Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

East Is East (1916)

A light-hearted melodrama of social class set in England, this movie follows the familiar plot of the waif who is suddenly given wealth and must adapt to a world of “refinement” and snobbery. Director Henry Edwards takes on the challenge of co-starring with Florence Turner and shows a definite flair for both directing and acting himself.

east_is_eastThe movie begins with Florence Turner as Victoria (“Vickie”) Vickers, a girl from the East End of London who sits in front of window displays and dreams of a life of comfort and grace. Her boyfriend Bert Grummet (Edwards) is a skinny ragamuffin who gives her a laugh, but she refuses his offer of marriage saying, “We’re such good friends, let’s not spoil it.” He munches on his fish and chips and thinks maybe if he can start a successful fish shop, she’ll change her mind.

east-is-east1Vickie lives with “an assumed aunt and uncle,” which I think means that she has assumed them, not that she assumes they’re really her aunt and uncle. Anyway, the little family decides to pile all their worldly goods into a pram and go off to the countryside “hop-picking” (something similar happens here in southern Oregon once a year, but it’s not hops they’re picking…). Bert invites himself along and tries to kiss Vickie, which she resists. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a lawyer who is trying to locate Miss Victoria Vickers before her inheritance defaults to certain unnamed charities. He sends an assistant to scour the East End and even contacts Scotland Yard to no avail. Giving up with only days to go, he gives the assistant leave to go to the countryside on a “photographic holiday.”

Vickie and Bert look at a pretty house in Kent and fantasize about living there one day. Then Bert steals one of their chickens. As he brings the prize back to camp, the lawyer’s assistant fortuitously sees Vickie and asks to photograph her. She is indignant, and refuses, “as sure as my name’s Victoria Vickers!” The assistant suddenly realizes that he’s talking to one of the wealthiest heiresses in London, but he has considerable difficulty convincing her or her companions that he isn’t nuts. Finally, they agree to accompany him back to London to meet the lawyer. The lawyer confirms the story and explains the terms of the will: Victoria will have to learn “refinement,” while she lives on an allowance from the trust for three years. She seems dubious about this, but agrees because it means she can get money to send her “aunt” and “uncle” to visit relatives in Australia and give Bert the money to open his fish shop.

east-is-east

Would you trust this man if he told you he had a million dollars for you?

This aspect of the plan works well, especially when Bert hits upon the idea of buying up cheap dogfish and selling it as “fish” (by crossing off the word “dog”). His business booms, and soon he is opening a chain of stores and sending out trucks for home delivery of his popular fish. Meanwhile, Vickie is learning how different reality is from her store-front fantasy. Servants are constantly telling her what to wear and trying to comb her hair for her. Her table manners make everyone stop and stare. She is unable to make friends at parties, even though she does learn to speak in a “refined” manner. She lives with a Mrs. Carrington (Ruth McKay) and her son, Arthur. Arthur has a bad gambling habit, but Mrs. Carrington is more concerned that Victoria will be corrupted by the “bad influence” of having contact with her old friends like Bert, who has to shove past the butler to get in when he calls.

Mrs. Carrington decides that the best thing to do is take Victoria abroad on an extended tour of exotic (unspecified) locations, while continuing her tutoring. She throws away letters that Victoria writes to Bert instead of mailing them. Victoria is kept away from all her friends for two years, and, failing socially with the new crowd, becomes lonely and depressed. Bert, meanwhile, has decided that he needs some schooling as well in order to impress Vickie. He hires a tutor and a tailor to help with his clothes. Then, he sells off his business and goes to propose to Vickie in his best suit and after some last-minute pointers from the tutor. Along the way, he reads a shocking headline in the society pages – Victoria Vickers is now engaged to Arthur! Arthur is desperate for money to cover his enormous gambling debts, so he proposed to her and since she was so alone and desperate, she agreed, despite his Charlie Chaplin mustache which she mocked in the first reel. Bert gives up and moves to Kent, buying the lovely little cottage they had admired, and living alone with a housekeeper.

