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Silent comedy buffs seek out Making a Living for one reason only: to
witness the film debut of 24 year-old Charlie Chaplin, fresh from stage
success in England and America with the Karno comedy troupe. Neither
Chaplin nor producer Mack Sennett recalled this first attempt with any
fondness in later years, but it seems neither much worse nor much
better than the average Keystone one-reeler of the period. We watch
with heightened interest, but Making a Living remains difficult to
assess objectively. We're so conscious of it as a special milestone, as
Chaplin's First Movie, that it isn't easy to sit back and enjoy the
show on its own, admittedly modest merits.
The first thing we notice is that the familiar costume hasn't been developed yet. In the very first shot, when Chaplin approaches his co-star (and director) Henry Lehrman to ask for a hand-out, it takes us a moment to adjust to his exotic appearance: he wears a top hat, tan frock coat, and droopy mustache. He looks a bit seedy but he's not exactly a tramp, more like an eccentric gent who is down on his luck. It's interesting to observe Chaplin in this extended opening sequence as he puts the touch on a man who is, apparently, a total stranger. He engages Lehrman in light conversation, examines the man's ring, briefly pretends to steal it, chuckles winningly, and then gets down to the business of genteel pan-handling. At first Lehrman refuses him a loan, but when he relents and offers cash Chaplin suddenly turns him down -- and then, as the offer is withdrawn, quickly grabs it. It's a nice little scene, more relaxed and nuanced than what we might expect.
All that follows is more conventional, as it details the escalating (and increasingly violent) rivalry between Chaplin and Lehrman, first over the same girl and then over the same job, at a newspaper office. Along the way we recognize some Chaplin expressions and mannerisms familiar from later performances, but we also note that Charlie's character is decidedly unsympathetic: he's a con man who repeatedly double-crosses his reluctant benefactor, Lehrman. At one point during a battle Chaplin holds Lehrman at bay with his walking stick, as he later would with Eric Campbell in The Rink (1916), but The Little Tramp seems worlds away. Eventually, when Lehrman manages to take some photos at the scene of a car accident, Charlie steals his camera and attempts to pass off the photos as his own. What a scoundrel!
For a newcomer to movie-making Chaplin appears perfectly relaxed before the camera. Despite all the scuffling and running around that takes place here, both Chaplin and Lehrman (who doesn't display much screen presence) give performances that are noticeably more restrained than the Keystone norm of the time. Towards the end, when Chester Conklin appears as a cop, his grotesque makeup and out-sized reactions look quite exaggerated in contrast to the two leads. It's also interesting to observe that Chaplin and Lehrman, who quickly developed an intense mutual antipathy off-camera, spend most of their on-screen time together as adversaries, both in this film and in Kids' Auto Race, made soon afterward. It seems that Chaplin was signaling, from the very outset, that he would not passively submit to direction from others -- or at least not from Henry Lehrman. And it wouldn't be long after this, just a few months, before Chaplin would be directing his own work, and his brilliant career would be launched in earnest.
It was in this, his first film, that Chaplin was called "a comedian of the first water" by an early, unidentified film critic. Actually, this film was considered bad at the time of its release, but Chaplin stood out in this unimaginative short as a first-class performer. Here, he appears in a silk hat and frock-coat, wearing a monocle. It is interesting to note that while American audiences would interpret this characterization as a traditional stage villain, but in England music-hall this characterization represents a man down-on-his-luck, a sort of forerunner of the Little Tramp (which Chaplin would develop in his following film). The plot, such as it is, involves Chaplin and Lehrman as rival reporters, and when Lehrman gets a photo of a car wreck, Chaplin steals it and tries to sell it to the paper as his own.
This is well worth watching, of course, just to see Charlie Chaplin's first
screen appearance. In itself, the comedy is not that bad for its time, but
it's fairly standard slapstick, without anything particularly
It looks very much as if the film has deteriorated quite a bit physically, which makes it somewhat difficult to tell how good it may have been originally. Not that it would have been anything exceptional anyway, but some of the frantic action would probably be easier to follow if the print were in better shape, without anything missing.
Here, Charlie plays a character who is continually looking for ways to outwit a rival as he tries to make good. He gives the role plenty of energy, as you would expect, and he does as much as anyone could have within the limitations of the story line. In itself, it's nothing special, but to anyone who enjoys silent films, it's well worth watching just to see what the start of Chaplin's career was like.
