Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cruel, Cruel Love (Keystone, 1914)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a couple of oddball movies I’d downloaded from archive.org. One was Cruel, Cruel Love, a Charlie Chaplin Keystone comedy from 1914 made while Chaplin was still groping his way towards a film character. Here he’s cast not as the lovable “Tramp” but on the other end of the socioeconomic scale, an aristocrat (the imdb.com page for the film lists his character as “Lord Helpus” but that’s not made clear in the version we saw — imdb.com also lists this as a two-reeler but the version we saw was just eight minutes) who’s dressed in top hat and sport coat with tails and has a considerably longer (but still visibly fake) moustache than the Chaplin we know — though the effect is somewhat off-putting since he’s still doing the famous gestures and, indeed, he’s overacting a lot more than he did as the “Tramp.” The gimmick in this one is he’s courting a woman of his own class (Minta Durfee, the first Mrs. Fatty Arbuckle) while her maid (Eva Nelson) is in unrequited love with him. When Chaplin leaves Minta’s home (incidentally the characters bear the same first names as the actors playing them) the maid accosts him on a park bench, Minta catches them necking and immediately breaks up with him, so Chaplin resolves to take poison — only his butler (Edgar Kennedy — I had no idea he’d ever worked with Chaplin!) substitutes water for the poison. Nonetheless Chaplin gets an hysterically overacted “death” scene (much the way Laurel and Hardy got visibly drunk on the fake “liquor” — actually tea — in Blotto: yet more evidence of how much Stan Laurel owed to Chaplin!) before the truth comes out and he and Minta reconcile.

The film was directed by George Nichols, whom Chaplin recalled in his autobiography as “an oldish man in his late fifties who had been in motion pictures since their inception. … He had but one gag, which was to take the comedian by the neck and bounce him from one scene to another. I tried to suggest subtler business, but … he would not listen. ‘We have no time, no time!’ he would cry. … Although I only mildly rebelled, it appears that he went to [Mack] Sennett saying that I was a son of a bitch to work with.” It’s a pretty relentless bit of typical Mack Sennett comedy, but Chaplin is good in it even though his early Keystones document just how much his work improved once he finally persuaded Sennett to let him write and direct his own films (the five-film Chaplin at Keystone compilation contains three films Chaplin didn’t direct and two that he did — including what may be his first masterpiece, The Rounders, based on an old music-hall sketch Chaplin had performed and a brilliantly funny showcase for Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle; indeed, one could make the case that Laurel and Hardy spent virtually their whole career remaking The Rounders!).