The Rink: One of the four of Charlie Chaplin’s best films
As with several of Charlie Chaplin’s earliest films. He drew upon one of the old Fred Karno vaudeville sketches as the basis for his final film of 1916. The Rink—this one simply titled ‘Skating’, and originally developed on stage by Sydney Chaplin. Instead of simply reproducing the sketc. Chaplin takes it as an opportunity to fully develop the balletic movement he’d been tentatively employing in some of his films to this point—the fluidity of movement allowed by the roller skates he wears played directly into this.
Essentially, The Rink (Sac Lo: San Truot Bang) is simplicity itself and relies almost entirely upon Chaplin’s near mishaps when skating about for its laughs. Here the Tramp is employed as a waiter who loves to spend his downtime at the local skating rink. There he attempts to get closer to the young woman he’s taken a fancy to (Edna Purviance). While fending off Mr. Stout. Henry Bergman appears in drag as the put-upon Mrs. Stout. Hilarious in the finale as she slowly skates about behind everyone else.
The core of this short is in the choreography of Chaplin’s roller ballet, what John McCabe referred to as his ‘dance and bumps and falls and near misses, so beautifully choreographed that repeated viewing is unwearying. The Rink is a beautiful soundless waltz.’ With a few minor extra moments, that’s basically what the film is, and it may sound boring in the abstract: 20-odd minutes of some fella simply skating about doesn’t seem enticing, but when that ‘fella’ is Charlie Chaplin, we know it’ll be something special.
There’s a closer identification between the viewer and the Tramp in this short than perhaps in any of his work to this point. As he swoops around, narrowly avoiding collision, carefully skirting the edges. We are with him, experiencing his euphoria and sense of fun, with the same grace and the same near-jeopardy. McCabe highlights Eric Campbell’s ‘giant belly’ as almost a separate character in the film. And Chaplin’s collisions with Campbell serve as musical punctuation notes to the graceful ballet he is performing—he bounces off his foil regularly, both bringing to an end one movement, while also providing the kinetic energy for the next. Chaplin’s cane proves to be handy tool for keeping Campbell’s ruffian at arms length.
Professional roller skaters from the Los Angeles area were hired by the Lone Star Film Corporation to make up the extras in the rink. But there weren’t nearly enough of them to provide the numbers Chaplin needed. In addition, he not been skating for quite a while. So needed to brush up his skills before shooting, so took advantage of the professionals he’d hired to coach him. Within a week, according to Joyce Milton, Chaplin was out-performing the pros.
Although Chaplin rehearsed his work meticulously, the same could not be said for the others in the cast. Eric Campbell, at least, was very unsteady on his feet once on the rink, and preferred to stay as still as possible, waiting for Chaplin to come to him. In fact, one of Chaplin’s crew-members. Dave Allen, had the job of pushing Campbell onto the rink from out of camera range, a task achieved with a large stick which repeatedly bruised the poor man as he slid tentatively into the action.
‘When you pushed him into the scene, he had no idea what was coming,’ said Chaplin, talking with Allen. ‘I had it all figured out. As I was skating backwards on one foot—the other raised gracefully in mid-air. I planned to kick him right in the stomach just as you shoved him into the scene. It worked. The unsuspecting Eric got my skate right in the abdomen!’
Equally, Edna Purviance knew what was supposed to happen, but as Chaplin was prone to changing his mind or improvising in the moment, she and the others had little option but to go with the flow and simply react to whatever was happening. Chaplin was the master of their universe; they merely inhabited it.
The plot of The Rink, and the interrelationships of Mr. Stout (who is pursuing Edna) and Mrs. Stout, matter not a jot. The joy of the film is almost entirely in Chaplin’s physicality and his interactions with all these people. The fact that he is (once more) masquerading as a member of the aristocracy—Sir Cecil Seltzer C.O.D., no less—when visiting Edna’s skating party is no more an attack on the silly foibles of the rich than a throwaway joke, forgotten the minute it is enacted. No, the fun is in the skating, the charm and grace of the Tramp as he, almost literally, runs rings around everyone else involved.
