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 writes, directs and stars in Laughing Gas, a 1914 silent short comedy. For some, including James L. Neibaur in his book Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios, this picture represents the point at which we can begin to accurately measure the man as a complete artist and filmmaker.
While some are content to dismiss much of Chaplin’s Keystone Studios workload as anomalous in contrast to his more philosophical fare, shorts like Laughing Gas are still very much part of the oeuvre and very much part of his development. While Keystone obviously has its rules and tropes, Chaplin’s style and social conscience can be seen in its burgeoning stages within the confines of his early work.
In Laughing Gas, he’s a dental assistant of sorts at the office of Dr. Pain (Fritz Schade). He gets into it with a small dental assistant, who may or may not be played by Joseph Sutherland, and gets into various squabbles with various patients. Eventually, Dr. Pain knocks out a patient with nitrous oxide but he can’t resuscitate the fellow. Chaplin tries to help and the dentist flees the scene.
Chaos reigns as Chaplin becomes the dentist and flirts with a pretty girl (Helen Carruthers), while the real dentist bumbles around somewhere. A tall guy (Slim Summerville) is hit in the face with a brick and also seeks out the dentist, plus there’s some sort of row involving Dr. Pain’s wife (Alice Howell) and her legs.
Laughing Gas lacks order and isn’t the most inventive of the Chaplin projects. Some blame this disjointedness on the Keystone Studios methodology, with its tendency to emphasize brawls and chaos over consistent plots. This isn’t always the case, however, with pictures like Mabel’s Married Life, Caught in a Cabaret and The Knockout serving as examples of well-plotted fun.
Laughing Gas is based in part on Chaplin’s well-documented dislike of dentists and it stands as a kind of hectic catharsis, with extravagant violence and madness sending up the profession. Dentists are cast as brutes, masochists and cowards and the Dr. Pain moniker is an obvious swing at the tooth-pulling tyrants.
The cinematography by Frank D. Williams is mostly stationary and that gives Laughing Gas a vaudeville feel, with the lens merely whisking the audience from scene to scene. As with Mabel’s Married Life, the activity is centred well and there are no funky tricks. Chaplin wants the audience to see the slapstick comedy without adornment.
Some have cast Laughing Gas as an aggressive and violent motion picture and that’s certainly true. There’s a lot of punching, kicking and brick-throwing and the women get it as good as the men. Summerville’s character has his teeth knocked out in a graphic sequence and the skyscraper of a man spits out a handful of chiclets to sell the scene.
The incongruity of Laughing Gas is its most interesting facet and Chaplin sets the stage immediately with a raft of ridiculous-looking folks. Giant moustaches and beards are the order of the day, with even the background patients sporting some bewildering costumes. The study of contrast is worth noting, with Chaplin picking on the smaller assistant but running from the big guys.
The unintentional violence, also a Keystone standard, is funny. The business of Dr. Pain hinges on the fact that so many blameless people are injured by Chaplin’s horseplay. There’s also some funny business as his antics shame the dentist’s wife in front of the minister.
Whether through the decisive or inadvertent employment of pure pandemonium, Chaplin ensures that nobody gets out of the dentist’s office without missing a tooth or two. Viewed as a form of comic purification, the slapstick folly of Laughing Gas reveals more about the artist than a cursory viewing might suggest.