Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Charlie Chaplin

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin is in the army for this World War One-era comedy short that became his most popular and well-loved film to that time. Can the Little Tramp be a war hero? Watch it and find out.

As the movie begins, Charlie is already in uniform and being drilled at boot camp. The men in his squad are of various heights and builds, but Charlie is the shortest and skinniest. The other men all move and turn with military precision, but Charlie is always a bit behind them. The sergeant tries to show him how to properly “volte face,” but Charlie turns it into a funny dance move. They march for a very long time and Charlie returns to his bunk. The scene fades out and when it begins again, he is in a trench, carrying a ridiculously overloaded pack. The camera dollies to follow him down the trench, then dollies back when he turns around and returns, finding the cubby in the wall that opens in to his new digs. Inside are his two roommates (one of them is Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s brother). He moves in and secures his bunk, then we get a view of the enemy trench. The Germans are all large and rough-looking men, but their officer is a dwarf (Loyal Underwood). He is very strict with them, and they all appear to be terrified of him.

We see various day-to-day activities in the trenches, like eating lunch under shell fire and standing guard in the rain. When the mail call comes, everyone in the unit seems to get a care package except for Charlie. He refuses the offer to share food with one of his bunkmates, trying to make it seem as if he doesn’t care. He gets very involved in reading over the shoulder of one man who has a letter, desperate for any news from home. Finally, the postal carrier does find a package for him. It includes stale bread and limburger cheese. He tosses the cheese into the German trench, and they react as if it were a chemical weapons attack. When it is time for Charlie to go to bed, the rain has flooded his bunk, and he has to lie in the water. He uses the horn from a gramophone as a snorkel so he doesn’t drown. The next day, his unit is called to make an attack on the German trench. They capture it and Charlie brings in the entire enemy squad as prisoners. When asked how he did it, he says, “I surrounded them.” He gives the short German officer a spanking, which gets applause from his men.

We see a bombed-out French house with a dejected resident (Edna Purviance), who represents all the strife France is going through in the war. Charlie volunteers for duty behind the lines, and is camouflaged as a stump. He hides out as some Germans set up camp. One comes over with an axe, looking for firewood, but Charlie knocks him out by bonking him with a limb, then bonks each of the other Germans in turn. Sydney is captured doing similar behind-the-line spying, and is put before a firing squad, but Charlie saves him by bonking the Germans. A fat soldier chases him through the woods, but often mistakes real trees for Charlie. Charlie escapes into a pipe, and the soldier is too fat to follow.

Charlie finds his way to Edna’s house, and she finds him there and begins a flirtation before the Germans show up and capture them both, wrecking what’s left of the house in the process. Edna is taken to the German headquarters, where she meets a taller German officer who is enjoying local wine. Charlie manages to rescue her and dresses as the officer, just in time to meet the Kaiser and two of his generals (one is fat and looks like Hindenburg, the other is thin and looks nothing like Ludendorff). He knocks out their chauffeur and drives them into Allied territory, where they are taken into custody.

Then he wakes up again, still in hiss bivouac from the first scene, not yet deployed. The entire war sequence is shown to be a dream.

 

As I stated, this movie was wildly popular when released. It was also a critical success on a level far above what Chaplin usually managed. No one seems to have thought it “vulgar” (although there are some decidedly adult gags once he meets Edna). Reviewers for the next decade compared each new Chaplin release to it – often deciding that classics like “The Kid” or “The Gold Rush” were not quite so good as “Shoulder Arms.” It’s easy to see why it was popular in the United States as the country prepared to finally join the long slog of trench warfare, and it was also popular in Britain and elsewhere, where the fighting had been going for years. The movie identifies with the common soldier doing his bit in awful circumstances, not necessarily motivated by any great patriotism or ideology, just wanting to his best and help out the fellow next to him in the foxhole (Sydney). It suggests that even the lowliest soldier can become a hero, at least in his own mind, and it lets people laugh at their own worst fears. Chaplin’s famed pathos is also on display – the forlorn look on his face when he thinks he hasn’t received any mail must have inspired hundreds of letters from mothers and sweethearts.

