Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Norma Nichols

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 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).

Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915)

In this short from Keystone, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle demonstrates his physical talents as well as comedic timing, although he comes across as perhaps less sympathetic than in other of his early work. Situational aspects combine with slapstick to make this an interesting representative of his work.

Fattys Tintype TangleFatty is married to Norma Nichols in this movie, and is enduring a visit from her mother, Mai Wells. The mother-in-law nags at Fatty and makes him miserable, while he tries to make pancakes in the kitchen (at one point flipping one in the air and kicking it back into the frying pan mid-air with his foot. There’s a sequence in which he goes into the bathroom to get something for his wife, forgetting that the mother-in-law is in the bath. After taking quite a bit of abuse (and bringing it on himself), he decides to take a few nips from a jug in the kitchen, becoming confrontational as a result. He storms out of the house and goes off into the park. At this point, enter our other couple, Edgar Kennedy and Louise Fazenda, who, we are told, are Alaskan migrants, looking for a home. Kennedy is dressed as a kind of wild mountain man, while Fazenda is made up to look freckled and homely. While Edgar is gone, Fatty sits next to Louise on a park bench, on onto one of her knitting needles. She helps extract it, then sits on it herself. Fatty helps her and consoles her.

Fattys Tintype Tangle1Not far away, Glen Cavender, an itinerant photographer, spots the two of them and takes a snapshot, thinking it is a lovely romantic scene. He shows them the tintype he has made, and they react in fear for their reputations. Cavender seems to toy with the idea of blackmail until Fatty becomes violent and chases him off, Louise retaining the picture. Now Edgar returns and sees the photo, and he threatens Fatty, who is clearly frightened – Kennedy is bigger than him, looks crazy, and has guns to boot. Kennedy tells Fatty to leave town before sundown. Fatty hastens to comply. He rushes home and absently packs a bag, telling his wife that he’ll be gone on business for a month. Norma decides she won’t need the house to herself and moves in with her mother, looking in the paper for renters. She finds an ad and calls, getting Edgar Kennedy, who eagerly comes over to move in with Louise. Meanwhile, things have not gone well at the train station for Fatty, who missed his train and got in trouble with a station cop for drinking. He decides to go home to wait for the next train. Of course, he manages to walk in on Louise in the bathroom, and tries to hide from Edgar in the shower, getting sprayed when Edgar tries the tap. Edgar flies into a rage when he finds him there, and chases him all over the house with his guns blazing, frequently scoring hits on Fatty’s behind. At one point, Fatty feigns death, and Edgar seems to feel remorse, but he forgets this as soon as Fatty revives. Fatty winds up on the telephone wires above the house, with Kennedy still shooting from his never-emptying guns. Finally, they both fall into a rain barrel, with their wives pulling each of them out by the hair and giving them a consoling kiss.

Fattys Tintype Tangle2The climax of this movie is Fatty on the high wires, walking, running, jumping, and bouncing along for a minute or more. This is a darned impressive stunt, and apparently a famous one as well, although overall the movie doesn’t have as much stuntwork as we saw in “Fatty’s Faithful Fido.” There is one good bit with the Keystone Cops, who get called, pile into a car, and never actually arrive on the scene. Apart from that, it’s all Fatty in this one sequence, whereas the other included great work from Al St. John and Luke the Dog. A tintype, by the way, was a kind of “instant” photograph that was made by creating a direct positive on a thin piece of metal, which is why a photographer in the park could offer Fatty a picture right away, instead of having to go home and develop it from film. Unlike a film negative, you could only produce one copy of the image from the tintype, so it wasn’t a great mass medium for photography, but worked well for portrait photographers working on the spot, as in this case. Tintypes being made on metal, they preserved well and there are many still around today in archives and photography collections, although the heyday of the format was the 1860s and 70s. Most of the movie is really about the situation: Fatty quarreling with mother-in-law, and then the compromising photograph. But, the slapstick ramps up as soon as Kennedy sees Fatty with Louise, reaching typical Keystone extremes in the final minutes.

Fattys Tintype Tangle3Note: Despite my misgivings, I am considering this one for Best Stunts. If you have an opinion on this, please comment below.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Norma Nichols, Mai Wells, Edgar Kennedy, Louise Fazenda, Glen Cavender

Run Time: 27 Min

I have been unable to find this for free on the Internet. If you can, please comment and say where.