Twenty Minutes of Love (1914)
A classic example of Charlie Chaplin’s adage that comedy could be reduced to “a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl,” this early Keystone short really captures his development of the “Little Tramp” character in a way that will seem familiar to audiences that know only his later work. The Chaplin we know and love begins to shine through here.
As is often the case with early Keystones, there isn’t much of a plot, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense: Charlie is in a park and sees various couples necking (these include Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, and Chester Conklin). He seems to want to “cut in” on some of the men, and the women are decidedly uninterested in him. One girl asks her boyfriend to bring her a gift, and he steals a pocket watch off a sleeping man, which Charlie subsequently steals from him and presents to the same girl as a present. A policeman gets involved and hijinks ensue, ending with nearly everyone getting booted into the lake.
What stands out for me in this movie is really Chaplin’s performance, which is no longer villainous or even cruelly mischievous, but surprisingly sympathetic. While there is something creepy about a man seeing a woman kissing another man and taking that as a cue that “perhaps she would kiss me too,” Chaplin makes it seem simply naïve, clueless, and even a little sad. This is the birth of the famous pathos he would bring to his character in later movies like “The Tramp” and “The Bank,” and which would define him in the more well-known features to come. Chaplin’s gestures and facial expressions are far less aggressive than we’ve seen in movies like “Making a Living” or “Mabel at the Wheel,” in which he seems to have been directed to emulate Ford Sterling.
Keystone’s cinematic style is established by this time. Cameras do not move or change focal length, but are locked down in long shot to establish “stages” or “rooms” that the actors move about within and between. Sometimes a character in one “room” interacts with one in another “room” (for example by throwing rocks at them), but there is no sense of what is between these spaces or any established geography among them. Doing this, however, allows for stunts to be timed by editing rather than the performance – a rock can be thrown, a person can duck under that rock, and another be struck by it in perfect timing, even if it really uses three separate shots to make it happen, with each actor doing his bit in his own way.
Director: Uncertain, possibly Charlie Chaplin, possibly with Joseph Maddern
Camera: Frank D. Williams
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Chester Conklin, Gordon Griffith, Josef Swickard, Hank Mann, Eva Nelson
Run Time: 10 Min, 37 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).