Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Frank D Williams

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).

The New Janitor (1914)

This short from Charlie Chaplin’s days at Keystone has a number of elements that we would expect to see in his later work – including a coherent plot and a sympathetic portrayal of his protagonist. Clearly by this point, Charlie was ready to go in some new directions.

The movie begins with Charlie in a somewhat more working-class version of his “Little Tramp” outfit in the lobby of a large urban building, chatting with elevator operator Al St. John. When a passenger gets into Al’s elevator, he quickly goes aboard and closes the doors in Charlie’s face, forcing him to walk up to the top floor, 13 flights above. Meanwhile, in one of the offices on that floor, a clerk (John T. Dillon) reads a note threatening him for gambling debts. Charlie goes in to clean that office, and there are some humorous exchanges between them as Charlie keeps spilling the wastebasket. Then Charlie goes in to clean the president’s office, where there is a large wall safe (and, oddly, a spittoon). While he’s in there the secretary arrives for work and Charlie shyly tries to flirt with her, but she seems barely aware of his existence (how most people treat janitors). The thug (Glen Cavender) arrives, and the clerk promises to have is money later that day, but the secretary hears some of their conversation and becomes concerned. Charlie attempts washing the windows, and has several near-miss falls out the window, due to his clumsiness. He does manage to drop his bucket, which falls on the head of the president (Jess Dandy) as he arrives. This results in his being fired. Once again, Al refuses him a ride and Charlie walks down the steps.

Now the clerk comes into the president’s office and keeps glancing at the safe while giving the president some papers to sign. He waits until the president and the secretary have gone out (perhaps to lunch) and starts rummaging through the safe, but the secretary comes in unexpectedly and is even more suspicious. She tricks him into thinking she’s left again and hides, seeing him take money out of the safe before he notices her and attacks her. She manages to push an emergency button – the one to summon the janitor! Charlie is just about ready to leave when the call comes, but he slowly makes his way up the stairs again, perhaps hoping that the president has had a change of heart. By the time he arrives, the clerk is holding a gun on the secretary and she is passed out on the floor. He overpowers the clerk with a few quick slapstick moves and manages to cover him with the gun, making the larger man pick up the secretary and then discovering that he has cut the phone line. Now he shoots out the window to summon help and a nearby policeman hears the shooting. The president and the policeman arrive to see the janitor holding up the clerk, but the secretary has revived now and explains what really happened. Charlie is exonerated, the clerk is arrested, and the president gives him a sizable cash reward that makes Charlie swoon a bit.

There are obvious similarities between this movie and some of Charlie’s later work, most obviously “The Bank” in which he also plays a janitor who foils a robbery, but also “The Floorwalker” in which there is an embezzlement plot. No doubt he wanted to return to this story line as it was one of the few “original” stories he made at Keystone and he wanted to see what he could add to it with the greater resources and experience he had as his career progressed. The biggest comedy sequence is really the window-washing scene, which reminded me of the work of Harold Lloyd, who would hang from similar buildings in several films, most famously “Safety Last.” In the shot where Charlie is hanging out of the window, I noticed several people on lower floors looking up at the camera, perhaps Chaplin fans hoping to get a glimpse of the star, or else just bored office workers fascinated by the movie-making process. This shot is somewhat unusual for a Keystone movie, as it required the camera to be fixed to the side of the building and presumably the cameraman, Frank D. Williams, had to be hanging out of a window or standing on a ledge in order to hand-crank the film. The movie also makes good use of cross-cutting to build suspense throughout the robbery sequence, both as the secretary figures out what is going on and as Charlie comes to the rescue. Cross-cutting was hardly unknown at Keystone, of course, we saw it put to comedic effect as early as “A Little Hero” and “Bangville Police,” but it doesn’t show up in many of Chaplin’s “park” comedies and is rarely used this well when it does. It’s interesting also that Charlie didn’t try to deepen the romantic subplot between himself and the secretary – I think wisely, because it would have been hard to develop convincingly in a single reel – where his interest in Edna Purviance is central to “The Bank.” That secretary is a bit of a mystery – imdb lists her as Peggy Page, Wikipedia claims it is Helen Carruthers, and both The Silent Era and the Chaplin Film by Film blog say it’s Minta Durfee. Usually I’d regard them as the more authoritative, but it doesn’t look like Minta to me (look at the nose!), so I’m stumped.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Al St. John, Glen Cavender, Jess Dandy, John T. Dillon, Frank Hayes, and an unidentified woman.

