Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Eric Campbell

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).