Making A Living (2 February 1914)

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ChaplinMakingLiving1Released: 2 February 1914, Keystone

Director: Henry Lehrman

Writers: Reed Heustis, Henry Lehrman

Duration: 13 mins (one reel)

Filmed: 5-9 January, 2014

With: Henry Lehrman, Virginia Kirtley, Minta Durfee, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport

Story: Womanising swindler Edgar English (Chaplin) battles a rival (Lehrman) for a woman’s (Kirtley) favours, then steals his rival’s news scoop photograph of a car accident, so winning the job of reporter.

Production: Making A Living packs an awful lot of incident into its one reel running time. However, the character Chaplin plays in his first released film is not the familiar tramp. Instead, he appears to be a down-on-his luck ‘gentleman’ or a tramp trying to rise above his station. He sports a top hat, instead of the later bowler, and a monocle (as well as a distinctly Jason King epic moustache). He does have the cane, but the rest of his ensemble—including a fetching frock coat—speaks of someone trying to maintain their sartorial dignity in the face of adversity.

The look is redolent of the kind of outfit Chaplin wore as part of the Fred Karno vaudeville troupe, which the comic had joined aged 19 after a tough childhood in London. He was spotted during an American tour with Karno by a Keystone representative and thought of as a possible replacement for their star comedian Fred Mace who was leaving the company. Although Chaplin regarded the Keystone comedies as ‘a crude melange of rough and tumble’ (an accurate description of Making A Living), He saw the possibilities of working in film. Hired in September 2013, he was signed up for a fee of $150 per week. At 24, Chaplin was thought to appear too young for movies by Keystone boss Mack Sennett. Chaplin learned the basics of filmmaking the Keystone way during December and January, before he featured in this one-reeler (which he later professed to dislike intensely). However crude and atypical this short is, it was the beginning of a steep learning curve for Charlie Chaplin.

Director Henry Lehrman was an early film pioneer, having emigrated from Austria and taken up a role at Biograph in 1909. He started as an actor, making a friend in fellow bit player Mack Sennett. He joined Sennett as one of the founders of Keystone, becoming the studio’s head director (he had a relationship with Virginia Rappe, the unfortunate ‘victim’ in the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921). Chaplin complained that Lehrman had cut all his best comedy business from Making A Living as he was jealous of how quickly the newcomer had figured out how best to use the medium of film.

This ‘Farce Comedy’ (as the title card has it) opens with Chaplin begging Lehrman’s passer-by for some money to buy some grub (Chaplin gets all that across through mime, so no intertitles are needed). He next encounters the same man when he proposes to Kirtley and gets into a well-pantomimed brawl with him. A third encounter follows when they both apply for the role of reporter on a newspaper. Lehrman lucks out in capturing a photograph of an automobile crashing off a cliff (a rather spectacular stunt) via his camera. Chaplin comes across the commotion, steals the camera and Lehrman’s notes, thereby getting the scoop and winning the job.

There are some curious ‘real world’ elements that make this early film even more interesting. The compositors at the newspaper (believed to have been filmed at the real offices of the Los Angeles Times) show a by-gone age of hot metal text setting, while the news boys queueing up with their bikes to get the next edition of the paper look authentic. The Los Angeles street scenes (complete with long gone trams, and the Fremont Hotel) provide the backdrop for a short chase (featuring Conklin’s solo Keystone Kop) and show a world not all that removed from today.

Slapstick: The first fight with director Henry Lehrman is amusing, but only Chaplin’s signature swirl recalls his yet-to-appear tramp character. Each encounter gets more ridiculous, including their spat in a strange woman’s room, and their final encounter in front of an approaching LA tram (they end up on the ‘cow catcher’ on front of the tram). At one point in the newspaper office, Chaplin almost sits on his own top hat.

Verdict: From small acorns…, 3/5

Next: Kid Auto Races at Venice (7 Feb 1914)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

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The Immigrant (17 June 1917)

Immigrant 06

Release Date: 17 June 1917

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin, Loyal Underwood, Janet Miller Sully, John Rand, James T. Kelley, Frank J. Coleman

Story: The Tramp’s arrival in the United States, where he finds love and heartbreak in equal measure…

Production: Charlie Chaplin’s penultimate film for Mutual sees him creatively stepping up a gear. The Immigrant is rightly acclaimed as one of Chaplin’s finest films from his Mutual period, but it is also a film that shows a maturation in his style, especially after the perhaps more inconsequential The Cure.

The starting point this time for Chaplin had been a plan to produce a ‘serio-comedy’ film about the nightlife of Paris and the people who inhabit it. ‘This theme offers scope for the sentimental touch which somehow always creeps into my stories,’ Chaplin told an interviewer at the time. ‘The trouble is to prevent that touch from smothering the comedy. There is so much pathos in the lives of all true bohemians that it is hard to lose sight of it even for a moment and the real spirit of that community is far too human and deeply respected by the world at large for me even to think of burlesquing it.’

Immigrant 04The original version of this film was to open in a restaurant where Charlie and Edna would be customers, with Eric Campbell inevitably cast in the role of an irascible waiter. Again, the discarded footage used in the Brownlow and Gill documentary series Unknown Chaplin clearly shows how Chaplin slowly but surely developed his material, almost in real time. Take after take, he’d slowly finds the story or the incident he wanted to portray, sometimes moving actors around from role to role until he found the right fit for each of his ‘rep company’ members. Initially, Campbell was absent and the Tramp’s dining partner wasn’t Edna but Albert Austin. It was only on take 46 that Austin exits and Edna enters, after about three days of shooting.

The addition of Campbell as a foil after a full week of shooting (replacing the original waiters, James T. Kelley and Henry Bergman) changes the tone of the piece, and it is surprising it took Chaplin a while to arrive at this idea, as it had worked so well (and recently) in so many previous films. The slow development of something approaching a plot (it is more a series of small events) comes when Chaplin decides that his Tramp does not have the funds to pay his bill. A series of comic developments sees him work his way out of this predicament, and in the process of shooting this sequence, Chaplin began to ask himself what had happened previously to bring the Tramp and Edna to this time and place.

As with Easy Street, Chaplin drew upon his own background as an immigrant to America to give his characters a possible backstory. Out of Chaplin’s slow burn filmmaking method developed the main thrust of this short, some distance from his rather more simple starting place. This layering of complexity over something initially rather simple would stay with Chaplin his entire creative life; he would develop the bigger themes of his films from a series of smaller incidents that would lead him to something larger and more meaningful.

Immigrant 01Unknown Chaplin reveals there were over 700 takes involved in making this film, about half set in and around the restaurant scenario that Chaplin started out with, and the other half focusing on life aboard the boat bringing the immigrants to the ‘new world’. The boat setting—something Chaplin had used to varying degrees of success before in such films as A Busy Day, The Rounders (a rowing boat!), Tillie’s Punctured Romance, By the Sea (a lifebelt, rather than a boat), and Shanghaied (Chaplin reused the rocking set idea he’d developed for that film on The Immigrant). He’d return to the theme almost immediately in The Adventurer, his final film for Mutual, and explore it further in A Day’s Pleasure, The Gold Rush, and in his final film as director, A Countess from Hong Kong.

During his Karno tours of America Chaplin had come to the country aboard the Cairnrona on his first trip in 1910, and then on board the Oceanic—having arrived in America for the second time he stayed, soon finding himself making his first films at Keystone in 1914. The immigrant experience was something close to Chaplin’s heart, and he saw an opportunity in exploring the origins of the Tramp and Edna in this film to explore the topic in greater depth. He immediately instructed his set designer Danny Hall to find a suitable vessel, and Hall soon hired a ‘tramp steamer’ registered at San Pedro at the cost of $1300 per day. It took 10 days before Chaplin got around to start shooting on the hired ship.

Immigrant 02Such was Chaplin’s production process that the opening scenes of The Immigrant were the last to be shot. Sea-sickness was clearly an irresistible comic topic for Chaplin, and he makes much play of the Tramp (and others’) uncomfortable voyage across the sea, although when we first see him and assume he is ill, he is only in the throws of wrestling with a captured fish. Amid the would-be immigrants to America are a variety of characters (and caricatures) that the Tramp falls foul of, among them Albert Austin’s unwell Russian, Henry Bergman in drag (again) as a peasant woman, and Loyal Underwood as his tiny husband. As the Statue of Liberty comes into view of the weary travellers, they are roped together like cattle in a far from welcoming gesture (in this moment, Chaplin managed to sneak some basic and subtle political commentary into the film—outtakes also see him rounding on recalcitrant extras with an unusual degree of directorial anger during shooting).

At the end of the undisciplined filming process on The Immigrant, Chaplin had around 40,000 feet of film to work with in order to produce a short that was supposed to be about 1,800 feet in length (he’d apparently shot a total of 90,000 feet of film, equivalent to D. W. Griffith’s 12-reel feature film Birth of a Nation). Chaplin was unusual at that time for indulging in multiple takes, especially on short films. As David Robinson notes, ‘More than two years after The Immigrant, D. W. Griffith made his ambitious Broken Blossoms practically without a second take. For a director like Griffith to shoot any scene more than once would have been an admission of inadequate rehearsal and error. For Chaplin it was an assertion that it was always possible to do better.’

Faced with a seemingly unmanageable mountain of material, Chaplin spent the better part of a whole week, day and night, working on assembling a working cut of The Immigrant. He refused to break off until the work was done in fear that he might lose sight of the bigger picture he was trying to achieve. The editing process involved Chaplin viewing the same scenes (or variations thereof) over and over again, often up to 40 or 50 times to ensure he used the right take, the best option. As ever, his perfectionist tendencies were at play here and the final editing of The Immigrant was a painstaking process.

Where The Cure might have been the funniest of Chaplin’s Mutual films, The Immigrant was perhaps the most serious or most poignant. There is much comedy in it, of course, but underlying the whole thing is the theme of immigration and the struggle to make a new life in a strange world, the risks involved in finding companionship, and the worries of making ends meet in the face of a hostile world. All this in a comedy short that runs for under half-an-hour.

Immigrant 03On board ship the Tramp meets Edna and her mother (Kitty Bradbury), only to lose them when the party finally reaches land. It is in the restaurant, searching for sustenance, that the Tramp finds Edna once again. A purely visual sequence indicates that Edna’s mother has died, and Chaplin plays the sympathetic friend well here. The comedy crashes back in with his inability to pay and his conflict with Campbell’s waiter. After that, he and Edna leave the restaurant into the pouring rain, heading to the marriage bureau to get hitched (where Chaplin’s then-new valet, Tom Harrington, plays the clerk). It is both triumphant and melancholy, as most of Chaplin’s films would be from here on.