Run Time: 12 Min

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

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 Face on the Bar Room Floor (1914)

In this early short from Keystone Studios, Charlie Chaplin attempts to stretch his character and his filmmaking a bit beyond the established formulae of the studio and the slapstick genre. It may not entirely work, but it’s a fascinating experiment nonetheless.

Each small scene in this film is preceded by a forward-facing intertitle containing a few lines (sometimes two, usually four), from a poem called “The Face upon the Barroom Floor.” The scenes are sometimes quite brief, and the audience spends almost as much time reading as viewing. The story of the poem concerns a young artist who fell in love with one of his models, only to lose her to a friend he introduces her to, and who becomes a dissolute drunk who cannot forget her. The title comes from his effort to depict his love’s portrait using a piece of chalk for an appreciative audience of fellow inebriates at a local saloon. At the beginning of the film, the scenes shown are generally simple depictions of the words of the poem, but as the film progresses, there is more “business” and interpretation thrown in for laughs. Charlie chews absently on his paintbrush, he steps on his palette or sits on paint. Finally, at the end, he is shown as too drunk to effectively draw on the floor, and the scene degenerates into a typical Keystone riot, with Charlie fighting off an entire crowd and a policeman that happens by.

As I suggested above, what’s impressive about this film isn’t so much in its execution, but its aspiration, and the fact that it was allowed to be made at all. Chaplin makes an effort here to break the mold of slapstick movie making, to bring greater depth and sympathy to his character. and to make something a touch more “artistic” than what he was generally doing at Keystone. He still had a lot to learn, but he already knew that he didn’t want to just go on doing things in the same way as everyone else before him. And, his stardom was such that, even here in the summer following his first releases in February, he had the clout to make something that his boss Mack Sennett had to regard as a questionable gamble. Among the problems the film faces are too much text and not enough laughs, but it’s possible that his name and image were already popular enough that it didn’t lose anyone any money. Nickelodeons were happy enough just to be able to advertise a “new Chaplin” – whether it was a success or not didn’t even matter. Fortunately, Charlie would keep working to improve, and not let his fame go to his head, because in the future, he would succeed where this movie largely fails.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy, Cecile Arnold, Fritz Schade, Vivian Edwards, Hank Mann

Run Time: 14 Min

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).

A Busy Day (1914)

Although he had already started directing his own movies when this short was released, this is another example of Charlie Chaplin’s work with Mack Sennett as director, along with “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and “The Fatal Mallet.” It repeats themes that Sennett and Chaplin had explored before, but with one big novelty thrown in.

The movie begins by showing us an audience gathered to see a parade. The background is filled with people who are probably genuine spectators, but there are four Keystone actors in front. These include Mack Swain and Phyllis Allen, and most importantly, Charlie himself, although he is dressed in drag and plays Mack’s wife. There’s a bit of roughhousing in the stands and some shots of a military parade going by, and then Mack sneaks off with Phyllis. A cameraman (Mack Sennet) sets up to shoot the parade in another shot and then we see Charlie realize she has been abandoned. She sees them running past the camera and sets off in hot pursuit, again ruining Sennett’s shot of soldiers marching by. She gets distracted by his efforts to remove her from the shot and begins posing for the camera, so Mack calls in a Keystone Kop (I think it’s Billy Gilbert). Soon Charlie is kicking and pushing both of them and they push her into another Kop (Ted Edwards), who shoves her back into camera view. This goes back and forth for a while, interrupted only by a shot of some naval boats in San Pedro Harbor.

Finally, Charlie remembers her true objective and goes after Mack and Phyllis, who are admiring the ships. She attacks them viciously with her umbrella. When the much larger Swain strikes back, she is once again shoved into a Keystone Kop and the slapstick violence starts to ramp up again. Swain is able to break away and find Phyllis near the launching of some motorboats while Charlie dances to a military band. She eventually find her husband and the “other woman” again, and they fight, this time with a large crowd gathered to watch in the background. The camera cuts to a new angle, showing that the fight has edge to the side of the dock, and soon Swain gives Charlie a shove and she does a double backflip into the harbor. The closing shot is of Charlie splashing around fruitlessly in the water.

