Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Edna Purviance

The Vagabond (1916)

Charlie Chaplin’s character returns to his more lovable behavior with this Mutual release, apparently a kind of follow-up to “The Tramp.” Both in terms of filmmaking and character, this movie shows how far he came in so short a time.

Vagabond_(1916)The movie opens with Charlie, in “Little Tramp” getup, walking out of a bar. At first, we expect that he has returned to the character of the “funny drunk,” but after a moment, he pulls out a violin, showing his real reason for being there. Outside the door, he plays his instrument for the entertainment of those inside. While he is playing, a full band walks up to the other entrance to the bar, and starts playing. We see the patrons of the bar, enjoying the band’s popular tunes, singing along, and raising their glasses to the tune. Charlie finishes his piece and goes inside to ask for donations for the music he played. Enthusiastic about the band, several patrons give him coins. Then the band leader (John Rand) comes in to ask for money, and the patrons are incensed: “What, again?” The band leader figures out that Charlie has “stolen” their money and confronts him. Not understanding, Charlie asks him for a donation. The Band leader hits him and a fight between them turns into a chase, which includes, first, the band leader, then the band (Charlie steps on a drum in trying to escape), and then everyone in the bar (Charlie grabs a drink while they all run after him). He finally evades his pursuers and makes his way to a gypsy camp.

VagabondHere, he plays for a girl (Edna Purviance) who is doing the washing. She accelerates and decelerates her work in time with his playing. At the end, he gets so enthusiastic that he falls over into a water bucket. She comes over to help him, and her cruel stepfather (Eric Armstrong) sees her slacking off and making time with this stranger. He now grabs Edna and drags her over to the fire, where all the other gypsies are and whips her in front of the crowd. Charlie, seeing this, builds up his courage and knocks the man out with a club. He then manages to knock out each of the gypsies in turn, takes Edna back to the caravan and steals a wagon to ride off with her.

Vagabond1The next morning, Charlie awakes on the ground, having given the wagon’s sleeping quarters to Edna, and he helps her wash up and prepares breakfast. Meanwhile, Edna takes a walk and encounters a handsome artist (Lloyd Bacon), who asks her to model. She complies, shyly at first, then invites him back for breakfast, which Charlie isn’t entirely happy about. The painting of Edna winds up in a gallery, where it is seen by her wealthy mother, who recognizes her from the birthmark on her arm as the little girl that was stolen by gypsies! Edna’s mother and the artist return to the camp in a limo, and she agrees to go with them, leaving Charlie, saddened and alone, behind. Suddenly, Edna’s heart tells her that her true love isn’t for the artist, and she cries out for the car to stop and turn back. She runs and embraces Charlie, telling him, “you come too!” They pile into the car and go off to a new life together.

Vagabond2As with “Police,” Charlie’s character in this movie is a victim of the cruel world, rather than a perpetrator of violence for its own sake. His theft of the money from the band is unintentional, and he does not start violence against them on purpose. With the gypsies, he is violent only in defense of Edna, who is being bull-whipped unjustly. He does not act in violence or even discourtesy towards his romantic rival. In short, he is a totally sympathetic character once again. The ending is a stark contrast with “The Tramp,” in which he leaves at the first sight of any competition. Here, he holds out hope and winds up winning. Unlike other Charlie-Edna romances, the decision is left to the girl, and she makes it based on her true feelings. I find the ending effectively dramatic and moving, in spite of its presence in a manic comedy.

Vagabond4Chaplin’s direction is improving this year as well. He seems to have made a real discovery in Lloyd Bacon, who served as his double in “The Floorwalker,” Edna’s father in “The Fireman,” and the suave artist in this movie. He demonstrates range, comedic talent, and solid dramatic acting. Bacon had small roles in some of Chaplin’s early Essanay films, but had mostly worked with “Broncho Billy” Anderson until Chaplin moved to Mutual and somehow convinced Bacon to follow. He would go on to become a successful director in the talkie era, making movies like “42nd Street” and “Action in the North Atlantic” with Humphrey Bogart. Although his role in this movie is fairly “straight,” it is an important role, and Chaplin had to trust the actor to be able to pull it off without trying to be funny. I also want to take a moment to mention Roland Totheroh, who started working with Chaplin at the end of his career at Essanay and stayed with him to film all of his later shorts and major features up to “Monsieur Verdoux” in 1947. Totheroh has a somewhat better style for these more sophisticated movies than Harry Ensign, who worked fast and fit the more manic pace of earlier Chaplin. Camera angles are more carefully considered, and set-ups are not based on the “square” framing of the earlier period, although for editing purposes we still have frames that define edges of spaces that characters will move through, allowing funny business when characters in one frame do not know what takes place in the other.