The Immigrant was a quicker production than The Cure, taking just two months as Chaplin had hit upon the central conceit of the film relatively early in the process. Simon Louvish, writing in Chaplin: A Tramp’s Odyssey, notes that ‘whatever the convoluted and exhaustive process used to achieve his results, those results were now seamless [with The Immigrant and The Adventurer], as if they had been meticulously planned and structured in advance. The process was quite unique among film-makers, and revealing of the odd and singular nature of Chaplin’s intuition.’ Although Chaplin’s ‘process’ may appear rather hit-and-miss from the vantage point of 100 years later, it worked for him. He may not have exactly known what he was making while in the throws of filming, but when viewing the results of his efforts he seemed to have an eye for just the right shot needed to cement any given sequence.

Photoplay magazine hadn’t been the only source of a mild backlash against Chaplin, having criticized his outlandish salary (although the magazine ultimately concluded that his films made it just about worthwhile). During 1917, Charlie Chaplin ‘when he’s drunk’ was on a list of things that Minneapolis teachers and ministers objected to. Chaplin may have been happy to be among such ‘objectionable’ company as ‘uncensored Wild West films, thrillers, Theda Bara’. A Detroit pastor had already attacked Chaplin’s salary, claiming that ‘the fact that Charlie Chaplin now receives the largest salary of any man in the United States … is clear evidence of the enormous numbers of low-grade, unintelligent, shallow-minded men and women in the United States.’ It was clear in this case that attacking Chaplin was part of some larger, perhaps eugenics-infused agenda, although the same pastor attacked Mary Pickford before rounding on ‘the coarse, vulgar slapstick of Chaplin, which passes for humour with the witless and coarse-grained person of a low-order of intellect.’ Wow.

While huge audiences worldwide found Chaplin’s comedy highly humorous without exception, and without regard to their intelligence (or otherwise), elite critics with a platform (then and today) liked nothing more than to turn upon and castigate the popular, especially if it was popular with the ‘uneducated lower classes’, that is the mass of the population.

Perhaps some of this Chaplin backlash had come about due to America’s entry into the Great War in Europe in April 1917. Chaplin had already addressed his non-participation upon Britain’s declaration of war, three years earlier. Now the fact America had joined the conflict offered his critics another chance to have a go at the comedian who was happy to cash-in while his fellow countrymen fought and died in bleak fields in Europe to defend freedom. These criticisms would stick to Chaplin, despite his best efforts—he had already donated $150,000 of his Mutual salary to the British war effort in February 1917—and would sow the seeds that ultimately dogged the comedian through the 1940s and led to his self-exile in Europe in the 1950s.

Chaplin, though, had other more personal issues on his mind at this time—he was about to renegotiate his deal with Mutual or look elsewhere to pursue his filmmaking endeavours.—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘The Immigrant touched me more than any other film I made. I thought the end had quite a poetic feeling. Even in those early comedies I strove for a mood; usually music created it. An old song called Mrs. Grundy created the mood for The Immigrant. The tune had a wistful tenderness that suggested two lonely derelicts getting married on a doleful, rainy day.’—My Autobiography, 1964

Trivia: Publicity for The Immigrant put out by the distributors highlighted an incident that occurred during filming, and revealed exactly how Chaplin went about directing himself and others during the making of a picture. ‘If you have wondered how Charlie Chaplin manages to play the lead in a production and at the same time direct all the other people who are acting in the scene, here is the reason: he is a ventriloquist, but none of the members of his cast discovered it until a bean which refused to go down with a spoonful of others lodged in Chaplin’s windpipe during the filming of The Immigrant. Chaplin was working with Edna Purviance in the foreground. They were seated at a table busily eating beans. Quick action was in progress in the background, and the various characters moved about at the sound of the “assistant director’s” voice. Charlie hurled directions from the depth of his chest to every corner of the set. “Slap me on the back,” he shouted from the side of this mouth to Eric Campbell, the 300 pound heavy, and Eric did it. Like lava from a volcano almost a pint of beans shot forth from Charlie’s face. It was now time for him to bring in some excitement in the background, and, still laughing, he leaned back in his chair, drew in his breath and was about to ventriloquize when the fatal bean choked him! His secret was out—the mystery of the “assistant director” was solved to the satisfaction of the players.’

The Contemporary View: ‘There’s no two ways about it: Charlie Chaplin is funny. If, perchance, you are a grouch and resolutely set yourself in the mental attitude that you won’t be amused by his nonsensicalities, go to any theatre where The Immigrant is being shown and, in spite of yourself, you’ll be carried away by those about you. The surprising thing about it all is that nobody ever thought of placing him on board a ship as one of a load of immigrants. Now that it is brought to your attention, it is as obvious as the historical story of Columbus and the egg… The $670,000 a year funny man is still “there”. The extremely limited number of titles speak volumes for the pantomimic art of the comedian.’—Variety, 22 June 1917

‘[The Immigrant is] a transparent intermezzo well repaying the closest analysis. In its roughness and apparent simplicity it is as much a jewel as a story by O. Henry and no full-time farce seen on our stages in years has been more adroitly, more perfectly worked out. It has, to an extraordinary degree, those elements of surprise that are necessary in every play, and which put the capstone of humour on comedy, because they add to the ludicrousness, the deliciousness of the unexpected. His payment of the waiter with his friend’s change concludes what is without any doubt at all the longest variation on a single comedy incident put on screen—a variation worked out with such patience and skill that every sequence of action seems entirely natural and spontaneous.’—Photoplay, September 1917

Verdict: Perhaps the best of the Mutuals, The Immigrant is when Chaplin’s serious side began to shine.

Next: The Adventurer (22 October 1917)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

 

 

The Cure (16 April 1917)

The Cure 1

Release Date: 16 April 1917

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, John Rand, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley, Frank J. Coleman

Story: A drunk (Chaplin) checks into a health spa in order to dry out, but brings a suitcase full of booze with him…

Production: Where Easy Street saw Charlie Chaplin branching out and drawing upon his own childhood experiences of poverty for inspiration, with his next film for Mutual, The Cure, he returned to the tried and tested: his familiar drunk routine. This new spin on a character he’d been playing since his earliest days in vaudeville was his attempt to go straight, even if he turns up at the spa for the cure with a huge trunk full of booze in tow.

Of course, the humour in such a film comes from the Tramp’s complete resistance to any attempt to sober him up. A relaxing massage turns into a wrestling match, while the Tramp’s supply of back-up booze ends up in the water fountain, leading to all sorts of mayhem. Also in the mix is Eric Campbell’s gout sufferer, ensuring that Charlie gets his sensitive leg stuck in the revolving door, and Edna Purviance needs to be rescued from assorted drunks who’ve partaken of the fountain’s ‘healing’ waters. At the finale, both Charlie and Edna end up in the very same fountain.

The Cure is fast-moving and joke packed, made at a time when Chaplin was in his element, enjoying the security of his Lone Star studio and the complete trust of Mutual, who were resigned to if not relaxed about his slowed pace of production. They knew he’d complete the contracted 10 films, but they perhaps hoped he might have finished before October 1917, when he completed The Adventurer.

The Cure 2Three months had elapsed since the release of Easy Street, a significant period between Chaplin movies. Chaplin’s working process was becoming ever more elaborate and drawn out, as revealed in the Kevin Brownlow/David Gill documentary Unknown Chaplin. Thanks to saved outtakes and unused material, skilfully compiled by Brownlow and Gill, it is possible to witness Chaplin constructing The Cure by shooting, revising, and rethinking individual scenes and scenarios. Spontaneous ideas would mean rearranging or replacing already shot material, while previously discarded notions re-emerge as the work progresses. The opening sequence, for example, was apparently only reached by a total of 84 takes and a rethink in the design of the set.

Through the numbered takes we can see Chaplin’s character evolving from bellboy to spa attendant, as the action is relocated from forecourt to the lobby of the health facility. A wheelchair bound patient is initially Eric Campbell, but is then replaced in later takes by Albert Austin. At one point, Chaplin’s employee becomes an ersatz traffic cop, directing the increasing number of wheelchair bound patients.

It is only after 77 takes of various bits of business that Chaplin removes the fountain in the forecourt, replacing it with a more accessible well, so much the better for falling in to. The first drunk to take a dunk is played by John Rand, under Chaplin’s close direction. At some point, whether through frustration or because he couldn’t resist the temptation of the role himself, Chaplin had dropped his previous characters and stepped into the part of the drunk. That led to the revolving door and the emergence of the final version of The Cure as we now know it.

The Cure 3It was little wonder that the progress of each film would be slower and more involved given the way Chaplin was approaching his work. He’d seemingly inherited the idea of starting a film based upon a simple scenario, character or location from Keystone, but on top of that he’d brought his own perfectionist instincts. Having built up a solid reputation for good work in such a short period of time, it is fair to speculate that Chaplin must’ve been terrified of turning in anything less than his best efforts. However, his approach of ‘finding’ the film in the shooting of it was both beneficial and detrimental. A benefit shows up in comic business created accidentally: in one take around the revolving door, Chaplin’s cane gets accidentally caught in the door. A few takes later, he starts to incorporate this ‘accident’ as a deliberate bit of business. This kind of thing would happen a lot as he used time, his colleagues, and reels and reels of film to work out his ideas. The downside was that he could now spend months on each individual film, determined to get it right, constantly striving to improve whatever he’d worked out, only agreeing to release it once his high standards had been satisfied. It certainly worked on the critics, who largely failed to perceive the amount of effort that went in to creating such ‘spontaneity’, such that Motion Picture World was able to say of The Cure: ‘Chaplin’s inimitable expressions and postures are so spontaneous that one cannot for a moment think of his work as preconceived effort.’

The Cure 7Simon Louvish, in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, positions The Cure as a kind of sequel to One A.M., working on the assumption that the character of ‘Mr. Arthur Arkwright, the naturalist’ may be the same drunk audiences saw struggling with the contents of his home when he arrived back late one night slightly the worse for wear. Perhaps, so Louvish’s theory goes, The Cure sees the same character presenting himself for detoxification. According to Louvish, ‘The Cure is a torture chamber of society’s solutions for the demon rum’s malignant authority… The revolving door exemplifies [the] failed attempt at moral resurrection … There is no cure for society’s ills, as it is incurably insane.’

Was Chaplin’s approach to filmmaking at this stage an example of his growing abilities as an artist, creating the films with the camera as an author writes with a pen (or typewriter), being willing to discard what doesn’t work, to rework material, or even drop everything in order to start again? Or was it, as Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton suggests, simply symptomatic of a man who couldn’t make up his mind? It took Chaplin four months to complete and release The Cure, and while the final film is regarded as one of his best, the increasing delays and slowing pace of production was of concern to Mutual, who felt their ‘Lone Star’ was perhaps delaying production for no very good reason (except, maybe, his own enrichment).

