The little fellow, Charlie Chaplin, has been working diligently with Mack Sennett all year. He has been battered and bedeviled, wrung like laundry and popped like a champagne cork at the hands of Sennett's heart-stopping family: Edgar Kennedy eternally flummoxed, the brush mustache of Chester Conklin raised like a shield against havoc, while Slim Summerville registers blank surprise at his own pendulous nose--and Mack Swain's eyes threaten to fly from their sockets at Fatty Arbuckle's faux-innocent demeanor, his lips pursed, his "balloonatic" frame tumbling (while Mabel Normand lowers her chin and smiles)--all in the wake of the little fellow's grin and shove, the last Méliès imp--but without camera-tricks, just frenetic life.
But Chaplin now confronts Marie Dressler, as clay-faced as Swain, as quick to topple as Arbuckle--but here, Chaplin's object of pursuit--imagined fortune the cad's goad--dumb as Sennett can make 'em, she is, but unstoppable. Watching the two of them go through Sennett's tortuous paces--yes, a bit tedious at more than an hour (billed as the first full-length comedy)--they seem at genuine odds: the waddling Dressler--although a remarkable drunken dancer--vs. the heel-spinning Chaplin, his face expressive with many little touches, gestures that would go unnoticed on the stage--but Chaplin understands completely he is being filmed, that he can lift one finger and its place in the moment is recognized, a true film-performance.
And I have no doubt Chaplin knows he is making himself the center of attention. He manages to muscle everyone else out of the frame--or my frame of reference, so that his moments on screen are his--but we are rewarded by this sheer egoism, and the mass pratfalls of Sennett comedy become something more human, almost subtle--even when the Kops arrive, sliding like greased seals into one another and the unforgiving ground, plunging into the ocean, auto and all.
And one more thing, a moment of quintessence: Early on, Chaplin and his farmer's daughter behemoth trade bricks to the head, a strange kind of love-play--but not so strange: For the past year, a small world has been crafted from the deepest recesses of the unconscious by one George Herriman, in his comic strip Krazy Kat (and I note both Herriman and Sennett love their "K"s). It is a world of leaning landscapes and confusion--of intent, gender, allegiance--simple and rich, seemingly etched like primordial cave paintings, human and animal conflated. And while any three panels of Herriman is worth a hundred Sennett reels, for that one projectile-blessed moment Chaplin and Dressler understand that the pain necessary for comedy is as much an assertion as a demolition. She fumbles for an expression of affection, he for one of scorn. And as Ignatz brains Krazy, and she/he swoons, "Li'l ainjil," the tragedy of comedy flies with a ZIP and a POW--and in complete safety, all damage forgiven, so that the chase can continue.