December 21, 1914 [Tillie's Punctured Romance]

The little fellow, Charlie Chaplin, has been working diligently with Mack Sennett all year. He's 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's 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're 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 that both Herriman and Sennett love their "K"s). It's a world of leaning landscapes as well as confusion (of intent, gender, allegiance), simple and rich, 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.


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