Sunday 4 May 2014

Caught in the Rain (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain and Alice Davenport
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.
Looking back with a century of hindsight, we know that Charlie Chaplin was one of the most versatile of the world's filmmakers. Biographer David Robinson wrote that, 'If he could have done so, Chaplin would have played every role' and, in a way he did, acting them all out for his actors to imitate. His great films, years away from being made at this point, highlight this ambition well. Beyond starring in City Lights or Modern Times, for example, he also wrote, produced, directed, co-edited and composed the scores. From 1918 to 1952, he shot all his films at the Charlie Chaplin Studios, where he could take as long as he liked and break from production for as long as he wanted. Distribution from 1923 to 1952 was through United Artists, a studio which he had co-founded in 1919 and still co-owned. Rich enough to work only when the muse struck him or his notorious perfectionism drove him, he became the template and the epitome of the sort of filmmaker that the French critics would name an auteur.

When he started at Keystone Studios in 1914, of course, none of this was the case. He tried and failed to persuade his directors to change things, but they either couldn't or wouldn't understand what he aimed to do. Only with the spat that followed his refusal to follow direction from Mabel Normand while shooting Mabel at the Wheel did he get the opportunity to put his money where his mouth was, literally, and have the sort of control he wanted. Studio head Mack Sennett saw the money coming in from Chaplin's acting and decided to allow him some more creative freedom. This new trust wasn't immediate but moved him towards what he wanted over a couple of pictures. He got to sit in the director's chair for Twenty Minutes of Love, though Joseph Maddern did too. He wrote Caught in a Cabaret, but Normand directed. Only here could he finally play the roles of writer, director and lead actor on the same film, without having to share any of them. As such, it's one of the most important pictures of his career, if not one of his best.

Jeffrey Vance highlights how it's 'not an ambitious effort' by detailing how it 'draws upon past successes'. He's absolutely right about the latter, but I'd happily debate the former a little. It's clearly not ambitious in the risk-taking sort of way, but the overriding impression I got from Caught in the Rain is that Chaplin threw everything but the kitchen sink into the picture. It's like a compilation of everything Keystone did, not only what Chaplin did for Keystone but what anyone did for Keystone, with every ounce of fat taken off the bones and then the bones made to dance for the Little Tramp. In a way, it's Chaplin's idea of the ultimate Keystone stew, based entirely on the ingredients he'd seen thrown into the pot during the four months he'd spent at the studio, including those that he'd brought with him from the vaudeville stage. Once that heady stew was brewed to what he saw as perfection, he added a few new little spices he felt might add to the mix. With hindsight, those are the tasty bits in a lively, but very familiar, old dish.
Because there are so many ingredients, it's a challenge to provide a succinct recipe. It begins in the park, as so many silent comedies do, whether Chaplin's, Keystone's or both. Mack Swain and Alice Davenport are a married couple, but while he's off buying a box of chocolates for her, Charlie gets in between them by cosying up to her, albeit not without her invitation. This sets up a spat between the couple which runs through the entire film. There are some capable gags and stunts here, though Davenport rather obviously sets up the one with the rose. There's nothing new here, except perhaps the appearance of the character of Ambrose, which Swain would go on to play for seven years. He isn't credited as such, as there were no credits to these early Keystone films, but I can't find an official debut for the character and this one plays consistently with the ones he'd play under that name starting later in 1914, often partnered with Chester Conklin as Walrus. The moustache seems the same and who can argue with Keystone facial hair?

With the park out of the way, Charlie naturally finds a bar, as he so frequently did. Any excuse for him to play the drunk once more was a good excuse at Keystone and this is little more than an excuse. We don't see him get drunk, just drag himself by the ear into the bar, then stagger out again, through a swinging door, to emphatically light his match on a policeman's jacket. By this point, we're checking off Keystone tropes as those of us paying attention have seen all of these moves before. What's new can be found in the editing, which is a far more sophisticated creature here than I'm used to seeing in Keystone pictures. What would normally be long, slow scenes are cut down into quicker, shorter ones. They're crosscut too so that for much of the picture we see two different stories unfolding alternately. The result of these two approaches is that this is a one reel film that contains material enough to fill two or three. Such careful editing speeds up the pace to play so quickly that it causes havoc with taking notes.