 

Today the laughs are just as strong. The problem I have is mostly with the caricatured depiction of the Germans, who for the most part were just simple soldiers sitting through the same Hell as the Allies, whatever the mistakes of their leaders, and many of them would soon be joining revolts against those leaders. The one moment that humanizes them is when they applaud seeing their officer spanked. Particularly the final sequence in which Chaplin captures the Kaiser comes across as overwrought propaganda. Of course, all of Chaplin’s “bad guys” are caricatures, and there’s no reason to expect gallantry toward the enemy in a war comedy, and the gags and pratfalls are still brilliant. The Wikipedia article claims that, “[t]his is believed to be the first comedy film about war.” I find that hard to believe, although I haven’t thought of a definite counter-example (Chaplin was in uniform in “Burlesque on Carmen,” but there’s no war going on). Certainly it set the stage for others to come, being a huge success and critical darling.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Loyal Underwood, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Tom Wilson, John Rand

Run Time: 36 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music by Jon Mirsalis)

Charlie’s White Elephant (1916)

This animated short exploits Charlie Chaplin’s image, but due to the different standards of copyright at the time, he probably made no money off it. It also includes a character named “Fatty” who appears to represent Roscoe Arbuckle.

The movie shows a relatively barren landscape, with Charlie walking up to a house with a large window, a stand of trees in the background and what looks like a fern in the foreground. He addresses a woman inside the house, asking her to marry him. She replies that she will – if he can bring her a white elephant. He shrugs and wanders off and Fatty now emerges from behind the house, asking the girl if she has forgotten him. She replies again that she will belong to whoever brings her a white elephant. Charlie now wanders the bleak countryside, looking high and low for a white elephant, but they don’t seem to be indigenous to this region. Fatty follows him to keep an eye on his progress.

Eventually Charlie happens upon a circus, represented by tents in the foreground and background, and he spies an elephant snoozing on the ground, This one is not white, however, it seems to be a mottled grey shade. Undeterred, Charlie wakes the beast and yanks on its tail, resulting in his being thrown. He chases the elephant up and down the landscape, and eventually drags it by the trunk back to his home, Fatty still following at a discreet distance. Charlie brings out a pail of paint and a brush, and he paints the elephant white. While he goes off to get the girl, Fatty comes up with another pail and kicks the elephant several times and pulls its tail. Charlie and the girl climb to the roof of his house to see the elephant, and Fatty continues agitating it, until he splashes it with orange paint, which causes the girl to lift Charlie by the seat of his pants, twirl him around her head, and throw him at the elephant. The elephant sits on Fatty. The end.

This very simplistic movie seems to have been intended mostly to entertain very small children, who would recognize Chaplin from his well-known live action movies, and would be able to follow the simple, almost fairy tale plot. I actually think the detail on Charlie is a bit better than in some of the other Charlie cartoons we’ve seen, for example “Charlie on the Windmill,” or maybe we just have a better-preserved print with more close-ups here. It’s sort of interesting that they chose to use “Fatty” as his adversary; Arbuckle and Chaplin had been in a couple of shorts together in 1914, but he was never an established “villain” the way Mack Swain was. Presumably, the producers of this little movie thought that Arbuckle was more recognizable than Swain, although he’s not as easy to represent in an avatar as Chaplin (or Swain, for that matter). The girl just seems to be a generic love interest, not one of Chaplin’s co-stars at Keystone or elsewhere.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Getting Acquainted (1914)

This late-period Keystone short from Charlie Chaplin is a somewhat more-sophisticated take on the many “park comedies” he made there; one which emphasizes situation over slapstick. While it’s no major breakthrough, it does pre-sage the work he would soon be starting at Essanay in 1915.

As the movie begins, Charlie is on a bench next to Phyllis Allen. They appear to be a couple, and Charlie seems to be less than enthusiastic about her company, plugging his ears as she speaks at one point. This whole take is done in a rather close two-shot that only shows the upper halves of their bodies – almost innovative for Keystone at the time. An intertitle tells us that Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett are also a married couple “taking some air” together, and they seem much happier, at least until Joe Bordeaux pulls up in a fancy automobile. Mack offers to help him crank it to get started again, but Mabel seems annoyed that he wanders off while Joe just laughs at his efforts to turn the immobile crank. Meanwhile, Phyllis has dozed off, and Charlie tries his luck with Cecile Arnold when she wanders up, but she walks off slightly offended when he seems to pay too close attention to her backside, and quickly runs to the side of her husband, Glen Cavender, who is made up as a Turk and sticks Charlie with a small dagger to drive him off. Charlie now finds Mabel standing unprotected while Mack is busy with the car, and he does his best to make her acquaintance. He does a trick with a thread, pretending to have it balanced on his nose, so that she will get close enough that he can give her a kiss, which results in his getting slapped. She calls Mack over when he won’t go away, but distracted Mack just “introduces” them so that now Charlie feels like he has a license to go on annoying her.

