Saturday, March 3, 2012

An Introduction To Charlie Chaplin And His Films At Keystone Studios

Like a majority of Americans and pretty much everybody else, I used to equate a good film with explosions, sex scenes, beautiful women, swords, guns, and Al Pacino. It wasn't until I decided to take my film-viewing experience seriously, that I decided to watch some quality film, namely, the most influential and important films of all time, like Borat.... No. Anyway, I've journeyed across countless genres, directors, and actors, and have had a blast of a time. Now, my journey has taken me to classic comedy. And as a result, I met the (not gay) love of my life: Sir Charles Chaplin.... Ok, maybe a little gay... No...


The Man

It's only fitting that before you learn about the films of the great Charles Chaplin, that you know a little bit about him.

Before I ventured into the Classic Comedy realm, I had little tidbits of knowledge about Charlie Chaplin. I somewhat knew who he was but as I would learn later, I actually had no idea. I saw Charlie as one of those crazy slapstick comedians who used to throw pies at people and run around in a silly costume, which is what I thought of all silent slapstick comedians. Well, I was somewhat right (the pie-throwing deal is more of a Laurel and Hardy gag.) Soon, I would discover that Charlie Chaplin was one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and at one point, was the most popular man on Earth.

Charlie Chaplin was one of the first, if not THE first, superstar of Hollywood. Within a year of his first appearance, crowds would form wherever he went. Within two years, he would be the most recognizable face on the planet. And he would go on to make more money than any star before him. Now, Charlie wasn't just an actor. He was a writer, director, producer, and composer as well. Not many people have been able to pull that off, and those that did, are some of the greatest filmmakers we've ever known. The silent film star would forever change the way people looked at comedies, being one of the first filmmakers to blend comedy with drama. He would create some of the most iconic images of classic comedy and he would pave the way for what a comic can do, say, and create. He would go on to become a legend.

Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr. was born on, well, actually the details of his birth aren't exactly definite. Records of his birth were never discovered. But Charlie gives his place and date of birth as April 16, 1889 in Walworth, London, England. (Yeah he's British, which is something that totally surprised me). Charlie may grow up to be the highest paid actor in Hollywood, but his life was anything but charmed. He would go through harrowing trials and hardships, living in poverty and struggling with the world around him.

He was raised in the cockney slums by his music hall parents, who brought him into the family business. Actually, saying that he was raised by both his parents is inaccurate. Charlie's father, Charles Chaplin Sr, was a drunk with very violent and destructive tendencies. He would be in and out of Charlie's life (but mostly out) until he would die of liver failure, when Charlie was only twelve. Struggling from the strain of raising two boys on her own, Charlie's mother, Hannah Chaplin, suffered from mental health issues, and was in and out of insane asylums for the next thirty-odd years. As a result, Charlie and his brother Sydney were in and out of different workhouses, homes, and schools just as much. Despite this, she was always a shining light in the lives of the two brothers.

It's been said that Charlie's first performance was when he did a song and dance act to fill in for his mother, who was being booed off the stage. Determined to save his mother's act, he jumped on stage and started doing the act himself. This would later be depicted in the biopic "Chaplin" released in 1992 and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie. Eventually, Charlie would find work in a clog dancing troupe where he achieved much local praise and attention for his talent. As a result, he performed in a play about Sherlock Holmes, where he would work with his brother Sydney. Sydney would then go on to work in a comedy act for Fred Karno, who owned one of the biggest comedy shows in London. Sydney recommended his brother to Karno and after auditioning for him, Karno was glad to have him on, doing a "drunk act" wherein Charlie would act like a stumbling bumbling drunk on stage. Ironically, it's been said that he learned to do so from studying his father and local drunks in his area. This wouldn't be the first time Charlie would take painful memories from his childhood and turn them into humorous jokes and gags. It's one of the shining examples of his genius.

Karno took his act and his actors on a tour to America, where Mack Sennet would discover him and sign him up for a deal at Keystone Studios.Little did Charlie know that his work at Keystone would be where his fame would skyrocket in a manner unseen before. And also, it would be the birth of a legend, and his legendary character: The Little Tramp.

