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’s His Trysting Place (or His Trysting Places) is an evolved park comedy, with a central plot that ebbs and flows over the course of the 1914 silent short. The two-reeler is among the filmmaker’s most cohesive for Keystone Studios and it’s also very funny, with Frank D. Williams’ trusty cinematography capturing the hijinks.
His Trysting Place finds Chaplin playing a rarity: a family man. While he would turn himself in for domestic imprisonment in the 1919 First National outing A Day’s Pleasure, his archetypes are less attached to residential existence and more unfettered by life’s ironic restraints.
Chaplin could do a lot worse. He’s the husband to Mabel Normand’s character and they have a son named Peter. Chaplin’s not the most attentive father and he puts the little one in peril a few times before he’s sent out on errands. He stops off at a restaurant for a bite and a fight, which results in him taking the jacket of another man (Mack Swain) by mistake.
Unfortunately for the protagonist, the other jacket just so happens to contain a rather incriminating note. When Mabel discovers it, she proceeds to tar and feather the innocent man and chases him to the park. And that just so happens to be where Swain’s character and his lady (Phyllis Allen) are having a mix-up of their own on account of his taking Chaplin’s coat.
This sort of misunderstanding-based comedy is par for the course in Keystone shorts and Chaplin does well to build characters the audience is interested in. His insights into the household of his character suggests a dwelling of skimpy but tender means and there’s a real sense of affection between husband and wife.
Conversely, Swain’s character is a philandering oaf. Chaplin is contrasted as the good husband, the faithful companion and the dopey but well-meaning father. Hell, he’s even relatively patient; he lets Swain’s character masticate the daylights out of his soup before he finally clobbers him. For a Chaplin character, that’s downright virtuous.
Of course, there is a lot of clobbering and carrying-on in His Trysting Place and the story structure props up the laughs. It allows Chaplin to crack off a few swift gags, like a garbage bin segment that finds him engaging in some snappy footwork with the stupidly talented Normand.
In previous efforts like Gentlemen of Nerve, Chaplin’s playing-up of his connection with Swain served as bread and butter. Here, Swain and Chaplin go toe-to-toe but it’s rigid and there’s a sense it’s well-travelled ground. The presence of Normand makes this one pop, especially when she assumes command of the family unit and hauls that baby out the door on the way to kick her husband’s ass.
His Trysting Place finds Chaplin as a persevering but no less comedic director and writer. He still builds everything around the Keystone-based physicality and that’s a good thing. But his protraction of story building, his creation of proportionate characters and his meting out of situational comedy is blossoming to the point that short film limitations may no longer do.