Milton reports that Chaplin was becoming ever more moody during this time, and had a tendency to upset those he was working with, perhaps simply a symptom of his own artistic frustration in making The Cure. A new recruit among Chaplin’s company during the early part of 1917 was his new personal publicist, Carlyle T. Robinson, who would remain by the comedian’s side for the next decade and a half. Robinson quickly found that Chaplin ‘was a very difficult person to meet, even within his own studio. I learned also that it was absolutely forbidden for strangers to penetrate into the studio, that the star did not like journalists, and did not wish to be bothered by old friends, even those who had known Charlie Chaplin when he played in the English music halls.’

Robinson quickly got the measure of his new employer, learning his ways. It was clear that Chaplin did not keep anything resembling ‘office hours’, and would come and go from the studio at all hours of the day and night, as inspiration or the need to work struck him. Robinson was to be on the receiving end of Chaplin’s eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, as well as his strongly expressed likes and dislikes. According to Robinson, Chaplin’s favourites, like Henry Bergman, tended to be disliked by the rest of the crew working on the Chaplin films, simply because they’d been singled out for the star’s favour.

The Cure 5For all its inventiveness, there is something basic about The Cure. The scenario is not particularly unique, while the comic business featuring Chaplin’s drunk and Eric Campbell’s gout-struck foot is par for the course. Even the negligent romance with Edna is underplayed, except for one surprising moment that sticks out today. As noted by John Kimber in The Art of Charlie Chaplin, ‘[Charlie and Eric]’s routine feuding over Edna is enlivened by a moment when Charlie imagines that Eric’s salacious invitations are being directed at him, and reacts with a mixture of embarrassment and pleasure.’

Chaplin’s focus on the mischief making drunk is a throwback to his earlier Keystone shorts in which the Tramp was the source of most of the mayhem that ensued. In The Cure he has retreated from being the figure of authority seen in his policeman in Easy Street, bringing order where there is chaos, and has instead returned to playing the Trickster figure, the one who causes the chaos where there otherwise was order.—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘When I see a screen actress get ready to cry, I look the other way until she’s through with the spasm. It gives me the shudders; I feel ashamed. That isn’t good acting. Some directors insist on their actresses crying during certain kinds of emotional scenes. Then they show a close-up of tears furrowing through make-up. Uhh! One of the easiest things in acting is to bring tears. I can do it any time, but I should never forgive myself if I had some scene like that photographed.’—New York Tribune Sunday, 30 December 1917

Trivia: Chaplin’s astonishing earnings at Mutual [see Chaplin Signs With Mutual] had been causing consternation through 1916 and 1917 in the motion picture community, with many arguing that his payment was ridiculously high at a time of war when many people were struggling to earn a decent income. Photoplay magazine ran an article entitled ‘C. Chaplin, Millionaire-Elect’ that focused on Chaplin’s accumulating wealth. Photoplay noted that ‘Except for John Hayes Hammond, President of US Steel, ‘Chaplin’s salary is likely the biggest salary grabbed off by any public person outside of royalty.’ Statistics revealed that Chaplin’s salary made up 17 per cent of the total salaries paid to 96 Senators and 435 Representatives of the US Congress, and 93 per cent of the Senate’s payroll.

The Contemporary View: ‘If there should be any impression that Charlie Chaplin has slipped the slightest in his ability to comically mime in the films, the once over of his latest effort, The Cure (Mutual), should certainly “cure” any such idea. … It may be that Chaplin fans will vote The Cure the best of the Mutual’s so far. It has been […] months since the previous Chaplin, Easy Street, was released, and therefore the new one is considerably late. A reason for that probably is the rather pretentious hotel setting employed, which looked good enough to have taken plenty of time for construction. … The Cure is a whole meal of laughs, not merely giggles, and ought to again emphasize the fact that Charlie is in a class by himself.’—Variety, 13 April 1917

‘[The Cure] wherein Charlie Chaplin proves himself a great comedian. There is little slapstick comedy used in this burlesque on sanatorium life. Chaplin’s inimitable expressions and postures are so spontaneous that one cannot for a moment think of his work as preconceived effort. It is interesting to note that of each of Mr. Chaplin’s latest comedies one feels like saying: “the best yet”.’—Motion Picture Magazine, July 1917

Verdict: One of the best Mutuals, even if Chaplin’s character reverts to near-Keystone type as the creator of chaos.

Next: The Immigrant (17 June 197)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

Easy Street (22 January 1917)

easy-street-6

Release Date: 22 January 1917

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 23 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley, Henry Bergman

Story: The Tramp arrives on Easy Street, where a visit to the local Mission leads him to join the police and tackle the local bully (Eric Campbell) to restore order.

Production: During 1917 Charlie Chaplin would complete his contract with Mutual by producing four more films: Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant, and The Adventurer. To one degree or another, all four are widely regarded as being amongst Chaplin’s finest work.

For his first film of 1917, Chaplin turned to his own childhood experience, with a dash of the Karno sketch ‘Early Birds’ thrown in. The idea for a comedy set among the people of the slums had come to Chaplin while he was editing Behind the Screen, and he immediately commissioned the construction of one of his most elaborate sets yet. Easy Street would see the building of the first of several T-shaped street scenes (devised by set designer Danny Hall), within which his drama could play out. This one cost the studio about $10,000 to construct and was bigger than the elaborate set previously employed for the department store in The Floorwalker.

For Chaplin biographer David Robinson, this huge set ‘has the unmistakable look of South London’ (where Chaplin grew up in poverty). Wrote Robinson in 1985, ‘Even today, Methley Street, where Hannah Chaplin [Charlie’s mother] and her younger son lodged, between Hayward’s pickle factory and the slaughterhouse, presents the same arrested vista, the cross-bar of the “T” leading to the grimier mysteries on either side.’

According to Peter Ackroyd’s Chaplin biography, the comedian’s inspiration came from East Street in Walworth, where he believed he had been born. Quite why Chaplin should have been contemplating his urban origins in 1917 isn’t entirely clear. To this point, his Tramp persona had largely existed in the new American city (with the occasional rural outing). Now, he was journeying back beyond even the old Karno sketches that he’d recently drawn on for The Rink or in One A.M. to his own childhood experiences in turn-of-the-century London for inspiration.

easy-street-5Easy Street was one of Chaplin’s few Mutual outings in which he actually played a straightforward version of his Tramp character. His depiction in the opening minutes sees the Tramp at his most pathetic, curled up and destitute outside the Hope Mission. Lured inside by the sound of song, he witnesses a preacher’s sermon and is taken with the preacher’s daughter (Edna Purviance). Undergoing something of an instant transformation, the Tramp returns the collection box he’d stolen and hidden under his threadbare jacket. Easy Street was, as Robinson noted, ‘a comic parody of Victorian “reformation” melodramas’.

Chaplin takes things further than this simple story. Arriving on Easy Street, the now reformed Tramp comes upon a recruitment poster for the police and in an unlikely development, he quickly signs up. His move from wastrel to productive member of society (indeed, a figure of authority) is complete. Unfortunately he’s unaware of the high turn over of police officers in the area as they are ‘hauled away to the hospital hourly’, as John McCabe puts it in his Chaplin biography.

easy-street-2Now sporting a British policeman’s uniform that is naturally a size (or two!) too large for him (and with his helmet habitually on backwards), the Tramp returns to Easy Street, looking impose law and order on the unruly area which seems to be in a permanent condition of riot. Almost immediately he falls foul of the local bully, giant Eric Campbell, against whom a mere truncheon is ineffective. Rather than tackle the big fella himself, he puts in a call to the station for back up. Here, Chaplin once more engages in his comedy of transformation, trying to deceive Campbell by pretending the phone is in fact a musical instrument and then a telescope.

easy-street-10The most famous scenes of Easy Street involve Chaplin, Campbell and a street lamp. As the bully displays his strength by bending the lamp over, the Tramp manages to trap the bully’s head within the top of the lamp fitting and then uses the free-flowing gas supply to knock him out. The lampposts had proved problematic during the December 2016 shoot on Easy Street. They were made to be easy enough for Campbell to bend, but supposedly were strong enough to stand upright themselves. Instead, at least one of the lamps bent without any force being applied, only to hit Chaplin in the face, injuring his nose and delaying filming for a few days as he couldn’t wear his Tramp make-up and moustache (which a baby in the earlier mission scenes had previously grabbed off his face).

easy-street-3Simon Louvish, in his book Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, describes Chaplin’s lone cop as ‘all of Keystone rolled into one uniform’. It is his task to succeed where the rest of the force has failed, in taking down Campbell’s neighbourhood bully a peg or two. Of course, this capture is only temporary, as awakening in the police station Campbell’s force of nature soon breaks out, wrecking the station in the process. Chaplin’s policeman is only able to finally defeat the bully once and for all by dropping a cast iron stove on his head. He then has to rescue Edna from the hostile crowd, conjure up the strength when he accidentally sits upon a drug addicts needle, and—as Joyce Milton puts it in her book, Tramp—‘the cocaine cocktail works miracles’. It’s an odd development, out of keeping with the rest of the film.

Although Chaplin had slowed his production process quite a bit by 1917, certainly when compared to the breakneck pace at Keystone three years before, Mutual were anxious enough about the slow progress of Easy Street to issue a statement to the film trade. The delay was attributed to ‘the unusual character of the latest Charlie Chaplin production … involving so many big scenes which, while they appear to be “interiors” are exteriors, necessitating sun for their success.’ That winter had been unusually wet in California, making work on the open air Chaplin sets difficult at times. Chaplin, the Mutual statement went on, preferred ‘to delay completion of the comedy until conditions for its successful filming are perfect.’

Easy Street is one of the few Chaplin films to feature young children—in one scene where the Tramp policeman is dispensing food to impoverished children, he does it as though he were scattering grain to chickens. Much later, Chaplin explained to Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein that the scene communicated his own dislike of children. Eisenstein was reported to have not been surprised at this revelation: after all, he explained, the only people who do not like children are other children, thereby casually labelling Chaplin as either infantile or child-like. Another whom the comedian told of his dislike of children was English author Thomas Burke. Some felt this was because children may have intimidated the comedian. Chaplin saw in children his most astute critics, not yet cursed by self-awareness but attuned to detect insincerity on behalf of posturing adults. [See Trivia].

As he had done in the past, Easy Street saw Chaplin trying to perfect something he’d explored in a previous film. Chaplin had laid the groundwork for Easy Street in Police (belated released in May 1916 after he’d left Essanay; see Chaplin: A Centenary Celebration for full coverage), made between The Bank and A Night in the Show. At that same time, Chaplin had been working on a project tentatively titled Life (again, see Chaplin: A Centenary Celebration), a film he ultimately left incomplete, with Essanay incorporating some footage into Police (and Triple Trouble, 1918).