The Tramp

A small bowler derby hat, a toothbrush mustache, a tight coat, very baggy pants, over-sized shoes on the opposite foot, and a bamboo cane. This is the image of The Little Tramp, or just The Tramp as he is also known, who is Charlie Chaplin's most famous and recognizable character. They say that the measure of a really great character is using "the silhouette test." That is, the more recognizable a character is from their silhouette alone, the more iconic the character would become. And The Tramp's silhouette may very well be one of the most instantly recognizable images in American culture.

The Tramp has been Charlie's way into our hearts. He represents everything Charlie stands for, and he embodies the very essence of his films. He has been Charlie's vehicle and vessel for laughter, tears, and joy for nearly every single one of his 82 (yes, 82) films of his lifetime. The Tramp is a poor, destitute vagabond, with a heart of platinum and a strong will. He's also a clumsy silly fool, that is often the victim of circumstances and coincidences that lead him into wild adventures and strange and hilarious situations. But at his core, he's just an innocent hopeless romantic, looking for love and acceptance, just like any one of us. But also just like all of us, he's not a perfect saint, but he has a good heart, and he tries his best to be a good person. He is the character that America and the world fell in love with. And who could blame them when Charlie's impeccable charm and charisma would erupt out of the character every second he appeared on screen? Although the Tramp is usually portrayed as a homeless vagrant, he sometimes has certain "incarnations" wherein he has the same spirit and spunk of the Tramp but isn't exactly the same character. Like when he has a wife and children in A Day's Pleasure or in the numerous films where he has a job and a house like in Pay Day. Some people still consider these films as "Tramp films" and I agree with them. But Charlie doesn't play the Tramp in every film, even though his character may resemble him.

The Tramp is known the world over for his trademark behavior and mannerisms, like the polite tipping of the hat, the cutesy smile, the twirl of the cane, the iconic splay-footed walk, the limb-flailing run, the "skidding" turn, the panicked look, and the "leaning gag" among many many others. It's all what made Charlie such a physical comic genius. But it's so much more than that. The Tramp is much more than just a clown that acts funny. There is something about him, an untouchable unnameable quality that just exudes whimsy and charm. He has a sense of playful innocence about himself, something that's wholly unique to him. Sure, there were many silent comedians that portrayed several similar characters. The Tramp character was actually a staple of vaudeville (a form of music hall theater.) But it's Charlie's Little Tramp that we remember, because it was Charlie that was the best. It's a truly unique experience to watch him perform.

Later on in his career, Charlie would show us that The Tramp is more than just a silly clown. He's an honest, whole-hearted human being that you can't help but cheer for. He's the ultimate hero. A hero that triumphs over adversity, and fights the powers that be. A hero that's a commoner that represents every man's own struggle against the world around him, and the forces that are out of his control. A hero that makes us laugh, smile, and rejoice. A hero that would get kicked in the butt many times. A hero that Charlie would create in his time at Keystone Studios, where he worked for Mack Sennet. And it's where the world would first meet the darling Little Tramp, a legend and hero..... and recipient of kicks to the butt.

The Films: Keystone Studios

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) Charlie's first appearance as The Little Tramp
Being a theatre and music hall performer, Charlie was unsure about his transition to the moving pictures. It was a foreign world to him and he wasn't very confident he would be successful. But thank heavens that he took a chance and went for it, otherwise the world may have never learned of his legendary ability and talent.

Charlie's very first film was Making A Living. It didn't turn out as good as anybody was hoping. Both Charlie and Mack Sennet (the founder of Keystone) were disappointed with the results. And both of them were considering the fact that this was a mistake. But they decided to hold out, and we're glad they did. During the production of Keystone's next picture, Mabel's Strange Predicament, Charlie was asked to create his own costume and makeup, mostly because he (and everyone else) were dissatisfied with his performance in Making A Living. Unfortunately, on the day of the shoot, Charlie arrived to the studio far too late and was forced to create his costume on the fly. In an instant, Charlie had formed an idea in his mind. He wanted everything to be a contradiction, the small hat and the tight coat, in contrast to the baggy pants and huge shoes. He was actually forced to wear the shoes on opposite feet, in order for them to fit. Sennet had told him that he was to portray an older man, so when looking for facial hair, Charlie decided on the toothbrush mustache because he felt it was small enough to still show his face and allow the audience to read his facial expressions. On his way to the set, he established who the character was, how he walked, how he moved, taking influence from the drunks in his neighborhood. And thus, The Tramp was born.

