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

The Rink (4 December 1916)

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

Behind the Screen (13 November 1916)

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Release Date: 13 November 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 23 mins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: The Rink (4 December 1916)

Available Now!

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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

Amazon US | Amazon UK

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

The Pawnshop (2 October 1916)

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Release Date: 2 October 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 25 mins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Behind the Screen (13 November 1916)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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

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

 

 

The Count (4 September 1916)

Count3

Release Date: 4 September 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: The Pawnshop (2 October 1916)

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.

One A.M. (7 August 1916)

1916 02 One AM

Release Date: 7 August 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 27 mins

With: Albert Austin

Story: A confused drunk attempts to make his way around his home…

Production: The ultimate showcase, One A.M. features a more or less solo performance from Charlie Chaplin for the entire 27 minute running time, excepting Albert Austin’s brief appearance as a taxi driver. It was a performance that Chaplin had been preparing for almost his entire life—and he’s not even playing his iconic Tramp character.

1916 05 One AMOne A.M. features Chaplin as a drunken toff or swell, reprising a part he knew well from his days as a member of the Karno troupe. One of his signature vaudeville roles was that of the drunk, a character he’d often observed in real life, including his father and those he saw in the streets of London during his impoverished childhood. It was a role that existed before Chaplin joined Karno, but the young, very physical comedian proved to be the most adept at performing it in the Mumming Birds sketch.

According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography Charlie Chaplin, it has been calculated that Chaplin falls over a total of 46 times during this short. The general impression of watching the film suggested this is probably correct, or at least in the right ballpark! One A.M. features the kind of slapstick comedy that Chaplin’s audiences, who had followed him from Keystone to Essanay and now to Mutual had come to expect—what they perhaps were not prepared for was the level or pathos and depth of character that the silent superstar now wove around his character.

1916 07 One AMThis film sees the apotheosis of Chaplin’s battles with inanimate objects. From the moment the drunk arrives home, he is confounded by attempts to get past his own front door. Once inside, things don’t get any better for him. Among the objects the drunk does battle with are a rug which messes with his already unsteady footing, a table that revolves putting a whisky refill forever outwith his reach, stuffed felines that trap his foot in their jaws, a folding bed that all but swallows him up, a staircase which he falls down and up, and—in a fitting finale—the pendulum of a grandfather clock.

This fallabout stuff was all very pleasing to a mass audience, but there was more than just slapstick going on in One A.M. Chaplin was studying the work of other filmmakers in 1916 and learning from them, particularly from his personal favourite, D.W. Griffith. There was more that could be done with movies and in particular by moving the camera than had ever been achieved in his two years at Keystone and Essanay, two studios where any kind of experimentation that might slow the volume of production was heavily frowned upon.

Working with his cameraman Rollie Totheroh, Chaplin set out with One A.M. to explore some of these possibilities. How the camera was used, whether to shoot long shots, medium shots or close ups, and how these elements were cut together would be key to a successful film. Chaplin could see this in the abstract, but achieving it while still entertaining his audience was a larger challenge. Without other actors to focus upon (thus requiring many more wide shots), Chaplin decided to feature only himself, allowing for greater flexibility in the presentation of his comedy ‘business’.

1916 04 One AMFreed from having to feature and interact with others, Chaplin saw his opportunity to have the camera follow him more closely, giving him ample opportunity to interact—to an extent he had never achieved before—with inanimate props, thereby bringing them to life. These obstacles to his simple intention (the drunk wants to get to bed) are all common (at least in 1916) items, but the way the drunk interacts with them gives them a kind of abstract malevolence: these household objects are out to thwart the drunk’s ambition, however simple it might be.

The comedy comes in the drunk’s refusal to be beaten, while all the time attempting to maintain a kind of dignity supposedly suitable to his position in life: it is evident from the items in the house that this man (although played by Chaplin, complete with signature moustache) is no Tramp, he is in fact a man of the world, someone who has achieved much, and going by the décor perhaps an explorer.

