Charlie Chaplin in BETWEEN SHOWERS (1914) – Caught in a rainstorm of macho

BetweenShowers

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Sometimes the Keystone shorts are very funny. Other times, the Keystone shorts are filled up with a lot of frantic action in the hope that you won’t notice how little comedy there is. Between Showers is an example of the latter.

It begins with a tediously laborious gag in which Ford Sterling steals an umbrella from Chester Conklin (who plays a preoccupied cop). Next, we see the aftermath of a rain shower. A lady (Emma Bell Clifton) wants to walk across the street but cannot negotiate a huge puddle. Ford says he’ll find a plank of wood to place across the water, and with designs on the woman, he rushes off to find one. Then Charlie happens upon the woman and attempts the same plan of action.

Meanwhile, a cop helpfully guides the woman past the puddle, negating the gentlemen’s efforts. But that doesn’t stop the two from thumping their chests and acting all macho about what they would have done if they’d had the chance. Pretty soon, both of them are hitting on the woman to the point that you wish she’d file a sexual-harassment complaint on the two of them.

Then Ford has a temper tantrum because the lady won’t give back his umbrella, so he goes to find a cop and demand justice. Guess which cop he finds. This can’t end well.

But then, it didn’t start out all that wonderfully, either.

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

MabelAtTheWheel

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 MODERN TIMES (1936) – The end of an era

download

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Modern Times has a special place in my heart, because it was the first Charlie Chaplin movie I saw in an actual theater (when it was re-released in 1972). On top of that, despite its overall theme (the effects of the Great Depression), I find it a very bright, cheery movie. It’s as though even the bleak themes of the story (the Tramp’s nervous breakdown, the gamin’s losing her sisters to the state, etc.) aren’t enough to tamp down the happiness of which the Tramp convinces himself at movie’s end.

In his review of Modern Times, ’30s movie critic Otis Ferguson cynically stated that the movie was such a series of set-pieces that it could easily have been chopped into a series of two-reelers titled The Waiter, The Prisoner, and so forth. One could make a case for that, but even so, what delightful set pieces! In just his first few minutes on-screen, Chaplin, as a put-upon factory worker, bursts forth with more manic energy (as actor) and vivid imagination (as writer/director) than ought to be expected of him by this time in his career (he was 46 when the movie was released). The bit with the nut-tightening (everything that looks like two bolts eventually gets his attention, which causes trouble for a couple of buxom women), the scene with the automatic food-feeder, the Tramp getting caught in the factory’s cog workings – any of these scenes alone would be regarded as a classic in any other comic’s movie career.

It’s also interesting to see the compromise that Chaplin made at this point between silent and sound movies. The movie does use talking figures, but only as necessary – a voice on the radio, the factory’s boss on a Big-Brother-like TV screen (How prescient was that in 1936?), and a delightful bit involving nothing but the Tramp and a prim minister’s wife sipping tea on empty stomachs. Long after Buster Keaton had been used up and spat out by the Big Studio system, he spoke of making movies where his comic lead character, or others on screen, wouldn’t speak any more than necessary. Here, Chaplin showed how seamlessly this could have been done if silent movies had continued. (One of the biggest treats for Chaplin fans of the time was hearing his voice on-screen for the first time, when the Tramp does a nonsense number as a singing waiter. There would be many critics who would wish that had been the last time Chaplin had spoken in a movie.)

With its themes of unemployment and strikes, it’s also obvious that Chaplin had Something to Say here, which has been another sore point among his critics who think he should only be funny. But I’d say that Chaplin’s points are subtle and worth making: The lovely opening shot, where a flock of sheep metamorphose into a crowd of factory workers heading for work; the bit where a red flag falls off a construction truck, and the Tramp, trying to get the truck driver’s attention with it, inadvertently leads a crowd of hostile strikers. And you can’t help but identify with the Tramp’s look of puzzlement when he’s told he’ll be going on strike after only a single day back at work.

The other major actor in the movie is Paulette Goddard (soon to become Mrs. Charles Chaplin) as the streetwise gamin who eventually partners with the Tramp. Visually, the camera loves her, but she tends to overdo her part a little. Luckily, the storyline gives her to us in very small doses until she meets the Tramp, so she’s not hard to take. (It gets a little worse in The Great Dictator, especially with sound.)

Perhaps never before or since has such a bitter social statement gone down so smoothly in a movie. Modern Times is a truly worthy farewell to Chaplin’s silent career.

”At the end he [the Tramp] and his yearnings must go down that road again. As they do, in Modern Times, they take silent film with them.” – Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns

Charlie Chaplin in GENTLEMEN OF NERVE (1914) – A race to the finish

Nerve

Mack Swain and Charlie attempt to sneak into an auto race via an opening in a fence. The movie’s funniest bit is an extended routine wherein Mack gets stuck halfway through the opening. Once he’s seen and conspicuous, he continually motions to Charlie to leave him alone so that he can get back out. But Charlie misinterprets the motions as Mack’s asking for help, so he tries to push Mack further through the fence.

Chaplin has some other good gags here, though they’re rendered somewhat impotent by some of his most anti-social on-screen behavior to date. (At one point, Charlie is arguing with Chester Conklin and punctuates his side of the debate by biting Chester’s nose; later, Charlie’s burns Mack’s proboscis with a lit cigarette.)

Charlie gets to stay and watch the race with Mabel Normand, while the other guys get hauled off by a cop. In the Keystone way of looking at things, I guess that counts as a triumph.

Charlie Chaplin in DOUGH AND DYNAMITE (1914) – Not exactly an explosion of comedy

Dough(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The main plot of Dough and Dynamite has waiters Chester Conklin and Charlie having to become bakers when the bakers at the restaurant where they work go on strike for better working conditions. Annoyed that the “scabs” have taken their jobs, one of the bakers hides a stick of dynamite in a loaf of bread and connives to get it put back into the restaurant’s oven, causing predictable havoc for the movie’s climax.

But that plot is mostly an excuse for Charlie to shove everyone around, act belligerent and incompetent simultaneously, and sling a lot of dough at people primarily because it’s so available. (That old reliable, the arse-kick, makes several appearances here as well.) And that’s not much of an excuse for extending this two-reeler to nearly an entire half-hour’s length. For the heavy-handed slapstick, my guess is that the blame goes to credited “co-writer” Mack Sennett.

Nothing is done with the explosion comedically, other than a final, gooey close-up of Charlie emerging from the doughy mess. Ironically, this was among many Chaplin shorts to be shown at the New York Historical Society in September of 2001. Needless to say, the real-life terrorist attack dampened the humor of the slapstick model, and the movie was pulled prior to screening.

Charlie Chaplin in THOSE LOVE PANGS (1914) – A fight to the finish

ThoseLovePangs

Charlie and his rival (Chester Conklin) are basically engaged in a Popeye-and-Bluto-like p***ing contest to see who can score a woman. First they hit upon their landlady, then they try for women in the park. Eventually, Charlie makes time with Chester’s woman and another man’s girlfriend before the men get their revenge on Charlie.

A very lively short, the best part of which is Charlie’s hyperbolic reactions to Chester’s having made time with a gorgeous blonde in the park.