Friday 20 June 2014

Mabel's Married Life (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Mack Swain
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.
Mabel's Married Life arrived at the point where Chaplin was really starting to gain a semblance of control over his work. Most authorities list Mack Sennett as the film's director, thus marking the last time Chaplin would appear in a short film that he didn't direct himself, while others, like the British Film Institute, claim that it was Chaplin himself in the director's chair. Chaplin's handwritten filmography, reproduced in David Robinson's biography, Chaplin: His Life and Art, lists it as 'my own', though, as with his first possible foray into direction, Twenty Minutes of Love, this could well mean that he contributed as a writer rather than a director; certainly there's no argument that he wrote this with Mabel Normand. There's also little dispute that he took over as his own director as of his next short, Laughing Gas, and his only future movies which he didn't direct himself are Tillie's Punctured Romance, the one feature he made at Keystone, and a few odd others later on, like Camille or Souls for Sale, which contained Chaplin cameos or guest appearances.

Certainly this feels far more like a Chaplin film than a Sennett film, because the pace is surely the slowest of any of his twenty pictures thus far and the comedy is light enough that it almost plays out as a drama for much of the running time. It's firmly rooted in the Keystone standards, but they're often either ignored as mere background or handled in a slightly different way to usual. As Jeffrey Vance highlights in Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, it's yet another Keystone short to be shot predominantly in Echo Park, located only five blocks south of their studios in Edendale, but, however close folk get at points, not one of them ends up in the Echo Park Lake. Another Keystone standard, the kick in the ass, is stunningly ineffective in this picture, Mack Swain shrugging off Chaplin's best efforts to distract and provoke him. Mabel Normand gets to spit on her hands and knuckle up and Chaplin gets to visit a bar, getting drunk yet again. He was a dab hand at this but it does start getting tiring after so many repetitions.

He clearly plays the Little Tramp here, though his usual derby is swapped out for a battered top hat, but the internal consistency seems a little lost. He's in his regular tight coat, dilapidated shoes and an even more baggy pair of trousers than usual, but he's living in what appears to be decent accommodation and he's married to the title character played by Mabel Normand. Harry McCoy, who played Mabel's boyfriend or husband in a number of 1914 pictures at Keystone, as early as Mabel's Strange Predicament, Chaplin's third film, is sidelined into a bit part as just a man in the bar which Charlie frequents. Putting Charlie and Mabel together as man and wife isn't just a combination of the two biggest draws at Keystone, it was also a counter to the antagonism of their last film together, Mabel's Busy Day, in which Charlie destroyed poor Mabel and her fledgling business with deliberate intent. Surprisingly, they're not a bickering couple here, not a happy relationship either, given Charlie's taste for the bottle, but one he's willing to fight for.
And it certainly seems like he needs to. His opponent here, yet again, is Mack Swain, credited to posterity as 'Sporty Ladykiller' which means that he carries a tennis racket and hits on Mabel, even though his own wife is mere yards away on a different Echo Park bench. In fact he rather emphatically hits on Mabel, not remotely taking no for an answer, and with Charlie getting drunk in a nearby bar, there's apparently not a soul to stop him. The comedy arrives when Charlie leaves the bar, notices what's going on and drunkenly attempts to do something about it. Here's the ass kicking scene, because Swain just shrugs him off, using his bulk to keep him away from Mabel. Charlie can't get round him, so resorts to punching, then kicking him in the ass, only to be completely ignored for his troubles. This isn't a bad scene, because it tries to do something a little different from the norm, even if it's otherwise so reminiscent of scenes in a whole host of other Keystone films of the era. It does show a little imagination, at least.

Light drama takes over from comedy for a while, with laughs present but notably milder than usual, even if we factor in Chaplin's continual attempts to ratchet down the more overt slapstick for which Keystone was justly known and introduce more subtle character-infused humour in its place. Eventually though, we find Charlie teaming up with Sporty Ladykiller's wife to rescue Mabel from his clutches. Whether Swain's screen wife is played by Eva Nelson or Alice Howell, it's clear to everyone involved that she's much more capable of dealing with the situation than Charlie the Little Drunk Tramp. This surely resonates in Mabel's mind, so she buys the boxing dummy on display in front of a sporting goods store to stir things up later. While we can't expect the Keystone prop department to throw things out after a single use, this is clearly the very same boxing dummy that audiences saw Roscoe Arbuckle take on only nine days earlier in The Knockout. They could at least have put it in a different turtleneck or perhaps turned down the collar.

