Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Harry Ensign

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.

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)

A Jitney Elopement (1915)

Jitney_Elopement_(poster)Released only days before “The Tramp,” this Essanay comedy starring Charlie Chaplin seems to show him starting to get his bearings after a few middling efforts at the new studio. While it may not – quite – be classic on the same level as the better-known release, it definitely shows both his developing directorial talents and his natural comedic ability.

Jitney Elopement2Frequent co-star Edna Purviance is in a quandary. Her father is determined to marry her to an impoverished French nobleman (who appears in the Intertitles as “Count Chloride du Lime” or sometimes “de Lime”). She secretly loves Charlie, though it is unclear how the two met, and requests him to “rescue” her. He immediately goes to the front door and tells the butler to announce him as the Count! This is enough to get him a free drink and an opportunity to swipe cigars, and then the father invites him to dine with him and his daughter. At this point things start going wrong. Charlie clearly lacks the social graces, accidentally puts a sugar cube in his soup, eats beans off the edge of his knife, and has a very difficult time cutting his meat. As coffee is served, the “real” Count (who looks every bit the imposter as well) turns up, and the father angrily turns Charlie out. The Count takes Edna out to the park to try to woo her despite her obvious lack of enthusiasm, and Charlie finds them there. A slapstick running battle now breaks out, involving Charlie, the Count, Edna’s father, and two dopey policemen who jump out of the bushes at a comic moment. Having emerged more or less victorious, Charlie takes Edna down to the road and makes off with her and the Count’s car (the “Jitney” of the title). The father and Count pursue in another vehicle, and another madcap chase begins. It ends with one car going into the Bay, and the lovers kissing discreetly in the land-bound survivor.

Jitney ElopementThis movie was shot in San Francisco, and the park used is recognizably Golden Gate. During the car chase, anyone who has been to the beach at Golden Gate will recognize the windmills seen in the background of the car chase. What’s more fascinating is the dirt roads, apparently in that same vicinity, and the paucity of buildings alongside them. This is less than ten years after the 1906 Earthquake, of course, but I don’t think the under-developed look is due to lack of reconstruction. It appears that the area was still sparsely populated at this time. The Jitney is today mostly associated with early motorized taxicab operations, but this one appears to belong to the Count as a personal-use vehicle. Much of the humor of the chase comes from Charlie’s needing to get out and crank it up every now and again.

Jitney Elopement1Technically, the movie again confirms the development of Chaplin’s standards after he left Keystone studios. The camera is frequently placed much closer, so that the audience can plainly see Charlie’s and the other actor’s faces, not necessarily their full bodies. In fact, the camera is closer throughout much of this movie than in “The Birth of a Nation” or other 1915 movies praised for their innovations. The editing is also particularly good, and keeps the high speed chase working well. Cutaways sometimes make use of reaction shots, as when the two cops attempt to stop the Jitney by holding a rope across its path and are dragged behind it. We see most of this through Charlie’s reactions, only catching the beginning and end of the action. The scene of the dinner reminds me of gags Charlie would use later, for example in “The Gold Rush” (there are no dancing bread rolls, however). Edna isn’t quite up to Mabel Normand’s level as a leading lady, for me, though. She mostly looks on as Charlie and her father fight, and only seems to follow Charlie’s lead rather than taking action for herself.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Ernest Van Pelt, Leo White, Lloyd Bacon, Bud Jamison

Run Time: 26 Min

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

The Champion (1915)

Champion_1915Movies and boxing have gone together since the birth of American cinema. Boxing also lends itself to precisely the kind of physical comedy associated with slapstick, so it’s no surprise that Charlie Chaplin returned to the theme more than once in his career. The first time was in “The Knockout,” which is really a Fatty Arbuckle film that Charlie appeared in as a supporting character, but because of his higher name value, it tends to be associated with Charlie instead (See Silentology for another discussion of “The Knockout”). Less than a year later, and at another studio, Charlie made his first appearance as a headliner in a boxing comedy.

