Also known as The Landlady’s Pet, 1914’s The Star Boarder is an amusing if abrupt silent short film. This is Charlie Chaplin’s 10th picture for Keystone Studios, with George Nichols in the director’s chair and Craig Hutchinson providing the screenplay. Naturally, Frank D. Williams is the cinematographer for this Mack Sennett production.
The Star Boarder is interesting for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most compelling facet is in the performance of one Gordon Griffith. The child actor is known for making a rather seamless transition from silent picture to talkies, but his first regular role came in Keystone’s Little Billy series. In The Star Boarder, he’s a bothersome brat.
Chaplin stars as a boarder renting a room from the landlady (Minta Durfee) and her husband (Edgar Kennedy). Other boarders include the likes of Phyllis Allen, Billy Gilbert and Jess Dandy, but Chaplin’s character is the clear favourite. When the landlady’s son (Griffith) films the star boarder in a compromising position with the landlady, all hell breaks loose in typical Keystone fashion.
There’s not much to The Star Boarder in terms of a plot and the action degenerates into an all-out brawl rather quickly. Chaplin is playing a spoiled brat and he brings an awful lot of fun to the part, especially when he plays to the affections of the landlady and raids the icebox for some liquid delights and a little pie.
Kennedy is the foil and his moustache is as extravagant as his acting chops. He plays against Chaplin’s shrewder Tramp ensemble and takes all the mad swings. He even puts the star boarder through a table and lugs him out from under it in a noteworthy display of slapstick violence.
But Chaplin’s worst struggles, at least in terms of the brawl-for-all, come when he tangles with a sheet. Here, the actor once again turns the inorganic world into an foe. As with the saloon door in His Favorite Pastime, the sheet becomes a rival that he has to contend with or succumb to. As hearty as Kennedy’s character is, there’s more to worry about for the star boarder.
Of course, Durfee plays innocent through the whole thing and any compromising positions do appear to be the result of bad timing and Griffith’s curious camera angles. His camera tends to bring out the worst in the lodgers and the kid has a good laugh at the trouble he’s causing. Leave it to his mother to pass on a whooping.
The Star Boarder has some hysterical comedic pieces, including a moment when Chaplin sits on a pie to hide his theft. This extension of his drunk act suggests certain dignity, like he’s progressing his character before our very eyes. Couple this fruition with his intoxicating giggle and the recipe for a fully-formed Tramp emerges.
By this point, Chaplin is finding beauty in restraint. He expands on his good fortune with little dances and smiles, underlining the fact that he knows he’s the titular character. His landing of the affections of his landlady, however it came about, serves him very well and he has no problem being the house favourite.