Some screen newcomer named Charles Chaplin plays a scheming cad who wants to steal a reporting job right out from under Henry Lehrman. This was Chaplin before his iconic Little Tramp character and while he was still getting the hang of this picture business.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
A Car Wreck
When Charlie Chaplin was hired from the stage by Mack Sennett’s Keystone film company, he was not brought into the fold to be himself. The big star on the Keystone lot was Ford Sterling, whose ill-natured and villainous antics had audiences in stitches and who was leaving for greener, more lucrative pastures. Chaplin was to be his replacement and was expected to mimic his broad mugging and wild gestures.
Sterling is very much a love-him-or-hate-him comedian today (I rather enjoy his work) but in early 1914, he was up there with John Bunny in popularity. Of course, both of these men are now relegated to the corners of film history and Chaplin is still recognized on sight.
Or, rather, his Little Tramp persona is recognized. The Tramp is nowhere to be seen in Making a Living (audiences saw him a week later in Kid Auto Races at Venice) and Chaplin was placed in the position of simultaneously proving himself while copying the brash Sterling playbook. To make matters worse, Chaplin did not get on with director and co-star Henry Lehrman. Without going too far into the Lehrman weeds (that’s a post in itself), I must say that was understandable as Lehrman seemed to be a singularly unlikeable figure.
However, the animosity quite possibly works to the film’s advantage as Making a Living concerns a petty competition between the men. In a case of art presaging life, Chaplin spends the picture trying to become Lehrman’s superior replacement.
Chaplin plays a broke swindler who tries to hit Lehrman up for some money. Lehrman contemptuously hands him a coin. This exchange is apparently enough to inspire Chaplin to make like a 1990s thriller and steal his benefactor’s life. (Making a Living has a thin plot even by the usual Keystone standard.) He sidles up to Lehrman’s girlfriend (Virginia Kirtley) and proposes marriage, which she eagerly accepts. When Lehrman arrives with his own proposal, she refuses him and, realizing what has happened, he attacks Chaplin.
Lehrman is employed as a reporter and Chaplin also applies for a job at the office but is turned away. But then, opportunity strikes! A car tumbles off an embankment and while the driver lies injured, pinned under the vehicle, Lehrman gets a statement and takes pictures. Chaplin steals his notes and camera and books it for the newspaper office. Will he succeed in stealing Lehrman’s job?
Making a Living is a Keystone product to its core. The story was built around access to a newspaper office and was shot quickly and cheaply. The studio was always on the lookout for low cost or free locations and events that could be incorporated into a comedy short. Sometimes, crews would go further afield, with Arbuckle and Normand venturing to San Diego to take advantage on its ongoing expo, but the general Keystone ethos was fast food slapstick: quick, cheap, tasty, popular.
The big question about Making a Living: How much Chaplin™ is there to be found? Well, some. This is definitely a rougher film but Chaplin’s Keystone and Essanay films tended toward the rough. The whole picture is basically an excuse for a car crash and a chase but, other than the brief use of a reverse tracking shot during the climactic chase, there’s not much notable to be found in the production itself.
Chaplin’s Ford Sterling impression is not good, he admitted that himself, but there are little glimpses of what would come. Short balletic movements, a clever facial reaction, nothing huge but they are there if you care to look for them.
When Making a Living was first released, Chaplin was just viewed as yet another player cycling through the Keystone system. Studio head Mack Sennett was notably cheap and deemed most talent entirely expendable compared to the brand and himself as its genius head honcho, so Keystone was a place for comedians and directors to start but not a place to stay. As a result, Chaplin’s debut was released with relatively little fanfare about its future superstar.
That quickly changed. Making a Living was released in February of 1914 and the very next month, Chaplin was listed alongside top Keystone players Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, who were starring in the wildly popular Fatty and Mabel series. Hilariously enough, this March ad was mostly taken up with copy bashing the then-new star system. Sennett “did not require any of these so-called STARS” to build his success, the ad sniffs. Right above an offer to sell 8x10s of Keystone players at 50 cents a pop. Well then.
(If you’re interested, the star system is generally given a birth date of 1909-1910, when Max Linder, Florence Lawrence and a few others were given top billing by name. Studios opposed billing their players because they feared higher paycheck demands but the public would not be denied the names of their favorites.)
Most of the pre-release publicity for Making a Living centered on the alleged destruction of an automobile. A news item, repeated almost verbatim in Reel Life, Motion Picture News, New York Clipper, and a coarsely obvious studio plant, bragged that “Henry Lehrman, a Keystone director, tipped a $1,500 automobile over a cliff in his last picture, “Making a Living.” A nearly new Studebaker was used for this effect and when recovered at the bottom resembled a pile of kindling wood. This expensive episode cost the Keystone Co. a good-sized sum but a thrill was to be gotten out of the story and Keystone took this method of getting it.”
My suspicions were immediately aroused at these claims of lavish expenditure. Mack Sennett bragging about spending money would be like Michael Curtiz claiming he was committed to absolute on-set safety for extras and horses: That will be the day.
Further, the film itself seems to confirm my suspicions. If one was destroying a machine worth $40,000 in today’s money, one would make sure to capture every detail on film. Instead, the car’s reckless maneuvering is shown via undercranking and then we get a long, long, loooooooong shot of what appears to be a different car tumbling down an embankment and then a closer shot of a pristine vehicle carefully turned on its side.
So, Lehrman let a cheap flivver take the impact and it’s quite possible that the “nearly new Studebaker” was in fact a 1911 or 1912 Flanders Model 20, distributed by Studebaker and retailing at $800 new, a bit over half the Studebaker price. (h/t Horseless Age)
Studios planted items in trade periodicals and general interest newspapers all the time, so if coverage seems a bit too fawning, you are right to be suspicious. For example, an item from the March 10 issue of The Daily Ardmoreite of Ardmore, Oklahoma (population 8,000) is a hilariously obvious plant.
After assuring readers that Keystone films would still be shown at the local theater, the piece launches into a rather peppery attack on Ford Sterling. “It is true that Ford Sterling has seen fit to resign from the Keystone company, but we have seen comedians with the Keystone company before who have seen fit to resign or who have been canned, and the Keystone comedies continue to improve.”
Okay, okay, Mack, we get it! And while Sterling’s solo efforts did not match his success at Keystone, the studio’s revolving door soon proved to be a blunder as Chaplin, Arbuckle, Normand and, later, Frank Capra, Harry Langdon and Carole Lombard moved on to bigger and better things.
Chaplin continued to clash with every Keystone director he was assigned to work with but his sudden, phenomenal popularity meant that rather than being fired, he was handed the directing job himself. It’s worth noting that while Chaplin seemed to have a point with Lehrman, his conflicts with Mabel Normand as a director were tinged with misogyny and it is intolerable that her talents have been dismissed due to historians accepting his account at face value. To add insult to injury, she was very kind to him by his own account. (I dissect the conflict through a pro-Normand lens in my review of Mabel at the Wheel.)
If looking into this film has reminded me of anything, it’s that I need to confirm, confirm, confirm when examining established film history facts. And for heaven’s sake, always assume fawning items in periodicals are studio plants!
Making a Living isn’t a particularly notable film in the Keystone canon but for the casting of Chaplin. The wafer-thin story and chintzy effects can’t save it. It’s well worth seeing if you want to examine the evolution of Chaplin as a comedian but it’s no hidden gem. More of a historical artifact than proper entertainment.
Where can I see it?
Restored version released on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s Chaplin at Keystone set.
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