So we've played in the park and Charlie's got drunk, so it's no surprise to find that we promptly shift to a hotel. The next discernable segment unfolds in a hotel lobby, as did the long opening scene in Mabel's Strange Predicament, the first time the world saw what Chaplin could really do. The bulk of this hotel lobby scene is one of the centrepieces of the film, as the 'tipsy hotel guest' turns everyone in a peaceful room into participants in a slapstick routine that runs a short forty seconds. It's relatively simple and, to be fair, the choreography is obvious, but it's handled superbly nonetheless. These folk merely want to go upstairs. Charlie tries it at a run but slides back down again. If one can fail, so can two and four and then, with everyone sober safely out of the way, Charlie can fail once more solo just to highlight how this is all about him. This centerpiece is a good microcosm of the film as a whole. Everything here has been done before, but it's executed well and so quickly that we can hardly blink before we're onto something else.
Of course with the downstairs scene wrapped up, now we shift to the upstairs scene. As you'll recall from Mabel's Strange Predicament, and any number of other Keystone comedies set in hotels, this means a lot of slapstick situation comedy where people end up in the wrong rooms. Chaplin doesn't merely have one character sleepwalk for a while, he has two: first himself, maybe more in a daze than a sleepwalk proper but the effects are identical, then the wife he tried to flirt with at the beginning. Of course this couple are staying in the very same hotel on the other side of the hallway. No coincidences are too outrageous for a slapstick short! You can write most of these scenes yourself, but Chaplin does add some neat touches to them too. One has the couple pause their bickering momentarily as the maid brings in a pitcher of water, then resume full force as she leaves. Another involves the set up for the final Keystone must: thrown out of the window onto the balcony, Charlie is mistaken by a trigger happy passing cop for a burglar.

Enter the Keystone Kops, who have never moved so fast in their lives because the editing has become so fast paced that we can hardly keep up with the progressions. As I pause to take a breath, I wonder what I might have neglected to mark off the Keystone checklist. Charlie leaving the bar is almost hit by a car, so falls down in the road, the scene over so quickly that if you blink, you might just miss it. There's a strong scene that has Charlie undress for bed, in his cups throughout but in gradually fewer clothes. He wipes his boots with his cravat and his forehead with his collar, all while trying but failing not to fall onto and off of the bed. The Little Tramp isn't living on the streets here but he's still not doing particularly well. A neat touch has him stop at his socks, as there isn't enough of them to remove, and put a boot under his pillow. When Davenport sleepwalks into his room and tries to pick his pocket, he has his trousers join the boot. Another neat touch has him try to open a door with a cigarette, always a handy prop for the Little Tramp.

It's often said that Keystone shorts never had scripts but Simon Louvish included examples of what they did have in his book, Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett. It's clear that they were scripts of sorts. They're almost stream of consciousness lists of gags, but structured with stage directions in prose that outline what needed to be shot. Before Chaplin, these work well as synopses of the films they would become, but they don't work that way for Chaplin's pictures as he added something less tangible to the mix; they miss his nuances of personality that make us laugh even between traditional gags. This would surely have one of the longest synopses of any Keystone one reeler, because it could easily be seen as a 'greatest hits of Keystone' sort of picture, merely with all new footage. However those old hits aren't what resonate, it's those little moments that Chaplin was adding: the ear, the pause, the socks. To hindsight, his point is clear, but how much it became so in 1914 this project still aims to discover.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Simon Louvish - Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (2003)
David Robinson - Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Caught in the Rain can be watched for free at YouTube.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered. The full version will debut in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1 in July.

No comments: