Maybe I’ve seen too many of Charlie Chaplin’s short films already, or maybe just too many of them in the relatively brief span of time I’ve been writing on this blog. On a technical level, they are all very well done. But from a story standpoint, there’s a certain “sameness” to all of them. Granted, it’s difficult to fit a complex narrative structure and deep characterization into twenty minutes. But it seems we can always count on Charlie playing a cheerful bumbler (sometimes explicitly as the Little Tramp, and sometimes just as a similar character), dealing with a few loutish oafs, and charming a winsome girl played by Edna Purviance.
The Rink, a Mutual Films short made in 1916, is no exception. But it’s still worth a look due to showing off Chaplin’s roller-skating ability.
Of course, even a great skater has difficulty with a beached whale on the rink.
Despite being titled The Rink, about half of the action actually takes place at a restaurant where Chaplin’s character works as a waiter. There are some gags here that work reasonably well, such as determining a customer’s bill by the mess he’s made, but nothing that will make a person laugh out loud. Charlie visits the roller rink on his lunch break, and is later invited to a skating party under a false identity. These scenes really showcase Chaplin’s skill on roller skates; there’s an almost ballet-like quality to the movements. There’s some humor involved with different people getting in the way, but it’s not quite enough to elevate it to high comedy; the choreography is more interested in looking pretty than being funny for most of it, and when it’s being funny there isn’t enough build-up to the gags. Contrasted with the artful chaos of The Circus, one is left with a feeling that The Rink is simply failing to live up to its potential.
There is also a plot element with the characters Mr. and Mrs. Stout — played by frequent Chaplin collaborators Eric Campbell and Henry Bergman, the latter in drag. I’ll note that Bergman’s drag is actually more convincing than that of today’s Adam Sandler and Martin Lawrence. The title card describes them as flirty, but philandering might be a better term, as neither seems very faithful to each other. They provide the conflict of the piece, with Chaplin’s character clashing with Mr. Stout while hoping that Mrs. Stout doesn’t expose him as a fraud. But, with the limited time of the film, it’s difficult to build up any real tension, and the resolution is — as is so often the case with these — rather perfunctory.
Ultimately, I’m left wondering if perhaps The Rink could have been improved by an extended run time. Even another 20 minutes might have given Chaplin enough time to build some characters up, add a bit of tension, and develop gags with some long-term pay off. But I’ll give him credit: the man could certainly skate.