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Tango Tangles, one of Charlie Chaplin's earliest silents, was made before
The Little Tramp became his film persona of choice. Here, without his
moustache, the surprisingly young-looking comic does a variation on his
popular music hall drunk act, playing a dandy who tries to woo a cute
dancer, much to the chagrin of his rivals for her affections -- a band
leader and a fat musician, the latter played by Fatty Arbuckle.
This is quite a rare film in that Chaplin is completely and utterly overshadowed by one of his co-stars. Ford Sterling, an actor little remembered today, plays the bandleader, and offers such balletic, graceful and funny slapstick in his comedic fights with both Chaplin and Arbuckle that one could think that Chaplin might have taken some inspiration from the older actor in his own later performances as The Tramp.
This was a movie that cries out for sound. The story takes place at a dance (apparently a real one, based on the fact that a number of bystanders can be seen smiling and waving at the camera!), yet the music usually heard on the stock soundtracks provided for these silents on DVD and video does not match the action on screen, which appears to be performed in time with whatever music was being played at the time.
This isn't a bad film by any means, and it's interesting for its rare glimpse of the silent era Chaplin without his Tramp disguise. It also offers some funny moments for Fatty Arbuckle. But this is very much Ford Sterling's show and he's a joy to watch.
Watching silent comedies is an almost lost art, one that today's
younger viewers must teach themselves through an open-minded exposure
to multiple examples, always reminding themselves that the intent to
tell an amusing story clearly is always there, even if at first glance
the impression is of fast-paced incomprehensible chaos. With practice
one can learn to understand the conventions of the day, follow the
action and enjoy the multitude of jokes and amazing performances.
Even someone who has managed this for comedies of the 1920s, and who can both appreciate and enjoy, say, The General and The Gold Rush, may find their first exposure to Keystone material of the 1910s throws them back into bewilderment. Yet once one adjusts to the conventions of the time (such as the fast paced, physically detailed and extremely demonstrative acting that makes most '20s performances seem restrained by comparison), even these very early, frenetic and largely improvised Keystones can delight.
This one is particularly interesting for several reasons already cited in other reviews: the lack of character makeup on Chaplin and Sterling (both almost always appearing in other films with fake facial hair of various sorts), the amazing athleticism of Arbuckle, the wholly natural reactions of the actual onlookers in the "found" dance hall location to the antics of the leads. It repays a second and even a third viewing for those seeking to learn the skill of following early Keystone comedies.
This was one of Sterling's last handful of films at Keystone and one of Chaplin's first. At the time, Sterling was the bigger star. They work very well together here, especially in their fight scenes, which have tell-tale signs of being more improvised than rehearsed or precisely choreographed, yet are nevertheless creative, clearly told and quite entertaining.
If you've never seen a silent Chaplin short, this is not the one to start with. (Try one of the Mutuals, like Easy Street or The Immigrant) But if you've some familiarity with the genre, the circumstances of the shooting of this one make it one of the most interesting of his first half-dozen or so.
In Chaplin's first handful of short comedies, there is a very clear
pattern of experimentation going on as he discovers where his real
talent lies and while the personality of the beloved Tramp evolves and
makes itself known. In Tango Tangles, or Charlie's Recreation, we see a
bit of a digression as not only does Chaplin's character revert back
into the 'obnoxious drunk' half of his on screen persona, but is also
overshadowed by the clearly talented and, in this film at least, almost
equally large screen presence of Ford Serling.
Serling has been credited by some users as deserving at least some credit for inspiring some aspects of Chaplin's character, which I can accept, because the motions and overblown mannerisms are similar to some of Chaplin's later work, although I think it's important to point out that if Chaplin did learn from Serling, he most certainly saw his technique and improved it, maybe even perfected it.
At the beginning of the film, it is clear that Serling has an intense presence, but as the film goes on, the infancy of screen acting also becomes apparent. It seems here that actors did not know where to stop when flinging themselves about in the outrageously overblown antics that must have been common in slapstick comedy for the stage. They slap each other in the face and then stumble about in a bizarre state of semi-consciousness, wobbling on their feet while their arms swing limply, eyes bulging and head bouncing from side to side like a superball in a box, before eventually falling over backwards and flinging their legs up over their head far enough so that their toes touch the ground behind them.
Not that this is all bad comedy, just a sign of how different the things were that made people laugh in 1914 compared to today, as well as a curious look at the development of slapstick comedy for the screen.
As far Chaplin's performance, it is also clear that the Tramp was still in the future, as he appears in this film without a mustache and therefore looking entirely like someone else. As I mentioned, he once again plays a belligerent drunk, stumbling around and callously punching and pushing people and throwing things at them as he staggers about the set, also in a bizarre state of semi-consciousness. Fatty Arbuckle also puts the majority of his talents on hold to star in this short, as he, Chaplin, and Serling all compete viciously for the affections of the hat girl, with what probably used to be hilarious results. By now, the film is one of the lesser of Chaplin's very early films, but remains an interesting milestone on his way to making his own far superior films.
This is apparently Chaplin's 7th film at Keystone. Chaplin came to
Keystone in January. His first film, "Making a Living" was released on
February 2nd and this was released five weeks later on March 9th.
Welcome to Mack Sennett's "Fun Factory," Charlie. Was Chaplin surprised
to learn that Sennett really did run it like a factory, producing
comedy by the foot and reel?
What is interesting is the diversity of these early films. Chaplin is not yet "The Little Tramp" by a long shot. In fact he plays many different roles at the start of his career, he has already played a hustler type (Making a Living) and cop ("A Thief Catcher), a man obsessed with being in the movies ("Kid Auto races" and "a Film Johnie") and a drunk ("Mabel's Strange Predicament").