Champion1Slightly longer, “The Champion” has a somewhat simpler plot than “The Knockout.” We open on Charlie with a pet bulldog, apparently down on his heels, but sharing a hot dog with his companion. A bit later, Charlie finds a “good luck” horseshoe just as he passes Spike Dugan’s (Ernest van Pelt) training quarters, which is advertising for a boxing partner “who can take a punch.” After watching others lose, Charlie puts the horseshoe in his glove and wins. The trainer prepares Charlie to fight the world champion, Bob Uppercut, played by Bud Jamison, who still seems to me to be filling Mack Swain’s shoes. A gambler (Leo White) wants Charlie to throw the fight, but Charlie knocks him out and takes his money anyway. He and the trainer’s daughter (Edna Purviance, once again, who seems to be dressing as a boy to sneak into the fights as Minta Durfee did in “The Knockout”) meet and fall in love. At the big fight, Ben Turpin takes on Charlie’s former role as the referee, and winds up getting hit about as often as the fighters. Broncho Billy Anderson, co-owner of Essanay Studios, is rumored to be in the fight audience, but I didn’t spot him based on the one Broncho Billy movie I’ve been able to see so far.

Champion2The opening of the movie, with Charlie and the dog, gives us a chance to identify with the “Little Tramp” more than we ever did when he was at Keystone, and, indeed, the character is cuter and more appealing, even if he is cheating at boxing and apparently robbing gamblers. The longer run time seemed to be handled better in this movie than in “A Night Out,” in part because the whole “training” storyline obviously points to a climax in the ring. Once we get there, all the stops are pulled out and ever single gag you can think of is thrown in. Each time the fighters go at it, something different happens. I was delightedly surprised, for example, when they “hugged” each other and danced, rather than hitting. Still, where “The Knockout” confuses people with so many things going in rapid-fire, “The Champion” at times seems drawn-out, with the gags getting in the way of forward motion of the plot.

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Shall we dance?

In terms of film making, this movie is still at a fairly simple level. Scenes are generally taken from a straight-on camera angle with little internal cutting. Occasionally, close-ups are used to emphasize Charlie’s emotional state. Cross-cutting, between the audience and the boxing ring, helps to liven up the fight sequence. All of the actors, except Edna, get a chance to show off their athleticism, and the dog puts in a good performance as well, attacking Jamison and biting the seat of his pants at a critical moment. During the “love scenes,” Charlie holds a large jug of beer up to insure Edna and him some privacy.

ChampionDirector: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Ben Turpin, Leo White, Ernest van Pelt, Broncho Billy Anderson, Lloyd Bacon

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Tramp (1915)

shorts-marion

This is my contribution to the Shorts Blogathon being hosted by Movies Silently. Take a look at what the other bloggers have contributed to this event, especially if you enjoy shorter movies. (Ironically, at over 26 minutes, this is the longest movie I’ve written about in a week – but it still counts!)

I will begin with a hazy anecdote. If I remember correctly, this was the first silent movie I ever saw. I remember a friend’s birthday party, a 16mm projector, and an adult who was very excited about showing Charlie Chaplin films to small children. Funny enough, I don’t remember whether we laughed out loud or sat in confused silence. I do remember feeling sad at the ending.

The_Tramp_(film)

And that, at least, was an appropriate reaction, because “The Tramp,” famously, is where Chaplin’s famous character began to show some sympathetic traits, and to represent the “little man” in his struggle to survive in a world he doesn’t fit in to. Previous Chaplins often made the Little Tramp out to be more aggressive, somewhat less appealing, or drunkenly foolish. There would sometimes be moments of sympathy, but these would often be undercut by the motives of revenge or the general chaos of the slapstick situation. The Little Tramp we see in “The Tramp” is far more human and easier to identify with, even if one wonders how long it’s been since he showered and whether inviting him into the house is such a good idea.

The story begins with Charlie walking along a roadside, being knocked over as some cars go by, then pulling out a whisk broom from his pocket to dust himself off, to good comedic effect. Already, we get the sense of a man who is a) homeless and b) eccentric, as well as his inability to cope with the modern world, in the form of the automobiles. Soon, he encounters Edna Purviance, a farmer’s daughter, who is being set upon by a robber, who wants to take the money she got from her father to go to market. Charlie, wielding his hobo’s bindle, is able to drive the man off and protect her. But, it turns out that there are two other robbers nearby, each a bit taller and meaner-looking than the last. Charlie takes them out one at a time, then accidentally sits in their campfire, and must run about in search of water to put out his flaming pants. The slapstick here is fast and thick, with only one intertitle interrupting the action, to make sure we know that the robbers’ motive is money, not something more salacious.

