Wednesday 29 October 2014

Gentlemen of Nerve (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin 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.
The grand sweep of Chaplin's Keystone pictures, especially those from the second half of 1914 which he wrote and directed himself with the benefit of substantial creative control, is clearly all about his growth as a filmmaker. Most of these self-directed films highlight his newfound mastery of something and a new experiment to attempt to solve something else. Given that his previous film, Dough and Dynamite, was a peach of a picture, surely his best yet, it's somewhat frustrating to realise that this one absolutely isn't. I have no doubt that the title of Gentlemen of Nerve is supposed to have at least three meanings, but I'm seeing the fourth, which is the nerve of the gentlemen at Keystone, including Chaplin himself, who shot this overly generic revisit to a number of his earlier films and released it three days after what became his most successful Keystone picture of them all and arguably his best too. A quarter of the way in, my better half asked me, 'Didn't we see this one already?' and I knew exactly what she meant.

The first deliberate meaning of the title presumably refers to the real drivers racing their automobiles on the Ascot Park Speedway in Los Angeles on Sunday, 20th September, 1914. This is the same venue which served as the background for Mabel's Busy Day, four months earlier, possibly the worst of Chaplin's 1914 shorts. That was ostensibly a Mabel Normand picture with Chaplin trying to steal it from her, while this is a Charlie Chaplin picture with Normand trying to steal it from him, so it could easily be regarded as a riff on the earlier film or a thematic sequel. I found Mabel's Busy Day not only the worst of Chaplin's pictures for Keystone but the one in which he was most obnoxious and least sympathetic; he returns to that here somewhat but not to the same degree. Fortunately, Mabel, an annoying character in that film too for her constant 'woe is me' attitude and an unbelievable copout at the end, is an absolute joy here and surely the cause of some of the best moments in the picture.

The second meaning isn't obvious on screen, but refers to Bert Dingley and Ed Swanson, for whom this event was a benefit as they'd been recently injured racing in Tacoma. Dingley was a major name, known at the time as the first American Championship Car Racing champion, having won the championship in 1909. Racing was a dangerous sport and injury or even death were common. In 1929, after fifteen years of advancement from the vehicles seen here, the Indianapolis 500 was filmed for Speedway, a William Haines film. One driver died during that race, possibly in an on screen crash, and the winner died almost three weeks later in another race. This benefit was therefore a real event, including many 'freak races' 'including a foot-auto-horse and bicycle race, quart of gas race, dress up race, quarter-mile slow race in high gear, exhibition mile, tug of war between motor trucks, and junior race.' Attendees paid fifty cents per ticket, even members of the press, so the 5,000 who showed up raised $2,500 for the injured men.
Of course, the third and last deliberate meaning of the title refers to Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain, as they attempt to find their way into the event without paying, just as Charlie managed to do in the earlier picture. Everywhere I look seems to identify the two as friends, but they don't seem to be; they're merely both trying to do the same thing at the same time. There is some humour in their interaction, but mostly it was the bystanders who engrossed me. Gentlemen of Nerve was the fourth Chaplin picture at Keystone to be shot on location during real auto races and it's been fascinating to watch how the regular audience interacted with what he did. During Kid Auto Races at Venice, shot in January, nobody had a clue who he was because he wouldn't appear on screen until February and so they watched the races instead, at least for a while. By the end of May, when Mabel's Busy Day was shot, they knew exactly who he was and they watched him instead. Here in October, they're lining up to see what he has in store and he plays that up.

Mack Swain was a talented comedian, as we've seen in many of Chaplin's Keystone shorts, but he's more of a lumbering ox here without anything much to warrant his presence. It's telling that his best scene by far is the one where he tries to get into the races through the gap made by a missing board in a wall. He gets stuck, naturally, and nothing seems to help, not even the time honoured Keystone boot to the rear, which Charlie attempts a number of times before handing over the reins to the cop who shows up to try to pull him back. The best bit about the scene is Charlie clearly getting fed up with the wait and crawling through Swain's legs instead. The next best is how the folk in the makeshift bar on the other side of the wall act once he shows up. One lady passes him a seltzer bottle, which he puts to good use, though its spray mysteriously attains the power of fire hose when it goes through the gap in the wall to hit the cop in the face on the outside. None of the best bits are Swain's and yet this is his best part of the picture.

