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 directs and stars in the 1914 silent short comedy Mabel’s Married Life. The comic wrote this production alongside Mabel Normand, who stars as his character’s wife. As expected, Mack Sennett is the producer and the cinematography is by the one and only Frank D. Williams.
While there certainly is no shortage of rumours regarding the working relationship between Normand and Chaplin, the two performers play well off each other. Chaplin’s prowess as a physical comedian is growing along with his command as a storyteller, while Normand’s chops are never in doubt. Her facial expressions and comic timing are remarkable.
Mabel’s Married Life opens with Chaplin and Normand as husband and wife in the park. A dopey dude with a tennis racket (Mack Swain) comes bowling around with designs on the woman, so he starts hitting on her when her husband’s in the bar. Normand’s character wants none of it, but the bro refuses to budge and hauls her down by the lake for a chat.
Chaplin returns, inebriated, and discovers the situation. He tries to whoop the guy’s butt (literally), but it’s not to be. Even the big guy’s wife (Eva Nelson) ridicules the smaller couple. Troubled, Normand buys a boxing dummy with designs on learning self-defence. When her drunk-as-hell hubby returns home, he finds the dummy and goes bananas.
There are three set pieces to Mabel’s Married Life, starting with the park. Williams shot the action at the Echo Park Lake and the backgrounds are by now rather familiar. As with many Keystone park comedies, the setup employs some mischief by the lake. This time, nobody goes in the drink and the action shifts.
The bar accounts for the second setting and there are two sequences to discuss. The first finds Chaplin’s character sneaking drinks under his hat. Aficionados will note that he’s wearing a top hat rather than his typical derby, which further shelters his theft. The second sequence features Hank Mann as a tough guy harassing Chaplin and making fun of his outfit, particularly his gargantuan pants.
The third and final set piece is the most significant, as it takes place in the home of the happy couple. The dummy is delivered and Normand has to conceal herself from the delivery men because she’s wearing some incredibly sexy PJs. One of the oafs, probably Wallace MacDonald, tries to sneak a peek anyway.
Normand starts in on the dummy immediately, but it’s one of those swaying kinds of deals and it pops right back at her after one thump. She gets scared and hides behind the couch in what may be one of the most adorable reaction shots in a Chaplin movie to date.
By the time Chaplin gets home, Normand is in bed and she’s figured out the dummy. Too bad her spouse hasn’t. Chaplin’s character determines that the dummy is dressed exactly like the abovementioned guy from the park. Chaplin’s character misses the fact that the dummy lacks a face and voice and feet. He consequently does what any of us would do and asks it to get the hell out.
The drunken shenanigans that follow are hysterical, with Chaplin throwing what seems to be a bouquet of onions at his wife (watch her reaction) and the two of them mixing it up with the dummy and each other. There’s some great physical comedy and a crowd gathers outside because of the commotion.
Mabel’s Married Life is funny. Chaplin and Williams set everything up well from a visual standpoint and the gags are caught straight-on, without any rickety framing or preventable artifice. And Normand, as hilarious as she is badass, steals the show with her humanity and gumption. This one’s a hit.