Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Helen Carruthers

The New Janitor (1914)

This short from Charlie Chaplin’s days at Keystone has a number of elements that we would expect to see in his later work – including a coherent plot and a sympathetic portrayal of his protagonist. Clearly by this point, Charlie was ready to go in some new directions.

The movie begins with Charlie in a somewhat more working-class version of his “Little Tramp” outfit in the lobby of a large urban building, chatting with elevator operator Al St. John. When a passenger gets into Al’s elevator, he quickly goes aboard and closes the doors in Charlie’s face, forcing him to walk up to the top floor, 13 flights above. Meanwhile, in one of the offices on that floor, a clerk (John T. Dillon) reads a note threatening him for gambling debts. Charlie goes in to clean that office, and there are some humorous exchanges between them as Charlie keeps spilling the wastebasket. Then Charlie goes in to clean the president’s office, where there is a large wall safe (and, oddly, a spittoon). While he’s in there the secretary arrives for work and Charlie shyly tries to flirt with her, but she seems barely aware of his existence (how most people treat janitors). The thug (Glen Cavender) arrives, and the clerk promises to have is money later that day, but the secretary hears some of their conversation and becomes concerned. Charlie attempts washing the windows, and has several near-miss falls out the window, due to his clumsiness. He does manage to drop his bucket, which falls on the head of the president (Jess Dandy) as he arrives. This results in his being fired. Once again, Al refuses him a ride and Charlie walks down the steps.

Now the clerk comes into the president’s office and keeps glancing at the safe while giving the president some papers to sign. He waits until the president and the secretary have gone out (perhaps to lunch) and starts rummaging through the safe, but the secretary comes in unexpectedly and is even more suspicious. She tricks him into thinking she’s left again and hides, seeing him take money out of the safe before he notices her and attacks her. She manages to push an emergency button – the one to summon the janitor! Charlie is just about ready to leave when the call comes, but he slowly makes his way up the stairs again, perhaps hoping that the president has had a change of heart. By the time he arrives, the clerk is holding a gun on the secretary and she is passed out on the floor. He overpowers the clerk with a few quick slapstick moves and manages to cover him with the gun, making the larger man pick up the secretary and then discovering that he has cut the phone line. Now he shoots out the window to summon help and a nearby policeman hears the shooting. The president and the policeman arrive to see the janitor holding up the clerk, but the secretary has revived now and explains what really happened. Charlie is exonerated, the clerk is arrested, and the president gives him a sizable cash reward that makes Charlie swoon a bit.

There are obvious similarities between this movie and some of Charlie’s later work, most obviously “The Bank” in which he also plays a janitor who foils a robbery, but also “The Floorwalker” in which there is an embezzlement plot. No doubt he wanted to return to this story line as it was one of the few “original” stories he made at Keystone and he wanted to see what he could add to it with the greater resources and experience he had as his career progressed. The biggest comedy sequence is really the window-washing scene, which reminded me of the work of Harold Lloyd, who would hang from similar buildings in several films, most famously “Safety Last.” In the shot where Charlie is hanging out of the window, I noticed several people on lower floors looking up at the camera, perhaps Chaplin fans hoping to get a glimpse of the star, or else just bored office workers fascinated by the movie-making process. This shot is somewhat unusual for a Keystone movie, as it required the camera to be fixed to the side of the building and presumably the cameraman, Frank D. Williams, had to be hanging out of a window or standing on a ledge in order to hand-crank the film. The movie also makes good use of cross-cutting to build suspense throughout the robbery sequence, both as the secretary figures out what is going on and as Charlie comes to the rescue. Cross-cutting was hardly unknown at Keystone, of course, we saw it put to comedic effect as early as “A Little Hero” and “Bangville Police,” but it doesn’t show up in many of Chaplin’s “park” comedies and is rarely used this well when it does. It’s interesting also that Charlie didn’t try to deepen the romantic subplot between himself and the secretary – I think wisely, because it would have been hard to develop convincingly in a single reel – where his interest in Edna Purviance is central to “The Bank.” That secretary is a bit of a mystery – imdb lists her as Peggy Page, Wikipedia claims it is Helen Carruthers, and both The Silent Era and the Chaplin Film by Film blog say it’s Minta Durfee. Usually I’d regard them as the more authoritative, but it doesn’t look like Minta to me (look at the nose!), so I’m stumped.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Al St. John, Glen Cavender, Jess Dandy, John T. Dillon, Frank Hayes, and an unidentified woman.

Run Time: 12 Min

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

Recreation (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin short from Keystone is badly damaged and presumably partly lost, but enough of it has been salvaged to at least recognize it as a separate film from other movies of the time. Watching it is more of an exercise in film archaeology than an act of entertainment.

