Charlie Chaplin in A BUSY DAY (1914) – Kind of a drag

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There were only three movies where Chaplin went in drag for laughs. A Busy Day was the first; then another Keystone entry, The Masquerader; and finally, a year later for Essanay in A Woman. But what a difference a year makes! In the latter comedy, Chaplin goes all-out to be convincing as a woman; one might go so far as to say he’s more nuanced. In A Busy Day, he does nothing terribly memorable, as a woman or as a comic.

This is another of those Keystone comedies where the cast and crew set up at a real event – in this case, a military parade celebrating the opening of the harbor in San Pedro, CA. – and fished around for some comedy. And though the premise is that a woman’s (Chaplin) husband (Mack Swain) quickly deserts her to flirt with a pretty girl (Phyllis Allen), the first two minutes is a blatant re-tread of Kid Auto Races at Venice, with Chaplin-the-woman discovering the camera and hamming it up in front of it. (And, though not identified, the director of the film-within-a-film certainly looks like Mack Sennett himself.)

But just that two minutes is enough to show us how much characterization the Tramp had already developed. In Kid Auto Races, the Tramp was hogging the camera, but he did it far more subtly – just “happening” to get in front of the camera under every pretext possible, acting all coy when caught out. Here, it’s just an excuse for Chaplin to slap anyone who objects to him and then get slapped in return.

Most of the movie’s supposed laughs come simply from Chaplin doing what a lady-like woman would not do in public – hoisting her dress, using it instead of a handkerchief to blow her nose, etc. And all of the males in the movie feel quite free to slap this woman around, since we know she’s really a man underneath. Ha-ha.

Although the movie is only a half-reel long, it can’t get over quickly enough. You’ll find yourself very eager to see Chaplin out of the dress and back in the tramp outfit by movie’s end.

Charlie Chaplin in CAUGHT IN THE RAIN (1914) – Have you ever seen a dream sleepwalking?

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In a park, a tipsy Charlie tries to make time with a woman (Alice Davenport) alone on a park bench, until the woman’s husband (Mack Swain) returns and settles the matter for good. As it happens, Charlie has a hotel room directly across from the couple, and which room do you suppose the woman enters when she goes sleepwalking that night?

This is a fun little short that makes the most of its situation and also gets some comedy out of human observation. (Example: Mack and Alice argue violently until the maid enters. Then they’re all sweetness and light until she leaves, and they pick up right where they left off.)

Another terrific piece of detail is that of a hotel guest who has gout (another over-used laugh device in early comedy; see Laurel & Hardy’s Perfect Day). At first, it seems as though the movie is only going to milk laughs out of Charlie’s stumbling over the man’s pained foot. But eventually, the movie puts him in the background, and just the man’s fearthat he’s going to get hurt somehow by these crazies is enough to score a laugh.

Chaplin’s reactions are priceless, too, especially when Charlie briefly leaves his room to check where Mack is, and he returns to find Alice stretched out and asleep on his bed.

A very compact winner of a one-reeler.

Roscoe Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin THE KNOCKOUT (1914) – Doesn’t have as much punch as it should

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The Knockout is not a Chaplin short per se. It is also not a knockout by any means.

It’s primarily a vehicle for Roscoe Arbuckle. He plays “Pug,” a genial sort who, for reasons I still haven’t sorted out even after seeing the movie, gets talked into a boxing match against a prizefighter named Cyclone Flynn (Edgar Kennedy).

Chaplin has a very brief role as the fight’s referee. The running gag of Chaplin’s appearance is that, by being in the middle of the fight, he endures the brunt of the punches. Mild as that sounds, it’s probably the funniest thing in the movie.

The movie’s finale involves the Keystone Kops and makes even less sense. Chaplin would work the boxing ring himself to far greater effect years down the road, in City Lights (1931).

Charlie Chaplin in BY THE SEA (1915) – A comedy that’s all wet

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

By the Sea is a slight improvement over Chaplin’s only other Essanay one-reeler, In the Park. But like its predecessor, this “short” short has too many characters for its own good.

Among them: a man (Billy Armstrong) whose fight with Charlie begins over the entanglement of their hats; a girl to flirt with (Edna Purviance); the girl’s burly husband (Bud Jamison); and of course, a couple of cops. The best scene is probably where Charlie simultaneously flirts with Edna while having to keep knocking Billy unconscious.

The final shot perfectly encapsulates the movie’s possibilities and disappointments. In a brief frieze, Charlie, briefly oblivious to reality, sits in the middle of a park bench, and all of the people he has antagonized surround him. It’s a lovely shot, full of anticipation. Then the cop-out ending: Charlie looks up and sees his enemies, and the park bench collapses. As does the movie.

Charlie Chaplin in CAUGHT IN A CABARET (1914) – Another discount Count

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Chaplin plays a not-so-great cabaret waiter. During his break, Charlie fights off a man who is bothering a woman (Mabel Normand), and she gratefully invites Charlie to her home, where he announces himself as a Greek ambassador.

(Charlie’s business card helpfully explains: “O.T. Axle – Ambassador to Greece.” This posing-as-a-count/ambassador/officer routine got heavy mileage in silent comedies [see also Chaplin’s Mutual short The Count]; the closest thing I’ve seen to it in modern movies is the Count in the Coen Bros.’ Intolerable Cruelty [2003]. One wonders how often this ruse was tried in real life and if anyone outside of silent movies was ever fooled by it.)

