February 2nd 1914, exactly one hundred years ago today saw the launch of one of the most successful Hollywood careers in history. On this day a century ago, a twenty-four year old Englishman called Charles Spencer Chaplin made his screen debut in a one reel Keystone comedy called Making a Living. Eighteen months later he would arguably become the most famous entertainer on the planet and by his late twenties he was the richest. Being a man for whom Chaplin has a special place in my heart, not to mention a permanent inked place on my arm, today is something special for me and to celebrate I decided to watch his first film exactly a century after its initial release.
Although I’ve reviewed over forty of Chaplin’s films in the past two years on this blog, Making a Living was one that I had never seen. In a way I’m glad that today was the first time I’d seen the short film as there’s something interesting about seeing it for the very first time exactly a hundred years after it was first exhibited. Chaplin plays a charming swindler called Edgar English having not adopted his iconic Tramp costume and persona until his second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice. During the thirteen minute runtime, English has frequent run-ins with Henry Lehrman’s reporter and eventually falls foul of the Keystone Kops, leading to a chaotic and slightly confusing conclusion.
Although in unfamiliar costume, Chaplin’s famous creation is easily recognisable in the opening scene. Within seconds we are treated to the famous cheeky grin and hat raising that would help to define the Tramp in the months and years to come. Like the early incarnation of the Tramp, Edgar English is also a little wicked and devious, in no way the hero of the piece that Chaplin would become by the turn of the 1920s. Not only does he con the reporter for money but later steals ‘his’ girl and then his camera, claiming a pay day for photos of a car accident.
If I’m honest, Making a Living isn’t a hilarious film and at times it barely passes for funny but I watched with a huge smile about my face. There’s the odd moment of slapstick business which still resonates with ones modern tastes but for the most part you can’t help but wonder what the 1914 audiences would be laughing at. The final few moments are a mêlée of kicks, pratfalls, chases and general confusion which isn’t bought to life by the poor quality print I tracked down amongst my collection of early films. Where the comedy works is in subtler moments such as the toss of a cane or the dropping of a shirt cuff. It’s these quieter, more thoughtful pieces of comedy which Chaplin would concentrate more on as his career progressed. By the time he reached Mutual in 1916 he had, for the most part, done away with chases and unnecessary kicks in the behind, and his comedy was much stronger for it.
Despite the comedy occasionally falling flat on its face, the acting was of a much higher standard than I’d expected. For me, Chaplin has always been an underrated actor but even here in his first film, he shows signs of using his face and body in a mature and understated way (in amongst the leaps and falls) and his face is much more at ease than many of his co-stars. In the past I’ve been critical of the gurning exhibited by the likes of Henry Bergman and Mack Swain but here also, Chaplin’s co-stars are generally much more natural than I expected. Virginia Kirtley in particular makes good use of her hands and eyes to evoke her emotions. The acting is not without fault though and many of the bit part players, especially the Kops show no signs of the subtlety and grace of Chaplin and Kirtley.
Aside from the slightly flimsy plot and comedy, something which I always like about the very early Chaplin films is the background. As well as shooting on the Keystone lot, the production ventures out onto the streets of Los Angeles. I’m always fascinated by these hundred year old shots of the city and the film makes good use of the tram network, with the movie actually ending in a shot reminiscent of a famous scene from Buster Keaton’s The General. It’s also fascinating to see large crowds on the sidewalk, watching as the production rolls by. One scene takes place down a dirty, cobbled alley way which looks even older than it actually is. As well as the streets of the city, there is a scene in which a car plummets down a cliff, shot somewhere in the country. It’s quite a stunt but is unfortunately poorly edited meaning we only see it for a second or two. A better director would have shown the crash to its fullest extent but thus was the Keystone way. The picture was directed and edited by Henry Lehrman who later admitted to deliberately mis-editing certain scenes in spite of his talented co-star. It was actions like this that lead to Chaplin demanding to direct his own movies later in the year.
With a century of hindsight, it’s easy to place Making a Living towards the bottom of Chaplin’s oeuvre. It isn’t particularly funny and is poorly made by even the standards of the period. Looking beyond its thirteen minutes though, one can view it as the beginning of something special. The bare bones of Chaplin’s Tramp are visible and he steals the movie despite it being his first outing in front of the camera. Had Chaplin not gone on to be the most famous movie star in the world, the film would almost certainly be forgotten but because of who he was and who he still is, Making a Living is a film worth cherishing.
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