Lapses of logic abound in Tango Tangles, even more so than in the usual Keystone film.
The most startling surprise is that Chaplin, Ford Sterling, and Roscoe Arbuckle do their clowning without their usual costumes. It’s a dramatic demonstration of how much their given personas add to the comedy. Without the get-up, they could be any three men horsing around.
Sterling and Arbuckle play the band leader and a clarinetist, respectively, of a dance-hall band. The movie begins with Sterling getting romantic with the woman he thinks is his girlfriend, only to have Arbuckle come around and assertively tell Sterling, “She’s mine. I saw her first.” (Sexual politics in 1914: A girlfriend was apparently determined by who saw her first, and the girl has no say in the matter. I wonder how different some of these comedies would be if the girl voiced her opinion of these strutting macho men.)
Chaplin plays a slightly drunk dance-hall customer who decides to declare his possession of the girl as well, while the other two men are playing in the band. In a bonafide Chaplin film, Charlie would make short shrift of Sterling, but Sterling leaves his post at the band, fights with Charlie, and actually gets the upper hand, topped off by his doing the arms-spread-in-smug-triumph gesture that Chaplin eventually made his own.
Sterling’s victory is short-lived, though; Roscoe comes out onto the dance floor as well and re-asserts his girth over Sterling’s. Running away to lick his wounds, he runs into Charlie again, and even though both men have lost the girl for good, Sterling still wants to finish his fight with Charlie. Why? Because there’s still footage to tick off on this one-reeler, I suppose.
Seeing the trio in their dandified streetwear, you can’t help thinking that maybe Tango Tangles was a filmed rehearsal for another, far superior short.