A Lover’s Lost Control (1915)
Syd Chaplin, in the year after his more famous brother’s departure from Keystone, attempted to build a slapstick career of his own at the studio with his character of “Gussle.” Running through similar situations to those faced by the Little Tramp, how does Syd fair as an early comedian? This short is one example.
The movie begins by showing us Gussle and his wife, played by Phyllis Allen, arriving by auto in front of a department store. The exterior shot gives us a look at Los Angeles of the day, with Syd’s car looking a bit antiquated compared to the sedan across the street – which is parked behind a horse & buggy, reminding us of the transitional nature of technology in the teens. He and Phyllis indulge a few pratfalls before moving on to the main center of action. Gussle, like Charlie, wears ill-fitting clothes and carries a cane. His mustache is small, but it does have small handlebars that cover more of his lip. His wife approaches the counter in what seems to be the ladies’ underthings area of the store while he tries to hit on shopgirls and customers. In the process, he gets a rather suggestive item caught on his cane and tries to conceal the mannequin’s less-dressed state. Phyllis becomes annoyed with him and boxes his ear before dragging him back to the counter by it. Thwarted by one of the young lady customers, Gussle attaches an item of lingerie to the back of her skirt, resulting in embarrassment and confusion. Meanwhile, he spots another young lady in the shoe department, making much of ogling her ankles. After another altercation with wifey, he makes his way over and tries to distract the man she came in with (an intertitle suggests he is her father, but he looks close to her age). Gussle pours out a ridiculous amount of foot powder onto a shoe she is trying on, causing sneezing and chaos throughout the store. During the altercation that follows, Gussle accidentally breaks a glass display, and his efforts to hide it result in two large shards of glass going into his backside. Gussle is nonetheless strong-armed by the janitor into paying for the damages. Gussle continues trying to chat up the girl, dragging out a shoe-fitting with the clerk, but eventually his antics result in a dancing fight with the shoe clerk that is almost worthy of his brother. Soon, the janitor is involved as well and the fight escalates. The girl manages to bring it to a close, since the janitor won’t hit her.
The two sit and talk afterward, and Gussle picks up a stray mannequin leg that is hanging around. He is stroking it idly, and it is framed to appear that he is stroking the leg of the young woman. The entire store is brought in to investigate this apparently lewd behavior, and Gussle’s wife gets into the act, attacking him even after the truth is revealed. Phyllis starts hurling things and Gussle responds in kind, and soon there is a vast, multi-party shoebox throwing fight, which escalates to the point that the police (true Keystone Cops) are called in to quell a “riot.” They wind up in the middle, no better off than anyone else in the fray, until they pull their guns and shoot Gussle, who falls to the ground. As everyone gathers around to see, he rolls under a table, grabs the girl and runs out of the store. Gussle and the girl jump into a car, and soon the cops, plus Phyllis and the store manager, are in pursuit. They speed past various parts of LA, until Gussle breaks down at the top of a hill. The cop car speeds past and then tumbles down the side of the hill, everyone winding up in a pile in the wreckage. Gussle cranks his car to start it, and suddenly it rolls backward down the hill, Gussle clinging to the fender and dangling out behind. The pursuers somehow manage to keep pace and are on hand to watch as the car washes out to sea with Gussle and the girl trying to stay on top of it.
It’s impossible not to compare Syd Chaplin with his brother, and it doesn’t help that “Gussle” seems to have been a pretty deliberate attempt to create a “Tramp-like” character – not quite a direct copy or imitation, but not completely original, either. In fairness, in 1915 Charlie was still working a lot of the kinks out of the Tramp and his role at Keystone hadn’t been that much of a break with the work of others at the studio – the character wasn’t originally that different from what Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, and others at Keystone had already established. With that said, I would rate Syd’s performance in this piece as a fair example of the genre, with definite physical talent and some sensitivity to the audience, as compared with the more riotous work Keystone sometimes put out. I certainly found the final chase effective, and there were a few chuckles and guffaws interspersed throughout. Certainly worthwhile for fans of Keystone and Charlie, but maybe more for historical interest than solid entertainment.
Director: Sydney Chaplin, Charles Avery
Starring: Sydney Chaplin, Phyllis Allen, Joy Lewis, Billie Bennett, Charles Lakin, Wesley Ruggles, Josef Swickard.
Run Time: 22 min, 20 secs.
I have not been able to locate this available to watch for free on the Internet. Please comment if you find it.