Although his aim was to make people laugh, Chaplin was serious about his comedy. In an interview from 1916 with the New York Telegraph, he had outlined his developing ‘psychology of comedy’. ‘Making fun is a serious business,’ Chaplin told the newspaper. ‘It calls for the deepest study, the most concentrated observation. […] Did you ever see what happens when a policeman in uniform slips on a greasy street and takes a tumble? The policeman’s uniform and his club are symbols of his authority. When he slips […] the crowd shrieks with laughter. Why? Well, even good people have a sneaking dislike for a cop. […] There is fun in striking contrasts. One minute there is a picture of pride and dignity […] if I hook that chap with the crook of my cane, drag him almost off his feet […] the audience shrieks with laughter.’

A couple of years later, in 1918, Chaplin expanded upon these ideas in a piece in the American Magazine that was attributed to him, but was probably ghostwritten or the result of a transcribed interview. Chaplin says: ‘Even funnier than the man who has been made ridiculous […] is the man who, having had something funny happen to him, refuses to admit that anything out of the way has happened, and attempts to maintain his dignity. Perhaps the best example is the intoxicated man who, though his tongue and his walk give him away, attempts in a dignified manner to convince you that he is quite sober […] this attempt at dignity is funny.’

Chaplin biographer John McCabe thought that One A.M. was ‘the cleverest and conceivably the funniest film Chaplin made for Mutual’. He points out that the film reverses philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of comedy, which is ‘the mechanical imposed on the living’ (which certainly applies to some aspects of Chaplin’s later feature Modern Times, 1936). Here, the comedy comes from ‘the living’ (Chaplin’s drunk) attempting to navigate his way around the inanimate obstructions of home (the ‘mechanical’ in Bergson’s conception).

It is a great testimony to Chaplin’s highly developed skills in mime that he is able to pull this off. At no time does it appear on film as if Chaplin (the performer) is manipulating the props (as is actually happening). Instead, it appears as if the rugs, carpets, tables, stairs, clocks and beds are all independently acting to thwart him: they move to ensnare him, he does not align himself to be snared by them (as he is actually doing). Surviving outtakes (which Chaplin had ordered destroyed) reveal the preparation, work and simple repetition that went into achieving the effect: a simple slide on a rug or mat would be repeated and repeated until the perfectionist Chaplin was happy with the effect or effortlessness. The suspension of disbelief is perfectly maintained: this poor man is having a terrible night, trying to achieve the most innocent of aims, but is thwarted at every turn by the very objects he had chosen to surround himself with. Is this all a punishment for his being drunk? Is it a form of revenge by the world upon a man who would indulge himself to excess? Could this film really be a comic commentary on the misuses of alcohol?

1916 01 One AM

The result might seem like Andre Bazin’s concept of ‘filmed theatre’, but Chaplin and Totheroh keep the camera moving, especially up-and-down the stairs, rather than cutting to offering viewpoints of the action that would not have been possible if shooting was simply restricted to ‘through the proscenium arch’ style work that was all too prevalent at the time in comic cinema. In some ways, it could be argued that the drunk’s experience of the house is something of a psychological ordeal. Things start off ordinarily enough, but as time goes on the obstacles in his way become ever more outlandish, weirdly surreal and offbeat. The front door, tables and stairs are all recognisable, but with the animal rugs, the larger-than-life clock and—finally—the man-eating fold-up bed, things just get weird. Is that because we’re actually seeing things through the drunken haze of the sole on-screen character’s unique perception? No wonder he ends things in the bathtub where he can sleep this bender off…

One reason that Chaplin might have embarked upon a film so limited in setting and cast like One A.M. could be that it was in response to budget overages on one of his previous shorts, The Fireman (1916). While it often seemed like money was no object to Mutual (given the enormous cost in signing Chaplin in the first place, and the establishment of his own studio, Lone Star Studio), they were actually as budget conscious on individual films as any other studio of the time. Restricting the cast to one (and a brief cameo) and the setting to one easily-built and easily-controlled set kept the costs down, but it was also a trigger for Chaplin’s filmic imagination. The challenged to come up with almost 30-minutes of engaging comedy from one man in one location would have been too much of a challenge for Chaplin to resist. So, while cost may have been the initial motivation, it was Chaplin’s own filmmaking sensibilities that truly gave rise to One A.M., one of his best ever shorts. Photoplayers Weekly, in July 1916, said of Chaplin: ‘If any man could appear absolutely alone and hold attention for two whole reels, he believed he could do it’.

