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.
Charlie Chaplin may only appear for a few precious minutes in Charles Avery’s 1914 two-reeler The Knockout, but there’s a lot of amusement to be found. It’s definitely an example of the rough-and-tumble style of Keystone Studios and there is a rather large dose of slapstick fun for those who are so inclined.
The Knockout stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in what could be the title role and his physical presence is a wonder to behold. He commands the screen with an almost boyish charm that later gives way to vehement desperation.
Arbuckle stars as Pug, a man who has his eyes on a girl (Minta Durfee). A couple of punks set themselves up in the boxing racket, with one of them assuming the identity of Cyclone Flynn (Edgar Kennedy). They rope Pug into it and make a wager to split the purse if the big guy throws the fight. The trouble is compounded when the sheriff (Mack Swain) says he’s betting on Pug.
The fight goes down, with Chaplin playing the referee. Unfortunately for the hero, Pug loses. Rather than take the defeat like a gentleman, he decides to start shooting. This results in a batty chase sequence, with the Keystone Cops falling all over each other.
There’s a lot of hilarious stuff in The Knockout and the vision of a jubilant Arbuckle sharing a donut with his dog gets things off on the right foot. It establishes a real sense of character and makes the audience want to root for Pug. Arbuckle indulges further when he breaks the fourth wall and tells the camera not to look while he gets changed.
The boxing match is the cornerstone of the picture, but the curious set design puts most of the action far away. House cinematographer Frank D. Williams does his level best, but the film really shines when he’s able to capture Arbuckle in medium shots and exemplify his physical prowess.
Chaplin is side-splitting in The Knockout. His referee takes more punches than the boxers, plus his tendency to topple backward through the ropes confirms a legendary talent. It’s hard not to laugh when he slips in the water and drags himself along the bottom rope.
But in actuality, this is Arbuckle’s picture and he makes for astonishing company. Consider the moment in the big chase sequence when he comes barrelling through the high society party with guns blazing. He’s shooting with boxing gloves on, for crying out loud, and he’s not aiming at anything in particular. He races down the stairs and slips on the bearskin rug for one of the funniest falls imaginable.
While The Knockout doesn’t feature much by way of Chaplin, it’s still very funny. It’s more plot-heavy than a lot of the shorts and the characters behave in ways that make sense without sacrificing the meat and potatoes of pure slapstick, marking this as an occasion where the wackiness really feels earned.