In this feature, I’ll be taking a look at the films of Charlie Chaplin. I’ll be including the shorts (where possible) and will hopefully delve into what makes him such an indomitable social and cultural figure to this very day. As with my Hitchmania feature, my approach will be somewhat haphazard. Things will run chronologically and there may be an essay or two to further discuss a particular period (for example, the Keystone period and so forth). I hope you’ll join me for what should be a lot of fun.
An umbrella is the beginning and end of all trouble in the hilarious Between Showers. This 1914 silent short film is directed by Henry Lehrman with a screenplay by Reed Heustis. This Keystone Studios production was released in late February and features the cinematography of Frank D. Williams, who was behind the camera for many of Charlie Chaplin’s first pictures.
There is a lot of broad slapstick in Between Showers, but there are also quite a few subtle details. For one, it’s interesting to note that the two lead characters are referred to as “mashers.” In historical usage, a masher is a man who makes often unwelcome advances to women. He is, in his own swollen self-regard, God’s gift to the female sex.
Chaplin and Ford Sterling are mashers. They are also rivals. As the picture begins, Sterling’s character is attempting to swipe an umbrella from a moustachioed policeman (Chester Conklin). The cop is chatting up a fine young woman (Sadie Lampe) and doesn’t notice the theft. The rain pours and a woman (Emma Bell Clifton) finds herself facing one hell of a puddle.
Sterling’s masher comes across the woman and decides to help her. Chaplin’s masher has the same designs, but a valiant copper (Edward Nolan) carries her to the other side of the street. Frustrated, Sterling’s character chases down the woman and wants his umbrella back. Chaplin’s masher laughs it off until he gets involved in the big rumble.
The two mashers fight it out for the honour of the woman, but it really comes down to expectations. Sterling wants something out of the interaction and isn’t pleased when the woman absconds with the umbrella. He physically attacks her, but he’s over his depth and Clifton beats the crap out of him. Chaplin’s character has a good snicker at the expense of his rival.
But eventually Chaplin’s masher gets involved and his expectations come into play. He uses the umbrella as a weapon and even throws someone else’s shoes, all while Clifton watches. She has no interest in either of the two jackasses and it shows. When Chaplin starts flirting, she wants no part of it. He, too, has to manage his expectations.
There are a lot of neat Chaplin touches, like when he subtly misjudges a dismount from the curb or when he clobbers himself in the face with the umbrella during his trademark spin. It’s also hard not to laugh when he laughs, especially when he raises his hand to his face.
Sterling isn’t as refined and that’s okay. His character hauls out the jumping run and is akin to an overstated cartoon character. He’s a ball of fire and his energy comes from his pomposity: despite his theft of the umbrella, his masher firmly believes he’s in the right. His collision with Clifton’s character is very much based on the same conception.
Between Showers may devolve (or evolve, depending on your outlook) into a brawl for the ages, it does have something interesting to say about the art of wooing women. Every man in the short is somehow engaged in trying to sweep a lady off her proverbial feet, but only the good guys have some luck.
While it’s probably a reach to suggest that this slapstick short makes a particularly profound statement, there’s a lot of amusement to be found at the hands of the wretched competitors. Their machismo is riotously ill-advised and it’s no surprise they throw vehement tantrums when they don’t get their way.