I’m beginning the year 2017 with a review of the last movie Charlie Chaplin made in 1917, one of the funniest and most accessible of his work for Mutual Film Corporation. Chaplin finally finished out his record-breaking $670,000 contract with them when this film was released, and he turned down an offer of a million to renew, choosing instead to remain independent. This film was the first new Chaplin audiences had seen in four months, and by the time it came out he was one of the most famous men in the world.
The movie begins with escaped-convict Charlie pursued by prison guards who could be Keystone Kops from his earliest days in cinema. He emerges from his escape tunnel on the beach to find himself next to a cop’s shotgun, and the chase is on. He quickly scoots up a cliff and drops rocks on his first pursuer, only to find one of the rocks is the shoe of another guard, with the guard still in it! Not one to complain, Charlie hurls the one guard down after the other. After several more clever incidents, Charlie winds up swimming into the ocean to escape. When the police try to follow in a rowboat, they are swamped by the waves.
Charlie is able to get some clothes off of a bather at a nearby resort, and while he is swimming in encounters Edna Purviance’s mother drowning at the dock. Edna is nearby, at a dockside table with her suitor, Eric Campbell, and he at first boasts that he will jump in to save mother, but as he begins to strip off his clothes, it appears to occur to him that the water is cold, so she jumps in instead. Shortly thereafter, Eric and a hefty dockworker lean on the railing, causing it to collapse, and they fall in as well. Charlie manages to save all of them, although not without dumping Eric into the drink one more time for good measure, and he is taken home along with them in a limousine.
The next morning, Charlie wakes up and thinks he might be back in jail. There are bars on the bed and stripes on his pajamas. But, the butler (Albert Austin) comes in and assures him he’s in the home of Edna and her parents, and Charlie soon comes down in suitably ill-fitting clothes to join what seems to be a perpetual cocktail party going on at the mansion. He grabs a bottle and mixes seltzer in for a big gulp. He and Eric exchange kicks in the rear, though Charlie always gets one up. Eric recognizes Charlie’s mugshot in the paper and tries to inform the hosts, but Charlie sketches Eric’s beard onto the photograph. In one famous bit, Charlie drops ice cream down his pants, and shakes in out of his trouser leg onto the back of a large, dignified woman below the balcony he’s on.
All good things must come to an end, and Charlie’s end is precipitated by the usual conceit of the scullion maid entertaining a cop (in this case a prison guard) in the kitchen. At first, Charlie thinks he will catch her in the act, but winds up being pursued himself. Eric calls in reinforcements, and soon Charlie is being chased all over the mansion, occasionally stopping to kiss Edna farewell. He disguises himself as a lamp and traps Eric in a sliding door in a wonderful chase sequence. Each time he gets ready to leave, another pursuer shows up and chases him back inside. Caught at least by the chief guard, he introduces him to Edna, and runs off to escape when the guard offers his hand to shake.
This movie demonstrates considerable sophistication and pathos, even though it is in essence nothing more than a couple of chase scenes with material from “The Count,” “Caught in a Cabaret,” and other Tramp-amongst-the-rich shorts thrown in. Part of it is that Chaplin has now rehearsed some of these bits to perfection – the scene in the kitchen with the maid hiding the guard is a great extension of the same scene in “The Count,” for example. But, Chaplin is also a much more confident director, with more of the tools of cinematic storytelling at his disposal as well. The camera angles and cuts that let us experience his realization that he is in danger both emerging from the tunnel and when throwing rocks from the cliff would never have been seen in a 1914 Keystone movie, and so those gags couldn’t have worked, or not nearly so well. Rarely if ever is the screen set up as a proscenium arch, the camera moves to accentuate the action and hides information from the audience until ready for a punch line. Cross-cutting sets up more complex relationships between actors in different areas than the old throw-the-rock-at-the-next-setup routine he was doing just a few years ago. Close-ups allow us to see the funny reactions of Charlie and of the often embarrassed and/or shocked rich people at the party.
This is one of the best examples of why Chaplin-itis became such a epidemic in the teens, and for those who haven’t seen any of his short subjects before, I can’t think of a better place to start.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Camera: Roland Totheroh
Run Time: 27 Min