Charlie Chaplin was a genius. Nobody can make you laugh and cry at the same time the way he could.
(Originally posted on Channel Awesome on July 28, 2014)
Charlie Chaplin was a genius. Nobody can make you laugh and cry at the same time the way he could.
In a remarkably short amount of time, Charles Spencer Chaplin had rocketed from a successful career on the music hall stage to becoming not only the most beloved movie star of his day, but one of the most famous people in the world. Starting off at the Keystone Film Company in 1914, he moved on to Essanay, lured by a higher salary (2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Chaplin's screen debut in the Keystone comedy Making a Living). Already an audience favorite thanks to his Keystone films, it was at Essanay that Chaplin's star would rise higher than any other actor's of his day. However, Chaplin and his bosses weren't exactly on the best of terms, courtesy of Chaplin wanting his films to focus as much on character as comedy, which went against Essanay's formulaic way of doing things (as well as the studio bosses short-changing him on the salary they promised him).
In 1916, Chaplin signed a one-year contract with the Mutual Film Corporation for an astronomically high salary that made headlines (Chaplin wasn't greedy, but he knew what he was worth). Studio president John R. Freuler calculated that the profitability of Chaplin's movies made his salary demands worth it, and Freuler was proven far more correct than even he expected. Chaplin's end of the deal was to produce twelve two-reel comedies (running about 20 minutes each). The films Chaplin made for Mutual are considered by many film scholars and historians to be among his best work, and Chaplin described this period of his career as his happiest. (Personally, I think Chaplin's silent feature films represent Chaplin at his best, but there's no denying the brilliance of the Mutual films.)
Chaplin starred in, wrote, and directed all twelve of his Mutual comedies through the Lone Star Corporation, a Mutual subsidiary set up specifically for Chaplin's use. He also had a team of regular supporting actors that he used in almost all of these films. Edna Purviance was always the leading lady and love interest, a role she had played opposite Chaplin many times before, while the hulking Eric Campbell played the bullies and villains (although in real life, he was a super-nice guy). Albert Austin, typically (but not always) sporting a handlebar mustache, also appeared in a number of these films, usually as a fall guy. Another familiar face was Henry Bergman, who appeared in several different types of roles.
With a bigger budget and more relaxed schedule than he previously had access to, Chaplin was a meticulous filmmaker, sometimes doing hundreds of takes of the same scene over and over again or rewriting movies on the fly - much to the annoyance of the cast. (He frequently said "film is cheap," and that he'd rather not release a film at all than release a bad one.) This was one reason why he preferred to shoot in a studio as much as possible, where he had complete control of the environment. He kept his camera and lighting setups simple so as not to distract from the performances, and also because it was just faster to set up that way.
This period in Chaplin's career also marks the continuing evolution of Chaplin's Tramp from a purely comedic character to the Dickensian tragicomic figure we know and love. The genius of Chaplin's comedy, especially in these films, is how guileless his Tramp character is. He's not causing chaos out of malice or for the heck of it - he's just completely oblivious that he's doing it. There's also his air of dignity he maintains, no matter what kind of situation he finds himself in. (In his Keystone days, one critic observed that while a standard Keystone gag would involve someone accidentally running into a tree, Chaplin would tip his hat to the tree to apologize afterwards.) A more noble quality is his willingness to stick up for underdogs and stand up to bullies. Most importantly, and this is what I think is what made The Tramp so endearing to his audiences, is his eternal optimism. At the end of his more dramatic movies, no matter how broken his heart is or how dashed his hopes may have been, he picks himself up, brushes himself off, and walks off into the sunset, ready to face whatever else may come his way.
Since the Mutual comedies are short, and there are only twelve of them, I'm not going to write an individual blog entry for each movie. Instead, I'm just going to briefly review them here. (Besides, as I learned from my review of Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box, short comedies aren't the easiest thing in the world to devote an entire post to.)
