Review: Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914)

>> Sunday, January 25, 2009

USA/Silent/B&W-10m./Dir: Henry Lehrman and Mack Sennett/Wr: Henry Lehrman/Cast: Charles Chaplin (Drunken Masher), Mabel Normand (Mabel), Chester Conklin (Husband), Alice Davenport (Wife), Harry McCoy (Mabel’s Admirer)

A bowler hat, a small mustache, a whangee cane, an undersized jacket, baggy pants, and oversized shoes--Charlie Chaplin gathered these elements together and created the most recognizable costume and comic persona in the history of the movies. The “Little Tramp” character brought Chaplin worldwide fame in a matter of months. But even more amazing is the fact that while many comedians such as Stan Laurel and Harold Lloyd struggled for years in front of the camera before stumbling upon a character that connected with the public, Chaplin cobbled together the Tramp’s attire for his second foray into film--Mabel’s Strange Predicament.

The plot of Mabel’s Strange Predicament is minimal and was simply an excuse for the brand of knockabout comedy for which Keystone Studios was famous--A drunken masher (Chaplin) harasses a young woman (Mabel Normand) and her dog in a hotel lobby. After escaping the advances of the drunken lout, Mabel returns to her hotel room and changes into pajamas in preparation for bed. However, before she can hit the hay, she chases one of her dog’s toys into the hallway and gets locked out of her room. Once again, Mabel encounters the drunk, who is encouraged by the sight of the girl in her pajamas. She ducks into a neighbor’s room to escape her pickled pursuer, and chaos ensues, involving the neighbor, his jealous wife, Mabel’s boyfriend, and the lustful lush.

Mabel’s Strange Predicament was not meant to introduce the public to a new comic character. In fact, Chaplin’s part in the film was originally envisioned as minor. He was simply asked to throw together a costume and add a few bits of comic business to the short. Chaplin arrived on the set dressed in a close approximation of his classic costume (the mustache was a little larger and the pants and shoes were a little smaller than they would later come to be); and the studio staff was so taken with the comedian’s improvisations that he ended up receiving almost as much screen time in the completed film as the star, Mabel Normand.

Given the opportunity to ad-lib, Chaplin fell back upon the comic drunk that he had often portrayed upon the stage. Consequently, Mabel’s Strange Predicament is important for two firsts--the first appearance of Chaplin’s famous attire and the first filmed record of Chaplin’s soused slapstick. Of course Chaplin’s character and his inebriated shtick would be used to greater effect in later films, but Mabel’s Strange Predicament holds a significant spot in the history of soused cinema.

A Note--Chaplin fans will no doubt know that Mabel’s Strange Predicament was the comedian’s third film release. However, it was actually filmed a few days prior to Kid Auto Races at Venice, CA (1914), the second Chaplin short distributed.

Drinks Consumed--Unnamed liquor in Chaplin’s flask

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, staggering, stumbling, brawling, and public disturbance

Potent Quotables--None to speak of

Video Availability--Mabel’s Strange Predicament was long thought to be a lost film, but a ragged (and likely incomplete) French print was discovered under the title, Charlot à l’ Hôtel. Since Chaplin’s early work is in public domain, this short and Chaplin’s other surviving Keystone films have been released several times on poor-quality, budget DVDs from companies such as Delta and Madacy. However, an effort is currently underway by the British Film Institute to restore all of the Chaplin Keystone shorts, so someday the Keystones will be available on video in improved condition. The film as it currently survives can also be viewed on the Internet Archive ( or in the video above.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Chaplin next employed his drunk act in the Keystone short Tango Tangles (1914).

Charlie Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay: Dawn of the Tramp
The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion
Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema


Review: Sideways (2004)

>> Saturday, January 3, 2009

USA/C-126m./Dir: Alexander Payne/Wr: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor (based on the Rex Pickett novel)/Cast: Paul Giamatti (Miles), Thomas Hayden Church (Jack), Virginia Madsen (Maya), Sandra Oh (Stephanie)

Sideways tells the story of one week in the lives of Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), two middle-aged men on a road trip through Santa Barbara’s wine country. On the surface, the excursion is to celebrate Jack’s impending marriage. However, each of the men has their own reasons for taking the trip. Miles is looking to distract himself from his disappointments--divorce, failure to get his writing published, and an unfulfilling gig as an 8th grade English teacher. Whereas, Jack, a failed actor and serial womanizer, is mainly looking to get laid. Naturally, lots of wine guzzling is on the menu for both of them. In the course of their excursion, the boys encounter a compassionate waitress (Virginia Madsen) and a saucy wine pourer (Sandra Oh) who may provide the remedies for Miles lack of fulfillment and Jack’s sexual cravings.

Most films have little cultural impact beyond diverting an audience for a couple of hours, but Sideways changed the drinking habits of many Americans. Liquor stores across the country suddenly saw their wine sales rivaling (and in some cases surpassing) their beer sales. Moreover, Pinot Noir, a grape that most consumers had never heard of prior to the film, enjoyed a huge upswing in popularity, while Merlot sales dipped slightly. This can only be attributable to Miles’ advocacy of Pinot and denigration of the latter varietal within the movie.

Not only did Sideways benefit the wine industry, the film provided significant boosts to the careers of the four leads. Both Church and Madsen, whose stars had been on the decline, received Oscar nominations, which led to higher profile work. Sandra Oh’s stock also increased, and the role of Miles cemented Giamatti’s status as one of the top character actors of his generation. All four of the principals turn in solid performances, but Giamatti deserves extra praise for managing to convey so much heart and likeability while portraying an ill-tempered, deceitful character, seething with self-loathing.

Of course, Giamatti is aided by superb writing, which provides him with a role that is a tangled conglomeration of contradictions. Miles fancies himself a wine connoisseur; but in truth, he is simply a drunk with pretensions. He knows the wine lingo and technique, but when the going gets tough he will swill any sauce to dull the pain. Even the prized bottle in Miles’ collection, a ’61 Cheval Blanc, is a contradiction, in that it is a mix of Merlot and Cabernet Franc--the two varietals that Miles maligns in the movie.

In terms of story, direction, performances, and alcohol-content, Sideways is exceptional. In short, it is the ultimate wine film.

Drinks Consumed--Wine (Pinot Noir, Champagne, Pinot Noir Vin Gris, Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot), and beer

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, hangover, slurred speech, staggering, public disturbance, and drinking and dialing

Potent Quotables--JACK: Do not sabotage me. If you want to be a fucking lightweight, then that's your call. But do not sabotage me.
MILES: Oh, aye-aye, cap’n. You got it.
JACK: And if they want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot.
MILES: No! If anybody orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!
JACK: Okay, okay. Relax, Miles, Jesus. No Merlot. Did you bring your Xanax? (Miles takes a small bottle from his pocket and rattles it.) ‘Right. Do not drink too much. Do you hear me? I don’t want you passing out or going to the dark side. No going to the dark side!
MILES: Okay!

Video Availability--Sideways (DVD) and Sideways [Blu-ray] (Fox)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--The story of how California became a serious contender in the world wine-making industry is the focus of 2008’s Bottle Shock.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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