Vagabond3This is a long review, by the standards of this blog, but there’s one more thing I’d like to point out, which is the emphasis on “sound” and its importance in silent movies. Charlie is a musician, and how other characters react to his playing is an important screen element, although the audience cannot hear what it “really” sounds like (a good soundtrack can make up for this, of course). This was also the case in “The Fireman,” in which alarms and phones ringing are key plot devices. This is characteristic, in my opinion, of what I’m calling the “Silent Classical Period,” in which directors and other creative people had come to see silent movies as an art form of their own – one which included sound as an implied element, but not a direct one. That’s not to say no one had ever done it before 1915 (there are alarms in “Life of an American Fireman,” for example, and reactions to gunshots in “The Great Train Robbery”), but its use is increasingly explicit and sophisticated during this period.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Lloyd Bacon, John Rand, Leo White

Run Time: 24 Min

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

The Fireman (1916)

Once again, we have an early example of Charlie Chaplin’s work at Mutual Film, and once again, it seems to me a step down from “Police,” which he made at the end of his time at Essanay. The character is only about as lovable as he was in the days of “The Tramp” and “Work,” not at the level we saw him blossom into at the end of 1915.

FiremanHere, Charlie is a fireman who lives at a fire station with several other men. When an alarm goes off, all of the others spring out of bed and down the pole with perfect (Keystone Cop-style) military precision. Charlie goes on snoozing, which is a shame because it’s his job to drive the fire engine. The foreman (Eric Campbell, Charlie’s new replacement for Mack Swain and Bud Jamison) is furious, and hollers until Chaplin gets up and slides leisurely down the pole, going back up again when he fears abuse from his boss. Eventually, Charlie pulls the wagon out into the street for the drill, but he leaves the brigade behind. He has to go back, and this time he gets some of his comeuppance. We now shift to a scene of the brigade sitting down to a meal, and Charlie serves them, in a sequence borrowed almost entirely from “Shanghaied.” In this case, however, Charlie doesn’t have to contend with the rocking boat, but he still manages to get food on almost everyone. One nice touch is that he gets hot coffee and cream from dispensers in the water tank on the fire engine. Another chase with the foreman ensues.Fireman1

A rich man (Lloyd Bacon) and his daughter (Edna Purviance) now arrive at the station and ask to meet with the foreman, who is covered in milk and soup. The man offers the foreman his daughter’s hand in marriage if he will let his building burn down – he wants to collect on the insurance. Edna seems to go along, but also flirts with Charlie when she gets the chance. The foreman goes along with the others on a date, leaving the fire house in Charlie’s charge. Now, a real fire breaks out and a frenetic man (Leo White) does everything he can to get help. He sounds the alarm, he calls the fire station, he runs to the fire station flailing his arms and running about like a ninny. The firemen ignore all his efforts, until he starts attacking Charlie. A strange sort of chase begins, with Charlie trying to slow him down or figure out what he’s saying, while Leo keeps running around waving his arms. Finally, Charlie figures out what he’s trying to say and runs off to get the foreman. The foreman, reluctant to abandon his date, eventually gets the message and rushes back to the station, rounds up the firemen and piles everyone onto the fire engine to race to the scene. The house is pretty well up in flames at this point, but the men do their best, although Charlie keeps pointing the hose at other people instead of the fire.

Fireman2Now Lloyd puts his plan into action and sets fire in the basement of his apartment building. Apparently he has forgotten that Edna is inside! When he sees her at her window, trapped by the smoke, he panics, and rushes off to find the fire truck. He tells Charlie that his daughter is in danger, and Charlie, ignoring the current fire, grabs the fire engine and rushes off alone. The foreman figures out what has happened and follows on foot. Charlie scales the side of the building and manages to carry Edna down, heroically saving her, before Eric can get to the scene.

Fireman3Fire stations were popular settings for slapstick comedy, probably in part because of all the mayhem that could be caused with spraying water, axes, etc. and the speedy chases to the rescue they encourage. But, remember that some of the earliest plotted movies involved “Fire Rescues” and that live simulations of fire fighting were popular entertainment in the previous century. Each generation loves to mock what their elders took seriously, and I think that’s part of the reason for the trope. Substituting Charlie Chaplin for the muscular heroes of those movies rescuing the damsel in distress only makes it funnier.

Fireman4Still, Chaplin’s character here is only partly sympathetic. It’s hard to see a fireman who sleeps through alarms as a “victim” and he seems to go out of his way to start trouble with the foreman. Surely, he could serve coffee without spattering his boss and everyone else with boiling liquid? He’s kind of back to the “vulgar” character of mid-season Essanay. Edna’s character is also disappointing. She doesn’t outwardly rebel against her father pimping her for insurance money, and she doesn’t have the common sense to get out of a building her father is openly planning to burn down, and she ends up with Charlie solely because he gets there first. Not much agency there. Actually, the funniest person in this movie (in my opinion) is Leo White, who overacts insanely as the victim of a house fire, reminding one of a cross between Ford Sterling and a chicken with its head cut off. Particularly when he’s running up and down beside the fire engine, with Charlie trying to stop him at each pass, he’s the focus of action and laughter.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Leo White, Lloyd Bacon, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin

Run Time: 24 Min

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

The Floorwalker (1916)

Charlie Chaplin’s first film for Mutual Studios is a bit of a step backward from “Police,” in terms of character development, but it shows all the cinematic technique and physical skills that Charlie had mastered at this time.

