Wednesday 9 July 2014

Laughing Gas (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Star: 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.
However Chaplin experts decide to divide up his early pictures into sections, and there are more than a few ways to do that when over half of them are clearly a first something or other, we can't avoid this one being a pivotal moment of change, possibly the most important one after his first picture and his first as the Little Tramp. His first twenty shorts were directed by a variety of directors and written by a variety of writers, with the size and quality of Chaplin's off-screen contributions open to debate. He did contribute to his films from the beginning but often not much and what he did bring to the table didn't necessarily make it into the finished product. It took him a dozen films to get the chance to sit in the director's chair, on Twenty Minutes of Love, but he had to share that honour with Joseph Maddern. He flew solo on short number fourteen, Caught in the Rain, but then Mack Sennett stepped in to direct the next half a dozen. From Laughing Gas on though, he would never be directed by anyone else on a short film again.

Already established as an actor and screen comedian, this could be seen as his coming of age picture as a filmmaker, appropriately given that it was his 21st. Credits here start to mirror what we might expect of a Chaplin film, or at least they would if Keystone pictures had credits in 1914. It was directed by Chaplin, written by Chaplin and starring Chaplin, with nobody else really getting much of a look in. The cast does include Mack Swain and Slim Summerville, both regular names at Keystone, but they're in minor roles, as indeed is everyone else. Having played second fiddle in his last three pictures, once to Roscoe Arbuckle and twice to Mabel Normand, there's no mistaking who the star of this movie is, from the very moment Chaplin, in familiar tramp attire, swaggers into Dr Pain's dental surgery and exudes authority, taking off his hat and gloves as if he expects a servant to put them away for him. Surely he's Dr Pain himself! No, that's just a setup; Chaplin is playing with us from moment one.

It turns out that he's merely an assistant and not the only one either, as there's another in the back room waiting for him. I'm not sure quite what this fellow is supposed to be, but if it wasn't for a prominent and strong moustache, I wouldn't have said he'd made it to his teenage years yet. Chaplin wasn't a tall man, only a mere 5' 5", but he towers over his fellow assistant by a foot or so. Either the actor, who seems to be a Joseph Sutherland in possibly his only film appearance, was of seriously diminutive height (though perfectly proportioned with it) or he's really a young lad transparently pretending to be an adult for some reason or other that is never explained. Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems strange in the cruel days of slapstick that Keystone would not take advantage of attributes so apparent and work them into the script. Physical uniqueness was always highlighted; that's why actors like Arbuckle, Summerville and Swain were so important to the studio: as fat, thin and large actors respectively.
Whatever the explanation, we're certainly kept on the hop as Laughing Gas gets moving and get moving we do. While the camera is still a static creature and the editing hardly imaginative, this is a smooth ride throughout. Even when chaos erupts towards the end, as was almost compulsory at this point in time, we watch it unfold in a smooth and controlled manner. While the worst jumps in 1914 pictures tend to be due to poor quality public domain prints with frames or even reels missing, watching the remastered versions of Chaplin's Keystone films highlights that sometimes jumps were there all along because editing wasn't close to being the art that it would become. I wonder how much of this was due to Chaplin, who talked in his autobiography about the 'primary rules', that 'if one exited right from a scene, one came in left in the next scene' and so on. He mentions these before philosophy about camera placement that he learned as he went, so he's treating these as gimmes. Yet his earlier films don't always follow those gimmes.

That's not to suggest that there aren't technical difficulties even here, because there are. Dr Pain's lobby was constructed cheaply even for a Keystone set, because the books are clearly painted onto what aims to pass for a bookcase and so is the mantel clock on top of it. The Rasputin beard on one patient is more outrageously fake than even the norm at this studio which was renowned for its fake facial hair. However, there's less to obviously stand out as problematic here and more that just moves on so smoothly that we wonder why this wasn't regular for Keystone up until this point. Even Chaplin's moves are clearly getting slicker, his famous stagger as he rounds a corner or bounces to a stop is better and used more here than previously. The inevitable pratfalls as people push others over are handled efficiently, even when there's a foot difference between assistants. Sutherland does well to push Chaplin over, just as Chaplin does well not to castrate the much taller Mack Swain when kicking him in the belly.

Eventually the real dentist shows up, of course, in the form of German-born Fritz Schade in a top hat and monocle and with the overdone acting style that might suggest. This was his first Chaplin picture, though he'd show up in eight of the remaining fifteen. He had a presence to him that lent itself to certain types, but even a quick glance at the variety of roles he racked up between 1913 and 1918 show that he was a versatile addition to the Keystone roster. It's here that we get down to the sort of dental shenanigans we might have expected from the outset. I expected a lot more of this than we get, as the story is a restless creature that constantly adds new elements without forgetting what it is. Chaplin's script is much more ambitious than the one he wrote for Caught in the Rain; that felt like a frantic sprint through every stock situation he'd seen by that point, while this is a more controlled stride through scenarios familiar or not. The familiar sections are generally the more manic ones, while the sensitive ones feel newer.
What's more, Caught in the Rain was a very traditional picture in that the inspirations were all taken from previous films. Here, there's a lot more, as Jeffrey Vance highlights in Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema. One key influence was a vaudeville sketch named 'The Dentist' that Chaplin knew well from his time on stage with Fred Karno, though he never performed it himself. Of course even this was far from original; as Vance points out, 'dentistry and tooth extraction have been a source of humor since the commedia dell'arte.' A further influence was personal, as Chaplin apparently had a bee in his bonnet about dentists; in his later years, his family struggled to get him to visit them. These sources, combined with more traditional movie slapstick and ideas that earlier directors might have jettisoned, show that Chaplin was far more confident in his writing than he was only a couple of months earlier when writing Caught in the Rain. Of course, this bodes well for the films he was yet to make at Keystone; let's see how much he grows before he leaves.

The best moments in the film are the ones that revolve around women, unsurprisingly from what we now know about Chaplin's predilections. Sure, he has fun knocking people over and stepping over them, and he gets a good scene with an anesthetised patient and a mallet, initially using it to wake him up and then to knock him back out again, but it's the scenes with girls that shine the brightest. One sees him follow a pretty woman on the street, who he doesn't yet know is his boss's wife, only to slip and rip her dress off on the steps to a building. Alice Howell shines in this physical role, making it no shock to find that Stan Laurel called her one of the ten greatest screen comediennes. Another has Charlie flirting up a storm with a patient played by Helen Carruthers, whose 21 films in 1914 and 1915 include a dozen with Chaplin. He uses an dental extraction tool on her nose to turn her head towards his so he can steal a peck or two. It's a huge contrast with the scene where he uses it for its intended purpose, naturally with much violence.

This is still formative Chaplin, but it may well mark the point where he starts to benefit from a little more creative freedom than he had experienced previously. There's certainly some classic Charlie in here, just packed in tight with more traditional blatant material. Even there I wonder about how some of that was shot. There have been brick throwing battles in a bunch of Chaplin's earlier films, but as brutal as those scenes often are, we don't tend to see blood or damage. Here, with only two bricks thrown, we get teeth conspicuously knocked out of two different faces. Sure, it's a short set in a dentist's office, but still, it's a new edge to an old gag and when you work through whole batches of Keystone pictures, a new edge is always a good edge because the repetition can be mind-numbing. For all its faults, this feels somewhat refreshing. Perhaps that's underlined by the scene with Charlie on top of a patient in the chair, yanking a tooth out with force. It's the most expected scene in the movie, but here it's merely a minor moment.
Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Laughing Gas 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 August.

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