Life was both Charlie Chaplin’s first attempted feature film and his first abandoned project. It was also intended to be Chaplin’s first fusion of comedy and tragedy, a difficult mix he wouldn’t really get to grips with in any serious way until these later films at Mutual. Intended to address the serious issue of urban poverty, a pressing issue at the time, Chaplin conceived of a sharply satirical, yet serious film that would be feature-length and would examine the lives lead by those at the bottom of society: the down-and-outs, the drunks, the ne’er-do-wells, even the Tramps. This ambition would find further expression in Easy Street.

In Charlie Chaplin and His Times, author Kenneth S. Lynn notes of Life: ‘The flophouse nightmare came straight out of Chaplin’s childhood experience—but not in a direct way. … For marginal people who have experienced status loss, there is always the fear of the abyss beneath them, as well as a compulsion to keep up appearances, to dress respectably, to speak properly. … In the Life fragments, the satirical savagery of Chaplin’s presentation of the poor devils in a squalid flophouse leaves little doubt that he had a horror of such people.’

easy-street-1Chaplin combined this with the idea of him playing a policeman, lifting the focus on law and order from 1916’s Police. Full of social commentary, Police was an indicator of the kind of depth Chaplin would bring to his work at Mutual. The combination of the examination of impoverished lives planned for Life with the role of the authority figure of the policeman from Police is what makes Easy Street so memorable among Chaplin’s Mutual output. The contrast between his slight figure of law and order with Campbell’s giant of an anarchic bully, together with the iconic location and setting, make for a more memorable short than most.

easy-street-9Nonetheless, there is a moral ambiguity in Chaplin’s figure of triumphant authority. He is ‘converted’ from outlaw Tramp to productive citizen by his visit to the Hope Mission, as much by the beauty of Edna Purviance as anything the minister might impart. Once he resolves to join the police, he moves from lawbreaker to enforcer, although he carries out his duties within his own moral framework. Rather than arresting a woman who steals bread, he helps her (by stealing more supplies) after hearing her story of impoverishment (on the other hand, he arrests a man who simply laughs at his outsized uniform). He follows in the path Edna laid before him, one of bringing relief and aid to others. That, as much as anything else, motivates his drive to rescue her from ruffians at the climax.

In a curious way, Easy Street looks forward to The Pilgrim (First National, February 1923). Where both Easy Street’s predecessor Police and this film feature sanctimonious preachers whose words help move Chaplin’s Tramp in the ‘right’ direction, by the time of The Pilgrim, he himself has become the preacher figure (albeit in disguise), imparting wisdom to others. It was perhaps based upon a transformation Chaplin himself had undergone, during his time in the United States, from inexperienced newcomer to global superstar, able to dictate his own destiny.

Given that Chaplin is often accused of sentimentality in his filmmaking (something that increased over time), it is perhaps surprising how unsentimental is the depiction of the poor and impoverished in Easy Street. Perhaps this comes from the ‘Early Bird’ Karno sketch upon which Chaplin was drawing, with its depiction of ‘the gruesome jollity of English poverty, wretchedness and crime’. The sketch even included the central conflict of Easy Street between the youthful defender of the street’s put-upon inhabitants and ‘the brutal, remorseless “rough”’ who is ultimately tamed by the use of a table as a weapon (in the original sketch, an oven in Easy Street).

bfi-5The entire film can be read as a kind of wish fulfilment for Chaplin, the (albeit on screen) realisation of a dream he had harboured since his own impoverished childhood. Chaplin’s brave cop is the one to restore order to the lawless streets, turning even Campbell’s bully and his wife into productive, well-behaved members of wider society. It is the triumph of order over chaos, of control over anarchy. This is not the creed of the Tramp, who spreads chaos wherever he goes, but of Easy Street’s reformed cop, who bests the bully and (in the spirit of Victorian charity) distributes food to needy children. It is an oddly different take on things than Chaplin normally presented in his comedy. At the end, a final title card proclaims: ‘Love backed by force, forgiveness sweet / Brings hope and peace, to Easy Street’. The question is whether this was Chaplin’s message, or simply the one he thought his audience expected to hear, especially during a time of war.—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘If there is one human type more than any other that the whole wide world has it in for, it is the policeman type. Of course, the policeman isn’t really to blame for the public prejudice against his uniform—it’s just the natural human revulsion against any sort of authority. Just the same, everybody loves to see the “copper” get it where the chicken got the axe. … The natural supposition is that the policeman is going to get the worst of it and there is intense interest in how I am to come out of my apparently unequal combat with “bully” Campbell.’

Trivia: Chaplin admitted to an uneasiness working with (or even simply being around) children, but this didn’t stop him (or his studio publicist) from using them to promote the movie. A statement was issued to the press that highlighted the fact that Chaplin did not like to see children being exploited by being put to work, even if it was by him at his studio. He’d seen enough of such things during his London childhood. Therefore, according to the reports, he instructed the children working on Easy Street to ‘play your favourite games. I will pay you for playing, not working.’ He later explained more in an interview, highlighting his own childhood experiences and recounting how at the age of six the poor financial and physical situation of his mother forced him onto the variety stage. The report noted that ‘conditions were not so favourable then as now, and Charlie looks back with horror on the late hours he had to keep to earn just a few shillings weekly.’

The Contemporary View: ‘In Easy Street, Charlie Chaplin supplies the Mutual [sic] with the two reeler that is almost a month late in release, but, it is said, from the fact that a lamp-post fell and marred the nose of the comic, forcing him to “lay off” for two weeks. There is a lamp-post used in Easy Street, and in the action it is bent and broken so that the alibi for the delay seems correct. Perhaps for the first time since he started with Mutual. Chaplin portrays a policeman … the resultant chaos and the several new stunts will be bound to bring the laughter and the star’s display of agility and acrobatics approaches some of the Doug Fairbanks pranks. Chaplin has always been throwing things in his films, but when he “eases” a cook stove out of the window onto the head of his adversary, on the street below, that pleasant little bouquet adds a new act to his repertory. Easy Street certainly has some rough work in it—maybe a bit rougher than the others—but it is the kind of stuff that Chaplin fans love. In fact, few who see Easy Street will fail to be furnished with hearty laughter.’—Variety, 2 February 1917

‘In Easy Street, Charlie Chaplin’s latest and best, if we may venture to obtrude so decided an opinion, an original key has been struck. At any rate, it is Chaplin at his funniest; and nothing much more entertaining, by way of comedy, could be imagined than his adventures with the street bully, when on occasion he has been placed on patrol duty in wild and woolly Easy Street, after having changed his profession from tramp to policeman. … With all this excellence of entertaining quality, the picture presented a couple of points which would require elimination. One of these occurs in the suggestive handling of an overturned baby’s bottle in one of the scenes in the East Street mission, and the other where the dope fiend makes too free use of the needle in one of the Easy Street tenements.’—Moving Picture World, 17 February 1917

Verdict: One of Chaplin’s most memorable outings, as much for the clash between his diminutive policeman and Eric Campbell’s outsized bully.

Next: The Cure (16 April 1917)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

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Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

 

 

The Rink (4 December 1916)

the-rink-10

Release Date: 4 December 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

With: Edna Purviance, James T. Kelley, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, Lloyd Bacon, Albert Austin, Frank J. Coleman, John Rand, Charlotte Mineau

Story: A clumsy waiter becomes an elegant roller skater at the local rink.

Production: As with several of Charlie Chaplin’s earliest films, he drew upon one of the old Fred Karno vaudeville sketches as the basis for his final film of 1916, The Rink—this one simply titled ‘Skating’, and originally developed on stage by Sydney Chaplin. Instead of simply reproducing the sketch, Chaplin takes it as an opportunity to fully develop the balletic movement he’d been tentatively employing in some of his films to this point—the fluidity of movement allowed by the roller skates he wears played directly into this.

the-rink-3Essentially, The Rink is simplicity itself and relies almost entirely upon Chaplin’s near mishaps when skating about for its laughs. Here the Tramp is employed as a waiter (one who can tell what someone has eaten simply by examining the customer’s tie) who loves to spend his downtime at the local skating rink. There he attempts to get closer to the young woman he’s taken a fancy to (Edna Purviance), while fending off Mr. Stout (the inevitable Eric Campbell). Henry Bergman appears in drag as the put-upon Mrs. Stout, hilarious in the finale as she slowly skates about behind everyone else.

The core of this short is in the choreography of Chaplin’s roller ballet, what John McCabe referred to as his ‘dance and bumps and falls and near misses, so beautifully choreographed that repeated viewing is unwearying. The Rink is a beautiful soundless waltz.’ With a few minor extra moments, that’s basically what the film is, and it may sound boring in the abstract: 20-odd minutes of some fella simply skating about doesn’t seem enticing, but when that ‘fella’ is Charlie Chaplin, we know it’ll be something special.

There’s a closer identification between the viewer and the Tramp in this short than perhaps in any of his work to this point. As he swoops around, narrowly avoiding collision, carefully skirting the edges, we are with him, experiencing his euphoria and sense of fun, with the same grace and the same near-jeopardy. McCabe highlights Eric Campbell’s ‘giant belly’ as almost a separate character in the film, and Chaplin’s collisions with Campbell serve as musical punctuation notes to the graceful ballet he is performing—he bounces off his foil regularly, both bringing to an end one movement, while also providing the kinetic energy for the next. Chaplin’s cane proves to be handy tool for keeping Campbell’s ruffian at arms length.

Professional roller skaters from the Los Angeles area were hired by the Lone Star Film Corporation to make up the extras in the rink, but there weren’t nearly enough of them to provide the numbers Chaplin needed. In addition, he had not been skating for quite a while, so needed to brush up his skills before shooting, so took advantage of the professionals he’d hired to coach him. Within a week, according to Joyce Milton, Chaplin was out-performing the pros.

the-rink-5

Although Chaplin rehearsed his work meticulously, the same could not be said for the others in the cast. Eric Campbell, at least, was very unsteady on his feet once on the rink, and preferred to stay as still as possible, waiting for Chaplin to come to him. In fact, one of Chaplin’s crew-members, Dave Allen, had the job of pushing Campbell onto the rink from out of camera range, a task achieved with a large stick which repeatedly bruised the poor man as he slid tentatively into the action. ‘When you pushed him into the scene, he had no idea what was coming,’ said Chaplin, talking with Allen. ‘I had it all figured out. As I was skating backwards on one foot—the other raised gracefully in mid-air—I planned to kick him right in the stomach just as you shoved him into the scene. It worked. The unsuspecting Eric got my skate right in the abdomen!’

Equally, Edna Purviance knew what was supposed to happen, but as Chaplin was prone to changing his mind or improvising in the moment, she and the others had little option but to go with the flow and simply react to whatever was happening. Chaplin was the master of their universe; they merely inhabited it.

the-rink-6The plot of The Rink, and the interrelationships of Mr. Stout (who is pursuing Edna) and Mrs. Stout (who is desired by Edna’s father), matter not a jot. The joy of the film is almost entirely in Chaplin’s physicality and his interactions with all these people. The fact that he is (once more) masquerading as a member of the aristocracy—Sir Cecil Seltzer C.O.D., no less—when visiting Edna’s skating party is no more an attack on the silly foibles of the rich than a throwaway joke, forgotten the minute it is enacted. No, the fun is in the skating, the charm and grace of the Tramp as he, almost literally, runs rings around everyone else involved.

