Behind the Screen (1916)
As with “A Film Johnny,” and “His New Job,” this Charlie Chapin short from Mutual Film takes us inside a film production studio for laughs. It starts off innocently enough, but escalates the mayhem throughout, reaching a point almost unseen, even in the original Keystone comedies that gave Chaplin his start.
The movie begins with Edna Purviance on a film set, asking someone (possibly an Assistant Director), “Can I be an actress, please?” The answer is, predictably, no, and the camera holds on her face long enough for us to feel her disappointment Then we are introduced to the stagehand (Eric Campbell) and his assistant (Charlie). The assistant does all the work, while Eric sits and naps. Every time he walks past the camera tripod, Charlie manages to hook it with his foot and bring the camera crashing to the ground. He nearly knocks over a large column on the set (a gag taken from “His New Job,” but done better here). After a particularly grueling task of moving a dozen chairs and a piano, Charlie sits down for a moment and the stagehand and Assistant Director accuse him of loafing. During lunch break, Eric eats an enormous amount of food, while Charlie only seems to have a few pieces of bread. His neighbor (Albert Austin) eats green onions and breathes on Charlie, leading him to put on a prop helmet from a suit of armor. Albert throws the onions into the helmet. Charlie does a drumming routine with some drumsticks and all of the plates from his boss’s meal. When the Assistant Director finds all of the stagehands passed out from food coma after lunch, he wakes them up and they strike. Eric and Charlie refuse to join the strike and Edna gets the bright idea of dressing as a boy so she can be a stagehand.
The Assistant Director thanks the few strikebreakers for staying on, and puts them to work. Charlie’s first job is to pull a lever that opens a trap door after a gun is fired. He keeps missing the cue and pulling it when actors or crew members are standing on the door, sometimes closing it while they are trying to climb out of the pit, trapping their heads or extremities between the doors. Soon, the actors all have black eyes and bruises from falling into the pit on top of one another. The Assistant Director’s pants are split when he tries to pull someone out of the pit, and he asks Edna to repair them, to her horror. Charlie, meanwhile has figured out that Edna is a girl, and a pretty one at that, and kisses her, causing Eric to mock him mercilessly, presumably for being gay. A costume drama is being filmed by the “dramatic department” right next to a set where the “comedic department” is testing a “new idea – one character throws a pie at a character, who ducks, then throws a pie back at the first one. Eric and Charlie are called in to help test this innovation, with the result that pies fly into the throne room of the dramatic piece. Meanwhile, the strikers are cooking up a dynamite plot to blow up the studio. With everyone distracted by the mounting pie fight, they are able to sneak in, placing the dynamite under the trapdoors and kidnap Edna along the way. When Charlie finds Edna in danger, he rescues her, knocking the striker and incidentally his boss into the pit. The dynamite goes off, and Charlie and Edna kiss.
This movie is a return to the most madcap variety of Chaplin movie, with much of it being based around chases or violence, and few pauses for character development or sympathy. I was actually quite disappointed that Edna’s character never got to act – her sad face at the beginning of the film is the best acting we see here. The ending reminded me of “Dough & Dynamite,” one of the most violent of the Keystone movies. A number of the gags here are from earlier movies, but often expanded upon or improved. Charlie does a wonderful “dance move” each time he pulls the lever for the trap door, which adds to our anticipation of the comedic result.
A good bit of this movie centers around a pie-fight, something that we haven’t seen much of to date in this project, unless we count the single pie-in-the-face that Ben Turpin took eight years earlier in “Mr. Flip.” Still, Charlie’s placement of it ironically as an “invention” at this time demonstrates that it was already a recognized trope. My first thought was that perhaps it was something established by clowns in 19th Century circuses, and that may be so, but here Charlie clearly places it in the “comedic department” of a movie studio, suggesting that he is making fun of contemporary examples, perhaps from Keystone or Essanay, his former employers. There is no doubt that Fritzi, at “Movies Silently,” is right to point out that not all silent comedies had pie fights, but the evidence is strong that there were more of them than I’ve seen so far.
The reviewer for Moving Picture World said: “While this Chaplin effort will doubtless evoke much laughter from a certain class of audience, it is not one to be strongly recommended. There is throughout a distinct vein of vulgarity which is unnecessary, even in slapstick comedy. A great deal of comedy is intended to be extracted from a pie-slinging episode which occurs during the rehearsal of a couple of scenes in a moving picture studio.” This time, I think I can understand some of this reaction. The emphasis on the splitting of the man’s pants, his showing his bottom to a girl (Edna) and the subsequent gay-joke would all seem to be pushing the envelope for 1916. There are several other moments where butts are, as it were, the butt of a joke or gag, and I suspect that this is the sort of thing that middle class audiences reacted against in slapstick at the time. Certainly, this is not a “refined” piece of comedy, whether we’d really be offended by its “vulgarity” or not today, but is intended to be simplistic mayhem, done with artful timing and physical skill.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Camera: Roland Totheroh
Run Time: 24 Min