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 and Chester Conklin are at it again in Dough and Dynamite, a 1914 silent short comedy. This is apparently the most profitable of all the two-reel comedies from Keystone Studios and it is a largely topical picture, referencing contemporaneous labour issues in Los Angeles as the bakers’ union argued for better working conditions.
Chaplin is the director of Dough and Dynamite, while the screenplay is a Mack Sennett formula. Cinematography is handled by Frank D. Williams, who has roughly three sets to work with and manages to juggle the action with minimal fuss.
Chaplin stars as a waiter at a restaurant that appears to be owned by Fritz Schade’s character. Conklin plays another server and the two don’t get along. They fight it out, while the bakers try to get things cooking. When the bakers go on strike, Chaplin and Conklin take over. The bakers aren’t too fond of the scabs and they set out to get revenge.
By Chaplin’s account, Dough and Dynamite took nine days to make and went $800 over budget. The short grossed $130,000 in its first year, so Keystone was pleased. And the studio’s methodology, it should be noted, is all over this picture.
But Chaplin builds on the chaos, using a number of unique shots – including a stunning final close-up – and building to a conclusion that makes an explosion the exclamation point. In lesser hands, the monkeyshines of Conklin and Chaplin would’ve been sufficient to dump two reels on the audience.
Alas, the filmmaker’s social conscience permits a greater degree of newsworthy plotting. The owner beats the snot out of his employees and lays a licking on Chaplin, which is a convenient yet comedic way of underlining the working conditions endured by the bakers.
While the original audience of Dough and Dynamite would’ve noted the social commentary, modern spectators may find the context a little buried in the yeast. And in that sense, the tale of this short doesn’t really require two reels.
But Chaplin’s impertinent jabs at the upper class begin immediately, like when he aggravates the customer in the top hat with his advantageous plate-clearing and mugs for the lens. As Robert King points out in The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture, “spectator and waiter are aligned in shared amusement at the cost of a pompous middle-class citizen.”
There are many examples of this throughout Dough and Dynamite and the picture would’ve benefitted from a greater focus on the elements of class, but Chaplin’s take is not without faults. This is a Keystone picture after all and it suffers from structural issues, even if the physical comedy is predictably top-tier.
Overall, this is a satisfying film and Chaplin’s emergence as a meticulous artist is clear. His jabs at class struggle may not be overtly academic, but his strengths lie in the physical realm and his comedy suggests more can be said with a dropped sack of flour than a pompous missive.