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.
Mack Sennett directs, produces, writes, and stars in 1914’s The Fatal Mallet. This silent short is effectively a big brawl, with three dudes duking it out over a woman. There is some gamesmanship that suggests a meeting of the minds, but this brain trust is sent up thanks to the unyielding stupidity of the protagonists.
The Fatal Mallet has more to it than Sennett’s “show up and shoot” numbers like A Busy Day, but that’s not saying much. To suggest that this outing is repetitive would be an understatement, although Charlie Chaplin does showcase resounding emotional depth. Consider how he looks almost sarcastic as he engages in the ferocity of this Keystone comedy.
Chaplin stars as a suitor and Sennett stars as another suitor. They are both after the girl, played by Mabel Normand. They fight it out and throw bricks at each other, as is the custom. Some of the blocks hit Mabel, who gives as good as she gets. A third suitor arrives (Mack Swain) and the first two suitors team up to defeat the meddler.
The Fatal Mallet is a rarity in that it features interplay between Chaplin and Sennett. The Quebec-born director and actor didn’t play a lot of scenes with Chaplin, but he’s a virtuous foil here. It gets even better when the two blockheads devise what they think is a foolproof plan but can’t seem to get over their acrimony to make it work.
Of course, calling Sennett and Chaplin’s idea a “plan” is selling it a little on the high side. They discover the titular mallet and decide that Swain’s character needs a walloping. Chaplin seems to advise testing it out, which means he does it with both ends and nudges Sennett in the rear with the handle.
Those without a mind for cartoonish slapstick should steer well clear of The Fatal Mallet, as there’s a lot of lunacy on display. But those who like a bit of brick-throwing and mallet-swinging will enjoy what Chaplin and Co. are up to, especially when it comes to a particularly disobedient swing-set.
As mentioned, Chaplin shows an interesting bit of cheek working with Sennett and Swain and his facial expressions are illuminating. He’s up to something, displaying a unique brand of mischief. There’s an extra twinkle in his eye, an extra hop to his conniving.
This stands in stark contrast to his dreary turn in A Busy Day. As much as more serious individuals may dislike preposterous orgies like The Fatal Mallet, there’s no denying the comic’s energy and physical command.
Gordon Griffith has a small part to play in this madness. He shows up just as poor Mabel’s run out of patience and he seems to slip right into the romantic role. This steams Chaplin and he has no issues taking the punk out with one of his trademark thrust-kicks. And once again, Griffith proves himself a worthy slapstick talent.
The Fatal Mallet is typical fare for Chaplin’s Keystone-era shorts, but it’s still an enjoyable diversion. There’s a lot of respectable physical comedy and the titular hammer does play a key role, even if its best use is to give Mack Sennett a much-needed jolt in the backside.