Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Charlie Chaplin

Triple Trouble (1918)

This is sort of a “fake” Charlie Chaplin movie, but one which nevertheless stars Charlie Chaplin! In 1918, years after losing the star to Mutual, Essanay, his sophomore studio, stitched together this “new” film from footage he left at the studio (some already released), adding some material directed by his co-star Leo White and releasing it to a Chaplin-hungry public that didn’t know any better.

The movie begins with a random close-up of Charlie with a cigar in his mouth, but the plot begins when we see “Colonel A. Nutt,” who is building a new type of “wireless explosive.” The wartime origin of this new footage influences this plotline, which involves a spy ring led by diplomats from “Pretzelstrasse” (Leo White is the lead agent). Meanwhile, Charlie is introduced as the new janitor in the Nutt House, and there’s some good otherwise unreleased footage of his antics in the kitchen with cook Billy Armstrong and flirting with maid Edna Purviance. Charlie empties most of the food the cook has prepared into the dustbin and then proceeds to strew garbage all over the place by carrying it on his back, even dumping it on poor Edna. We see Leo White at a fence and the dustbin appears over the edge, making it seem that Charlie is dumping the remainder of the trash on him! (Close attention reveals that Charlie has four arms in this scene). Edna and Charlie get into a fight in the kitchen, but the wet rag she throws at him flies into adjoining rooms, hitting Billy and Leo instead, so they blame one another and then get into a fight as well. Soon, Billy figures out where the rag came from and goes to punish Edna, only to find himself confronted by Charlie’s wrath (a boot to the rear). The Colonel finds Leo in bad spirits after his confrontation, and ejects the man without hearing him out.

Charlie now heads to a doss house to spend the night, having completed his dubious day’s work. Charlie has various comic adventures there – lighting a man’s toes on fire, conking a loud-singing drunk over the head with a bottle, and outsmarting a thief who comes in to rob the vagrants. Meanwhile, a pickpocket (Billy Armstrong in different clothes) tries to hold up Leo White and is recruited into the scheme to rob the Nutts. A nearby policeman overhears the plan and calls in other officers, busy playing craps in an abandoned lot. They rush to the Nutt House, where they explain that they are on the trail of a large crime, and occupy the living room. A riot breaks out in the dosshouse and Charlie is forced to flee, ending up with Billy, who talks him into joining the robbery of the Nutt House. The cops are all still there; lying around, smoking, waiting for something to happen. Pandemonium breaks out when the pickpocket enters the house, and amid the chaos, Colonel Nutt’s explosive device is detonated, blowing all of the cops skyward. In the aftermath, the pickpocket is buried in a heap of rubble and Charlie is seen poking his head out of the kitchen stove.

While this is far from Charlie’s best movie (or even his movie, really), it is kind of fun from a historical view to try to figure out which scenes were made when. A good portion of it (especially the dosshouse) was used in the Flicker Alley release of “Police,” and may have been shot for that movie. Or, it may have been shot for “Life,” an incomplete semi-autobiographical project Chaplin worked on at Essanay. Certainly the “janitor” sequences come from this source. Other parts, with Leo White and the “Pretzelstrasse,” were shot afterwards directed by White, and inter-cut with the Chaplin footage to appear to be part of the same movie. Some of this is laughably unsuccessful. The final explosion and head-in-stove sequence is straight from “Work.” The result of this piecemeal story engineering is a rather disjointed film which at times feels more like an anthology of very short shorts than a coherent film. The parts which include Chaplin, however, are up to his usual standards in terms of physical comedy and there are at least a few laughs to be found here. I particularly enjoy the early scenes of Charlie as a hapless janitor in a wealthy home, operating within the Upstairs/Downstairs world of the servants.