east-is-east2But all is not yet lost. Victoria overhears Arthur talking to one of his girlfriends, and he says that of course he doesn’t love her, but he needs the money. Victoria finally has a revelation that she cannot live this “artificial life,” and voluntarily gives up her fortune, hoping to return to the happiness she knew in poverty. As a parting shot, she gives Arthur enough money to be free from debt. When hop-picking season comes, Vickie goes back to Kent and lingers at the site of her youthful happiness, noting that “someone” (Bert, in fact) has put barbed wire around the chicken coop to prevent theft. Bert looks out his window and sees her standing there. He sends the housekeeper out to invite her to tea with “the lady of the house,” not telling her who it is. Vickie goes in out of curiosity, and when Bert shows up she is flummoxed. “Who is the lady of the house?” She asks. Bert tells her she is, if she will still have him.

Like a lot of melodramas of the period, this relies heavily on rather unlikely coincidence (the assistant stumbling onto Victoria in Kent with only days to go being the most extreme), but it is actually a nicely crafted story within the limited formula. The contrast of rich and poor, and the ability of poor people to “know their place” and accept it, are common themes in British literature and film of the time. From that point of view, this movie makes sense, although my American sensibilities say she should have ditched Arthur, finished out the last weeks of her tutelage, and then taken the money and started her own business. It also seems strange that Bert has to sell his business in order to be “respectable.” He doesn’t seem to have anything to do but guard his chickens now, when he could be the (dog)fish-king of the whole realm! But, I think that is a reflection of British class expectations as well.

east-is-east1Overall, the movie is well-shot and edited. During the sequence where the lawyer is looking for her, we flash back and forth from his office to what she is doing. This is a kind of parallel editing, but it is more subtle than what one usually sees from D.W. Griffith, who almost always used the technique simply for suspense or in the telling of a single story, not to run two of them together, at least until “Intolerance.” Both leads do a very good job in terms of acting. I thought the best part of Turner’s performance was when she was still “unrefined,” but dressed as a rich woman in a rich world. Her body language still speaks cockney, so to speak, and even without being able to hear her accent, we could see how she didn’t fit in. But Bert undergoes the more impressive transformation, from street rat to entrepreneur to successful businessman to retired gentleman. He actually seems to fill out and gain considerable weight during the course of the picture, but I think it’s just carefully chosen wardrobe that makes the difference.

One final note: every source agrees that this film was made by the “Turner Film Company,” and one at least lists Florence Turner as the producer. I wonder if she might have been the Turner for which it is named. That would be another example of a pioneering woman business owner and producer from the early years of film, but I can’t find anything definite.

Director: Henry Edwards

Camera: Tom White

Starring: Florence Turner, Henry Edwards, Ruth McKay, W.G. Saunders, Edith Evans

Run Time: 71 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, and it’s a very over-exposed pixillated digitization. It’s all I could find, so if you know of a better version, please comment!)

Teddy at the Throttle (1917)

Gloria Swanson and Bobby Vernon are back in another slapstick romantic comedy from Keystone Studios. While it has the signature Keystone zaniness and even ends with an over-the-top chase-and-rescue sequence, this movie is longer and more complicated than the earlier films of that studio.

teddy_at_the_throttleAs the movie begins, Gloria and Bobby are sweetheart neighbors living in a high-class apartment building. Bobby’s money is being “managed” in trust by an older man (Wallace Beery), who actually squanders large sums on himself. Since Bobby is approaching the age of maturity, he’s worried that the shortfall will be noticed, but he comes up with a solution: If his sister (May Emory) can convince Bobby to marry her, they’ll go on controlling the money and Bobby will remain ignorant. Sis likes the idea of marrying an heir and goes to work on vamping Bobby immediately. Gloria doesn’t like this, of course, but Bobby seems to be excited about this sophisticated woman paying attention to him. Eventually, he’s ignoring Gloria and bringing flowers to May. Worse, when May tells him, “put a ring on it,” he immediately goes next door to Gloria, tells her that it’s over, and asks for the ring he gave her back! It doesn’t quite fit May, but she doesn’t complain.

