Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Charles Bennett

Recreation (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin short from Keystone is badly damaged and presumably partly lost, but enough of it has been salvaged to at least recognize it as a separate film from other movies of the time. Watching it is more of an exercise in film archaeology than an act of entertainment.

The movie begins on a park bench. A girl (Helen Carruthers) is sitting next to a man in sailor’s suit (Charles Bennett), but the man has fallen asleep, possibly from drink. Disgusted, the girl gets up and walks away. Next, we see Chaplin in his “Little Tramp” outfit on a bridge nearby. He checks his pocket for change and flip a coin, then makes a comic effort to climb over the railing on the bridge (to commit suicide?) but he does a pratfall instead. He seems to be doing calisthenics at the railing when the girl walks by. They smile at one another, he gives the river the raspberry, then follows her to another bench. However, she shows no interest in his advances, and keeps moving further down the bench to get away from him. Eventually, the sailor wakes up and finds himself alone. He finds Charlie and Helen on the bench, with her expressing considerable distress at this time, so he fights Chaplin off. Chaplin runs to a nearby bush and begins pulling up bricks from the side of the path to throw at the sailor. The sailor retaliates, and soon bricks are flying, hitting Charlie, Helen, the sailor, and two nearby policemen (Edwin Frazee and Edward Nolan). The policemen spot the sailor throwing bricks, but not Charlie, who plays innocent. The sailor tries to finger Charlie for one cop, while the other “comforts” Helen. Charlie knocks over the cop and the sailor and makes a run for it. The sailor and the cop start fighting and soon bricks are flying again. Charlie finds the girl again, over by the lake into which so many Keystone players have tumbled, and she knocks him over once, but they both laugh about it. The sailor runs over and Charlie knocks him into the lake. The two cops, now struggling with each other, sort things out and come over to challenge Charlie. He pushes them both in the lake, and Helen shoves him, but he grabs her as he goes over and everyone winds up in the drink.

I usually pronounce this film “ree-creation” (rather than “wreck-creation”), because it is sort of like a re-creation of a movie with a lot of missing elements. Enough of it exists for us to see that it is a typical “park comedy” of the type Chaplin frequently starred in at Keystone, but it’s hard to know how much is missing. Since Charlie was mostly doing one-or-two-reelers at the time, and what we have is about half a reel, it’s likely that more than half of it is missing. That said, there’s more or less a beginning, a middle, and an end here, so maybe we don’t need much more. Possibly just an intertitle to explain Charlie at the bridge and another at the beginning would clear things up adequately. The Tramp in this movie is hardly a nice person – he’s the first to throw a brick, for example – but it could be that his attempted suicide was an effort on Chaplin’s part to make him sympathetic. Charlie does some nice slapstick moves, including his fall at the bridge and his tripping of the sailor and police officer, but this isn’t one of his great triumphs, physically or emotionally.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Helen Carruthers, Charles Bennett, Edwin Frazee, Edward Nolan

Run Time: 6 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Property Man (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin short has elements in common with later films, like “Back Stage” starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, though all of them probably drew from Vaudeville routines as their sources. It shows both the roughness of Chaplin’s early work, and the rapidity with which he developed.

Charlie is a stage hand for a popular theater with a variety show. The opening shot shows him taking a break with an elderly co-worker (I think it’s Joe Bordeaux). Charlie is drinking out of a large pitcher, and when the old man reaches for it, Charlie twists his ear and spits out what is in his mouth at the man. We see the arrival of some stars (Phyllis Allen and Charles Bennett) who are angry to find that their act is not billed on the poster outside, although they insist on trying to take the “star’s” dressing room – which is reserved for the strong man (Jess Dandy), who is only too happy to show them the door when he gets there. Charlie sits under a “no smoking” sign, smoking a pipe, although  he eagerly points it out to the actors when thy light up. When the strong man lights a cigar, Charlie discreetly turns the sign toward the wall.  Naturally, the strong man has a lovely assistant (Helen Carruthers) and naturally, she and Charlie hit it off, enraging the strong man. Charlie does several pratfalls built around the supposed weight of the strong man’s luggage, bashing into the rest of the cast as he staggers around beneath the huge crates which the strong man lifts effortlessly. Later, Charlie takes a hatbox and straps the heavy stuff to his senior co-worker, who collapses under the weight. When “the Goo Goo Sisters” (another act, billed as “comediennes” on the billboard) show up, Charlie tries to flirt with them as well, but he hides the pitcher in his pants, resulting in an embarrassing leak.