Although it was Mabel's Strange Predicament where The Tramp would be born, it would be the film Kid Auto Races At Venice where he would be first seen. Kid Auto Races was scheduled to be made first, but it was delayed due to weather conditions. As a result, Mabel's Strange Predicament was produced first. But then production focus went back to Kid Auto Races when the weather cleared, and was thus released before. The world was a abuzz. Charlie Chaplin was a star almost overnight.

Keystone found great success with their new star. Although, a good first half of Charlie's Keystone films were not written or directed by him. Charlie quickly learned that he did not like being directed and it showed in his performance. Production continued to falter as Charlie was having more and more difficulty taking orders from others. Things only got worse when he was directed by Mabel Normand, who was romantically involved with Sennet. Charlie especially disliked being directed by a woman and the two did not get along at first. Don't think of it as Charlie being a prima donna or anything like that. You have to understand that Charlie was raised in the kill-or-be-killed cockney slums. If you were a pushover, you were dead. Growing up around other hot-headed gangsters and footballers, their behavior rubbed off on him. Anyway, demand for more Chaplin films were skyrocketing and Sennet needed a solution to make production go smoother. Charlie then offered to write and direct himself, even offering up his own savings. Sennet obliged and the journey to magic began. But Charlie wasn't exactly a prodigy. Charlie's first attempts weren't masterpieces. But Charlie wasn't completely to blame here. He had often stated that he didn't enjoy his early work as much because he didn't have as much artistic freedom as you might expect. Mack Sennet produced all his films at Keystone, and therefore had last say on what made the chopping block. Charlie was, to say the least, not satisfied. His first written and directed film, Twenty Minutes of Love (which will be reviewed later) is a testament to this. It's not a bad film, but it's miles away from what he will accomplish later on.

Before I start reviewing his films, allow me to make a few points. Keep in mind, that these films are almost ONE-HUNDRED YEARS OLD. Now, really think about that for a second. That's amazing. Most of Chariie's early work shows its age, because films were drastically different back then. It may be difficult to appreciate, but if you have the patience and watch with an open-mind, many of these films are actually pretty good. But they certainly lack the timelessness that made Charlie's best work so immortal. A majority of his early films pale in comparison to his masterpieces. Actually, "pale" isn't the right word. They "albino" in comparison. No, I'm sorry that was inappropriate. They "bucket" in comparison. That one's good. Anyway, just because they are so different from his best work doesn't mean they're not worth watching. Something you will probably learn when you see the first twelve seconds of any of his films, is that Charlie is a cinematic magician, or as I like to call him, a cinemagician. See what I did there? Pretty great huh? Anyway, I could watch Charlie eat a bowl of soup for an hour and be entertained. That's how magical he is. But for any newcomers to Charlie's loving family, I actually don't recommend you watch his early films first. I recommend you see his features first, which I'll get into in the United Artists article. But to any hardcore Chaplin fan, his films at Keystone are a testament to his humble beginnings and essential for any Chaplin film completist.

Charlie made 36 films with Keystone (Yeah. 36. In a span of 10 months. Yeah.) and I don't want to eat up your time with posting my review for every single one. So, I've chosen nine reviews of Charlie's most notable Keystone films. Here you go.

Making A Living (A Busted Johnny)( Doing His Best) (Take My Picture)(Troubles) (1914)
Producer: Mack Sennet
Writer/Director: Henry Lehrman
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee
RATING: 50/100
In Making A Living, Charlie plays a role that will be much different than the role that he becomes famous for. He plays a snide con artist looking to make a quick buck. And he does so the only way he knows how, trying to double cross and trick a local news reporter. 

Making A Living is hard to follow, not very funny, and just overall feels dated. But it's worth watching to see Charlie in his first movie which is essential for any hardcore fan. He plays a significantly different character than the Tramp, and it should be rather interesting for any fan to see Charlie in such a different role. There are a couple of pretty funny moments but everything about the film is fairly mediocre.