teddy-at-the-throttleNow the plot thickens when Wallace receives a letter informing him that the will stipulates that Bobby loses his fortune if he marries anyone else but Gloria – the money all goes to Gloria in that case. Seems like it would have been easier for the departed to just make Gloria the heiress in the first place, but this is a Keystone comedy, so logic is not a strong point. Anyway, this gives Wallace an idea – he can marry Gloria and that will leave him in charge of the fortune while Bobby and his sister rot in poverty. The problem is that Gloria’s not interested in him, and he keeps dropping the letter in her presence and having to snatch it back before she figures out what’s going on.

teddy-at-the-throttle1The scene now shifts to a fancy nightclub where May and Bobby perform a humorous dance (she’s much taller than he is) and May keeps trying to get Bobby to elope with her. Gloria finally manages to read the letter while Wallace is off getting drinks, and she tries to tell Bobby while May drags him off to a preacher. Seems like if she just told May, it would solve the whole thing when May lost interest in being poor with Bobby, but, again, Keystone. May locks Gloria in the coat room and drags Bobby out to her car, where a storm is now raging, and of course the car has no roof. Undaunted, she speeds off on the muddy roads.

teddy-at-the-throttle2Gloria uses the coat room phone to call a lawyer and let him know what’s going on, and the lawyer climbs aboard the Limited train to intercept Bobby and May. When Gloria gets free, she also pursues, catching up to Bobby and May who have skidded off the road into a muddy ditch. Wallace now catches her, and realizing he can no longer count on Plan A, decides to try a better idea, he’ll chain Gloria to the train tracks and kill her, thus somehow finagling the books so that he keeps the money! Gloria foils this by using her dog whistle to summon Teddy, her large dog, and the title character finally shows up with about five minutes left to the film!

teddy-at-the-throttle3Teddy runs to Gloria, and she writes a note to Bobby, who steals a bicycle and follows Teddy to the train tracks. He is equally unable to free Gloria from the chains, but Teddy runs up to the engine, leaps aboard and shows the engineer the note. The engineer slams on the breaks, the train slowing down, but not quite enough to avoid Gloria. So she lies down on the tracks and lets the train roll overhead, the wheels severing the chains and freeing her to crawl out from beneath the now motionless engine. She and Bobby climb on board the cow catcher and ride happily to get married.

teddy-at-the-throttle4This is another comedy of the “girl tied up on the railroad tracks” variety from Mack Sennett, but it is a little more sophisticated piece of work than “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life.” Fritzi Kramer, over at “Movies Silently,” has repeatedly taken on the old saw about silent movie women being tied frequently to the railroad tracks, and these two movies are the major “evidence” for the other side. The point is, however, that these were parodies of an earlier cliché, which apparently was used on stage in popular theater. Let’s let it die already. I actually think I’ve seen the ending shot – with the two leads riding away together on a cowcatcher – way more times in silent cinema, but somehow that hasn’t caught on as a cliche.

teddy-at-the-throttle5Vernon is a good looking young man, but short, and part of the joke is how he looks paired up against the taller woman (he and Gloria are about the same height). Much of the humor, up until the climactic multi-vehicle chase, anyway, comes from romantic mix-ups and money grubbing, making it a more “situational” comedy than is usually associated with Mack Sennett. The villain here is Wallace Beery, who puts a lot into the role, even if ultimately he’s just as mustache-twirling as Ford Sterling. In the end, “Teddy” the dog does more to rescue Gloria than the ostensible hero does.

