Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Roland Totheroh

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film release is a powerful concoction of slapstick, pathos, comedy, and tear-jerker, remembered to this day as a breakthrough in comedy film making. How does it stand up to a modern viewing? Let’s take a look.

Kid_1921

The movie begins with an unwed mother (Charlie’s leading lady of many years, Edna Purviance) emerging from a “Charity Hospital” with babe in arms. She wanders into a park alone, abandoned by the ne-er-do-well father, who off-handedly tosses her photograph into the fire. Unable to care for the baby, Edna places it into a limousine parked in front of a large house, hoping to give it a good home with a wealthy family. Unbeknownst to her, however, the car is stolen seconds later by a pair of hoodlums who ditch the child in an alley when they discover it. Fortunately, he is found moments later by Charlie’s “Little Tramp” character, wandering the alleyways in search of sustenance, and after some comic attempts to pawn it off on another mother, he eventually takes it back to the dingy attic where he dwells.

Kid

Read the rest of this entry »

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin is in the army for this World War One-era comedy short that became his most popular and well-loved film to that time. Can the Little Tramp be a war hero? Watch it and find out.

As the movie begins, Charlie is already in uniform and being drilled at boot camp. The men in his squad are of various heights and builds, but Charlie is the shortest and skinniest. The other men all move and turn with military precision, but Charlie is always a bit behind them. The sergeant tries to show him how to properly “volte face,” but Charlie turns it into a funny dance move. They march for a very long time and Charlie returns to his bunk. The scene fades out and when it begins again, he is in a trench, carrying a ridiculously overloaded pack. The camera dollies to follow him down the trench, then dollies back when he turns around and returns, finding the cubby in the wall that opens in to his new digs. Inside are his two roommates (one of them is Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s brother). He moves in and secures his bunk, then we get a view of the enemy trench. The Germans are all large and rough-looking men, but their officer is a dwarf (Loyal Underwood). He is very strict with them, and they all appear to be terrified of him.

We see various day-to-day activities in the trenches, like eating lunch under shell fire and standing guard in the rain. When the mail call comes, everyone in the unit seems to get a care package except for Charlie. He refuses the offer to share food with one of his bunkmates, trying to make it seem as if he doesn’t care. He gets very involved in reading over the shoulder of one man who has a letter, desperate for any news from home. Finally, the postal carrier does find a package for him. It includes stale bread and limburger cheese. He tosses the cheese into the German trench, and they react as if it were a chemical weapons attack. When it is time for Charlie to go to bed, the rain has flooded his bunk, and he has to lie in the water. He uses the horn from a gramophone as a snorkel so he doesn’t drown. The next day, his unit is called to make an attack on the German trench. They capture it and Charlie brings in the entire enemy squad as prisoners. When asked how he did it, he says, “I surrounded them.” He gives the short German officer a spanking, which gets applause from his men.

We see a bombed-out French house with a dejected resident (Edna Purviance), who represents all the strife France is going through in the war. Charlie volunteers for duty behind the lines, and is camouflaged as a stump. He hides out as some Germans set up camp. One comes over with an axe, looking for firewood, but Charlie knocks him out by bonking him with a limb, then bonks each of the other Germans in turn. Sydney is captured doing similar behind-the-line spying, and is put before a firing squad, but Charlie saves him by bonking the Germans. A fat soldier chases him through the woods, but often mistakes real trees for Charlie. Charlie escapes into a pipe, and the soldier is too fat to follow.

Charlie finds his way to Edna’s house, and she finds him there and begins a flirtation before the Germans show up and capture them both, wrecking what’s left of the house in the process. Edna is taken to the German headquarters, where she meets a taller German officer who is enjoying local wine. Charlie manages to rescue her and dresses as the officer, just in time to meet the Kaiser and two of his generals (one is fat and looks like Hindenburg, the other is thin and looks nothing like Ludendorff). He knocks out their chauffeur and drives them into Allied territory, where they are taken into custody.

Then he wakes up again, still in hiss bivouac from the first scene, not yet deployed. The entire war sequence is shown to be a dream.

