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)

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

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A Dog’s Life (14 April 1918)

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Release Date: 14 April 1918

Written and Directed by Charles Chaplin

Duration: 33 mins

With: Edna Purviance (bar singer), Bud Jamison, Albert Austin (pickpockets), Henry Bergman (hot dog vendor/old woman/employment office man), Tom Wilson (policeman), Syd Chaplin (lunch wagon owner), James T. Kelley, Chuck Riesner

Story: The Little Tramp adopts a stray dog (Scraps), falls foul of a couple of pickpockets and some policemen, and falls in love with a singer at a bar…

Production: With The Adventurer, Charlie Chaplin had completed his contract with Mutual. It had taken a bit longer than anticipated, with him producing the work that was initially intended to take one year over a period of more than 18 months. His work rate had slowed considerably since the Keystone days (when he was far from being his own boss), but the quality had arguably improved dramatically. Now without a studio behind him, Chaplin was considering whether to continue with his filmmaking at all—he’d suffered a backlash over his continued avoidance of any involvement in the world war then raging, on behalf of either his birth country of Britain or his adopted home of America. Even then, audiences and studios were reluctant to let Charlie Chaplin vanish entirely.

Dog03A five week holiday in Hawaii with Edna Purviance seemed like nothing less than his due reward, but while there Chaplin had to think over the many offers being made to him to continue making movies. The problem was the Charlie Chaplin of late-1917 was very different from the man who’d started in the film business at Keystone under Mack Sennett. Slowly but surely, Chaplin had taken over control of his own output. It was this desire for control and improved films that had caused him to be so slow in fulfilling the terms of the Mutual contract. No matter how it may have irked them, those in charge at Mutual realised that Chaplin was such an asset that he was worth hanging on to, even if they might have to wait a little longer for each film. That was the reason that Mutual were quickest to offer Chaplin a new contract for just eight new movies with a total payment value of $1 million attached, a first in Hollywood.

Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney was his business manager, and he knew that this offer from Mutual would only be the starting point. Other studios were sure to be interested, and Mutual had helpfully established the ‘going rate’ or asking price for Chaplin’s services. Chaplin had also been giving the matter some thought, both during his holiday with Edna and later, upon his return to Los Angeles. The one thing that mattered to him most was control, with the monetary aspects of any new deal of secondary importance. His instruction to Sydney was simple: anything less than total control of his work was unacceptable.

Studio191807The deal Sydney came back with was with the First National Film Corporation. The company was relatively new having been incorporated in 1917, initially as a theatrical exhibitor and distributor made up of a chain of independent theatre owners across the US, controlling around 600 cinemas. The company had been established to compete with Paramount Pictures (whose Jesse Lasky also bid for Chalpin) that then dominated the distribution of movies (First National would be absorbed by Warner Bros. in 1929). As a relatively new company, First National was keen to make a splash and they did just that by signing both Chaplin and Mary Pickford to $1 million dollar deals. Chaplin’s deal specified he should produce eight films (designated as two-reelers, although each additional reel would bring a further $15,000 in funding), preferably over a period of 18 months but without any firm deadlines attached (he’d end up making just nine movies for First National, mostly three-reelers or longer, but that would take him a total of five years!). His deal promised to deliver to Chaplin an advance of $125,000 on each film, with a split on the profits (after distribution costs) expected to bring his overall earnings across the period of the arrangement to well over the much-publicised $1 million. More importantly, Chaplin would retain copyright ownership of his own films, thus eliminating any further hassles from the likes of Essanay’s George Spoor.

Studio191802At the same time, Chaplin began work on his own purpose-built studio, where he would be his own producer and have the ability to run his entire production company independently. Although Mutual had repurposed an existing facility for the exclusive use of Charlie Chaplin, the security offered by First National allowed Chaplin to afford to have a dedicated studio purpose-built to his own design. Located on the corner of La Brea Avenue and Sunset Boulevard (about a mile away from the main cluster of studios), the façade of the complex was designed after a row of Tudor-style English cottages, mainly to placate local residents but perhaps also partly intended to appeal to Chaplin’s own English roots. Five acres of former agricultural land (costing Chaplin $34,000) known locally as the R. S. McClellan estate was taken over for the construction of two open-air stages, a host of set building workshops, varied dressing rooms for the performers, a dedicated film laboratory, editing suite and projection room, as well as executive offices and meeting spaces—and a large swimming pool for recreational purposes. Chaplin’s own dedicated office was located in a modest private bungalow on the property. Partly for attractive landscaping purposes, but also calling back to the land’s original use, a series of lemon, orange, and peach trees were maintained within the grounds, as was the 10-room colonial ‘mansion’, the home of the former owner of the orange groves.

