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 is once again the drunk in His Favorite Pastime. This 1914 silent short film is directed by George Nichols from a Craig Hutchinson screenplay. It is the eighth of Chaplin’s Keystone Studios pictures and it features the cinematography of Frank D. Williams.
His Favorite Pastime is bolder and broader than Tango Tangles and you really get the sense that Chaplin is stretching out, at least in terms of his slapstick possibilities. There is again an object of affection. This time, Peggy Pearce – Chaplin’s then-girlfriend – does the honours. She doesn’t have much to do, however.
Chaplin’s a drunken masher this time around and he starts his day where he starts most of his days: in a bar. It appears to be his regular joint and he gets into a bunch of predicaments with other customers. Roscoe Arbuckle is among the patrols and they scrap over a drink, plus Chaplin’s character has some trouble in the bathroom.
The real fun begins when the masher discovers a beautiful girl (Pearce) outside. She’s put off by her husband (Frank Opperman) at first, but he eventually decides to stalk her. The drunken masher finds the woman’s home and invades the territory, creating a stir with the housekeepers and eventually getting tossed out on his rear.
Once again, Chaplin’s investigation of masculinity gives his character an edge. His resolute pursuit of the woman sets him up in another competitive situation, which seems to be his wheelhouse. His masher manages to tangle with a saloon door, for crying out loud, so you can only imagine what he’s going to do when he finds another obstacle.
Said saloon door, by the way, highlights a fascinating shift in what Chaplin tries to do with his comedy. He manages to convert the inanimate world into an antagonist in a very bold, very confident way. While he’s grappled with tables and chairs and other things in the past, the swinging door knocks him flat and he has to tactically avoid it to dodge further punishment.
As with most of his other characters in the Keystone shorts so far, Chaplin’s masher is less than worthy of empathy. He is a creep and his drunken home invasion could be construed as a horror scenario under other circumstances. Indeed, the husband and wife don’t seem to find much humour in his intrusive ferocity.
It’s to Chaplin’s credit that he spins some pathetic gold out of what could’ve been a real mess. This transformative power is, naturally, the stuff that drives many of the early shorts and one gets the sense that there’s a lot more going on than he’s given space for. Chaplin’s sheer initiative makes his character wretched, but his sheer skill makes him entertaining.
Keystone’s penchant for brawling dampens the ending of His Favorite Pastime and takes the shine off the apple. Chaplin manages a hellacious fall from the stairway to the sofa and he doesn’t lose his cigarette the entire time, but the lunacy following the pratfall doesn’t build the comedy.
This instance is one of many where Chaplin’s work seems almost too inventive and too elusive for Keystone Studios. The short is the weaker for it and Nichols’ lack of cadence makes it a bumpy ride in places. Arbuckle’s transitory appearance isn’t worth much either and the blackface, very much a product of its time, makes His Favorite Pastime kind of fiddly.