Director: Clarence G. Badger

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gloria Swanson, Bobby Vernon, Wallace Beery, May Emory

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

January 1917

A new year has begun! This will forever be the year best known for the Russian Revolutions, but of course at this point in the year no one knew the days of Czradom were numbered. The First World War continues, and the USA is less determined about its “neutrality” than ever before, and by the end of the year there will be American Doughboys in France. The film industry will embrace both events as inspirations for movies, but in the meantime, the concept of “Hollywood” is finally entrenching itself as an industry, rather than as a collection of entrepreneurs and artists. This promises to be an exciting year for the Century Film Project! Let’s take a look at some of the headlines for January.

Firing line at Battle of Rafa

Firing line at Battle of Rafa

World War One:

The Battle of Rafa: The last substantial Ottoman Army garrison on the Sinai Peninsula is captured on January 9 by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force‘s Desert Column.

British armed merchantman SS Laurentic is sunk January 25 by mines off Lough Swilly (Ireland) with the loss of 354 of the 475 aboard.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Diplomacy: President Woodrow Wilson gives his “Peace without Victory” speech before Congress on January 22.

Disasters:

The Ratho rail crash occurs on January 3. NBR H class locomotive 874 Dunedin in charge of the Edinburgh to Glasgow express train collides with a light engine at Queensferry Junction, leaving 12 people dead and 46 seriously injured. The cause was found to be inadequate signaling procedures.

On January 19, a blast at a munitions factory in London kills 73 and injures over 400. The Silvertown explosion as it comes to be known, is a major cause célèbre for improving conditions in munitions factories and for workers in England generally.

On January 26, a combination of easterly gales and exceptionally high tides breached the sea-defences of the village of Hallsands, and by the end of that year only one house remained habitable. The villagers’ fight for compensation took seven years.

kingsland_explosion_newspaper_photoTerrorism: Unknown saboteurs set off the Kingsland Explosion at Kingsland (modern-day Lyndhurst, New Jersey) on January 11. This is one of the events leading to United States involvement in WWI.

Mexican Revolution: On January 28, The United States formally calls off its search for Pancho Villa. On January 30 Pershing‘s troops in Mexico begin withdrawing back to the United States.

Colonialism: Denmark sells the Danish West Indies (now the Virgin Islands) to the United States for $25 million on January 16.

Sports: The University of Oregon defeats the University of Pennsylvania 14–0 in U.S. college football‘s 3rd Annual Rose Bowl Game on January 1.

Finance: Royal Bank of Canada takes over Quebec Bank on January 2. The lack of an independent provincial bank will be an obstacle to Quebecois Separatism in years to come.

Law Enforcement: On January 25 anti-prostitution drive in San Francisco occurs and police close about 200 prostitution houses.

easy_street_1917Film:

Great Expectations” starring Jack Pickford released January 8.

Easy Street” by Charlie Chaplin, released on January 22.

Ernest Borgnine, born January 24, 1917.

Ernest Borgnine, born January 24, 1917.

Births:

Vera Zorina, dancer, actress (in “Goldwyn Follies” and “Follow the Boys”), January 2.

Jane Wyman, actress (in “Brother Rat” and “Stage Fright”), January 5.

Hilde Krahl, actress (in “Der Postmeister” and “A Devil of a Woman”), January 10.

Lally Bowers, actress and singer (in “We Joined the Navy” and “Dracula: AD 1972”), January 21.

Ernest Borgnine, actor (in “Marty” and “Escape from New York”), January 24.

Joan the Woman (1916)

Cecil B. DeMille enters the arena of the historical epic with this depiction of France’s most famous saint, starring Geraldine Farrar, who had been very successful in “Carmen” the previous year. While a bit rough in places, it is likely to be a major contender in this year’s Century Awards.

joan_the_womanThis is one of those silent movies that, unfortunately, begins with several minutes of intertitles explaining the plot. Most silent directors did their best to avoid this, but DeMille may have felt that because he was dealing with such a “serious” subject, his audiences would need a little priming to get into the mood. Anyway, after five minutes of introductory reading, we finally get to an unnecessary wraparound story. We begin in the trenches in France in 1916, where a young English soldier is digging in the dirt wall for some reason, and pulls out a sword, apparently buried there since the fifteenth century. He speculates that some “queer bloke” must have wielded it, and then responds to a call for volunteers from an officer. The officer is looking for someone to carry a very unwieldy bomb across no-man’s-land to destroy an enemy trench. He tells the soldier to think about it until midnight before making a decision whether to take on the suicide mission. Once back in his barracks, the soldier sees a vision of Joan of Arc and the real movie finally begins!