Studio201802Construction, by the Milwaukee Building Co. following plans by architects Meyer and Holler (who’d designed the Ince and Goldwyn studios, and would go on to design Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre), cost Chaplin around $100,000. Building commenced in November 1917 and took three months. After Chaplin vacated the studio in 1952 it was used as a location for the William Castle film Hollywood Story and then used or occupied by Stanley Kramer (1954), American International Pictures (1960), Red Skelton (1962), and A&M Records throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Most recently it has been home to the Jim Henson organisation, and the entrance features a statute of Kermit the frog done up as Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

Dog14Although he began filming on what would ultimately become A Dog’s Life (under the original title I Should Worry) on 15 January 1918, Chaplin officially opened the new studio (located at 1416 N. La Brea Avenue) on 21 January 1918 in front of the waiting press when, in full costume as the Little Tramp, he marked his ‘big shoe’ footprints in wet cement, along with an imprint of his bamboo cane, his name and the date, at the entrance to the studio. It was important that this new environment suit Chaplin, both personally and as a work place in which he would be free to conjure up his new ‘funnies’ in peace and isolation, as it would be where he would be based for the rest of his time working in the United States (essentially until 1952, although he didn’t know that at the time).

Dog11Just as everything was going right for Charlie Chaplin towards the end of 1917 in his professional life, things were very different in his private life. He and Edna Purviance had been drifting apart for some time, partly due to his work schedule and their different outlooks on life and ultimate ambitions—she wanted to marry, and Chaplin had no time for that at that moment. Chaplin took time while on that Hawaiian holiday with Edna to give some serious thought to their future together or whether they even had one—his life was about to change in every other way, so was there any reason for his by now unsatisfying life with Edna to persist? The end when it came was down to Edna’s own unfaithfulness, rather than due to any decision of Chaplin’s. In his autobiography Chaplin described himself and Edna as being ‘inseparable’ in 1916, doing everything together, but he was aware of her growing jealousy, not only of the attention paid to him by men and women (due to his increasing fame), but also of his unrelenting dedication to his work.

Chaplin was clearly a workaholic and a perfectionist who demanded even higher standards of himself than he demanded of others—this was both a source of great joy to him (he loved his work, even more so the results) but also of great anguish (the work came at a great personal price). Chaplin’s work was the one ‘mistress’ with which Edna Purivance could not complete, and she may have come to feel neglected by Chaplin in favour of his work. Despite this, Chaplin noted: ‘I blamed myself for neglecting her at times.’

Edna had taken up with Thomas Meighan, a film actor 10 years Chaplin’s senior who’d formerly been on the stage and before that was a doctor. When he discovered their liaison, Chaplin was heartbroken. He and Edna split and then reconciled, but when Chaplin found that Edna was still seeing Meighan, he finally put a halt to their relationship. The initial separation affected Chaplin’s creativity and impacted his work, but as time went on it was in his work that he found a new escape: ‘My consolation was in my work.’ Edna’s relationship with Meighan was short; perhaps it had served its purpose in allowing her to find a way away from Chaplin and so to find herself. However, she never married and maintained a collection of press cuttings following Chaplin’s progress. For his part, Chaplin maintained that the time he’d spent with Edna had been the most fulfilling relationship of his early career in films.

Dog15Chaplin’s focus on his work in his new environment of his own dedicated studio would serve dividends, but it would take a few years for his creativity to fully blossom. He had been taking steps to develop his filmic storytelling, developing short comedy narratives in new ways in such films as Easy Street and The Immigrant. As part of the First National deal, Sydney had promised that Chaplin would further explore ‘a continuous story’ in each of his future films that at a minimum of three reels each would be longer than any of his previous work. Although Chaplin had produced more story-focused films, he had still built them up from a series of often unrelated comic incidents, only later applying an overall direction to the story (even to the extent of going back and shooting or reshooting material to make his tale more coherent). Now, the plan was for narrative to take precedent over laughs for their own sake—there’d be less slapstick, but more ‘character’ and more emotion in Chaplin’s work. This would begin with his first production for First National, A Dog’s Life.

