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 Gentlemen of Nerve. This Keystone Studios picture is produced by Mack Sennett and naturally features the cinematography of Frank D. Williams. In this outing, Chaplin plays a character named Mr. Wow Wow.
This one-reeler was filmed partly at the Ascot Park speedway and has a similar texture to some of Chaplin’s other speedway-related comedies, like Mabel’s Busy Day. It’s an anarchic motion picture with a slight plot and it plays mostly like a trifle, at least in comparison to the previous Dough and Dynamite.
The movie opens with Chester Conklin’s character at the races with Mabel (Mabel Normand). The happy couple has a reasonably good time until Conklin gets a case of wandering eyes and philanders with a woman (Phyllis Allen). Meanwhile, Chaplin’s Mr. Wow Wow works his way into the races.
Chaplin’s pal Ambrose (Mack Swain) is also trying to get into the event, but he gets stuck in a hole and shenanigans ensue. Mabel, upset with her worthless suitor, sets her sights on Chaplin’s Wow Wow and starts a little trifling of her own. Everything breaks down as Conklin’s advances are vetoed by the other woman.
There’s some cute stuff in Gentlemen of Nerve, like how Chaplin prepares for a fight and passes his paraphernalia to an obliging woman sitting in the stands or how he sneaks sips from a woman’s soda. Much of the picture plays with size. This is underlined when the framed shot of Normand, Conklin and Allen arranges the characters by height.
Size also matters when Swain gets stuck in a hole. Chaplin crawls under and sets up the old spritzer gag, first by demonstrating the effect of the spray using a glass and then by blasting the bejesus out of Edgar Kennedy.
As is usually the case in Chaplin’s Keystone Studios outings, the fine art of being a gentleman is sent up. The title has literal meaning as the male characters blunder about with various women and can’t keep their moustachioed libidos in check.
Chaplin’s Wow Wow finds himself with Mabel because he wins. He plays an aggressive hand, beats the tar out of his rivals, gets away with it. It’s an interesting contrast to some of his underdog incarnations, especially because the picture allows him to get the underappreciated girl.
And there’s some compelling stuff between Normand and Chaplin, too. They like each other from the jump and Normand’s adorable conveying of attraction steals the movie away from the boorish idiocy of the “gentlemen.” She initially loses out to the temporal lure of Allen’s presence, but she manages to successfully pull off the upgrade.
While Gentlemen of Nerve doesn’t boast the mastery of Dough and Dynamite or some of the stronger Keystone shorts, it’s still a meaningful outing for Chaplin as filmmaker and star. The physical comedy is somewhat cowed and the closing brawl seems tame, even if everything breaks down and some of the fellas are hauled away by the fuzz.