Given that Charlie has trouble getting through the bar's swinging door, in yet another recurring Keystone gag, it'll be no surprise to figure out what happens next. Yes, he's drunk as a skunk by the time he gets in and Mabel's already in bed. Perhaps he thought the onions he stole from the bar were a bunch of flowers, but he gets waylaid by the boxing dummy, which... suspend your disbelief here... he mistakes for Sporty Ladykiller, who must surely have followed her home to stand like a sentinel just inside their front door. It's hardly the most surprising set up for a set of gags, not one moment after she bought the dummy coming as anything close to a shock, but Chaplin and Normand were both consummate professionals and they played it all out with the sort of pristine timing required. It's a shame they didn't get a better scene to end the picture, which marked the last time they'd act together in a film carrying the name of Mabel's regular character. Otherwise they had a couple of shorts and a feature together still to come.
It's telling that there's so little to say about Mabel's Married Life. Beyond being made at a crucial point in Chaplin's career, it's notably unworthy of note. Chaplin is capable, but he'd played a drunk so often thus far that we can't fail to realise how routine this was for him. Normand is capable too, but is given next to nothing to do. She'd taken a surprising back seat to Chaplin from the first moment they appeared in film together, but at least she tried to steal her films back early on. By this point, she'd apparently decided it wasn't worth the fight and let him run the show. She plays her few scenes without him well, but not quite so well as to elevate the film. Mack Swain is on lecherous autopilot and his wife is exactly the crotchetty old spouse that might just have him under her thumb, however large he is. The only other character who gets a moment to shine is a supposed friend who torments Charlie in the bar. He's played by Hank Mann, who, years later, would play a far more memorable foil for Chaplin in the boxing ring in City Lights.

Perhaps Mabel's Married Life suffered from the sheer speed at which folk were working in mid-1914. After wrapping Caught in the Rain on 13th April, Chaplin went straight into work on Keystone's comedy feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance, which shot from 14th April to 9th June. He didn't work on a short for a month, then caught up with a vengeance by shooting three pictures in a mere nine days in May: The Fatal Mallet from the 10th to the 12th, then Her Friend the Bandit and The Knockout back to back between the 11th and the 18th. Work began on Mabel's Busy Day on the 17th and continued until the 26th. It looks like he took a breather for a few days and then knocked out Mabel's Married Life between the 30th and 2nd June, a four day shoot. In all, five Chaplin pictures reached cinema screens in under three weeks in June, surely an unimaginable pace to us with a century of hindsight. By comparison, there would only be a single one in July, before another five arrived in August, though spread out at least from the 1st to the 31st.

No wonder this was hardly a stellar period in Chaplin's career. After a few poor early pictures as he found his feet, he settled into a routine of capable comedies that occasionally warranted more attention, like A Film Johnnie, The Star Boarder or Caught in the Rain. However, his previous film, Mabel's Busy Day, was surely the weakest he'd made thus far and this is almost the epitome of an OK movie, probably the most forgettable film he'd made yet. It's notable that this down period corresponds with the presence of studio boss Mack Sennett in the director's chair. However badly Chaplin got on with George Nichols, he did find a way to experiment in the films he directed. Under Sennett, his only experimentation was to appear in drag in A Busy Day, though we don't have Her Friend the Bandit to review. So Mabel's Married Life is only notable as a marker at the end of the first phase of Chaplin's career, in which he was directed by others. As of his next picture, Laughing Gas, he'd begin to have the creative control he had fought so long for.

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

Mabel's Married Life can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

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.

Friday 13 June 2014

Mabel's Busy Day (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin
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 title of this picture refers to Mabel, the regular character played by Keystone star Mabel Normand, but if she was having a busy day, Charlie Chaplin was having a busy month. This was the fourth of his films to reach cinema screens in June 1914 and the month wasn't even half over yet. In fact, it had only been two days since audiences had seen his guest appearance in the Roscoe Arbuckle two reeler, The Knockout, but he was back to torment Mabel in another one reeler. Unfortunately it's a weak film, partly because there's very little in the way of story and next to nothing to elevate it from the other Keystone pictures around it but mostly because of its notably disagreeable tone. It's a particularly mean spirited comedy, if its even worthy of being called a comedy, with Chaplin's usually cheeky and sympathetic shots at authority figures aimed instead at Mabel, in financial straits and trying to eke out a living selling hot dogs. She emphatically plays the sympathy card like her life depends on it but, with Chaplin so mean, she had our sympathy from the outset without trying.

At least he's not playing the Little Tramp this time out, at least I don't think he is, though he's much closer to him than any of the other characters he'd played thus far. His toothbrush moustache remains intact but his outfit is much neater and his outlook on life much more ruthless; he's what Jeffrey Vance ably describes as 'a shabby scoundrel', a fair description of him, given that there are apparently no lows to which he won't stoop. Initially his target is that old Keystone faithful, a policeman, but unlike the usual scenario where we're on his side, we're firmly on the side of the cops in this one. They're merely attempting to stop this shabby scoundrel from jumping a line at a racetrack and sneaking in without paying. His response to being noticed is to get immediately violent, a tone which he keeps for a while, beating up the first truly sympathetic cops I've seen working in a Keystone film. If I'd have been in that line, I'd be knocking him down rather than them, an odd feeling indeed. Maybe it's the Little Tramp dressed up to go out, but I'm seeing him as a different character.