Dog04Despite breaking up in real life, Chaplin realised what an asset Edna Purviance was to his movies and they continued to work together for the first three films in his new First National contract—A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms (mainly in deleted domestic scenes), and The Pilgrim. In the first of these, A Dog’s Life, Edna plays the bar singer whose emotional laments reduce the bar’s lowlife clientele to tears (Chaplin’s Tramp included), and who reluctantly hustles patrons for dances in order to make them buy more drinks. She’s selective whom she dances with, however, choosing Chaplin’s good natured Tramp over some of the more boorish patrons demanding her attention, a personal discernment that earns her the sack.

Dog02The film’s other relationship is that between Chaplin’s Little Tramp and the dog, Scraps. The opening sequences in which we find both the Tramp and Scraps getting by separately on the streets set out to compare their lives with one another, giving the film and its title a satirical edge—the Tramp’s life is little better than that of a stray mutt. Both are alone, both suffer the same hunger pangs, and both lose out to the bigger and more ruthless elements within their societies.
This is depicted when the Tramp attempts to find work at a labour exchange, where his competition with a bunch of other out-of-work men for scarce jobs is contrasted with Scraps conflict with a bunch of larger, wilder dogs on the street over a measly bone. Although the Tramp is first into the exchange, he loses out on a day’s employment as he is continually pushed aside by others or disadvantaged as he attempt to get to one of the open windows before the competition. At the Tramp’s social level, it really is a dog-eat-dog world.

Dog12According to Peter Ackroyd’s Chaplin biography, Chaplin had been searching for a suitable animal co-star for a while, realising the emotional screen potential of a teaming of the Tramp with an equally vulnerable creature. A total of 12 (Ackroyd) or 21 (David Robinson) dogs were brought in to the star’s brand new studio to audition for A Dog’s Life, with the winner being a mongrel dubbed ‘Mut’, whose stage and screen name was ‘Scraps’. An accounting entry in the studio ledger is marked ‘whiskey (Mut) – 60 cents’ suggesting the dog may have been given a wee dram or two for the scenes where he was supposed to be asleep or docile, possibly for the scene where the Tramp uses the dog as a makeshift pillow (this kind of practice of sedating a screen animal with alcohol would not be allowed today).

Dog08In a news report from 1916, Chaplin was quoted as commenting ‘For a long time I’ve been considering the idea that a good comedy dog would be an asset in some of my plays, and of course the first that was offered [to] me was a dachshund. [It] got on my nerves. The second was a Pomeranian picked up by Miss Purviance. I got sick of having ‘Fluffy Ruffles’ round me, so I traded the ‘Pom’ for Helene Rosson’s poodle. That moon-eyed snuffling little beast lasted two days. What I really want is a mongrel dog. These studio beasts are too well kept.’ Perhaps dogs and Chaplin simply weren’t made for each other—maybe he should’ve tried a kid instead?

Dog10One brilliant bit of comic business is down to the dog’s tail. Attempting to hide the animal down his trousers as he enters the lowlife bar, Chaplin appears to be sporting a fluffy tail when Scraps own appendage sticks out through a hole in his trousers. Standing by the drummer in the band, the Tramp is oblivious as the dog’s eager wagging tail taps out an unexpected drumbeat, confusing the drummer who’s on a lunch break. Such a gag obviously depends on sound, so seems an odd choice for a silent movie, especially when the choice to add in such sound effects would vary according to each individual exhibitor—for once, the controlling Chaplin couldn’t exactly dictate how that particular gag should be presented.

A Dog’s Life was Chaplin’s longest work to date (apart from his role in Tillie’s Punctured Romance and the expanded Carmen, neither of which he controlled), with filming completed by 22 March (followed by almost a week of intense editing). In expanding his material to three reels (just over 30 minutes in duration), Chaplin faced the task of structuring his narrative in a more disciplined way. While he worked much as he always had in terms of developing comic business within scenes as he went along and as the fancy took him (an approach that was much more tenable in his own studio rather than when under the supervision of others), Chaplin was now finding it necessary to develop at least a modicum of a story spine first from which he could hang his comic business if he were to adequately fill the new running time.