The Floorwalker (1916)
The Floorwalker follows the tone and style of Chaplin's Essanay films, focusing on getting laughs with little of the pathos Chaplin would be known for. The film is set in a department store, where the manager (Eric Campbell) and his floorwalker henchman are worse crooks than the customers, each of whom appears to be a blatant shoplifter. Chaplin is one such customer who helps himself to shaving supplies under the very eyes of the floorwalker. When the police arrive, tipped off about the manager's embezzling attempt, they mistake Chaplin for his accomplice, and a wild chase ensues. Most of the gags in this movie revolve around an escalator (or moving staircase, as it was known as back then). Word has it that Mack Sennett, Chaplin's former boss at Keystone, was impressed by The Floorwalker's use of an escalator and demanded to know why his team hadn't thought of it first.
The Fireman (1916)
A pretty basic premise again played more for slapstick laughs than anything else. Chaplin is an inept fireman working for a corrupt fire chief. Chaplin becomes a hero when an unscrupulous business owner, working with Chaplin's boss, sets fire to his own building for the insurance - unaware that his daughter is trapped in the inferno. Chaplin made extensive use of reverse photography for a lot of the gags and the stunts, but aside from that, this one isn't the most memorable of the bunch. Chaplin wanted to make what he thought was a crowd pleaser, and while it did indeed please, and it's definitely funny, one theater distributor wrote to Chaplin expressing his sad disappointment that the movie wasn't more inventive. Chaplin took the letter to heart and promised to trust his own creative instincts instead of pandering to his audiences from here on out.
The Vagabond (1916)
The Vagabond is a landmark in the evolution of Chaplin's Tramp character, as well as his incorporation of drama into his films (although not his first attempt at this). Chaplin's Tramp is a wandering musician this time around who tries to help a young lady who's been abducted by gypsies. The young lady, as it turns out, is an heiress who's been missing for years, and she's returned to her family, leaving the Tramp behind. A happy ending, however, is tacked on to the end of the film, which feels out of place. (There have been rumors of an alternate ending where the Tramp attempts suicide by jumping in a river, and is rescued by a hideous woman - prompting him to jump back in when he gets a good look at her. However, there's no evidence that Chaplin ever planned, let alone filmed, any of this.)
One A.M. (1916)
Only Chaplin could get away with this premise for a comedy - a drunken rich guy returns home and basically spends the next twenty minutes trying to get from his front door into his bed. It doesn't help that Chaplin's house is one giant obstacle course decked out like something from an old Nintendo game, with clock pendulums, spinning tables, and carpets standing between him and his bed. (Now that I think about it, this would make a fun video game). Not only that, but aside from a cameo by Albert Austin as a cab driver, Chaplin's the only actor in this movie, so he has to carry this premise by himself. In his music hall days, one of Chaplin's most popular acts was playing a drunk, and One A.M. is a callback to those days.
The Count (1916)
Chaplin plays an inept tailor's assistant who is finally fired for screwing up one time too many. His now former boss (Eric Campbell) steals an invitation from a customer's coat to a visiting count, inviting him to a fancy party in honor of Miss Moneybags (Edna Purviance). Chaplin has a friend in one of the servants of Miss Moneybags's household, and when he sees his ex-boss at the party, Chaplin thwarts him by posing as the count himself and claiming Campbell is his servant. It's not one of Chaplin's better films, but it's still got some good comedy in it - especially Campbell clearly wanting to throttle Chaplin but not being able to without exposing his own duplicity.
The Pawnshop (1916)
Another comedy gem - Chaplin works at a pawn shop, has a crush on his boss's daughter (Edna Purviance), and drives his boss and co-workers crazy with his ineptitude before saving the shop from a robber (Eric Campbell). The film's most memorable scene is Chaplin "examining" an alarm clock brought to him by Albert Austin, who continues to gape at Chaplin with increasing degrees of "WTF?" as Chaplin dissects the watch further and further. His rivalry with his co-worker is also good for some gags, especially when Chaplin's throttling him in a fight - only to hurl himself to the floor writhing in fake pain as Edna Purviance walks in on them, causing her to scold the other guy.
