No Moustache

Before Valentino there was… Charlie Chaplin.

“We took Chaplin, [Ford] Sterling, [Roscoe] Arbuckle and [Chester] Conklin to a dance hall, turned them loose, and pointed a camera at them. They made funny, and that was it,” said Mack Sennett of the 1914 TANGO TANGLES.

But there’s more to be said of this rambunctious improv: Chaplin appears sans Tramp costume and felt moustache, giving us an opportunity to regard him au naturelle, as it were. He does have a bowler and cane, so he must have really liked those. But this experiment was not repeated — even in an outlier like ONE A.M. where he’s playing a city swell in a top hat, Chaplin would keep the fuzzy felt tab on his upper lip, because it was the one essential part of his brand.

It’s decided — I’m watching all the early Chaplins in sequence, which I’ve never done before, watching for those moments where the Tramp shows up, starts to become the familiar character. And watching for those moments where Chaplin steps out of that character, as he does here.

Naked-faced Charlie is, as Sennett observed with dismay when he first showed up for work, too young. Too pretty. He’s doing the drunk act that so impressed his boss and got him hired, and it’s always worth remembering that alcoholism killed Chaplin’s father, but whether the man was ever around enough in Chaplin’s youth for him to observe the drink in action, I’m unsure. But the East End of London would have provided plenty of other models for close study.

For some reason, comedy drunks are nearly always middle-aged. Though the parodying of alcoholism is now mostly verboten at any age, the masters of it, the Jack Nortons, Arthur Housmans and Foster Brookses, were always a bit shopworn in appearance. Strangely, a young drunk is more pathetic or unpleasant than comic, UNLESS introduced sober. When the character is simple “the drunk,” we need to feel that the tragic decline is safely over and the character is now happily confirmed in their dipsomania.

(Fiona, a modern person, always says “Oh dear,” when Housman turns up in a Laurel & Hardy, just as she does when Fred “Snowflake” Toones turns up in anything, with his demeaning racial schtick. I wince at FT but, being less sensitive, welcome the pastiche of inebriation like an old friend.)

Chaplin chose his small felt rectangle, a fig leaf for his youth, because it made him look more mature without concealing his facial expressions. Which are a lot more grotesque and flamboyant in the early shorts, you’ll notice. Chaplin hasn’t mastered the difference between stage and screen acting but, to be fair, hardly anyone else at Keystone or in Hollywood has either. The best actors are generally the supporting girls, hired to be pretty, without stage training, and given no funny business of their own, who just react more or less like real people to the top-billed comics’ obstreperous antics.

Ford Sterling (also bare-lipped) is someone I never warmed to, but I guess he deserves credit for being just about the first of the slapstickers. Arbuckle is unusually mean here, a fat man with a thin instrument (clarinet). Within seconds of appearing he’s picking up an inoffensive little guy to use as a club.

For reasons of convenience, I guess, the dancers are shot in a real dance hall, per Sennett’s recount, whereas the band have been shot in the studio against two painted flats representing a corner. All the interplay between Sterling, flirting furiously through his trumpet, and Chaplin and his partner, reacting from the ballroom, is created via Kuleshov’s Artificial Geography, which Kuleshov had yet to officially invent. No wonder the eyelines don’t match.

Chaplin grudgingly credited Henry “Pathe” Lehrman with teaching him basic screen direction, but he might have also picked up the importance of it by seeing Sennett fecklessly flout it here.

Another technique we see a lot of is TELEGRAPHY. Sterling pretends to be ill, doing a great deal of pantomime to signal to us that this is an IDEA he has just had in his MIND to fool THAT GUY… Chaplin occasionally does this, perhaps urged by his directors or influenced by his frantic co-stars, but he would soon eliminate it in favour of a subtler communication with his audience, intended for intimacy rather than exposition.

Conklin, Hank Mann, Edgar Kennedy and Al St John get essentially nothing to do, while Minta Durfee is a bone to be fought over by stupid dogs. In mid-battle, Sterling seems to suddenly kiss CC full on the lips, but I think he’s actually biting his nose. Our eyebrows may safely lower.

Paul Merton has neatly and accurately described early Chaplin’s M.O. as “kicking people up the arse” but has he done it yet in a film? I think not, though in BETWEEN SHOWERS he jabs Sterling hard in the anus with an umbrella. Here, Sterling shows CC how it’s done, just as CC is impressing us all with the pugilistic jut of his tiny buttocks. I imagine Charlie will have incorporated the act into his repertoire by the next time we see him.

The climactic cloakroom fight is my favourite bit. The brief iteration of the two-men-in-one-raincoat routine is terrific, with Sterling burling Chaplin around by the sleeve.

A totally unambitious one-reel donnybrook which has unexpected historic interest due to Chaplin’s nude philtrum.

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