Mabel is far more the sort of character we might expect with hindsight to be in a Chaplin movie, though she does plead outrageously for our feelings rather than let her situation speak to us. She's clearly down on her luck, hawking hot dogs from a tray strung around her neck and her face ably displays how desperately she needs to sell the lot. A few years later we'd have seen a half dozen scrawny kids waiting at home for mom to bring food, but here we just get Mabel. She's already sneaked into the racetrack too, not to watch the races but to sell her wares, and she made it in through a back gate with the deliberate knowledge of the cop who's on duty guarding the thing, yet again highlighting how far the police are staying on the side of Everyman in this picture, even if it's for selfish reasons. He does get a free hot dog as a makeshift ticket price. How's that for rampant corruption in the hierarchy of authority? He doesn't even get a promise of something else later, you know, the sort of thing that they couldn't show in 1914 comedies but could hint at with a wink.
We do feel for Mabel, however much we wish she'd stop overacting. We might find ourselves immune to her charms because we can see how much she's trying, but we feel for her anyway because of how consistently badly everyone treats her. Everyone seems to want something for nothing and they aren't even nice about it. The first potential customer thinks it would be a laugh to stick one of her hot dogs in her nose, just to show off to the pair of ladies he's with. She knocks him down for his troubles and sends him packing. The next few just move her on, as if they're offended by her presence, but then, almost in tears at how badly she's doing and possibly losing her voice to boot, finds some customers. The first initially walks away without paying her, though he does come back to tickle her chin and leave her a coin. The second has a whole wad of cash, but throws his purchase back in her tray when he realises she can't make change. Later in Chaplin's career, we might expect this to be social commentary on class, but here it's just men behaving badly.

Behaving the worst of all, of course, is Chaplin's character. He hones in on a trio of young ladies engrossed in the racing, first walking in front of them, then using one as an armrest and finally opening another's purse in a rather blatant fashion, hauling out what appears to be a wig and using it as a fan. What's most amazing is that, when he's discovered, inevitably because he isn't remotely hiding anything he's doing, he simply turns on the charm and all three of them start grinning like lunatics. I wonder if this is supposed to be just another extension to the mischief Chaplin's characters often get up to, the charm suggesting that it's all in good fun, however mean spirited it might seem. Alternatively, it could be read as Chaplin coming to a realisation that he could do anything on screen and audiences would still laugh, so he was testing his boundaries to see how far he could go without losing us. I don't buy that in the slightest, thinking more that humour was merely far less sophisticated in 1914, but the thought resonates as he was certainly exploring sympathy on screen.

The one kindly act he performs here arrives when an obnoxious customer starts hassling Mabel physically. I say kindly rather than altruistic because he has hidden motives. He isn't doing it to help Mabel, he's doing it to show off to those three ladies; and his next action underlines his morality. Initially he plays it just like any Chaplin character. He saves the girl by preventing a man from stealing one of her hot dogs, taking him down and sending him packing, then consoles her, telling her that it's all right. Here, the unexpected coda is that he then promptly steals one himself and hightails it out of there. Because of the way it's played, how he sets up the contrast, it's the one truly funny moment in the film. Again, I come back to that thought about whether he was manipulating our emotions to see what he could get away with. Just as Catholics believe that sins can be wiped out through confession, does one kindly act in a Chaplin movie cancel out in our minds all the horrible actions he's got away with prior to it? If charm doesn't, maybe kindness does? Perhaps he was finding out.
If that was the extent of it, we might buy into his thinking, but it escalates, as Keystone pictures have a habit of doing. Mabel chases him and elicits the assistance of the cop who let her in, so Charlie does a runner. That makes sense, but here he goes a step beyond, stealing not just another hot dog in the process but her entire tray of them, promptly giving them all away to the first crowd he stops in. Clearly Mabel had pitched her tent in the wrong part of the racetrack, because here she'd have sold out in no time but, by the time she gets the chance, her stock is completely depleted, except for what he's stolen back from the people who stole from him what he stole from her. Are you following? As with the three ladies earlier, the fix to this disconcerting state of affairs is to turn on the charm because that's all that's needed in this picture to make everything OK. It's like Chaplin's working on the level of three year olds with boo boos. Let mommy smile for you and it'll all be better, right? That doesn't quite work with 'a shabby scoundrel' destroying a young lady's livelihood.

Unfortunately what might be the picture's only mitigating factor isn't there for us today. There is a suggestion that the heart of this shabby scoundrel might be touched by Mabel's tears during the finalé, thus leaving us a positive outcome, but this would need an intertitle to back it up and the intertitles are believed lost. If this is the case, they certainly left it late to turn it around, as even Chaplin can't grab our sympathies that quickly. Given all that's gone before, we can't help but see it as another con. So, with that possible saving grace lost to us, at least at the moment, we have to look elsewhere and we don't find much. Perhaps the most notable aspect to the film today is how the crowds, who are generally kept away from the actors, receive their antics. The restored version of Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal shows us how the public first saw Chaplin, but there's a progression to that apparent in some of his later Keystone films shot on location, like this one. The audience are clearly laughing at everything Chaplin's doing in scenes like the one where he gets into the racetrack.

