Chaplin, acquiring and refining his screen genius
Robert Morris | San Francisco | 02/12/2005
(2 out of 5 stars)
"This odd collection of three films features Chaplin first as a supporting player for Keystone early in 1914, and as the lead for First National in 1919, after a highly creative period at Essanay and Mutual. The contrast between the films is striking, and it is interesting, but unusual, to have them together in the same volume.
Of the two Keystones, The Knock Out is better, with Chaplin, in a supporting role for Fatty Arbuckle, stealing the scene as a referee in a boxing match. Most of the non-sense before Chaplin enters the picture is pure Keystonesque tedious physical comedy, although Arbuckle offers a few moments of charming absurdity as a pudgy amateur boxer facing "Cyclone Flynn". Suddenly, Chaplin emerges for the first time, does a quick ballet fall as he enters the ring -- and steals the rest of the fight scene. His gags are much funnier than what has transpired before -- he knocks Arbuckle down with a kick in the butt, then resumes his role as a referee by counting him out! Eventually, he is all arms and legs as the third fighter, even earning himself a towel by a trainer between rounds. Although the film eventually degrades into Keystone Cop chase mayhem, not appealing to most modern viewers, there is enough of Chaplin to be interesting.
Between Showers is an odd, and not very inspiring, vehicle for Ford Sterling, with Chaplin again offering a supporting foil. Sterling's character and antics are particularly dated for the modern viewer, but Charlie again has a few good moments, as a clumsy would-be knight assisting a damsel in distress as she attempts to fight the post-shower street puddles. Charlie has some early encounters with police as well as with Sterling, his nemesis for the attention of the damsel. Although neither get the girl, Chaplin definitely outshines Sterling here. It's all pretty lame stuff, but it lasts only one reel, and Chaplin is clearly starting to experiment with creative gags and gestures, which is fun to watch.
A Day's Pleasure, the First National entry, is overall the best in the bunch. Chaplin's creativity here point much more to the features that are to follow than to the creative output that preceded it. The pace is slower, the number of humorous moments fewer, but one senses that there is an attempt on his part to develop and exploit the potential of individual situations more completely, as he does with perfection by the time of his later silent features. This film does not work in general, and is one of the more forgettable of the Chaplin shorts, but it's worth a serious look for mining comic moments like the encounter on a ship between Chaplin and the bully while both are trying to fight sea-sickness, or the run-in with the traffic cop and disgruntled pedestrians at a busy intersection. This kind of humor is light-years away in sophistication from Keystone, although Chaplin is still experimenting here and will get much better by the time of films like The Circus.
The visual quality of the Keystone films, especially The Knock Out, is very bad, and distracting to the viewer, and the background music is mostly pure noise. In general, the collection was hastily put together without any desire to produce something that would increase our appreciation of Chaplin. Fortunately, Chaplin still does that on his own. I would recommend purchasing a cheap used copy of this collection, as I did. There might be enough for serious Chaplin lovers to entertain."