About half of this movie is a straight remake of “Kid Auto Races,” except for the cross-dressing. It was common for Sennett to take advantage of a public spectacle by getting some actors quickly into costume and ad-libbing a slapstick comedy, although there’s more of a story here than in the earlier film. The spectators are pretty obviously not extras – a few stare at the camera, but most stare and laugh at the actors. Interestingly, I noticed that older women, far from seeming shocked, appeared to be the most entertained by Chaplin’s antics. This was the first time Chaplin had appeared in drag on film (though I assume he’d done it before on Vaudeville stages), and to the degree he had built up fans for his “Little Tramp” characterization, I have to assume his audience wouldn’t have recognized him at all like this (remember, it was only about four months earlier that the Tramp outfit was introduced). But his trademark physicality is fully on display here, something that was remarked on by a reviewer at the time. The final backflip has to be seen to be believed. This is also the first time he was teamed with Mack Swain, who would become a reliable foil in the years after Chaplin struck out on his own, perhaps most famously in “The Gold Rush.”

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Mack Sennett, Billy Gilbert, Ted Edwards

Run Time: 5 Min, 37 secs

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

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.

When Charlie laughs, we all laugh with him.

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).

The Star Boarder (1914)

Way back in 2014, I watched every movie Charlie Chaplin made at Keystone Studios, but there were so many (and so many other things I wanted to cover), that I never finished reviewing them all. Now I’m taking the time to fill some of those gaps, starting with this early film about Charlie getting in trouble in a boarding house.

The movie begins with a wide shot in a kitchen, establishing the household staff. Minta Durfee is the landlady, and she supervises a man in an apron (Edgar Kennedy) and another woman as they do the cooking. A boy (Gordon Griffith) has a small camera box, but Minta shoes him away. Minta goes into the dining room and sets up the dinner, then rings a bell to summon the guests. A large group of them appears, but we cut back and forth to Charlie’s room, where he is lounging and smoking a cigarette. He slowly gets up and dresses for dinner, while Minta continues ringing away. He flirts a bit with Minta on his way into the dining room, and Edgar glares at him as he serves the food. After dinner, another man seems to want to talk to Minta, but Charlie throws his napkin at him. He and Minta flirt a bit more until Edgar interrupts them.

 

Later, Minta and Charlie are play tennis together, though Charlie’s occasional pratfalls suggest he may have had a few drinks in his room first.  He knocks a tennis ball well out of court, and they go to look for it together. The child spots them and begins snapping photos, all the while laughing uproariously. Edgar again finds them and intervenes, finding the ball before either of them, since they seem more interested in one another. Minta now goes over to a rosebush, climbing up on a ladder, but falls off when Charlie comes over to her, and again the child is snapping photos and laughing. They go back to the house together, and Edgar escorts an older lady boarder. Left alone briefly in the kitchen, Charlie raids the liquor cabinet and there are several more pratfalls as he drunkenly attempts to sneak up to his room with two bottles and a pie.

 

 

The child now approaches another boarder (Harry McCoy), and shows him the slides he has prepared and he agrees to set up a projector so the whole house can enjoy his slideshow. When the audience is assembled, the child, laughing hard again, starts to show them shots of Charlie and Minta together, though he also shows Edgar with his companion, and soon the audience devolves into chaos as Edgar and Charlie fight and bump into the others, causing a general rout. Charlie manages to escape the room, stumbling through the screen, and Minta spanks the naughty child.

 

There are no surviving intertitles on the print I’ve been able to see, so a certain amount has to be inferred. Evidently, Minta and Edgar are married, although the cliché is for the landlady of a boarding house to be widowed or a spinster. Also, evidently Gordon is their son. Minta really does seem quite receptive to Charlie’s advances, and (surprisingly for the time), we see Charlie quite openly admiring her backside. No doubt this contributed to the idea that his movies were “vulgar.” Charlie is in full “Little Tramp” getup at this stage, even his mustache is down to the familiar width, and some of his signature gestures (such as his “what, me?” shrug) are clearly established. He’s still building a lot of his act around “funny drunk” bits, and he’s less inclined towards violence in this picture than in others around the same time. That doesn’t stop the movie from ending in a classic Keystone riot, however.

Director: George Nichols

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Gordon Griffith, Harry McCoy, Alice Davenport, Phyllis Allen, William Nigh, Al St. John

Run Time: 11 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

His Prehistoric Past (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin film came at the end of his short tenure at Keystone Studios, and may by the most “mature” of the movies he made for the company. This post is a part of the Time Travel Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Wide Screen World. Check out the other entries here. I hope everyone was able to safely “time travel” back from Daylight Saving Time!