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The Captive God (1916)

In a departure from his standard Western-tough-guy, William S. Hart appears as a native Mexican warrior in this tale of Meso-American star-crossed love. Unfortunately, the available print is incomplete, but we’ll do our best to make sense of the remaining plot.

captive-godAt the beginning of the movie, we see a war between the “Maya” and the “Azteques” (note that all names differ from those in the original print as recorded by sources like imdb. More on that in a minute). Hart plays “Tonga,” the leader of the Maya side, but the Azteques apparently win this round. Montezuma, the Azteque chieftan (Robert McKim), offers “Matho” who led the attack (P. Dempster Tabler) any reward he names for routing the enemy. Matho requests his daughter, who is saddled with the unfortunate name “Tacki” in this version (Enid Markey), and Montezuma grudgingly agrees, although his daughter vows not to obey.

Screen-captures used by permission. Thanks to Christopher Bird and Fritzi of Movies Silently.

Screen-captures used by permission. Thanks to Christopher Bird and Fritzi of Movies Silently.

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The Immigrant (1917)

This was the third short Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual in 1917, coming out in June of that year. It may be the most famous of his early work, and has been a critical success since its release, unlike many of his earlier Keystone and Essanay shorts, which were often dismissed as “vulgar” at the time or frivolous afterward.

immigrant_1917This movie begins by showing us a steamer ship loaded with immigrants crossing the Atlantic. After a brief stock footage shot of a ship, and a shot of people stacked on top of one another on the deck, we see a shot of Charlie’s ass, which lingers quite a bit longer. Charlie is leaning over the railing of the ship, his feet at times going up so far it seems that he will fall in, and we get the impression that he is vomiting over the side. It’s a garden path, however, because when he turns around we see that he has caught a fish on a hook and line. He holds it up proudly, then inexplicably casts it aside, where it bites one of the sleeping passengers on the nose.

immigrant1

Hey, at least he’s upright!

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Easy Street (1917)

Charlie Chaplin’s first movie in 1917 has some surprising elements, including a reversal of his usual relationship to authority. Reflecting his improving budgets and extended production time, he built an entire street on a sound stage and used it to considerable effect.

easy_street_1917The movie begins similarly to “The Champion” and other familiar shorts, with Chaplin as the Little Tramp sleeping in the streets. He awakes to the lovely tones of Edna Purviance leading the choir at the Hope Mission, and ventures inside. The gags in the early part of the film involve sounds that the audience imagines but can’t hear – Edna’s singing, Charlie laughing during the pastor’s sermon, a neighboring parishioner trying to get Charlie to sing along with the choir, etc. Then there’s an extended bit in which Chaplin agrees to hold a baby for another parishioner, and accidentally spills the milk from its bottle onto his pants – but thinks that the baby has wet itself (and him), and tries to foist the fouled brat back onto its mother. Rather a vulgar joke for 1916!

easy-streetAnyway, the real plot of the film gets started once the sermon is over. Charlie, and a rough fellow (John Rand) who also appears to be a tramp, remain behind when the other parishioners leave. Charlie wants to talk to Edna, but the other tramp tries to steal the collection box! Charlie recovers it and returns it, and Edna encourages him to “reform” and get a job. Now that he has experience catching crooks, Charlie thinks it would be a good idea to join the police force. Although it goes against his nature, he convinces himself to go into the police station and apply.

easy-street1Now the action shifts to “Easy Street,” which appears to be the site of an eternal riot. Working-class ruffians are beating the stuffing out of the few police officers brave enough to go there, and we see them returned to the station on stretchers, their uniforms torn and shredded. Eric Campbell intimidates other rioters and controls the street as a bully, wearing his spoils – a policeman’s cap. Charlie is informed that Easy Street will be his beat, but he has no idea what he’s in for.

easy-street2

Just another day on Easy Street.

