I am feeling compunctious. I made promises of reviews and impressionistic accounts of real situations, but instead piled on the fiction (most recently my first example of ‘flash fiction’, and a terrible one-act play). This is because I have committed to producing things spontaneously in the few hours I give myself over to this blog, and writing informed reviews and opinions generally takes time and research (but see my rant about Marilynne Robinson’s essay on Darwinism). However, I’m still keen to share my highly biased opinions like any other self-involved internet user, so here are some ‘fairly spontaneous’ short film reviews.
A Busy Day/ The Fatal Mallet (1914)
A Chaplin double feature seems a good start. These shorts are from Chaplin’s time at Keystone studios under Mack Sennett. Mainly under the direction of others, Chaplin was not yet the genius writer, director, composer, and all-round master of filmmaking he would soon become. Nevertheless, his masterful slapstick performances in these shorts were what made his name famous throughout the world. These films are primarily of historical importance, with the slapstick antics of the stars, rather than any sort of plot, taking precedence. That being said, there are a few gems that still stand up today, including the vehicles of many other stars, such as Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Lormand (now considered a pioneering comedy writer/director/actor). All are worth a look.
In A Busy Day Chaplin adopts drag for the first time. The plot is apparently about a woman (Chaplin), who is initially sitting with her husband (big Mack Swain) watching a military parade, but is soon frustrated by her husband’s constant attempts to woo another (Phyllis Allen), and she sets out to put a stop to it. That dirty Swain!…so very sorry about that. In her attempts to chastise her wandering spouse, she encounters a cameraman (Sennett himself), and a policeman (Billy Gilbert), both of whom she greets with such violence that she makes ‘the Tramp’ look quite mild-mannered.
I must confess, the first time I watched this I had a slightly different impression. To me it seemed as if a lonely psychopath (perhaps an escapee from a mental hospital, and possibly even a man in drag) had decided to stalk and attack the poor man she/he happened to be sitting next to at the races, and the woman he was attempting to woo. Big Mack looked as if he was he was humouring the woman/man at the beginning, probably because it was clear that she/he was not stable. In this case, the unfortunate policeman was simply attempting to serve as protector to the innocent Swain. I personally think that this interpretation is more rewarding, and much more funny. Chaplin’s little rump swinging dance after attacking the policeman was definitely the highlight. Hilarious.
In conclusion, whilst this remains a lesser picture to many (some of his later attempts at drag are considered marginally better because he plays it ‘more feminine’), I think I love it. It’s one of the few Keystone shorts I’d happily watch over and over again. The visual reference to the tramps first appearance in Kid Auto Races at Venice was also rather nice. Now that was a good short, but I digress.
The Fatal Mallet sees Mabel Lormand being wooed by Chaplin (as ‘the Tramp’), Mack Sennett (as another tramp with tight clothes and tiny hat), and Mack Swain (as a big strong boy). Initially bullied by big Mack, the Tramp and Sennett’s ‘trampy’ character team up to torment him with bricks, before finally utilising a giant mallet that was lying around. Chaplin’s tramp soon betrays his comrade and pays dearly for it.
Naturally Chaplin is the standout. I can’t imagine the audience rooting for anyone but him in this scenario. I can’t stand Sennett in that get up (that infuriatingly tiny hat!), so at the end I was bitterly disappointed. Still, I suppose Sennett and Lormand were in a relationship at the time, and of course it was written and directed by Sennett. Big Mack did what he does best, playing a big angry brute (as he does in Chaplin’s brilliant early full length feature, The Gold Rush). As for Mabel, she does about as well as she could with the part, executing a few descent slapstick manoeuvres and coming across as the cheeky beauty she reputably was. Overall, it was a reasonably entertaining attempt, but hardly comparable to the best Keystone films, and less purely funny than the A Busy Day in my opinion.
Other than the Keystone boxset, I encourage Chaplin’s (not altogether objective) autobiography, all of the films he directed (full length and short), and the surprisingly descent academy award winning biopic, starring Robert Downy Jr.