1916 03 One AMHowever, Chaplin would come to view One A.M. as something of a misstep, at least as far as pleasing his audience went. Chaplin biographer David Robinson wrote of the short: ‘One A.M. was a daring display of virtuosity, so daring that Chaplin afterward confided to his collaborators: “One more like that and it’s goodbye Charlie.”’ It is unclear exactly what Chaplin felt he’d done wrong with One A.M. Was he concerned about the toll that the solo performance had taken on him, or did he worry that his audience would not be satisfied seeing him on his own more than once? Did he feel that his use of a moving camera (more in One A.M. than in any previous short) would be disturbing to filmgoers who were simply more comfortably with the locked-off camera of so many much simpler comedies? Was he worried he was pushing boundaries too far, both in terms of content and technique? Maybe we’ll never really know. However, one thing is clear: apart from isolated sections in later shorts and features this was really the only solo outing for Chaplin.

Writing in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film critic David Thomson noted that “The worldwide appeal of Chaplin, and his persistent handicap, have lain in the extent to which he always lived in a realm of his own: that of delirious egotism. Is there a more typical or revealing piece of classic Chaplin than One A.M. (or ‘I AM’), in which he exists in virtuoso isolation […] executing every variation on the drunk-coming-home theme? It is like a dancer at the bar, confronting himself in a mirror.’

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Perhaps that’s it, maybe Chaplin felt he was revealing too much of himself in One A.M., too much of his true inner being? After all, he was worried that he might inherit his father’s alcoholism and failure to make anything of himself, despite everything he had achieved in just over two years in filmmaking. That success itself was a threat to Chaplin, to his sense of himself. He was now rich, thanks to the Mutual deal, beyond his wildest imagination, yet he tried his best to not let the money (and so lifestyle) now available to him change him in anyway. In fact, he went out of his way not to spend; to not change anything fundamentally in his life, for fear that it might affect his comedy. His solution, his distraction, was to throw himself into the work, to focus on his comedy and on his filmmaking and ignore (at least for now) what he could make of his life thanks to his newfound riches. He told writer and early Hollywood historian Terry Ramsaye that he had no intention of buying anything beyond ‘a dozen neckties’, and he pretty much stuck to that promise. According to Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton, Chaplin’s entire expenditure during 1915 had been less than $500 and ‘during the first six months after signing with Mutual [in March 1916], he continued to live in the same modest style.’ It wasn’t a state of affairs that could—or should—last forever.—Brian J. Robb

1916 06 One AMCharlie Says: ‘My ambition, when I started picture work, was to make enough money, some time, so that I might retire with the knowledge that I had enough to ensure me a $25-a-week income for the rest of my life. I was sure, then, that I would be satisfied and happy with that. My first contract with the Keystone company was for $175-per-week. I showed it to everybody I knew, and inwardly quaked with the fear that I would never be able to fool them into paying me that much for more than a few weeks…’—Mabel Condon, Picture Play Magazine, December 1916.

‘One A.M. was unusual for me. It was a solo act which took place in a very restricted space: an exercise in mime and technical virtuosity, with no plot or secondary characters. I arrive home drunk early one morning to find everything in the house against me.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Life in Pictures (1974).

Trivia: Although he was not a big drinker himself (especially give the death of his alcoholic father at the age of 37), Chaplin excelled at playing drunks. The Karno farce Mumming Birds—in which he first learned his trade—was filmed as A Night in the Show (1915). The Tramp is seen to drink in many films, but those in which he’s full-on drunk include The Rounders (1914, with Fatty Arbuckle), A Night Out (1915, with Ben Turpin), and The Face on the Bar Room Floor (1915).

