Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: September, 2020

the New Janitor (1914)

This short from Charlie Chaplin’s days at Keystone has a number of elements that we would expect to see in his later work – including a coherent plot and a sympathetic portrayal of his protagonist. Clearly by this point, Charlie was ready to go in some new directions.

The movie begins with Charlie in a somewhat more working-class version of his “Little Tramp” outfit in the lobby of a large urban building, chatting with elevator operator Al St. John. When a passenger gets into Al’s elevator, he quickly goes aboard and closes the doors in Charlie’s face, forcing him to walk up to the top floor, 13 flights above. Meanwhile, in one of the offices on that floor, a clerk (John T. Dillon) reads a note threatening him for gambling debts. Charlie goes in to clean that office, and there are some humorous exchanges between them as Charlie keeps spilling the wastebasket. Then Charlie goes in to clean the president’s office, where there is a large wall safe (and, oddly, a spittoon). While he’s in there the secretary arrives for work and Charlie shyly tries to flirt with her, but she seems barely aware of his existence (how most people treat janitors). The thug (Glen Cavender) arrives, and the clerk promises to have is money later that day, but the secretary hears some of their conversation and becomes concerned. Charlie attempts washing the windows, and has several near-miss falls out the window, due to his clumsiness. He does manage to drop his bucket, which falls on the head of the president (Jess Dandy) as he arrives. This results in his being fired. Once again, Al refuses him a ride and Charlie walks down the steps.

Now the clerk comes into the president’s office and keeps glancing at the safe while giving the president some papers to sign. He waits until the president and the secretary have gone out (perhaps to lunch) and starts rummaging through the safe, but the secretary comes in unexpectedly and is even more suspicious. She tricks him into thinking she’s left again and hides, seeing him take money out of the safe before he notices her and attacks her. She manages to push an emergency button – the one to summon the janitor! Charlie is just about ready to leave when the call comes, but he slowly makes his way up the stairs again, perhaps hoping that the president has had a change of heart. By the time he arrives, the clerk is holding a gun on the secretary and she is passed out on the floor. He overpowers the clerk with a few quick slapstick moves and manages to cover him with the gun, making the larger man pick up the secretary and then discovering that he has cut the phone line. Now he shoots out the window to summon help and a nearby policeman hears the shooting. The president and the policeman arrive to see the janitor holding up the clerk, but the secretary has revived now and explains what really happened. Charlie is exonerated, the clerk is arrested, and the president gives him a sizable cash reward that makes Charlie swoon a bit.

There are obvious similarities between this movie and some of Charlie’s later work, most obviously “The Bank” in which he also plays a janitor who foils a robbery, but also “The Floorwalker” in which there is an embezzlement plot. No doubt he wanted to return to this story line as it was one of the few “original” stories he made at Keystone and he wanted to see what he could add to it with the greater resources and experience he had as his career progressed. The biggest comedy sequence is really the window-washing scene, which reminded me of the work of Harold Lloyd, who would hang from similar buildings in several films, most famously “Safety Last.” In the shot where Charlie is hanging out of the window, I noticed several people on lower floors looking up at the camera, perhaps Chaplin fans hoping to get a glimpse of the star, or else just bored office workers fascinated by the movie-making process. This shot is somewhat unusual for a Keystone movie, as it required the camera to be fixed to the side of the building and presumably the cameraman, Frank D. Williams, had to be hanging out of a window or standing on a ledge in order to hand-crank the film. The movie also makes good use of cross-cutting to build suspense throughout the robbery sequence, both as the secretary figures out what is going on and as Charlie comes to the rescue. Cross-cutting was hardly unknown at Keystone, of course, we saw it put to comedic effect as early as “A Little Hero” and “Bangville Police,” but it doesn’t show up in many of Chaplin’s “park” comedies and is rarely used this well when it does. It’s interesting also that Charlie didn’t try to deepen the romantic subplot between himself and the secretary – I think wisely, because it would have been hard to develop convincingly in a single reel – where his interest in Edna Purviance is central to “The Bank.” That secretary is a bit of a mystery – imdb lists her as Peggy Page, Wikipedia claims it is Helen Carruthers, and both The Silent Era and the Chaplin Film by Film blog say it’s Minta Durfee. Usually I’d regard them as the more authoritative, but it doesn’t look like Minta to me (look at the nose!), so I’m stumped.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Al St. John, Glen Cavender, Jess Dandy, John T. Dillon, Frank Hayes, and an unidentified woman.

Run Time: 12 Min

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

On His Wedding Day (1913)

Ford Sterling stars in this short comedy from Keystone before a certain gentleman with a cane and bowler hat showed up on the lot. It’s pretty typical of both Sterling and director Mack Sennett at the time.

Is everyone allergic to these flowers?