Chaplin himself was “Not Amused,” however. He sent a telegram to the “Moving Picture World” informing them of the dubious nature of the movie and asking that false advertising for it be “stamped out.” However, having already lost a legal battle to prevent Essanay from releasing the extended version of “Burlesque on Carmen,” he kept his criticism to the trades this time. Essanay defended their right to re-cut Chaplin footage and present it as “new.” After all, no one had seen this movie before, had they? It was largely academic, because it was out by this time and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. It entered the public domain since Chaplin never reissued it with an original score, and thus it actually may have had more releases since that time than many of his early Essanays. It remains a part of his legacy, though decidedly a part he never could control.

Director: Charlie Chaplin.Leo White

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Leo White, Billy Armstrong, Bud Jamison, Albert Austin, Snub Pollard, Wesley Ruggles

Run Time: 23 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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His Prehistoric Past (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin film came at the end of his short tenure at Keystone Studios, and may by the most “mature” of the movies he made for the company. This post is a part of the Time Travel Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Wide Screen World. Check out the other entries here. I hope everyone was able to safely “time travel” back from Daylight Saving Time!

We see Chaplin in his familiar “Little Tramp” getup, trying to get comfortable for a nap on a park bench. There’s a funny bit of business where he tries to straighten it our despite a broken board. Soon, he’s a asleep, and the real movie begins in the “prehistoric” era. A group of cavemen and -women surrounds the “Kink,” a chieftan-type played by Mack Swain. Another caveman does a rather swishy effeminate dance, which put an odd spin on the “Kink” intertitle for me, but probably wouldn’t have for most audiences in 1914.  We now see Chaplin in a funny variation of his outfit: he still has the hat and cane, but now his traditional too-tight jacket and baggy pants have been replaced by a frayed bearskin. He has a pipe, and fills it with tobacco, then tries striking several rocks against his leg, as if they were matches. One finally lights, and he smokes the pipe. He spots an attractive young cavewoman (I believe this is Gene Marsh), who is fetching water for the “Kink” and goes to speak with her. He does some funny business with the tail of his bearskin. The “Kink” gets tired of waiting and sends the swishy caveman off to find the water girl. He sees Chaplin and fires an arrow into his bottom. Once the cavegirl gets it out, Charlie throws a large rock at the attacker, which misses him and flies over to hit the “Kink.” The caveman chases Charlie around a boulder with a pointed stick, and the “Kink” comes over to investigate, and winds up getting stuck in the bottom by the other caveman, who is clubbed by Charlie in turn.

The “Kink” is now convinced that Charlie is his friend, and he takes him back to the tribe, where everyone bows down. Charlie keeps hitting the “Kink” accidentally (or not) with his club, but manages to smooth it over or blame someone else each time. Charlie is invited in to the “Kink’s cave for a drink, but winds up spilling a lot of it when he tries to shake it like a martini inside two hollow rocks. He throws the rest of it into the face of a servant (Al St. John). The he goes out to meet the girls of the tribe. Of course, the one he met first is the only one he really wants, but he seems to enjoy the attention. Another caveman walks up and distracts them for a while, but Charlie clubs him and takes his girl over to some rocks by the seaside. When the “Kink” comes out, he sees Charlie frolicking in the waves with the girl (who seems quite close to having a wardrobe malfunction in her furs). The “Kink” finally becomes possessive and pulls her away from Charlie. He smooths things over with the “Kink” again and they have more drinks. The whole tribe starts up a dance (several girls dancing with girls here), and Charlie asks his girl to dance. They do a rather wild jitterbug-style dance, while the others look on. The “Kink” catches sight of this and challenges Charlie to prove himself as a hunter. He gives Charlie a bow and arrows, and they go out to the forest. Charlie targets a bird in a tree, but ends up hitting the nest, raining eggs down on the  “Kink” and himself. Charlie finds the girl by a cliff’s edge an starts taking to her, and when the “Kink” comes to object, he trips him over the ledge. The “Kink” falls a long way but seems fine. Charlie returns to the tribe and announces that he is the new “Kink.” Everyone bows down, but the caveman from the first dance finally gets up and helps the “Kink” climb back up the cliff. The “Kink” picks up a large rock and sneaks up behind Charlie, breaking it into fragments over his head. Suddenly we cut back to Charlie on the park bench. A police officer is smacking him with his billy club, telling the Little Tramp that it’s time to move on. The movie seems to set up an opportunity for Charlie to get the upper hand, but on current prints it cuts off before the final gag.