We see Chaplin in his familiar “Little Tramp” getup, trying to get comfortable for a nap on a park bench. There’s a funny bit of business where he tries to straighten it our despite a broken board. Soon, he’s a asleep, and the real movie begins in the “prehistoric” era. A group of cavemen and -women surrounds the “Kink,” a chieftan-type played by Mack Swain. Another caveman does a rather swishy effeminate dance, which put an odd spin on the “Kink” intertitle for me, but probably wouldn’t have for most audiences in 1914.  We now see Chaplin in a funny variation of his outfit: he still has the hat and cane, but now his traditional too-tight jacket and baggy pants have been replaced by a frayed bearskin. He has a pipe, and fills it with tobacco, then tries striking several rocks against his leg, as if they were matches. One finally lights, and he smokes the pipe. He spots an attractive young cavewoman (I believe this is Gene Marsh), who is fetching water for the “Kink” and goes to speak with her. He does some funny business with the tail of his bearskin. The “Kink” gets tired of waiting and sends the swishy caveman off to find the water girl. He sees Chaplin and fires an arrow into his bottom. Once the cavegirl gets it out, Charlie throws a large rock at the attacker, which misses him and flies over to hit the “Kink.” The caveman chases Charlie around a boulder with a pointed stick, and the “Kink” comes over to investigate, and winds up getting stuck in the bottom by the other caveman, who is clubbed by Charlie in turn.

The “Kink” is now convinced that Charlie is his friend, and he takes him back to the tribe, where everyone bows down. Charlie keeps hitting the “Kink” accidentally (or not) with his club, but manages to smooth it over or blame someone else each time. Charlie is invited in to the “Kink’s cave for a drink, but winds up spilling a lot of it when he tries to shake it like a martini inside two hollow rocks. He throws the rest of it into the face of a servant (Al St. John). The he goes out to meet the girls of the tribe. Of course, the one he met first is the only one he really wants, but he seems to enjoy the attention. Another caveman walks up and distracts them for a while, but Charlie clubs him and takes his girl over to some rocks by the seaside. When the “Kink” comes out, he sees Charlie frolicking in the waves with the girl (who seems quite close to having a wardrobe malfunction in her furs). The “Kink” finally becomes possessive and pulls her away from Charlie. He smooths things over with the “Kink” again and they have more drinks. The whole tribe starts up a dance (several girls dancing with girls here), and Charlie asks his girl to dance. They do a rather wild jitterbug-style dance, while the others look on. The “Kink” catches sight of this and challenges Charlie to prove himself as a hunter. He gives Charlie a bow and arrows, and they go out to the forest. Charlie targets a bird in a tree, but ends up hitting the nest, raining eggs down on the  “Kink” and himself. Charlie finds the girl by a cliff’s edge an starts taking to her, and when the “Kink” comes to object, he trips him over the ledge. The “Kink” falls a long way but seems fine. Charlie returns to the tribe and announces that he is the new “Kink.” Everyone bows down, but the caveman from the first dance finally gets up and helps the “Kink” climb back up the cliff. The “Kink” picks up a large rock and sneaks up behind Charlie, breaking it into fragments over his head. Suddenly we cut back to Charlie on the park bench. A police officer is smacking him with his billy club, telling the Little Tramp that it’s time to move on. The movie seems to set up an opportunity for Charlie to get the upper hand, but on current prints it cuts off before the final gag.

1918 poster that used stills from the movie.

In terms of time travel, this falls very clearly into the “dream sequence” category: the dream is clearly set up by a framing story at the beginning and the end, and the audience is never asked to accept that Charlie has actually traveled back to the Pleistocene era. Still, the majority of the movie takes place in the imagined past, and makes fun of various caveman tropes that audiences today will still recognize. Especially when Charlie deliberately plays with anachronisms like the match-rock, it reminds me of the Flintstones. Charlie has packed an awful lot of gags into this one piece, as evidenced by the length of the summary, above. I think his ambitions were probably straining the budgets, production schedules, and abilities of Keystone to keep up with, at this point, but the result stands out as a pretty impressive comedy.

