Archive for November 11, 2020

It’s Hammer Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2020 by dcairns

I’ve written, briefly, about THE FATAL MALLET before, but its brand of bucolic mayhem plays differently when you watch all the early Chaplins in order, I promise.

This one is simple, violent and deeply stupid. Mabel has two suitors, both grubby, disreputable and subnormal, which makes no sense at all but that’s the premise. Accept it and see what happens. What happens is what the Chaplin Encyclopedia calls “barnyard antics,” and what I call stupid people hitting each other, Keystone Komedy’s stock-in-trade. The rustic setting turns it into a meditation on the beauties of nature and the terrible things we do in it, like THE THIN RED LINE but with more false moustaches.

Introduced by Mabel to her slovenly beau — Mack Sennett, her real-life perpetual fiancé, unrecognizable in his degenerate disguise — Charlie reacts roughly like a three-year-old, and shoves Mack in the face. Then he get slightly more sophisticated, points offscreen (“Look, a baby wolf”) and leads the unprotesting Mabel away while Mack is staring vacantly into that unseen realm beyond the frame where all the good stuff happens in Robert Bresson films.

What follows is an escalating tit-for-tat routine with little idylls of childish wooing interspersed. Some of these show Chaplin adding fresh expressivity to the Tramp, as he performs dainty tricks for his lady. This is the first film where the Tramp is not drunk. Maybe there’s more can be done with this character than just getting shitfaced and annoying women?

What just happened?

Mabel throws herself into the knockabout with girlish glee — Chaplin in drag could get smacked all over the screen and it was funny because of the costume. Hitting Mabel isn’t automatically funny at all, so the violence has to have an element of the accidental, the ironic, if a kick up a lady’s arse can be ironic. So she only takes a brick to the face when it’s aimed at Mack. And she gives as good as she gets, smacking Charlie unconscious with a single blow.

Suddenly another, even larger Mack turns up, Mack Swain, who it seems is in fact Mabel’s swain. He is handsomely dressed, unlike the two stumblebutt ragamuffins she’s been idling with. Sensing that this supermack is a formidable character, Charlie and Mini-Mack stock up on bricks…

“This one-reeler proves that hitting people over the head with bricks and mallets can sometimes be made amusing,” said Moving Picture World. I see imitative behaviour problems with a statement like that.

A new gag: heretofore in Keystone skirmishes, violence has always been effective. A blow on the head with a brick WORKS. Swain casts all this comfortable certainty into question: his skull is apparently constructed on cannonball lines, and he is invulnerable to the most savage four-brick conk on the nut. What now?

Again, Chaplin is making use of the David & Goliath paradigm that will serve him so well with Eric Campbell in just a few years. But the David is not a very sympathetic figure here. The rather courtly Swain deserves Mabel’s hand. Charlie deserves a fractured skull.

After a fair bit more brick-hurling, the mallet is discovered. I’m not really sure this qualifies as a dramatic turning point of the Robert McKee-approved school. I’m uncertain a blow from a mallet is any more devastating than a brick to the face, you see. All I can really say for sure is that this film has both. I do, however, like the superstitious awe with which Sennett regards the weapon — a thing almost beyond his comprehension, like the monolith appearing to the apemen in 2001.

Sennett’s very good here. His character has a certain authentic ugliness owing little if anything to the makeup box, and his presence grounds Charlie in a seedy not-quite-reality.

The mallet works! Swain is rendered comatose. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Now that the mallet’s deadly power is unleashed upon the world, it is anyone’s to use. So Charlie brains the other Mack with it. The romantic square becomes a triangle, then a simple line.

Enter Tiny Tarzan, Chaplin’s original kid, Gordon Griffith. Like everyone else in the film, he has the hots for Mabel. I look forward to someone concussing him with a blunt instrument. You think they won’t? OK, they’re more merciful: Charlie simply kicks the sprog out of frame and gets back to flirting with Mabel in a small patch of hay.

Both Macks reawaken but are locked together in a shed. Good cowering from Sennett, textbook rising-to-his-full-height from Swain. They break free, and the ritual Kicking the Co-Stars into Echo Lake Duck Pond finish is enacted, with Sennett finally walking away with Mabel. Well, he is the producer.

Sennett makes a pretty good support for Chaplin. I think he thought he was going to be co-lead. He cameos in a few more shorts, but never played a major role with his protégé again.