Floorwalker_(poster)The movie opens on a department store, with shop clerks setting up displays and women competing for bargains. But, something odd is afoot in the upper office, where the manager (Eric Campbell) and his floorwalker (Lloyd Bacon, wearing Chaplin’s mustache and a more dressy outfit) are plotting to embezzle the profits. There are also a pair of detectives (one man, one woman) lurking about the place, apparently hoping to nab the thieves. Finally, a familiar “Little Tramp” wanders in and begins trying the samples put out for display. Charlie gives the impression that he regularly comes in to department stores for his morning toilette, as he samples soap, shaving cream, perfume…all under the watchful eye of the suspicious clerk. This distraction allows several well-dressed ladies to pilfer goods unobserved, and when Charlie wanders back over to the first table, there is nothing left but the wire rack with a sign that says “¢25.” He throws down a quarter and takes it. Suddenly, the clerk and the detective surround him, apparently believing that he took all the merchandise the ladies stole. Now begins a chase, the first of several, in which Charlie winds up on an escalator that never seems to go the direction he needs. He does get away, however, and winds up face-to-face with the floorwalker!

Floorwalker1Since they have identical mustaches and similar clothes, at first Charlie and Lloyd think that they are looking in a mirror. When they figure it out, Lloyd offers to change clothes (and identities) with Chaplin. Since he just knocked out the manager, he’s hoping to get out with the bag of stolen money. Of course, once he steps out the door, the police arrest him for being Charlie, and Charlie takes the bag. He tries to imitate the floorwalker, but arouses suspicion from several people; ultimately getting the detectives on his tail as he tries to run up (or down) the escalator again. Now, he finds the money, but he winds up back in the clutches of the manager, who mysteriously wants to kill him, thinking he’s the real floorwalker. The situation becomes increasingly chaotic, with people running in all directions and shots fired (?) from the balcony, but it ends with the manager captured by the detective, with the help of a descending elevator that crashes on his head.

Floorwalker2

The first thing that struck me about this movie (which I’ve seen before), was Lloyd Bacon doing what might be called the first “authorized” Chaplin imitation. By 1916, Chaplin was so popular that he was almost synonymous with the idea of comedy. As a result, silent comedians all over the world started dressing like him. Even Harold Lloyd (as we saw with “Luke’s Movie Muddle“) got his first starring roles doing an imitation of Chaplin’s act. Apart from that, there were many other, good and bad, and some unscrupulous distributors and theater owners would try to sell their imitations as if they were the real thing. I have to believe that Charlie was aware of this when he wrote and directed this piece, and that he was perhaps playing off the audience’s reaction when the first “Chaplin” they first saw on screen wasn’t him. After a round of “boos” and groans, imagine the applause when he first appears on screen for real! It’s a brilliant gimmick, which can only be appreciated in context.

Floorwalker3This also leads to what is probably the most “famous” part of the movie: the mirror sequence, which would later be imitated by comedy geniuses like Max Linder and the Marx Brothers (and “The Family Guy”). It’s a fairly short bit, here, but it does stand out as a very clever use of the double appearance of the two characters. The other part of the movie that seems to have been an influence is Charlie’s constant problems with the escalator (and, to a lesser degree, the elevator). It is symbolic of his character’s inability to cope with modern society and technology, and seems to prefigure both “Modern Times” and the later work of Jacques Tati (a huge Chaplin fan) in “Mon Oncle” and “Playtime.” However, although Charlie is not as violent as in his Keystone movies or early Essanay appearances, he still comes across as something of a troublemaker, less an innocent victim than the character we saw in “Police.” He seems to be trying to game the system when he takes advantage of the free samples, and he takes some pleasure in messing with the clerk and even the act of “buying” the wire rack seems to be calculated to be abrasive rather than logical. He does take on the new role out of a kind of desperation, but once in it, he takes pleasure in having revenge on the clerks and customers who had mistreated him before. I like Charlie in this movie, overall, but not quite as much as I liked him in “Police.”

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Lloyd Bacon, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin

Run Time: 24 Min

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

Police (1916)

Police_1916With this, I’ve reviewed every movie Charlie Chaplin made during his one-year tenure at Essanay Studios (there are still some outstanding Keystones still from 1914, but there were so many of those!). As a lot of folks know, Chaplin kept signing one-year contracts at studios, then asking for more money, and moving somewhere else when he didn’t get it. At the end of 1914, he asked $1000 a week from Keystone, and got offered $1200 a week from Essanay (plus a $10,000 bonus). At the end of that year, he asked for $150,000 just to sign, Essanay wouldn’t go that high, so he went to Mutual, which offered him $670,000 a year.