When Charlie arrives at Easy Street, the riot is over, or at least there’s a lull. Debris is strewn in the street, but things appear to be quiet. The camera tracks towards him as Campbell stalks up behind, still wearing the policeman’s cap. Charlie, finally realizing he’s in danger, sidles up to a lamppost that has a police emergency phone on it. Each time he tries to move for the phone, Eric growls at him and he panics, dropping it. Finally, he tricks Eric into looking into the receiver, giving him a chance to bop him on the head with his billy club. Eric doesn’t appear to notice, so Charlie hits him again. And again. Finally, Eric turns around and sees that he’s being hit, so Charlie tries hitting harder, but with no effect. Eric flexes his muscles and grabs the top of the lamppost, bending it down. Thinking fast, Charlie pulls the lamp over Eric’s head, turning up the gas. Eric slumps into unconsciousness, and Charlie uses the still-working phone to call for backup to arrest him. The police are very afraid to come to Easy Street, even in a large group, and when a small child points his finger at them and goes “bang!” they all skitter in fear. Finally, they drag the unconscious brute back to the station and cuff him. Charlie lights up a cigarette and starts a gas fire on the ruined lamppost.

easy-street3With things now peaceful on Easy Street, Charlie returns to walking his beat. He sees an emaciated woman (Charlotte Mineau) with a bundle hidden under her blouse. He confronts her and sees the food she has stolen. Feeling sympathetic, he goes across the street to where a fruit vendor snoozes peacefully, and steals more food for her, loading her up with ill-gotten gains. Now Edna walks up and sees Charlie 1) employed and 2) performing an act of charity (she doesn’t know the food is stolen). The grateful waif collapses from hunger and the weight of the food, so Charlie and Edna help her up the stairs to her apartment. Then Charlie escorts Edna to another apartment, which she is visiting on her missionary rounds.

easy-street4Meanwhile, Eric Campbell breaks out of the handcuffs. All of the policemen conk him on the head with their bully clubs simultaneously, repeatedly, but it does no good. He defeats them and escapes. He returns home – to his wife Charlotte! They quickly start fighting, with Charlotte throwing various pieces of crockery at Campbell, but with his great strength he gets the upper hand. One of the thrown items breaks the window of the apartment across the street, hitting the father of the family Edna is visiting, and Charlie goes back to Charlotte’s apartment to investigate. When Eric sees him, a chase begins. While this goes on, various lowlifes nab Edna and drag her to an underground lair.

Immune to billy clubs.

Immune to billy clubs.

Charlie finally overcomes Eric by running back to the apartment and dropping a heavy iron stove from the window onto Eric’s head. Now, the ruffians grab him as well. Meanwhile, Edna is being menaced by a man who uses a hypodermic needle before becoming amorous/threatening. Charlie is dropped into the same room through a manhole and accidentally sits on the needle. Suddenly, he becomes a determined fighter, knocking out the addict and taking on several toughs from the speakeasy next door. He rescues Edna and brings peace and order to Easy Street.