1918 poster that used stills from the movie.

In terms of time travel, this falls very clearly into the “dream sequence” category: the dream is clearly set up by a framing story at the beginning and the end, and the audience is never asked to accept that Charlie has actually traveled back to the Pleistocene era. Still, the majority of the movie takes place in the imagined past, and makes fun of various caveman tropes that audiences today will still recognize. Especially when Charlie deliberately plays with anachronisms like the match-rock, it reminds me of the Flintstones. Charlie has packed an awful lot of gags into this one piece, as evidenced by the length of the summary, above. I think his ambitions were probably straining the budgets, production schedules, and abilities of Keystone to keep up with, at this point, but the result stands out as a pretty impressive comedy.

Apart from time, this movie made me think a lot about space, and how it was handled in the Keystone universe. There are a limited number of locations: the tribal campground, the cave, the forest, the watering hole, the cliff, and the seaside. Each of these is a discrete unit defined by a single camera frame. The camera can zoom in on people and objects within the set, but it never moves to show us different parts of the area, or how they are related to one another. We know that all of these “sets” are near each other, because sometimes someone in one set can see what is happening in another, or even throws a rock or arrow from one to the next (or through it into another one), but when characters exit one area, they are invisible until they enter the next. In this sense, it reminds me of a classic “Interactive Fiction” computer game, like Zork, that was made up of various “rooms” the player could visit that interlocked in sometimes illogical geographies. Younger readers who’ve never experienced this might get some insight from the “Digital Antiquarian” blog, although you really need to play one of these games for yourself to understand. Anyway, this model is descriptive of a lot of Keystone’s output, and even some of the work Chaplin did at Essanay. It’s a style of filmmaking that links the early theatrical “proscenium” frames to the freer, more mobile camera of the late silent period, and I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about it, but it fascinates me.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh, Al St. John, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Sydney Chaplin, Helen Carruthers

Run Time: 21 Min

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

Best Production Design 1917

In this world of virtual environments, the silent era often seems like a much more “solid” filmic world. In the early days, of course, directors working in spare studio spaces often asked audiences to “imagine” that a blank space was actually a jail cell, that a wooden box was a walk-in freezer, or that an obviously painted mirror had been smashed, but by 1917, these tricks were things of the past. Sets were built that sometimes dwarfed the actors, and put them into a space that they could believe as much as the audiences did. This category gives us a chance to honor some of the work that went into those productions.

I didn’t see any overwhelming set design in 1917 such as we saw in “Intolerance” the previous year, but some pretty impressive examples came up nonetheless. An underground base for a superhero was imagined in the “Judex” serial as displayed in “The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge.” Charlie Chaplin had an entire urban street environment constructed for “Easy Street,” incorporating gas lamps, second story windows, and trapdoors for hiding anarchist plots. Chaplin again did impressive work on “The Immigrant,” devising a ship set that swayed back and forth to emphasize the harshness (and comic potential) of sea travel. For the Douglas Fairbanks movie “Wild and Woolly,” an entire Western-style town is transformed from its “modern” form to an “Old West” parody of itself. And in Evgeni Bauer’s final film, “The Dying Swan,” he once again introduces his audience to a cinematic space with three complete dimensions, giving us opera stages, a mad artist’s studios, and the realm of the idle rich to play in.

The nominees for best production design of 1917 are:

  1. Easy Street
  2. The Dying Swan
  3. The Immigrant
  4. Wild and Woolly
  5. The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge (Judex)

And the winner is…“Easy Street!”

I felt that Chaplin’s dedication to creating an entire street for the purposes of a comedy short surpassed anything else I saw in production design this year. It probably facilitated his (and his cast’s) ability to experiment and improvise that they weren’t restricted in terms of angles or movement by the boundaries of a standard set of flats, or the limitations of location-shooting, where unforgiving reality has to be contended with. The street is instantly recognizable, and yet also anonymous: it could be in any large city of that period, in the US, UK, or elsewhere. It places the viewer into a fantasy world of urban blight and dark comedy. I felt it had to be honored as a great achievement.