One way of expanding the length of his films was to focus on character. Chaplin’s Tramp had always been at the centre of his films and so had enjoyed greater scope in terms of character development over the years, from the knockabout devil-may-care figure of the Keystone days to the more nuanced and better-developed human being of the Essanay and, especially, the Mutual shorts. Now he turned the character spotlight onto others. Arguably, Edna’s bar singer is a little more developed than some of her past roles, and even the likes of the pickpockets and the lunch wagon vendor get a bit more time and business than might be allowed in a simple two-reeler.

That lunch wagon vendor—from whom the Tramp steals several mouthfuls of muffins (or are they pies? Cakes? Pastries?) before he is caught—was played by Chaplin’s half-brother and business manager Syd Chaplin, the first time the pair had appeared together on screen. They’d worked together on the vaudeville stage, and Syd had been the first of the brothers to be signed up by Fred Karno. Syd effectively replaced Chaplin (upon Chaplin’s recommendation) at Keystone when he left at the end of 1914, but after a year at the studio and little success, Syd left. By then he’d taken up his role as Chaplin’s manager, negotiating both the Mutual and First National contracts that proved to be so lucrative and key to Chaplin’s development as a filmmaker (Syd would later be key to the negotiations that established United Artists in 1919). After appearing beside Chaplin in A Dog’s Life, Syd went on to feature in four more films with him: The Bond, Shoulder Arms, Pay Day, and The Pilgrim. Syd was signed to his own $1 million dollar contract by Famous Players-Lasky, a studio evidently keen to get in on the Chaplin business even if they couldn’t secure the ‘original’ Chaplin.

Syd’s wasn’t the only familiar face to have made the move from Mutual to the First National contract alongside Chaplin. Having essentially established a ‘Mutual repertory group’ that he knew he worked well with, Chaplin saw no reason to rock the boat and signed many of the same performers to work on the First National films as he’d used previously, central to them (for the first trio of films, at least) being Edna Purviance as his ‘leading lady’. Perhaps Chaplin simply knew it might take him a while to find a suitable replacement. Among those who reappeared from the Mutual films were Chaplin’s stand-by Henry Bergman (in at least three roles, and whom Chaplin looked upon as a replacement for the lost Eric Campbell), and the likes of Bud Jamison (from the Essanay days) and Albert Austin (as the pair of pickpockets), James T. Kelley, and Chuck Riesner.

Dog16While Chaplin was beginning to develop more complex stories, his camera style remained restrained consisting of largely establishing shots or simple head-on shots of the main characters in any scene. There is little visual innovation or experiment to be discerned from A Dog’s Life, except for the unusual step of shooting Scraps and the other dogs with no or few humans in the scene, following the dog’s adventures in parallel to those of the Tramp (who is endeavouring to ‘liberate’ a hot dog). The Tramp’s attire has been altered slightly; it more ‘vagabond’ in appearance, as he has lost his tie and cane—it is believed that Chaplin dropped the latter due to the need to hold onto the dog’s leash, and also because he was coming to feel he was relying on it a little too much for comic business.

A Dog’s Life ends on an unusual, almost fantasy-like scene of contentment for the Tramp. He’s fulfilled his promise to Edna to move to the country (becoming a farmer in the process, apparently), and seems to have a baby, if the presence of a baby basket is anything to go by. In a final comic upset, we’re shown that the basket contains Scraps and her pups… A family of sorts for Edna and the Little Tramp.

Trivia: The funniest scene in A Dog’s Life comes when the Tramp inserts his arms through a curtain behind the unconscious Albert Austin in an attempt to convince his drinking partner he’s still awake, and in an effort to recover some of the money the pair have stolen (and for the odd sup of beer). This scene (along with a few others in the film) is edited differently in alternate cuts of A Dog’s Life. The film was one of three (the other two being Shoulder Arms and The Pilgrim, along with clips from the incomplete How to Make Movies, see The Bond) were recut and released by Chaplin as The Chaplin Revue in 1959, with a new score composed by Chaplin and his own linking narration. As the original negative of the released version of A Dog’s Life had deteriorated beyond saving by 1940, Chaplin had to rely on alternate takes and unused shots archived by Rollie Totheroh to ‘reconstruct’ the film. Whereas the action in the Revue edit is uninterrupted, the original included reaction shots of Bud Jamison.

