The Sunday Intertitle: A Man Called Chaffin or Something

Chaplin again — again directed by Henry “Pathe” Lehrman in 1914. A lot of rubbish about an umbrella. Ford Sterling is an obnoxious clown, and Chaplin, billed as “masher” on the IMDb, gets to be comparatively gentlemanly, though this mainly expresses itself in the way he repeatedly hits FS in the face with a brick.

Chaplin doesn’t have his cane here, since it would clash with the brolly. He DID have it in the earlier MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT and KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, however.

KARAV for years was thought to be the Tramp’s first appearance, but it’s his second, although CC has wiped all the old-age/horror make-up, worn in MABEL’S SP, off his face this time and is a kind of truculent protagonist rather than a menacing drunken villain, so a case could still be made for KARAV being the Tramp’s debut. As has been pointed out, he emerges from the mass of the public, an audience member with ideas above his station, which seems perfect. He also starts immediately making his director’s life hell, which is what was going on behind the scenes too. The untalented pretender Lehrman (who never worked for Pathe) appears as himself, a bad-tempered filmmaker who doesn’t want to have to deal with this interloper.

I’ll say this for H(P)L, the closeup at the end, though alarming, is a nice touch.

Around this time, Chaplin also appeared as an officious and violently-inclined short-arsed Keystone Kop in A THIEF CATCHER. Then, for the first time, he was the title character in A FILM JOHNNIE, which also has him as a troublesome audience member.

Chaplin spends the last penny in his sock-purse (an accoutrement also sported by Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg’s SPIDER) to see THE CHAMPION DRIVER, a film whose existence I am unable to confirm — I would have assumed the thrifty Mack Sennett would have taken this opportunity to plug one of his other pictures — because he is enamoured of the leading lady, Peggy Pearce.

Once in the auditorium, Chaplin is unable to control his movements or his emotions, to the annoyance of other patrons including the prostooganist from MABEL’S SP. Bafflingly, THE CHAMPION DRIVER turns out to be a Civil War epic highly reminiscent of BIRTH OF A NATION, not released until the following year. Maybe that time-traveller with the cell phone from the premiere of CITY LIGHTS helped Sennett out. Or maybe Sennett had a bunch of leftover Civil War footage he was looking to monetize.

Within a matter of frames, the appearance of serious epic historical drama is replaced by a bunch of Kop types in the uniforms of North and South battering one another silly with the butts of their muskets, and Charlie has soaked his now-vacant sock, and the crotch of his baggy pants, with tears, so deeply moved is he.

When “the Keystone girl” appears she’s in modern dress, so I guess this is a program of varied short subjects (features not yet being the rage). Now Charlie, enacting a bumpkin stereotype lampooned in some of the earliest films, becomes overwrought, unable to tell cinema from reality, and is ejected into the street.

The two other films showing, I note, aren’t Keystone releases, but Mutual, the company where Chaplin would wind up making his best shorts, after an intervening stint at Essanay.

Charlie now plays starstruck fan, an outsider at Keystone, flattering the major players (Fatty, Ford) and begging for dimes. The studio door is slammed in his face. The director doesn’t want “any bums around here.” But after some confusing jump-splices Charlie gets inside.

I wrote about this one before but mainly because of all the swastikas.

The inside of the studio — the unsound stage — is a big greenhouse. There are painted flats simulating different locations, among which the first we see represents — a big greenhouse. The phrase “wasted effort” does spring to mind, as so often with Sennett comedies.

Chaplin immediately finds slapstick opportunities in this world where the walls and furniture keep moving around. He was a flailing blunderer even in the stable environment of the movie house, so this place is really beyond his ability to navigate. This is the closest we get to vintage Chaplin, but time or an impatient editor seem to have truncated the knockabout.

The director of this one is George Nichols — Chaplin’s second director. He didn’t like him any more than H(P)L. Both these guys appear here, but the role of the movie director is played by the great Edgar Kennedy, according to the IMDb. His movements — rage and frustration in gesticulatory form — are more recognizable than his young, barely-formed face. He has hair! That’s just blatantly wrong.

The studio set-up could easily have provided enough gags and conflict for a full two-reeler, so it’s rather a pity that the film rushes off to attend a housefire, to little comic effect. The Keystone “it’s got to move” philosophy would cheerfully have a film up sticks from a promising situation in order to race off to a less interesting one, and that, as well as the rapidity with which the films were churned out, would increasingly annoy Chaplin…

As with KARAV, we end with a single on CC, and he does a favourite trick, the old twist-the-ear-to-make-water-squirt-out gag. Henri Bergson used to say that comedy comes from human beings behaving in a mechanical way, and Chaplin often seems to go out of his way to confirm this.

2 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: A Man Called Chaffin or Something”

  1. I do like his moment of attempted film heroism: Dropping a burning stick in front of the camera, dumping water on it, and waiting for recognition.

    The street where the Keystone stars carpool to work looks rather un-studiolike. Note the unconvincing sign. Nice apartment houses, maybe? A quick Google yields photos of the studio, a no-nonsense sausage factory aside from Sennett’s name writ large.

    When Chaplin built his own studio, at least one side was designed to look like a row of small cozy homes. Certainly not camouflage — Chaplin showed it off in one of his own films. And only a bit of the pretension proclaimed by the Paramount gate and Selznick’s manor house. A visual declaration of just-folks normalcy to the outside world? Telling himself he presided over a community rather than a factory? I don’t buy that he intended it to double as an exterior set.

  2. The original Keystone main building still stands, an anonymous storage facility. Sennett’s second studio was still a working studio until recently, but now I can’t reach the website without clicking “allow notifications” so to hell with that.

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