October 1917

Time once again for a roundup of news headlines from one century ago. A huge amount of war news dominates this month’s Century News. Some may be surprised that there’s nothing about the Russian Revolution, especially in light of the movie “October” and references to the “Red October.” The explanation for this is simple: the Russians were on a different calendar, so their “October” actually extended into our November, which is when the revolution actually occurred. Since the rest of my Century News has been based on the standard Gregorian calendar, I’m waiting for next month for that news.

Morning After the First Battle of Passchendaele.

World War One:

Battle of Broodseinde near Ypres, October 4: British Imperial forces overpower the German 4th Army‘s defences.

First Battle of Passchendaele, October 12: Allies fail to take a German defensive position with the biggest loss of life in a single day for New Zealand, over 800 of whose men and 45 officers are killed, roughly 1 in 1000 of the nation’s population at this time.

Operation Albion, October 12-19: German forces land on and capture the West Estonian archipelago.

At Vincennes outside Paris, Dutch dancer Mata Hari is executed on October 15 by firing squad for spying for Germany.

A Brazilian ship is destroyed by a German U-Boat on October 23, encouraging Brazil to enter World War I.

Brazilian President Venceslau Brás signs a declaration of war against the Central Powers.

Brazil declares war against the Central Powers on October 26.

Ottoman force attacks Desert Mounted Corps units garrisoning el Buqqar ridge on October 27 during the Battle of Buqqar Ridge fought in the last days of the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Battle of Beersheba, October 31: The British XX Corps and Desert Mounted Corps (Egyptian Expeditionary Force) attack and capture Beersheba ending the Stalemate in Southern Palestine.

Religion:

The Miracle of the Sun is reported on October 13 at Fátima, Portugal. Thousands of people gathered to see a prophecy fulfilled of miracles performed by the Blessed Virgin Mary. They reported to have witnessed extraordinary solar activity, such as the sun appearing to “dance” or zig-zag in the sky, careen towards the earth, or emit multicolored light and radiant colors. According to these reports, the event lasted approximately ten minutes.

Politics:

Carl Swartz leaves office as Prime Minister of Sweden on October 19 after dismal election results for the right-wing in the Riksdag elections in September. He is replaced by liberal leader and history professor Nils Edén.

Transportation:

Dallas Love Field airport is opened October 19.

Film:

Cleopatra,” starring Theda Bara released October 14. This (mostly) lost film is among the most iconic of 1917, and images of Bara from the film still circulate on the Internet.

Satan Triumphant” (Satana likuyushchiy) released October 21. One of the last movies of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire.

The Adventurer,” a Charlie Chaplin short is released on October 22. This was the last of the films Chaplin produced under his contract with Mutual Studios, and for the first time since he started making movies, it left him with no contractual obligations to fulfill. He would soon sign for a million dollars to First National.

Coney Island,” a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle / Buster Keaton short is released October 29.

Births:

Helmut Dantine, actor (in “Mrs. Miniver” and “Casablanca”), born October 7.

June Allyson, actress (in the 1948 version of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Glenn Miller Story”), born October 7.

Alice Pearce, actress (in “On the Town” and TV’s “Bewitched”), born October 16

Marsha Hunt, U.S. actress (in 1940’s “Pride and Prejudice” and “Johnny Got His Gun”), born October 17. Apparently she’s still alive! Happy birthday Marsha!

Joan Fontaine, actress (in “Suspicion” and “Rebecca”), born October 22.

Florence La Badie

Deaths:

Movie star Florence La Badie dies on October 13, from septicemia as a result of injuries sustained from a car crash in August. Several of her movies have been reviewed on this blog.

1916 Century Award Nominations

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medSo, once again the Academy Award nominations have been announced, so once again I announce the nominees for the Century Awards. This year, incidentally, I saw several Oscar nominees – all in categories like “production design” and “visual effects” and “makeup and hairstyling.” So yeah, whatever.