In other Chaplin films, the races themselves might be something of a draw. Even in something as primitive as Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal, there's an interplay with the location as Charlie nearly gets knocked down by a couple of vehicles. Here, there's nothing of the sort. We're at the Ascot Park Speedway in Los Angeles for an exhibition race that ran on 17th May, 1914, but it's only shot by a static camera positioned on a bend, thus capturing little but great clouds of dust hurled towards it as cars chase around that corner as Ascot Park was a dirt track. We never see moving cars in the same shot as people, let alone with Charlie or Mabel. If it wasn't for the reactions of the audience to their antics, this is yet another location shoot that could have been made back at the studio without travel costs. Surprisingly close to the city, apparently it was a popular venue not just for racing but for movie shoots, hosting the original Gone in 60 Seconds, A Very Brady Christmas and a few of the Frankie and Annette movies. Sadly we'd be better off watching them than Mabel's Busy Day.

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

Mabel's Busy Day can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

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.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The Knockout (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Roscoe Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin
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.
Even as a new face on the Keystone lot, Charlie Chaplin was thrown in at the deep end as a leading man. Most of the films he made were Chaplin films, pure and simple, beginning with his first, Making a Living, and especially with his second, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. When he made a guest appearance in a another star's picture, such as Mabel's Strange Predicament, the first of various Mabel Normand films in which he appeared, it generally turned into a Chaplin film anyway by sheer force of his performance. We rarely think of him being a minor cast member, whether in a cameo role or really filling a supporting role as a guest, mostly because it rarely happened but perhaps also because the best example is the one we didn't have until recently. Chaplin's brief performance as a Keystone Kop in A Thief Catcher was, for the longest time, regarded as a faulty memory on his part until the picture was rediscovered in 2009. Until then, The Knockout, clearly a Roscoe Arbuckle vehicle, was the best example we had.

It's Arbuckle we see immediately and who dominates the film throughout, whether that be as the large presence on screen during the first reel or as what can only be described as the force of nature blitzing through the second. Chaplin doesn't show up until that second reel, officiating (if that term can remotely be applied here) over a boxing match between Arbuckle and Edgar Kennedy. Until then a relatively slow and not particularly interesting Keystone picture, this is when it speeds up substantially and grabs our attention, Chaplin's contributions surely being a large part of that. Initially I felt like the two thoroughly different reels played like two thoroughly different, albeit linked, films, as their tones couldn't be more out of whack. However, with more thought, I realise that the boxing match plays like a finalé, wrapping up a consistent story arc before The Knockout descends into the chaos for which Keystone were rightly known, with the resulting chase marking the real departure, somewhat like a tacked on extra.

Ironically, it's the entire second reel, the boxing match finalé and the insanity fuelled chase scene that follows it that resonates today. I couldn't help but be reminded of the famous ending of Blazing Saddles, in which a sprawling fight scene in an admittedly already unconventional western bursts, quite literally, through the walls of the studio in which it's being shot and, in so doing, transforms the film entirely. This doesn't quite go that far, though there is a neat scene earlier in which Arbuckle ventures into this sort of territory, having the cameraman temporarily point the camera away from him while he gets changed for his fight. Even if it doesn't escape the confines of the film, this chase scene, as sprawling as the brawl scene in Blazing Saddles, does veer away from its story arc and spills over into others, which are never explained, such as a fancy party in a mansion. While this mansion could just be an unrelated building in town, it could easily have been seen as another movie set if they'd broken only one more rule.
Who was responsible for The Knockout is surprisingly unclear to us today. Historically it's been seen as a Mack Sennett picture, whether he's listed as the film's director or after a more vague credit like 'made under the supervision of'. More recently, Charles Avery's name has been associated with The Knockout as its director, by as reliable a source as the British Film Institute though for as unreliable a reason as an unsupported claim at Wikipedia that Avery directed 35 of Arbuckle's pictures at Keystone. Similarly, who wrote the film is open to debate. Some sources say that Chaplin was responsible for the story, though it doesn't ring true. It's far too wild and inconsistent, not to mention traditional for Keystone, to be entirely his, though anyone watching the scene he's in can't fail to recognise that he must have contributed in a major way to that part. Jeffrey Vance highlights that it 'borrows from bits in Karno sketches', namely The Yap Yaps and Mumming Birds, the latter of which Chaplin performed and the former of which he knew.

And so we're left with what's on screen, which is quite a bit in a long two reeler that runs thirty minutes, the longest film Chaplin had been in thus far except for the feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance, which wouldn't be finished for another six months. Most of the enjoyment comes from the second frantic reel, because the first is slow and poor. Arbuckle plays a character named Pug rather than Fatty, surely a hint at the pugilism he'll soon be getting up to, but for now he just eats a burger with his dog and flirts with his girlfriend, played by his real life wife, Minta Durfee. Incidentally, keeping it further in the family, his nephew, Al St John, reportedly plays three bit parts in the film too. One of them starts the action, as the leader of a gang that hones in on Pug's girl, who was therefore really his aunt. After Pug leaves to get more cigarettes, his attentions escalate in his absence and turn into a full fledged fight after his return, with Pug proving victorious over a gang of four, even with bricks flying every which way.

