Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Lloyd Bacon

Easy Street (1917)

Charlie Chaplin’s first movie in 1917 has some surprising elements, including a reversal of his usual relationship to authority. Reflecting his improving budgets and extended production time, he built an entire street on a sound stage and used it to considerable effect.

easy_street_1917The movie begins similarly to “The Champion” and other familiar shorts, with Chaplin as the Little Tramp sleeping in the streets. He awakes to the lovely tones of Edna Purviance leading the choir at the Hope Mission, and ventures inside. The gags in the early part of the film involve sounds that the audience imagines but can’t hear – Edna’s singing, Charlie laughing during the pastor’s sermon, a neighboring parishioner trying to get Charlie to sing along with the choir, etc. Then there’s an extended bit in which Chaplin agrees to hold a baby for another parishioner, and accidentally spills the milk from its bottle onto his pants – but thinks that the baby has wet itself (and him), and tries to foist the fouled brat back onto its mother. Rather a vulgar joke for 1916!

easy-streetAnyway, the real plot of the film gets started once the sermon is over. Charlie, and a rough fellow (John Rand) who also appears to be a tramp, remain behind when the other parishioners leave. Charlie wants to talk to Edna, but the other tramp tries to steal the collection box! Charlie recovers it and returns it, and Edna encourages him to “reform” and get a job. Now that he has experience catching crooks, Charlie thinks it would be a good idea to join the police force. Although it goes against his nature, he convinces himself to go into the police station and apply.

easy-street1Now the action shifts to “Easy Street,” which appears to be the site of an eternal riot. Working-class ruffians are beating the stuffing out of the few police officers brave enough to go there, and we see them returned to the station on stretchers, their uniforms torn and shredded. Eric Campbell intimidates other rioters and controls the street as a bully, wearing his spoils – a policeman’s cap. Charlie is informed that Easy Street will be his beat, but he has no idea what he’s in for.

easy-street2

Just another day on Easy Street.

When Charlie arrives at Easy Street, the riot is over, or at least there’s a lull. Debris is strewn in the street, but things appear to be quiet. The camera tracks towards him as Campbell stalks up behind, still wearing the policeman’s cap. Charlie, finally realizing he’s in danger, sidles up to a lamppost that has a police emergency phone on it. Each time he tries to move for the phone, Eric growls at him and he panics, dropping it. Finally, he tricks Eric into looking into the receiver, giving him a chance to bop him on the head with his billy club. Eric doesn’t appear to notice, so Charlie hits him again. And again. Finally, Eric turns around and sees that he’s being hit, so Charlie tries hitting harder, but with no effect. Eric flexes his muscles and grabs the top of the lamppost, bending it down. Thinking fast, Charlie pulls the lamp over Eric’s head, turning up the gas. Eric slumps into unconsciousness, and Charlie uses the still-working phone to call for backup to arrest him. The police are very afraid to come to Easy Street, even in a large group, and when a small child points his finger at them and goes “bang!” they all skitter in fear. Finally, they drag the unconscious brute back to the station and cuff him. Charlie lights up a cigarette and starts a gas fire on the ruined lamppost.

easy-street3With things now peaceful on Easy Street, Charlie returns to walking his beat. He sees an emaciated woman (Charlotte Mineau) with a bundle hidden under her blouse. He confronts her and sees the food she has stolen. Feeling sympathetic, he goes across the street to where a fruit vendor snoozes peacefully, and steals more food for her, loading her up with ill-gotten gains. Now Edna walks up and sees Charlie 1) employed and 2) performing an act of charity (she doesn’t know the food is stolen). The grateful waif collapses from hunger and the weight of the food, so Charlie and Edna help her up the stairs to her apartment. Then Charlie escorts Edna to another apartment, which she is visiting on her missionary rounds.

easy-street4Meanwhile, Eric Campbell breaks out of the handcuffs. All of the policemen conk him on the head with their bully clubs simultaneously, repeatedly, but it does no good. He defeats them and escapes. He returns home – to his wife Charlotte! They quickly start fighting, with Charlotte throwing various pieces of crockery at Campbell, but with his great strength he gets the upper hand. One of the thrown items breaks the window of the apartment across the street, hitting the father of the family Edna is visiting, and Charlie goes back to Charlotte’s apartment to investigate. When Eric sees him, a chase begins. While this goes on, various lowlifes nab Edna and drag her to an underground lair.