Charlie Says: ‘My first picture in my new studio was A Dog’s Life. The story had an element of satire, paralleling the life of a dog with that of the Tramp. This leitmotif was the structure upon which I build sundry gags and slapstick routines. I was beginning to think of comedy in a structural sense, and to become conscious of its architectural form. Each sequence implied the next sequence, all of them relating to the whole. In the Keystone days the Tramp had been freer and less confined to plot. With each succeeding comedy the Tramp was growing more complex. Sentiment was beginning to percolate through the character.’—My Autobiography

Verdict: Chaplin under a new boss (himself!) produces a slight step forward in A Dog’s Life, but it was merely the curtain raiser for the delights yet to come…

—Brian J. Robb

Next: The Bond [29 September 1918]

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 first year of 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.

January 2018 Update

January 2018 Update: As predicted, I’m speeding up my Chaplin: Film by Film project, otherwise I’ll be 100 years old myself when I get to A Countess From Hong Kong if I stick to doing them on the 100th anniversary.

From January 2018, starting with the 1918 First National releases, I’ll be posting monthly (usually towards the end of the month). That way, I’ll cover the First National films by the end of September 2018. The first 10 months of 2019 will then be dedicated to Chaplin’s feature films, from A Woman of Paris through to A Countess From Hong Kong.

Be sure to join the journey, as it all ends in October 2019!

Coming next week: A Dog’s Life (April 1918).

Brian J. Robb

The Adventurer (22 October 1917)

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Release Date: 22 October 1917

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 23 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin

Story: An escaped convict accidentally finds a place for himself among high society.

Production: For Charlie Chaplin’s final short under his lucrative Mutual contract, the filmmaker depicted his Tramp character escaping prison, perhaps indicating what he felt personally about his Mutual deal—it had become something of a luxurious prison, and now Chaplin was keen to move onto something even more under his own control.

03John McCabe saw The Adventurer as little more than ‘a high class Sennett film … it begins with a chase.’ This opening sequence was shot in Los Flores Canyon in the Santa Monica hills, much to the discomfort of Chaplin who—according to Peter Ackroyd— was ‘a child of the city, and never did like nature. He was frightened by large moths, for example, and by the crawling things of California’. Chaplin had an uncomfortable encounter with a rattlesnake, which saw him cancel a day’s shooting as a result. Another incident saw Chaplin dive into the sea at Topanga Canyon to rescue a seven-year-old girl from drowning, according to a contemporary press report.

All this action was incidental to the capturing on film the opening sequence of The Adventurer that saw the Tramp as an escaped convict on the run. Over 200 takes were made, depicting Chaplin in his striped prison uniform eluding the prison warder and guards.

09Echoing his real-life rescue of stockbroker’s daughter Mildred Morrison, the film sees the Tramp dive into the sea to rescue two drowning individuals, who turn out to be Edna Purviance and her mother (echoing the set-up of The Immigrant). This sequence was shot last for the film, and served as a narrative link between the Tramp’s escape from jail and his involvement at a high society party. It is Edna’s Japanese chauffeur (actually Chaplin’s own, Kono—his only appearance onscreen as his wife objected to his ‘exploitation’) who fishes him from the sea, and they then drive away in Chaplin’s own real-life car, a new Locomobile.

01Mistaking the Tramp for a wealthy man (as he’s wearing a stolen swimsuit that belonged to a yacht owner), he is soon invited to their society party. Chaplin spent another 300 takes capturing the party where the now properly suited Tramp flirts with Edna, much to the annoyance of her suitor, Eric Campbell. Purviance came to shooting this sequence after having had some time off between the location shoot and studio filming due to an unspecified illness.

Chaplin appears to have been if not exactly bored in making The Adventurer, at the very least creatively unchallenged or even blocked. The behind-the-scenes footage from the Unknown Chaplin television documentary series pertaining to The Adventurer shows the clown struggling to make a series of gag sequences involving a Spanish dancer and a hot radiator (two separate elements) work. As David Robinson notes, ‘neither remain except as hints in the finished film’.