Purviance and Chaplin were said to be romantically involved at the time (they never married, which may have been the best thing all around, given how Charlie’s marriages tended to go badly). Their apparent attraction for each other, particularly his for her, helps drive the movie forward. The Little Tramp likes this girl, and is more interested in her than her money. That’s the only motivation we need to understand his actions for the duration of the film, and it’s entirely believable. We see them at mid-shot as each is introduced, giving us a chance to feel close to them, but most of the acting is broad and farcical, so we don’t need, or get, intense close-ups on faces. This is not high drama, but pure comedy.

Tramp1

Chaplin returns with the girl to the farm, and her father offers him a job. It’s clear that Charlie isn’t used to physical labor, and knows nothing about farms or farm animals, but he takes the job to be close to the girl. He is a menace to the father and the farm-hand, especially when he has dangerous devices like pitchforks, candles, or heavy bags of flour in his hand. He is completely clueless how to milk a cow (and it does take a bit of expertise, speaking as a city-kid who has learned the skill), and has a tendency to break chicken eggs so that they run down his leg, or someone else’s face.

This sequence, which I’ll call the “Second Act” for the sake of simple shorthand, is pure slapstick. We only have a brief scene with Charlie and the girl together, and she seems to want him to succeed, but doesn’t offer more than encouragement. He is lucky not to get fired or beaten up with all the times he inadvertently injures his boss and his co-worker. The camera has moved out to a standard stage distance, generally showing the full body of the actor and some space to either side, but, as with the old Keystones, the different sets would interact, so that a bag of flour thrown from one set is bound to crash into someone in the set next door or below. The editing is critical here, and I think Charlie, or his editor at Essanay, improves the on pacing that Keystone had established. Things are just fast enough to be funny, and they come thick and fast enough to keep the funny building, pausing only when the audience needs a break from laughing so much.

Tramp_poster

In the “Third Act,” the robbers show up on the farm and hold Charlie up with a gun, insisting that he help with their planned heist of the joint. Charlie agrees. He’s no hero, at least not to the point that he’ll get shot to prove a point. Once he’s in his bedroom, he sees to it that there’s a ladder up to his window, and he finds a large mallet to fight the robbers. After some more erroneous comedy pratfalls with the farmer and the farmhand, the fight begins in earnest. Charlie saves the farm and the farmer gets his shotgun and drives off the terrified robbers. This sequence follows the standards now established, and we don’t see the girl again until after it’s all over. Note that, although Charlie and his co-worker are going to bed (and carrying a candle), there’s no effort to show night time through the lighting. It was all shot in broad daylight, which makes it possible for the audience to see everything that happens and keep track of who hits who, even though the characters are often confused about this.

The final piece, which I’ll call an “Epilogue” rather than a 4th Act, is where the girl’s handsome boyfriend shows up, and Charlie’s heart is broken. He writes a tearful and poorly-spelled note, and goes off to seek his fortune elsewhere. Once on the road, however, he breaks into a jaunty walk that suggests he’s already gotten over her and accepted his lot in life, and the freedom that comes with it. This is where he belongs.

Every source I’ve read online and off identifies the character who shows up at the end as “Edna’s fiancé,” so I guess he is, but it struck me as I watched that no character ever confirms this. It could be the classic comedy situation of the long-lost brother or cousin who is mistaken for a boyfriend. Just a personal observation, I don’t know that it changes anything about the movie.

This warning from Essanay Studios about pirated Chaplin films appeared in Moving Picture World, Oct, 16 1915.

This warning from Essanay Studios about pirated Chaplin films appeared in Moving Picture World, Oct, 16 1915.

By the end of 1914, Charlie Chaplin was known in Nickelodeons all over the US and was becoming a major star. The year 1915, though, was what really made him. This is the year that his name and image became known all over the world, and people wanted all the Chaplin they could get. He was so popular that people started imitating him, with various degrees of success, and certain shadier distributors started duping and re-editing his old movies with new titles to try to get in on the profit. Soon the concept of a “genuine Chaplin” was important to exhibitors, who wanted to keep their Chaplin-obsessed patrons happy. This movie was a big part of starting the craze.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Lloyd Bacon, Leo White, Bud Jamison, Ernest Van Pelt

Run Time: 26 Min, 40 seconds

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