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 (http://www.archive.org/) 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

2 comments:

Roger L. January 27, 2009 at 8:21 PM  

Fantastic. I'm surprised how much drinking goes on in early Chaplin. The early Essanays (a lot easier to see) also have much drunken play in that age of saloons before prohibition.

garv January 27, 2009 at 9:04 PM  

I'm currently reading THE COMEDY OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN: ARTISTRY IN MOTION by Dan Kamin (probably the best book I've read about Chaplin's work). Consequently, I've been in a Chaplin mood. You'll probably see more reviews on his work in the very near future, but I'll throw in reviews of more recent films between Chaplin reviews to mix it up.

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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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