Immune to billy clubs.

Immune to billy clubs.

Charlie finally overcomes Eric by running back to the apartment and dropping a heavy iron stove from the window onto Eric’s head. Now, the ruffians grab him as well. Meanwhile, Edna is being menaced by a man who uses a hypodermic needle before becoming amorous/threatening. Charlie is dropped into the same room through a manhole and accidentally sits on the needle. Suddenly, he becomes a determined fighter, knocking out the addict and taking on several toughs from the speakeasy next door. He rescues Edna and brings peace and order to Easy Street.

easy-street6This movie reminds me a lot of the old “Popeye” cartoons, which may have been partly inspired by it. Eric Campbell’s super-strong giant is much like Bluto and Charlie’s injection from the needle is sort of like Popeye after eating spinach. But, what’s really remarkable here is the way Charlie has reversed his role and that of the villains. Usually, Charlie is the underdog pursued by police. Here, he’s a cop (though he still has his own code of ethics, as we see when he steals food for a hungry woman). Usually, his antagonists are rich, snobby people, but here they are the poor. There are several indications that the rioters are meant to be read as “foreign” or immigrants as well. Most cast lists I find online indicate that some of them are “anarchists” (a political category usually associated with Eastern or Mediterranean immigrants at the time), and there is a portrait of Czar Nicholas II on the wall of the room where Edna is held. Actually, it’s hard to imagine Russian anarchists with a picture of the Czar, unless they use it for target practice, but I think the point is that these are foreigners. Immigrants are usually sympathetic figures for Chaplin, as we will soon see with “The Immigrant.” It may also surprise modern audiences to see such explicit references to drug-use in a silent comedy, but Douglas Fairbanks pushed the theme much further in “Mystery of the Leaping Fish.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish1I don’t know for sure why Chaplin chose to do this, but it definitely works. Many sources refer to this as the funniest of the comedies he made for Mutual, or even his funniest short, period. There are others I like better, including “The Cure,” “The Vagabond,” and the restored version of “Police,” but this is a contender. The street set is great, and evokes a kind of generic image of urban squalor, that could as easily be New York, LA, or London. When Eric chases him, we do get some very explicit exteriors of Los Angeles, which kind of ruins the illusion for me, but if you ignore that it’s a great location. Chaplin uses all the tricks of cinema he has learned, including a mobile camera, close-ups, and cross-cutting, but it’s still his body language that sells the narrative. He uses his full body to give shrugs and express sympathy, his face lights up when he sees Edna, and he does his patented one-foot turn-hop during the chase sequences. He repeatedly sends up the Keystone Kops, both in his own performance and his use of the other policemen. When he’s hopped up from the hypodermic, he uses his full body to fight, throwing his feet at crowds of opponents, and seems to be a dynamo of energy. The movie once again shows his talent for slapstick, as well as a newly increased confidence as a filmmaker.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Charlotte Mineau, Albert Austin, John Rand, Lloyd Bacon, Henry Bergman, Frank J. Coleman, Leo White

Run Time: 27 Min

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

The Rink (1916)

Rink5In one of his funniest movies of 1916, Charlie Chaplin again draws on old themes to provide a jumping-off point to demonstrate his developing talents. He also brings his audience into two worlds of his character, providing depth even without the level of sympathy seen in “The Vagabond” or “The Bank.”

RinkThe movie opens with an indescribably cute sequence of a kitten playing on a sleeping man, waking him up by swatting at a toy on a string, which is held by Edna Purviance (more evidence that funny cat videos predate the Internet). The man is her father, but we don’t learn anything else about their relationship because the scene shifts to a restaurant, where Charlie is dressed up and working as a waiter. Eric Campbell, as a customer, asks for the check and Charlie determines what he has eaten by looking at the food he spilled on himself (every item costs $1, which seems like a lot for the time). He pays, Charlie counts out his change and then takes it all as his tip. Eric gives chase, but Charlie hides behind other customers. Charlie has several funny run-ins with fellow waiter John Rand, largely because he refuses to abide by the doors marked “In” and “Out” to the kitchen. Rand winds up serving a customer a dish with a rag and floor scrubber on it, due to one of these mishaps. Charlie also gets food on him and on the cook (played by Albert Austin). There is one great bit where the manager (Frank J Coleman) tries to catch Charlie in the act, but due to his creative use of the In/Out doors and some fancy editing, he consistently misses him.

