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Charlie making up as the Tramp

The Masquerader

1914. Keystone Studios. Directed by Charles. With Charles Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Minta Durfee.

A sliced-up print and poor video transfer make me wonder if I'm clear about the plot of this early Chaplin short. Whatever the details, something interesting is going on here.

The film opens on the sidewalk outside the Keystone Studios, the studio where Charles Chaplin began making movies and developed his Tramp character. Charlie—in civilian dress—is picked out of a group of men and pulled into the studio. "Selected for his beauty," a title says, so it appears that Charlie is just a random hopeful. He sits himself down in the dressing room across from Fatty Arbuckle and, with Charlie stealing swallows from Fatty's bottle of beer until Fatty substitutes a bottle of gasoline, they put on their makeup. We cut away to the set where other actors are rehearsing, and when we return to the dressing-room, Charlie has transformed himself into the Tramp!

It's remarkable to see Chaplin out of makeup, looking like an ordinary young man. And even more remarkable to see the Tramp acknowledged as a constructed character.

In his Tramp persona, Charlie becomes hyperkinetic and malicious. He throws his makeup kit at Fatty and anybody else who comes by. He runs through the stage, knocking into the other performers, breaking props and upsetting the camera. It seems like typical early Sennett anarchy, but surely there is something odd about Charlie wreaking havoc on his own "birthplace," assaulting his own colleagues, and knocking over the very camera that created him.

Then comes the amazing spectacle of a Keystone producer firing Charlie Chaplin—literally ordering the Tramp to leave the studio and never come back.

Charlie does come back, disguised as a glamorous woman (the title reads: "Next day, a fairy floated into the studio."). "Senorita Chaplino," as she is called, flirts outrgeously with that same producer, who leads her into that same dressing room—possibly to put on a costume for a screen test, possibly to undress for a tryst. As soon as he's alone, Charlie pulls off his wig and scrambles into his Tramp costume. Meanwhile, a bunch of the Keystone actors—including recognizable ones like Snub Pollard and Mack Swain— complain about have been evicted from their dressing room. The producer sweeps back into the dressing room and—as we did earlier—discovers the Tramp in place of the person he expected. He sees the discarded dress and wig, realizes he's been humiliated, and pursues Charlie furiously around Keystone with the other actors joining the chase. Eventually Charlie falls into a well and they leave him there to drown. The end.

Now, this second episode may have been designed to show off Chaplin's female impersonation skills, but it serves another purpose as well. Look at the symmetry between the two halves: scene on the street outside with Charlie dressed as a "civilian;" then a scene in the dressing room with a Keystone employee; then a maniacal transformation into the Tramp followed by a chase around the studio. That the "Senorita" character is clearly a disguise raises some question about who the male "job-seeker" character is. The real Charles Chaplin? Chaplin playing a young acrobat who carries the Tramp in his makeup case?

Perhaps it's the Tramp himself, infiltrating a movie studio—first in the guise of an actor and then, more spectacularly, as a vamp—not because he wants to break into the movies, but simply because he has to get into a movie studio in order to realize himself. What we see at the beginning, I think, is not Charles Chaplin turning himself into a character, but the Tramp temporarily going undercover as a normal-looking job-seeker until he can get where he belongs and let himself loose. In light of the fact that from here on out, "Charlie Chaplin" and the Tramp character became indistinguishable, you have to wonder which of the three characters Chaplin plays here is the real "Masquerader."



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein