Today is the anniversary of the release of the great Keystone ensemble comedy Caught in a Cabaret (1914), directed by Mabel Normand, written by and co-starring herself and Charlie Chaplin. The film has two locations, a low-down cabaret and a posh society party: because of this anyone who was anyone in the Keystone company is in the film too, and it’s fun to pick them all out.
The film is also seminal for being the first of many “stolen identity” plots Charlie would star in. Based on the earlier Biograph comedy The Baron (1911), it casts Charlie as a waiter who rescues society girl Mabel from a robbery attempt. She invites him to her house. When he shows up (on a break from his work as a waiter in a cafe) he claims to be the “Ambassador to Greece” (a slight joke; he works in a greasy spoon). Charlie the comedian pulls out the stops at the party, introducing a lot of funny business that would become part of his standard repertoire: dabbing booze behind the ears as though it were perfume; pretending to pour some in his ear and then spitting it out his mouth. And predictably he gets drink.
Like Cinderella, he must go back to work and the real world, where his boss (Edgar Kennedy) brow beats him for lateness. Then even this is too good. Mabel and her friends come to the cabaret on a slumming party and thus he is “caught”, as it says in the title. Both sides are up in arms about the situation, Kennedy literally so as he chases everyone out by shooting a gun off, which is a bit excessive if you ask me! But Mabel gives Charlie a good beating too.
While Mabel directed this picture, it seems to me that Charlie had to have been driving the scenario, or at the very least “owning” it. He returned to this predicament so many times: A Jitney Elopement, The Count, The Idle Class, City Lights, and I’m probably missing a few more. See-sawing between two lives. Chaplin, who’d been among the poorest of the earth, was now suddenly already living a dream life. (“Really? I get paid a lot of money? For this? My dream? Surely I’m an imposter. ) He must have been pinching himself daily.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.