The Contemporary View: ‘As a matter of single-handed time-trifling and one-man farce-juggling, Chaplin’s performance in One A.M. is of course the current record. No other human could detain an audience as Chaplin does through two quite full reels of solo performance in an interior set. Charlie’s feat is like that of some great vaudevillian […] congratulations Mr. Chaplin on speaking your piece so nicely, but—come on back, Edna!’— Julian Johnson, Photoplay, 1916.

Verdict: What might be lost by not seeing Chaplin interacting with co-stars is more than made up for by his display of imaginative physical comic dexterity.

Next: The Count (4 September 1916)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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

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The Vagabond (10 July 1916)

1916 05 The Vagabond

Release Date: 10 July 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 26 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Lloyd Bacon, Charlotte Mineau, Eric Campbell, Leo White, John Rand, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley

Story: The Tramp, an itinerant musician, rescues a girl (Edna Purviance) from gypsies, but romantic complications ensue.

Production: Charlie Chaplin found his feet at Mutual in the spring of 1916 consolidating his slapstick-driven filmmaking skills with The Floorwalker and The Fireman. With the arrival of summer, he turned his attention to further deepening the character of the Little Tramp in The Vagabond, a short that called back to his break-through Essanay film, The Tramp (1915).

Combining genuine romance and pathos with the traditional slapstick runaround, The Vagabond sees Chaplin play the Tramp as an itinerant musician, playing his violin in bars hoping to earn a few coins to buy a crust of bread. This was the first time that Chaplin featured his violin on screen: playing it had become something of an all-consuming hobby for the comic when he wasn’t making films. Simon Louvish, in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, quotes a press report from May 1916 that Chaplin’s ‘chief hobby is found in his violin. Every spare moment away from the studio is devoted to this instrument. He does not play from notes [sheet music] excepting in a very few instances. He can run through selections of popular operas by ear and, if in the humour, he can rattle off the famous Irish jig or some negro [sic] selection with the ease of a vaudeville entertainer.’

So well known is Chaplin’s persona by this stage, after two years of fame, that he feels confident audiences will recognise him from a view of his battered boots alone. The Vagabond opens with a shot of Chaplin’s feet, as he stands outside a saloon door, gathering the courage to enter and attempt to entertain the probably inebriated patrons. When he does strike up (playing left-handed, it is worth noting), he discovers he has competition in the shape of a four-man brass band and drummer combination that all but drown out his soulful violin. Wiley as he is, though, the Tramp manages to make it around the patrons with his hat out collecting tips before the band conductor (Albert Austin) can do the same, thus beating them to the meagre rewards on offer. Needless to say, Keystone-style chaos kicks off as the participants in this farce chase one another around the bar room, in and out of the swing doors (those eternal Chaplin inanimate antagonists). The brilliant conclusion to this opening sequence sees the Tramp momentarily escape the chaos, find the wherewithal to pour himself a calming drink at the bar, and then escape the scene unscathed and unnoticed by the others. It’s a great set-up, but it could fit into almost any Chaplin short of this period: the best of The Vagabond is yet to come.

1916 03 The VagabondThe scene switches to explore the plight of the ‘gypsy drudge’ (Edna Purviance), a young woman seemingly stolen in childhood and now forced to toil for a gypsy community or feel the wrath of Eric Campbell’s whip hand. Although a cliché of silent movies, the use of gypsy tropes so easily here by Chaplin is a little odd, especially given his own later-expressed desire to have been part of such a community. It is probably no more than easy, melodramatic shorthand, but it still looks slightly dodgy and unthinking to modern eyes. The villainous gypsy was a key figure in early motion pictures, including in D. W. Griffith’s (a filmmaking pioneer much admired by Chaplin) The Adventures of Dolly (1908) and in British director Lewin Fitzhamon’s early film Rescued by Rover (1905). Chaplin was simply buying into the implied ethnic shorthand of the day, and presumably saw no harm as he fancied himself to be part-gypsy anyway.