A man without a past.

A man without a past.

This movie was released in modified form by Essanay after Charlie left, but it survived in better shape than “Burlesque on Carmen,” which Chaplin repudiated as a hack job. It begins with Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” getting released from prison with 1$ in his pocket. We don’t know what he did to get punished, but we get the feeling it was petty larceny from his later behavior. He meets a street preacher, who offers to help him go straight. Charlie is moved to tears by his readings from the Bible, but fails to notice that the preacher steals his dollar. He passes a drunk with an expensive pocket watch, and is sorely tempted to steal it, but manages to resist. Then he goes to a fruit vendor and samples various fruits, discarding each after a single bite. The vendor demands that he pay, and now he realizes he has lost his money. When he goes back to look for it, he discovers that the preacher has also stolen the drunk’s watch. He attacks the next preacher he sees (not the same fellow), and a cop intercedes, chasing him away. Destitute, he heads to a flophouse in hope of getting a bed for the night, but he can’t even afford the dime to get in. He sees the manager let a tubercular man in for free, and tries faking a cough, only to be forcibly ejected.

Not the best burglars around.

Not the best burglars around.

Out on the streets again, Charlie is held up by a thug in an alley (Wesley Ruggles), but they quickly recognize one another as former cellmates. He agrees to help the thug burgle a wealthy-looking house. He tries to break in, but they are seen by a cop. Charlie knocks the cop out and tries the front door – it was open all along. The two partners go in and start trying to loot the place, but Charlie keeps making noise inadvertently and has some odd ideas what is worth stealing (at one point, he takes all the flowers out of the vases, and keeps the flowers). He has awoken Edna Purviance, the resident of the house, and she comes downstairs to investigate. When she finds the two men, she doesn’t care about losing valuables, but she begs them not to disturb her sick mother upstairs. Charlie agrees, and she provides the robbers with beer and sandwiches, but also takes an opportunity to call the police. Ruggles gets increasingly agitated, particularly when he notices her fancy rings, and demands to see what she has hidden upstairs. She again protests that her mother could die of shock if they went up there, but Ruggles tries to force his way past her. When he prepares to strike her, Charlie suddenly leaps to the rescue. The two men fight, and Charlie wins. Now the police arrive, finding their comrade unconscious on the porch, and break in. Ruggles escapes out a back window, but Charlie is too slow. Edna now intercedes and claims Charlie is her husband, so the cops leave, reluctantly, while Charlie lights up a cigar. Edna gives Charlie a little money and he promises to go straight, leaving the house a bit of a mess, but mostly no worse for wear.

Not the Keystone Kops, but a brilliant simulation.

Not the Keystone Kops, but a brilliant simulation.

This was easily my favorite Essanay Chaplin film, even though several others were good. Chaplin’s timing and physical stunts are perfect, and he makes “accidents” look like they really are happening without conscious effort, although in fact they are perfectly timed maneuvers. The camera is more mobile, and there are more close-ups than in earlier films, and time has been taken with the editing and multiple camera set-ups within scenes. Chaplin’s character is now fully sympathetic – when he does the “wrong” things it is out of necessity or frustration, not malice, and he shows an ability to make the “right” decisions when it really matters. The opening, which shows his release from the prison, establishes a theme in future Chaplin movies (up to “Modern Times’), that shows the Tramp in a transitional phase from being unable to fit into society to trying to “make good” in a world that has no kindness for him. When a rare person (like Edna) shows him decency, he returns it with decency, and shows that he isn’t bad, just lost and victimized by the world (like all of us).

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, Leo White, John Rand, Billy Armstrong, Snub Pollard, Bud Jamison

Run Time: 34 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music & 23 Min) or here (with music, but edited down to 15 Min)

A Night in the Show (1915)

Night_in_the_Show_(poster)For my final review of 2015, I’m looking at a wonderful New Year’s party-style picture with a drunk Charlie Chaplin in two highly disruptive roles. He goes out for a night’s entertainment, and winds up being more entertaining than anything on the stage.

Night_in_the_Show_(1915)

Except for maybe this guy

Charlie drops his “Little Tramp” outfit to appear as a more refined, but evidently inebriated fellow in a tuxedo, called “Mr. Pest” in the intertitles. Mr. Pest has a hard time distinguishing statues from people, and takes a while finding his seat, meanwhile pushing past large numbers of already-seated people. He lights his cigarette on the trombone player’s head and tosses the match into the trombone. He sits on several hats and drives people like Leo White out of the theater. Meanwhile, up in the balcony (the cheap seats), Mr. Rowdy, who looks like Chaplin in a Ben Turpin mustache, is drinking from a bottle, when he’s not spilling its contents all over the wealthier patrons sitting below. Mr. Pest finally winds up in a front box, along with a fat kid who has brought several pies to snack on. His proximity to the actors on stage gives him the opportunity to interact with them. At one point, the snake charmer allows several snakes to escape into the orchestra. At another, Mr. Rowdy uses first a barrage of rotten fruit and finally a fire hose to drive off a pair of bad singers (one of them is Bud Jamison). The hose goes everywhere and the whole audience gets drenched as well. The final shot is a close-up of Mr. Pest being showered from above by Mr. Rowdy.