The movie begins by showing us the bride’s family at the church. The bride (Dot Farley) is cross-eyed and made up to look somewhat homely, foreshadowing what may come later. An intertitle tells us “Red Pepper” and we see a grocery clerk using said herb to make a friend sneeze. Now Sterling marches up in his wedding finery, carrying a bouquet of flowers, and the clerk sprinkles it with his pepper. Ford arrives at the church and unknowingly presents it to the bride and the minister (Hale Studebaker), who begin sneezing uncontrollably. The preacher, in search of fresh air, runs out of the church and into a park, and Sterling pursues, but is distracted when he comes across Mabel Normand and her boyfriend (Charles Avery). Ford quickly gets the idea of trading up, but before hitting on Mabel, he sends the parson back to the church. He easily shoves the smaller Avery out of the way and strikes up a conversation with Mabel. Avery locates a couple of local bums and pays them to beat up Sterling for him. While they are about it, he hastens back over to Mabel. Meanwhile, the wedding party is calling out for Sterling, but the thugs have stolen his clothes. Sterling is now running about in his long underwear, shocking Mabel and a passing woman. Mabel slugs Avery and goes her own way, but Sterling is now pursued by a police officer in a comic chase that soon draws in other cops and passersby. Trying to evade the police, Sterling climbs onto the roof of the church and drops through the chimney, now in no way presentable for his wedding. The movie devolves into a typical Keystone riot as the bride defends her groom by taking a cop’s billy club and bashing the whole crowd. They embrace at the end, so I guess it’s a happy ending, though they’re not married.

A sure way to impress a girl.

This was a cheaply done film with minimal plot and plenty of comic action, so quite what one expects from the Keystone studios at the time. Ford Sterling and Mabel Normand were two of the biggest stars at the lot, though this is pretty much Ford’s film. Given the persistent rumors that Mabel and Mack Sennett were dating at the time, I got a giggle out of the intertitle comparing her to “a goddess.” She does look decidedly better than cross-eyed Dot, and both girls get a chance to hit the men in the course of the slapstick silliness. There is a certain amount of inter-cutting between the wedding party and Ford’s attempted philandering, possibly Sennett showing off a technique he learned while working for D.W. Griffith, although it doesn’t really help the comedy much. A good example of Sennett’s pre-Chaplin work, there are no surprises or outstanding accomplishments here.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, Dot Farley, Charles Avery, Hale Studebaker, Nick Cogley, Helen Holmes

Run Time: 6 Min, 26 secs

You can watch part of it for free: here (no music). I have not found available complete for free streaming. If you do, please comment.

Recreation (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin short from Keystone is badly damaged and presumably partly lost, but enough of it has been salvaged to at least recognize it as a separate film from other movies of the time. Watching it is more of an exercise in film archaeology than an act of entertainment.

The movie begins on a park bench. A girl (Helen Carruthers) is sitting next to a man in sailor’s suit (Charles Bennett), but the man has fallen asleep, possibly from drink. Disgusted, the girl gets up and walks away. Next, we see Chaplin in his “Little Tramp” outfit on a bridge nearby. He checks his pocket for change and flip a coin, then makes a comic effort to climb over the railing on the bridge (to commit suicide?) but he does a pratfall instead. He seems to be doing calisthenics at the railing when the girl walks by. They smile at one another, he gives the river the raspberry, then follows her to another bench. However, she shows no interest in his advances, and keeps moving further down the bench to get away from him. Eventually, the sailor wakes up and finds himself alone. He finds Charlie and Helen on the bench, with her expressing considerable distress at this time, so he fights Chaplin off. Chaplin runs to a nearby bush and begins pulling up bricks from the side of the path to throw at the sailor. The sailor retaliates, and soon bricks are flying, hitting Charlie, Helen, the sailor, and two nearby policemen (Edwin Frazee and Edward Nolan). The policemen spot the sailor throwing bricks, but not Charlie, who plays innocent. The sailor tries to finger Charlie for one cop, while the other “comforts” Helen. Charlie knocks over the cop and the sailor and makes a run for it. The sailor and the cop start fighting and soon bricks are flying again. Charlie finds the girl again, over by the lake into which so many Keystone players have tumbled, and she knocks him over once, but they both laugh about it. The sailor runs over and Charlie knocks him into the lake. The two cops, now struggling with each other, sort things out and come over to challenge Charlie. He pushes them both in the lake, and Helen shoves him, but he grabs her as he goes over and everyone winds up in the drink.

I usually pronounce this film “ree-creation” (rather than “wreck-creation”), because it is sort of like a re-creation of a movie with a lot of missing elements. Enough of it exists for us to see that it is a typical “park comedy” of the type Chaplin frequently starred in at Keystone, but it’s hard to know how much is missing. Since Charlie was mostly doing one-or-two-reelers at the time, and what we have is about half a reel, it’s likely that more than half of it is missing. That said, there’s more or less a beginning, a middle, and an end here, so maybe we don’t need much more. Possibly just an intertitle to explain Charlie at the bridge and another at the beginning would clear things up adequately. The Tramp in this movie is hardly a nice person – he’s the first to throw a brick, for example – but it could be that his attempted suicide was an effort on Chaplin’s part to make him sympathetic. Charlie does some nice slapstick moves, including his fall at the bridge and his tripping of the sailor and police officer, but this isn’t one of his great triumphs, physically or emotionally.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Helen Carruthers, Charles Bennett, Edwin Frazee, Edward Nolan

Run Time: 6 Min, 20 secs

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

The Face on the Bar Room Floor (1914)

In this early short from Keystone Studios, Charlie Chaplin attempts to stretch his character and his filmmaking a bit beyond the established formulae of the studio and the slapstick genre. It may not entirely work, but it’s a fascinating experiment nonetheless.