 

As I stated, this movie was wildly popular when released. It was also a critical success on a level far above what Chaplin usually managed. No one seems to have thought it “vulgar” (although there are some decidedly adult gags once he meets Edna). Reviewers for the next decade compared each new Chaplin release to it – often deciding that classics like “The Kid” or “The Gold Rush” were not quite so good as “Shoulder Arms.” It’s easy to see why it was popular in the United States as the country prepared to finally join the long slog of trench warfare, and it was also popular in Britain and elsewhere, where the fighting had been going for years. The movie identifies with the common soldier doing his bit in awful circumstances, not necessarily motivated by any great patriotism or ideology, just wanting to his best and help out the fellow next to him in the foxhole (Sydney). It suggests that even the lowliest soldier can become a hero, at least in his own mind, and it lets people laugh at their own worst fears. Chaplin’s famed pathos is also on display – the forlorn look on his face when he thinks he hasn’t received any mail must have inspired hundreds of letters from mothers and sweethearts.

 

Today the laughs are just as strong. The problem I have is mostly with the caricatured depiction of the Germans, who for the most part were just simple soldiers sitting through the same Hell as the Allies, whatever the mistakes of their leaders, and many of them would soon be joining revolts against those leaders. The one moment that humanizes them is when they applaud seeing their officer spanked. Particularly the final sequence in which Chaplin captures the Kaiser comes across as overwrought propaganda. Of course, all of Chaplin’s “bad guys” are caricatures, and there’s no reason to expect gallantry toward the enemy in a war comedy, and the gags and pratfalls are still brilliant. The Wikipedia article claims that, “[t]his is believed to be the first comedy film about war.” I find that hard to believe, although I haven’t thought of a definite counter-example (Chaplin was in uniform in “Burlesque on Carmen,” but there’s no war going on). Certainly it set the stage for others to come, being a huge success and critical darling.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Loyal Underwood, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Tom Wilson, John Rand

Run Time: 36 Min

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

The Immigrant (1917)

This was the third short Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual in 1917, coming out in June of that year. It may be the most famous of his early work, and has been a critical success since its release, unlike many of his earlier Keystone and Essanay shorts, which were often dismissed as “vulgar” at the time or frivolous afterward.

immigrant_1917This movie begins by showing us a steamer ship loaded with immigrants crossing the Atlantic. After a brief stock footage shot of a ship, and a shot of people stacked on top of one another on the deck, we see a shot of Charlie’s ass, which lingers quite a bit longer. Charlie is leaning over the railing of the ship, his feet at times going up so far it seems that he will fall in, and we get the impression that he is vomiting over the side. It’s a garden path, however, because when he turns around we see that he has caught a fish on a hook and line. He holds it up proudly, then inexplicably casts it aside, where it bites one of the sleeping passengers on the nose.

immigrant1

Hey, at least he’s upright!

Read the rest of this entry »

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 Adventurer (1917)

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.

adventurerThe 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.

adventurer1Charlie 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.

adventurer2The 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.

Charlie in high society

Charlie in high society

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.

adventurer3This 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

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Marta Golden

Run Time: 27 Min

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

The Making of Broncho Billy (1913)

As promised, I’ll be taking care of the reviews of the movies of Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson that I binge-viewed for my “Broncho Billy Marathon” post. This piece, put out by his Essanay Studio at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of competition, is a fairly uncomplicated but fun little example of what people thought of the Old West at the time.

Making of Broncho BillyAs I mentioned in the previous discussion, the movie serves as a kind of “origin story” for Broncho Billy, although of course there had been many movies made before it. Anderson shows up in a Western town wearing Eastern clothes (he looks sort of like a young D.W. Griffith) and is mercilessly mocked by the local cowhands. When he shows up in the lobby of his hotel, one of the roughnecks shoots at the floor to make him dance. He wanders over to a gambling table, but declines to gamble, to the amusement and annoyance of the other patrons. In the bar, he turns down whiskey and asks for something lighter (a beer, maybe), and the bartender has to brush the dust off the bottle, it is so rarely ordered. One of the cowpokes comes to razz him about it, and Billy gets ready to hit him with the bottle, but the bully quickdraws and shatters it. Now Billy learns that he must learn to shoot to gain their respect.

