Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Charley Chase

The Great Toe Mystery (1914)

This short comedy from Keystone Studios seems to play upon themes established 11 years earlier in “The Gay Shoe Clerk,” but with a touch of Mack Sennett’s chaotic style thrown in for flavor. It still looks a bit old-fashioned for 1914, possibly deliberately so.

The movie begins with an establishing shot outside of a shoe store. A young lady (Alice Howell) and a man with a silly mustache are standing in front, and he takes her by the arm and leads her inside. We now cut to the interior, where a thin, slightly foppish young man speaks to them. Evidently the first man is buying shoes for himself and his wife. The first shoe clerk summons another over to see to the gentleman, and he leads the lady to the other side of the store, where she sits while the salesman summons another clerk (Charley Chase), this one being flamboyant and feminine in his gestures. She offers him her foot to measure, but he reacts in melodramatic horror to see her toes peeking through the end of a torn stocking. He seems to be lecturing her on hygiene, and she reacts by looking away from him. The husband sees this, and comes over to glare at the clerk. He runs to the back, to get her shoes ready for sale, and decides to put a note in her shoes. He borrows a pen and paper from a female coworker, and then delivers the shoebox to the clearly annoyed lady customer. She and the husband exit the store, evidently arguing about the clerk’s unwanted attentions. They go in separate directions.

The wife returns home (“broken-hearted,” according to an intertitle) and commiserates with her maid (Dixie Chene). She takes a magazine outside to read, discarding the unlucky shoes unopened. Meanwhile, “Mr. Birdie” (the clerk) is now going to the park to for what he hopes to be a rendezvous with a married woman. Of course, he encounters Alice on a park bench, sobbing because of the fight with her husband, and sits next to her, oblivious to her feelings. Now the husband comes home and finds the discarded shoes with the note, vowing to murder the clerk (whom he de-genders as “it” in the intertitles) if he finds them together. The maid is meanwhile flirting with a rather dim-witted young man (possibly a delivery boy, from his attire, or else another servant like a gardener), to the husband’s decided disapproval. The husband rushes out to the park and finds the two of them together, making threatening gestures that the clerk laughs off until he produces a gun and starts shooting at the ground.

Now, a classic Keystone chase begins, and the wife and the maid rapidly enlist the aid of Keystone Kops. Of course, the clerk decides to hide in a chest that the dim-looking servant brings into the house, so now he has no possibility of escape. A comedy routine involves the many steps the servant has to go up (and frequently falls back down) while carrying the chest and tension is held as several people start to open the chest before being distracted by something else. Ultimately, the maid finds him and the chase begins anew, with Birdie hiding in the dumbwaiter, unable to find an unoccupied room to escape into. The Kops now arrive in force, and begin shooting at the servant, not evidently knowing who they are after or why. He hides under the sink, which the Kops promptly shoot full of holes. Finally, the clerk manages to fight everyone off with his handkerchief, knocking over the whole cast, and, snapping his fingers, leaves the house with a rude gesture.

Charley Chase’s performance really makes this movie something special, and it’s very hard for a modern audience not to read his gestures and body language as queer – something which quite possibly could have been intentional on his part, whether or not audiences of 1914 were sophisticated enough to get the joke. That makes it twice as funny that the title of the obvious inspiration of “The Gay Shoe Clerk” had a different meaning at the time. It also struck me with this viewing that the title’s similarity to the other 1903 hit “The Great Train Robbery” (itself basically a well-edited chase movie) might have been intentional as well, meaning that Sennett was lampooning Edison in more than one way here. The editing of this movie keeps it moving effectively, and all of the random elements work together well, with the absurdity of the situation constantly growing, but without giving the audience too much time to reflect on how silly it all is. This is one of the more fun Keystones I’ve seen, in fact and it holds up well enough today.

Director: Charles Avery

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Charley Chase, Alice Howell, Dixie Chene, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy, Rube Miller

Run Time: 11 Min, 8 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

His Musical Career (1914)

Fans of classic comedy will find something familiar in this early short from Keystone Studios starring Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin plays a worker in a piano shop who must make a difficult delivery, but gets the addresses confused…

The movie begins with Chaplin, in his “Little Tramp” getup, applying for a job from store manager Mack Swain. Swain seems a bit concerned at Chaplin’s slight build, but puts him to the test by having him hoist a growler of beer over his head. Charlie succeeds, but spits out the beer when Mack smacks him on the back. Then Charlie lines up the can of beer next to an identical can of varnish while Swain’s back is turned, and of course Mack takes a sip from the wrong one. Charlie helps relieve his distress by splashing the rest of the beer on him. Meanwhile, salesman Charley Chase is selling a piano in the front room to “Mr. Rich” (Fritz Schade) and informs “Mr. Poor” (Frank Hayes) who has fallen behind on his payments, that his piano will be repossessed. Hayes really hams things up as the music-loving Mr. Poor. Charlie tries to nap on a piano keyboard while Mack is out speaking with Chase. It turns out that the two customers have very similar addresses.

