In this Charlie Chaplin short from Essanay, Chaplin returns to a somewhat more nuanced, sympathetic performance while still sticking to the familiar tropes of slapstick: violence, revenge, flirtation, and people slipping and falling down.
We are introduced to a family of husband (Billy Armstrong), wife (Marta Golden), and maid (Edna Purviance), who are expecting contractors to come and finish the wall-paper-hanging in their rather cramped-looking mansion. The husband is annoyed because he can’t go into the living room (everything is being boxed up for the work to be done) and his breakfast is late). The wife is still in her bedclothes, and she and the maid work hard at getting things ready before the arrival of the contractors. These, we see, are Charlie Chaplin and his boss Charles Inslee, who is “driving” Chaplin as a kind of rickshaw-rider with all of their equipment piled into an oversized cart. After several near-misses with streetcars, Charlie manages to get the contraption up the hill to the house. Then, of course, they proceed to ruin the room they are meant to be working on, getting glue and paper everywhere. Meanwhile, Charlie flirts with the maid and tells her his sad life story. Then, he wrecks her room as well for good measure. Now, a mysterious fop (Leo White) shows up and presents flowers to the wife, who tries to cover for him, claiming he’s one of the workers. The husband, still suspicious finds the flowers with Charlie and goes for his gun. He shoots wildly, chasing the gigolo around the house until he hits a gas line and makes the oven explode. The household is covered in rubble, Charlie decided to hide out in the oven.
My own reaction to this movie, which came out after “By the Sea,” is that it was a bit of a step back towards the sympathy and subtlety of “The Tramp,” while still full of classic slapstick gags. The situation of workers in the domestic setting is a classic one for physical comedy, and has been done dozens of times. The situation is inherently invasive, and often while the work proceeds, one’s house begins to look like a disaster zone and one wonders if it will ever be put right. Opportunities for physical mishaps abound. Many of us live in fear of having contractors like these, and that’s part of where the everyman humor of the situation is so recognizable. One good bit that stood out to me was when the wife realized that she had left the good silver out in the room where Charlie & Charlie are working, and rushes in to put it in the safe. They look at each other, and take out their pocket watches, carefully placing them in Chaplin’s pocket and then sealing it shut with a safety pin. A great working-class comeuppance to middle class snobbery. The sequence in which Inslee drives Chaplin like a mule has also been suggested to have class war implications vis-à-vis management and labor.
This time I’d also like to take a moment to look at contemporary reactions. This quote is from Variety, review by Sime Silverman: “This Essanay release of the Charlie Chaplin picture for this week is Work in two reels. It is the usual Chaplin work of late, mussy, messy, and dirty. Chaplin has found that the public will stand for his picture comedy of the worst kind, and he is giving them the worst kind, although as an excellent pantomimist, with a reserve of decent comedy, Chaplin must have decided the time to put his other brand upon the screen is when his present style of ‘humor’ shall have ceased to be in demand. The Censor Board is passing matter in the Chaplin films that could not possibly get by in other pictures. Never anything dirtier was placed upon the screen than Chaplin’s ‘Tramp,’ and while this may have been objected to by the censors, it merely taught Chaplin what to avoid and how far to go. Work, however, is not nearly so offensive excepting that it is disgusting at many points, but since the audience will laugh there is no real cause for complaint.” That’s quite the review! Incidentally, Silverman continued to review Chaplin in this vein, but gradually mellowed and came to admit that some of his work was good.
Because I’d read the review, I kept an eye out for “dirty” and “disgusting” parts to the film. It is dirty, in the sense that a lot of people get slapped with glue or get some other kind of mess on them. But disgusting? Like I said, the wife runs around in her nightgown and she seems to have a lover who visits in the middle of the day. Oh, and Chaplin sits on a bed with Edna while telling her of his tough life. I guess that could be disgusting? I don’t know, I’m trying to understand the mores of the time, but I’m not sure I quite get why the Censor Board had let something unusual pass here, compared to the racy melodramas of Cecil B. DeMille, for example.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Camera: Harry Ensign
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Charles Inslee, Billy Armstrong, Marta Golden, Leo White
Run Time: 29 Min