easy-street6This movie reminds me a lot of the old “Popeye” cartoons, which may have been partly inspired by it. Eric Campbell’s super-strong giant is much like Bluto and Charlie’s injection from the needle is sort of like Popeye after eating spinach. But, what’s really remarkable here is the way Charlie has reversed his role and that of the villains. Usually, Charlie is the underdog pursued by police. Here, he’s a cop (though he still has his own code of ethics, as we see when he steals food for a hungry woman). Usually, his antagonists are rich, snobby people, but here they are the poor. There are several indications that the rioters are meant to be read as “foreign” or immigrants as well. Most cast lists I find online indicate that some of them are “anarchists” (a political category usually associated with Eastern or Mediterranean immigrants at the time), and there is a portrait of Czar Nicholas II on the wall of the room where Edna is held. Actually, it’s hard to imagine Russian anarchists with a picture of the Czar, unless they use it for target practice, but I think the point is that these are foreigners. Immigrants are usually sympathetic figures for Chaplin, as we will soon see with “The Immigrant.” It may also surprise modern audiences to see such explicit references to drug-use in a silent comedy, but Douglas Fairbanks pushed the theme much further in “Mystery of the Leaping Fish.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish1I don’t know for sure why Chaplin chose to do this, but it definitely works. Many sources refer to this as the funniest of the comedies he made for Mutual, or even his funniest short, period. There are others I like better, including “The Cure,” “The Vagabond,” and the restored version of “Police,” but this is a contender. The street set is great, and evokes a kind of generic image of urban squalor, that could as easily be New York, LA, or London. When Eric chases him, we do get some very explicit exteriors of Los Angeles, which kind of ruins the illusion for me, but if you ignore that it’s a great location. Chaplin uses all the tricks of cinema he has learned, including a mobile camera, close-ups, and cross-cutting, but it’s still his body language that sells the narrative. He uses his full body to give shrugs and express sympathy, his face lights up when he sees Edna, and he does his patented one-foot turn-hop during the chase sequences. He repeatedly sends up the Keystone Kops, both in his own performance and his use of the other policemen. When he’s hopped up from the hypodermic, he uses his full body to fight, throwing his feet at crowds of opponents, and seems to be a dynamo of energy. The movie once again shows his talent for slapstick, as well as a newly increased confidence as a filmmaker.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Charlotte Mineau, Albert Austin, John Rand, Lloyd Bacon, Henry Bergman, Frank J. Coleman, Leo White

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Return of Draw Egan (1916)

William S. Hart returns to the screen with familiar Western tropes done in a mature and morally sophisticated manner. While not as unrelentingly dark as “Hell’s Hinges,” this movie confirms that early silent audiences already knew that cowboys weren’t just kiddie fare.

return_of_draw_eganAs the movie begins, Hart is introduced as the title character, a wanted criminal with a price on his head. He has a sizeable gang of desperados with him, but he decides that the heat is too much and they should split up and “shift for themselves.” One member of the disbanding gang is Arizona Joe (Robert McKim), who “has a yellow streak a mile wide,” but hides it with bluster and bravado. Before they can go their separate ways, however, the posse catches up to them and chases them to an abandoned mountain shack they use as a hideout. There’s a pitched gun-battle, but several of the gunmen escape through a tunnel underneath the shack to a place where they’ve stashed horses. Arizona Joe is too timid to try this, and tries to sneak past the lawmen, but he’s captured on the way out.

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The Cure (1917)

This slapstick short continues Charlie Chaplin’s series with Mutual, following the release of “Easy Street” in January. Chaplin was taking longer to work on his films than he ever had before – this wasn’t released until mid-April – but the result was still very profitable for his studio.

cure_1917_posterThis movie takes place in a spa with “healing waters.” We get an insert-shot of the “discoverer” of the healing waters, a sick old man in lying in bed. Then we see a group of seemingly uptight rich people sitting around the well and drinking of the waters. Charlie arrives, apparently drunk, to be cured of his drinking. He steps in the well (but doesn’t quite fall in) on his way to the clinic. He’s having a hard enough time, but then the attendant tries to get him to walk through the revolving doors, which results in the first physical comedy routine of the movie. Charlie skillfully resists entering the building, forcing the attendant to pursue him repeatedly. Eventually, Eric Campbell, in a foot cast, wanders over as well, with predictable results. Charlie eventually gets into the building and Eric limps away in defeat.

