Charlie Chaplin in MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT (1914) – Quite a lively hotel

Predicament

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Strange, indeed. Mabel Normand gets her name in the title, and Charlie Chaplin walks off with the film.

Chaplin provides what might be called “punctuation” to the movie’s comic conceit – but what grand punctuation! The movie begins with Charlie trying and failing miserably to flirt with Mabel in a hotel lobby while she is walking her dog. After Charlie gets snubbed by Mabel and several other women, he spends the rest of the evening getting drunk.

Meanwhile, Mabel has gone to her room, gotten into her pajamas, and is playing fetch with her dog. The ball bounces out into the hallway. Mabel quickly tries to retrieve it but ends up locked out of her room. Charlie happens upon Mabel in her “scandalous” state (a woman in her PJ’s, outside of her room! Shocking! At least in 1914!), and never was lust more hilariously conveyed. Charlie flits in and out for the rest of this one-reeler, but whenever he appears, he makes it clear that Mabel is carnal manna sent from heaven just for him. Harpo Marx couldn’t have done it better.

The rest of the movie is the broad farce you’d expect – Mabel hides under the bed of a nearby lodger, she’s found and the lodger is accused of sleeping with her, etc. But every time Chaplin comes upon the scene, we forget the hoary contrivances and wait to see Charlie’s next reaction. It’s the kind of delight the one-reeler was invented for. Superb.

MABEL’S MARRIED LIFE (1914) – The best of Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone short subjects

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In my humble opinion, Mabel’s Married Life is where the Chaplin legend really starts to take hold.

For one thing, instead of Charlie being a hyper-aggressive clown who comes out kicking and punching for no reason, this movie actually stops to give him a bit of a background. The first shot we see of Charlie is his making polite domestic banter with his wife (Mabel Normand) in the park.

Then Charlie goes to a nearby bar for a drink, leaving Mabel alone to be hassled by a married man (Mack Swain) who’s nevertheless looking to flirt. Charlie leaves the bar, sees what’s happening, and tries to thwart Mack’s efforts, to no avail. (One great detail: Charlie’s first attempt to subdue Mack is his usual arse-kicking routine, which results only in a great deal of dust flying off Mack’s behind.)

Mack gets a two-for-one special by flirting with Mabel and belittling Charlie, and the whole thing could go on forever if Mack’s wife didn’t finally come on the scene to break things up. She pulls Mack away, and Charlie goes back to the bar to drown his sorrows.

On her way home, Mabel passes a sporting-goods store that is selling a boxing dummy. By no small coincidence, its attire looks exactly like that of Mack’s. Mabel buys the dummy and sets it up right past her front door, so that Charlie will confront the dummy as soon as he enters the house.

Later that night, a drunken Charlie enters, and thus begins one of Chaplin’s great scenes of transposition: imbuing character into an inanimate object. In his drunken state, Charlie figures that Mack has come around to his house for Round Two. He tries reasoning with the dummy and is annoyed that he gets no response. He gently pushes him and is alarmed when the dummy pushes back. It’s a delightful routine, tailor-made for silent movies.

(Mabel Normand also has some nice routines throughout, especially after she has set up the dummy in her home and imagines Charlie’s reaction to it. She briefly imitates Charlie’s waddle-walk, hits the dummy self-effacingly, and then says a silent prayer for her husband.)

Some of Chaplin’s Keystone shorts are so bereft of something the audience can relate to that when the “End” title finally appears, it’s like an act of mercy. You have the feeling that if Mabel’s Married Life was allowed to continue, Chaplin would still be coming up with routines for himself and the dummy.

Charlie Chaplin in MABEL’S BUSY DAY (1914) – Not exactly a wiener

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A woman (Mabel Normand) tries to sell hot dogs during a car race, but the brutes who take the dogs from her expect only “free samples.” Meanwhile, Charlie’s first scene shows him kicking and punching his way through the gate in lieu of paying admission. Just the sort of action that’ll warm him to our hearts.

Soon enough, Charlie fends off a brute who is trying to fight Mabel. Mabel shows her gratitude, only to have Charlie steal a hot dog when she’s not looking. A chase ensues, and in ever-more-endearing behavior, Charlie nabs Mabel’s hot dogs and tries to sell them as his own. More kicking, punching, etc.

One wishes for the slightest logical motivation in a short subject like this, but when your comedy starts out trying to get laughs from stealing somebody’s livelihood, you’ve pretty well sealed your fate.