Filming of the party sequence brought the total count of takes for The Adventurer so far to around 560. A further 150 saw the Tramp’s true identity as an on-the-run convict revealed and the arrival of the prison guards who chase him around the house. It provides something of a limp conclusion to this film and to Chaplin’s work as a whole at Mutual.

08The Adventurer’s depiction of the Tramp as a lawbreaker, pursued by figures of authority, perhaps mirrored the situation that Chaplin had found himself in during 1917. His continued ambivalence over the world war which Britain and now America were involved in could not stand for much longer. He had opted to explain his situation as a British citizen in America, claiming he was more valuable as a filmmaker than he’d ever be as a soldier (something certain British authorities had backed him up on). However, his feelings were seen as being somewhat unpatriotic. That might have been enough, if America had not been drawn into the conflict too.

Increasing U-boat attacks on American shipping and overtures from Germany to Mexico about a possible anti-US alliance had pushed recently elected American President Woodrow Wilson to bring America into what had up-to-then been a largely European conflict. On 6 April 1917, the US official declared war on Germany.

Charlie Chaplin now found he was potentially eligible for the ‘draft’ (being called up to military service) in both the UK and the US. There was a feeling among the entertainment industry, and certainly within the Hollywood colony, that those who were of able body and capable of it should volunteer to fight. Variety reported: ‘The general tenor of the talk of those who are actors was to the effect that the men on this side of the world would show up the “slackers” of the other countries and immediately enlist.’

There was no question of Chaplin ever doing that, just as the UK opened an enlistment office in New York for UK citizens currently in America. To start with, participation would be voluntary, but haunting Chaplin was the possibility that he’d be faced with an official call-up (from either the US or the UK)—how would he react then? The biggest concern for Chaplin was how his prevarication on arguably the biggest issue of the time might affect his standing with audiences, not just in the US and the UK, but worldwide.

ADV050ACBy June 1917, Lone Star/Mutual had felt the need to issue an explanatory notice which said that Chaplin had indeed registered for the draft in the US, indicating he was prepared to do his ‘patriotic duty’, but was exempt from participation as he’d failed the physical and medical tests required. Joyce Milton, in her Chaplin biography, notes that the Mutual report was ‘greeted with well-deserved derision’. At issue was Chaplin’s claimed height—he’d always been five foot six inches in the past, yet had suddenly misplaced two inches to become five foot, four inches, thus falling under the minimum height requirement (which just happened to be five foot, four inches). Officially, Charlie Chaplin was simply ‘too small’ to wear the uniform of an American soldier!

It was, of course, nonsense, but Chaplin seemed to have a severe fear of coming out as what he obviously was: a conscientious objector. He perhaps had good reason for this fear—people who objected to the war on a principle of pacifism were not favoured in America or Britain at that time and could find themselves the subject of attack in the newspapers. Chaplin’s friend Theodore Huff backed the comedian, pointing out that ‘had Chaplin done military service, the Allied army would have gained an indifferent soldier but lost a valuable moral booster.’

02While many newspapers attacked Chaplin for his stance, almost as many again supported him in the terms that Huff outlined: he was better employed making the nation, indeed the world, laugh than he might be running around Europe with a rifle. Despite his personal anti-war views, Chaplin knew the only way he might stand a chance of maintaining his standing with the public would be if he were to support the war effort in whatever way he could, and that would mainly involve pushing the sale of war bonds to raise funds for the fight. The other option he did, apparently, consider was to quit his career altogether, cash in and head for South America. Instead, he purchased a large quantity of war bonds himself, and agreed—at the urging of Douglas Fairbanks—to help promote them.

Chaplin wrote to a fan in Britain, explaining his position: ‘I only wish I could join the English army and fight for my mother country, but I have received so many letters from soldiers at the front, as well as civilians, asking me to continue making pictures that I have come to the conclusion that my work lies here in Los Angeles. At the same time, if any country thinks it needs me in the trenches more than the soldiers need my pictures, I am ready to go.’

Despite that, Chaplin found himself under direct attack by Hollywood’s own newspaper, Variety, when it reported on his activities under the headline ‘Chaplin in Wrong’ on 22 June 1917. The entertainment newspaper reported that Chaplin had refused a call from the British War Office that he should return to the UK to undertake war service (in what capacity, it didn’t say). Additionally, claimed Variety, Chaplin had brought suspicion upon himself by his apparent failure to file a tax return in the US for 1917. It claimed that Chaplin had reportedly told friends that he was ‘indifferent to appearing before the camera in the future’ and was planning to convert all his savings to gold before leaving the country for somewhere safer. Secret Service agents were supposedly set to investigate Chaplin’s personal safety deposit boxes in search of any hoarded gold.