For such a throwaway short film, the cast is a strong one. Before Chaplin shows up to start shenanigans at the gate, we've watched Mabel Normand and her beau for this picture, Chester Conklin, pay their way in and sit down to watch the fun. Unfortunately, they sit right next to Phyllis Allen, who flirts up a storm with Chester and pisses Mabel off no end. Of course, with Mabel on his arm, we really have no idea why Conklin is interested in this flirtatious woman; Conklin was born in 1886, so Normand, a former postcard model and bathing beauty, was six years his junior, while Allen, a bulky battleaxe, was a full quarter of a century older. None of it makes any sense, but it is at least mildly amusing until Normand elevates it by orchestrating her revenge by neatly stamping on her competitor's foot. She elevates the picture in this sort of way a couple of times more as it runs on too, the other times opposite Chaplin rather than Allen. That she steals both of those scenes highlights her talent well.
Mostly though, I wasn't watching the cast, I was watching the audience. Swain is only used for his bulk, while Conklin is given ridiculous scenes to set up Normand, but as good as she is here, she's not given a lot to do. Chaplin is the focus, of course, at least once he actually shows up, which is a surprising amount of time into the picture, but even when he's shining, he's generally shining in front of a host of folk who can't wait to see what he's going to do. Beyond being the next step in the progression of how audiences saw Chaplin's star rising, there are two reasons why this is interesting. One is that Keystone weren't just here to shoot a film, they were here to be part of the event too and it's clear that Chaplin was playing to the crowd. The other is that there are ringers dotted amongst it, so that he can interact with them. Who they are, I have no idea, but it was fun trying to figure out which were Keystone actors and which regular members of the audience. There's a great interactive scene where Charlie antagonises some of them.

There are other strong moments too. One minor but enjoyable one involves Charlie and Mabel, who has ditched the unattentive Chester for the overly attentive Charlie, and an amazing vehicle, identified by a sign as the Franklin Wind Machine. It's a large automobile with a huge propellor on the front; as Charlie leans on the latter, it knocks off his hat, and when it's started up, both he and Mabel are blown away. In an earlier scene, before Mabel finds her way to Charlie, he sits down by another girl who has a drink with a straw; he cleverly sneaks enough of it while she isn't looking that she eventually just gives it to him. I particularly liked the scene where Conklin's character kisses Allen's and she goes ballistic, but that's as much for the reaction of the crowd around them as it is for the characters. These various moments help to keep the picture a lot more interesting than Mabel's Busy Day and perhaps the best of them is left for last, as Charlie aims to kiss Mabel, only for her to rebuff him in a great scene-stealing moment.

Sadly, these moments are peppered through a notably weaker film than usual. It's a racing film without any real racing, though there is one beautifully atmospheric shot of cars lined up for a tyre change race, half hidden by smoke. While Chaplin is more sympathetic here than in Mabel's Busy Day, he's still firmly back in obnoxious mode and there are a couple of notably violent moments that feel more like the first half of his year at the studio than the second: in one he bites Conklin's nose and in the other pokes a lit cigarette onto Swain's. Who nose why those seemed appropriate at this point in time, when his general direction was away from that sort of thing. The editing is notably rough, like a workprint not a polished film. Mostly the whole thing is a long string of déjà vu as it's all reminiscent of, if not outright replicated from, a host of earlier Chaplin films. We might be able to bend a little, this being part of a charity event, though I don't know the financial details, but we can't fully forgive the relentless familiarity of it all.

Incidentally, Chaplin's character name here is Mr Wow-Wow, which doesn't seem to have any connection to the film at all. Instead it was sourced from the Fred Karno sketch, The Wow Wows, which the impresario had written specifically for an American audience and chosen for his company (at the time including not only Chaplin but also Stanley Jefferson, later to become Stan Laurel) to play when they toured the United States in 1910, though they had all advised him against it. A skit on secret societies like the freemasons, it played fairly well but failed to engage with audiences and Karno found much greater success after he replaced The Wow Wows with Mumming Birds, retitled A Night in an English Music Hall, which was a tour de force for Chaplin, the reason Mack Sennett sought him out for Keystone and from which he borrowed for a number of films for the studio, most especially The Knockout. He didn't do the same with The Wow Wows but, from his choice of character name here, it apparently resonated with him at least a little.

Important Sources:
Anon - Horseless Age: The Automobile Trade Magazine, Volume 34 (2011)
David Robinson - Chaplin, the Mirror of Opinion (1983)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Gentlemen of Nerve can be viewed for free on 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 debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

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