Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: January, 2017

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.

return-of-draw-egan Read the rest of this entry »

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.

cure Read the rest of this entry »

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).