It was under these conditions that Chaplin was shooting what became The Adventurer, then under the title The Escaped Prisoner. A reporter who visited Chaplin on location claimed he was ‘jumpy’ and finding it difficult to concentrate on the work, although this may have been a side effect of his inability to find decent tea in Los Angeles. It was from this report that the story of Chaplin cancelling filming upon sight of a large snake originated.

04Writing for American Magazine, Chaplin chronicled some of his approach to filmmaking, specifically citing The Adventurer: ‘I always aim for economy of means. By this I mean that when one incident can get two big, separate laughs, it is much better than two individual incidents. In The Adventurer I accomplished this by first placing myself on a balcony, eating ice cream with a girl. On the floor directly underneath the balcony, I put a stout, dignified, well-dressed woman at a table. Then while eating the ice cream, I let a piece drop off my spoon, slip through my baggy trousers, and drop from the balcony onto this woman’s neck. The first laugh came at my embarrassment over my own predicament. The second, and much greater one, came when the ice cream landed on the woman’s neck and she shrieked and started to dance around. Only one incident had been used, but it had got two people into trouble and had also got two big laughs.’

The Adventurer was an allegory of where Chaplin found himself towards the end of 1917: adrift in a world that had once embraced him, but now attacked him over his views of the war, concealing himself amid the other wealthy denizens of Hollywood who did their best to pretend the ‘European’ war wouldn’t affect them. As all this was going on, Charlie Chaplin was now without a studio. He faced negotiating for a new contract, either with Mutual or with another of Hollywood’s studios, if he were to continue making films at all, that is.—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘All my pictures are built around the idea of getting me into trouble and so giving me the chance to be desperately serious in my attempt to appear as a normal little gentleman. That’s why, no matter how desperate the predicament is, I am always very much in earnest about clutching my cane, straightening my derby hat and fixing my tie, even though I have just landed on my head.’—Charlie Chaplin, American Magazine

Trivia: The Adventurer was the final film made by Eric Campbell. He had played the ideal opponent throughout Chaplin’s best films at Mutual, most notably in Easy Street. While making The Adventurer, Campbell’s off-screen life had undergone some upheaval. His wife had died in July, with Campbell quickly remarrying. He and his new wife, Pearl Gilman, were planning a Honolulu honeymoon, following Campbell’s filming on The Adventurer, but the relationship didn’t get that far. Just weeks after the wedding, Gilman was suing Campbell for a divorce. The reckless Campbell died in a car crash on 20 December 1917 on Wilshire Boulevard. He was only 37 years old.

The Contemporary View: ‘From the standpoint of laughs this two-reel Chaplin-Mutual is about the funniest turned out by the new Mutual during the entire time the comedian has been with it. It is a combination of all the sure-fire laugh getters that Chaplin has ever used with a couple of added starters for good measure. But it is sure a picture that will bring the laughs so fast one must figure what there is for Chaplin to follow it with… Chaplin does not rely on his hop, skip, jump, run, nor his moustache tricks in this picture. His shoes are not the usual Chaplin footgear, and the cane is also missing; but Chaplin without them is funnier than ever.’—Variety, 26 October 1917

‘Mr. Chaplin, in presenting his Mutual swan song, maintains the quality of past events, though shading in a trifle more on the deft stuff to diminishment of the broad. [He eliminates] pies and other edibles, confining himself to the extraction of all the fun he could from the human foot, kick-wise expressed, with a little soda water siphoned in for lubrication. As a convict endeavouring to escape, he spends most of his time in a dress suit, admiring the lovely Purviance, and dodging distasteful policemen. He dodges successfully, at the end escaping into the no-one-knows-where, but judging by his past experiences he is bound for more success.’—Photoplay, January 1918

Verdict: Charlie Chaplin ends his run at Mutual with one of his most accomplished shorts, even if during the making of it he was itching to move on.

Next: A Dog’s Life (14 April 1918)

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 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)

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 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.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

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