Joe eventually gets his car started and offers Mack a ride, leaving poor Mabel in the hands of lecherous Charlie. In desperation, she calls out for the police, which brings out Edgar Kennedy, in the guise of a Keystone Kop. Edgar chases Charlie through the bushes, back to Mabel and over to where the Turk still lurks, until Charlie is finally able to evade all of the cast for a while in a bush. Meanwhile, Joe lets Mack off and he finds Phyllis, sitting alone under the tree. He takes an interest in her, being just about as obnoxious about it as Charlie was to Mabel. She now calls out for help, making Edgar think that he’s located Charlie, but when he sees Mack, he assumes he’s got the wrong bird and goes on looking until Phyllis sets him straight. Now both Mack and Charlie are trying to evade Edgar, while still occasionally hitting on Mabel, Phyllis, or Cecile when the opportunity arises.

Mabel finds her way over to Phyllis and the two of them, relieved to be in better company than the annoying men, start chatting and telling each other about their husbands (what would Alison Bechdel say?). Charlie sits next to Phyllis, not noticing Mabel at first, and when she introduces them, another there is yelling and soon Charlie is on the run again when Edgar sees him with Phyllis and assumes he is “mashing” on her as well. Mack now finds Mabel and the two of them briefly commiserate until she tries to introduce her new friend, Phyllis. Mack tries to explain himself to Mabel, until Edgar, having lost Charlie, sees him and once again a chase is on. Mack and Charlie hide out in the bushes until Edgar finds them and clocks each of them on the noggin with his billy club. He hauls them past the ladies, who now come over and vouch for their husbands, then he walks off and attacks a young man on a park bench with another girl, apparently just because he’s gone crazy from hunting all these letches. Phyllis hauls Charlie off by the ear and Mabel and Mack laugh at them.

With this movie, I have completed all the reviews of Charlie’s first year in movies, a project I started back in 2014 (Chaplinfilmbyfilm got it done much quicker – but he didn’t have every other 100-year-old movie to contend with as well!). Of the “park comedies” he made, this is among the funniest, and it’s largely because the predictable plot plays out so well and because of the clever use of editing to keep us moving among the couples and their situations rapidly enough that it never gets old. As I suggested, the closer camera in this movie also allows for more intimacy with the characters and gags (like the thread) that might not work with the audience at a distance. It’s interesting to see Mabel Normand and Chaplin working together, despite their earlier differences, with him firmly in the director’s chair, but being quite generous to her as an actor – she gets at least as many laughs as he does.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Edgar Kennedy, Joe Bordeaux, Glen Cavender, Cecile Arnold, Harry McCoy

Run Time: 14 Min

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

A Thief Catcher (1914)

This slapstick short from Keystone Studios stars Ford Sterling once again, but this time a bit part is played by newcomer Charlie Chaplin. The complete film has not been preserved, unfortunately, but there’s enough here to get the idea.

The footage begins in a Keystone Kop hq set, with various officers running around and arguing with the desk man. An intertitle precedes the scene with the single word “Yeggmen,” which is odd because usually this would describe criminals and not police. However, shortly afterward we do see three hoodlums, dressed roughly like burglars, having a scrape in a field (one of them is Mack Swain). Swain and his ally push the third man to the ground and take some articles from him. Ford Sterling now walks up to a tree carrying a small dog and a large box that might be a camera. From his reactions, we discern that he is close by and seeing the holdup in the field, although his background looks totally different. The camera cuts to show us the fight is taking place at the edge of a steep cliff – eventually the two ruffians toss the other fellow off from this precipice. Sterling seems to be taking pictures. He puts his hand over the dog’s mouth, giving the impression that it has just barked and given him away, and, sure enough, we see Swain look up and see someone snooping. He and his compatriot come over and Sterling makes a run for it, beginning the chase that defines the rest of the footage.

Sterling’s all wet.

The hoods now produce a gun and Sterling runs through back alleys trying to evade them. In one comic sequence, the hoods grab a large woman behind a sheet, thinking it is Sterling, and in another, a man opens his gate, not realizing that Sterling is hiding on the other side, and throws a bucket of water on him. Eventually, he drops the dog and the camera, but finds himself what looks like a good place to hide, in a shack that unfortunately for him is “the Yegg’s Hangout” according to an intertitle. At this point we get out first glimpses of a star on his chest, which has been hidden beneath his coat all along, suggesting that he was not just an innocent observer, but possibly a cop on the trail of these criminals from the beginning. Having hidden out long enough, he thinks, he tries to leave quietly, only to find the crooks standing right by the front door. He runs around the hideout, looking for a place to hide, and we get a close-up of his face peering from one room into the next after the crooks enter. Eventually, he tries hiding behind one of their jackets, which does not conceal him at all. The chase begins again, confined to the two rooms of the shack, and both bad guys now have guns. It looks like Sterling is through. They toss a coin to decide who will do the honors of killing him.

