Chaplin At Keystone (Flicker Alley)
British music hall comedian Charles Chaplin made his screen debut in February 1914, playing a threadbare dandy with all physical cues of a cad in the Mack Sennett one-reel comedy Making a Living. The Tramp was born in his second screen appearance—the signature costume (baggy pants, tight cutaway coat, too-big shoes, too-small derby, bamboo cane and toothbrush mustache) built by Chaplin for his role in Mabel’s Strange Predicament—but audiences first saw him in the split-reel special Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., an improvised film shot in an afternoon with Chaplin’s tramp character constantly intruding on newsreel crews trying to shoot the races. Fitting that a comedy based on the fascination of movies and the yearn for celebrity via the screen introduced the figure who would become the biggest movie star in the world in a few short years.
All this biographical information and historical detail is explored in Jeffrey Vance’s excellent essay and film notes in the accompanying 40-page booklet of Flicker Alley’s Chaplin At Keystone (Flicker Alley), a remarkable box set that collects the 33 surviving shorts (one-reel, two-reel and a couple of shorter split-reel films) and the feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, that he made for Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in 1914. (Only one Chaplin Keystone remains lost, but Vance helpfully provides notes on the short anyway.) Over the course of the year 1914, working with Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand and the rest of the directors and ensemble players in the Keystone company, Chaplin evolved from screen comedy debutante to Keystone star, even though he never received screen credit. In fact, no one at Keystone got screen credit or even images in the posters (Sennett wanted to keep them interchangeable) but Chaplin stood out and this distinctive (yet nameless to them) figure was a sought-after attraction. The exhibitors, who knew the value of a star, would simply put a cut-out of Chaplin out to let people know another of his Keystone films was playing, and audiences responded.
The original incarnation(s) seen in these shorts was a primitive sketch for what would become the mischievous but sweet-hearted Tramp. In these early outings he’s just as often cruel, indifferent, a cad, a masher, a drunk, a swell or a sneering or henpecked husband. In His Trysting Places, he’s even an irresponsible father to an infant, hauling him around by his jumper like a cat carrying kittens by the scruff of the neck (nothing like the sentimental Tramp we get later). And in some of these films he takes on other characters (including a society gent in Cruel, Cruel Love, an immigrant Ford Sterling replacement in Mabel At the Wheel, in drag in A Busy Day and one of the buffoonish Keystones Kops in A Thief Catcher), filling comic roles in the slapstick factory that is Keystone. Chaplin was a journeyman actor in the ensemble meeting his assignments, after all, and Sennett was cranking them out. But Sennett also recognized talent and potential when he saw it and he recognized the success of Chaplin as critics and audiences picked him out of the films. As Chaplin grew frustrated by the directors assigned to his movies, at times getting into professional spats, Sennett allowed Chaplin to start writing scenarios and then direct some of his own films. Halfway through his year-long contract, Chaplin was directing all of his shorts.
You can see Chaplin trying out different incarnations of this still evolving persona within the Keystone World of comedy, a style based on situation and slapstick conflict rather than character or story. Sennett himself explained his style to Chaplin (as he recounted in his autobiography): “we get an idea then follow the natural sequence of events until is leads up to a chase, which is the essence of our comedy.” The term “natural” is purely in the context of a comic world where all conflict turns physical: pushes and punches, stumbles and pratfalls, tossed bricks and boards, food fights and chaotic convergences of characters who collide like dominoes or simply collapse en masse. It’s a comic-strip style and directed that way. Where D.W. Griffith at Biograph was exploring the visual language, if you will, of narrative storytelling, Sennett was cranking out his scenarios with static cameras, where space was intuited simply by the fact that characters exited one shot and entered another. Chaplin himself never evolved beyond this primitive cinematic understanding while at Keystone but then he was still learning the tools of his trade, and his cinematic sophistication evolved when he went to Essenay and then Mutual, where the creative use of screen space became an essential element to his comedy. His narrative style, however, evolved far beyond Sennett’s “essence” in his year-long internship at America’s top comedy studio.
What we see in these films is Chaplin learning to translate stage business to screen action, which he grasps almost immediately. His introductory scene in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, his third completed film for Sennett, is filled with inspired comic business as he chases girls across the lobby and navigates the crowded maze of furniture and bric-a-brac in his inebriated state. The film itself is a cascade of mishaps and collisions of personalities that, of course, lead to knockabout confrontations and the usual Keystone domino effect that knocks everyone over, and Chaplin is simply part of the ensemble, but he already stands out as a distinct character and a brilliant physical comedian. This is pratfall humor and Chaplin throws himself into it.
There’s nothing sophisticated about these films, even the better ones, but Chaplin’s efforts show more attention to narrative construction than even Sennett-directed productions, not just in terms of story and plot but in comic predicaments and misunderstandings, and he tries out less obvious collisions of characters even as he delivers the slapstick chaos essential to Keystone. “All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and pretty girl,” Chaplin wrote in his autobiography, and there are plenty of park comedies (all of them shot in the nearby Echo Park, a few blocks from the Keystone Studios), simple little outings that usually begin with Chaplin flirting with someone else’s girl and end with everyone in the lake. A notable exception is his final effort for Keystone, Getting Acquainted, a one-reeler with Mabel Norman, Mack Swain and Phyllis Allen where married couples swap partners and flirt without falling into a knockabout finale.