His success against such odds is how he connects to the main plot, which revolves around a pair of new conmen in town setting up a fake boxing match. Spying a theatre with a Caught in a Cabaret poster on display, they talk the owner into letting Cyclone Flynn take on all comers and Pug soon becomes the first of them. Pug's size leads to complications, but it's the arrival of the real Cyclone Flynn which really stirs it up. Arbuckle looks laughable in his short tank top, shorts, tights and girly belt, more like a poorly dressed drag queen than a boxer. Flynn, however is played by Edgar Kennedy, who had serious experience in the ring, to which he gravitated after school. In his obituary, The St Petersburg Times reported that he'd once gone twelve rounds with Jack Dempsey, losing by decision rather than knockout. Only a single picture for Selig separates his boxing career from his much longer career in film comedy, which began at Keystone Studios with a 1912 picture called Hoffmeyer's Legacy, in which he played a Keystone Kop.
He certainly looks completely at home in the ring, unlike Arbuckle and especially Chaplin, who breezes onto our screen just before the twenty minute mark to officiate in a suitably inept fashion. He retains his toothbrush moustache but otherwise doesn't seem to be an incarnation of the Little Tramp, being neatly dressed in regular sized clothes. In reality Chaplin knew the ring well, not as a boxer but as a regular at prizefights in Los Angeles. He'd play a fighter in future films but here restricts himself to fighting in a set of highly inappropriate ways, both taking and giving as many punches (and kicks) as he would if he was supposed to. Even guest referees in WWE title bouts don't get caught up in quite this much action! The choreography is clever, because it's clearly dangerous to walk in between two fighters, however careful you're doing so, but Keystone was always strong on choreography. It was less strong on cinematography and there were odd decisions made here on that front that aren't all easily explainable.

I can understand shooting the audience separately to the ring, because they were using a fixed camera. It's easy to shoot the two angles separately and edit them together later, even linking them through our perception by having Pug's mouthful of milk spray the guy in the front seat of the audience. I'm less on board with why they chose to shoot the ring from such a bizarre angle. We're not close to it, for a start, but we're also far enough off to the side that it's condensed into must be about only half of the screen's available real estate. The only reason I can see for this choice is so that we can also watch Mack Swain's western style gambler sitting in his box to the left of the ring. He's only just been brought into the story but he has a crucial part to play in it. Quite why he couldn't have stayed off screen throughout the fight until the moment he's needed, I have no idea. The Knockout followed that precise approach elsewhere, as a Keystone Kop walks on screen only to be hit by a flying brick and knocked into a horse trough.

In the absence of nuanced decisions in these matters, it falls, as always, to Chaplin to throw in many of the little touches that light up the second half of the film. At one point, the ring becomes soaked, maybe to wake him up from one of his periodic knockouts (only the referee gets knocked out in this picture), so he hauls himself along on his backside using the bottom rope. Another instance has him look up to the roof and pray for God's aid in dealing with these two monsters. Compared to what Chaplin gets up to in the ring, the ensuing chase across the rooftops is merely blatant, fuelled by a pair of pistols somehow easily holdable and fireable by a man wearing boxing gloves. Needless to say, its almost endless supply of bullets is almost glossed over. This is a great chase sequence just for Arbuckle and Kennedy, who is reminiscent at points of a swashbuckling hero, but the Keystone Kops inevitably join in and make it still more fun. It's thoroughly enjoyable, just not for its subtlety. It wins out through sheer exuberance.
At this point, it's almost unbelievable that the second reel follows the first. Where that was slow and plot driven, for the most part, this is mile a minute Keystone insanity. It's also where the real ingenuity comes into play, not only through Chaplin's brief segment. Arbuckle, never a small and insignificant flower, is a force of nature here, a behemoth who successfully takes on half a dozen Keystone Kops at once, not in a fight but in a bizarre tug of war. One manages to lasso him, but he carries on regardless. And on and on, hauling them, dragging them and swinging them around as if the laws of physics don't apply to him. The subtletly in this film may belong to Chaplin, but the film itself belongs to Arbuckle, whose relentlessness and boundless energy are as infectious as they are humorous. By the time it was over, I felt like I could challenge Cyclone Flynn myself, after I stopped for a breather of course. There's a full half hour of chaos in The Knockout; however, it's merely compressed into the last fifteen minutes.

Important Sources:
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)
Edgar Kennedy, Film Actor, Dies, The St Petersburg Times, 10 Nov 1948

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

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.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Her Friend the Bandit (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Charles Murray
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.
As I work through each of Charlie Chaplin's films from his debut year of 1914, this will be the shortest of the reviews I'll post, for one very good reason: Her Friend the Bandit is considered a lost film. Now, we can all cross our fingers and hope that maybe one day it'll show up somewhere. After all, A Thief Catcher was rediscovered in 2009 at an antiques show in Michigan, and that wasn't just considered lost, it was also considered to have never even existed, a mythical beast referenced only in a memory of Chaplin's that he had once played a Keystone Kop. In reality, it had over time become conflated with this picture, which was later reissued under the title of The Thief Catcher. Flicker Alley have already made half of A Thief Catcher available to the public in their Chaplin at Keystone box set and the whole film is due for a July release by the same company in The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol 1. So, who knows if some film fan will one day turn up a copy of the last remaining lost Chaplin movie, Her Friend the Bandit. Here's to hoping.