Mack and Charlie now go to work on trying to deliver the piano. Although it is on wheels, they try to attach a length of rope. Charlie hoists the piano briefly while Mack gets under it to tie the rope on, but then he just lowers it on top of Mack and takes his time in removing it. Eventually, they push it over to a rickety old cart attached to a mule, then hoist it aboard. Charlie gets into the driver’s seat and Mack climbs on next to him, cradling another beer growler. Swain naps during the drive and Charlie spoons out some beer with his pipe. When they stop for a moment so that Mack can check the piano, the weight of the piano lifts the mule’s feet off the ground. He has to put his weight back onto the front of the cart before the mule can proceed. They pull up to the address of Mr. Poor, thinking it is Mr. Rich. Of course, there is a long staircase they have to climb with the piano, Mack pulling in front, Charlie lifting and pushing from behind. Of course, the piano tumbles down on top of Charlie before they can reach the top. Finally, they bring it into the house, to the delight of Mr. Poor and his daughter, and Charlie has it strapped to his back, moving from one part of the small room to another while they make up their minds where it should go.  Once it has been placed, Charlie cannot straighten his back. Mack yanks him several times, but then fixes the problem by laying Charlie on the floor and pushing on his backside with his foot.

Now they head over to the other address, a beautiful California house, and spend a good deal of time rearranging the furniture in order to get the piano they find there out. Mrs. Rich (Cecile Arnold) comes out to find what they are doing. Charlie and Mack both vie for her attention, and she seems quite put out by them. She summons a liveried servant, whom Mack pushes to the ground before they remove the piano. Charlie does several pratfalls before Mr. Rich walks up, indignant, and accuses them of stealing it. He gives Mack a boot in the pants, which sends him, the piano, and Charlie rolling down the long hill in front of his house. All three land in the lake used in the finales of so many other Keystone shorts.

Laurel and Hardy fans are most likely familiar with a 1932 movie called “The Music Box,” in which Stan & Ollie have to deliver a piano to a house at the top of a long stairwell. In fact, variations on this theme have been made a number of times in cinema, but so far as I know this is the first. In comparison, Laurel and Hardy milked that situation for a lot more laughs than Charlie did, but in fairness they had many more years of experience with film comedy at that time, as well as the benefit of all the developments of film technique and technology that happened in between. It does seem that this movie demonstrates a bit more of Charlie realizing his own potential, and that of his character, here towards the end of his contract with Keystone. We also see evidence of his growing popularity. Quite a number of pedestrians are visible in a crowd, staring at Swain and Chaplin as they hoist the piano onto the cart, and even men from a passing streetcar turn to stare. Evidently it was getting harder to shoot a Chaplin film without drawing a crowd. Swain and Chaplin seem to have really found their groove working together as well, with the contrast between the big man and the little one emphasized to comedic effect. Chaplin makes good use of simple editing techniques to tell the story, such as cross-cutting from the salesroom to the shop, and editing together the precipitous fall down the hill at the end. There’s an interesting shot during the drive as well, where the camera has been placed on top of the mule’s back to give a two-shot of the stars, while we watch the street go by on the sides. This wouldn’t have been easy to set up at a time when the camera had to be hand-cranked, but cinematographer Frank D. Williams must have made it work somehow, possibly by dragging the cart behind a truck so that he had a platform to stand on.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Fritz Schade, Charley Chase, Cecile Arnold, Frank Hayes, Helen Carruthers, Billy Gilbert

Run Time: 13 Min

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

Dough and Dynamite (1914)

For this two-reel comedy from Keystone, Charlie Chaplin threw in a whole lot of ideas and gags he’d developed partially in other movies, apparently trying for more of an opus, showing off everything he could do at once. It may have been more ambitious than successful, but it was a precursor of later things.

Charlie is a waiter at a bakery with a small café. We see him dropping food on the floor, only to pick it up and serve it, spilling things on customers, and generally being completely obnoxious. When a young female customer stands in front of a counter advertising “Assorted French Tarts,” however, Charlie snaps into action to help her, forgetting all about the trail of spoilt meals behind him. In the process of flirting ineffectually with her, he tosses the display tarts across the room, causing several customers to leave in a huff. He now heads into the kitchen, where he begins a slapstick fight with Chester Conklin and the cook, coming out very much on top, despite a clumsy beginning. Now Charlie opens the trapdoor that leads to the basement, which is where the bakers are working hard at making bread and pastries. Chester gives Charlie a kick down the ladder, causing a baker to drop several loaves of bread, and soon he is caught up in surprisingly sticky dough, which he wipes off on a hanging jacket. Now he goes over to look at the ovens, providing the first of many opportunities to burn his hand. The bakers watch his antics and laugh for a while, then suggest that he head back up to safer ground, where the new paucity of customers gives him a chance to flirt with the waitresses (Peggy Page and Cecile Arnold). Soon, he’s back in the kitchen, where he breaks several dishes in the process of making things up with Conklin.