Behind The Screen (1916)
This is not, unfortunately, a behind the scenes documentary about Chaplin at work or how he makes his movies. It's an excellent slapstick comedy set in a movie studio. Chaplin plays an assistant prop guy whose boss (Eric Campbell) is a lazy, blustery jerk. Edna Purviance gets a job as a stagehand by disguising herself as a young man, and she and Chaplin naturally fall in love - and save the day when they thwart a scheme by striking stagehands to blow up the studio. Most of the gags involve Chaplin cluelessly causing havoc by intruding on one movie set after another, a premise he'd used twice before in earlier short comedies. (This was one of the first movies to make any kind of reference to homosexuality. After Chaplin discovers Purviance's character is a girl in disguise, they share a kiss. The unwitting Campbell ends up making a nasty gay-bashing joke, to which Chaplin responds by literally kicking Campbell's butt.)
The Rink (1916)
This is one of Chaplin's most popular short comedies, where he plays an incompetent waiter who takes a lunch break at a local roller skating rink. The restaurant gags are cute, such as Chaplin coming up with a messy diner's tab by analyzing the stains on the customer's clothes. The skating scenes are the highlight of the film, and one of the more iconic moments of Chaplin's cinematic career. Chaplin was a talented skater, a talent he picked up for the stage, and it shows in this film. He's occasionally supported by wires, but otherwise, it's all him.
Easy Street (1917)
Easy Street starts out on a serious note with Chaplin's Tramp huddled up against the entryway of a church and walking in bashfully at the sounds of singing. A stern-looking but kindly priest (Albert Austin) and the lovely organist (Edna Purviance) offer to help him somehow, and he's moved enough to return the collection box he somehow managed to swipe and conceal. We then cut to Easy Street, where senseless violence and anarchy run rampant. The police are overwhelmed, and are forced to hire new officers. The Tramp, in need of a job, joins the force and is naturally assigned to the Easy Street beat. Genuinely funny hijinks ensue alongside a sobering take on urban crime, poverty, and even drug and spousal abuse.
The Cure (1917)
This is deemed Chaplin's all-time funniest movie by a number of Chaplin historians, and it's hard to argue otherwise. Chaplin again plays a drunken gentleman who is sent to a sanitarium to get detoxed (apparently against his will). A still plastered Chaplin manages to cause all kinds of havoc - especially when the servants and caretakers discover his carefully hidden stash of liquor and take advantage of their find. He must also contend with a brutal masseur (Henry Bergman) and a lecherous gout-stricken fellow patient (Eric Campbell), not to mention a charming young lady who wants him to give up booze. Chaplin's fellow superstars Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford jokingly sent a telegram to Chaplin, informing him that they intended to sue him for the damage to their ribs from laughing so hard while watching The Cure.
The Immigrant (1917)
This is another of Chaplin's efforts to blend drama and comedy, and Chaplin's personal favorite of his short films. Chaplin plays a newly arrived immigrant to America, after having endured rough seas and being falsely accused of pickpocketing, only to be greeted by a bullying immigration official. (This scene would really come back to bite him when J. Edgar Hoover used it to "prove" Chaplin was anti-American.) It's not completely serious, though. There's some solid comedy when he's in a restaurant with Edna Purviance, and he misplaces the coin he needs to pay for the meal. Poor Edna had to do so many takes of a shot of her eating beans, she literally got sick. Chaplin would later do this to himself when making The Gold Rush (1926) in the famous shoe-eating scene.
The Adventurer (1917)
Chaplin completed his obligation to Mutual with this film, where he plays an escaped convict on the run. He's taken in by a wealthy family who doesn't realize he's a convict, and of course, there's Eric Campbell jealously competing with Chaplin for Edna Purviance's affections. The Adventurer was made four months after The Immigrant's completion, due to Chaplin needing some down-time after the frantic pace of making the previous films one after another. Not only that, but Chaplin was worried he was running out of ideas by this point and relying too much on old formulas. He needn't have worried in this particular case - The Adventurer was his most popular Mutual film with audiences, and is absolutely hysterical to watch. On a sadder note, this was the last film performance of Eric Campbell, who was killed in a car accident not long after this movie was completed.
If you haven't seen a Charlie Chaplin movie, or a silent film in general, this is an excellent place to start. Not only do these short comedies provide a good gateway to feature-length silent movies, but they're masterpieces of comedy - and dramedy - in their own right. There are a couple of DVD sets out there for Chaplin's Mutual films, although I'd recommend the 90th Anniversary edition personally. It's a bit pricier, but the picture quality and supplemental materials make it worth it. However you go about it, these are definitely worth seeing.
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