Review: Tango Tangles (a.k.a. Charlie's Recreation, 1914)

>> Saturday, February 21, 2009

USA/Silent/B&W-12m./Dir: Mack Sennett/Wr: Mack Sennett/Cast: Charles Chaplin (Tipsy Dancer), Ford Sterling (Bandleader), Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (Clarinetist), Sadie Lampe (Hat Check Girl)

The early comedy shorts produced by Keystone studios were fairly lowbrow and low budget affairs; and in order to minimize production costs, many of the films were shot guerrilla-style. Producer/director Mack Sennett would often hustle his comedy troupe to public events and have his actors adlib amongst the ready-made spectacle. This was how Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character was introduced to the public--improvising during an actual children’s push-car race in his second released short, Kid Auto Races at Venice, CA (1914). Chaplin’s sixth short under his Keystone contract, Tango Tangles, was another impromptu affair, with the comedian’s inebriated adlibs taking place in a public dance hall.

Chaplin, clean-shaven and dressed in normal street clothes, totters tipsily into a dance hall. After his attempts to join in the terpsichorean merriment land him on his back, the drunk is directed to the cloak room to discard his hat and cane. Finding the hat check girl attractive, the liquored lothario flirts with her, not knowing that the girl already has a couple of dueling admirers, the band leader (Ford Sterling) and the clarinetist (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle). Of course, the bandleader objects when the amorous inebriate takes the girl for a spin around the dance floor. The resulting melee spills from the dance floor into the cloak room, where Chaplin and the bandleader try to beat each other senseless while wearing the same coat.

Even by Keystone standards, Tango Tangles is a pretty sub-par outing. The plot is nearly nonexistent and the film mainly consists of characters jumping up and down, pushing each other, and falling over. Given little to do, each of the three lead comedians handles the situation differently. Ford Sterling gestures and gyrates to an extent far beyond cartoonish, upstaging the other actors in the worst way possible. Whereas, Roscoe Arbuckle more or less disappears into the background. Only Chaplin occasionally elevates the proceedings with a bit of inspired inebriated shtick, such as when he tries to lean on a table and misjudges the distance. Instead of moving his body slightly, Chaplin moves the entire table. This more subtle style of slapstick didn’t mesh well with the Keystone brand of knockabout comedy, so it is understandable that Chaplin was anxious to move on after only one year at Sennett's studio.

While Tango Tangles has little to recommend it as a comedy short subject, it does have significant historical value. Fans of silent film will enjoy this rare opportunity to witness Chaplin clowning without his familiar mustache and tramp costume, while soused cinema enthusiasts will see the seeds of sauced slapstick that Chaplin exploited to greater effect in later shorts and features.

Drinks Consumed--Sadly none. Chaplin enters the film with a full tank and flies on that gas without refilling.

Intoxicating Effects
--Staggering, stumbling, flirting, brawling, and public disturbance

Potent Quotables--TITLE CARD (introducing Chaplin): One of the early arrivals, a little worse for the wear.

Video Availability--Tango Tangles, like most of the public domain Keystone shorts, is available on numerous budget DVDs from companies such as Delta and Madacy. The short is often listed under the alternate title, Charlie’s Recreation, and the 16mm print from which it is derived is pretty ragged. However, an effort is underway by the British Film Institute to restore all of the Chaplin Keystone shorts, so the Keystones will eventually be available on video in improved condition. The film as it currently survives can also be viewed through the embedded video above.

Similarly Sauced Cinema
--Chaplin bellied up to the bar yet again in his very next short, His Favorite Pastime (1914).

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


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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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