Night in the ShowIt’s hard to give a description that really gets across the madcap hilarity and chaos of this picture. Chaplin’s two characters are complete madmen, but they are tolerated and finally appreciated by an audience driven to distraction by the terrible performances that are trotted out. Chaplin brought his full range of physical agility to bear for this; even as he appears to be stumbling drunk each movement is precisely timed and aimed to achieve maximum effect. His ability to switch between the two roles adds a degree of visual diversity to the movie, where with a single protagonist it might have dragged at points. The use of close-ups and editing is now established and honed.

Night in the Show3The whole movie is apparently derived from a vaudeville routine called “Mumming Birds,” which Chaplin performed for the Fred Karno Company before he began work in the movies. He had to re-write it, however, to change it enough to avoid being sued by Karno, so it can still be seen as a Chaplin original script, which built on the framework of the older routine. Parts of it were reused by Robert Downey, Jr. in the biopic “Chaplin,” which gives this piece a “familiar” feeling to someone of my generation, at least. It seems to me the most sophisticated of the many “funny drunk” movies Chaplin had done at this point, and apparently audiences agreed. Judging by the ads in film magazines from the end of 1915, this movie was held over and reissued many times, perhaps almost as many as “Burlesque on Carmen,” which Essanay released only after Chaplin had broken his contract and quit.

Night in the Show1Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Leo White, Bud Jamison, Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, Charles Inslee, John Rand

Run Time: 25 Min

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

Night in the Show2

Shanghaied (1915)

Shanghaied_(1915_film_SW_poster)With the year drawing to a close, it seems appropriate to return to a few of the groundbreaking shorts Charlie Chaplin contributed to Essanay in 1915. This one, released in October, represents some of the better work he did that year.

Shanghaied

Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” is in love, again. With Edna Purviance, again. Her father (Wesley Ruggles, this time) disapproves, again. The twist this time is that Daddy owns a boat, which he has decided is a liability, so he conspires with the ship’s captain and first mate to blow it up and collect the insurance. Charlie, trying to get a job and make good, is hired to “recruit” sailors for the ship. He hides in a barrel and cold-cocks each person that the mate (Bud Jamison). Once the crew is assembled, Charlie demands his pay, but the captain and the mate pull the same trick on him.

Shanghaied1The newly assembled “crew” is told its duties and abused, then thrown into the hold. Charlie tries to avoid this treatment by getting busy right away, but he goofs up and winds up in the hold. Charlie knocks several people, including the captain, into the ocean while trying to direct the crane to load the hold. He gets taken on by the cook as an assistant in the galley and there are a variety of funny sequences with him dropping a sponge in the soup, breaking plates, and generally being unable to serve food in the rolling sea. When it comes time for him to eat, he gets seasick. Now we learn that Edna Purviance has stowed away on board. She and Charlie meet up, but the bad guys have already lit the dynamite. Her father finds a note and races to meet the boat in a motorboat. Charlie throws the bomb into the lifeboat the bad guys are using to get away, then gets into the motorboat with Edna and her father, ultimately kicking the father into the water and speeding away, happy.

Shanghaied2This is a fairly violent and perhaps “vulgar” (to use the word critics bandied about at the time) example of Charlie’s slapstick, but it has a number of good laughs and gags that he hadn’t used up to this point. We are getting used to seeing the style of editing Chaplin developed from Keystone and refined in his year at Essanay, and he is now comfortable using close-ups to emphasize reactions and promote sympathy in the audience. Charlie also does a funny bit where he “salutes” the captain, but (seemingly by mistake) puts his thumb to his nose as he does so. This seems to represent his comedic rejection of authority even while bowing to it. I felt that it moved faster than the similar two-reel comedies he released earlier in the year and was a good representation of the higher aspirations he had for his artistry: just getting the boat had to be a major budget item for an Essanay comedy short.

Shanghaied3Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Bud Jamison, Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, Billy Armstrong, Leo White

Run Time: 27 Min

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

The Bank (1915)

With “The Tramp,” it seemed Charlie Chaplin turned a corner in his comic career. With this Essanay short movie, he finally seems committed to the new direction. His character is more sympathetic and less intentionally violent, he is still clumsy and awkward, but more lovable, and where he does use violence, it is mostly in self-defense or in a good cause.