Each small scene in this film is preceded by a forward-facing intertitle containing a few lines (sometimes two, usually four), from a poem called “The Face upon the Barroom Floor.” The scenes are sometimes quite brief, and the audience spends almost as much time reading as viewing. The story of the poem concerns a young artist who fell in love with one of his models, only to lose her to a friend he introduces her to, and who becomes a dissolute drunk who cannot forget her. The title comes from his effort to depict his love’s portrait using a piece of chalk for an appreciative audience of fellow inebriates at a local saloon. At the beginning of the film, the scenes shown are generally simple depictions of the words of the poem, but as the film progresses, there is more “business” and interpretation thrown in for laughs. Charlie chews absently on his paintbrush, he steps on his palette or sits on paint. Finally, at the end, he is shown as too drunk to effectively draw on the floor, and the scene degenerates into a typical Keystone riot, with Charlie fighting off an entire crowd and a policeman that happens by.

As I suggested above, what’s impressive about this film isn’t so much in its execution, but its aspiration, and the fact that it was allowed to be made at all. Chaplin makes an effort here to break the mold of slapstick movie making, to bring greater depth and sympathy to his character. and to make something a touch more “artistic” than what he was generally doing at Keystone. He still had a lot to learn, but he already knew that he didn’t want to just go on doing things in the same way as everyone else before him. And, his stardom was such that, even here in the summer following his first releases in February, he had the clout to make something that his boss Mack Sennett had to regard as a questionable gamble. Among the problems the film faces are too much text and not enough laughs, but it’s possible that his name and image were already popular enough that it didn’t lose anyone any money. Nickelodeons were happy enough just to be able to advertise a “new Chaplin” – whether it was a success or not didn’t even matter. Fortunately, Charlie would keep working to improve, and not let his fame go to his head, because in the future, he would succeed where this movie largely fails.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy, Cecile Arnold, Fritz Schade, Vivian Edwards, Hank Mann

Run Time: 14 Min

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

The Dancing Pig (1907)

This very odd offering from Pathé apparently traces its origins to a popular music hall routine that has since earned a place in obscurity. It offers a glimpse into the world of entertainment popular audiences knew long before we were born.

A proscenium-style stage is established, with a small table to one side. In the center stands a very large, anthropomorphic pig – or more precisely, a person in a large pig costume, wearing a top hat and a vest. He bows to the audience a few times and a young girl flounces onto the stage, dancing around the pig and then sitting at the table, putting a box on the table and starting to pull items out, one by one, and set them on the table. The pig shows considerable interest, coming over to look over her shoulder, and she pushes him away. He returns with a handkerchief and kneels before her. She takes the handkerchief and throw it at him to signal refusal. This goes back and forth for a while until she suddenly pulls his vest off. The pig looks embarrassed, as if he is ashamed of being naked on stage, although of course the costume does not include any pig anatomy (and he didn’t have pants in the first place). She dances a jig of triumph and offers the pig one of two batons pulled from offstage, though the pig is busy knocking her box to the floor by grabbing the tablecloth in order to “cover up.” A stagehand removes the table as the pig finally consents to hold the baton. The girl and the pig do an odd little dance with their batons, more or less in time with one another. The dance ends with the girl holding the pig’s tail as they exit the stage. A final shot shows a close up of the pig mask, demonstrating its elaborate articulation, including a fully functional, and rather large, tongue.

I can honestly attest that this is the most impressive animal costume I’ve seen in a century film, and I’ve seen a few of them. In addition to sticking out its tongue, the pig can roll its eyes, pull back its lips in a smile, and wiggle its ears and nose. That’s almost on a level with the famous masks designed for “Planet of the Apes” sixty years later. It was obviously worth the effects budget from the point of view of this Vaudeville performer, whatever it made for the film maker. The question is why go to all that effort for such a bizarre and ultimately simplistic routine? The actual performance, as we see it, takes advantage of none of these abilities, we only see them in the close up, and I suspect that the performer wearing the mask couldn’t really do most of them without pulling his hands out of the arms of the pig, in order to manipulate wires in some other part of the costume, so I wonder how this even played on stage. At all events, the pig is undeniably creepy, at least to modern tastes, and has been described as “nightmare fuel” in at least one other blog. Definitely weird, and maybe only would work in France.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min, 24 secs

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