According to research by John Bengston, the location used for the exterior of the skating rink is the same as that used for the exterior of the motion picture theatre in Chaplin’s Keystone movie Those Love Pangs, back in 1914, only with a large ‘Skating’ prop sign attached. The closing scene, where the Tramp escapes the irate skaters by hooking himself to the back of a moving automobile using his cane was filmed at an intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Silver Lake Boulevard, looking very different 100 years ago than they look today.

the-rink-1The earlier portions of The Rink focus on Chaplin’s role as an incompetent waiter; this sequence could come from almost any Chaplin film from the past two years—it would easily fit onto the Keystone or Essanay films, and in fact could have made up an entire single reel film early in Chaplin’s career. Certainly the havoc caused in the kitchen and dining room alike would feel right at home. The only thing different is the way he moves around. Over the years, Chaplin’s movement through space became more deliberate, less slapstick. His little, near-stationary dance while mixing a cocktail is an example of his new inventiveness, which would only be given full flower once he finally hits the rink itself, almost 12 minutes (about halfway) into the short.

It is then that his balletic athleticism comes to the fore. From his entrance to the party, tipping his ash into a hat, to skating around in a curve and his interactions with various women, prime among them Edna, Chaplin makes his mark. Perhaps the temptation to indulge in the Keystone-like ‘low comedy’ of the physical encounters with Eric Campbell were too much to resist, but The Rink may have been even better if we’d seen more of the ‘poetic’ Chaplin than the slapstick variety. The combination of Chaplin as a waiter and a skater would later be seen more fully realised in his feature film Modern Times (1936).

David Robinson, in Chaplin: His Life and Art, highlights one particular reaction to seeming changes to Chaplin’s character evidenced in The Rink. Writing in the New York Tribune, Heywood Broun said: ‘It is interesting to note that Chaplin falls only twice during the picture, both times of his own volition, and that not once is he kicked.’ Broun took this new approach on behalf of the comedian to be significant, expounding under the headline ‘Nietzsche Has Grip On Chaplin: The Rink Strong Plea for Acceptance of Master Morality’. Broun continued: ‘Is it not obvious, then, what ferment is at work in the philosophy of the Chaplin comedies? Gone is the old comedy of submission, as emphasized in The Bank, The Tramp, Shanghaeid and others, and in its place there has grown up a comedy of aggression. One cannot overlook the influence of Nietzsche and the ‘Will to Power’ here. … The new Chaplin is a superman, and though the hordes of fat villains may rage against him, with pie and soup and siphons they shall not prevail.’ Broun may have had a point, but putting in in such terms he clearly overplays his hand—as Robinson notes, ‘Broun, we may take it, was not wholly serious.’

the-rink-8This was one of Chaplin’s most popular comedies at the time, ideal fare for the holiday period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In The Rink, the Tramp transforms the environments he encounters. As a waiter, he is far from conventional, making absurd many of his regular duties. At the rink, he causes havoc while pursuing his own amusement—at one point Chaplin (as director) places Chaplin (as actor) in the background, merely surveying the chaos he has unleashed: he is the cause of it but he is not directly affected by any of it. He skates through the scene, flirting with danger (and with Edna), causing others to fall over or to suffer injury (Eric Campbell) and yet he emerges entirely unscathed, and seemingly unconcerned. He stays immaculate and upright, despite almost but not quite falling over on several occasions. It is only when he finally oversteps the mark by repeatedly bouncing on Mrs. Stout that those involve turn on the Tramp and chase him from the premises and into the street.

The Rink was Chaplin’s final film for 1916, a year in which he’d done much to consolidate his art, rehearsing, repeating, and improving upon everything he’d learned over the two previous years at Keystone and Essanay. He hadn’t quite managed to keep to his contract terms with Mutual to produce a new film every four weeks or so, and there were still four films outstanding. He would run the contract right through 1917 and slow down even further in his rate of productivity, producing four two-reelers over the next 10 months. However, he could be forgiven the indulgence as those four-reelers would comprise of Easy Street, The Cure, The Adventurer and The Immigrant, four of Chaplin’s best films to this point.Brian J. Robb

Remember to return to Chaplin: Film by Film on 22 January 2017 for our 100th anniversary coverage of East Street (22 January 1917)!

Charlie Says: ‘I’ll tell you why Mutual pays me $670,000 a year. It isn’t because I can amuse the American public alone, but because the same stuff that makes an American laugh also makes the Chinaman on the Yangtse rock himself out of his seat, or cause the Japanese audience in Tokyo or Kyoto to laugh vociferously, splits the visage of the Turk in Constantinople and gets the money that the Russian Moujik used to spend on vodka. In short, what we have discovered is the one touch of nature that makes the whole world kin … Once or twice I’ve tried to entertain audiences in a polite, restrained manner, the high class sort of thing, you know. I can’t say it was a huge success…’—New York Telegraph.

Trivia: In the winter of 1916, Mutual head John Freuler had a new idea to help promote Charlie Chaplin. He decreed that all Mutual vehicles would be fitted with new tires which would have embossed treads so that they wrote the name ‘Charlie Chaplin’ wherever they went, especially in the snow or dust of American roads. A newspaper reported that the ‘specially constructed non-skid tire will write the name Charlie Chaplin three times for each revolution. Between imprints of the name will be footprints, unmistakably those of the world’s champion foot-worker, these also being on the treads of the new tire.’ There is no actual evidence, however, that Frueler’s idea was ever actually implemented.

The Contemporary View: ‘There is plenty of fun provided by him [Chaplin] on the rollers and he displayed a surprising cleverness on them. A number of funny falls occurred as was looked for, with Charlie outshining and outwitting any of the others on the floor. When he couldn’t trip the “big guy” who was attempting to cop his girl, he used his old standby, the bamboo cane. All in all The Rink averages up well with the best work he has done for the Mutual.’—Variety, 1916

‘Chaplin at the rink is amusing enough, but such a vast amount of material is needed to keep a swift farce constantly on the move that this one opens up with the almost outworn business of an awkward waiter who creates almost endless confusion in both restaurant and kitchen…While Chaplin works hard and seems to stand the strain of being funny, an awful strain in its way, he is not given much new opportunity. A man of his resources could fit into hundreds of roles never before shown upon the screen, be even more amusing than he is and provide a greater variety of program.’—Louis Reeves Harrison, Moving Picture World, 1916

Verdict: A strangely divided confection, with two visits each to the restaurant and the skating rink, but it is redeemed by Chaplin’s skating antics.

Next: Easy Street (22 January 1917)

Available Now!

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

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Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

Behind the Screen (13 November 1916)

behind-the-screen-1

Release Date: 13 November 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 23 mins

With: Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, Frank J. Coleman, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Lloyd Bacon, Charlotte Mineau

Story: Working as a props assistant, the Tramp causes havoc behind the scenes of a movie studio.

Production: In his November 1916 Mutual short Behind the Screen (his seventh for the studio), Charlie Chaplin turned his attention to satirising his own occupation, the making of movies. Recalling The Property Man, Chaplin plays the assistant to a very lazy movie studio prop man (Eric Campbell). This was also territory he’d visited before in A Film Johnnie at Keystone and in His New Job at Essanay—this is essentially the same ‘chaos in a film studio’ scenario tackled at the third studio that Chaplin had worked for. Even The Masquerader at Keystone had featured a glimpse behind the scenes of a film studio.

The plot—in which striking stagehands threaten to blow up the studio—echoes similar elements in the bakery of Chaplin’s earlier Dough and Dynamite. Each time Chaplin drew on elements he’d used before it was because he felt he had something new to add to it, or a new way of getting bigger laughs from it.

behind-the-screen-2It is understandable how a filmmaker finding his way in a new art form could become interested in depicting to audience how that art form worked. Of course, in Chaplin’s case, he couldn’t help but use it for comedy. Behind the Screen depicts the practice of the time of multiple films—a costume historical, a melodrama, and a comedy—being shot side-by-side, as noise did not affect the making of these silent movies. Chaplin’s cultural mentor Henry Bergman features as the put upon film director whose work the Tramp does so much to disrupt.

A convention of silent comedy ably spoofed by Chaplin in Behind the Screen is the custard pie fight. The big names rarely indulged in this cliché—Buster Keaton never did (there’s some molasses and flour tossed in his first short, The Butcher Boy, 1917), while Harold Lloyd didn’t, certainly outside of his Lonesome Luke shorts (many of which no longer exist). The pie throwing is presented (in an intertitle) as a ‘new idea’ being pursued by a pretentious, shades-wearing, beret-clad director.

the-battle-of-the-centuryLaurel and Hardy took the joke to glorious extremes in 1927’s Battle of the Century in which an epic pie fight erupts to consume an entire city block (lost footage from this film was rediscovered in Summer 2015). The pie throwing gag can be traced back (in movies at least) to 1905, and through the 1910s the Keystone studio in particular had overused this ‘new idea’ so much that it had largely fallen from favour. Chaplin clearly felt that an inside movies spoof required a pie fight, so he ordered up 600 berry pies (far short of the reputed 3000 Laurel and Hardy would use over a decade later).

Invited to take part in the comedy film, the Tramp is set-up as the target of Eric Campbell’s pie thrower, a situation he’s none too happy about, so he proceeds to do it his way, not the director’s. The result is the kind of pie throwing orgy that was even then a cliché of moviemaking. Naturally, the pie throwing overspills the comedy film to impact on the participants in the costume drama, hitting such figures of the establishment and authority as the king and queen as well as an archbishop. Perhaps Chaplin was making a pointed comment? Ironically, as the intended original target, the Tramp is virtually the only one not to be his by a flying pie.

behind-the-screen-6In playing the comedy trap door scene that precedes the pie fight, Henry Bergman (as another director on the studio lot) had narrowly avoided a serious injury as he fell due to standing half-on and half-off the trap door at the time—he had the presence of mind to call for the cameras to keep rolling despite his mishap. As can be seen clearly in the film, he falls down with one leg on the solid floor and only one leg on the trap door he was supposed to fall through. This was only one of the ridiculous things that happened to Bergman’s director in the short; others include living under the threat of being repeatedly thumped by a prop pillar the Tramp is moving about, and then being stood on by the Tramp in his attempts to keep the pillar upright.

