“All I need to make a film is a park, a pretty girl, and a policeman.” — Charles Chaplin.
The above statement fits neatly with Godard’s “Cinema is a girl and a gun.”
Desire, and danger. The dramatic carrot and stick.
Be that as it may, having recently sort-of-enjoyed Chaplin’s last film, and his first screen appearance as the Tramp, I realized I’d never seen his directorial debut, which proved on further research to be called CAUGHT IN THE RAIN. For no real reason. True, a character does get caught in the rain, but it’s a rather trivial development. It’s kind of like calling LAWRENCE OF ARABIA by the title A DISCUSSION ABOUT FISHING simply because Jack Hawkins mentions the subject to Claude Rains.
Be that as it may, CITR is an altogether less ambitious work than LOA, clocking in at just over ten minutes in its present form. Chaplin plays a drunk who tries to flirt with/harass a matronly lady in the park, and provokes the jealous ire of her husband. This situation peters out, but when all three check in to the same hotel, the lady’s disposition to somnambulism causes complications.
Most of the Keystone stuff I’d seen with Chaplin struck me as primitive and chaotic in a bad sense, but this one is at least funny in places. The pointlessness of much of the action somehow works in its favour. The hotel has a staircase which somehow nobody can climb, as if the carpet was hung loosely from the steps rather than folded into them, so it functions as a kind of bumpy chute. Chaplin being obnoxiously inebriated for most of the film, this makes sense for him, but there’s no reason at all why the other, perfectly sober characters suffer similar difficulty mounting this supposed obstacle. The sheer stupidity and relentless repetitiveness of the gag makes it pretty funny.
And the simplicity of the set-up helps — so many Keystone films throw great crowds of gurning, elaborately mustachioed clowns at the audience, it gets overwhelming and unpleasantly busy and muddled. Here, although there’s crowd of kops and some hotel staff, the basic scenario is a three-hander, with a relatively svelte Mack Swain (later chief sidekick in THE GOLD RUSH) as the jealous spouse. Chaplin hasn’t quite discovered choreography yet, so the three of them gesticulate all over the place and yank the poor viewer’s eye around like dogs fighting over a T-bone steak, but it’s all more or less clear, and clarity is essential to comedy.
It’s great that we can see these films so easily now, but the marks of time cannot be entirely removed. In this frame, Swain has acquired an extra-large sooty moustache and a snowman’s big black belly-button.
Buy from BFI: Charlie Chaplin at Keystone [DVD]