Chaplin looks like he just ate something nasty throughout the film.

One goes into the room with the gun, while Swain steps out the front door. Now the little dog runs up, seeming completely unafraid when Swain pulls out his gun and shoots at it. Now two cops come up to investigate, and one of them is Chaplin, complete with his tiny mustache. They hassle the hoods and push them around outside the shack while Sterling stays mum, for some reason, still inside. The little dog decides to dig a hole, tunneling into the back of the shack. The hole isn’t big enough for Sterling to get out, but he puts a note on the dog and sends it running. Now the cops and the robbers both come into the shack, and Chaplin is about to open the door to the room where Sterling is hiding, but he whacks him with a broom to prevent anyone coming in. For some reason, this convinces Chaplin and his comrade to leave, rather than breaking the door down to find the violent fugitive. Another mad comic chase ensues in the two rooms of the shack, with Sterling now wrestling the two ruffians to keep from getting shot. The dog gets to the police station and the cops there read the note, piling into a car to race to the rescue. Sterling resorts to biting the leg of the man who is trying to shoot him, then manages to rush out of the shack just before the cops arrive, scaring Swain back inside. Now he and his companion are scampering for a place to hide as the cops rush in. Sterling runs back with a club and hits a cop as he peeks out the front door, knocking all of them down in a heap. Chaplin walks up from behind and apprehends Sterling, and for some reason both of them faint to the ground.

Perhaps the classic Keystone Kops image – right before everyone falls over when the car starts moving.

I think a lot of the mystery of what’s missing can be explained by Sterling’s badge – he’s an undercover cop, possibly known by Chaplin and the others, and that’s why it’s important that they never see him during the various chases, and he always winds up hitting them just as he could be rescued. This device stretches out the comic tension, which on the whole works pretty well. I have a feeling that the “thief catcher” of the title is actually the little dog. Anyway, looked at as a Ford Sterling movie, this is a pretty satisfying one with a lot of action and plenty of opportunities for him to do his famous funny faces and physical reactions. It also stands up as a strong entry in the Keystone Kops series, maybe not quite as good as “Fatty Joins the Force,” but pretty much what we’re looking for in terms of frenetic action and cops getting hit. For Chaplin, it’s a less auspicious appearance, which may explain why it hasn’t been preserved or promoted by his estate. He looks rather angry throughout the movie, and somehow in that uniform he looked more like Hitler than usual to me (audiences at the time would not have made the connection – Adolf Hitler was an obscure man with a larger mustache, based on the few photos that exist). His timing for the pratfalls is excellent, of course, but not better than anyone else in the film. Watch it for Ford Sterling and the Kops, not for Charlie Chaplin.

Director: Ford Sterling

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Charlie Chaplin, Edgar Kennedy, William Hauber, Rube Miller, Phyllis Allen

Run Time: 8 Min, 30 secs (surviving footage)

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

Charlie on the Farm (1919)

This very slight early cartoon uses Charlie Chaplin’s image and a familiar setting to evoke movies like “The Tramp” without actually involving Chaplin or using any of his gags. It is similar to some others we’ve seen, like “Charlie on the Windmill” and “Charlie and the Indians.”

A lightly-sketched background shows a train pulling out of a tunnel into a rural landscape. The train pulls into a station and one of the boxcars opens up, ejecting Charlie, who is being booted unceremoniously off by a railroad worker. He dusts himself off and walks away. He comes to a fence, from which he watches the courtship of a chicken. She is attracted to the rooster, who asks to marry her, but refuses to give up his other girlfriends, so she tries to get the duck to move in. He agrees, and says he would be happy to help raise a family, until she calls in her many children. He flies out of the window and into the distance. Now Charlie sees a man hanging a sign announcing a need for farm hands. Charlie applies for the job. The farmer tells him to milk the cows. Charlie doesn’t know how it’s done, so he takes off his coat and hat and turns the cows’ tails like they are cranks. He sees a milkmaid milking nearby, and watches as the cow’s stomach goes from full to empty, but fails to learn anything; he just goes on cranking. He then tries turning the tail of a bull, which of course chases him until he gets stuck in a knothole in the fence, then butts him so he flies through the air. He bounces off the backside of a caricatured African American laundress and flies back to the other side of the fence, where he sees a pig’s tail, and above it the head of a woman. He’s confused until he looks over the fence to see that the girl is in a hammock above the pig.