It's clear from the disjointed and awkward "Making a Living" that Keystone
studios and Mack Sennett didn't know what to do with their newly discovered
comic import from Britain. Playing a leering, evil-looking character,
Chaplin flounders in front of the camera, overacting terribly.
As a comedy, it fails to elicit a single chuckle. And the only interesting bit of filmmaking comes at the very end when we see Chaplin and another actor jumping onto the front of a moving streetcar. The plot thickens no further!
Cinema buffs and Chaplin fans will find this film of interest as the debut of one of cinema's finest talents, but casual fans, and particularly fans of the Little Tramp, are better served skipping this one and watching Chaplin's second effort, Kid Races at Venice (1914), which is a far more successful comedy and features the Tramp's debut.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In Making a Living, Charlie Chaplin's film debut, he is not yet dressed as The Little Tramp. Instead, he sports a monocle, top hat, dapper suit, and a more drooping mustache. And he's basically more of a swindler than a gentleman with his penchant for stealing another person's credit (in this one, he sees someone take a picture of a car accident and takes the camera to pass the picture as his own in the newspaper building). Still, the fight scenes are pretty hilarious especially when Chaplin uses his umbrella to hold back his tormentor! And the last scene when they end up on a train car should tell you how actors seemed more willing to perform their own stunts then than now. So, on that note this is still worth a look for any fans of Chaplin and silent comedy history.
This is Chaplin's film debut. If it wasn't for that, there's a pretty
good chance that this would be totally forgotten by today. Chaplin, in
a pre-Tramp role, shows some of the things that would eventually make
him one of the most recognizable figures in the world, such as keeping
an opponent away from him by using his cane during a fight). There's
very little (ok, no) plot development.
This is a Keystone short, so there is quite a bit of slapstick humor. Perhaps it's due to this movie being over 90 years old when I saw this, but I could not tell what exactly happened between Chaplin and the reporter (played by director Henry Lehrman). There are a few interesting parts.
If you are a fan of Chaplin and can't get enough of his work or a fan of silent slapstick comedies, this might be worth a look. Then again, it's only about 8 or 9 minutes long, so if you don't like it, you haven't wasted much of your time.
I have read a lot of negative reviews of Chaplin's first screen
appearance, written by people who can't seem to get past the fact that
the Tramp has not been discovered yet and Chaplin plays a character
wildly different from the one that we know and love and with whom he is
most associated with. It is a curious look at his early career, since
Chaplin was acting on stage barely six months before this film was
shot, and although his character, dubiously named Edgar English, is
something of a swindling jerk, it is hard to imagine any actor putting
on a charming performance with such a hideous mustache!
Many of Charlie's mannerisms are already very recognizable, and it is interesting to consider how similar his stage acting was to his film acting, since his style is already so clear. Consider his behavior upon noticing the Help Wanted sign, as well as the extensive fight scenes, which are even more breathless here than usual, since the pace of the film is so much faster than many of his short comedies of the time, given the primitive filming equipment.
Making A Living is a very unique film in Chaplin's filmography, not only because it is his first screen appearance, but also because it represents a real testing period in which he was truly unsure of himself as a screen actor. One cannot deny that it is interesting to consider how Chaplin looked back on this film in forming his persona, and what he thought worked here and what he should change. Also of note is the film's final shot, which features a stunt gag, something that would be very common in his later short comedies of this period.
Some have said that this is a film only for Chaplin fans and that casual fans of silent film should skip it, but I disagree. Chaplin is considered by many to be the greatest screen comedian of all time, but if you keep in mind that this is his first screen appearance and therefore not one of the greatest silent comedies of all time, I should think that any viewer with even a mild interest in silent film should find it interesting and entertaining.
Not one of Chaplin's best, but not deserving of the bad reviews it has
Chaplin here, in his very first movie, plays a swindler masquerading as a reporter--or at least I think so. The movie moves along at such a hectic pace that it is a little confusing. Like all Keystone movies of that era, it was a silly bit of fluff. But still, it had its moments and is generally is pretty funny.
One memorable scene--memorable for its silliness--is the scene where a car gets into an accident and a reporter (Charlie? I am not sure) interviews a survivor while pinned in the wreck! That one bit of business was funny as hell. Any former present or former journalist, in particular, would appreciate it.
For his first film, Charlie Chaplin does not yet wear his tramp costume
but is dressed as a dandy, a character clearly inspired by Max Linder.
