first time he was able to contribute something beyond acting to one of his movies. The power struggle that played out behind the scenes during Mabel at the Wheel ended with him able to take on more creative control because, after eleven pictures in under three months, he had become firmly in demand. He may still have been relatively new to the silver screen and he was obviously still developing the Little Tramp, which character he hadn't even portrayed in his previous film, but his star was already starting to eclipse that of Ford Sterling, whom he had replaced. That popularity gave him some clout, so he felt it was about time that a Chaplin picture featured his writing and his direction as well as his acting. Twenty Minutes of Love is the first time that happened.

Now, how much of that direction is evident in the finished movie is very much up for discussion as most sources also list Joseph Maddern as a director on Twenty Minutes of Love. Chaplin's very own words in his autobiography claim Caught in the Rain, two films and two weeks away, as 'my first picture' as a director, though his handwritten filmography, as reproduced in David Robinson's biography, Chaplin: His Life and Art, lists this one as 'my own'. That vague term has been interpreted to mean movies that he directed as well as acted in, but he also claims Mabel's Married Life, more often attributed to Mack Sennett. Perhaps it meant a film that he felt he contributed to in a more substantial manner than merely an actor, as most sources agree that he did at least write Twenty Minutes of Love. As he also claims in his autobiography to have made this film in a single afternoon but records suggest a six day shoot, perhaps the truth is that the single afternoon comprised his directorial contribution. We may never know.

However the responsibilities were split, the key is that this film served as a new beginning: Chaplin was finding some control over his work and he clearly felt that was immensely important. He doesn't devote much space in his expansive autobiography to his year at Keystone, surprisingly as it was also his first year in the film industry, but what he does allot mostly covers this particular point in time. He describes how he managed to convince Sennett during the Mabel at the Wheel brouhaha as conversation. Sennett was pleading with him to just get along with Mabel Normand when he suggested, 'Listen, if you'll let me direct myself, you'll have no trouble.' Sennett asked who would pay for such a film if it wasn't viable for release. 'I will,' Chaplin replied. 'I'll deposit fifteen hundred dollars in any bank and if you can't release the picture you can keep the money.' That idea, along with Chaplin's finishing Mabel at the Wheel under Normand's direction, was it. The very next movie up, he was behind the camera as well as in front of it.
There's another telling line in Chaplin's autobiography that's worthy of mention here. Later in 1914, as Chaplin's contract with Keystone was coming up for renewal, he asked Sennett for a thousand dollars a week. 'But I don't make that,' Sennett famously replied. Chaplin highlighted that it was he whom people queued up to see and Sennett responded that it took the support of an organisation such as Keystone to make that possible. In an oft quoted rejoinder, Chaplin suggested that, 'All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.' He probably didn't specifically have Twenty Minutes of Love in mind as he said that, because a great deal of his Keystone pictures fit that general set up, not least the earlier Between Showers, which started out in the flooded streets of Hollywood but surely enough found its way to a park with a lake in it for characters to end up in. However, this is a prime example of the formula, as there's very little but Chaplin, either Westlake Park or Echo Park, two policemen and a few pretty girls.

Given the circumstances around its creation, it's impossible not to watch Twenty Minutes of Love without attempting to figure out what Chaplin personally brought to it. Certainly there's whimsy from the outset, as the Little Tramp mimics the flamboyant antics of a pair of park bench lovers in parody by breathlessly embracing a tree. This couple, played by Minta Durfee and Edgar Kennedy, promptly become about as static as the tree by effusively throwing their arms around each other and locking themselves in a long kiss that involves almost no movement whatsoever. This could easily be a Chaplin touch too, as they're no more than a background for him to act against or a prop for him to use. While they're playing statue, he shows us plenty of movement, wandering over to them, examining them, sitting down next to them, highlighting their heat, ignoring them and eventually interrupting them. Only then do they get to move, and in Keystone style too, given that much of it is done by Kennedy's outrageous walrus moustache.

There's some well timed slapstick here, as Kennedy prominently inserts himself between his girl and the interloper and bumps him off the bench, only to be set up to bump himself onto the ground in return. It's a traditional Keystone scene, though there's a subtle moment here too that could well be another Chaplin contribution: while he sits there, enjoying the results of his interruption, Kennedy puts his head so close to Chaplin's that his moustache literally tickles his ear. The phrase 'he bristled at him', one that could be applied to many Keystone moments, has never felt quite so appropriate as it does here. That Chaplin is promptly done with these two well known and established Keystone stars in this relatively meaningless scene in favour of the story he's about to become part of could easily be read as meaningful in itself, a rejection of the unsubtle facial hair approach to screen laughs in favour of an intricate situation comedy with characters that feel more real. Of course, maybe that's just hindsight talking.
The story proper revolves around a pocket watch which is a perfect MacGuffin. Another girl on another bench won't accept her deadbeat admirer's love without a token to prove it, so he picks a pocket watch from the pocket of a sleeping man to give to her. Coincidentally Chaplin takes a fancy to the very same girl, so picks the pocket of the pickpocket to give the pocket watch the pickpocket picked to her himself. Of course, you can see where this is going, even if you haven't seen Between Showers, which ended up in a very similar situation, merely with an umbrella instead of a pocket watch. Just as the policeman the umbrella was stolen from ends up being the arbiter of the fight over it, here the Little Tramp attempts to sell the watch back to its owner, which merely adds more players to the chaos. There's very little that's new here and those who have seen Between Showers can't fail to notice the deep similarities, but it's a well constructed piece that plays out confidently and effectively.

The acting is still the weakest link at this point, because many of these actors are still firmly adhering to the old pantomiming ways. While Chaplin wrote, 'There was a lot Keystone taught me and a lot I taught Keystone,' he saw the latter as technique, stagecraft and movement. His peers 'knew little about natural pantomime' and 'dealt little with subtlety or effectiveness,' something very obvious here. The difference between the two instances in which the pocket watch is lifted are wildly different. Chester Conklin lifts it from its owner, but pantomimes what he'll do before he does it and proves almost unable to to keep his fingers off it from that moment on. Chaplin does the same when he lifts it from Conklin, but with a much quicker and smoother action. We can't fail to realise that Conklin only succeeded because his victim was asleep at the time; he's far more believable when he becomes a victim himself. No wonder Chaplin said that his own skills 'stood out in contrast' when audiences inevitably compared the actors.

Like Chaplin's pocket picking over Conklin's, Twenty Minutes of Love itself is far smoother than the earlier version that was Between Showers, but its unoriginality sinks it. Chaplin's first shot as a writer highlights that he really did know where he wanted to go with his character and the stories that he would be part of, but was only beginning to learn how to get there. 'Like a geologist,' he later wrote, 'I was entering a rich unexplored field.' If it wasn't a bad pun, given how almost every character ends up in this film, this could easily be seen as a chance for Chaplin to get his feet wet as a director. Two films later, he'd be given the opportunity to dive in fully, to write and direct a Chaplin picture, Caught in the Rain. When Chaplin wrote that, 'I suppose that was the most exciting period of my career, for I was on the threshold of something wonderful,' I believe he was talking both about his year at Keystone in general and the month between mid-March and mid-April when he made these two films and the pendulum of control swung his way.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
David Robinson - Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Twenty Minutes of Love 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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