Without being able to see the film today, we're stuck looking at contemporary reviews, which I've found to be rarely particularly helpful. For a start, tastes were wildly different, leading to reviews like the one in The Cinema that said about Chaplin's threadbare second picture, 'Kid Auto Races struck us as about the funniest film we have ever seen.' Sometimes, however, it almost feels like reviewers saw utterly different films. For instance, the Syracuse Post-Standard review of His Favorite Pastime, as quoted in The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin, focused on the final scene in which Charlie is stuck at the top of a telegraph pole lowering a chunk of limburger cheese to drive off his enemy who's below with an axe. No known print of the film contains this scene and it wouldn't seem to remotely fit with the rest of it. Perhaps it was tacked on from another source for a reissue. More likely, the reviewer just confused it with another picture, 'Charlie's India rubber countenance' sounding far more like Buster Keaton than the Chaplin of 1914.

The synopses we have suggest that Charlie shrugs off the costume of the Little Tramp once more, which he did for a number of films in 1914. This time it's so that he can play a bandit, perhaps an elegant one, as some accounts have it. He's already had a flirtation with Mabel, naturally played by Mabel Normand, so could be forgiven for attending a party at her house. However he attends it while masquerading as a French nobleman, Count de Beans, and his inability to mimic the etiquette required to prove that he's a member of high society brings him down. In other words, his continual and presumably highly comedic faux pas shock the guests until the Keystone Kops are called and we finish up in the usual chase scene. This sounds like an interesting new approach for a Chaplin picture, while never straying too far from the usual mechanics required for Keystone slapstick. That Chaplin wrote the picture himself promises much, but it was also directed by Mack Sennett, so may have inevitably remained closer to the routine.

Most of the cast are unverified, but confirmed in support to Chaplin and Normand as the real Count de Beans is Charles Murray. Older than Chaplin by seventeen years, he only debuted on screen in 1912, a couple of years before his rival here, but he had churned out over eighty films before this one and had also established a regular character, Skelley, at Biograph. This was his first picture with Chaplin, though he would be back for Mabel's Married Life, The Masquerader, His New Profession and, like everyone else at Keystone, the feature length Tillie's Punctured Romance. Normand, of course, was a Keystone regular who had appeared in many Chaplin films, as he had also appeared in many of hers. Having so recently brought a little feminine charm to The Fatal Mallet, this would seem to be a great opportunity for her to play an elegant hostess, Mrs de Rocks. Sadly we may never know, because at this time, as far as we're aware, nobody has yet turned up a print of this picture. Check your attics, folks!

Important Sources:
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)

Because this film is considered lost, it's not available online (or anywhere else, for that matter) to view. Anything you see online under this title is erroneous. For instance, this one and this one are really Chaplin's 1916 Essanay two reeler, Police, while these fragments aren't even from a Chaplin movie, they're from Chaplin imitator Billy West's film His Day Out.

Sunday 1 June 2014

The Fatal Mallet (1914)

Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Mack Swain and Mabel Normand
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.
To suggest that Keystone Studios made Charlie Chaplin a busy man during his year there in 1914 is quite an outrageous understatement. They released five Chaplin pictures in February alone, four more in each of March and April and, eventually, the staggering total of 36 for the year. Yet, the first screenings of The Fatal Mallet on Monday, 1st June marked the end of a 25 day drought since the release of A Busy Day. At this point, the wait between Chaplin pictures had never exceeded 14 days, but studio head Mack Sennett had decided that the time was right to make a feature, the first American feature length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance. Shooting began on 14th April, the day after Chaplin wrapped Caught in the Rain, his solo directorial debut, and continued until 9th June. Chaplin worked on nothing else for a month, but then made rapid amends for his lack of new material on theatre screens by turning out four short films in just over two weeks. The Fatal Mallet was the first of them.

The strange thing is that it's far more notable as a Sennett picture than as a Chaplin picture. Not only did Sennett produce and direct the film, he also starred in it and as a lead actor too, functioning as the other half of a double act with Chaplin for most of it. In so doing, he kept more screen time for himself than he had done before and I can't help but wonder why. His substantial contributions to the art and science of American screen comedy cannot be overstated, but that wasn't because of his talents as an actor; even his biggest admirers would admit that he was one of the weaker actors on the Keystone set. It could just be that Harry McCoy was sick but, perhaps, after considering feedback from each of Chaplin's directors, all of whom had struggled with him, Sennett wanted to experience it first hand for a few pictures before allowing his star loose to consistently direct himself. Certainly, he was done giving him to others; from A Busy Day until his last day at Keystone, Chaplin only had to take direction from Sennett or himself.