Charlie reports back to the farmer who tells him to dress some poultry for dinner, so he puts fancy clothes on them and brings them to the house, where they all eat at the table. The caricatured maid takes advantage of their presence to get some eggs for her cake. Now Charlie gets ready for bed after a hard day’s work, but the night sounds of the countryside keep him awake. He looks out his window to cats howling on the fence and frogs croaking out, “work! Work! Work!” in the pond. Before he can even get in bed, the farmer knocks on his door to get him started on the morning chores. Charlie leaps out his window, retrieves his hat and coat from where he left them outside and runs off. Seeing a sign that promises easy work on another farm, he runs away again, not willing to be bitten twice.

These cartoons were produced by Universal without Chaplin’s approval, but unlike some of the live “imitators,” he couldn’t get court approval to shut them down under copyright law at the time. The bare-bones images and unimaginative gags probably didn’t do much for his brand, but they did keep his image in the public view at a time when he wasn’t producing much. It’s odd that the writers spent so much time on the chickens, ducks, and other farm animals, rather than Charlie’s antics. Possibly they couldn’t come up with enough ideas, not having seen “The Tramp” for several years themselves. It seems to me as if animation still had a long way to go before Walt Disney and other animators caught it up to live-action cinema as a form of entertainment.

Director: Pat Sullivan

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Trysting Places (1914)

This short movie comes late in Charlie Chaplin’s tenure at Keystone Studios and seems to represent a late attempt by Chaplin to accommodate himself to the limitations imposed on him there. Far from being his best work, it does represent an effort to add a bit of situational humor to the madcap slapstick the studio was known for.

The movie begins with Charlie and Mabel Normand in a small kitchen set, Mabel with a baby in her arms and Charlie sitting close behind her reading a paper. He is constantly placing his arms, feet, etc. on the hot stove, burning himself and disturbing the boiling kettle, and she is having difficulty juggling the baby and her cooking projects. Finally, she gives Charlie the baby, but he seems to have no idea how to hold it safely. He goes into the next room and sets up the baby’s crib, only to place the child on the floor and lean back in the crib himself. Meanwhile, we see a woman (Helen Carruthers) in the lobby of what seems to be a hotel, writing. An intertitle shows her note – an invitation to her lover to meet her in the park at “our little trysting place.” No name for the recipient is given, which is what leads to all of the problems later. Ambrose (Mack Swain) is going out for a walk and agrees to post the note for her, placing it in his long black coat. Mabel has finally lost her patience with Charlie as well, and sends him out with a long black coat. He promises to return with a gift for the child. He stops at a store and buys a baby bottle, much to the amusement of an African American boy sitting outside the shop, who apparently imagines Charlie plans to drink from it.

I have a feeling Charlie got this a lot when he went out in costume.

Both Ambrose and Charlie end up at the same diner, hanging their coats on the same coat rack. Charlie causes chaos with an old man sitting at the counter and soon with Ambrose as well,  who he sits next to at the lunch counter. What begins as a minor dispute over table manners escalates into full scale war. Charlie kicks pretty much everyone in the place, and Ambrose grabs a coat and runs out. Charlie takes his coat as well and gets into a fight with a passerby outside of the diner. Ambrose has found his wife (Phyllis Allen) on a park bench and she comforts him. Charlie returns to Mabel, who is struggling now to juggle the child and her ironing, with much the same results as before. She looks in Charlie’s coat to see what present he has brought the child and finds the note. She concludes that he has been cheating on her. She goes wild and breaks the ironing board over her head. Charlie, thinking she’s gone nuts, grabs the coat and runs out again.

Now Ambrose leaves his coat with his wife for a while and Charlie finds her there and tells her his woes. Mabel is on the hunt, and leaves the baby with a policeman while she goes over to confront Charlie and Phyllis, striking him and strangling her. She kicks Charlie into a garbage pail. Phyllis, now relieved of the assault, finds the bottle in Ambrose’s pocket, and concludes that he has had a baby with another woman (!). Ambrose sees Charlie being beaten by Mabel and comes to offer her his assistance. Once he realizes who Charlie is he becomes afraid, and he winds up getting knocked into the garbage pail. Now the policeman walks up and gives Mabel back the baby, and everyone tries to act natural while he’s there. Ambrose winds up with the baby and when Phyllis sees this, she faints. Mabel shows Charlie the note and Ambrose sees the bottle and he brings the baby and bottle back to Mabel, who now forgives Charlie. Charlie gives the note to Phyllis, who now is doubly angry to find that he is meeting a woman at a trysting place. Mabel and Charlie laugh as she beats him up.

