Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Billie Reeves Makes His Film Debut

Charlie Chaplin achieved popularity on stage playing a drunk theater patron in the Karno troupe's classic "Mumming Birds" sketch.  The sketch was well established by the time that Chaplin stepped into the role, which had been originated by Billie Reeves when the sketch debuted in 1904.  It was due in no small part to Reeves' performance that the sketch became an immediate sensation.  The actors who succeeded Reeves in the role would have no doubt felt pressure to follow Reeves' example in order to assure the sketch's continued success.  Under the circumstances, it is conceivable for Reeves to have served as an early role model to Chaplin.

I considered Reeves' possible influence on Chaplin as I was looking through 1915 issues of The Moving Picture World and came across ads, notices and reviews for three short films starring Reeves.  The films, Counting Out the Count, The Substitute and The Clubman, happen to be the first three films to feature the comedian.  Counting Out the Count, in which Reeves poses as a count at a society function, sounds much like a later film by Chaplin called The Count (1916).  The Substitute finds Reeves up to acrobatic tricks.  The comedian dons roller skates at a restaurant and, as he rolls across the floor, he collides with waiters, topples patrons, and becomes hopelessly entangled with other skaters.  No doubt remains from the plot description provided by The Moving Picture World that the film was a forerunner to Chaplin's The Rink (1916).  The plot of Reeves' The Clubman is described as follows:

He is the ridiculously inebriated man about town who is summoned home by his wife during the course of a wild night at his club.  He zig-zags homeward.  Billy's tour of inspection of his rooms leaves in its wake the desolation of an earthquake.  He is hard on the furniture and bric-a-brac.  He wanders to the music room and becomes entangled in a tiger-skin rug.  The thing coils itself around his leg and Billy's foot somehow gets between its jaws.  His wife, awakened by her husband's frenzied howls, hurries downstairs to encounter Billy deliriously endeavoring to escape the beast.  He finally succeeds and so frightens his wife with it that she scampers upstairs.  After battling with a pillow and becoming almost stifled by the clouds of feathers which rise from the scene, Billy silences the innocent chirp of the canary by eating him and, exhausted, falls into deep sleep.

This is the same basic plot that Chaplin later used in One A.M. (1916).  Chaplin, in his inebriated state, also does battle with a tiger-skin rug and other inanimate objects around his house.  These various actions make the films comparable, though Reeves' battle with a pillow is admittedly less ambitious than Chaplin's battle with an entire bed.

It is possible that a tramp posing as a count, a bungler creating havoc on roller skates and a drunken man stumbling through his home were skit premises shared by many comedians in the English Music Hall.  Still, it was Reeves who brought these ideas in full form to the silver screen and it suggests that perhaps Chaplin looked to this prominent forebear for inspiration at this early stage in his career.

In either case, it is a shame that prints of Reeves' films are rare and the comedian is largely unknown even to silent film comedy fans.  He deserves to be known just for the fact that he may have had the original Shemp haircut.  Just read the description of his hair style as described by Kalton C. Lahue and Sam Gill in Clown Princes and Court Jesters: "His long hair, parted in the middle and combed down around his ears, gave Billy a rather shaggy appearance, especially when he was excited."

In closing, here is a photo of Reeves in tramp garb.

Additional Note (published September 12, 2014):
Michael J. Hayde provided further information on this subject in his new book, Chaplin's Vintage Year: The History of the Mutual-Chaplin Specials.

In 1912, Reeves toured vaudeville houses with a sketch entitled "Too Full for Words; or, A Lesson in Temperance."  Reeves set out to create a film adaptation of this sketch when he made The Clubman.  Intriguing, though, is the fact that a Variety critic described an important element of the sketch that was not identified in reviews of The Clubman.  The main character originally contended with props that manage, through concealed springs and wires, to function in ways that oppose the homeowner.  For instance, Reeves found himself unable to insert his key into the lock of his front door because the keyhole repeatedly moved away from the key.  The moving props were likely meant to express the drunk man's disoriented perspective.  It might appear to a man who is inebriated that he is unable to get his key in the door lock because the keyhole keeps moving on him. 

Chaplin, who had seen the sketch with Reeves' brother Alf, altered the routine by eliminating the mechanical props.  Chaplin's props remain inanimate, which doesn't make it any easier for the addled man to handle them.  This change allowed Chaplin to get the laughs rather than the props getting the laughs.

Of course, this presumes that Reeves didn't abandon the mechanical props himself by the time that he made The Clubman.  We can never know this unless the film becomes available.  Nevertheless, I maintain the same position in either case.  Chaplin's changes, as original and effective as they may be, do not alter the fact that One A.M. is essentially an uncredited film adaptation of the Reeves sketch.

Two of the earliest comedy films made use of a similar premise and even similar titles.  Robert W. Paul's Two A.M.; or, The Husband's Return (1896) involves an inebriated husband who stumbles home late at night and tries to get frisky with his annoyed wife.  The Biograph catalog reported the premise of The Prodigal's Return; 3 a.m. (1896) as follows: "Return of the clubman after a big time at the club.  His efforts to undress and get into bed are very laughable."  What made Reeves' routine unique was its clever and extensive use of props, which is something that clearly appealed to Chaplin.

Other information provided by Hayden suggests that Chaplin adapted The Rink from one of his stage routines.  The routine, which was simply titled "Skating," was submitted to producer Fred Karno by Sydney Chaplin and J. Hickory Wood.  Sydney performed the lead role when the sketch debuted in 1909.  In the same year, brother Charlie performed the routine while on tour with the Karno company.  Reeves briefly returned to Karno in 1911 and might have performed the "Skating" routine at that time.  In the end, no evidence exists to show that Reeves had any claim of ownership on the routine.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. Great detective work on this. Chaplin certainly used other people's work, just as every comedian did then.