Once again comic transposition is in effect in Behind the Screen, as highlighted by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. Struggling to carry a host of wooden chairs, which are piled on top of him, Chaplin resembles nothing less than a human porcupine, the legs of the chairs becoming the outsized spines. He also lavishes his attentions upon a bearskin rug, carefully treating it with tonic, combing out any tangles, and stroking it and applying towels as if he were a barber and the rug a human client. In addition, right at the beginning he walks along a rolled-up carpet as though it were a tight rope and later—in the pie fight—uses two bottles as though they were binoculars in order to survey the action and locate the ‘enemy’.

behind-the-screen-10Perhaps the most notable element of Behind the Screen to modern eyes is its depiction of an apparent homosexual kiss. One of the plot elements of the film sees Edna Purviance gain access to the movie studio by disguising herself as a boy (although how this helps her stated aim of becoming an ‘actress’ is unclear). Hidden beneath a workman’s overall and a large cap (under which her hair is corralled), there’s little that truly disguised Edna’s only-too-apparent womanhood. However, as far as Chaplin’s Tramp is concerned, Edna is the ‘boy’ she is pretending to be—until he discovers her true identity as female when her cap falls off revealing her long hair.

Prop man Eric Campbell then enters the scene, only to catch the Tramp and the ‘boy’ kissing and the title card (missing from some prints) has him exclaiming ‘Oh, you naughty boys!’ He then indulges in a ‘fairy’ dance and turns his backside to the Tramp, providing Chaplin with a perfect target for a swift kick. In his biography of Chaplin, David Robinson maintains this scene was ‘the most overt representation of a homosexual situation in the Anglo-Saxon cinema before the 1950s’.

Brownlow and Gill’s documentary Unknown Chaplin revealed that in one sequence eventually cut from Behind the Screen Chaplin had utilised a technique sometimes later used by Buster Keaton (notably in Sherlock, Jr., where his driverless bike avoids a collision with a train). As Chaplin’s Tramp makes his way through the rehearsals of a French farce, an axman’s blade just misses his feet as he exits the scene. Through examination of the surviving out-takes from the sequence, Brownlow and Gill were able to demonstrate that Chaplin had in fact filmed the sequence in reverse, with him carefully walking through it backwards, so the axe was lifted from the floor rather than thrown down at it.

Several takes were completed to see if the sequence would work properly, but it never did to Chaplin’s complete satisfaction, so he dropped it and moved on. The scene actually looks fine, and may have worked well in the context of Behind the Screen, but there was something about it that perfectionist Chaplin just wasn’t comfortable with, so it was gone. He seems to have been unsentimental about cutting bits he felt failed, no matter how much work or time had gone into them. Luckily, as the extra material was preserved (against Chaplin’s own contemporary wishes) we have an insight into his working methods and the thought process that went into constructing his two-reelers at Mutual.

behind-the-screen-3Chaplin’s increasing focus off-screen at this time was on his efforts at self-improvement. Having missed out on any formal education, he was keen to make efforts to fit in with the kind of people, such as movie stars, studio executives, and popular intellectuals, among whom he was now regularly circulating. To that end, he hired Constance Collier, a famous actress from his youth, to give him elocution lessons—she was now making a living helping out movie stars with their public presentation. Chaplin was determined to lose any last traces of his London cockney accent and to adopt a more ‘cultured’ voice in which to communicate.

He read widely, determined to catch up on history and to stay abreast of modern cultural developments. He had no natural taste for opera, but was hopeful of acquiring at least a working knowledge of it so that he might keep up his end in any discussions at dinner parties or cultural events he attended. He never again wanted to repeat the mistake he’d made during a visit to the Metropolitan Opera (as reported in his autobiography) where in front of Enrico Caruso he’d made the faux pas of mistaking Rigoletto for Carmen.

behind-the-screen-9Perhaps feeling left behind by this process, Edna Purviance distanced herself from Chaplin somewhat during the summer and into the fall of 1916. She believed, and not without good reason, that Chaplin had been unfaithful, but she recognized that they still had to work together. She apparently had little interest in attempting to keep up with Chaplin’s self-education or growing interest in cultural pursuits. Apparently, according to a contemporary interview with her, Chaplin had even attempted to get Edna to change her name to something more suitable for motion pictures. ‘I hate assumed names,’ she said, ‘and as mine is so distinctive, I intend to keep it.’ At this time, Edna was still earning $200 per week, while Chaplin himself was banking $10,000 weekly—it seems he made no attempt to get Mutual to increase her salary.

One of the strangest things around Charlie Chaplin and his rapid rise to fame happened just as Behind the Screen completed production. It was reported that on 12 November 1916 that all across the United States there were inexplicable paging calls for ‘Mr. Charles Chaplin’ happening simultaneously. Investigating the bizarre phenomenon, the Boston Society for Psychological Research described the event as ‘certain phenomenon connected with the simultaneous paging of Mr. Charles Chaplin, motion picture comedian, in more than 800 large hotels of the United States’.

It is unlikely, at this distance in time, that the event can be adequately explained, although the Boston Society tried, concluding: ‘We find beyond peradventure that … here existed for some inexplicable reason a “Chaplin impulse” which extended throughout the length and breadth of the continent. In more than 800 of the principal hotels Mr. Chaplin was being paged at the same hour. In hundreds of smaller towns people were waiting at stations to see him disembark from trains upon which he was supposed to arrive…’

The following day the Kansas City Star newspaper ran the headline: ‘Have You the Chaplin-itis?’ At the time of the event, Chaplin was reportedly safe at home in Los Angeles, completely unaware of the hysteria his cinematic avatar was apparently causing nationwide. The most widely accepted suggestion is that Charlie Chaplin has risen from nowhere in 1914 to such ubiquity by 1916 that a kind of mass hysteria resulted in the reported weird happenings of that mid-November day.

Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Chaplin, speculates that the little Tramp figure ‘had become such a national obsession’ that he began to dominate ‘people’s consciousness’. He points out that a Memphis newspaper later reported that the youth of America regarded ‘Charlie’ or the Tramp as a personal friend or companion, and often talked back to him on the screen ‘registering approval or disapproval of his actions’ and even saying ‘goodnight’ to him as they left the cinema. This wasn’t restricted to just Chaplin; in the days of silent cinema, there was a lot of noise from audiences interactions with the onscreen action to ramshackle musical accompaniment or even in-cinema sound effects.

behind-the-screen-4This event became the basis of Glen David Gold’s novel Sunnyside, which deals with the wider world of celebrity culture as created by Hollywood in the late-teens but which is kicked off by the simultaneous Chaplin paging event. According to the Denver Post: ‘In Gold’s version of the mass hysteria, Chaplin is seen, impossibly and simultaneously, all over the United States. In a lighthouse off the California coast, Emily Wheeler and her 24-year-old son, Leland, spot an open skiff, adrift. Upon closer inspection it seems the boat is sinking and the figure bailing it out is none other than The Little Tramp. Before they can rescue him, the skiff sinks, leaving nothing but a bowler floating on the surface. The same day, in hotels all over the country, Chaplin is paged. And on a train heading into Beaumont, Texas, Hugo Black, 23, wearing the uniform of the train’s junior engineering staff “as if they were prisoner’s stripes,” is about to become a victim. The citizens of Beaumont have gathered at the station, having heard a rumour that Chaplin will be traveling through their town. Their reaction, when they discover he’s not, is to riot.’

Devotion to these new celebrity screen figures would resulted in further hysteria, such as the displays of uncontrolled emotion at the funeral of Rudolph Valentino in 1926 by people who only knew him as an image on a movie screen, or the three suicides at the funeral of China’s leading star actress Ruan Lingyu in 1935. As with so many things, Chaplin was first to inspire such mass hysteria—after all, he was already to be seen on virtually every movie screen in the country (remember those ‘I Am Here Today’ boards outside cinemas promoting his films?), so why not extend that to every hotel or every railway station? Was all this related to the almost unbelievable terms of his Mutual contract, or even his perceived failure to participate in the war then raging in Europe?

In his article ‘The Chaplin-itis’, Saul Austerlitz said of Chaplin’s extreme fame: ‘The passion for the Tramp was akin to a disease, albeit a mostly benign one, and its symptoms were almost entirely unfamiliar. Chaplin was more than a movie star—he was an infinitely malleable global icon, with a boundlessly varied array of interpretations pegged to his persona. … this odd instance of Chaplin’s imminent presence everywhere at once, tantalizingly ambiguous and imperfectly documented, is better proof of film’s remarkable powers of suggestion.’—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘My works the thing. Yes, I admit that sometimes I use other people’s ideas. But, oh, the irony of fate! Once last year I made a picture filled with no less than ten masterpieces of other people’s creation—and the exhibitors sent it back. [They] said it was rotten!’—Interview, Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 1916

Trivia: In the latter half of 1916, Charlie Chaplin first met Douglas Fairbanks, after months of resistance feeling he’d have little in common with the American movie star. Instead, the pair instantly hit it off forming a fast friendship that also drew in Fairbank’s soon-to-be-wife Mary Pickford, then the biggest film star in the world (at that time possibly still bigger than even Chaplin himself). From this friendship would emerge the studio United Artists established by Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, and director D. W. Griffith in 1919.

The Contemporary View: ‘… One of the best laugh producers that the world’s champion high priced film comic has done for the Mutual. … Chaplins are built for laugh-producing qualities.’—Variety, November 27, 1916

‘There is throughout a distinct vein of vulgarity which is unnecessary, even in slapstick comedy. A great deal of comedy is to be extracted from a pie slinging episode which occurs during the rehearsal of a couple of scenes in a moving picture studio. The funniest part of the comedy comes during the manipulation of a trap door in one of the scenes by Chaplin.’—Motion Picture World, November 25, 1916

Verdict: A brilliant bit of knockabout, Behind the Screen is fun but not profound.

Next: The Rink (4 December 1916)

Available Now!

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

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Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

The Pawnshop (2 October 1916)

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Release Date: 2 October 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 25 mins

With: Henry Bergman, John Rand, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Frank J. Coleman, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley

Story: Working as an assistant in a pawnshop, the Tramp romances the daughter of the boss, deals with problem customers, and ultimately foils a robbery.

the-pawnshop-10Production: By October 1916 all was not well between Charlie Chaplin and his leading lady, onscreen and off, Edna Purviance. Whether he was too consumed by his work for Mutual, or his newfound wealth was changing him, Chaplin seemed distant, not as committed to the relationship as he had been in the early days. They worked together, but the pair didn’t live together, so was the artificiality of their onscreen relationship beginning to bleed into their real lives: ‘reel life’ becoming real life?

It may have been a ruse on her part to recapture his attention, but it came to Chaplin’s notice that she was apparently romantically interested in someone else, a leading actor based at Paramount. Rather than re-engage with her, Chaplin decided to ignore the studio gossip and carry on (as ever) focusing on his work, perhaps the very source of their problems. In the words of Chaplin biographer Peter Ackroyd, ‘[Chaplin] had expected faithfulness without in any sense earning it.’

