Watch The Rink to See Charlie Chaplin’s Rad Skating Skills
Note: This is the ninetieth 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 fifth favorite 1916 film, THE RINK, directed by Charlie Chaplin.
The last of his films for Mutual in 1916, THE RINK showcased Charlie Chaplin’s incredible real-life skating skills to great comedic effect. But it, more importantly, precipitated a much slower release schedule for Chaplin. After THE RINK, gone were the days of releasing reams of film in a year. Chaplin made just four more films for Mutual in 1917, four films widely considered among his best shorts. THE RINK was truly the last of Chaplin’s films to be “simply” funny. But of course, being funny isn’t quite so simple.
THE RINK follows Chaplin as just a real shitty waiter, and he makes an enemy in Eric Campbell’s Mr. Stout. Campbell, as usual, plays the hulking menace to perfection. Henry Bergman in drag is another standout in the restaurant scene, as is Chaplin’s ability to enrage not only his customers but his coworkers as well; Albert Austin plays a delightfully angry cook who brandishes a knife at Chaplin.
But Chaplin ultimately gets his break, and he heads over to the roller rink for a bit of skating. First of all, it’s cool to see this recreational activity transposed into 1916, since my mental image of a roller rink is probably unchanged from the ’80s. Chaplin has great fun getting Mr. Stout away from a cute girl (played by Edna Purviance) in the rink, a simple yet striking set that draws your full attention to the action with its very blankness. And this is where you see Chaplin’s skating skills, fast and impressive as much as silly and clumsy.
Chaplin’s altercations with Mr. Stout are probably among his best slapstick fights due to the sheer joy of the skating acrobatics. Through some comedy coincidences, Chaplin (posing as someone else) is invited to a skating party at the rink from Purviance’s character, who is the daughter of two slighted customers from earlier. Stout gets invited by way of an old acquaintance as well, so you have a recipe for mayhem and comedy.
The final skating sequence is a sheer joy, a free-for-all erupting in spectacular rink-based fighting and a high-speed chase on skates. The end of THE RINK has a ring of earlier Chaplin films, fittingly as its status of the last of his more “conventional” shorts, in that he ends the film the enemy of pretty much everyone. This waiter of Chaplin’s is a bit more like the egotistical Tramp of his earlier shorts, and ironically, the end is kind of the opposite of that of THE TRAMP (1915). Instead of waddling off into the sunset with a bittersweet tone, Chaplin hooks his cane onto a passing car and rides his skates into the sunset, away from a crowd of angry rich people. One can’t help but get the message there; Chaplin did like to lampoon the upper class, and his waiter was indeed not one of them.
But then, Chaplin himself very much was. By this time at Mutual, he had become a true superstar; I’ve already written a number of times about how his salary at the studio was greater than any other motion picture star before him. His Tramp character was already becoming an icon in its own right, and Chaplin would have personal attention and criticisms on him soon enough. But I’ll get into that with 1917 and the end of his Mutual era with the next couple of essays. In the meantime, know THE RINK was an incredible elevation of a comedy type Chaplin had enriched since his Keystone days, but that it was also a film that marked the end of a certain style of comedy and production of the storied director and performer.