Chaplin proves a great double-team act even when writing and directing himself. In The Rounders, his only direct pairing with Keystone player Roscoe Arbuckle (soon to be a major comedy star and director in his own right), the two play society drunks with all the manners of bowery bums and play off each other like they’ve been doing it forever. The final half has them weaving arm in arm, Arbuckle half dragging Chaplin down the sidewalk and propping him up in the supper club where their boorish behavior seems to be a contest to see who can be the crudest. While the scenario is crude, it’s superb physical interplay and they clearly enjoy the collaboration. Dough and Dynamite, a two-reel bakery comedy that teams him with Chester Conklin as battling waiters ordered to take over the basement bakery with the staff goes on strike, is a familiar knockabout premise complicated (but not by much) by anarchists with a bomb (another familiar trope of the teens), but fine comic combat between Chaplin and Conklin. Chaplin keeps the play between upstairs and downstairs fluid, using the momentum of characters on the staircase to really make the sense of space organic, and then just piles on the gags (especially the dough that sticks everything it touches, which in this story is Chaplin and Conklin).
The New Janitor, meanwhile, is a more finely crafted narrative with Chaplin back in solo mode as his usual oblivious klutz who foils a robbery and saves a girl, but the actual confrontation is a surprise of character that enriches (rather than contradicts) the hapless fellow we’ve seen until now, more resigned to his fate than fighting but reacting to the robber with reflective outrage at such injustice. And His Prehistoric Past is a classic modern gag comedy in cavemen garb, complete with Chaplin in a bearskin and bowler, a premise that Keaton did up in his own style in Three Ages years later.
The collection is capped by Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Chaplin’s feature debut and the first feature-length slapstick comedy ever made (at least that’s the information I have). Directed and scripted by Mack Sennett, adapted from the musical stage production “Tillie’s Nightmare” and developed for stage star Marie Dressler, it’s very much a Keystone Komedy: the same simple visual style (no master shots, no cut-ins, no coherent sense of screen space between scenes), the same pratfall gags, even the Keystone Kops pouring in for the finale, albeit on a much grander scale of chaos and destruction. Chaplin is support to Dressler, a city slicker in ratty threads who seduces the hulking hillbilly, a middle-aged child of a woman living a life of poverty under a bullying dad, so he can steal her father money.
Though based on a play, the contrived plot has all the “natural” development of a Sennett short improvised from a premise. This comedy turns on the fact that backwoods rube Tillie is the niece of a society millionaire, an unlikely turn of events given the first act and simply something to be taken on faith. There’s less ingenuity here than in the Chaplin-directed shorts and every scene leads up to slapstick pay-off, whether it be Dressler as the country girl giving in to her temper and becoming a bull in a China shop or the Keystone Kops racing the rescue and ending up in need of rescue themselves. It’s primitive, but it’s also a feature on the cusp: Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation would come out in 1915 and, symbolically if not literally, usher in a more sophisticated narrative style. And yes, it’s funny, though I confess I find the Sennett brand of slapstick unimpressive, or at least endlessly repetitious, with some exceptions. Dressler is an exception. She looks like Wallace Beery in drag and moves like a drunken sailor on the town—not a criticism, mind you, but rather a compliment to an actress who shows no vanity in the creation of a comic character—and plays it big and broad, fitting right into the Keystone style while bringing a distinct personality to the mix. Chaplin matches her when given the opportunity for physical humor but mostly is support as a scheming cad without a shred of loyalty for anyone. Mabel Norman fills out the leading roles as the city clicker’s girlfriend and partner in scam, jilted when he finds a better game.
The archival value of this set is beyond question. A few of these shorts have been available in other anthology collections of silent comedies but this collection features prints restored and reconstructed from The Chaplin Keystone Project, a collaboration between the British Film Institute, Cineteca di Bologna and Lobster Films in France, in cooperation with Association Chaplin. Tillie’s Punctured Romance is from the 2004 ULCA restoration. It’s not just the first comprehensive collection of these films, presented in chronological order based on release date. It features the most complete versions and best looking presentations of the films, most have which had degraded over time through wear and tear of constant exhibition and duplication, on home video to date. And each film includes an original score by the leading silent movie accompanists in the world, including pianists Stephen Horne (a master of delicately lyrical scores), Antonio Coppola, Neil Brand, Eric Beheim, Frederick Hodges, Ethan Uslan and Robert Israel (whose addition of a violin to his accompaniments is a wonderful signature touch) and the lively Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a terrific combo with a snappy energy to their bright scores. Also includes a bonus animated short with a Chaplin-esque figure, an excerpt from the otherwise lost Keystone Kops Komedy A Thief Catcher with an uncredited Chaplin in uniform, a still gallery and two featurettes on The Chaplin Project, a gallery of rare stills, plus an excellent 40-page booklet with an excellent essay and detailed notes on each film by film historian Jeffrey Vance.
Addendum: I didn’t comment on the projection speed of the films in the above review but after perusing the debate over the choices made in a forum discussion at Nitrateville, I wanted add my perspective. For decades, these films have been shown at 24 frames per second, which speeds the action up to absurd overkill. The speed here is (according to silent film composer and musician Rodney Sauer) probably closer to 18 or 19 fps, which is still faster than natural human motion but not as exaggerated, and in the chase scenes and pratfalls is gives just a little extra push to the comic momentum. It plays just right to my eyes.