The movie begins on a park bench. A girl (Helen Carruthers) is sitting next to a man in sailor’s suit (Charles Bennett), but the man has fallen asleep, possibly from drink. Disgusted, the girl gets up and walks away. Next, we see Chaplin in his “Little Tramp” outfit on a bridge nearby. He checks his pocket for change and flip a coin, then makes a comic effort to climb over the railing on the bridge (to commit suicide?) but he does a pratfall instead. He seems to be doing calisthenics at the railing when the girl walks by. They smile at one another, he gives the river the raspberry, then follows her to another bench. However, she shows no interest in his advances, and keeps moving further down the bench to get away from him. Eventually, the sailor wakes up and finds himself alone. He finds Charlie and Helen on the bench, with her expressing considerable distress at this time, so he fights Chaplin off. Chaplin runs to a nearby bush and begins pulling up bricks from the side of the path to throw at the sailor. The sailor retaliates, and soon bricks are flying, hitting Charlie, Helen, the sailor, and two nearby policemen (Edwin Frazee and Edward Nolan). The policemen spot the sailor throwing bricks, but not Charlie, who plays innocent. The sailor tries to finger Charlie for one cop, while the other “comforts” Helen. Charlie knocks over the cop and the sailor and makes a run for it. The sailor and the cop start fighting and soon bricks are flying again. Charlie finds the girl again, over by the lake into which so many Keystone players have tumbled, and she knocks him over once, but they both laugh about it. The sailor runs over and Charlie knocks him into the lake. The two cops, now struggling with each other, sort things out and come over to challenge Charlie. He pushes them both in the lake, and Helen shoves him, but he grabs her as he goes over and everyone winds up in the drink.

I usually pronounce this film “ree-creation” (rather than “wreck-creation”), because it is sort of like a re-creation of a movie with a lot of missing elements. Enough of it exists for us to see that it is a typical “park comedy” of the type Chaplin frequently starred in at Keystone, but it’s hard to know how much is missing. Since Charlie was mostly doing one-or-two-reelers at the time, and what we have is about half a reel, it’s likely that more than half of it is missing. That said, there’s more or less a beginning, a middle, and an end here, so maybe we don’t need much more. Possibly just an intertitle to explain Charlie at the bridge and another at the beginning would clear things up adequately. The Tramp in this movie is hardly a nice person – he’s the first to throw a brick, for example – but it could be that his attempted suicide was an effort on Chaplin’s part to make him sympathetic. Charlie does some nice slapstick moves, including his fall at the bridge and his tripping of the sailor and police officer, but this isn’t one of his great triumphs, physically or emotionally.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Helen Carruthers, Charles Bennett, Edwin Frazee, Edward Nolan

Run Time: 6 Min, 20 secs

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

The Property Man (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin short has elements in common with later films, like “Back Stage” starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, though all of them probably drew from Vaudeville routines as their sources. It shows both the roughness of Chaplin’s early work, and the rapidity with which he developed.

Charlie is a stage hand for a popular theater with a variety show. The opening shot shows him taking a break with an elderly co-worker (I think it’s Joe Bordeaux). Charlie is drinking out of a large pitcher, and when the old man reaches for it, Charlie twists his ear and spits out what is in his mouth at the man. We see the arrival of some stars (Phyllis Allen and Charles Bennett) who are angry to find that their act is not billed on the poster outside, although they insist on trying to take the “star’s” dressing room – which is reserved for the strong man (Jess Dandy), who is only too happy to show them the door when he gets there. Charlie sits under a “no smoking” sign, smoking a pipe, although  he eagerly points it out to the actors when thy light up. When the strong man lights a cigar, Charlie discreetly turns the sign toward the wall.  Naturally, the strong man has a lovely assistant (Helen Carruthers) and naturally, she and Charlie hit it off, enraging the strong man. Charlie does several pratfalls built around the supposed weight of the strong man’s luggage, bashing into the rest of the cast as he staggers around beneath the huge crates which the strong man lifts effortlessly. Later, Charlie takes a hatbox and straps the heavy stuff to his senior co-worker, who collapses under the weight. When “the Goo Goo Sisters” (another act, billed as “comediennes” on the billboard) show up, Charlie tries to flirt with them as well, but he hides the pitcher in his pants, resulting in an embarrassing leak.

Not helping, Charlie.

