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.
Of the Charlie Chaplin shorts at Keystone Studios thus far, it’s safe to say that Caught in a Cabaret may be the most plotted. This 1914 silent two-reeler is written and directed by Mabel Normand, with Frank D. Williams as the cinematographer and Mack Sennett producing.
The cast of Caught in a Cabaret is a fleet of the usual suspects, from Chaplin and Normand to supporting characters like Harry McCoy, Edgar Kennedy, Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee, Gordon Griffith, Alice Davenport, and so on. By now, these names are familiar to many with even a passing interest in the business of Keystone Studios.
Chaplin’s a waiter in this picture and Kennedy plays his boss, a dude who’s not above kicking his workers around when they show up late or spill food or whatever. Chaplin’s character heads out on break and runs into Mabel (Normand) in the park while she’s being robbed. He saves the day, much to the chagrin of a fist-shaking bro (McCoy).
The waiter produces a business card that states he’s the Ambassador from Greece (or the Prime Minster of Greenland, depending on which version you catch). Mabel invites her new high society pal to a garden party, but he has to get back to work first. After hammering a rowdy customer, he gets drunk at the party and the envious bro reveals the truth about the Ambassador. Mayhem ensues.
There’s some funny stuff in Caught in a Cabaret, with Chaplin’s mischief taking on an almost romantic bent. He wants to impress the naïve society girl and his deception seems positively modern. It also speaks to the class distinctions that would later form the basis of a lot of his work, although there isn’t much by way of commentary.
Normand, just 22 at the time of Caught in a Cabaret, has a lot on her plate but she handles it well. Chaplin may not have respected her vision at the time and his attempted re-edit loses some of its steam, but Normand’s comedic chops are on point and a lot of the picture is very clever. Apart from one diversion in the form of the aforementioned unruly customer, most of this flick is on-point.
Caught in a Cabaret is predominantly a physical comedy and the plot is grist for the mill, as the whole thing unravels rather quickly. Chaplin’s character really only has the garden party to get through and he manages it by getting drunk and exploiting Mabel’s foolishness. It’s only when the party shifts to his diner that there’s any suspicion about his character.
Of course, one can imagine many a modern comedy unfolding with a similar plot: boy meets girl, boy pretends to be Prime Minister of remote country to get girl, boy’s cover is blown by a jealous dude who hangs out in the bushes and shakes his fist, boy dispatches with the whole family with wild punches and Keystone kicks.
Chaplin’s physical comedy is again the stuff of magic and he takes a number of incredible tumbles. He’s also nailed down that skittering way of turning a corner. Griffith takes an absolutely diabolical fall when Chaplin gives him a smack, proving that the child actor had more than a solid place in the Keystone wheelhouse.
While Chaplin was (probably) the imaginative driver of his previous outing Twenty Minutes of Love, he is in the service of Normand here. But the evolution of his character is moving along well, especially as he starts to add new elements (a dachshund, for example) and toy with the possibilities. His masterful physical command is what keeps this movie humming, but Normand’s sure as hell no slouch herself.