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.
Mabel Normand (probably) directs, writes and stars in Mabel’s Busy Day, an amusing 1914 silent short. This Keystone Studios outing is produced by Mack Sennett and features the cinematography of Frank D. Williams.
At first blush, the setup is standard. It takes place at an auto racing event, which recalls A Busy Day and Kid Auto Races at Venice, and seems to feature an equal measure of unaware extras and in-on-it actors. The spectators play a critical observational and reactive role and therefore become a rather animated backdrop.
Normand stars as a hot dog vendor. She gets into the event by bribing one of the illustrious Keystone Cops (Chester Conklin) with food. She sets up shop, but it isn’t long before a pile of ogling men is taking advantage of her in order to procure their wieners. Charlie Chaplin stars as a pest of a man who also works his way into the event without a pass.
But while Mabel is around to sell goods, Chaplin’s character seems to revel in being in the way. He crowds in front of some women and blocks their view. Later, he stops someone from harassing Mabel only to steal from her and run off with all the dogs. There’s a big kerfuffle after he starts handing them out for free and a brawl ensues, as it typically does.
Chaplin aficionados often note that the protagonist in Mabel’s Busy Day isn’t the traditional Tramp archetype but rather some peculiar outgrowth. That all depends on how you view the Tramp and whether or not you consider him a defined character, especially at this point in the actor’s career.
The more likely scenario suggests that Chaplin is merely playing a pain in the ass. Sure, he picks things up off the ground. And sure, he doesn’t behave like a very sophisticated person. But perhaps that’s the point, especially given the reactions of the crowd.
The races are an at least semi-civilized event, but the crowd isn’t above loutish or leering or laughing behaviour. Williams’ lens captures a range of reactions to Chaplin and Normand’s routine, with some people chuckling away and others reacting with surprise or even shock. This cross-section of conduct lends itself to the distinction between leads.
Consider that Mabel is a woman trying to make a buck. When a dude wanders off without paying, she tracks him down and makes him hand over the dough. Her expression says it all when he gives her a pompous pinch on the chin. She means business. Sadly for Mabel, she’s soon overwhelmed by the sheer lechery of the throng.
Chaplin seems to have more in common with the mischievous menfolk – at least at first. He flirts and even reaches into a lady’s purse. He struggles with his hat and fights with a cop in a sequence that resembles a dance, suggesting an atmosphere of superiority that his character can’t quite live up to.
While some chroniclers of Chaplin’s career seem prone to canning the slapstick-oriented days as pointless endeavours, the social layering is certainly a factor. Mabel’s Busy Day may not spell out its commentary on society’s anarchic state, but it’s hard to deny the existence of deeper meaning.