The set-up for what is likely to happen next is clear. The Tramp enters, wandering down a country road (it would have been easy for the short to have begun here, but perhaps Chaplin didn’t feel entirely confidant in dispensing with the slapstick shenanigans of the opening altogether, at least not yet). He spies the crying ‘drudge’ and again plays his violin in an attempt to cheer her up, before falling into the wash tub. Soon, he’s in a full-on conflict with Campbell’s gypsy chief and his gang, liberating Edna in the process.

1916 02 The VagabondThere follows a romantic idyll as the pair get to know each other, the Tramp brushes out her tangled hair, and washes her face clean. It’s an intimate, touching scene, the likes of which Chaplin would further develop in subsequent films. Their new life is interrupted, however, with the arrival of a travelling artist (Lloyd Bacon) who is struck with inspiration in Edna’s beauty. Fickle as she seems, Edna is soon making googly eyes at the newcomer, breaking the Tramp’s heart in the process. A close-up of Chaplin’s lovelorn face is all that is needed to convey what a largely redundant intertitle also explains: ‘His romance fading’.

Trying to recover his love’s attention, the Tramp tries his hand at illustration, rather unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, the artist exhibits his painting complete with Edna’s distinctive birthmark, the result of which soon sees her reunited with her long lost family. Initially it appears there is no place in the recreated family unit for the Tramp, but determined to end things on a happy note, Chaplin has Edna have a last minute change of heart, returning to pick him up and take him with them onwards to a new life.

1916 04 The VagabondMore so than in The Tramp (which served as a model for The Vagabond), Chaplin manages to combine the fun of the opening bar-set sequence with what is more-or-less a straightforward melodrama tinged with moments of slapstick humour in the film’s second section. The romance is played straight, with only the Tramp’s occasional clumsy moments or attempts at misdirection providing the laughs. The gags all work, but almost more importantly at this point in his developing career, the straight (melo)drama works too. In the essentially good-hearted but unlucky figure of the Tramp, as he would play it from now on, Chaplin had finally moved on from the violent, cheeky imp of his Keystone and Essanay days. There was more depth and more emotion to the iconic figure now, and that gave him a whole new appeal to his ever-growing audience.

The Vagabond signalled an important development in Chaplin’s art. Elements seen here for the first time would inform later further developed routines in Chaplin’s mature features, especially in The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and Limelight (1952). Never one to throw away a gag or a sequence he knew worked with an audience, Chaplin would mentally file away anything he saw as being a hit and find a way to reuse it later, often taking it further than before, in a more extensive project. Comedy alone was no longer enough for Chaplin: in developing depth of character and a degree of sentimental identification with his characters from his audience he was ploughing a new furrow in the cinematic arts.

Chaplin biographer David Robinson highlights a long-rumoured alternative ending for The Vagabond that Chaplin may have filmed and which would have concluded the short in a far darker way. Before Edna’s waif returns for him, it is evident from Chaplin’s body language that he is taking the rejection hard. He shrugs his shoulders in an admission of defeat and attempts to do his by now expected happy walk away from the camera, but fails to pull it off convincingly, his despair showing through. Instead of the hopelessly romantic (and highly unlikely) ending tacked onto the released version of The Vagabond, Robinson points to a darker conclusion in which the Tramp was to have been seen committing suicide by hopelessly throwing himself into a river. The rumoured footage supposedly saw the Tramp rescued by what Robinson called a ‘hatchet-faced maiden’ (Phyllis Allen), but the prospect of spending time with her sees the Tramp throw himself into the river in despair once more. Whether the idea was merely scripted and rejected or actually shot is unclear. Robinson calls the alternative footage a ‘legend’ and concludes its existence is ‘unsubstantiated by any existing footage’.