The strong man asks Charlie to sew up his tights, although Charlie winds up using them to mop the floor instead. Meanwhile, the matinee has started and Charlie and his coworker fight behind the scenes, causing a backdrop to hit an unpopular singer and knock him out. Charlie sweeps him off the stage, to the delight of the audience (which includes Mack Sennett and Chester Conklin). When the Goo Goo Sisters, in scanty costumes (for 1914 anyway) go on stage, Charlie first follows them out to stare, then blindfolds his partner to prevent him from staring. Their backstage fighting causes them to bump the sisters through the backdrop, again to the delight of the audience. Charlie throws the wet tights, which miss his target and hits a sister, who then throws them into the audience, thinking someone has thrown them instead of booing. There is a long gap between acts, because the strong man lacks tights and his assistant is busy flirting with Charlie, so when the old man raises the curtain, the audience finds the three of them arguing, with the strong man’s garters exposed. He gamely goes ahead with his act, but his assistant has been knocked out in the fighting, so Charlie tries to help, causing more chaos and riotous laughter from the audience. Charlie goes backstage to help the assistant, while the other actors harangue his partner. The old man lowers a backdrop on the strong man while he tries to balance over 1000 lbs of weight, ruining his act. Now the strong man goes back stage and finds Charlie fanning his unconscious assistant, and goes on a rampage, also ruining the dramatic act of the other performers. To defend himself, Charlie grabs a fire hose and sprays him and the other performers, also drenching the entire audience.

As I commented above, this movie has a lot in common with “Back Stage,” most obviously including the angry strong man and his lovely assistant, but I doubt if Arbuckle was actually being any less original than Chaplin – both would have been drawing from established Vaudeville routines which many in their audience were already familiar with. “Back Stage” is also a rather more polished movie in terms of camerawork, plot, and character, but it’s not entirely fair to compare 1914 with 1919, or Chaplin at this point in career with Arbuckle at that point in his. What I can say is that this is one of the funnier movies Chaplin directed himself in during the summer of 1914, and this is so despite the constraints of the Keystone formula and his own limitations due to lack of experience and knowledge of his character. Chaplin isn’t really the “nice” version of the Tramp here – his constant use of violence, especially against his older and demonstrably weaker colleague argues against that – but he manages to evoke a degree of sympathy or identification in the audience nonetheless, perhaps just by being the little fellow who gets the best of everyone around him. There’s a kind of metaphor at work when his various inopportune moments on the stage prove more popular with the in-movie audience than the planned performances; it seems to reflect how his growing fame took studio heads at Keystone by surprise.

Chaplin delights an audience.

There’s a question here, also: Is he playing the “Little Tramp” or not? His mustache is now established (he’d abandon it later in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” but not often after that). but the rest of his costume consists her of oversized overalls and a bowler hat with a rim that is nearly falling off. The strong man refers to him in an intertitle as “that bum,” which at least makes a bit of a connection. It seems likely that Chaplin himself didn’t know for sure whether the Little Tramp would take a job as strenuous as property man, and may have been ambivalent about the character here.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jess Dandy, Helen Carruthers, Joe Bordeaux, Phyllis Allen, Charles Bennett, Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Harry McCoy, Norma Nichols, Cecile Arnold, Vivian Edwards

Run Time: 24 Min

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

His Prehistoric Past (1914)

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

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

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

1918 poster that used stills from the movie.

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

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

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

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

Run Time: 21 Min

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

Those Love Pangs (1914)

Those_Love_Pangs_(poster)

This is a somewhat late-period Charlie Chaplin Keystone comedy. He and Chester Conklin (from “Caught in a Cabaret” and “The Masquerader”) are “Rival Mashers” who live together in a boarding house. It’s hard to believe that women would respond to these two hobo-like men with odd facial hair, but they do. First, Charlie and Chester compete for the attentions of the landlady, pricking each other in the butt with a fork (nothing sexually suggestive about THAT, though is there?) whenever she gives them to the other. Then, they go out into the familiar park we’ve seen in nearly every other Keystone short. There, they encounter two young ladies, one of who has a boyfriend (Vivian Edwards, also in “His New Profession” and “Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition”), the other of whom shows a strong interest in Chester (Cecile Arnold, who was also in “The Masquerader” and “Dough and Dynamite”). With both of them paired off, Charlie has to try to intercede, resulting in a confrontation with the boyfriend, who gets dunked in the pond. Then, Charlie convinces the girls to accompany him to a Nickelodeon. He doesn’t notice when the men come in and take their places, and there’s a great comic stunt where he panics and manages to knock over every one of the rickety wooden chairs in the theater. Then he’s thrown through the screen. The End.

 Those Love Pangs

Obviously, there are a lot of familiar pieces to this typical short. Charlie’s “Little Tramp” still isn’t as sympathetic as he would become in following years, but we start to get the feeling that he’s the one to root for, even when he’s transgressing social bounds and acting “badly.” The soaking of the boyfriend is anticipated with several “near falls” by Chaplin, who is saved each time by the boyfriend, making it all the funnier when Chaplin finally pushes him into the drink. There are more close-ups in this one, including a long linger one on Cecile – either Chapin thought she was hot or it was in her contract or something. It’s also another of the Chaplins which uses a movie theater as a set, this time filled with Keystone players who are at times a little too obviously in on the joke. It’s a good example of what Chaplin had learned to do in his year at Keystone, but still only a step in his ongoing development.

Those Love Pangs1

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Virginia Edwards, Cecile Arnold, Helen Carruthers

Run Time: 12 Min

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