Charlie Chaplin in THE FATAL MALLET (1914) – A very strange mating ritual

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When critics write about Keystone comedies being “primitive,” they don’t get much more primitive than The Fatal Mallet.

Three men (Chaplin; Mack Swain; and Mack Sennett, who directed this short) all vie for the attention of a woman (Mabel Normand). Sadly, the only way they can think of to compete is by attempting to knock each other out with bricks. The theory here, I guess, that the last man standing is entitled to the girl – not that the girl has any say in the matter, of course.

At one incredulous point in the short, while the trio of grown men is preoccupied, a young man, possibly teen-aged, tries to hit on Mabel himself. Luckily, before we can contemplate what new standard this is going to set in cinema, Charlie returns and kicks the kid away. (The kid does a mean backwards flip, too.)

Sociologists love to inform the public that we get many of our ideas of courtship from the movies. I wonder if this film contributed to figures for spousal abuse in 1914?

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

CaughtInACabaret

(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 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 TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914) – First feature-length comedy

TillieTillie’s Punctured Romance, the first-ever feature-length comedy, was based on Tillie’s Nightmare, a Broadway play starring Marie Dressler that opened in 1910 and was Broadway’s biggest hit to date. For his history-making feature, Romance director Mack Sennett persuaded Dressler to climb on board. Of course, once the movie got made, it more resembled the Keystone style than Broadway, and whose name do you think was emphasized over Dressler’s in the publicity?

In any case, you have to view the movie with an open mind anyway. For, Keystone or not, Ms. Dressler is not one given to subtlety. Her character is simple (and I do mean simple) country girl Tillie Hayes, who is swept off her feet by a city slicker (Chaplin, out of his usual costume and character) who finds that her father stores his money in their country home.

Once he absconds with the money, Charlie meets up with his former flame and partner-in-crime (Mabel Normand), and they go on a wild spending spree. In a strange plot strand midway through the movie, Charlie and Mabel attend a movie that happens to have exactly the same plot of thievery – country girl, rogue, sidekick – as they have just pulled off, and Charlie and Mabel get a huge pang of conscience. (Not so huge that they even consider returning the money to Tillie, though; this was just plot filler to drag the movie to feature length.)

Meanwhile, Tillie’s mountain-climbing uncle, who is also rich (Who’d-a thunk it?), takes a huge fall and is left for dead. The newspapers report that everyone is on the lookout for the man’s sole heir (guess who). Charlie gets wind of the news, instantly abandons Mabel, and rushes off to propose to Tillie quicker than you can say “Nice day for a white wedding.”

The movie’s finest moment of pantomime comes when the lawyers reach Tillie and give her the news. Tillie puts two and two together and accuses Charlie of marrying her for her newfound fortune. Charlie’s entire being puts on a display of hurt and sorrow that’s one for the books.

Charlie and Tillie give a big housewarming party at their new house (nee the uncle’s home), and once Mabel gets wind of the fortune-news, she signs on at the home as a maid. Then the uncle shows up, alive and well (How about those meticulous lawyers of his, eh?). From there, it’s mostly an arse-kicking revenge-fest, complete with the Keystone Kops for the climax.

At the end, Charlie is spurned by both women, who realize “He ain’t good enough for neither of us!” And the movie fades out with an intriguing shot of Mabel and Tillie in each other’s arms that ought to have been studied more closely for subtext than it probably was in 1914.

You have to make some ultra-large allowances to enjoy any of the comedy in Tillie’s Punctured Romance. Much of the stuff that got laughs here and in most Keystone comedies – e.g., violence for violence’s sake – was the kind of notion that Chaplin eventually transcended with rich characterization. And as directed by Mack Sennett, nobody, not even Chaplin, comes off very subtly here. Dressler is the worst, telegraphing her every thought and move as though she was pitching to a Broadway balcony. We could have had a little more sympathy for her character if Tillie’s temper had come only in short outbursts of emotion; instead, Dressler plays it over-the-top all the way.

Some of the movie’s motifs – Charlie’s slickness, his and Mabel’s guilt at the movie theater – would be funny if anything was built upon them, with a later pay-off. But Sennett had his formula – move, move, move – to be maintained at the expense of any logic. Thus, you wind up being more indulgent of Tillie’s Punctured Romance than giving yourself over to it – kind of like nodding your head when your senile uncle tries to tell you his latest joke.