Rink_(poster)After all this goes on for a while, Charlie opens up a stove and pulls out his “Little Tramp” outfit. He changes from the well-fitting waiter’s uniform into his usual tight vest and bowler. Then he goes to lunch (the manager warns him to come back on time). Now he goes to a skating rink, where he bypasses the admission fee and flirts with a girl on a bench. He gets some skates and goes onto the floor, where Eric Armstrong is now trying to flirt with Edna, despite his lack of skill at skating. It turns out that Charlie is very good at skating and skates circles around Eric, impressing Edna. He also causes mayhem at the rink, causing fights and tripping people, but always looking innocent when the bouncer-type fellow arrives. Eric winds up falling down several times and Edna invites Charlie to her “skating party” later that evening.

Rink1We now learn that Eric Armstrong is married to a large woman played by a man (Harry Bergman). They apparently both like to flirt with others, but don’t tell each other about this. She has gotten invited to the party by flirting with Edna’s father, and Eric crashes to flirt with Edna. They are both horrified when they see one another, and even more so when Charlie shows up! He, once again, uses his skating prowess to cause chaos, running into people and knocking over Mrs. Stout and falling on top of her repeatedly. Eventually, the situation becomes so crazy that the police are called, but Charlie continues to escape them by skating skillfully around them. Finally, he is chased by the police and most of the guests out into the street, and escapes by hooking his cane into a passing car and being pulled along on his skates.

Rink2Skating had been a popular topic for comedies since very early in moving picture history. In fact the first picture made by Charlie’s former employer  Essanay Studios was “An Awful Skate” (1907) starring Ben Turpin, and I understand that this movie was based upon a French predecessor. Putting people on wheels makes them move faster and unpredictably, so it makes sense, and of course there are always opportunities for crashing and falling down, the essences of physical comedy. This is the first time Charlie has used the concept, and he shows off his control at all times, even when he pretends to be trying catch himself or falling.

Rink3I’ve talked about a lot of aspects of Charlie’s work up to now, and I’d like to focus a bit on class this time. It is well-known that Charlie grew up in poverty in the class-conscious society of Victorian England. He made the movies he made largely for the working classes, who he knew needed entertainment, not “reform” or preaching at. There’s an interesting aspect in this film, and in a number of others that he made, which I haven’t seen discussed before. Here, he starts out as a waiter, in a working world where he obviously is not in charge, but the narrative also follows him into his private life. We also saw this in “Caught in a Cabaret” and with Bud Jamison’s character in “A Night Out,” who is also a waiter that Charlie later encounters in his personal world at a hotel. I think there’s something subtly subversive in this. Usually, a character with a menial job in a movie is just that: a menial. They don’t break out of that role or become human, they are just there to serve a purpose. Charlie reminds us that these people (his people) have real lives outside of their work roles. Sometimes, they imitate people of higher classes, as Charlie does in “Caught in a Cabaret” or here, where the Intertitles tell us he is announced at the party as “Sir Cecil Seltzer.” I won’t say that he was the only slapstick actor who ever did this, but I haven’t run across it being done by others yet, so I’m willing to call it one of his themes, probably one of the reasons he was so popular with working class audiences.

Rink4With this movie, I’m caught up on all of Chaplin’s work in 1915 and 1916, at some point hopefully later this year I can finish off my reviews of his 1914 year at Keystone Studios.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Armstrong, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, John Rand, Frank J. Coleman, Lloyd Bacon

Run Time: 24 Min

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

Behind the Screen (1916)

As with “A Film Johnny,” and “His New Job,” this Charlie Chapin short from Mutual Film takes us inside a film production studio for laughs. It starts off innocently enough, but escalates the mayhem throughout, reaching a point almost unseen, even in the original Keystone comedies that gave Chaplin his start.