Anyway, Mabel’s parents are impressed enough by the fake Count to invite him to Mabel’s garden party. Meanwhile, Mabel’s jealous lover (Harry McCoy) follows Charlie back to work to discover his true origins. After Charlie becomes the hit of the party before returning to work, the lover “casually” suggests to the other party guests that they go “slumming” at a local cabaret. Charlie briefly tries to keep up the Count ruse, but it’s all over once Mabel beats him unconscious.

As always, Chaplin’s sheer force of personality puts the silly “farce” element across, at least until the ending. We know perfectly well what’s going to happen; couldn’t Chaplin have pulled just one more trick out of his sleeve – maybe, him crossing paths with a real Count who helps him complete the ruse – just to relieve the finale of its predictability?

Charlie Chaplin in TWENTY MINUTES OF LOVE (1914) – A bit short in more ways than one

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Twenty Minutes of Love is the first Keystone short for which Chaplin received a writing-directing credit. But the only major stylistic difference is at the beginning, where Charlie comes upon several romantic couples in various stages of passion and he mimics them (at one point embracing a tree). This pantomime is probably the highlight of the film. After that, it’s back to Keystone high-kicking.

A woman in one of the couples asks her beau for a token of his love. He doesn’t have one handy, so he tells the woman to wait a moment, at which point he snatches a pocket-watch from a man sleeping on a park bench. Charlie happens to see this and, in a grand bit of payback, he steals the watch from the thief. As if that wasn’t enough hubris, Charlie then tries to sell the watch back to the original owner. The movie ends with a big chase in which Charlie knocks several people, innocent or otherwise, into the park’s pond.

And what possessed Chaplin to give the title Twenty Minutes of Love to a one-reeler, anyway?

Charlie Chaplin in MABEL AT THE WHEEL (1914) – A race to the finish

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Charlie tries to win Mabel (Mabel Normand) over from her sports-car-driving boyfriend, but to no avail. When Charlie kidnaps and locks up the boyfriend on the day of his big race, Mabel takes his place in the race.

The primary fun of this short is watching Chaplin (made up here to look like a variation on Ford Sterling) chew the scenery in an uncharacteristic role as an all-out villain. You also get to see Keystone founder (and this movie’s co-director) Mack Sennett as a spectator in the audience.

Charlie Chaplin in THE CURE (1917) – A shot of strong comedy

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Okay, let’s get The Cure’s main plot defect out of the way. Charlie is an alcoholic who enters a health spa to get better. But he has brought an entire trunk of liquor to the spa with him. One of the spa’s attendants (Albert Austin) gets wind of this and dumps the entire supply of liquor into…the very same well from which everyone obtains their curative drinks. So of course, the same snoots who looked down on Charlie-the-alkie are suddenly enjoying the well water much more than usual. That sounds like something Mack Sennett would have come up with on a very bad day.

That plot point aside, The Cure is very enjoyable. You’d never guess Charlie was unhealthy, the way Chaplin sprints all over the spa set as if on fairy dust. There isn’t a wasted detail in the whole film. The first few minutes offer us nothing but Charlie and two other men dealing with a revolving door, and it’s hilarious. And it only gets better, with Chaplin’s theme of transposition making many memorable appearances (e.g., a masseuse works his patient over so much, Charlie interprets it as a wrestling match and crowns the masseuse as champion).

The Cure, like The Floorwalker, makes the most of every part of its setting. (That’s all the more surprising when you see the movie’s skimpy origins, in the documentary Unknown Chaplin.) It’s a treat.

Charlie Chaplin in A DOG’S LIFE (1918) – Charlie and Scraps

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In his autobiography, Chaplin claimed that in A Dog’s Life, he brought in the character of the dog Scraps (known as “Mut” on the set) so that his story could contrast the life of a tramp with the life of a mutt. But other than Scraps’ first major scene, in which the Tramp rescues diminutive Scraps from a pack of street-fighting dogs, little is done to enhance that story parallel.

In fact, much of the movie plays like one of Chaplin’s Keystone or Essanay comedies, where he’d start out at a random setting and fish for some laughs. There are many comedy routines in the movie, and some of them are very funny – the Tramp avoiding a cop, sneakily stealing a meal from a food wagon, etc. – but they are no more than routines; they don’t add up to much of anything.

The movie’s weakest section is when the Tramp enters a rundown music-hall and listens to a new singer (Edna Purviance) perform a cry-in-your beer song. The scene’s joke is how Edna’s song moves everyone to tears, but the gag quickly gets very mechanical, if not downright gross – again, something more appropriate for the Keystone era than for Chaplin’s debut at First National Pictures.

The movie doesn’t really pick up speed until the final third. Some crooks have stolen some money and buried it near the Tramp’s sleeping grounds, where Scraps digs it up and presents it to Charlie. Charlie returns to the music hall and promises Edna that he’ll use his newfound wealth to buy them a country farm. Sadly, the crooks are also in the music hall and get wind of the Tramp’s scheme; they knock him out, steal the money again, and get the Tramp and Scraps kicked out of the music hall a second time.

The tramp surreptitiously returns to the music hall and pulls a counter-scheme to get the money back from the crooks. The highlight of the film is the Tramp knocking out one crook and then using his own arms from behind a wall to “act” as the knocked-out crook in order to fool his partner.

Of course, Chaplin got his happy ending, on and off the screen; A Dog’s Life was a huge success and an auspicious beginning to his time at First National. But Chaplin’s next film continued his winning streak while having a far stronger (and more memorable) storyline.