The Sunday Intertitle: Mr. Wow-Wow goes to the Races, or, Drive, he didn’t say

GENTLEMEN OF NERVE is another bloody Keystone racing film, crammed with busy comics — Mabel is off to the races with Mr. Walrus (Chester Conklin) and Mr. Ambrose (Mack Swain) competing for her favours, Charlie is there too. Maybe this was due to a desire to play it safe after the expensive and extensive DOUGH AND DYNAMITE (which made a huge profit in the end so they needn’t have worried).

The idea of intercutting documentary footage of auto races with capering clowns is a weird one, but one that Keystone — and Chaplin — returned to remorselessly. The documentary dilutes the slapstick and the slapstick… well, it doesn’t harm the documentary because that’s just utterly boring. This one has a crazily long shot of a tyre being changed to set the scene. It’s against the clock, but Chaplin is not the kind of filmmaker who can create exciting suspense from a technical exercise involving non-characters. He just tripods it, panning about a foot one way, then back again. It’s not exactly THE WAGES OF FEAR, is it?

Big Phyllis Allen makes a pass at Chester and he’s tempted to ditch Mabel, which seems… strange. But maybe he likes them large. Mabel was miniscule.

Chaplin enters, introduced by title card as “Mr. Wow-Wow, a disturbing influence.” He’s smartly dressed in a long, loose jacket, but with bowler, moustache and cane, with which he immediately thwacks Swain’s capacious buttocks. So, he’s not quite the Tramp, just Chaplin using some Tramp signifiers. He tries to get into the racetrack without paying by walking backwards, hoping they’ll think he’s leaving. I like that bit.

Swain overacts pretty wildly in the early shorts, and seems weak compared even to Conklin. He doesn’t intimidate Charlie, so the David & Goliath thing that Eric Campbell would help cement isn’t functioning. Later, in THE GOLD RUSH, Swain is even bigger, acts better, and even as a friend to the Little Fellow, is a convincing THREAT. Big people are a menace even when they’re nice, is a lynchpin of the Chaplin worldview.

Forming an alliance, Wow-wow and Ambrose try to sneak into the stadium but Ambrose gets stuck halfway through an opening, leading to lengthy abuse. A woman with a soda seltzer appears, somewhat mysteriously, and Chaplin gets to spritz his first spritzee, Mack. He hasn’t thrown a single pie at Keystone, despite all the pastry abuse in his previous short, but at least he gets to spray.

Wow-Wow now lights a match on Mr. Walrus’s pant seat, amusing the fickle Mabel (well, she has just seen him flirting outrageously with Phyllis Allen). Walrus gets all up in Wow-Wow’s face, and thus gets his nose bitten. Chaplin hangs on there like a conger eel. Picks his teeth afterwards as if he’s actually bitten off actual substance from Conklin’s conk. Shades of brother Sydney’s cannibalistic atrocity.

Separated from the crowd by a fence, Wow-Wow taunts and thwacks the rowdy faces, a brutish bit of business in which nobody seems remotely appealing, the thugs behind the wire mesh or the arrogant and vicious cane-wielder. The later Charlie character is much closer to that seen in his previous couple of pictures, an inadvertently disturbing influence rather than just a nasty piece of work. Minutes later he’s singeing Mr. Ambrose’s nose with his cigarette and kicking him in the gut… it’s not charming and it’s not funny.

Chaplin well knew this stuff bore little relationship to comedy, but he felt duty-bound to give Sennett what he demanded, and this sadism may constitute a “running for cover” after the overrun of DOUGH & DYNAMITE. As Chaplin would write in a 1922 article, “The comic spirit meant to me at the beginning of my screen career, as it still means to many people, a series of “gags” and funny business of a not very high order–anything to capture a moment’s laughter or to stir the most elementary sense of the ridiculous. Now, this broad and slapstick kind of comedy, compounded mostly of boisterous spirits and physical violence, has about the same relation to humor as tickling a man on the soles of his feet with a wisp of straw.” He’s not wrong.

Wow-Wow meets another pretty girl and steals a sook of her Coke. Caught at it, he looks innocently skywards, like Harpo. Walrus is flirting with Phyllis again so Mabel walks out on him and collides with Wow-Wow (those bloody names! “Mabel” is bad enough). She sits on his hat and destroys it. The surrounding actors are laughing at all this business, which doesn’t make it any funnier.

Some byplay with a jalopy driver whose “racecar” sports an enormous front propellor. A very fine showcasing of the Chaplin cornering hop.

Conklin/Walrus whispers some kind of inappropriate suggestion to Phyllis and gets duffed up. This movie has more plot threads than Bleak House, but fortunately they all consist solely of idiots hitting each other so it’s easy to follow.

Conklin returns to Mabel and tries to claim her by force. Now we’re actually on Wow-Wow’s side as he delivers a punitive drubbing. Toothbrush versus Walrus in the World Series of Moustaches. Walrus collides with Ambrose and both get hauled off by a Kop. Wow-Wow and Mabel laugh delitedly, and it’s a rare instance of Chaplin expressing joy with his natural toothy grin and laugh. We end on lots of affectionate stuff with Mabel, one of the few co-stars Chaplin never got to first base with.

“I’m not your type, neither are you mine,” he says she told him.

Barbara Steele just told me she had lunch with Chaplin and Oona when she was 19. He was all excited because somebody had just let him have the use of a holiday home in St Tropez. I guess this would be around the time of A KING IN NEW YORK and he had some money trouble after leaving America I believe, so a free house would be great news.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to finish the Keystones this year, so that his December output would synch up with mine and I can start next year afresh with the Essanay films, but he’s making them faster than I can write about them (well, I started in the middle of my year and he started at the beginning of his). So I think I’ll run in to January — we have a whole feature film to contend with. But I’ll still get an Essanay done that month, and then it’s more or less one Chaplin per month for 2021. Join me!

Young man Charlie laughing goes all double-chinned, and suddenly we get a glimpse of old man Charlie to come…

8 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Mr. Wow-Wow goes to the Races, or, Drive, he didn’t say”

  1. In the early days of Sundance the way I got into “sold out” screenings in the triplex was by walking backwards into the crowd of a film getting out. It got me into the entry space so I could then sneak into another auditorium—anyone who has operated cinemas knows no sold out show is really full.

  2. You might enjoy this article I wrote a few years ago. https://eatdrinkfilms.com/2014/06/06/charlie-was-my-co-pilot/

  3. David, I’m so glad you’re proceeding to Essanay and beyond! This is the best serially published book since “The Bonfire of the Vanities”!

  4. Superb, David E!

    Thanks, Gary!

    And Jack, yes, I may well release this as a book since it seems I now know how to use Amazon and it’s a potential moderate source of income.

  5. Simon Kane Says:

    Wages of Fear! THAT’S what Dough and donuts was nothing like! I was trying to think…

  6. Simon Kane Says:

    I find the big galoot Swain quite sweet in this. I feel I’m much closer to Ian Holm’s Napoleon in Time Bandits than you in my appreciation of little idiots hitting each other and am quite surprised it turns you off, given your own taste in pretty graphic dispatches (I’m thinking particularly of the Welshman in The Northleach Horror). I’m enjoying all of these so much, albeit belatedly. A thank you.

  7. Swain is usually a rather mild figure at this stage, and I suppose the gentle giant persona is a rare example of Keystone irony. Chaplin roughens him up for The Gold Rush and I guess that’s how I like him: a big friend for Charlie who nevertheless makes life tougher. And wants to eat him.

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