An intertitle now introduces a new subplot, telling us that, “the bakers want less work and more pay.” Their negotiations with the owner quickly stall and they stage a walkout (causing one to discover all the dough on his jacket), and so the owner hands over their aprons to Charlie and Chester, who have now been promoted to scab bakers. One of the bakers threatens Charlie with a knife, but Charlie gets the better of him and stalks off, and the bakers all walk off the floor after getting paid out by the owner. Chester seems reluctant at first, but finally consents to go down into the basement, and then Charlie is sent down with a truly massive sack of flour on his back. After several comic mis-steps, Charlie finally drops it down the ladder onto Chester. In the basement, Charlie continues to fight with Chester, burn his hands, get stuck in dough, and drop food on the floor before putting it out to be served. Meanwhile, the strikers meet in a barn and take out a large box of dynamite, which they plan to use on the bakery. Charlie’s flirtations and incompetence continue apace, and soon he has managed to get flour onto the behinds of all of the waitresses, something the owner notes with concern. When his wife is briefly down in the basement and also innocently gets flour on herself, he goes ballistic. Meanwhile, the strikers carry out their plot and manage to infiltrate a dynamite-loaded loaf of bread into the ovens, which soon explode. The cast find themselves amidst the rubble of the ruined shop and the movie ends.

This movie apparently was conceived by Chaplin and Conklin while they were on a break from “Those Love Pangs,” having lunch at a café-bakery not unlike the one in the movie. It is certainly much more well-developed than that movie, and it’s been suggested that one of the reasons for the weakness of that movie is that they decided to move their better gags over to the new project. Whatever the case, this movie reminded me of later work that Keaton and Arbuckle would do together, such as “The Butcher Boy,” which takes advantage of a customer service setting to provide an opportunity for brief comic vignettes and a variety of characters to interact. In that sense, it’s also like “The Floorwalker” and “The Pawnshop,” by Chaplin as well, though the freneticism and randomness matches a Comique more than a Mutual. Still, this has most of the roughness of Charlie’s Keystone period, and only the glee which he and Conklin bring to their comedy fighting makes it stand out from the “park comedies” at times. Charlie does bring some of his dance-like moves to bear; I was particularly entertained by a sequence in which he prepares donuts by twisting dough around his wrists in a series of rhythmic moves.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Fritz Schade, Norma Nichols, Glen Cavender, Cecile Arnold, Peggy Page, Vivian Edwards, Phyllis Allen, Edgar Kennedy, Slim Summerville, Charley Chase, Jess Dandy, Ted Edwards

Run Time: 24 Min

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

His New Profession (1914)

His_New_Profession

For this Charlie Chaplin Keystone comedy, I was able to find two slightly different edits, but nothing so glaring as in the case of “Caught in a Cabaret,” or even “The Masquerader.” For those who’ve been keeping score, I found another theory as to who re-edited them: William K. Everson claims that Sid Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) created new versions from the originals during his time at Keystone Studios. Until I find a more authoritative source, we’ll assume that’s correct, although it’s interesting that Sid seems to have felt he had a freer hand in re-arranging Mabel Normand’s work than Charlie’s.

 His New Profession

Here, Charlie’s in full Little Tramp getup as he sits in the park, reading. For this opening shot we get a long close-up, suggesting that Keystone (or Chaplin) was beginning to realize that audiences wanted a good look at their favorite comedian. Nearby, a couple argues because they have to look after the man’s (Charley Chase) invalid uncle, who wears a cast. He promises to find a sitter so they can be alone together, she stalks off. The nephew pushes his uncle’s wheelchair right onto Charlie’s foot, which is the perfect opportunity to offer him the job of looking after uncle. Charlie accepts, with no great enthusiasm while nephew sneaks off to his girl. Soon, Charlie comes upon a bar. Nearby, there is a crippled man begging, which gives Charlie an idea. He waits until uncle and the beggar are asleep, then puts the sign and money cup in uncle’s lap. Soon, he has some spending money for the bar. The girl sees the uncle “begging” and breaks up with nephew. The barkeeper is Fatty Arbuckle, but he doesn’t really get any funny bits as Charlie cadges for drinks. This gives Charlie a chance to do his funny drunk bit and he stumbles out as the uncle and the beggar are coming to blows. Then he wheels him over to a pier and tries to bond over a picture of a pretty girl. Then the girl sits next to him and he loses interest in uncle while he tries to mash on her. He pushes uncle to the end of the pier, where he nearly falls into the water – but not quite. Soon, the nephew, two policemen, the beggar, the uncle, the girl, and Charlie are all exchanging blows over who did what to whom. The uncle winds up arrested, one cop falls into the drink, and Charlie is left with the girl, who, in the longer cut, seems none too thrilled.

 His New Profession1

I was sorry to see Arbuckle so wasted, and the other Keystone players didn’t get as many laughs out of me as usual, but this is a fine example of Chaplin’s early work as an actor and director. The final climax was a bit disappointing, too. Somehow having the wheelchair almost fall into the water twice made it seem like it had to happen eventually, though it may have been safer jut to have the cop go in. Charlie isn’t especially sympathetic here, either – he’s a bit of a cad and certainly not a reliable sitter for the disabled man. On the other hand, the nephew is to be blamed for giving the responsibility to a Tramp, I suppose.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Charley Chase, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry McCoy, Peggy Page

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, shorter edit), or here (with music, longer)

 

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.