Bank_(1915_film)Charlie arrives at a bank in “Little Tramp” get up. It seems as though he is someone of importance, as he moves confidently through this space usually restricted to those in power. He reaches a giant safe and opens the door, to reveal a mop, bucket, and janitor’s uniform. At last, we understand his position in the institution. He goes to “work” mopping floors, in the process hitting employees and customers with his mop several times. His mop drips into a stovepipe hat of a wealthy customer which has been left on the floor while he sits in an easy chair. The man yells at Charlie to stop, and he politely hands him his hat…the owner puts it on and receives a deluge of dirty, soapy water. Charlie proceeds to get into a competition with his fellow janitor (Billy Armstrong), one cleaning the president’s outer office, the other the inner. They continually sweep their junk from one side to the other until there is a massive mess, made all the worse when Charlie turns a fan so it blows sheets of paper from the president’s desk to the floor.

Bank1Meanwhile, stenographer Edna Purviance arrives and she is carrying a wrapped gift and a flower. Charlie gets nosy and finds it is addressed to “Charles.” The lovely young secretary is in love with him! We soon learn that this is wrong, there is a teller named “Charles” (Carl Stockdale) whom Edna loves. Charlie rushes out to get her a bouquet of flowers, leaving a note on her desk. She thinks it’s from her Charles, of course, and thanks him, but he denies sending them. He looks at the note and tells her it’s from the janitor. She then throws away Charlie’s flowers while he watches from outside the office door. Heartbroken, Charlie heads downstairs to engage in a little more slapstick competition with Armstrong, then goes to the janitors’ station and clutches what remains of the flowers as he naps. Suddenly, a gang of robbers enters the bank, threatening all the workers and demanding to be let in to the vault. The others comply, and just as the bandits are going to force Edna into the vault, Charlie awakens and goes into action. Using all his slapstick kicks and trips, he turns the tables on the robbers, knocking two of them into the safe and closing it. Then, carrying the fainted Edna over his shoulder, he disarms the other bank robbers and saves the day. Edna awakes and kisses him…And suddenly he awakes and finds himself kissing his mop. It has all been a dream, and he kicks his sad little flowers away to symbolize moving on.

BankMuch has been made about the use of close-ups in this movie, and especially the close-up of Charlie as he watches Edna tear up his note and throw his flowers in the garbage. I don’t actually think there are more close-ups here than in previous Essanay comedies shot by Harry Ensign, or closer ones, or technically “better” ones. The difference is in Charlie’s acting. He’s finally figured out the power that the close-up gives to allow an actor to share a complex series of emotions with an audience, to make them really identify with the character and feel what he is feeling. Maybe because he was directing himself, he was able to “get” this before most other actors or directors did. You see some hints of it with Griffith and Gish, for example, but more often in the context of a simpler emotion such as fear or ecstasy. Charlie lets his face play out a scene here, something I don’t think I’ve seen another actor do up to this point.

Bank2The fantasy sequence makes a very interesting contrast to “The Tramp” as well, where Charlie actually does save Edna and her father from robbers, but loses her anyway. In both cases, the audience gets to enjoy the sense of heroism from the character they now sympathize with. Whereas in Charlie’s “park” movies, his violence is random and hard to justify, here he is able to use physical comedy and violence in a cause we feel comfortable with – these characters clearly deserve what they get. In both cases, this adds to the suffering we feel when his “reward” is taken away from him. Note that the assumption of receiving love as a “reward” for heroic acts takes the human agency away from the female character in this situation, making her an object of love rather than a participant – and it’s a familiar narrative in fairy tales, novels, and many other cultural forms. But Chaplin-as-director returns that agency to the woman, forcing Chaplin-as-Tramp (and the audience) to accept her power, however painful that misdirection may be for him (and us). Misdirection is now the key to both Charlie’s comedy (as in the opening, where we think Charlie is in charge of the bank, but discover him to be the janitor) and his more “tragic” or serious acting.

Bank3As a final note, it’s interesting that in this movie Charlie spends most of the running time out of his familiar costume, wearing a reasonably well-fitted uniform as a janitor. We’ve become so used to the iconic look that he doesn’t need to rely on it anymore. His mustache is enough to signal us to his persona, and it is the consistent thread that carries us through here, as it is in the “Burlesque on Carmen.”

Director: Charles Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Charles Inslee, Billy Armstrong, Carl Stockdale

Run Time: 26 Min

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

A Woman (1915)

Doesn't look like rain...

Doesn’t look like rain…

Charlie Chaplin’s classic Keystone formula of “A girl, a park, and a policeman” gets his more sophisticated Essanay treatment, before taking a sudden turn into cross-dressing and gender bending relationships. This may have been one of the movies Sime Silverman thought was “dirty” or “vulgar,” but for slapstick fans, it’s hard to top.