He finally decided to take action and during a romantic dinner, the pair made up their differences. It was to ultimately be a brief reconciliation: the writing was on the wall for Edna and Charlie…

Out of this period of personal emotional turmoil came one of Chaplin’s best films at Mutual, The Pawnshop. The short is packed with examples of the comic art of transposition, in which one object takes the role or place of another, one of Chaplin’s keynote specialities. During the course of the Tramp’s employment as an assistant in the pawnshop a telephone mouthpiece is used in place of a magnifying glass, a doughnut is used in weightlifting, and a clock impersonates a tin can. It was the kind of thing Chaplin had done before, but never quite so often in such a short running time.

According to a fan magazine writer, quoted by biographer Joyce Milton in Tramp, Chaplin arrived late to the set of the first day of shooting on The Pawnshop. The light atmosphere and loose working conditions of the Lone Star studio had made an impression on the writer, but everything finally fell into place when the star arrived, complete with a bundle of notes (in lieu of a script). Chaplin called the cast and crew to order and addressed them: ‘Attention, ladies and gentlemen! We are about to open the pawn shop!’

the-pawnshop-15The pawn shop setting gave Chaplin plenty of toys and situations to play with. As usual with the Tramp, he is a less-than-ideal employee, fighting with his co-workers and attempting to clean up the place while making things far worse when his feather duster interfaces with a whirring fan. He’s fired by his boss (Bergman), only for him to relent when subjected to a pantomime of abject poverty and the fact that the Tramp apparently has many dependents waiting on him to bring home the bacon. Relocated to the kitchen, the Tramp has an entirely new playground in which to wreak havoc, although his destruction is slightly tempered by the presence of Edna, the pawnbroker’s daughter (looking very contemporary in her style). He still manages, however, to put some crockery through a wringer in an attempt to dry it.

the-pawnshop-16One of the true highlights of Chaplin’s entire career follows with the arrival of a customer (Albert Austin) bearing an alarm clock that he wishes to pawn. As with all the goods accepted by the store, it is the Tramp’s job to evaluate the item which he proceeds to do in a most thorough manner. A stethoscope is employed to determine the ‘health’ of the clock, but something is amiss. Enter that tin-opener, and the Tramp treats the clock like a tin of tuna, prising it open with great care and attention. Soon, he is into the innards (something smells funny) and his attentions to the clock become ever more violent, employing such delicate instruments as his nose, dental tools, and finally, a hammer. The clock is soon in pieces, springs and cogs scattered across the pawnshop counter. Sweeping the remains of his attentions upon the clock in Austin’s hat, he hands all the pieces back to the customer: it is clearly not in a fit state to be pawned!

This was Chaplin at his best, taking a simple situation and building it up slowly and carefully over time, mining it for every comic possibility. In The Art of Charlie Chaplin, John Kimber describes the clock dissection as ‘one of the longest bits of business in the films of this period.’ The resulting short was called ‘the richest in gag invention’ by Chaplin authority and biographer David Robinson.

the-pawnshop-13The slight suggested romance with Edna and the capturing of a burglar (Eric Campbell) is almost incidental to the rest of the comic invention of The Pawnshop, whereas in most other comic shorts of the period such events would be central. Robinson noted: ‘It is as if in this film Chaplin were exploring every possible use of the comedy of transposition which had appeared fairly frequently in his preceding work. Here every object seems to suggest some other thing and other use to his ingenious mind.’ With the alarm clock, Chaplin treats the scene as if he were a doctor examining an unwell patient. His demolition of the clock is slow, careful, and considered, as well as hilarious.

Playwright Harvey O’Higgins focused on the alarm clock deconstruction as an ideal illustration of ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Art’ in the 3 February 1917 issue of The New Republic: ‘[Chaplin] has to decide how much it is worth. He taps it, percusses it, puts his ear to its chest, listens to its heartbeat with a stethoscope, and while he listens, fixes a thoughtful medical eye on space, looking inscrutably wise and professionally self-confident. He begins to operate on it—with a can-opener. And immediately the round tin clock becomes a round tin can whose contents are under suspicion. He cuts around the circular top of the can, bends back the flap of tin with a kitchen thumb then, gingerly approaching his nose to it, sniffs with the melancholy expression of the packing houses. The imagination is accurate. The acting is restrained and naturalistic. The result is a scream. And do not believe that such acting is a matter of crude and simple means. It is as subtle in its naturalness as the shades of intonation in a really tragic speech.’

the-pawnshop-5There is other, more routine work to be done in the pawnshop, but it is accomplished amid other amusements and larks indulged in by the Tramp. His assistant (John Rand) comes in for much punishment, while Edna is the object of his affections. Both activities, however, have to be disguised as part of everyday work, so when the boss appears, a boxing match with the assistant turns into a bout of furious floor cleaning, while a food battle around Edna rapidly becomes a close engagement with some pie making. With so much attention given to the alarm clock sequence, such seemingly minor delights can often be under-appreciated. One nice touch is Chaplin’s little victory dance when he captures Campbell’s thief, as if inviting applause from the audience in the nickelodeon for his quick-witted action in foiling the bad guy.

The pawnbroker of the title was played by Henry Bergman, a newcomer to the Chaplin company. Bergman had been born in 1868 in San Francisco to a horse-breeder father and opera singer mother. It was to music, initially, that Bergman turned, following his mother’s footsteps to take opera training in Europe, particularly in Italy and Germany, where he made his debut in Faust. By the turn of the century he was performing on Broadway and made his way into films in 1914, at the relatively mature age of 46, appearing in shorts for the L-KO Company—attracted by the idea he could earn up to $5 per day as a comic heavy. He appeared in the 1915 Theda Bara drama The Kreutzer Sonata for Fox, a film now considered lost.

the-pawnshop-8Bergman came to Chaplin as a character actor, ideal for many of the ‘types’ that appeared in his films. In 1931 Bergman recalled ‘I had known Mr. Chaplin personally. We used to be quite friendly at dinners, and when I mentioned to him that I was looking for a job he said, “Why don’t you come with me? You can work with men when I start a company of my own.” That’s the way it was.’ Bergman was bookish and cultured, but not beyond indulging in the latest show business gossip. He remained single and unattached his entire life. His European background probably made Bergman appear more sophisticated to Chaplin than some of his Californian contemporaries. In time Bergman became something of a confidant to Chaplin, an older, more experienced man to whom he could turn—a situation that sometimes cause jealousies within the Chaplin company.

The Pawnshop was just the beginning of a long association between Bergman and Chaplin that continued through to the end of his life in 1946. He appeared in many of the Mutual shorts and across Chaplin’s features, including The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), and City Lights (1931, on which he also functioned as assistant director). His final appearance was as the restaurant manager in Modern Times (1936), but Bergman continued to work behind the scenes at the Chaplin studio until The Great Dictator (1940). Chaplin helped Bergman set up his popular Hollywood restaurant ‘Henry’s’, which was frequented by celebrities of the time. He died of a heart attack, aged 78.

As 1916 began to wind down, it became clear that Chaplin was never going to fulfil his contract terms with Mutual—they had expected him to make twelve films by the end of 1916. The Pawnshop was only his sixth, and his first—The Floorwalker—had not appeared until May. This was the start of a significant slowdown in Chaplin’s rate of production, partly because he was simply taking longer to work on his art, determined to improve it with every film.

the-pawnshop-6Chaplin, according to the accounts of many who worked with him during this period, could be a very moody figure. There’s no official diagnosis of either depression or mania, but from what co-workers said of his variable demeanour, it can be assumed that some of these factors may have affected him—and not without cause. He was under a severe spotlight, a subject of intense focus, not only from the studio management, but also from the press and the public at large, all of whom were eager to see (and judge) the next Chaplin comedy.

Part of the problem may have been his utterly comfortable circumstances, something Chaplin had now grown accustomed to: his rate of work at Keystone and Essanay had not only been driven by the demands of bosses like Mack Sennett and George Spoor but also by his need to generate an income, a habit learned the hard way from his Victorian youth in London.

the-pawnshop-1Now, on $10,000 each week (an amazing amount, then and now), Chaplin had what the Tramp (in The Floorwalker) had previously referred to as ‘spondulicks for ever!’ Not concerned with his business affairs, Chaplin had Sydney looking after relations with the studio, while his assistant Tom Harrington was handling his investments, with frequent appointments at the Los Angeles Stock Exchange to manage the money.

Mutual were not (at least, not yet) in any way greatly concerned with Chaplin’s rate of work, as long as he got there in the end and the quality remained high. Although he was a costly asset, his films were earning the studio huge amounts of money. The Pawnshop was easily the best of his films to this point, and they expected great things across the remainder of the contract—however long it took their ‘lone star’ to complete it.
—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘When I arrive [at the studio] in the morning I’m usually gloomy, especially when I haven’t any idea what I’m going to do in a scene, as is often the case. Tears bedew my eyes as I put on my make-up, and I weep sadly as I step out on the stage. As for these gray hairs, I got them all the other day trying to be funny in a ballroom scene. I think any comedian who started out to be funny in a ballroom would have his career blighted at the outset.’—The Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 1916

Trivia: According to silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, there is evidence in the rushes (the unedited film material) for The Pawnshop that Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney wasn’t only his business manager but helped out on the direction side of his films, too. Brownlow, however, notes (in The Search for Charlie Chaplin) that although Sydney made his own starring film, ‘I have never seen a Sydney Chaplin film to compare with the best of a Charlie Chaplin. … One did not warm to him.’

The Contemporary View: ‘There is a succession of highly ludicrous scenes with Chaplin the principal figure. One comedy climax after another follows with amazing rapidity, and Chaplin performs some most amusing stunts as the man-of-all-work around the pawn broking establishment. He mixes up things with a high hand, messes both the outside and inside, and in some amusing celluloid byplay saves his boss from being robbed. There is the usual secondary plot consideration, it may even be classified as third, for that matter, for it is Chaplin who enlivens each scene and by his devious and divers ways of handling each situation causes hearty and continued laughter. To thousands who are yet to see Chaplin, The Pawnshop subject will prove an irresistible laugh-getter. Chaplin himself has never been funnier or indulged in more of his typical Chaplin-isms, and the cast plays up to him in fine style.’—New York Dramatic Mirror, 1920 

‘[This] new production is termed by many as the turning point of the comedian’s career. The Pawnshop in its two reels has practically one set, the interior of a loan office. Chaplin … cleans out the place bringing forth the business which secured for him his reputation. The Chaplin walk or familiar rounding of corners is not brought into play frequently, but his other work of throwing things around and the mauling of his players is carried on to a larger extent. Better than the last lot of Chaplins, the comedian should re-establish himself with it.’—Variety, October 1916

‘There is no disputing the power that Charlie Chaplin has in creating laughter. … The Pawnshop reach[es] the hallmark of perfection as [a] laughter maker. [He] does some of the most incredible things with the customers, repeatedly floors the old fat pawnbroker, is continually at loggerheads with his fellow assistant, and gives a would-be smart policeman plenty to do before a jewel robber is run to earth in a novel way by Charlie.’—Kino Weekly, 1917

‘This hasn’t a suspicion of a plot, but is full of the well-known Chaplin small business, and brings laughter all the way through.’—Moving Picture World, October 1916

Verdict: A wonderfully coherent short, containing a true classic sequence with the alarm clock dissection.