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The Adventurer (1917)

I’m beginning the year 2017 with a review of the last movie Charlie Chaplin made in 1917, one of the funniest and most accessible of his work for Mutual Film Corporation. Chaplin finally finished out his record-breaking $670,000 contract with them when this film was released, and he turned down an offer of a million to renew, choosing instead to remain independent. This film was the first new Chaplin audiences had seen in four months, and by the time it came out he was one of the most famous men in the world.

adventurerThe movie begins with escaped-convict Charlie pursued by prison guards who could be Keystone Kops from his earliest days in cinema. He emerges from his escape tunnel on the beach to find himself next to a cop’s shotgun, and the chase is on. He quickly scoots up a cliff and drops rocks on his first pursuer, only to find one of the rocks is the shoe of another guard, with the guard still in it! Not one to complain, Charlie hurls the one guard down after the other. After several more clever incidents, Charlie winds up swimming into the ocean to escape. When the police try to follow in a rowboat, they are swamped by the waves.

adventurer1Charlie is able to get some clothes off of a bather at a nearby resort, and while he is swimming in encounters Edna Purviance’s mother drowning at the dock. Edna is nearby, at a dockside table with her suitor, Eric Campbell, and he at first boasts that he will jump in to save mother, but as he begins to strip off his clothes, it appears to occur to him that the water is cold, so she jumps in instead. Shortly thereafter, Eric and a hefty dockworker lean on the railing, causing it to collapse, and they fall in as well. Charlie manages to save all of them, although not without dumping Eric into the drink one more time for good measure, and he is taken home along with them in a limousine.

adventurer2The next morning, Charlie wakes up and thinks he might be back in jail. There are bars on the bed and stripes on his pajamas. But, the butler (Albert Austin) comes in and assures him he’s in the home of Edna and her parents, and Charlie soon comes down in suitably ill-fitting clothes to join what seems to be a perpetual cocktail party going on at the mansion. He grabs a bottle and mixes seltzer in for a big gulp. He and Eric exchange kicks in the rear, though Charlie always gets one up. Eric recognizes Charlie’s mugshot in the paper and tries to inform the hosts, but Charlie sketches Eric’s beard onto the photograph. In one famous bit, Charlie drops ice cream down his pants, and shakes in out of his trouser leg onto the back of a large, dignified woman below the balcony he’s on.

Charlie in high society

Charlie in high society

All good things must come to an end, and Charlie’s end is precipitated by the usual conceit of the scullion maid entertaining a cop (in this case a prison guard) in the kitchen. At first, Charlie thinks he will catch her in the act, but winds up being pursued himself. Eric calls in reinforcements, and soon Charlie is being chased all over the mansion, occasionally stopping to kiss Edna farewell. He disguises himself as a lamp and traps Eric in a sliding door in a wonderful chase sequence. Each time he gets ready to leave, another pursuer shows up and chases him back inside. Caught at least by the chief guard, he introduces him to Edna, and runs off to escape when the guard offers his hand to shake.

adventurer3This movie demonstrates considerable sophistication and pathos, even though it is in essence nothing more than a couple of chase scenes with material from “The Count,” “Caught in a Cabaret,” and other Tramp-amongst-the-rich shorts thrown in. Part of it is that Chaplin has now rehearsed some of these bits to perfection – the scene in the kitchen with the maid hiding the guard is a great extension of the same scene in “The Count,” for example. But, Chaplin is also a much more confident director, with more of the tools of cinematic storytelling at his disposal as well. The camera angles and cuts that let us experience his realization that he is in danger both emerging from the tunnel and when throwing rocks from the cliff would never have been seen in a 1914 Keystone movie, and so those gags couldn’t  have worked, or not nearly so well. Rarely if ever is the screen set up as a proscenium arch, the camera moves to accentuate the action and hides information from the audience until ready for a punch line. Cross-cutting sets up more complex relationships between actors in different areas than the old throw-the-rock-at-the-next-setup routine he was doing just a few years ago. Close-ups allow us to see the funny reactions of Charlie and of the often embarrassed and/or shocked rich people at the party.

This is one of the best examples of why Chaplin-itis became such a epidemic in the teens, and for those who haven’t seen any of his short subjects before, I can’t think of a better place to start.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Marta Golden

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).