A classic “comedy of errors,” this was cheap to make and less clichéd than the average “park comedy” which Charlie was making for Keystone. I think it’s the only time a baby was brought in, and the child actually manages to be funny even though he probably had no idea what was going on. Given all his clumsy foolishness, there is a sense in the opening that Charlie will burn the child on the stove, which adds to the comedic tension that is released every time he does something else. Of course, Chaplin is in perfect control all the time, and didn’t put the child at risk even though it seems at any moment that he might. Each piece of this movie could be from an earlier Keystone – it begins much like “Mabel’s Married Life,” moves through “His Favorite Pastime” and ends on “The Rounders.” But, Chaplin is building upon the material in each episode, looking for new gags and new situations to improve on what he’s done before. The end result is quite satisfying. There is good use of editing and multiple camera angles, with especial emphasis on two-shots, as when Chaplin and Swain are sitting at the lunch counter, or when Chaplin and Mabel are on the bench in the park. The one piece that doesn’t work for me, surprisingly, is Mabel Normand’s performance, which seems unusually hammy and over-acted to me. It’s surprising because I usually enjoy her work. They’d had problems working together in the past, and maybe this came out on the set in some way, and Chaplin just had to live with the results.

One odd discrepancy about this movie is the title. Every print I’ve seen says “His Trysting Places,” but Wikipedia, imdb, and The Silent Era (which is usually authoritative) all call it “His Trysting Place.” I’ve gone with what I’ve seen in the credits, but I’m not sure why this uncertainty exists.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Helen Carruthers, Glen Cavender, Nick Cogley, Ted Edwards, Vivian Edwards, Edwin Frazee, Billy Gilbert, Frank Hayes.

Run Time: 20 Min, 44 secs

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

His Musical Career (1914)

Fans of classic comedy will find something familiar in this early short from Keystone Studios starring Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin plays a worker in a piano shop who must make a difficult delivery, but gets the addresses confused…

The movie begins with Chaplin, in his “Little Tramp” getup, applying for a job from store manager Mack Swain. Swain seems a bit concerned at Chaplin’s slight build, but puts him to the test by having him hoist a growler of beer over his head. Charlie succeeds, but spits out the beer when Mack smacks him on the back. Then Charlie lines up the can of beer next to an identical can of varnish while Swain’s back is turned, and of course Mack takes a sip from the wrong one. Charlie helps relieve his distress by splashing the rest of the beer on him. Meanwhile, salesman Charley Chase is selling a piano in the front room to “Mr. Rich” (Fritz Schade) and informs “Mr. Poor” (Frank Hayes) who has fallen behind on his payments, that his piano will be repossessed. Hayes really hams things up as the music-loving Mr. Poor. Charlie tries to nap on a piano keyboard while Mack is out speaking with Chase. It turns out that the two customers have very similar addresses.

Mack and Charlie now go to work on trying to deliver the piano. Although it is on wheels, they try to attach a length of rope. Charlie hoists the piano briefly while Mack gets under it to tie the rope on, but then he just lowers it on top of Mack and takes his time in removing it. Eventually, they push it over to a rickety old cart attached to a mule, then hoist it aboard. Charlie gets into the driver’s seat and Mack climbs on next to him, cradling another beer growler. Swain naps during the drive and Charlie spoons out some beer with his pipe. When they stop for a moment so that Mack can check the piano, the weight of the piano lifts the mule’s feet off the ground. He has to put his weight back onto the front of the cart before the mule can proceed. They pull up to the address of Mr. Poor, thinking it is Mr. Rich. Of course, there is a long staircase they have to climb with the piano, Mack pulling in front, Charlie lifting and pushing from behind. Of course, the piano tumbles down on top of Charlie before they can reach the top. Finally, they bring it into the house, to the delight of Mr. Poor and his daughter, and Charlie has it strapped to his back, moving from one part of the small room to another while they make up their minds where it should go.  Once it has been placed, Charlie cannot straighten his back. Mack yanks him several times, but then fixes the problem by laying Charlie on the floor and pushing on his backside with his foot.

Now they head over to the other address, a beautiful California house, and spend a good deal of time rearranging the furniture in order to get the piano they find there out. Mrs. Rich (Cecile Arnold) comes out to find what they are doing. Charlie and Mack both vie for her attention, and she seems quite put out by them. She summons a liveried servant, whom Mack pushes to the ground before they remove the piano. Charlie does several pratfalls before Mr. Rich walks up, indignant, and accuses them of stealing it. He gives Mack a boot in the pants, which sends him, the piano, and Charlie rolling down the long hill in front of his house. All three land in the lake used in the finales of so many other Keystone shorts.