Some basic ground rules, once again: I do not have categories for animation or shorts. Those movies are treated like everything else, since they were on a more even playing field at the time. I didn’t actually watch any animation for 1916, so that’s moot anyway, but lots of shorts (mostly comedy) have been nominated in various categories. I only watched one documentary this year, so that category’s a gimme, but I have included it as a nominee in a number of other areas, including Best Picture (because it really is good enough to be considered for it). Oh, and I make no distinction between English and “foreign language” films, since with Intertitles it makes minimal difference.

I do reserve the right to make changes in the final weeks as there are still a few more 1916 films I hope to get around to watching. If you have any opinions on these nominations, or suggestions for things I should watch (especially if they can be seen for free on the Internet), please do write a comment.

Battle of the Somme-film

Best Documentary

  1. Battle of the Somme

Best Makeup/Hairstyling

  1. Intolerance
  2. Queen of Spades
  3. Waiters Ball
  4. The Danger Girl
  5. Snow White

Best Costume Design

  1. Intolerance
  2. The Curse of Quon Gwon
  3. Queen of Spades
  4. Snow White
  5. Joan the Woman

Intolerance BabylonBest Production Design

  1. Intolerance
  2. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea
  3. One A.M.
  4. Joan the Woman
  5. The Captive God

Best Stunts

  1. The Matrimaniac
  2. Flirting with Fate
  3. His Picture in the Papers
  4. Reggie Mixes In
  5. The Poison Man (Les Vampires)
  6. The Rink

Best Film Editing

  1. Intolerance
  2. East Is East
  3. His Picture in the Papers
  4. The Battle of the Somme
  5. The Bloody Wedding (Les Vampires)

Hells Hinges3Best Cinematography

  1. Eugene Gaudio, for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
  2. Elgin Lessley, for “He Did and He Didn’t”
  3. Billy Bitzer, for “Intolerance”
  4. Joseph H. August, for “Hell’s Hinges”
  5. Carl Hoffmann, for “Homunculus

Best Visual Effects (includes animation)

  1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  2. The Spectre (Les Vampires)
  3. The Devil’s Needle
  4. Homunculus
  5. The Mysterious Shadow (Judex)

Best Screenplay

  1. East Is East
  2. Hell’s Hinges
  3. The Curse of Quon Gwon
  4. A Life for A Life
  5. Joan the Woman

lord-of-thunderBest Supporting Actress

  1. Lidiia Koroneva, in “A Life for a Life”
  2. Louise Glaum, in “Return of Draw Egan
  3. Constance Talmadge, in “Intolerance”
  4. Marion E. Wong, in “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  5. Musidora, in “The Lord of Thunder” (Les Vampires)

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Al St. John, in “Fatty and Mabel Adrift
  2. Robert McKim, in “The Return of Draw Egan”
  3. Eric Campbell, in “The Count
  4. Marcel Levésque, in “The Bloody Wedding”
  5. Ernest Maupain, in “Sherlock Holmes”

Best Leading Actor

  1. William Gillette, in “Sherlock Holmes”
  2. Charlie Chaplin, in “The Vagabond
  3. Olaf Fønss, in “Homonculus”
  4. Henry Edwards, in “East Is East”
  5. William S. Hart, in “Hell’s Hinges”

joan-the-woman1Best Leading Actress

  1. Vera Kholodnaia, in “A Life for a Life”
  2. Florence Turner, in “East Is East”
  3. Geraldine Farrar, in “Joan the Woman”
  4. Marguerite Clark, in “Snow White”
  5. Violet Wong, in “The Curse of Quon Gwon”

Best Director

  1. Evgeni Bauer, for “A Life for a Life”
  2. Yakov Protazonov, for “Queen of Spades”
  3. Marion E. Wong, for “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. Cecil B. DeMille, for “Joan the Woman”
  5. Charles Swickard and William S. Hart, for “Hell’s Hinges”