1916 06 The VagabondAlthough Chaplin’s music could not be heard, it has been reported that the tune he plays on the violin was ‘The Honeysuckle and the Bee’, a tune he was familiar with from his impoverished South London upbringing and which no doubt helped reinforce the pathos inherent in his performance. Music was becoming ever more important to Chaplin off-screen, with his new fame allowing him to become friends with various famous composers and performers. Stan Laurel recalled Chaplin playing his violin during their days together as part of the Fred Karno troupe: ‘I wouldn’t call him a good violinist,’ John McCabe reports Laurel as having claimed, ‘but he sure as hell wasn’t a bad one’. As Chaplin’s career progressed music would play a larger part, including his own compositions as scores for revised reissues of his movies in the 1930s and 1940s.

Chaplin’s fame was now such that his own past was proving to be of interest not only to journalists fascinated by him, but also to himself. He knew little about his own family beyond his immediate parents, and even then there was some ambiguity about who his father had actually been. In July 1916, just as The Vagabond was released, Chaplin and his half-brother Syd (who was managing his business affairs) discovered that the Bobbs-Merrill publishing house was planning to put out a book entitled ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story’. Rosie Wilder Lane, a feature writer for the San Francisco Bulletin, had written the book. Chaplin recalled she had interviewed him during his time at the Niles studio when he worked for Essanay.

The prospect of the book and the gypsy subject matter of The Vagabond caused Chaplin to ruminate on his own unclear origins. Many had commented that Chaplin, small of stature, dark of countenance and noticeably slim, did not resemble the average Englishman. Was he, in fact, born of more exotic stock, more exotic even than show folk? Motion Picture Magazine had delighted in the fact that in 1916 there was ‘much speculation’ about Chaplin’s ethnic origins.

For his part, Chaplin seemed happy to allow others to make whatever assumptions about him they liked. Early in his Hollywood career, as Chaplin later reported, a producer he’d worked with assumed he was Jewish. ‘I did not disillusion him,’ explained Chaplin. ‘If they wanted me Jewish, they would have me Jewish’. During his time at Essanay, Chaplin had happily spun a few yarns for interviewers and journalists, mainly in the interest of giving them a good story rather than in service of the truth. He’d claimed his mother was half-Irish and half-Spanish, and so by implication of gypsy stock. It was a romantic notion to him that he wanted to be true and perhaps even half believed.

When he made his astonishing deal with Mutual, interest in Chaplin and his background shot up. The New York Telegraph tracked down his mother’s sister, Kate Mowbray, and queried her about her nephew’s earlier life. ‘Outwardly he is the image of his father,’ Kate told enquiring journalists. She talked of his musical abilities, focusing on his long-standing fondness for the violin, as seen in The Vagabond. She put this musical skill down to an inheritance from his talented mother.

Repeatedly asked about his background, Chaplin began to spin yarns for his own entertainment. He told one journalist he was French, having been born in a hotel in Fontainbleau, France when his itinerant performing parents were on tour. It was perhaps his conflicting public stories that caused complete strangers to come forward claiming to be long-lost relatives of the Chaplin family, who might think themselves in line for a slice of the film star’s ever-growing fortune. Chaplin once claimed to have heard from at least 671 English Chaplins (a very precise number!) who had all claimed to be close relatives—nine of them said they were actually his mother.

Joyce Milton, in her biography of Chaplin entitled Tramp, highlighted what she described as ‘the most exotic story about his parentage’ that Chaplin was told as a result of his ever-increasing fame. A train porter claimed he was related to Chaplin through an acclaimed mixed-African and American descended painter called John Gwynne Chaplin from Pennsylvania. A painter of Biblical subjects, Gwynne Chaplin was light-skinned enough to pass for white, despite this (according to Milton) he was professionally classed as a ‘race artist’. He spent time in Europe from 1850 and may have had a child with a woman in England. It was easy enough to see how the story that Charlie Chaplin somehow fitted into this lineage could be made plausible. The story was important because of the cultural and political context of race in America in 1916. The previous year Chaplin had much admired D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation for its filmmaking technique, but that movie had a darker legacy in a rebirth of the Klu Klux Klan and anti-black activism among some of America’s white population. As Milton puts it: ‘…even a suspicion of “negro” blood would very likely have ended Chaplin’s American career.’ For that reason alone, it is easy to see why Charlie Chaplin didn’t add this particular tale to his fanciful repertoire of exotic origin stories for the press.

