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.
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!
Since 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.
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.
This 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
Run Time: 24 Min