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.
Charlie Chaplin gets drunk and creates a whole lot of trouble in the 1914 short Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Released a mere two days after Kid Auto Races at Venice, this silent romp was written by Henry Lehrman and features Mabel Normand as the director and star. This is the third Chaplin movie for Keystone Studios, with Mack Sennett as producer.
While his famed Tramp character was initially presented to the public in Kid Auto Races at Venice, Chaplin filmed Mabel’s Strange Predicament a few days before and the iconic conception was put together. His “baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat” would become what he would describe as a “contradiction.” The moustache was an addition to add age without obscuring his expression.
The Tramp (Chaplin) is hanging out in a ritzy hotel lobby. He’s swigging from a flask and harassing people. Mabel (Normand) arrives and heads to her room with her dog. She’s apparently waiting for her lover (Harry McCoy) in her pajamas when her dog locks her out of her room. The Tramp chases her around the hallway.
Eventually, Mabel takes solace under the bed of the husband (Chester Conklin) across the hall. Coincidentally, the husband also happens to be friends with her lover. When he visits the husband while waiting for Mabel, he sees her under the bed and all hell breaks loose. The wife (Alice Davenport) also returns and the Tramp just has to get involved, too.
Mabel’s Strange Predicament finds Chaplin once again playing a jerk. Like in Kid Auto Races at Venice, the Tramp is intrusive. In this outing, he is intoxicated and really gets to play the heel. The derby hat is off-kilter and sometimes he can’t sit down without tumbling out of the chair. But he has money, as he tips the hotel staff when they shovel him up off the ground.
While this may not suggest that Chaplin’s character is a fixture of high society, he’s definitely not broke and he seems to have some kind of reputation. The hotel staff doesn’t just kick the Tramp out when he starts grabbing at the womenfolk and they seem relatively concerned with his wellbeing.
The Tramp is the catalyst to everything in this tale of misunderstandings and he drives what is essentially a bedroom farce. Variations on the theme would factor in several screwball comedies and Mabel’s Strange Predicament plays well with the underlying sexual suggestions. Mabel may be clad in pajamas, but there’s still a thread of indecency when she gets caught out of her room.
Normand is one hell of a physical performer and she plays well off of Chaplin. The two would star in over a dozen movies together, with the filmmaker and actress and screenwriter and producer receiving sole directorial credit for this one. Cinematographer H. F. Koenekamp captures the frantic slapstick scenes with a breezy style.
Mabel’s Strange Predicament represents a step forward for Chaplin and his development of a pure character. His Tramp is still a pest and it’s tempting to hiss at some of his antics. His use of the cane is of particular note, especially when he accidentally wallops himself in the head. He’s a show-off and he earns every single hit he takes. His falls are hysterical, too.
A highly amusing short from Normand, Mabel’s Strange Predicament is an essential piece of Chaplin’s development and a pretty damn hilarious picture in its own right. The silent short abounds with a true sense of mischief and the troublesome Tramp creates a whole lot of trouble with a little drinkie-poo.