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 Masquerader, a 1914 silent short comedy from Keystone Studios. This is a sort of behind-the-scenes yarn, with the comic portraying himself in three different costumes and digging into the madcap business of performance.
Some have argued that Chaplin plays himself in The Masquerader and that’s pretty close to the truth. It also has a fair deal in common with George Nichols’ A Film Johnnie, which put the star on the doorstep of Keystone Studios and had him interact with real stars like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Ford Sterling.
When he’s introduced in The Masquerader, he’s actually talking to Mabel Normand and he’s in regular clothes. He’s not wearing the moustache. He’d just a dude with an acting gig. After a sequence backstage with Arbuckle, who may or may not be playing himself, Chaplin gets into costume and gets his butt on set.
Unfortunately, he blows the gig thanks to the distracting powers of two pretty girls. Chester Conklin subs in for Chaplin and our hero is fired by the director (Charles Murray). The jobless actor dresses up like a woman to get back into Keystone. The director is smitten and there are more hijinks.
The cinematography of Frank D. Williams moves from set to set, displaying the sheer pretence of the game at Keystone. The studio is under no illusions and they set out to showcase their movie-making factory as is, with transposable actors and swift productions and a general sense of wackiness.
The wildness is underlined by the fact that Chaplin and Co. are shooting a scene involving a baby getting attacked by knife-wielding bad guy. It’s an absurd prod at melodramatic nonsense, but the filmmakers are content to drive the thing off the rails with a chaotic brawl that involves many creative uses for the blade.
It’s interesting to note Chaplin’s turn as a woman. While he dressed the part in A Busy Day, there was no story of subterfuge to draw on. The audience was in on the joke, but Chaplin’s woman was so surreal that there was no chance of her registering as anyone apart from the man behind the mask.
In the case of The Masquerader, Chaplin is convincing and charming. The star is lovely but not overblown, which suggests more than the naïve notion of lampooning the feminine. He fools the director and may have even fooled audiences, which draws it all right back to the notion of playing pretend.
An early exchange with Arbuckle and Chaplin is also a highlight. Here, the latter is trying to get a drink from the former. Arbuckle tries all sorts of tactics to protect his beverage and Chaplin goes to the edge. He takes off his shoe and waves the stench around in an effort to get at his object of affection. It’s a simple but effective bit of business.
Chaplin’s ability to slip from character to character to character is something special, but his direction is also worth examination. He slides the action from set to set, as is typical in these sorts of Keystone shorts, and scenes transition from place to place like there are always walls to break through. He tosses the director out a fake window, shoving him from one world to another.
The Masquerader is an enjoyable picture. It works as a showcase for Keystone Studios and a platform for its director, writer and star. His admiration for the business of comedy and indeed the business of madness is at the heart of the matter and one gets a sense of his love for the movies, with or without the brick-throwing.