Next: Behind the Screen (13 November 1916)

Available Now!

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

 

 

The Count (4 September 1916)

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Release Date: 4 September 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Charlotte Mineau, Leo White, Albert Austin, John Rand, James T. Kelley, Frank J. Coleman

Story: Both a tailor (Campbell) and his assistant (Chaplin) crash the extravagant party of ‘Miss Moneybags’ (Purviance) in the guise of the missing Count Broko, who then arrives in the shape of Leo White…

Production: Following the radical departure of One A.M., a virtual solo turn from Charlie Chaplin, the comedian was back on more familiar ground with his September 1916 release, The Count. Recalling films such as A Jitney Elopement, and playing off a staple of silent comedies of the time, The Count is a mistaken identity tale in which Chaplin’s Tramp impersonates the title character, a faux member of the aristocracy.

Count6Here the Tramp is found working as a tailor’s assistant, only to be drawn into the tailor’s masquerade as a would-be Count. Chaplin’s now regular foil Eric Campbell played the extravagantly bearded tailor who attends a party thrown by the object of his affections, Edna Purviance’s ‘Miss Moneybags’. To impress her, the tailor pretends to be better off financially and socially than he really is. The Tramp is at the same party, initially attempting to woo the cook in the face of competition from the forces of law and order. The pair of tailors encounter one another, of course, and after a brief period of co-operation, they find themselves in competition for the attentions of ‘Miss Moneybags’. The Tramp is mistakenly introduced as the Count, while Campbell is indicated to be his secretary, when the plan the pair hatched was supposed to be the other way around. The subterfuge only works as it is a fancy dress ball.

In Eric Campbell Chaplin had found the perfect authority figure. Not only did his physical size connote wealth and prosperity, but his beard was also seen as a symbol of the ruling class, the rich in opposition to the Tramp’s representation of the poor. Chaplin’s physical response to this stimulus was to repeatedly pull on poor Campbell’s beard (whether fake or not, it can’t have been pleasant), thus giving visual life to the idea of poking fun at authority, or as Simon Louvish puts it in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey: ‘…the spectacle of the “great and the good” having their whisker’s pulled…’

Count5Campbell was to suffer mightily at the hands, fists and feet of Chaplin in order that he should pay the price of being the on-screen representative of cruel wealth or privilege. As well as tugging on his chin whiskers, Chaplin would often give Campbell several swift kicks up the backside, not-so-innocently stamp on his already sore foot and kick the poor fellow in his ample stomach: he even got to drive off the edge of a Los Angeles pier and into the water. Louvish highlights Campbell’s impressive ability to present himself as a ‘cartoon character’ as part of the success of The Count and several of the other Mutual shorts.

Thankfully, Chaplin’s developing approach to his art can be visually chronicled during this period as many of the discarded out-takes from The Count have survived (despite Chaplin’s insistence that they be destroyed). It is clear from this material that Chaplin largely shot his work in story order, from a rough outline he’d developed. ‘Sometimes a story would present a problem,’ wrote Chaplin in My Autobiography (1964). ‘I would have difficulty in solving it. At that juncture I would lay off work and try to think, striding up and down my dressing room in torment or sitting for hours at the back of a set, struggling with the problem. Sometimes the solution came at the end of the day when I was in a state of despair, having thought of everything and discarded it; then the solution would suddenly reveal itself … the beautiful mosaic I had been looking for!’

The existence of several excised sequences with low shot numbers suggests that Chaplin had originally intended to begin the film as a ‘comedy of below stairs intrigue’, according to Chaplin biographer David Robinson. Featured in the deleted footage are the characters of a butler and a policeman who are hardly to be seen in the completed version of The Count.

Following his dalliance with this plot, the shot number progressions suggest that Chaplin moved on to his aristocratic impersonation plot, seen not only in A Jitney Elopement, but in various forms in Caught in a Cabaret and Her Friend the Bandit. The finished movie’s opening scene in the tailor’s shop seems to have been a late addition to establish the connection between those characters (around whom the finished film revolves), at least according to the shot numbers. It is likely that the original opening for the film was the Tramp’s arrival at the Moneybags’ residence, which now follows his firing by the tailor. David Robinson points out a gem of a scene lost from The Count (pictured above): ‘Charlie sits cross-legged, industriously sewing a garment, only to discover that he has firmly attached it to his own trousers.’

Documentary filmmaker Kevin Brownlow revealed some of the rediscovered Chaplin outtakes in the notable British television series Unknown Chaplin (1983). He notes in his book The Search for Charlie Chaplin that very little of this material showed that Chaplin had rejected the footage on technical grounds, but always as the result of a creative choice. Some of the material was made up of filmed rehearsals, such as those for City Lights (1936), in which Chaplin worked out bits of business that he could then review later by watching the resulting film. Brownlow noted: ‘There is nothing like this in the Mutuals. But in one shot from The Count (included in Programme 1) Chaplin leaps into the arms of a cook. In doing so, he moves the kitchen table. While continuing the scene, he pulls the table back into position.’

Count9With The Count, Chaplin’s director of photography Rollie Totheroh continued to innovate in moving the camera during comedy sequences, especially in the way it follows a pair of dancing couples in the ballroom scenes. While Chaplin was not yet fully engaged in the kind of things he could do specifically with the camera, he was—under Totheroh’s guidance—beginning to think more about how he could use its unique properties in his comedy filmmaking, short of classic film tricks. There was plenty of material to work with: for the Mutual shorts which would each be completed at around 1800 feet in length, sometimes as much as 30 to 90 thousand feet of film could be exposed in search of the right comedy moments.

In The Seven Lively Arts (1924), cultural critic Gilbert Seldes celebrated the climax of The Count as an example of Chaplin’s growing tendency to move away from the improvised chaotic comedy of Keystone and Essanay in his Mutual films, towards a more studied form of comedy that nonetheless came across to the film viewers as being spontaneous. ‘[Charlie] is fleeing pell-mell through every room in the house; the whole movement grows tense; the rate of acceleration perceptively heightens as Charlie slides in front of a vast birthday cake, pivots on his heel, and begins to play alternate pool and golf with the frosting, making every shot count like a machine gunner barricaded in a pillbox or a bandit in a deserted cabin. It was foreordained that the improvised kind of comedy should give way to something more calculated … for a long time [Chaplin] continued to give the effect of [the] impromptu…’

Unlike One A.M., The Count boasts a variety of settings, from the tailor’s shop to the kitchen set and, biggest of all, the home of the very rich ‘Miss Moneybags’ that features its own ballroom. One scene from this location, in which Chaplin kicks another character while continuing to cut a dash on the dance floor, was reportedly subject to three weeks of intense filming until the creator felt he’d got what he was looking for. The scene was accompanied by live music from a hired-in orchestra who played on endless repeat, and who were presumably happy to take advantage of Chaplin’s (and Mutual’s) largesse. This dance sequence was certainly the focus of Chaplin’s time and attention during the production of The Count. A former colleague from Chaplin’s music hall days, Chester Courtney, worked on the scene and recalled in an 1931 issue of Film Weekly that the hired orchestra were repeatedly playing They Call it Dixieland.

In One A.M., Chaplin’s athletic grace is once more on display during this extended scene. His sliding around and repeated performance of ‘the splits’ is topped off by the moment when he hooks his cane to a chandelier in order to right himself once more. It’s an inventive little throwaway moment, but the kind of visual gag that marked Chaplin out: who knows how many takes it took until he achieved that ‘just so’ moment to his own satisfaction?

Count7As before in these types of comedy, Chaplin’s playing as entitled sees him forgiven all his bad behaviour as long as the others at the party think he is ‘one of them’. As soon as that masquerade is exposed, the same behaviour is an excuse for reprisal. This was Chaplin’s way of highlighting the iniquities in early 20th century American society as he saw it as something of an outsider. His terrible table manners (especially in his eating of a huge slice of watermelon), awful treatment of his fellow guests, and his unbridled pursuit of ‘Miss Moneybags’ are all forgiven thanks to his perceived status, with the worst on offer being ‘disapproving looks’ according to Joyce Milton in Tramp. Milton suggests that this reflected Chaplin’s real-life growing status in LA society: he was within them but not really one of them. In fact, Chaplin saw his association thanks to his fame with those better educated and accomplished than him as an opportunity. According to Milton he ‘more or less consciously used them as mentors in a programme of self-improvement’.

In The Art of Charlie Chaplin, John Kimber calls The Count ‘a masterful demonstration of Charlie’s benignly disruptive foreignness’, a film that explores Chaplin’s ‘comedy of incomprehension’ while revealing the clown’s ‘evident pleasure in his own creative flights of fancy’. Against a perhaps overly familiar backdrop and amidst a host of very familiar characters and comic archetypes, Chaplin nonetheless manages to develop some original comic business thus making this kind of tale one worth retelling, especially as his filmmaking style had advanced markedly since those earlier ‘imposture’ shorts from his earlier knockabout days.

There’s a developing maturity to Chaplin’s comedy, and his characters, through the series of Mutual shorts that was largely absent from his Keystone and Essanay periods (with a few notable exceptions such as The Tramp).—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘Why should a man exert himself needlessly [with exercise]? Don’t I go to work every morning with my dinner pail, like a stevedore? Why should I swing dumbells when I have to throw people around so as to break things with them every day? And as for hanging [on] to swinging bars, I call a chandelier my second home. I love walking. I walk in crowds, downtown, and think out my plots. People are so sad and so funny, so pathetic and so absurd. I like to frequent parks and cafeterias and other places where crowds go.’—Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 1916

Trivia: A real tailors shop—J. Dronjensky Ladies Tailors on Santa Monica Boulevard—was used as the location for the beginning of The Count. As with some of Chaplin’s earliest ‘on location’ films, the reflection of the watching crowd can be seen in the window of the store, as pointed out by location hunter extraordinaire John Bengtson. In his book Silent Traces, Bengtson reveals the location has now been replaced by an ‘All Mart’ store, part of a larger strip mall. That’s progress.

The Contemporary View: ‘Charlie Chaplin, millionaire movie man who cavorts for your pleasure if you have a dime, ambled into view as a bogus count today and raised peels of laughter from the loop to the limits … All of which is sufficient to indicate that Charles is back with some of his old time slapstick work that will chase the blues and make you forget to speculate on the probable length of the war.’—Chicago Daily News, September 1916

Verdict: A simple tale, simply told, but fun.

Next: The Pawnshop (2 October 1916)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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