Charlie Chaplin, Tramping Step by Step

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.

From “Historically Interesting” to Flat-out “Funny”

Disc 2 opens with Chaplin’s first film as writer-director, Caught in the Rain. As the liner notes point out, it’s a pastiche of elements from previous films. Chaplin plays a woman in Sennett’s A Busy Day, which is otherwise similar to the item about the kid auto races. Sennett’s epic The Knockout is a vehicle for Arbuckle, with Chaplin having a brief role as a boxing referee. This boxing match, which one would suppose the highlight of the picture, is presented mostly from a distance, as if we’re in the cheap seats. A couple of moments feature a more engaged camera, as when Arbuckle instructs the camera to look up while he’s changing, and during one suspenseful reaction shot when he walks into an enraged close-up while observing his girlfriend being accosted offscreen. This reaction is more interesting than the action, and the film knows it.

The highlight occurs after the fight, when everything escalates into frantic absurdity as Arbuckle begins firing an infinite number of bullets from two pistols while chasing everyone all over the landscape and even across rooftops. The ridiculousness of trying to shoot people can be seen as an illogical extension of the modus operandi of most of these movies, which are simply about people attacking each other in ways that cross into cruelty. Consider the title The Fatal Mallet, although the title instrument isn’t so fatal after all. (The notes explain that one Chaplin Keystone from this point, Her Friend the Bandit, is lost.)

The sixth film on Disc 2, Sennett’s Mabel’s Married Life, is where the set starts to cross from “historically interesting” to “funny”. Mabel and Charlie are married, and Mabel brings a boxing dummy into their apartment. It resembles a palooka from the park. Chaplin’s confused and angry reactions, and his interaction with this inanimate yet bouncy object, are funnier than the endless punches and kicks with real humans in other movies. Part of the print is so sharp, you can see the cameraman reflected in a swinging glass door.

The last four films on Disc 2 are directed by Chaplin, and some will interest viewers who find today’s humor crude and cruel. Laughing Gas contains a few saucy erotic moments as unsubtle as pulling off a woman’s dress, feeling her ankles in the dentist’s chair, and pulling her nose with pliers. Chaplin’s masquerade as dentist Dr. Pain in some ways anticipates W.C. Fields’ The Dentist and even Marathon Man. The two-reel The Property Man, set in a music hall, has Chaplin wetting the front of his pants and responding to an old man trapped under a trunk by climbing on top and kicking him repeatedly in the face. He kicks him at all other times too. This juggles many characters in what amounts to a comprehensive vision of chaos and hostility that’s finally turned upon the audience of yokels. It could conceivably be remade today.

The atypical The Face on the Barroom Floor, told in flashback, parodies a sentimental poem. The notes call its entertainment value slight. I disagree. It has delightful details and the finalé is hilarious. If we are to make another connection to W.C. Fields, this parodistic anti-alcohol melodrama can be seen as a foreshadow of The Fatal Glass of Beer.

All remaining shorts on Discs 3 and 4 are directed by Chaplin and take their time to dwell on situations before running wild. The Masquerader is a gem that shows Chaplin as “himself” or at least an actor at Keystone. He shares a dressing room with Arbuckle for a slow-burning duel, then changes into his Tramp suit. After wreaking havoc on set, he performs a third change and shows up as a beautiful actress to prove his abilities to the boss who fired him. He’s very fetching, and everyone’s reactions are credible.

His New Profession opens with an effective close-up on the Tramp, out of work, reading the Police Gazette. Close-ups like this show why the audience identified with him. He shares the plot with a tall young man who eventually became a famous comic as Charley Chase.

The Rounders is co-directed by co-star Arbuckle. He and Chaplin play dapper drunks who have problems with their wives, and they play as well together as Arbuckle would play with Buster Keaton. Whether in sync as a single entity (get a load of their swing steps) or in competition for our attention on screen (each doing his own thing in a nightclub), they are graceful and riotous. The final shot combines humor and poignant poetry in a way that would become Chaplin’s trademark.

Even better is on the way. The New Janitor is a quantum leap. Several elements come together into a new thing. There’s a carefully constructed plot (fired janitor foils thief) instead of an improvised string of actions. The tramp isn’t obnoxious but sympathetic, and there’s a class element in his relation to others. He rescues a damsel in distress, and his actions are both heroic and funny. Of all the Keystones, this where we glimpse the put-upon, rousing, sometimes sentimental Tramp at his most fully formed. All this in 12 minutes.

Vance’s notes call the two-reel Dough and Dynamite “much finer than other comedy films of the time,” and it was certainly one of the most financially successful. I find it too much dough and not enough dynamite, but it’s interesting for including topical references to labor troubles and terrorism, and for more of those important close-ups. The piano-moving comedy His Musical Career is a curious precursor to Laurel and Hardy’s classic The Music Box. In His Prehistoric Past, the tramp dreams himself into a caveman scenario where his appearance alone is hilarious, and there’s an amusingly mincing, effeminate rival. The cop who wakes him up is elder brother Sydney Chaplin.

The last Keystone release with Chaplin was the world’s first feature-length comedy. In December 1914, Sennett’s six-reel Tillie’s Punctured Romance created a sensation that rocketed Chaplin into the next phase of his career at the Essanay Studio, from which he proceeded to dominate the world. As Vance writes, this movie was still in theatrical circulation in some form into the ’40s. It was a vehicle for stage actress Marie Dressler, essentially remaking her 1910 Broadway hit Tillie’s Nightmare. She continued to be a popular character actress into the talkies, appeared in several films with Wallace Beery, won an Oscar, and is best remembered for delivering the punchline in Dinner at Eight. Here she plays Tillie, a large country wench swept off her feet by a city slicker (Chaplin in straw boater, starched weskit and cummerbund). He takes her to the city and abandons her after lifting her purse, but regains her after she inherits her uncle’s millions.

This movie has been circulating in unwatchable prints in public-domain hell for so long, it’s amazing to see it looking this sharp and running 85 minutes. Dressler is a continual delight, burlesquing her pathos and outrage with such physical grace, the crowd around her is as amused as the viewer. It’s a special joy when she dances. There’s a class element at work in how society accepts her gauche ways after she becomes rich and throws a fancy ball.

Mabel Normand is also in the picture as Chaplin’s other woman, and the scene where she and he watch a Keystone melodrama that touches their hearts with its similarities to their predicament is wonderful and many-layered. Like many early movies about going to the movies, it takes a jaundiced look at film conventions and the audience that laps them up. The film’s climax is one of Sennett’s crazy odes to speed, and it all ends on a note of sisterhood. It begins and ends with Dressler bowing in front of a curtain.

All these films have new scores, and special mention goes to Ethan Uslan’s use of pop tunes in Her Prehistoric Past and Ken Winokur’s revamp of the original Broadway score for Tillie.

Bonuses include an amazing discovery. In June 2010, a print was discovered of A Thief Catcher, one of Chaplin’s earliest Keystones. It’s a Ford Sterling comedy in which Chaplin appears as one of the Kops. The excerpt shown here demonstrates again that Henry Lehrman was a director who made canny choices. Charlie et sa Belle is a cartoon (with French titles only) using the likenesses of Chaplin and Arbuckle. Two more shorts are made for this collection. One is basically a making-of that describes how this project coordinated itself between many archives, and the other revisits the Keystone locations today.