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.
It is a matter of some speculation as to Charlie Chaplin’s involvement as the creative driver of the 1914 short silent feature Twenty Minutes of Love, but most observers consider this as a kind of statement of intent. According to his autobiography, this picture was made over the course of an afternoon. This one-reeler suggests Joseph Maddern as director.
Producer Mack Sennett was keen to give Chaplin more control over production and that led to some shuffling. According to James L. Neibaur’s Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios, Maddern’s lack of artistic vision made it possible to allow Chaplin “as much creative input as he desired.”
Chaplin stars as a pickpocket of sorts, although he really only becomes a pickpocket out of necessity. When we first meet him, he’s mimicking a kissing couple by necking with a tree. He spots another couple on a park bench and the woman (Minta Durfee) wants proof of her lover’s affection. The poor sap (Chester Conklin) steals a watch, but Chaplin’s character has other ideas.
He pickpockets the pickpocket and tries to slip the watch to the woman as a token of his newfound appreciation. Naturally, this doesn’t go well and Conklin’s character chases the scamp around the park. There are fights, a bunch of people go flying into the lake and Hank Mann plays a dude whose job is to basically sleep it all off.
Twenty Minutes of Love is a typical Keystone park comedy, which suggests a kindship with Between Showers in its pursuit of the almighty dame. While the latter did have subtler details, Twenty Minutes of Love boasts almost impeccable framing and the directorial force really knows how to set a scene.
House cinematographer Frank D. Williams centres his shots beautifully and this sets up some neat compositions, like when Chaplin’s character moves a tree branch and discovers a couple behind it. The typical Keystone technique of framing activity in a medium shot is upgraded, which makes Chaplin’s park bench shenanigans all the more effective.
A lot of this has to do with contrast of movement. Consider how the kissing couple is perfectly still while locked lip-on-lip. Chaplin’s mocking movements exist beside them and eventually all around them, but they can’t wait to get back to their spicy business. Whatever the affable scamp is up to, they’re all about the love.
The other couple is less idyllic and that’s where the trouble comes from. The woman wants something that shows substance, but Conklin’s broke. Chaplin’s character doesn’t fare much better, but both men seem captivated by the notion that they seemingly can indeed buy love.
As with Between Showers, romantic competition comes into play. And as with that picture, there are the typical Keystone fisticuffs. The woman gets walloped in the face in the process because she’s in the way and Chaplin does plenty of falls, but the real meat is in how he evolves his character and is able to draw the audience’s sympathy.
Twenty Minutes of Love is one of the most fully-formed of the early Chaplin shorts from Keystone and it’s a critical entry in the artist’s development. While there’s some debate as to whether or not this is actually his directorial debut, the action is cleaner, the framing is tighter and the comedy is just a touch on the smarter side. That, at least in my mind, suggests that Chaplin’s input is more than just superficial.