Chaplin at Keystone

Screencap from Kid Auto Races at Venice

I’ve now watched the first disk of the Flicker Alley DVD collection, Chaplin at Keystone, which gathers all but one of Chaplin’s very first films, most of them shorts. Based on these twelve short films, I’m not looking forward to the other three disks of the collection. If you’re a student of Chaplin’s career, I can understand the fascination of watching the Little Tramp character slowly developed by Chaplin. As comedies, however, these really don’t work for me at all. It’s not just that Chaplin himself frequently plays a total jerk, it’s that there’s nothing interesting, let alone funny, about his jerking. Typically there will be a bunch of characters who are angry at each other, being rude to each other, shouting at each other, and finally punching and kicking each other. The comedy here seems to be an expression of aggression and generalized hatred. This is supposed to be a joke? I don’t get it.

I’m actually reminded of Lloyd Fonvielle’s bizarre essay, “Sennett’s Rage“, which argues that, “[Mack] Sennett’s vision is fueled by passionate hatred — of authority, of convention, of any accepted wisdom. This included most especially hatred of pretension in cinema itself — and for Sennett this mainly focussed on hatred of the pretensions of his mentor D. W. Griffith and hatred of the star system. … Sennett’s commitment to anarchy had an element of nihilism, of self-destructiveness, to it.”

I can see the anarchy and nihilism (and in “A Film Johnnie” a shot at the Keystone stars, playing themselves), but I can’t really make out any artistry yet. Perhaps that develops over time, because Sennett had only been a producer since 1911, although he’d been in the film business since 1908. Whatever the case, these Chaplin films just seem like an aggressive assault on propriety without much point to them. Apparently that were hugely popular at the time, when no doubt they would’ve been a part of a larger program that included other types of film. I hope so anyway, because watching three or four of these in a row is a hard diet.

Well, on the other hand, this might be an antidote for those who think of Chaplin as a sentimental artist. Not yet!

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