Whatever the reason for Sennett's prominence on screen, his contributions can't be ignored and certain decisions ring down the years with the power of hindsight. Initially he's Chaplin's rival for the attentions of Mabel Normand, but with the arrival of a third suitor, played by Mack Swain, the two team up to take down the bigger man. Normand was a lovely young lady, who was one of Keystone's biggest draws long before Chaplin was hired and would remain so after he had left the studio, but she's remembered more today for her relationship with her boss than for her actual acting. Mack and Mabel were a couple, but it was never an easy ride and his inability to put a ring on her finger is surely why Sennett never married. For his part, Chaplin tried but failed to start a romance. 'We remained, unfortunately, only good friends,' he wrote in his autobiography. He admits a mutual kiss but sadly reports that attempts to build upon it failed: ''No, Charlie,' she said good-humouredly, 'I'm not your type, neither are you mine.''
Most of my reviews of Chaplin's Keystone films thus far have highlighted how he was bringing change to their comedic style, introducing subtleties and emotions that he knew well from the vaudeville stage to a studio that was, admittedly successfully, doing what it had always done with no will to do otherwise. Thus it can't come as much of a surprise to find that The Fatal Mallet, as near as any Keystone film ever was a creation of Mack Sennett alone, is what Jeffrey Vance called, 'One of the crudest of the Chaplin-Keystone comedies,' though he did add that, 'it nevertheless fascinates for the extended comic interplay between Chaplin and Sennett.' The underlying concept is simple: everyone wants in Mabel's pants. There are only five characters on screen: Mabel, three suitors and a young boy who wants Mabel as well, if perhaps in a different way. Only one can win out, so the title card could easily have read, 'Let battle commence!' That it does, with almost the entire running time built from kicks, shoves, thrown bricks and swung mallets.

Initially Sennett appears like a junior version of Chaplin. He's another tramp, as evidenced by the string holding up his trousers. He has a similar hat and a similar jacket, later seen buttoned in a similar way to Chaplin's, with a lone button straining to keep the garment closed. However, where Chaplin is crisp and assured in his movements, Sennett is not; they're generally slow and overdone. Given that he obviously kept laughing throughout the entire three day shoot, the constant half smile on his face makes him look idiotic, what Yorkshiremen would call 'gormless'. As the picture moves on, he seems more and more like Tweedledee or Tweedledum; maybe we could call him Tweedledumber. He has Mabel's attentions at the outset, to give a great example, but it doesn't take much for Chaplin to woo her away from him. He just pulls the old 'look over there' trick. Sennett's response, once he's caught up with what just happened to him, is just as old: he kicks Chaplin in the ass and runs away.

What follows is exactly what you might expect, bereft of pretty much anything in the way of subtlety, in fact just the least subtle parts of Caught in a Cabaret expanded out to be the entire picture. The bricks thrown during the finalé of that film are thrown during the majority of this one, and the large mallet that Chaplin uses to knock out Mack Swain there may just be the very same mallet he uses to knock him out again here. Keystone was all about reusing gags that worked; if one got an audience to laugh, it would surely do the same thing in the next twenty pictures it got hauled out for. Here Sennett throws the first brick at Chaplin, but it merely starts a brick throwing war between the two rivals, growing in intensity as Swain arrives on the scene and Mabel escapes her twin suitors to preen for a third. By this point, they've descended to what can only be described as animalistic territory protection, Chaplin hopping at Sennett in a threatening manner that involves an outrageous pelvic thrust to emphasise his intentions.
Why this film was called The Fatal Mallet I have no idea, because nobody dies in this movie, whether by mallet or any other instrument. It was originally shot as The Knockout, but perhaps got changed when it became clear that the title would work better for the Roscoe Arbuckle boxing short which began filming the day before this one wrapped, with Chaplin making a guest appearance as a referee. Beyond making more sense there anyway, that was also a two reel picture so surely took priority over this one reeler. If we factor in how incredibly empty this one is, it must have felt like a no brainer. If Chaplin had crammed into the one reel of Caught in the Rain enough material to fill three, here Sennett really only had enough to make a split reel feel weak. I actually prefer one of the reissue titles, because Hit Him Again sums up the picture magnificently, certainly more emphatically than The Rival Suitors, which is accurate but far too genteel, or The Pile Driver, another title that makes no sense whatsoever.

Chaplin does make an effort, but there's so little framework here that it's clearly a struggle, especially if we factor in who he's stuck working with. Working a double act with Sennett would have held everyone back. What the Little Tramp does manage to achieve is obvious in any scene featuring the pair of them, none of which could fail to stand witness as a comparison in Chaplin's clear favour. With Swain stuck in the same brick throwing rut as everyone else, he doesn't get much of a chance to elevate things, which leaves Mabel Normand, the focal point of The Fatal Mallet, with the best opportunity. She does far better than I'm used to seeing her do in these Chaplin pictures, taking bricks and kicks better than her boss for a start but also smiling agreeably and adding some charm to proceedings. Chaplin wrote of 'full lips that curled delicately at the corners of her mouth, expressing humour and all sorts of indulgence.' Stuck in a role that could easily be described as the MacGuffin, those attributes are very much on show.

And really, at the end of the day, it's Normand who walks away from this one. Given that the entire film takes place in a park, anyone who's been paying attention to my previous Chaplin at Keystone reviews will know precisely where the majority of the characters will end up and precisely how it will happen as well. Yet Mabel, for all that she's spent the picture being clobbered in almost every way, from accidental fists to unearned kicks via a careless run in with a swing and never forgetting those wayward bricks, she isn't among those left floundering in the lake, instead walking away arm in arm with her boss, lover and co-star, Mack Sennett. I couldn't help but remember Howard Hughes, secluded away in his later years, screening The Conqueror over and over, so conquering again and again his former lover Susan Hayward. The Fatal Mallet has a dream ending for Sennett, clearly getting the girl he cared about most but wasn't able to wed. He outlived her by thirty years and I wonder how often he screened this to remember.