Apart from time, this movie made me think a lot about space, and how it was handled in the Keystone universe. There are a limited number of locations: the tribal campground, the cave, the forest, the watering hole, the cliff, and the seaside. Each of these is a discrete unit defined by a single camera frame. The camera can zoom in on people and objects within the set, but it never moves to show us different parts of the area, or how they are related to one another. We know that all of these “sets” are near each other, because sometimes someone in one set can see what is happening in another, or even throws a rock or arrow from one to the next (or through it into another one), but when characters exit one area, they are invisible until they enter the next. In this sense, it reminds me of a classic “Interactive Fiction” computer game, like Zork, that was made up of various “rooms” the player could visit that interlocked in sometimes illogical geographies. Younger readers who’ve never experienced this might get some insight from the “Digital Antiquarian” blog, although you really need to play one of these games for yourself to understand. Anyway, this model is descriptive of a lot of Keystone’s output, and even some of the work Chaplin did at Essanay. It’s a style of filmmaking that links the early theatrical “proscenium” frames to the freer, more mobile camera of the late silent period, and I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about it, but it fascinates me.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh, Al St. John, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Sydney Chaplin, Helen Carruthers

Run Time: 21 Min

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

The Butcher Boy (1917)

The first movie to feature an appearance by Buster Keaton came out almost 101 years ago. It was also the first movie Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made for his new Comique Film Corporation, with full creative control over his own productions, after many years working for Mack Sennett at Keystone.

The movie is a two-reel slapstick comedy, and like a lot of  those by this time, it essentially consists of two separate but equally important “parts.” The first part concerns Arbuckle (whose character is named “Fatty.” so that’s what I’m going to call him for the rest of this review) at his job as a butcher’s assistant in a general store. The structure of this section reminds me a lot of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Pawnshop.” Various characters come into the shop and ask for things, and comic misadventures ensue, often due to the obliviousness, or deliberate laziness, of Fatty. Arbuckle demonstrates his agility by tossing knives into the air, which consistently land point-downward, lodged in the countertop. Once or twice he does this with another actor standing on the other side of the counter, which struck me as a bit dangerous, but he’s so casual about it that you’d think anyone could do it. Keaton’s part comes in this section and he is undeniably the most memorable of the various “customers.” He wants to buy a pail of molasses, and some very sticky comedy ensues. Among others, Lea over at Silentology has carefully analyzed this scene, and I can’t hope to add to what she says about it, so I’ll just say that for a first film appearance, Keaton has remarkable poise and confidence before the camera.

Shortly after Keaton’s bit, the plot starts to move forward. Fatty and Al St. John are both in competition for the one young woman that works at the store, played by Josephine Stevens. She’s the daughter of the owner, and she’s sweeter on Fatty than on “Slim,” but Slim can’t let it go. The two of them play pranks on each other that escalate into a full-scale war, with exploding bags of flour and other random store implements used to cause mayhem. The owner decides to send his daughter to a boarding school, to prevent any further such nonsense (presumably after firing Fatty and Slim both).

Thus begins the second part of the film, in which Fatty and Al both dress up as girls to sneak into the boarding school and see Josephine. Buster appears again as one of Al’s accomplices, but he has relatively little to do here. Fatty gets in first, and is able to charm the rest of the girls into at least tolerating him, but once Al is on the inside things rapidly escalate to a running pillow fight. Al’s cohorts, for some reason, also sneak into the school to help abduct Josephine, and before long they are caught and held at gunpoint by the schoolmarm. Once again, the scene devolves in chaos and Josephine and Fatty are able to escape. Still in girl’s clothes, he proposes to her in front of a minister’s house, and they go in, presumably to be married.

I’d rate this as a good, but not great, Arbuckle movie, and pretty much “of historical interest” for Keaton fans. This movie has the feel of someone trying things out, but perhaps being afraid of going too far at first. I was surprised how much was shot in long-shot, as if Arbuckle was afraid to move his camera too close to all the flying bags of flour and thrown knives. However, choreographing some of that chaos in long shot is still a feat to be proud of. Arbuckle did plenty of drag, before and after this, as well as many roles where he had some kind of customer service job but mostly abused his customers. In fact, he had combined the two before (in “Waiters Ball”). My favorite Arbuckle movies play more on his “big kid” likeability, his boyish charm, and his being the good guy who is wronged by his opponent, but in this one he’s no better than Al St. John, the girl just happens to like him better. At least he’s not forcing himself on her.

It’s interesting that Buster does maintain his “stone face” in this film, given that in “Oh Doctor” he would be expressive to a fault – maybe that was an Arbuckle suggestions that didn’t work out. In his autobiography, Keaton would claim he’d been told his was the first debut in film that didn’t require any re-takes, but that’s dubious in the extreme, considering that nobody was doing re-takes a little more than a decade earlier, and that some people’s debut scenes were literally walk-bys. He does demonstrate comic timing and physical prowess in the stunts Arbuckle demands of him, and if it was done in a single take, it was a good day’s work for sure.

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Cast: Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Josephine Stevens, Buster Keaton, Joe Bordeaux, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 24 Min

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