He wasn't a star at this point. He played second fiddle to Mable Normand in "Mabel's Strange Predicament," and second fiddle to Ford Sterling in Between Showers." He is back at playing second fiddle to Ford Sterling again in this film. He is also back to playing a drunk. This time in his real clothes and without the mustache.
While we have the release dates for the films, we cannot be sure of the shooting order. If the shooting order matches the release order, it seems apparent that Sennett was not at all sure that Chaplin could be a movie star and was preparing him to play supporting roles as another Keystone ensemble player.
Sennett liked to shoot on locations where interesting things were happening. He literally drove his actors to events and had them improvise stories on the spot. This is Chaplin's second improvised film after "Kid Auto Races." What is interesting here is how well he improvises with Ford Sterling. They really look like a great comedy team together. Seeing this film along with "Between Showers" would convince anyone that they had a great chemistry and timing between them. They seemed to have been working together for years rather then he just starting weeks before.
"Tango, Tangled" looked like director Mack Sennett just set up his cameras in front of a dance contest floor and told his three leads, Chaplin, Sterling and Arbuckle to be funny. The amazing thing is that they manage to make-up a film out of thin air and it is funny.
In this short, another one of the early ones Charlie Chaplin made for Mack Sennett, he's clean shaven and is nothing like his Little Tramp character. Well, except here he's just as drunk as you'd expect him to be in these early efforts. His beginning scenes are quite amusing as he seems to be at a real dance hall happening as he tries to woo some ladies and keeps slipping and tripping himself. But all that happens afterwards results in some nonsense about fighting over a pretty girl that happen to be also pursued by musicians Ford Sterling and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. As a result, I didn't think the rest was all that funny and in fact was repetitious though it was nice to see Arbuckle do some falls himself. So on that note, Tango Tangles is worth a look and nothing else.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The main surprise in this film is seeing Chaplin 'out of costume' --
without comedy makeup and without moustache, he appears here as a
handsome young wavy-haired man-about-town. (It's always disorienting
how good-looking Charles Chaplin was compared to the Tramp!) Keystone
comedies aren't my style, but this one's innocuous enough, with
entertaining elements in amongst the standard punch-up scenes; and to
be fair, the fights here do have some memorable moments, courtesy of
Charlie. Watch him roll up his sleeves and admire his own prowess after
delivering a successful opening blow, or waggle his buttocks in tango
time as the combatants circle... His introductory scene as a tipsy
guest confused at the hat-check counter stands out as elegant comedy
amongst the frenzy, as does a later moment when he attempts to lean
back against the counter, discovers he has misjudged the distance,
recovers, and moves the table forward a pace for his convenience rather
than stepping back a pace: just an improvisational moment, but one that
points to a different style of film.
Ford Sterling and Fatty Arbuckle have some good musical 'business' together towards the start of the film, although this degenerates rather in later scenes; I wasn't as impressed by Sterling's over-the-top performance here as other reviewers have been. Amused to note the angular Al St. John in a stripy costume at the back in several scenes...
So far as both Keystone and Chaplin are concerned, this film is something a little different. Worth seeing as mild entertainment, even for those who don't normally much like that sort of thing.
Tango Tangles (1914)
* 1/2 (out of 4)
Keystone romp has a dance hall girl getting the attention of a band leader (Ford Sterling), a clarinettist (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle) and a drunk (Charles Chaplin). The three men eventually bump into one another and more than one fight breaks out. Most might be attracted to this film due to the early appearance of Chaplin but it's the now forgotten Sterling who steals the show. He has a couple funny moments throughout the film but overall he doesn't have too much to work with. For the most part we just see the men each trying to sneak off with the girl but getting busted by another one of the guys and a fight breaks out. Arbuckle gets a nice scene where he's about to throw a man but that's about it for him. I was disappointed with Chaplin (how many times can you say that?) because he really doesn't bring too much to his role as the drunk. The one funny thing is that it appears this was filmed at a real dance and some people there didn't know they were filming a movie.
This is a film from Chaplin's first year in films. During this VERY
hectic year, he churned out film after film after film for Keystone
Studios and the quality of the films are, in general, quite poor.
That's because the character of "the Little Tramp" was far from
perfected and the films really had no script--just the barest of story
ideas. While some Chaplin lovers might think this is sacrilege, all
these movies I have seen are pretty lousy. Yes, there are some cute
slapstick moments but barely any plot--absolutely NOTHING like the
Chaplin we all came to love in his full-length films of the 20s and
As stated above, Charlie does not sport his usual mustache. The movie is about jealousy and consists of lots of people pushing and punching each other--that's pretty much it!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In his sixth film, Chaplin plays a music hall rival with Fatty Arbuckle and Ford Sterling. The appears to be a real dance in one scene and it would have been great to hear the actual music from the era. Instead, we get the droning soundtrack which stops and starts again several times through the film without any correlation to the scene occurring. Fatty Arbuckle moves well for a 300 pound man, although he was relatively young at the time. Ford Sterling wins out in the end and we somehow wonder whether or not Chaplin was being used properly at the time. In these early films he bounces back and forth between playing heels and troublemakers, as in this film, and a rough version of the tramp. The film is full of stock exaggerated character mannerisms for the period. ** of 4 stars.
In the year that Charles Chaplin made his screen debut in 'Making A Living', earning his living from short films, Mack Sennett began directing him in 'Tango Tangles'. As Sennett was an actor himself before turning director, he gave Chaplin the opportunity to direct his own films.
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