Laurel and Hardy fans are most likely familiar with a 1932 movie called “The Music Box,” in which Stan & Ollie have to deliver a piano to a house at the top of a long stairwell. In fact, variations on this theme have been made a number of times in cinema, but so far as I know this is the first. In comparison, Laurel and Hardy milked that situation for a lot more laughs than Charlie did, but in fairness they had many more years of experience with film comedy at that time, as well as the benefit of all the developments of film technique and technology that happened in between. It does seem that this movie demonstrates a bit more of Charlie realizing his own potential, and that of his character, here towards the end of his contract with Keystone. We also see evidence of his growing popularity. Quite a number of pedestrians are visible in a crowd, staring at Swain and Chaplin as they hoist the piano onto the cart, and even men from a passing streetcar turn to stare. Evidently it was getting harder to shoot a Chaplin film without drawing a crowd. Swain and Chaplin seem to have really found their groove working together as well, with the contrast between the big man and the little one emphasized to comedic effect. Chaplin makes good use of simple editing techniques to tell the story, such as cross-cutting from the salesroom to the shop, and editing together the precipitous fall down the hill at the end. There’s an interesting shot during the drive as well, where the camera has been placed on top of the mule’s back to give a two-shot of the stars, while we watch the street go by on the sides. This wouldn’t have been easy to set up at a time when the camera had to be hand-cranked, but cinematographer Frank D. Williams must have made it work somehow, possibly by dragging the cart behind a truck so that he had a platform to stand on.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Fritz Schade, Charley Chase, Cecile Arnold, Frank Hayes, Helen Carruthers, Billy Gilbert

Run Time: 13 Min

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

Gentlemen of Nerve (1914)

This short from Keystone seems to be yet another remake of Charlie Chaplin’s first appearance as the Little Tramp, but also demonstrates how far he had come as a director in a few months. He and the Keystone gang are once again at a racetrack, causing a ruckus.

The movie begins with Chester Conklin and Mabel Normand showing up together at the gate, while Mack Swain and Charlie both try to sneak past the guards to get in. Chester seems very jealous to protect Mabel from harassment by Mack, but has a decidedly roving eye once he sits down next to Phyllis Allen. Early in the picture, we get some actuality footage of drivers competitively changing tires as a part of the races. Meanwhile, after a brief confrontation, Charlie and Mack have teamed up t find a way into the races without paying. They find a loose board in the fence and try to slip through, but Mack is of course much too large and quickly gets stuck. Charlie tires pushing him through from behind, then crawls in through his legs and tries pulling from the other side. A group of revelers is on this side, watching their struggles with amusement. Charlie helps one of them fix a drink, then uses the spritzer to prevent a cop (Edgar Kennedy) from arresting Mack, who finally breaks through. He also sprays Mack in the process. They go their separate ways, and soon Charlie runs into Chester and Mabel.

Just don’t fart, Mack!

Mabel has gotten Chester away from Phyllis, but now she shows an interest in Charlie. They fight in front of a big crowd, most of whom seem to be more interested in Charlie than the races. Chester and Mabel go back to their seats near Phyllis, and get into a fight as well. Charlie finds a seat near Alice Davenport, who seems interested in him until he steals her soda, then starts offering it to other women. Soon Mabel trips over Charlie’s feet, and he seems uncertain which woman to focus on, especially after Mabel ruins his hat. Mabel and Charlie go to look at a race car with a propeller, and soon Charlie is running around the track to avoid getting hit. Chester now insults Phyllis by whispering something in her ear, and she hits him and he runs away, now discovering Mabel and Charlie together. He threatens violence against Mabel, and Charlie takes a long time removing his coat before hitting him. The cop finds Mack and arrests him just as Chester blunders into him from Charlie’s blow and both are taken in while Mabel and Charlie laugh in a close two-shot.

