The Sunday Intertitle: Bumfight

MAKING A LIVING is Chaplin’s very first film, the only one predating his Tramp character, or at any rate the costume (despite what Chaplin would later write, the character develops fairl gradually though certain aspects are immediately apparent — the lord of misrule, defiant of authority).

Chaplin said he immediately felt at home in his Tramp get-up, and hadn’t as the caddish antagonist here. And he’s really doing a lot to disguise himself — you can tell by the lip movements he’s doing a posy English silly-ass voice. Lip reading does seem to be something Keystone counted on — a definite moment is provided for the hero (though really more stooge) to call Chaplin “Bum.” I wonder how much more we’re supposed to get via mere labial observation.

Lots of nice character stuff before it turns into a good old brawl (hair-pulling, heroine’s mother hit with broom).

Then some plot-coagulation is required so for no obvious reason the cad becomes a reporter, which makes him professional as well as amorous rival of the hero/stooge (prostooganist?). A location shot of what I take to be typesetters at work provides some beside-the-point production values for director Henry “PathĂ©” Lehrmann. Then there’s a car wreck, I suspect borrowed from another picture (the angle is all wrong). The fabled Kops show up, with various subsidiary Klowns, and the whole thing starts to look like a typical Keystone pile-up of gesticulating hysterics, lively without being funny. The tight focus of the early scenes is gone.

Slightly alarming moment when Chaplin appears to stab a Kop in the stomach. Is he to be an accidental Kop-killer? But the man gets up again, winded not wounded. Not clear how he survived. Moments later, a woman is apparently stabbed in the head, but gets up, not a mark on her. MAKING A LIVING is, perhaps, set in an alternative universe of rubber knives.

The busy street scenes, full of people NOT wearing theatrical garb, shows up the stageyness of the main characters, Chaplin in particular. Discarding the frock coat, he would become more able to blend it, but would also opt increasingly for back lot and studio settings where the crowd could be controlled. In fact, by chance the movie deprives him of coat and topper at the (abrupt, truncated?) end, making his new wardrobe easier to assume…

4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Bumfight”

  1. Nice cynical journalistic touch: When the stooge runs up to the auto wreck, his first response is to take pictures and lie down to ask a few questions of the suffering driver. At least they give us a glimpse of the driver wobbling on his feet, showing he survived the rescue.

    And what the heck is the stooge doing in bed with the nightshirt lady when the jealous husband bursts in?

    Recall reading how Biograph crews needing a fancy exterior would cruise around and pick a mansion, hastily film actors walking up and down the front steps, and make a run for it if somebody turned out to be home. Suspecting similar guerrilla tactics here, what with the early scenes playing out on the lawn and driveway of an upscale home.

  2. The bed scene is mysterious… could be a case of a censor’s deletion making things look worse…

  3. He’s terribly good, isn’t he

  4. Yep. What’s almost as impressive as his performance is the amount of time granted to it — quite unlike other Keystones of the time. He’s managed to bend the whole form out of shape just by stepping in front of the camera.

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