Not helping, Charlie.

The strong man asks Charlie to sew up his tights, although Charlie winds up using them to mop the floor instead. Meanwhile, the matinee has started and Charlie and his coworker fight behind the scenes, causing a backdrop to hit an unpopular singer and knock him out. Charlie sweeps him off the stage, to the delight of the audience (which includes Mack Sennett and Chester Conklin). When the Goo Goo Sisters, in scanty costumes (for 1914 anyway) go on stage, Charlie first follows them out to stare, then blindfolds his partner to prevent him from staring. Their backstage fighting causes them to bump the sisters through the backdrop, again to the delight of the audience. Charlie throws the wet tights, which miss his target and hits a sister, who then throws them into the audience, thinking someone has thrown them instead of booing. There is a long gap between acts, because the strong man lacks tights and his assistant is busy flirting with Charlie, so when the old man raises the curtain, the audience finds the three of them arguing, with the strong man’s garters exposed. He gamely goes ahead with his act, but his assistant has been knocked out in the fighting, so Charlie tries to help, causing more chaos and riotous laughter from the audience. Charlie goes backstage to help the assistant, while the other actors harangue his partner. The old man lowers a backdrop on the strong man while he tries to balance over 1000 lbs of weight, ruining his act. Now the strong man goes back stage and finds Charlie fanning his unconscious assistant, and goes on a rampage, also ruining the dramatic act of the other performers. To defend himself, Charlie grabs a fire hose and sprays him and the other performers, also drenching the entire audience.

As I commented above, this movie has a lot in common with “Back Stage,” most obviously including the angry strong man and his lovely assistant, but I doubt if Arbuckle was actually being any less original than Chaplin – both would have been drawing from established Vaudeville routines which many in their audience were already familiar with. “Back Stage” is also a rather more polished movie in terms of camerawork, plot, and character, but it’s not entirely fair to compare 1914 with 1919, or Chaplin at this point in career with Arbuckle at that point in his. What I can say is that this is one of the funnier movies Chaplin directed himself in during the summer of 1914, and this is so despite the constraints of the Keystone formula and his own limitations due to lack of experience and knowledge of his character. Chaplin isn’t really the “nice” version of the Tramp here – his constant use of violence, especially against his older and demonstrably weaker colleague argues against that – but he manages to evoke a degree of sympathy or identification in the audience nonetheless, perhaps just by being the little fellow who gets the best of everyone around him. There’s a kind of metaphor at work when his various inopportune moments on the stage prove more popular with the in-movie audience than the planned performances; it seems to reflect how his growing fame took studio heads at Keystone by surprise.

Chaplin delights an audience.

There’s a question here, also: Is he playing the “Little Tramp” or not? His mustache is now established (he’d abandon it later in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” but not often after that). but the rest of his costume consists her of oversized overalls and a bowler hat with a rim that is nearly falling off. The strong man refers to him in an intertitle as “that bum,” which at least makes a bit of a connection. It seems likely that Chaplin himself didn’t know for sure whether the Little Tramp would take a job as strenuous as property man, and may have been ambivalent about the character here.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jess Dandy, Helen Carruthers, Joe Bordeaux, Phyllis Allen, Charles Bennett, Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Harry McCoy, Norma Nichols, Cecile Arnold, Vivian Edwards

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music, French titles).

The Courage of the Commonplace (1913)

This short, thoughtful film from Vitagraph busts many of our ideas about the Nickelodeon era by proving that it was possible to treat movies as serious “art” before sound, outside of the feature-length format, and even if your name wasn’t D.W. Griffith. While it’s not exactly a happy story, it has an uplifting message about the values of simple people.