Behind the ScreenThe movie begins with Edna Purviance on a film set, asking someone (possibly an Assistant Director), “Can I be an actress, please?” The answer is, predictably, no, and the camera holds on her face long enough for us to feel her disappointment Then we are introduced to the stagehand (Eric Campbell) and his assistant (Charlie). The assistant does all the work, while Eric sits and naps. Every time he walks past the camera tripod, Charlie manages to hook it with his foot and bring the camera crashing to the ground. He nearly knocks over a large column on the set (a gag taken from “His New Job,” but done better here). After a particularly grueling task of moving a dozen chairs and a piano, Charlie sits down for a moment and the stagehand and Assistant Director accuse him of loafing. During lunch break, Eric eats an enormous amount of food, while Charlie only seems to have a few pieces of bread. His neighbor (Albert Austin) eats green onions and breathes on Charlie, leading him to put on a prop helmet from a suit of armor. Albert throws the onions into the helmet. Charlie does a drumming routine with some drumsticks and all of the plates from his boss’s meal. When the Assistant Director finds all of the stagehands passed out from food coma after lunch, he wakes them up and they strike. Eric and Charlie refuse to join the strike and Edna gets the bright idea of dressing as a boy so she can be a stagehand.

Behind the Screen1The Assistant Director thanks the few strikebreakers for staying on, and puts them to work. Charlie’s first job is to pull a lever that opens a trap door after a gun is fired. He keeps missing the cue and pulling it when actors or crew members are standing on the door, sometimes closing it while they are trying to climb out of the pit, trapping their heads or extremities between the doors. Soon, the actors all have black eyes and bruises from falling into the pit on top of one another. The Assistant Director’s pants are split when he tries to pull someone out of the pit, and he asks Edna to repair them, to her horror. Charlie, meanwhile has figured out that Edna is a girl, and a pretty one at that, and kisses her, causing Eric to mock him mercilessly, presumably for being gay. A costume drama is being filmed by the “dramatic department” right next to a set where the “comedic department” is testing a “new idea – one character throws a pie at a character, who ducks, then throws a pie back at the first one. Eric and Charlie are called in to help test this innovation, with the result that pies fly into the throne room of the dramatic piece. Meanwhile, the strikers are cooking up a dynamite plot to blow up the studio. With everyone distracted by the mounting pie fight, they are able to sneak in, placing the dynamite under the trapdoors and kidnap Edna along the way. When Charlie finds Edna in danger, he rescues her, knocking the striker and incidentally his boss into the pit. The dynamite goes off, and Charlie and Edna kiss.

Behind the Screen2This movie is a return to the most madcap variety of Chaplin movie, with much of it being based around chases or violence, and few pauses for character development or sympathy. I was actually quite disappointed that Edna’s character never got to act – her sad face at the beginning of the film is the best acting we see here. The ending reminded me of “Dough & Dynamite,” one of the most violent of the Keystone movies. A number of the gags here are from earlier movies, but often expanded upon or improved. Charlie does a wonderful “dance move” each time he pulls the lever for the trap door, which adds to our anticipation of the comedic result.

Behind_the_ScreenA good bit of this movie centers around a pie-fight, something that we haven’t seen much of to date in this project, unless we count the single pie-in-the-face that Ben Turpin took eight years earlier in “Mr. Flip.” Still, Charlie’s placement of it ironically as an “invention” at this time demonstrates that it was already a recognized trope. My first thought was that perhaps it was something established by clowns in 19th Century circuses, and that may be so, but here Charlie clearly places it in the “comedic department” of a movie studio, suggesting that he is making fun of contemporary examples, perhaps from Keystone or Essanay, his former employers. There is no doubt that Fritzi, at “Movies Silently,” is right to point out that not all silent comedies had pie fights, but the evidence is strong that there were more of them than I’ve seen so far.