 

This begins with a happy family in the park – father (Charles Inslee), mother (Marta Golden), and grown daughter (Edna Purviance), gently snoozing in the shade of a tree. Mother snores, so father can’t sleep, and thus is awake when a pretty girl (Margie Reiger) walks by and waves. Father pursues her, and she shows an interest, even though he’s clearly married. He goes to get them sodas from a nearby vendor, and along comes the “Little Tramp,” walking over garden hoses and thinking that it’s raining. He takes an interest in the girl, who is as happy with one guy as another. Then the father hits him with a bottle and chases him off. There are more escapades, and for a while the father is blindfolded in a game of “hide and seek,” giving Charlie an opportunity for revenge and to push his adversary into the lake. He then finds Edna and mother and, away from the father, is able to impress them enough to get an invitation back to the home. He does his little “tea party” routine for them and is getting into their good graces when father comes home. He’s ready to put his best foot forward, but Inslee recognizes him and a fight breaks out, during which Charlie’s pants are torn off, revealing typical striped comic long johns. He runs upstairs, looking for clothes, and comes across a dummy in a white dress. A lightbulb goes off over his head. With Edna’s help, Charlie is able to get into the dress and some decent shoes (and shave his famous moustache). He again begins a flirtation with the father and the father’s friend (Billy Armstrong), and tricks the two of them into kissing one another. Finally, the father figures it out, but Chaplin promises to keep everything from his wife in exchange for his blessing to see Edna. It looks like all is well, but Inslee has the last laugh.

Woman1Apparently, this was the last time Chaplin appeared in drag. I’ve talked about one of the other examples in “The Masquerader” and there’s also “A Busy Day,” which I haven’t gotten to, yet. In those terms, I think he did better in “A Masquerader,” where I had to watch twice to figure out that it was him. However, this movie works better overall than that one, in part because Chaplin really does take some time to be sympathetic and lovable, as opposed to just flirtatious and violent. I think this is one of the best “park” sequences I’ve seen – and Chaplin’s character really does show a decided duality between his behavior toward the boorish father versus the pleasant mother and daughter. He’s really only in drag for the final three minutes of the movie, although he does flirt with mistaken-gender identity during the blind-man’s-bluff routine. Other comedians (notably Fatty Arbuckle and Julian Eltinge) got a lot more mileage out of gender-bending than Charlie did, and I don’t get the feeling that he was entirely comfortable with it, but it’s worth seeing him do it to the best of his ability.

Woman2Technically, this movie is at the standard we’ve come to expect in Essanay comedies of the time. This movie comes about halfway through his contract with Essanay, and like others of the period, makes good use of close-ups, tight editing, and realistic lighting. The action is fast paced and highly reliant on timing, and Charlie pulls off some very nice stunts and good uses of his cane as a weapon or prop.

Woman3Director: Charles Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Charles Inslee, Billy Armstrong, Marta Golden, Margie Reiger

Run Time: 26 Min

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

Work (1915)

In this Charlie Chaplin short from Essanay, Chaplin returns to a somewhat more nuanced, sympathetic performance while still sticking to the familiar tropes of slapstick: violence, revenge, flirtation, and people slipping and falling down.

Work1We are introduced to a family of husband (Billy Armstrong), wife (Marta Golden), and maid (Edna Purviance), who are expecting contractors to come and finish the wall-paper-hanging in their rather cramped-looking mansion. The husband is annoyed because he can’t go into the living room (everything is being boxed up for the work to be done) and his breakfast is late). The wife is still in her bedclothes, and she and the maid work hard at getting things ready before the arrival of the contractors. These, we see, are Charlie Chaplin and his boss Charles Inslee, who is “driving” Chaplin as a kind of rickshaw-rider with all of their equipment piled into an oversized cart. After several near-misses with streetcars, Charlie manages to get the contraption up the hill to the house. Then, of course, they proceed to ruin the room they are meant to be working on, getting glue and paper everywhere. Meanwhile, Charlie flirts with the maid and tells her his sad life story. Then, he wrecks her room as well for good measure. Now, a mysterious fop (Leo White) shows up and presents flowers to the wife, who tries to cover for him, claiming he’s one of the workers. The husband, still suspicious finds the flowers with Charlie and goes for his gun. He shoots wildly, chasing the gigolo around the house until he hits a gas line and makes the oven explode. The household is covered in rubble, Charlie decided to hide out in the oven.

Work4My own reaction to this movie, which came out after “By the Sea,” is that it was a bit of a step back towards the sympathy and subtlety of “The Tramp,” while still full of classic slapstick gags. The situation of workers in the domestic setting is a classic one for physical comedy, and has been done dozens of times. The situation is inherently invasive, and often while the work proceeds, one’s house begins to look like a disaster zone and one wonders if it will ever be put right. Opportunities for physical mishaps abound. Many of us live in fear of having contractors like these, and that’s part of where the everyman humor of the situation is so recognizable. One good bit that stood out to me was when the wife realized that she had left the good silver out in the room where Charlie & Charlie are working, and rushes in to put it in the safe. They look at each other, and take out their pocket watches, carefully placing them in Chaplin’s pocket and then sealing it shut with a safety pin. A great working-class comeuppance to middle class snobbery. The sequence in which Inslee drives Chaplin like a mule has also been suggested to have class war implications vis-à-vis management and labor.

