In 1913, while on tour in the United States with a British comedy group (Fred Karno’s comedy troupe), Charlie Chaplin accepted a contract to perform in a series of short silent films for Mack Sennett’s Keystone film company in a little town called Los Angeles, California. Though the film company is now long gone, the large warehouse where these shorts were made remains standing in Los Angeles and is used today as a storage facility.
I watched the following selection of Chaplin’s Keystone films. This is a small sampling of his larger collection of 36 films he made while at Keystone. Interestingly enough, some of Chaplin’s Keystone films show Chaplin performing in various roles, not simply as his Little Tramp alter-ego.
#1 Making A Living (1914)
The first of Chaplin’s Keystone films is odd – it is perhaps the least funny Chaplin film ever made, and it does not include his notable “Tramp” character. Chaplin plays an awkward British swindler masquerading as an English gentleman. He spends the film running from the police and stealing the girlfriend of his rival. He is a significantly less sympathetic character than the little “Tramp”.
Chaplin maintained a low opinion of this film throughout his career. While filming this short, he had significant disputes with his co-star who was jealous of Chaplin’s skills. Chaplin remained frustrated with the botched editing job of this one. Here, already we can see the seed of a perfectionist who is soon to become an auteur.
#2 Kid At The Auto Races (1914)
Chaplin had actually filmed Mabel’s Strange Predicament first, but Kid At The Auto Races was released first. It is the first on-screen performance of his famous “Tramp” character. The film is truly amazing – it features Chaplin roaming around during a day at the auto races as he performs various spontaneous gags amidst large crowds of confused and unsuspecting people. It was shot at the Junior Vanderbilt Cup in Venice, California and it remains today a very funny film.
#3 Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914)
Chaplin plays a drunk “Tramp” in a hotel lobby. He amusingly pursues a lady through the hotel until she hides in an older man’s room, but she is caught by the man’s wife who then attacks her husband, the lady, as well as the “Tramp.” Several other “Mabel” films were made by Chaplin while at Keystone.
In many of the other Keystone films Chaplin then played various roles from a police officer to a pickpocket and a villain, until in Spring 1914, after disagreements with Director Mack Sennett, it was agreed that Chaplin would be allowed to direct and act in his own movies. Sadly for some of the films, such as Caught In A Cabaret, and Her Friend the Bandit the footage is entirely lost.
#12 Twenty Minutes of Love (1914)
Twenty Minutes of Love is Charlie Chaplin’s directorial debut! This short 10+ minute film shows a level of sophistication not seen in the earlier Keystone films (this was film #12 of his 36 Keystone films). In the short film, he plays his famous “Tramp” character as he roams around a public park causing havoc for various amorous couples. At one point, he steals a valuable watch, gives it to a woman and accidentally causes a hilarious violent outbreak that ends with everyone falling into the lake except for the tramp and his new lover.
#14 Caught in the Rain (1914)
This short film is a delight, though some of the footage is now lost. In it, the “tramp” wanders through a park and attempts to steal another man’s paramour, but he is then attacked by the man. The Tramp goes to a nearby saloon and gets drunk stumbling through the road and wandering into the very hotel where the man and woman are staying. They become entrapped in several awkward situations, with Chaplin being trapped in the rain outside on the balcony, and the police arrive only to be quickly chased away as the remaining parties all collapse in a drunken stupor. This was technically the first film Chaplin directed for Keystone, but it was not the first of his directed films to be released. Therefore it is not considered his directorial debut.
#30 Dough and Dynamite (1914)
This was the most successful of Chaplin’s Keystone films, and one of the longest (it has a run-time of over 30 minutes). Mack Sennett once called it Chaplin’s breakout film during his time at Keystone. It is a hilarious movie in which Chaplin again plays his “Tramp” character, who is this time a clumsy waiter in what appears to be a European restaurant. He angers several high profile customers, just as the bakers go on strike for higher wages and demand less work-time, so the Tramp is sent to work in the bakery to fill in for their absence. However, “The Tramp” disappoints in this role, as well, and just as things get out of hand for he and his compatriot, the striking bakers return with a smuggled stick of dynamite inside a loaf of bread which blows up the whole restaurant. As the film concludes, the “tramp” amusingly emerges from a pile of rubble. In this classic, I picked up a Dickensian theme which will return in many more Chaplin films (most notably in Modern Times in 1936) of sympathy for the working class struggle. Chaplin’s tender heart for this cause was so great, in fact, that he was suspected of being a communist and effectively barred from the United States in later years.