While this movie takes some advantage of the crowds and location of the race track, a lot of it is shot under much more controlled circumstances than “Kid Auto Races at Venice” and it more closely resembles “Mabel’s Busy Day,” except that Mabel and Charlie end up together, rather than as rivals. It’s very easy to see from the scenes with Chaplin in them that he was now a recognizable figure in public, and that the public was eager to watch him. I always remember when I watch these early Chaplins that many critics called him “vulgar” and I certainly thought about this during the scenes in which Charlie tries to push Mack through the fence, often by shoving on his buttocks or pushing them with a stick. There’s even some talk that the women in these movies could have been portraying sex workers, given their ready willingness to flit from one stranger to another, although Phyllis obviously wasn’t willing to go as far as Chester wanted on a first meeting. It seems as if Charlie had figured out by now that his Little Tramp character was the sympathetic one for audiences – he almost always comes out ahead in every situation here, while Mack and Chester are foils for his gags.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, Alice Davenport, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 15 Min

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

Dough and Dynamite (1914)

For this two-reel comedy from Keystone, Charlie Chaplin threw in a whole lot of ideas and gags he’d developed partially in other movies, apparently trying for more of an opus, showing off everything he could do at once. It may have been more ambitious than successful, but it was a precursor of later things.

Charlie is a waiter at a bakery with a small café. We see him dropping food on the floor, only to pick it up and serve it, spilling things on customers, and generally being completely obnoxious. When a young female customer stands in front of a counter advertising “Assorted French Tarts,” however, Charlie snaps into action to help her, forgetting all about the trail of spoilt meals behind him. In the process of flirting ineffectually with her, he tosses the display tarts across the room, causing several customers to leave in a huff. He now heads into the kitchen, where he begins a slapstick fight with Chester Conklin and the cook, coming out very much on top, despite a clumsy beginning. Now Charlie opens the trapdoor that leads to the basement, which is where the bakers are working hard at making bread and pastries. Chester gives Charlie a kick down the ladder, causing a baker to drop several loaves of bread, and soon he is caught up in surprisingly sticky dough, which he wipes off on a hanging jacket. Now he goes over to look at the ovens, providing the first of many opportunities to burn his hand. The bakers watch his antics and laugh for a while, then suggest that he head back up to safer ground, where the new paucity of customers gives him a chance to flirt with the waitresses (Peggy Page and Cecile Arnold). Soon, he’s back in the kitchen, where he breaks several dishes in the process of making things up with Conklin.

An intertitle now introduces a new subplot, telling us that, “the bakers want less work and more pay.” Their negotiations with the owner quickly stall and they stage a walkout (causing one to discover all the dough on his jacket), and so the owner hands over their aprons to Charlie and Chester, who have now been promoted to scab bakers. One of the bakers threatens Charlie with a knife, but Charlie gets the better of him and stalks off, and the bakers all walk off the floor after getting paid out by the owner. Chester seems reluctant at first, but finally consents to go down into the basement, and then Charlie is sent down with a truly massive sack of flour on his back. After several comic mis-steps, Charlie finally drops it down the ladder onto Chester. In the basement, Charlie continues to fight with Chester, burn his hands, get stuck in dough, and drop food on the floor before putting it out to be served. Meanwhile, the strikers meet in a barn and take out a large box of dynamite, which they plan to use on the bakery. Charlie’s flirtations and incompetence continue apace, and soon he has managed to get flour onto the behinds of all of the waitresses, something the owner notes with concern. When his wife is briefly down in the basement and also innocently gets flour on herself, he goes ballistic. Meanwhile, the strikers carry out their plot and manage to infiltrate a dynamite-loaded loaf of bread into the ovens, which soon explode. The cast find themselves amidst the rubble of the ruined shop and the movie ends.

This movie apparently was conceived by Chaplin and Conklin while they were on a break from “Those Love Pangs,” having lunch at a café-bakery not unlike the one in the movie. It is certainly much more well-developed than that movie, and it’s been suggested that one of the reasons for the weakness of that movie is that they decided to move their better gags over to the new project. Whatever the case, this movie reminded me of later work that Keaton and Arbuckle would do together, such as “The Butcher Boy,” which takes advantage of a customer service setting to provide an opportunity for brief comic vignettes and a variety of characters to interact. In that sense, it’s also like “The Floorwalker” and “The Pawnshop,” by Chaplin as well, though the freneticism and randomness matches a Comique more than a Mutual. Still, this has most of the roughness of Charlie’s Keystone period, and only the glee which he and Conklin bring to their comedy fighting makes it stand out from the “park comedies” at times. Charlie does bring some of his dance-like moves to bear; I was particularly entertained by a sequence in which he prepares donuts by twisting dough around his wrists in a series of rhythmic moves.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Fritz Schade, Norma Nichols, Glen Cavender, Cecile Arnold, Peggy Page, Vivian Edwards, Phyllis Allen, Edgar Kennedy, Slim Summerville, Charley Chase, Jess Dandy, Ted Edwards

Run Time: 24 Min

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

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).