The Property Man (1914)
This early Charlie Chaplin short has elements in common with later films, like “Back Stage” starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, though all of them probably drew from Vaudeville routines as their sources. It shows both the roughness of Chaplin’s early work, and the rapidity with which he developed.
Charlie is a stage hand for a popular theater with a variety show. The opening shot shows him taking a break with an elderly co-worker (I think it’s Joe Bordeaux). Charlie is drinking out of a large pitcher, and when the old man reaches for it, Charlie twists his ear and spits out what is in his mouth at the man. We see the arrival of some stars (Phyllis Allen and Charles Bennett) who are angry to find that their act is not billed on the poster outside, although they insist on trying to take the “star’s” dressing room – which is reserved for the strong man (Jess Dandy), who is only too happy to show them the door when he gets there. Charlie sits under a “no smoking” sign, smoking a pipe, although he eagerly points it out to the actors when thy light up. When the strong man lights a cigar, Charlie discreetly turns the sign toward the wall. Naturally, the strong man has a lovely assistant (Helen Carruthers) and naturally, she and Charlie hit it off, enraging the strong man. Charlie does several pratfalls built around the supposed weight of the strong man’s luggage, bashing into the rest of the cast as he staggers around beneath the huge crates which the strong man lifts effortlessly. Later, Charlie takes a hatbox and straps the heavy stuff to his senior co-worker, who collapses under the weight. When “the Goo Goo Sisters” (another act, billed as “comediennes” on the billboard) show up, Charlie tries to flirt with them as well, but he hides the pitcher in his pants, resulting in an embarrassing leak.
The strong man asks Charlie to sew up his tights, although Charlie winds up using them to mop the floor instead. Meanwhile, the matinee has started and Charlie and his coworker fight behind the scenes, causing a backdrop to hit an unpopular singer and knock him out. Charlie sweeps him off the stage, to the delight of the audience (which includes Mack Sennett and Chester Conklin). When the Goo Goo Sisters, in scanty costumes (for 1914 anyway) go on stage, Charlie first follows them out to stare, then blindfolds his partner to prevent him from staring. Their backstage fighting causes them to bump the sisters through the backdrop, again to the delight of the audience. Charlie throws the wet tights, which miss his target and hits a sister, who then throws them into the audience, thinking someone has thrown them instead of booing. There is a long gap between acts, because the strong man lacks tights and his assistant is busy flirting with Charlie, so when the old man raises the curtain, the audience finds the three of them arguing, with the strong man’s garters exposed. He gamely goes ahead with his act, but his assistant has been knocked out in the fighting, so Charlie tries to help, causing more chaos and riotous laughter from the audience. Charlie goes backstage to help the assistant, while the other actors harangue his partner. The old man lowers a backdrop on the strong man while he tries to balance over 1000 lbs of weight, ruining his act. Now the strong man goes back stage and finds Charlie fanning his unconscious assistant, and goes on a rampage, also ruining the dramatic act of the other performers. To defend himself, Charlie grabs a fire hose and sprays him and the other performers, also drenching the entire audience.
As I commented above, this movie has a lot in common with “Back Stage,” most obviously including the angry strong man and his lovely assistant, but I doubt if Arbuckle was actually being any less original than Chaplin – both would have been drawing from established Vaudeville routines which many in their audience were already familiar with. “Back Stage” is also a rather more polished movie in terms of camerawork, plot, and character, but it’s not entirely fair to compare 1914 with 1919, or Chaplin at this point in career with Arbuckle at that point in his. What I can say is that this is one of the funnier movies Chaplin directed himself in during the summer of 1914, and this is so despite the constraints of the Keystone formula and his own limitations due to lack of experience and knowledge of his character. Chaplin isn’t really the “nice” version of the Tramp here – his constant use of violence, especially against his older and demonstrably weaker colleague argues against that – but he manages to evoke a degree of sympathy or identification in the audience nonetheless, perhaps just by being the little fellow who gets the best of everyone around him. There’s a kind of metaphor at work when his various inopportune moments on the stage prove more popular with the in-movie audience than the planned performances; it seems to reflect how his growing fame took studio heads at Keystone by surprise.
There’s a question here, also: Is he playing the “Little Tramp” or not? His mustache is now established (he’d abandon it later in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” but not often after that). but the rest of his costume consists her of oversized overalls and a bowler hat with a rim that is nearly falling off. The strong man refers to him in an intertitle as “that bum,” which at least makes a bit of a connection. It seems likely that Chaplin himself didn’t know for sure whether the Little Tramp would take a job as strenuous as property man, and may have been ambivalent about the character here.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Camera: Frank D. Williams
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jess Dandy, Helen Carruthers, Joe Bordeaux, Phyllis Allen, Charles Bennett, Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Harry McCoy, Norma Nichols, Cecile Arnold, Vivian Edwards
Run Time: 24 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music, French titles).