Best Picture

  1. “Intolerance”
  2. “Hell’s Hinges”
  3. “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. “East Is East”
  5. “A Life for a Life”
  6. “Joan the Woman”
  7. “Homunculus”
  8. “Sherlock Holmes”
  9. “The Battle of the Somme”
  10. “The Return of Draw Egan”

The Immigrant (1917)

This was the third short Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual in 1917, coming out in June of that year. It may be the most famous of his early work, and has been a critical success since its release, unlike many of his earlier Keystone and Essanay shorts, which were often dismissed as “vulgar” at the time or frivolous afterward.

immigrant_1917This movie begins by showing us a steamer ship loaded with immigrants crossing the Atlantic. After a brief stock footage shot of a ship, and a shot of people stacked on top of one another on the deck, we see a shot of Charlie’s ass, which lingers quite a bit longer. Charlie is leaning over the railing of the ship, his feet at times going up so far it seems that he will fall in, and we get the impression that he is vomiting over the side. It’s a garden path, however, because when he turns around we see that he has caught a fish on a hook and line. He holds it up proudly, then inexplicably casts it aside, where it bites one of the sleeping passengers on the nose.

immigrant1

Hey, at least he’s upright!

Read the rest of this entry »

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 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.

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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).

A Century in Review 1916-2016

Intolerance_(1916)_-_Nazarene_-_He_Who_Is_Without_SinA lot of blogs do some kind of year-end wrap up at this point in the year, but for this blog that actually means thinking about two years at the same time: this year and the one a hundred years ago.

1916 was a rough year for a lot of people, especially in Europe. The First World War had gone from an exciting adventure to a horrendous meat grinder of death, and there was no end in sight. Each new attack on the Western Front meant the sacrifice of thousands, and there was no visible movement of the battle lines. For most of the year, men were fighting in Verdun, only to find themselves in December in approximately their original positions, and from July to November, the Battle of the Somme raged with only minor gains for the Allies. Each of these battles cost the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides.

Meanwhile, the home front was beginning to suffer the effects of war as well. In Germany, the allied blockade was having the effect of creating severe food shortages, which resulted in riots in several cities, especially Berlin, and the imposition of food rationing through the creation of a military office with absolute power over civilian affairs. Contrary to later perceptions of socialist agitation against the military, this move was widely embraced by the working classes, who saw rationing as a way to create equity between the rich and poor in food distribution. Rationing may have helped with front-line morale as well: it was hard for soldiers to feel good about fighting for their homeland when they knew their own families faced deprivation.

Mark I Tanks on September 15, 1916

Mark I Tanks on September 15, 1916

In Russia, the domestic situation was moving from bad to worse to intolerable. The front here was not a stable line, but quite mobile, with advances and retreats of hundreds of miles. That’s fine for a cavalry officer, but it meant a great deal of marching for soldiers who were often sent to the lines without proper footwear. Equipment of all kinds was lacking: including guns. Russian soldiers were advised to take weapons from the dead during battle in order to defend themselves. Moreover, the nation’s casualties (including POWs) now numbered in the millions.

Grigory Rasputin

Grigory Rasputin

Political agitation, which had been relatively quiet since the beginning of the war, started up again in earnest in 1916, with mutinies, strikes, and street demonstrations in most major cities. Russia was also suffering from food shortages, particularly in Petrograd. Even those who had money for bread often could not find it, or waited in lines for hours to get it (reportedly there were housewives who spent up to 40 hours a week on line). The Czar was warned by his senate (the Duma) and his security forces that open revolution was a real possibility by November of 1916. It came only weeks after the New Year.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

