Charlie Chaplin in THE PILGRIM (1923) – Nowhere to run

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As a finale to Chaplin’s First National era (and, in a way, to his “simpler” pictures), The Pilgrim is simply a delight – a solid storyline, with lovely laughs and some quiet social commentary lightly brushed in.

Here, Charlie is an escaped convict who must quickly change into the first civilian outfit he can find – which, as luck would have it, is a minister’s uniform. Happenstance leads him to Texas, where a modest rural church awaits the arrival of their new pastor, whom Charlie quickly becomes. Charlie quickly finds that the church’s deacon (Mack Swain, understated and priceless) and a few of the other church members aren’t quite as sanctimonious as they present themselves to be. Later, Charlie runs into trouble when a former cellmate of his (Charles Reisner, the movie’s assistant director) recognizes Charlie and tries to steal from the family with whom he is boarding.

Charlie also, naturally, makes time with the boarding-woman’s daughter (Edna Purviance) (as well he should — this was Chaplin’s last movie encounter with her in character. After that, he would star her in his drama A Woman in Paris in the dashed hope of providing a future movie career for her).

The movie has lovely vignettes sprinkled throughout, not the least of which is Charlie’s encounter with a congregation member’s slap-happy child (Charles Reisner’s son Dean, who memorably recounts the experience in the documentary Unknown Chaplin). There’s also Charlie’s unforgettable stint as Sunday-morning preacher, which he treats mostly as a show-business stint.

Also notable is the location shooting by Chaplin’s veteran cinematographer, Rollie Totheroh, which lends much authenticity to the story of a man on the run through Texas. (It’s a bit startling to see so much byplay with an actual locomotive, considering how Chaplin later skimped on the same prop for similar gags in The Great Dictator.)

The movie’s final scene, and shot, are a perfect symbol of Chaplin’s Tramp character: caught between this land and that, unsure of his footing no matter where he lands. It’s a perfect ending for the film and for Chaplin’s First National period.

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 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 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.

Charlie Chaplin in GETTING ACQUAINTED (1914) – Looking for love in all the wrong places

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Two men (Chaplin and Mack Swain) are bored with their day in the park with their wives (Phyllis Allen and Mabel Normand) – so bored that they take it upon themselves to desert their wives and then hit on each other’s wives. Once they get a flummoxed cop (Edgar Kennedy) and the wife of a jealous Frenchman involved, they both live to regret it.

Unlike the previous farcical short His Trysting Place (with the same starring quartet, even), this one gets it right. Lots of great exits to the wrong places, and funny misunderstandings all around. Standout gag: Chaplin sneakily uses his cane to lift Mabel’s skirt; when Mabel slaps him, Charlie reprimands the cane as though the whole thing was “its” idea.

Pity that this winner didn’t end Chaplin’s Keystone series instead of being the penultimate entry.

Charlie Chaplin in HIS TRYSTING PLACE (1914) – Bad-sitcom-level misunderstanding

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Two married men (Chaplin and Mack Swain) are returning home separately from a walk. In his coat, Charlie has a fresh bottle of milk for his newborn baby. In his Mack has a romantic letter that he had promised (but forgot) to send for his secretary. By happenstance, both men stop to dine at the same restaurant. Will the gods smile upon these men and let them retrieve their own coats before they leave? Not for a two-reeler, they won’t.

This kind of situation might have been fresh in its day, but it has been worn to the nub by decades of unimaginative sitcoms with similar premises – not to mention the fact that it has what Roger Ebert, decades later, dubbed the “Idiot Plot” – the kind of story that could be finished in two minutes if the characters didn’t behave like idiots. Instead, we must sit through Mabel Normand (as Mrs. Charlie) berating and beating her husband for five minutes before she deigns to tell him why she’s torturing him; and the painful restaurant scene where Charlie and Mack first meet up, but not before competing in the Worst Table Manners of All Time Contest.

The movie’s best moments are the quietest ones, such as when Charlie, Mabel, and Mack, in mid-fight, see a cop and suddenly go all civil for a minute, until the cop is out of sight and they resume their battle. Otherwise, this is the sort of situation best left to “The Honeymooners.”