(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.