According to research by John Bengston, the location used for the exterior of the skating rink is the same as that used for the exterior of the motion picture theatre in Chaplin’s Keystone movie Those Love Pangs, back in 1914, only with a large ‘Skating’ prop sign attached. The closing scene, where the Tramp escapes the irate skaters by hooking himself to the back of a moving automobile using his cane was filmed at an intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Silver Lake Boulevard, looking very different 100 years ago than they look today.
The earlier portions of The Rink focus on Chaplin’s role as an incompetent waiter; this sequence could come from almost any Chaplin film from the past two years. It would easily fit onto the Keystone or Essanay films. And in fact could have made up an entire single reel film early in Chaplin’s career. Certainly the havoc caused in the kitchen and dining room alike would feel right at home. The only thing different is the way he moves around. Over the years, Chaplin’s movement through space became more deliberate, less slapstick. His little, near-stationary dance while mixing a cocktail is an example of his new inventiveness. Which would only be give full flower once he finally hits the rink itself, almost 12 minutes into the short.
It is then that his balletic athleticism comes to the fore. From his entrance to the party, tipping his ash into a hat, to skating around in a curve and his interactions with various women, prime among them Edna. Chaplin makes his mark. Perhaps the temptation to indulge in the Keystone-like ‘low comedy’ of the physical encounters with Eric Campbell were too much to resist, but The Rink may have been even better if we’d seen more of the ‘poetic’ Chaplin than the slapstick variety. The combination of Chaplin as a waiter and a skater would later be seen more fully realised in his feature film Modern Times (1936).
David Robinson, in Chaplin: His Life and Art. Highlights one particular reaction to seeming changes to Chaplin’s character evidenced in The Rink. Writing in the New York Tribune, Heywood Broun said: ‘It is interesting to note that Chaplin falls only twice during the picture. Both times of his own volition, and that not once is he kick’. Broun took this new approach on behalf of the comedian to be significant, expounding under the headline ‘Nietzsche Has Grip On Chaplin: The Rink Strong Plea for Acceptance of Master Morality’. Broun continued: ‘Is it not obvious, then, what ferment is at work in the philosophy of the Chaplin comedies (phim hanh dong hai 2021)? Gone is the old comedy of submission, as emphasized in The Bank, The Tramp, Shanghaeid and others. And in its place there has grown up a comedy of aggression.
One cannot overlook the influence of Nietzsche and the ‘Will to Power’ here. … The new Chaplin is a superman, and though the hordes of fat villains may rage against him. With pie and soup and siphons they shall not prevail’. Broun may have had a point. But putting in in such terms he clearly overplays his hand—as Robinson notes. ‘Broun, we may take it, was not wholly serious.’
This was one of Chaplin’s most popular comedies at the time. Ideal fare for the holiday period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In The Rink, the Tramp transforms the environments he encounters. As a waiter, he is far from conventional, making absurd many of his regular duties.
He skates through the scene, flirting with danger (and with Edna). Causing others to fall over or to suffer injury (Eric Campbell). And yet he emerges entirely unscathed, and seemingly unconcerned. He stays immaculate and upright. Despite almost but not quite falling over on several occasions. It is only when he finally oversteps the mark by repeatedly bouncing on Mrs. Stout that those involve turn on the Tramp and chase him from the premises and into the street.
The Rink was Chaplin’s final film for 1916. A year in which he’d done much to consolidate his art, rehearsing, repeating. And improving upon everything he’d learned over the two previous years at Keystone and Essanay. He hadn’t quite managed to keep to his contract terms with Mutual to produce a new film every four weeks or so. And there were still four films outstanding. He would run the contract right through 1917. And slow down even further in his rate of productivity, producing four two-reelers over the next 10 months. However, he could be forgiven the indulgence as those four-reelers would comprise of Easy Street, The Cure, The Adventurer and The Immigrant, four of Chaplin’s best films(phim hai sac lo) to this point.