The most clever moment of The Knockout is a part where the film breaks the fourth wall. Pug, played by Fatty Arbuckle, has to change in order to get ready for a boxing match. First, he declines to change in the training room, because there’s a girl there, and in what looks like a back alley he refuses to change on camera, motioning for the camera to move up, which it does. It’s a cute moment, while also being the first point in the film where the camera actually moves. To this point, the camera had been static, and it doesn’t move that much overall – a late film rooftop chase is a more traditional bit of camera movement, as it follows characters scampering around in a stunt sequence. To have it move for a joke adds a bit of punch because the camera moves so rarely, and almost never because a character on screen is demanding it.
The Knockout is a slapstick comedy, which was Keystone’s stock and trade for most of its existence, whether you’re talking about comedians like Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin – who makes a brief cameo as a referee in a boxing match – or the famous Keystone Kops – not officially here, but there is a crew of bumbling police officers. It also represents Keystone getting more ambitious, which eventually lead to their first feature length comedy – Tillie’s Punctured Romance, also in 1914, which might be the next entry given that it is the first feature length comedy ever made, even though it’s the same year, though I haven’t decided yet. It’s two reels, for one. The stunts are fairly ambitious, including a tug of war with Arbuckle taking on the crew of cops, as well as a rooftop chase sequence mentioned earlier.
The plot follows Pug, who in the process of protecting his lady from some miscreants somehow gets roped into a boxing match against Cyclone Flynn. That match was created when a couple of hobos decide to pretend they are the boxer in order to buy some pie, but then the actual Flynn shows up and makes the combat more serious. There’s also a man with an improbable mustache who tries to rig the match. The plot slowly collapses into chaos, as Keystone films often did.
The Keystone films I’ve seen have effectively been stories about people falling over in increasingly elaborate ways, and as the studio gained ambition and budget it would make an attempt at tying it all together with a plot, before just letting the entire thing become about people falling over again. It’s not clear why the final act is a long chase sequence, other than a chase sequence being a way to have many people fall over in quick succession, especially once a bumbling crew of police officers get involved. Established characters seem to be abandoned completely in order to have the inherent comedy of Arbuckle running around shooting guns at random. At this point Keystone knew their market, and likely figured that not many people would care if the film just devolved into people falling over like all their films did.
The big problem I had with the film, however, is how the main boxing sequence is framed. You have Chaplin and Arbuckle, as well as Edgar Kennedy playing Cyclone Flynn, all in the ring together. This should be a sequence that is referenced in film history class, boxing is incredibly easy to film competently – the design of the ring gives you the edges of the frame, so you know where the camera needs to be, and you’ve got some quality slapstick comedians in front of the camera. Instead, they zoom out, in order to get that man with an improbable mustache in frame. This means the majority of the frame is filled with nothing, the players being confined to a relatively minuscule part of the image. Combined with the odd angle it’s hard to actually see what they’re doing, which is a problem when it’s the centerpiece of the film – it’s called The Knockout! How can it have a bad boxing sequence? When you’re not even completely sure that it’s Charlie Chaplin on screen, one of the most distinctive actors of the silent era, you need to reconsider how the sequence is set up.
The flaws of The Knockout aren’t something that exist because it’s an early film. We had figured out how to frame a boxing sequence. Thomas Edison’s footage of boxing cats had shown that we had basically figured out how to film a boxing match as far back as 1894. We had figured out how to tell a story long before film was even invented. It can be amusing, Keystone had worked to perfect the art of people falling down since its inception, but it’s not really something I can recommend as an introduction to silent film.