This is a good example of the one- or two-reel slapstick comedies which constituted a large part of American film production at the time. While there is a story which keeps the viewer's interest, it is mainly an opportunity to accumulate as many visual gags as possible. Only four inter-titles are used in the film and they are not even really necessary. Although the filming consists mostly of wide shots and three quarter shots, always with a static camera, the editing gives a very dynamic progression of the action, with a systematic use of cross- cutting. The fact that it is mostly filmed on location in the streets of Los Angeles and in the office of the L.A. Times gives it authenticity and adds now a historical interest with views of the city and of different parts of a newspaper office in 1914, notably shots of a Linotype used for the composition of the newspaper.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
We have to note a couple of things about film that are important.
First, the most complete print on the "Chaplin at Keystone"DVD
collection runs over 12 minutes. Many of the videos on you-tube of this
film are 8 minute versions. Try to see the fuller version.
Second, it is unfair to expect general modern audiences to find anything one hundred years old funny. They have been brought up in a different world and tastes and styles of humor are naturally different It is only fair to compare this movie with other movies of its time period. Cinematic techniques and styles change rapidly and even the audiences of 1919 would consider films from 1914 too primitive to be taken seriously.
Chaplin, in his autobiography, noted how disappointed he was with the film. He felt that his best comic bits had been edited out. He faulted his director and costar Pathé Lehrman. This is a biased assessment of the film. Lehrman had left in a great deal of funny material by Chaplin. Lehrman assignment was not to make of movie of Chaplin during his stage routines. It was to make a Keystone comedy in the style of Keystone/Sennett using the talents of Chaplin. Looking at it from this prospective, he has succeeded. It is certainly in the manic Keystone style and it shows off Chaplin's great talent.Chaplin is at the center of the film and he provides as many laughs as Fred Mace, Ford Sterling, or Mack Sennett did when they were Keystone leads.
Get over the shock of seeing Chaplin out of costume. Remember this was pre-little tramp, so look at it fresh, without that iconoclastic image in mind. Nobody had ever seen the tramp when Chaplin made this movie. Chaplin's Edgar English is a very funny character in his own right.
Usually, Keystone comedies were based on two practical jokes. This one is based on three. The first is Edgar English, called a bum by newspaper reporter Lehrman stealing Lehrman's girlfriend. The second is Lehrman ruining English's attempt to get a job at his newspaper. The third is English stealing Lehrman's once in a lifetime car crash photo and getting it published under his own name. In a sense while the character steals the picture from Lehrman, in real life Chaplin is stealing the picture from Lehrman.
The movie's structure is a little odd in that one expects that the movie will be about Chaplin stealing Lehrman's girlfriend, Minta Durfee. Yet, this whole subject gets dropped immediately after being introduced. Instead the movie is changes into a story of a new upstart trying to be a reporter who outdoes a seasoned reporter. One of the nice things about Keystone was that the plot was usually largely improvised anyway, so the gags were what counted. Here there are lots of gags and little bits. Probably Chaplin was telling the truth about some of his business being cut. When English steals the photo from the reporter, there is all kinds of things that happens at English's rooming house that is totally strange and doesn't make any sense. It is clear that several characters at the rooming house including the jealous husband with a knife and the two women upstairs had a whole separate story that was edited out. The two minutes of slapstick has been left in, but it certainly does not match the fairly clear scenes that went before it. Possibly Sennett ordered the cuts to make sure the ending had the same frantic pace that all Keystone comedies had. One can understand why Sennett did not want to change his successful formula. It was Keystone's trademark.
Before signing with Keystone, Chaplin said that he did not like Keystone's pictures, except for Mabel Normand. It is probable that Chaplin had already decided to make films his way when he arrived at Keystone. No wonder few people at Keystone liked him in the beginning.
What also struck me were the extraordinary shots of Chaplin running through the city streets. Suddenly, we have tracking shots worthy of Keaton's "Seven Chances" (1925). The ending shot of a trolley car running up to and scooping up the fighting Lehrman and Chaplin is as unexpected and exciting today as it was in 1914. Modern audiences may be disappointed because nothing gets resolved and the movie just ends. However, that is part of the Keystone style. It may not be a good plot resolution, but it is a good gag and perhaps a brilliant metaphor with the trolley representing the movie industry which is transported the fighting Chaplin and Lehrman into the future.
In sum, we should recognize two things: Chaplin was hilarious the moment he got before the camera and Pathé Lehrman accomplished his assignment to make a Keystone style comedy staring Chaplin. This may not have satisfied Chaplin, but it must satisfy us.
It would be nice to see the raw footage from "Making a Living," I suspect Chaplin is right and their are a lot of laughs there, albeit not in the Keystone style.
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