The film takes place almost entirely on the confines of a small dirt farm that reeks of poverty and hard work. The star of the film (Mary Charleson), called Mary, seems to have endless chores and tasks to perform. As soon as she finishes one grueling activity, another one rises up in its place. We first see her moving a heavy tub of water when her two younger brothers run up, apparently having hurt themselves. She tends their wounds and we see that they are barefoot. She hauls off the bucket, and the next we see of her, she is hanging laundry to dry, presumably after washing it by hand. She comes into the house to find that her old, tired mother (Loyola O’Connor) needs help setting out the dinner for an entire brood of kids and the aging, wiry father (Charles Bennett). Then Mary’s “frivolous sister” (Myrtle Gonzalez) comes bouncing in. She is, really, the one ray of light in the film, wearing a smile more often than any other character, and also light-colored (if still very simple) dresses.

The next day, several important plot elements are added rapid-fire. First, we see Mary collecting eggs for sale at the market – her source of personal income. We also see the father driving his old horses to plow a field. One of them, “faithful old Dobbin,” has become ill. Finally, we see what Mary is saving up for, she receives a letter informing her of her acceptance to the “Household and Fine Arts School” at a reduced tuition. All of this comes quite rapidly within the first five minutes of the movie, and the rest plays out as you might expect. The “frivolous” sister goes on dates with a boy and goes to the movies, while Mary continues her life of drudgery, now interspersed with daydreams of a relatively idle academic life where she sits on well-trimmed lawns discussing Big Ideas with well-dressed people and plays tennis with boys. Then, on the day she is to leave, the horse dies, which will leave the family ruined. Of course, Mary swallows her dreams and gives the money to her father to buy a new horse.

That simple summary does not transmit the poignancy or effectiveness of this movie. Its emotional pull didn’t diminish for me on repeat viewings – I started tearing up as soon as Mary’s letter arrived the third time through. It isn’t through any kind of fancy editing or camerawork that this movie becomes powerful, it’s just through its ability to tell a simple story that shows the viewer something old in a new way. That’s not to say that the technical side is a failure, there are adequate edits and occasional close-ups to emphasize the emotional state of the actors, but these work subtly, without being obvious or obtrusive. When they happen, it just “feels right” as if the director knew what would work without having to experiment heavily.

Of course, something like this wouldn’t work without high quality acting, and Mary Charleson provides most of the emotional work the viewer sees. She constantly looks as if she struggles to finish the current task, only to look up immediately to see what else needs to be done. This is in counterpoint to her wistful looks of anticipation regarding her school plans, her plan of escape. The other actors each have a simple archetype to play out – the spoiled sister, the weary mother, the worried yet oblivious father, and all the hungry mouths to feed of the many siblings. But they take their roles seriously, and put real feeling into them. Particularly Gonzalez, whose smile almost lights up the bleakness of the farm, even though we know she doesn’t deserve happiness as much as Mary does. Vitagraph almost seems to scold its audience when the frivolous sister attends a Nickelodeon screening one of their movies, yet who would choose to be Mary rather than the sister?

Director: Rollin S. Sturgeon

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mary Charleson, Charles Bennett, Loyola O’Connor, Myrtle Gonzalez, Edwin August

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music)

Mabel’s Blunder (1914)

Mabels Blunder

This is the one Mabel Normand movie from 1914 I’ve seen which does not also star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not slapstick, but more of a situational comedy along the lines of “Troublesome Secretaries.” Mabel is in love with her co-worker, the son of the boss, but the boss is also sweet on her. When she thinks her beau is cheating on her, she switches clothes with her brother so she can spy on him. The boss sees her brother in her clothes, and mistakes him for her, asking her out to the same place the younger man has taken the mysterious other woman. Hilarity ensues when Mabel’s boy thinks she (as a man) is hitting on his sister, the girl who Mabel was jealous of, and when the boss’s wife catches him out with a boy dressed up as a girl. Overall, I don’t find the situational style of silent comedy holds up as well as the more physical approach, because there’s too much guessing what’s being said by whom, but this movie does invite some interesting speculations on the use of gender in comedy. As in Shakespeare’s time, the idea of men and women switching roles is an opportunity for confusion and laughter, which is resolved when everyone resumes his or her proper biological role. This sort of comedy still works today, suggesting that the gender order remains strong.

Director: Mabel Normand

Producer: Mack Sennett

Starring: Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Charles Bennett, Charley Chase

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.