The USA has managed to avoid war, even re-electing President Woodrow Wilson with a slogan of “he kept us out of war.” Neutrality in World War One would not survive another year, of course, but it allowed many in the US to prosper from sales of industrial goods to Europe in 1916. The American film industry has been a major beneficiary of the decline in European productivity, and American films are finally beginning to make inroads into European distribution chains. While the distant war in Europe may seem remote or even beneficial to some Americans, a more immediate concern is the ongoing revolution in Mexico, which has spilled across the border repeatedly, and led to 12,000 troops being sent by Wilson to pursue Pancho Villa – a military intervention that brings the US to the brink of outright war with Mexico. The US also occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916, continuing an aggressive interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Intolerance BabylonThis year has no huge breakout film on the scale of “The Birth of a Nation,” although most historians agree that D.W. Griffith’sIntolerance” had a good run and was seen by many of the same people that made “Birth” a huge hit. It still lost money, primarily because it cost so much more to make. The next-highest grossing film is reported to be “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” But the name on most people’s lips this year is Charlie Chaplin, who is now the highest-paid movie star, working at Mutual for $670,000, with a signing bonus that nearly brought it to a million. He has finally gained the freedom to slow down his production schedule and is taking more time on each new release, which technically sets him behind on his contractual requirements by the end of the year, but Mutual is still raking in plenty from his work. Others are also benefitting from his lag in production: a huge number of “Chaplin imitators” or derivative acts are filling the void with their own shorts of varying quality, including a fellow calling himself “Lonesome Luke” that is actually a young Harold Lloyd. A new face on the scene this year is Douglas Fairbanks, whose good-natured all-American athleticism is being used to create a new kind of comedy that also finds strong audience approval. He and Chaplin will be friends and allies in years to come.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Although European film production is down, there are still significant contributions from European studios. The first documentary to see major box office success is “The Battle of the Somme,” released in Britain with the support of the War Office. Germany makes one of its first forays into Expressionism with the serial “Homunculus,” about a man created by science who lacks the ability to feel love. And, although Louis Feuillade is by this time serving on the Western Front, Gaumont Studios manages to profit from late release of his crime-serial follow-ups to “Fantômas:” “Les Vampires,” which runs from the end of 1915 into the early part of the year, and “Judex,” which had been shot years earlier but sees the first episode released in the last week of 1916. Finally, Evgeni Bauer gave us his column-filled drama “A Life for a Life,” which launched its star, Vera Kholodnaia, to celebrity status.

My blog remains a relatively less-popular film blog – I guess the topic and approach is a bit esoteric compared to the usual classic film blog. I’m up about 5000 hits from last year, which falls slightly short of doubling my total for 2015. I’m holding steady with about 120 followers, and I only occasionally get more than one “like” on a post. Only a few people comment, but those that do tend to come back and comment again. My impression is that I have a small cadre of dedicated readers, but not a lot of mass appeal, and I’m fine with that. I am backing off a bit (as some have probably noticed) from doing daily posts. I like doing a short movie every day when I can, and one “feature” or at least more in-depth post a week, but the simple fact is that it takes a little too much of my time away from other activities. I’m also writing fewer “context” posts, apart from my monthly Century News roundups.

I’m aware that my blog is somewhat less research-heavy than some other blogs, especially those focused on the silent era. I generally write my impressions of the movies I watch without doing a lot of background research, in part because I’m interested in what the movies themselves convey as sources. I typically avoid, in particular, reading other reviews of movies I’m discussing until after I’ve posted, because it’s all too easy to be influenced by the perceptions of others. Sometimes that means I get stuff wrong, but that’s a hazard of studying a period for which a large proportion of the primary sources are lost, and I try at least to admit when I’m writing from a position of ignorance.

Le_Voyage_dans_la_luneThe reason I started this blog was unusual: it wasn’t because I knew a whole lot about early film, it was because I wanted to learn more. In that sense, this blog is a huge success. My first posts were under 250 words (one reason daily posting was no big deal), but now it’s hard for me to write less than 500. That’s because I know more, so I see more in every movie I review. I’ve gained an appreciation for movies from this period far beyond just knowledge as well – coming back to “The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador” really demonstrated that to me recently. When I watched it in 2012, I barely understood what I was seeing, whereas now watching it is a rich experience. I’ve discovered viewing-muscles I never knew I had as I’ve done this workout. So, that’s a win, and as long as it’s true, there will be every reason to continue this project.