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One of several comedy shorts that Charlie Chaplin made during his brief time at Mack Sennett's Keystone studios, The Knockout (1914) is more of a showcase role for Fatty Arbuckle while Chaplin doesn't make an appearance until the final third as a boxing referee. The simple plot follows Arbuckle as a jolly innocent named Pug as he and his girlfriend (played by Arbuckle's real-life wife, Minta Durfee) tangle with some hooligans. In the fracas, Pug discovers his natural boxing ability and is encouraged to try his luck in an amateur match against a con-artist pretending to be the boxer Cyclone Flynn. The hustler is soon intimidated by Pug's strength (he sees him lifting a 500 lb. weight with one hand) and makes him an offer in a note, "It's very unpleasant knocking out fat men, so lay down and we'll go halves on the coin." Pug refuses and the imposter flees when the real Cyclone Flynn arrives in town, ready to defend his title. Pug actually gives Cyclone Flynn plenty of trouble in the ring though the referee ends up taking the most abuse from both fighters. When it becomes obvious that Pug is not going to win the match, he steals a pistol from a ringside gambler and goes on a shooting spree that spills out of the ring and into the street, culminating in a chase by the police.
The Knockout is full of inventive visual gags, many of which were copied or "discovered" later by filmmakers who thought they were forging new ground in the medium. In one unexpected shot, Fatty looks directly at the camera as he prepares to get into his boxing shorts and gestures to the operator to raise it up so we can't see him change clothes. Then the camera tilts up keeping Fatty's head in the frame until he is finished and then resumes its original setup where we get the comic payoff of Fatty's absurd boxing outfit. This popular concept of "breaking the fourth wall" was later cleverly employed by Bob Hope, Albert Finney, Mike Myers and others in such films as Road to Utopia , Tom Jones , and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery , but it's startling to see it as early as 1914.
The choreographed fight scenes with Chaplin becoming an unintentional punching bag are beautifully executed but the real highlight of The Knockout is the final chase sequence in which Fatty goes berserk, fleeing down the road while dragging a string of policemen on a rope behind him.
Arbuckle, Chaplin and many of the staff at Keystone were boxing fans and some former boxers even ending up working there such as Al McNeil, who became an editor, and screen comic Edgar Kennedy, who once went fourteen rounds with the legendary Jack Dempsey. According to author Joyce Milton in Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin, "On one occasion Fatty Arbuckle and Chaplin agreed to act as seconds in a bout between McNeil and a fighter named Frankie Dolan. Betting was heavy, and, unknown to the seconds, the fight was fixed. Dolan was supposed to win, but in the first round he walked into McNeil's right hand and crashed to the canvas. The audience went crazy, and both the fighters and seconds had to flee the arena. Arbuckle made good use of this experience in a film called The Knockout..."
In reviewing The Knockout, the Moving Picture World wrote, "Roscoe Arbuckle, ably supported, makes barrels of fun in this two-reel comedy release. In its early stages, the story has a particularly well-connected plot, but things go to smash a little in this line when a big chase is introduced in the second reel. This chase, as well as a comedy prize fight, is unusually funny."
Producer: Mack Sennett
Director: Charles Avery
Cinematography: Frank D. Williams
Cast: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle (Pug), Minta Durfee (Pug's girlfriend), Edgar Kennedy (Cyclone Flynn), Charles Chaplin (Referee), Frank Opperman (fight promoter), Al St. John (Boxer), Hank Mann (Tough), Mack Swain (Gambler).
by Jeff Stafford
The Films of Charlie Chaplin by Gerald D. McDonald, Michael Conway, and Mark Ricci (Bonanza Books)
Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin by Joyce Milton (HarperCollins)