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

The Fatal Mallet can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

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.

Derby (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Corey Busboom and Travis Mills
In 2013, Travis Mills and Running Wild Films set themselves a serious challenge: to produce 52 films in 52 weeks, all contemporary adaptations from stories in the public domain. They met the challenge and in so doing highlighted to the Arizona film community that pretty much anything is possible. What shocked me at the three day festival in February when they screened all these films to the public was that, even given such outrageous restrictions in timeframe, none of these films sucked. Of course, some were clearly a lot better than others, but the quality range ran from excellent down to blah rather than excellent all the way down to sucky. So, because Mills proved two important points with his project and because this highlights how with one review to kick off each month, I'm never going to catch up with his prolific output, I'm going to launch a project of my own: 52 Films/52 Weeks/52 Reviews. Starting in July, I'll be reviewing one of the 52 Films/52 Weeks pictures each week for a year. I still won't catch up, but at least I'll have another book.

When I firmed up the project, I realised that there would be two new months before my chosen start date. Given that I've been embarrassing Mills lately with older movies that he'd forgotten he'd even made, I felt I should ask him which Running Wild titles that I hadn't yet reviewed would be his choice for me to cover. He suggested Foster, You're Dead, which I reviewed last month, and Derby, which I'm reviewing now. Both are certainly interesting short films, but I don't find myself particularly enthusiastic about either of them. Foster, You're Dead was exactly the sort of film that an ambitious local production company like Running Wild should make: a public domain science fiction story by a major author which is just as timely in 2013 as when it was written in 1955 and which has no need for a special effects budget. I found it well written but less well put together, surprisingly lacking on the passion front. Derby is far more passionate, but it's an odd documentary because it doesn't document quite what we think it should.

Rather than documenting the wild and wacky, yet quintessentially American, world of demolition derby, it focuses far more on a brief journey into this world by the Running Wild team as a publicity stunt, as Mills drives his #52 wreck onto the Buckeye dirt track with a camera mounted inside the vehicle and 'Running Wild' prominently painted on the side. That this is less about the demolition derby itself and more about the moment in time when Mills ventured into one is obvious from a quick breakdown of the running time. The film runs fourteen minutes but, while the halfway mark does find the car at the track, it's still firmly daytime. Night doesn't fall until the eight minute mark, while the guys are still fitting the in-car camera. We don't see the car move until well over two thirds of the way through and the chaos kicks in after ten minutes. Even then, we're not going to gain any real insight into how a demolition derby works and how drivers might strategise. Then again, the rules do seem outstandingly simple.
Having only experienced demolition derby through old computer games like Carmageddon, I did learn a lot here, though not all of it actually had to do with the action. Most obviously, you clearly don't have to know anything about demolition derby to drive demolition derby; just do what everyone else is doing. If you can't move, kill the engine, and always pad the driver's door, just in case. Rules say that nobody is allowed to hit that and it's painted a different colour to be completely obvious, but hey, it's a dangerous pastime. Don't drive like a puss, as Corey Busboom, the driving force behind this picture, points out. 'Be aggressive!' Mostly it's quirky lessons that leapt out though. Sledgehammers are useful detailing tools. Leaning into a running engine when you have long dreadlocks is completely safe. Men can mangle The Star Spangled Banner just as outrageously as women. Travis Mills clearly can't spell 'demolition' to save his life. And, ultimately, nobody really cares who wins at a demolition derby; just destroy things.

I also learned how down and dirty derby really is. If I'm understanding the structure of the film, the initial preparation of the #52 began on the morning of the event. That means that Busboom and his associates, Willy, Jason and Dirty Steve, got this thing up and running, welded, painted, made as safe as possible, in about half a day. That's pretty impressive work, perhaps a mechanic equivalent of the 52 Films/52 Weeks project. There isn't enough running time to give us too much of an impression of these characters, but it's a sure bet that they're all characters. Busboom is the most obvious, far more than Mills himself who gets to drive around with the in-car camera on him, generating glorious colours and reflections. Busboom is overdue for his own documentary, being not only a regular demolition derby driver but an avant-garde artist too, the creator of bizarre musical instruments (Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo is a particularly notable fan) and a devotee of body suspension who matches hooks to years for birthday celebrations.

We see a lot less of Mills, or indeed anyone else, including the #52 car, which we might expect would be the lead character all on its own. I did particularly enjoy the 'How's my driving?' banner above where the windscreen would be, if such things weren't removed for demolition derby. I wonder if, had the film been less concerned with capturing a particular day and more with the sport itself, all these characters would have stood out more. Clearly they're worthy of attention, but mostly they just get a maybe unintentional nod with the inclusion of Friends in Low Places in the background at one point. A tighter focus on derby itself would have called for more actual footage of the event and longer, more expansive shots that give us an idea of what the drivers are doing. The action is shot very close here, more like a set of snapshots of what the #52 did on its holiday. Of course, there's the expected strong editing and music, this time by Less Pain Forever, so it's a capable piece but I found that I wanted a different documentary.

Derby can be watched for free on Vimeo.