Kid Auto Races at Venice (The Pest) (1914)
Producer: Mack Sennet
Writer/Director: Henry Lehrman
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Henry Lehrman
RATING: 70/100
In the Tramp's debut, he stars in a film that's alternately referred to as "The Pest" which is probably a more appropriate title, seeing as that's the role he plays. At an auto kart race for kids at Venice (in case you didn't figure that out from the title), a group of cameramen are having trouble covering the event when the camera-hungry attention-grabbing Tramp won't stop interfering with the shoot. Hilarity follows.

It's amazing what Charlie can do with so little. There's no tangible plot, or anything else that goes on aside from The Tramp getting in the way of filming a race, but what's amazing is how funny it can get. The joke runs dry fairly fast, but Charlie's charm explodes off the screen and you get the incredibly humbling feeling that every one there at the races must have felt: a legend is being born.

Mabel's Strange Predicament (Hotel Mixup) (1914)
Producer: Mack Sennet
Writer/Director: Henry Lehrman
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin
RATING: 50/100
Charlie plays a more secondary character than his other films here, as Mable Normand plays the titular character. Charlie is a drunk going after a sweet young thang in a hotel, while she deals with other men trouble at the same time.

A very crude and messy short, but hard to disrespect, as this is the Tramp's first actual film (Kid Auto Races was more like a home movie than a film). You can almost see the full potential of the little fellow erupting out of his character and it's an honor to behold. Too bad it's vehicle is so boring, unfunny, and confusing.

Twenty Minutes of Love (1914)
Producer: Mack Sennet
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy

RATING: 60/100
The film Twenty Minutes of Love has a very apt title, because that's mostly what the film is. Laughter emanates as Charlie gets mixed up in a couple's affairs while strolling through the park... one day... in the merry month of ....may.

Twenty Minutes of Love was Chaplin's first written and directed movie and in a way, it shows. It shows early traces of his trademark ingenuity, but it's still in it's primitive and crude stages, i.e. not fully realized.

Twenty Minutes of Love is another one of Charlie's less impressive shorts, but still manages to be thoroughly enjoyable and amusing due to Charlie's impeccably brilliant charm and unique comedic stylings.

The Face on the Barroom Floor (The Ham Actor) (The Ham Artist) (1914)
Producer: Mack Sennet
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin, Hugh Antoine d'Arcy (poem)
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Cecile Arnold
RATING: 50/100
This Keystone short is actually an adaptation of a poem written by Hugh Anto- well, the guy that's listed up there. Too lazy to write it. Or copy and paste it. But then again, typing this out is even more effort. Hell, I'll just put his name down. The poem is written by Hugh Antoine d'Arcy, a French poet from the early 1900's. The poem has been actually used in several other films and mediums since this film. The poem is the story of a drunkard, but a drunkard who wasn't always a drunkard, and actually used to be a successful man. He tells his story to the local patrons at the bar. And then keeps on falling over when he tries to draw her picture on the floor.
On the one hand, The Face on the Bar Room Floor is a rather different Chaplin film than you might expect with a different style than his other films, but on the other hand, it's far too technically messy to appreciate. I had trouble understanding the story and what was going on.There are a couple or so pretty funny gags, but the entire film isn't all that funny and is rather disappointing. The story is actually fairly good, but I had to read it from a synopsis to understand it.

Tango Tangles (Charlie's Recreation) (Music Hall) (1914)
Producer: Mack Sennet
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin
RATING: 65/100
There's not much going on here, it's basically just Charlie and some guy fighting over a girl on the dance floor. But knowing Charlie, he can make magic out of anything, just like a.... um... magician. Yeah.

Recreation has it's moments, and the story is pretty fun but it's only just a mildly enjoyable slapstick comedy. It's a pretty amusing experience.

Those Love Pangs (Busted Girls) (Oh, You Girls) (1914)
Producer: Mack Sennet
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin
RATING: 60/100
In this film, Mr. Chaplin and his rival vie for their landlady's romantic attention. As you might guess, things don't work out too well.