Making of Broncho Billy1

Please don’t shoot the cinematographer.

Billy goes out and finds someone willing to sell him a gun (no waiting period or background check necessary). Next, we see him attempt shooting a bottle in his Eastern garb, but he doesn’t seem to know to point the gun down at it. In the next scene, wearing Stetson hat and cowboy shirt, he sets up several bottles in front of the camera and hits them all. Then he shoots holes in the middle of playing cards. Now, he’s a real Western man, and he can go back to the bar. There, he meets the fellow who gave him trouble before. They both go for their guns, and Billy shoots the gun from his opponent’s hand. Now he gets on his horse and rides to the sheriff for protection as an angry mob comes after him. The sheriff puts him in a cell, bolts the door, and gets his shotgun out when the mob arrives, and they batter down the door. The surviving bully, whose hand has been treated by the town doc, now races to the scene, where he announces that he just wants to shake Billy’s hand. Everything is resolved happily, and he is accepted in the town.

Making of Broncho Billy2The scene that really surprised me here is where Billy’s target practice involves him shooting right at the camera to take out the bottles and cards. Although, of course, it is easy enough to arrange for an effect that makes that appear to be the case, often in earlier movies people really did fire bullets in gun scenes. At least according to Hollywood legend, Howard Hawks was still doing this as late as 1932 for “Scarface.” Presumably, they figured out some safer way to do that for the camera operator. I wasn’t entirely certain what was going on with the gambling scene – the croupier seems to greet him and hope he’ll join in, but the gamblers mostly look annoyed. Also, my own reaction to Anderson’s being willing to fight hand to hand was that it seemed more courageous than the gunfight his opponent insisted upon, but I suppose Anderson is trying to establish a cultural expectation of the Old West here. Overall, this is rather light family fare, the sort of thing that Anderson would mostly be remembered for, despite the somewhat darker portrayals in years to come.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Brinsley Shaw, Harry Todd, Roland Totheroh

Run Time: 9 Min

I have not found this available free on the Internet. If you do, please comment below.

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).

The Pawnshop (1916)

PawnshopA fun piece that Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual late in 1916, this one puts an emphasis on running gags and longer vignettes, with the central plot taking a backseat. It has similarities to a number of earlier Chaplins, including “Work,” “The Bank,” and “The Floorwalker.”

Pawnshop_Lobby_Card,_1916Charlie is an assistant in a pawnshop, run by an older man in wearing a skullcap (kippah, yarmulke, or taqiyah). He is sent to do some dusting and winds up making a bigger mess and getting into a fight with his co-worker (John Rand). He goes outside with a large ladder to clean the sign over the shop, and winds up hurting Rand several more times, and running afoul of a local cop. Once he and Rand have avoided the cop, they begin fighting again, to the dismay of Edna Purviance, the shopkeeper’s daughter. Charlie pretends to be hurt and gets her sympathy, but the shopkeeper wants him fired. He has a change of heart and lets him stay. Several customers come in, in succession. First, an old man (Wesley Ruggles) tells a tale of woe and hardship and how he must pawn his dead wife’s wedding ring. Charlie feels sorry for him and offers five dollars, but only has a ten. The man pulls out a huge wad of bills to make change. Another customer is a thief (Eric Campbell), who persuades the shopkeeper to show him all of the fancy jewelry he keeps in the safe. Then, a man (Albert Austin) shows Charlie an alarm clock he wants to pawn. Charlie can’t get it to work, so he dismantles it piece by piece in front of the man, then sweeps the mess into his hat and gives it back to the man. After he leaves, the thief tries to hold up the store with a gun, but Charlie is hiding behind him and knocks him on the head, saving the day.

