Charlie Chaplin, Tramping Step by Step

by Michael Barrett

12 January 2011

The tremendously popular Charlie Chaplin movies were played until they fell apart and flaked off the nitrate, and time's warping and woofing did the rest.
cover art

Chaplin at Keystone

US DVD: 26 Oct 2010

The young Charles Chaplin was touring with Fred Karno’s theatrical company, working in music halls and vaudeville theatres, when he signed a contract with Mack Sennett to work at the Keystone Studios in Los Angeles. Chaplin’s worked at Keystone one year, 1914, by the end of which he was the most famous comedy star in America—even though audiences didn’t necessarily know his name, since he wasn’t credited on screen.

These tremendously popular movies were played until they fell apart and flaked off the nitrate, and time’s warping and woofing did the rest. They are now gathered in Chaplin at Keystone, a box that collates the best possible versions from multiple prints of various archives around the world and digitally restores them to maximum watchability. The fragmentary Recreation is a good demonstration of what a difference a print makes. While most of it’s atrociously unwatchable (the only such in the box), a few sharp-as-a-tack moments make it look like a different movie.

Sennett’s comedies were basically improvised in a park (usually Echo Park in Los Angeles) or at some outdoor event or in a few sets that can be recognized from movie to movie. The plots are often nothing more than people hitting each other and falling down, usually culminating in a chase. The title cards label them “farce comedy”, in case we need to know. Regular actors, who never received a screen credit, include producer-director Sennett, the beautiful Mabel Normand, somewhat goonish Ford Sterling, the large Mack Swain, the cross-eyed Chester Conklin, and the battle-axe Phyllis Allen.

Chaplin’s character is often drunk, a schtick he’d done on stage, and he’s more often a masher than a gallant. There’s usually not a trace of the sentiment associated with his later work. Sennett is quoted in the notes saying “It was a long time before he abandoned cruelty, venality, treachery, larceny, and lechery as the main characteristics of the tramp.” He also observed that Chaplin “preceded W.C. Fields by many years with scenes in which he got laughs by being mean to a baby.” Chaplin is as often an obstreperous antihero as a mischievous hero in these Keystones, yet the cleverness and appeal are clear.

As the films develop, we witness Chaplin not only trying various aspects of the costume and characteristics of the Tramp but moving his films in the direction of reaction over action. Although many films are frantic slugfests, Chaplin is working out detailed, balletic responses with his cane, his shoulders, his feet, his hat. He can make a whole scene out of his distinctive behaviors, often turning to the audience in fright or conspiracy.

With some overlap from Jeffrey Vance’s excellent liner notes, here are highlights and key moments in the development of a comedy star.

Making a Living isn’t about the Tramp but another penniless bum with different clothes and a long mustache. Chaplin’s rival for the girl is Henry Lehrman, who also directs the film. Photography is an element in the story as Chaplin tries to get a job as a journalist by stealing his rival’s pictures of a spectacular car crash. Many of these shorts are about speed as well as crashing. Personal vehicles were getting faster and faster and the cinema was practically invented to celebrate this concurrent technological explosion.

The Tramp materializes in Kid Auto Races in Venice, Cal., which might be considered a postmodern hybrid of genres. It’s in the form of a documentary about the races, which are really happening while the Tramp notices the camera and keeps casually stepping in front of it. Some shots are presented objectively, so we see the camera and the operator, while many shots are the supposed footage taken by the camera. There’s no story, only a situation, with the Tramp functioning as annoyance who loves the camera, and the feeling is mutual even if the operator keeps pushing him away. This restoration is shockingly sharp and clean. This was the first film in which audiences saw the Tramp, though it was made in the middle of shooting the following film, in which Chaplin was already wearing the same costume.

Mabel’s Strange Predicament is the earliest Mabel Normand comedy to feature Chaplin in a supporting role. Normand is director as well as star. His tramp look is complete, but the personality isn’t yet there. Here, he’s annoying as a drunken masher in a hotel where Mabel has locked herself out of her room in her pajamas. He twirls his cane and kicks his foot backwards. The common formula in these films is for tempers to escalate into a free-for-all of people swinging at each other amid acrobatic pratfalls. A pratfall is where both feet stick straight up in the air while one rolls on one’s back like a stuffed animal. People get beaned on the head, poked in the ribs and kicked in the rear, but nobody’s ever injured in the fracas.

Between Showers is the third and last film here directed by Lehrman, who presents things clearly in medium-close shots with some close-ups, and with a well-staged sense of bystanders in the background who gradually become involved. There are interestingly composed scenes of taking lumber from a site where we see only the huge boots of a construction worker in the foreground. Although Chaplin and Lehrman didn’t get along, this prolific comedy director deserves to be remembered for his own eye as well as being Chaplin’s first director. This is a vehicle for Ford Sterling, who steals an umbrella from Chester Conklin and locks horns with several people, including the Tramp. Again there’s escalation, with everyone motivated by selfishness.

A Film Johnnie, the first of four films directed by George Nichols, is another “postmodern” lark. Films were self-conscious from their earliest days, and there were always films about films. The first part is about the Tramp (again, not necessarily poor) going to see a Keystone drama and interacting with the screen, causing a ruckus in the audience. The next section finds him behind the scenes or in front of the scenes at the studio, getting a taste of filmmaking.

The other three Nichols films are weak. His Favorite Pastime restores the trampish character but again derives all humor from being drunk, with lots of pointless antics in a bar’s washroom. There are blackface characters. Cruel Cruel Love has Chaplin as a dapper young man with a long mustache, and he’s dapper again but looking himself in baggy clothes and toothbrush mustache in The Star Boarder. Photography is again an element in the story, thanks to a kid taking shots of Chaplin’s antics.

Tango Tangles, the first film here directed by Mack Sennett, casts Chaplin as a dapper drunk sans mustache. In a dance hall, he competes with Fatty Arbuckle and Ford Sterling for a compliant femme. The women in these movies seem willing to go along with whomever shows up to replace the last guy.

These have mostly been one-reelers of approximately 10 minutes, while Mabel at the Wheel, co-directed by Normand and Sennett, is a two-reeler at 23-minutes. Chaplin is the dapper villain who tries to prevent Normand from winning a car race. He’s dapper again in Normand’s Caught in a Cabaret, but only because he’s putting on the dog while really being a waiter in a dive. The ten-minute Twenty Minutes of Love has a scenario by Chaplin, who might have co-directed. He’s the Tramp looking for love in a park and getting involved with thievery not unlike the umbrella scenario above. From here on, all the films are directed by Chaplin or Sennett.


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