Behind the Screen3The reviewer for Moving Picture World said: “While this Chaplin effort will doubtless evoke much laughter from a certain class of audience, it is not one to be strongly recommended. There is throughout a distinct vein of vulgarity which is unnecessary, even in slapstick comedy. A great deal of comedy is intended to be extracted from a pie-slinging episode which occurs during the rehearsal of a couple of scenes in a moving picture studio.” This time, I think I can understand some of this reaction. The emphasis on the splitting of the man’s pants, his showing his bottom to a girl (Edna) and the subsequent gay-joke would all seem to be pushing the envelope for 1916. There are several other moments where butts are, as it were, the butt of a joke or gag, and I suspect that this is the sort of thing that middle class audiences reacted against in slapstick at the time. Certainly, this is not a “refined” piece of comedy, whether we’d really be offended by its “vulgarity” or not today, but is intended to be simplistic mayhem, done with artful timing and physical skill.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin, Lloyd Bacon, John Rand, Wesley Ruggles, Leo White

Run Time: 24 Min

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

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.

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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).

His Regeneration (1915)

His_Regeneration_posterThis one-reel drama from Essanay stars co-owner G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson and features a brief cameo by Charlie Chaplin as the “Little Tramp,” which makes it an odd sort of a bird to review. At first I thought it might be intended as a kind of spoof of “Regeneration” by Raoul Walsh, but that film came several months after this one, so that’s not a likely explanation. Besides, most of it isn’t very funny (the Chaplin footage excepted).

Charlie: Whose hand am I holding?

Charlie: Whose hand am I holding?

The movie begins in a pawn shop, where the decidedly unregenerate G.M. Anderson sells some presumably ill-gotten jewelry to a proprietor of indeterminate “foreign” origin (I can’t decide whether he’s Jewish or Chinese). Then the action shifts to a dance hall/nightclub that appears to stratify its clientele. On the lower level, rough working class-types brawl and enjoy Apache dancing with their molls, while in the balcony, higher-class customers spectate at a safe distance. The Little Tramp show up at the lower level and tries to chat up a girl with a large, muscular boyfriend, gets caught up in the violent whirlwind of the dance floor, then tries to take a breath at a table before being drawn back into the flurry of dancing. Now Anderson shows up and sits with a girl dressed like Cleopatra whose boyfriend is off getting drinks. He gives her a stolen watch and then fights with the boyfriend when he comes back, to the animated interest of the balcony crew. Their amusement turns to horror when, after Anderson wins, the boyfriend pulls out a gun and shoots him. One of their number (Marguerite Clayton) rushes down to dress the wound and pour alcohol from a nearby glass over it. She turns him over to the police when they arrive.

Why does the Queen of the Nile need a wristwatch?

Why does the Queen of the Nile need a wristwatch?

Anderson, who was obviously the victim in this case, is soon on the streets again, and he breaks into a fancy home with his partner (Lee Willard). While his buddy is opening the safe, Anderson cases the place and finds Marguerite sleeping in her bedroom. He is torn by his obligations to his partner and the girl who may have saved his life. He goes back downstairs and tries to get Lee to put back the jewels he has taken from the safe. Of course, they end up fighting, and eventually Anderson has to shoot his friend to stop him from taking the jewels. That wakes up Marguerite and the neighbors and soon the cops are called. When Marguerite finds him with a gun over his dead pal’s body, he gives her back the jewels and explains what happened. She takes the gun and hides him in the kitchen, claiming that she found and shot a lone burglar when the police arrive. He appreciates what she’s done and leaves a note saying that he’ll “try to make good.”

His Regeneration2Fifteen minutes isn’t much time to develop a full story about the regeneration of a man’s spirit, and this movie takes time out for a comedy interlude that adds nothing to the story, so it doesn’t hold up all that well as a drama. What it does have in its favor is good acting by both leads, a very stylish period dance hall, and a good appearance by Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin, who is only on the screen for a minute or two, probably pleased audiences more than any other part of the movie. It is also tightly edited, and moves quickly through the storyline without a lot of repetition or over-emphasis of simple matters. There are no intertitles, apart from the close-up on the note at the end, so that we can see that the regeneration is complete. Both Anderson and Marguerite also get close-ups, and we can see the dilemma work itself out in his face at the end. Still, I’m not sure that the moral of this story really works: were these jewels really worth a man’s life and does Marguerite really owe Anderson his freedom at the end? Will he stay regenerate or has he merely learned that some rich people are good and you shouldn’t steal from them that treat you right? I expect a bit more by the standards of 1915.

Director: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, Lee Willard, Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd Bacon, Belle Mitchell

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

Champion5

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)