The End of a (Very Short) Era: Chaplin Leaves Keystone
Note: This is the seventy-ninth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1914 film, MAKING A LIVING, directed by Henry Lehrman.
By the end of 1914, Charlie Chaplin had made 35 short films with Keystone Studios, 20 of which he had directed himself. He also starred in the first American feature-length comedy, TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. Despite a rocky start in the motion picture business, as I explained in my piece on KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE (1914), Chaplin was on track to be a superstar by the end of the first year of a “racket” Chaplin perceived as publicity for his burgeoning vaudeville career. And as would-be superstars do, Chaplin left a former employer because they did not pay him enough.
To be fair, Keystone, in hindsight, seems to be pretty famous for letting major comedians and stars out of their grasp. Or, if you want to be a little more gracious, for giving them their start. In any event, when Chaplin’s contract came up for renewal at the end of 1914, he asked for $1,000 a week (about $24,000 today). Producer and studio founder Mack Sennett refused, and Chaplin went to Essanay, a move that afforded him more time between pictures, creative control, and, ultimately, nuance. Chaplin’s Keystone era, as important as it was, produced his weakest films, understandably. He was just getting started!
Even still, Chaplin’s own directorial efforts contained shades of what was to come for the comedic genius. And while those few shorts in which he starred but did not direct are often overlooked, they are impressive in their own right as looks at the sheer performative power that radiated off of Chaplin. Nowhere is this more evident than in MAKING A LIVING (1914), Chaplin’s very first film. Directed by and also starring KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE director/co-star Henry Lehrman, MAKING A LIVING contains a rare non-Tramp Chaplin role long before he would move away from the character in the latter part of his career.
MAKING A LIVING was widely considered a failure by all involved, including Chaplin himself. It was almost grounds for the budding comedian’s termination from Keystone, but pioneering comedian Mabel Normand interceded on his behalf. But I think it’s a funny piece of “prehistoric” Chaplin lore and an essential view of an indelible performer.
Chaplin plays a swaggering, swindling, “gentlemanly” villain with a long, drooping mustache, top hat, and cane in MAKING A LIVING. Lehrman plays a journalist who, when first coming into contact with this rascal, is compelled to give the bum some money. Somehow, this scavenging man catches the eye of a respectable young woman and her mother; Chaplin’s scoundrel proposes to the woman under the approving nose of her mother. But the journalist also has an interest in her, and when he realizes the villain is to be blame for his failed proposal, the two fight it out. This begins a series of hard-to-believe coincidental encounters that make the ensuing, over-the-top slapstick sequences all the more funny.
Chaplin’s “Edgar English” arrives at a newsroom for a reporter job only to find his rival also works there, and also encounters a car accident (brilliantly rendered in a hilarious fall down a large hill) that Lehrman’s character photographs. In what may be a kind of indictment of the media, Lehrman’s character seems to be more concerned with getting quotes from the trapped driver and taking photos than helping the injured motorist. In any event, Chaplin steals Lehrman’s camera when the latter is finally conscripted into helping, and this too results in a chase and a scrap, as well as a patented and hilarious Chaplin fall down a set of stairs.
As a haughty and ill-natured character, Chaplin mugs and accentuates the movement of his facial hair like he would with his Tramp character. The difference is that it’s more aggressive than cute, and that judgement could be applied to much of Chaplin’s Keystone work, even as the Tramp. Chaplin inexplicably shoves an innocent bystander a couple of times throughout the film; it’s funny, but it’s certainly not in keeping with the characters he would later develop.
The Tramp may have been born at Keystone, but he grew up at Essanay, especially in the self-titled THE TRAMP (1915), and became an adult with Chaplin’s features beginning with THE KID (1921). That makes MAKING A LIVING all the more fascinating; admittedly, there is a lot of revisionist power in its appeal, but it’s difficult and perhaps disingenuous to divorce cinematic context from a film. It’s a rough movie, but it’s fun and important. That could perhaps be said about many of the films this early on my list, but that will soon change as dramatic and comedic filmmakers alike would refine the art form into something truly remarkable in just the next few years.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.