Work2This time I’d also like to take a moment to look at contemporary reactions. This quote is from Variety, review by Sime Silverman: “This Essanay release of the Charlie Chaplin picture for this week is Work in two reels. It is the usual Chaplin work of late, mussy, messy, and dirty. Chaplin has found that the public will stand for his picture comedy of the worst kind, and he is giving them the worst kind, although as an excellent pantomimist, with a reserve of decent comedy, Chaplin must have decided the time to put his other brand upon the screen is when his present style of ‘humor’ shall have ceased to be in demand. The Censor Board is passing matter in the Chaplin films that could not possibly get by in other pictures. Never anything dirtier was placed upon the screen than Chaplin’s ‘Tramp,’ and while this may have been objected to by the censors, it merely taught Chaplin what to avoid and how far to go. Work, however, is not nearly so offensive excepting that it is disgusting at many points, but since the audience will laugh there is no real cause for complaint.” That’s quite the review! Incidentally, Silverman continued to review Chaplin in this vein, but gradually mellowed and came to admit that some of his work was good.

Dirty? Disgusting?

Dirty? Disgusting?

Because I’d read the review, I kept an eye out for “dirty” and “disgusting” parts to the film. It is dirty, in the sense that a lot of people get slapped with glue or get some other kind of mess on them. But disgusting? Like I said, the wife runs around in her nightgown and she seems to have a lover who visits in the middle of the day. Oh, and Chaplin sits on a bed with Edna while telling her of his tough life. I guess that could be disgusting? I don’t know, I’m trying to understand the mores of the time, but I’m not sure I quite get why the Censor Board had let something unusual pass here, compared to the racy melodramas of Cecil B. DeMille, for example.

Work3

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Charles Inslee, Billy Armstrong, Marta Golden, Leo White

Run Time: 29 Min

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

By the Sea (1915)

By_the_Sea_(1915_film)_posterWith this one-reel comedy made at Essanay, Charlie Chaplin returned to the plotless violence of his Keystone work, right after finishing his opus “The Tramp,” which had showed how much more he could do with the character. Although this may be a slight disappointment for those who want Charlie to take himself seriously as an artist, it is nevertheless a strong example of his powerful physical comedy and capacity for clowning.

A blustery day.

A blustery day.

On a windy day at a seaside resort, the “Little Tramp” has wisely tied his hat to a string so he won’t lose it. Unfortunately, another tourist (Billy Armstrong, who I mistook for Ben Turpin at first) has thought of the same thing, and their strings get hopelessly tangled. After a few pratfalls and mix-ups, Chaplin destroys the other man’s hat, precipitating a fight. They manage to make up after a policeman intervenes and the two knock out the cop and go off for ice cream (the ice cream clerk is Snub Pollard). Then another fight breaks out over who should pay, and of course both ice cream cones are smashed into faces. This brings big Bud Jamison into the scene, as an unintentional ice cream casualty. His wife is Edna Purviance, and of course Charlie takes advantage of opportunities to flirt with her. For once, she is not all that responsive and eventually Bud comes over to chase Charlie, who then finds Billy’s wife sitting alone and tries to flirt with her as well. The other two men discover what is happening and insert themselves on the bench between Charlie and his love-interests. Charlie tips over the bench and everyone falls over. The end.

Edna's not having it.

Edna’s not having it.

Even by Chaplin one-reel standards, this is not very sophisticated stuff, but I had a good time watching it and was glad it didn’t overstay its welcome. I laughed quite a bit, especially during the “hat fight,” when it was clear that neither man would be able to walk away with his own hat without the strings tangling again. This is a very “simple” effect that worked really well – if the strings had accidentally become untangled during a take, the whole thing would have been ruined. I’m inclined to believe that the wind was real, not an effect, and it even seems possible that a windy day at the beach was the inspiration for the whole film, which was shot, we are told, at Ocean Front Walk and Abbott Kinney Pier in Venice, California (remember that the first “Little Tramp” movie, “Kid Auto Races,” also used a Venice location). Billy Armstrong acquitted himself well in this movie, at least as well as any of Charlie’s usual foils, and Bud Jamison is clearly comfortable in the comic “big man” role at this point. I’ve compared him in the past to Mack Swain, but I think I’ve now seen more of Jamison in this role than Swain, it’s just that Swain was in “The Gold Rush” and hence became famous. The major technical difference between this and the Keystone period, is the frequent use of close-ups, especially on Chaplin, which does make it seem a bit “warmer” in tone.This movie demonstrates that Charlie didn’t “grow up” overnight, but kept experimenting in the slapstick style through his early development.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Billy Armstrong, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Snub Pollard, Ernest Van Pelt

Run Time: 14 Min

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