There's one or two funny moments but nothing that hilarious, and the story is fairly uninteresting. Non-fans of Charlie may not enjoy this as much, the entire experience feels too crude to enjoy. But as always, Charlie's a class act.

Dough and Dynamite (The Cook) (The Doughnut) (1914)
Producer: Mack Sennet
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennet (co-writer)
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin

RATING: 65/100
In this film alternatively titled The Doughnut, Charlie and Chester Conklin play a couple of dough nuts (haha see that? I made a play on words! Yay!). But seriously, they play waiters at a bakery/restaurant that are forced to work as bakers when the bakers go on strike. But what a second. They're not bakers! They're waiters! They don't know how to bake! That's hilarious! But seriously, it actually is pretty funny.

Although, Dough and Dynamite is regrettably another one of Chaplin's rough shorts. It's got a couple or so pretty great moments, but overall, it's another one of Chaplin's not-quite-there-but-on-it's-way-but-still-pretty-funny-and-enjoyable type shorts. This is before Charlie perfected his method, and before he had full creative control, so the result isn't very impressive, but it's not too bad.

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)
Producer/Director: Mack Sennet
Writer: Mack Sennet, Hampton Del Ruth, Edgar Smith
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain
RATING: 67/100
Charlie Chaplin's first time starring in a full-length feature and also the last time that he would be directed by someone other than himself. It's based on Marie Dressler's play ,Tillie's Nightmare, wherein she plays the same role. It tells the story of a harmless innocent girl becoming victim to a thieving fiendish swindler that's played surprisingly by Chaplin. It's a drastically different role than what people may be used to, just keep in mind that he's NOT the Tramp here.
Tillie's Punctured Romance is quite the interesting film, with a somewhat original and amusing story, and a deliciously different role for Charlie. Too bad it's not very funny.

What's great about Tillie's Punctured Romance is that the story is surprisingly interesting and fresh, it's much more intelligent and clever than a majority of the Keystone films and as a result, the film feels more accessible. But sadly, that's where the accessibility ends. The acting from the supporting cast and a majority of the humor, all feel dated. If not for Charlie, this film would've crumbled completely. But he saves the day with his spotless charm and charisma, despite playing a rather despicable character that's a great deviation from his Tramp character. Charlie plays a conniving scoundrel thief, and even though you want to hate him, you can't help but love him. That's the magic of Charlie Chaplin. But he can only do so much. The film drags on a bit, and that's saying something when it's only about 70 minutes long. There are a couple or so pretty good funny moments, but the rest of the gags feel tired and run their course far too quickly.

The film should be thankful for the amusing story and Charlie's presence, as it saves the film from mediocrity and lame jokes. It's not that bad a film, you'll have a pretty good time and feel somewhat satisfied by the end. But if you're looking for a laugh-riot, look elsewhere.

There you have it, some of Charlie's most famous films of Keystone. But please don't let my ratings deter you. I can't stress enough how early this is in his career and how a little leniency is practically required. None of his Keystone films are really bad, they're just a bit crude for many reasons. One, it took Charlie nearly ten years to perfect his craft, after all, we can't all start at the top. Two, the age of these films show. Even though some of Charlie's best work would only be made five-ten years later, these films lack the timelessness and immortality that his masterpieces posses. Three, Charlie barely had any creative control. He's been quoted saying that he struggled greatly under the strain of a brutal work schedule and had difficulty in dealing with producers. Anybody would struggle under such conditions.

The Keystone shorts are still a must-see for any Chaplin enthusiast. You can find many DVD collections of his work on Amazon or other sites. Check out the link below.

These films are still a wonder to watch for any Chaplin fan but as I said earlier, I don't recommend viewers who've never seen a Chaplin film to start here. What I recommend you do is start from his features, start with the first feature he made and go along in order. Once you've finished those, go backwards in time with his shorts. But in any case, don't skimp on these films. Charlie had just begun here, but he would begin to find his way at the next company he would work at: Essanay Studios. But the films of Keystone are still worth a look. Give them a chance (and any other Keystone film), they may not have been up my alley, but they be up yours. Haha. I said "up yours."

Chaplin At Keystone International Collaboration





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