Pawnshop1Although there is some good stuff in this movie, a lot of it feels recycled, such as the bit about Charlie using his slapstick skills to stop a robbery and the cleaning sequence which is very similar to “The Bank.” One brief gag I didn’t mention was a quick re-do of the opening to “The Bank,” where Charlie opens a safe and takes out his workclothes. This, time, about halfway through, he goes to a safe, quickly turns the combination seemingly at random, and takes out his lunch. It isn’t as funny or surprising this time. My favorite parts were the whole ladder sequence and the scenes where Charlie is “helping” (or being bilked by) the customers. His character is less “innocent” and likeable than in “The Vagabond,” for example, but one still sees him as sympathetic – he’s a victim of circumstances and it’s hard to blame him if he wants to get back at some of the people who mistreat him. The romance between him and Edna is decidedly downplayed in this movie.

Pawnshop2Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, John Rand, Albert Austin, Eric Cambell, Henry Bergman

 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 Count (1916)

Count3Charlie Chaplin continues his run of Mutual shorts with this simple piece that harks back to “A Jitney Elopement” and other romantic comedies of the slapstick variety. He gets some wonderful bits of business into the spare plotline.

CountAt the beginning of the movie, Charlie is working as a tailor’s apprentice, taking the measurements of a lady customer. His measurements are confused by the lady’s failure to stand straight, by the tape measure getting caught on a dummy, and by his own imprecise units. The tailor (Eric Campbell) notices what he is doing and comes over to take charge. Charlie, not sure what to do, tries some ironing, only to burn holes in several pairs of pants. When the tailor finishes with the customer, he comes over and fires him. Charlie asks for his pay, but the tailor forcibly ejects him. After he’s gone, the tailor discovers a letter from Count Broko (Leo White) in one of the ruined pants, declining an invitation to meet the eligible Miss Moneybags (Edna Purviance) at a party. This gives the tailor the idea to dress up as the Count and make a good match.

Count1Meanwhile, Charlie has gone to the servants’ entrance of a mansion, looking for handouts. The friendly and flirtatious cook offers him a sandwich with smelly cheese, which is the occasion for some humorous bits as Charlie tries to figure out what the smell is. Then the butler shows up for his lunch. Charlie hides in a basket, but the cook throws the cheese in after him, so he keeps throwing it out. The butler leaves when the doorbell rings, but Charlie’s escape is prevented by an amorous policeman, also interested in the cook, so he dives into the dumbwaiter and goes upstairs, where he runs into the tailor, disguised as Count Broko. Charlie could give the game away, so the tailor offers to bring him in on the scam as his secretary. Then, when the butler arrives to announce the Count, Charlie claims to be him and announces the tailor as his secretary. They go to dinner, Charlie on Edna’s arm and Eric on her mother’s. The dinner includes such classic bits as Charlie stopping Eric’s noisy soup slurping in order to converse with Edna and some hilarious watermelon-eating. After dinner, Charlie and Eric compete for Edna’s attention, with Charlie generally getting the upper hand by tricking Eric. Charlie’s one problem is that he keeps running into the jealous cook, and he is briefly distracted by a woman in a revealing gypsy costume. Then, the real Count Broko arrives, and real mayhem breaks out, with a full-on Keystone-style chase ensuing. Charlie escapes, Eric is arrested, and the Count is covered in clam dip.

Count2This movie once again takes advantage of the comedy trope that penniless aristocrats were always seeking the daughters of nouveau-riche families and vice-versa. This has come up more than a few times now in the Chaplin oeuvre. Chaplin initiates much of the violence and pranks in this movie, but he seems justified because of his previous ill-treatment by the tailor. He doesn’t wind up getting the girl, but he doesn’t seem to be genuinely interested in her, either, just in keeping her away from Eric Campbell. Whether this is out of revenge or in her interests is hard to say. I liked the food business especially in this movie: the smelly cheese, the watermelon, and even some of the after-dinner aperitifs were integrated into the humor. The cheese bit once again shows how silent films used visual cues to include the audience’s other senses, something we saw done with sound in “The Vagabond.”

Count4

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance

Run Time: 24 Min

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