Rose Wilder Lane in preparing her ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story’ had turned her notes, enhanced with a good deal of invention, into a first person narrative purportedly telling of Chaplin’s own true rise to fame and fortune. Much was accurate—the author had obviously encountered Chaplin at a point when he was happy to be more chatty about his early life than he became in later years—but much more was simply inaccurate or, even worse, pure invention. It was, essentially, an enhanced work of fiction written as if to be in Chaplin’s own voice: the book was billed as an ‘as told to’ story. Syd objected strongly and set Chaplin’s lawyer onto the publisher and this was enough to convince them to withdraw the book from sale.

In all probability, Chaplin’s ancestry is exactly as we believe it to be today. For the man himself, though, these other possibilities gave him the opportunity to believe that his father may have been someone other than a drunken music hall performer who’d died young and impoverished. He already feared he might inherit the mental instability his mother Hannah had already shown, it would be doubly worse if he were to also inherit his father’s fondness for alcohol (although Prohibition was on the horizon in American—it would begin in 1919 and run until 1933—it actually did little to temper the availability of alcohol). These other fantasy-driven stories of his parentage allowed the nervous, anxious and slight figure of Charlie Chaplin to imagine that his father had actually been a well-educated man, perhaps someone of society or in the respectable arts (as compared to the lowbrow vaudeville). It was the kind of figure he aspired to be (and would, by and large, become). It is clear to see in The Vagabond that Charlie Chaplin was taking the opportunity that filmmaking allowed him to safely explore the fantasy autobiography that sometimes ran through his troubled mind. — Brian J. Robb

Trivia: Eric Campbell’s “wife” in The Vagabond, the harridan who leads the gypsy clan, is actually actor Leo White in drag. Born in 1882 in Manchester, White’s filmography stretched from roles in early Chaplin shorts at Essanay through to a bit part in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace. He died in Glendale, California in 1948.

The Contemporary View: ‘The latter part of the story shows Chaplin in a new role, and he handles it well in spite of the necessity of being as funny as possible. He would make an interesting lead in almost any story if it were possible for him to divest himself of the little tricks which have made him famous. Those little tricks still go, and they pay, but it would be a novelty to see Chaplin free to do without them…’—Motion Picture World, July 1916.

Verdict: A solid leap forward, building on The Tramp and setting a new direction for Chaplin with deeper character development and better control over the drama.

Next: One A.M. (7 August 1916)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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

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

 

The Fireman (12 June 1916)

 

Chaplin2016 The Fireman6

Release Date: 12 June 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

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

Story: The Tramp has a job, as an incompetent fireman at Station 23. Caught up in an insure-and-burn scheme, he has to rescue fire chief’s intended from the flames…

Production: Charlie Chaplin’s second short for Mutual continued his focus on gags and situations—as the title suggests, Chaplin plays the role of an inept firefighter—but he failed to add any additional depth to his character. Perhaps he felt he needed to find his feet making new films for a new studio in unfamiliar circumstances before he could turn his attention to further developing his art? As it is, The Fireman is a gag-laden short that is richly amusing if not emotionally enriching. According to John McCabe, Chaplin drew inspiration from simply walking past a local Los Angeles fire station near to the Mutual studio one day and imaging himself as a fireman, a man completely at the mercy of the demands of the fire alarm bell. It was enough to see him embark upon making the short, even without a fully worked out scenario, as was increasingly becoming his habit. That approach might explain the somewhat disjointed, episodic nature of The Fireman.

This is a short more in the Keystone style, with Eric Campbell as the hopeless fire chief who gets caught up in an insure-and-burn caper so he can wed a businessman’s daughter (played by Edna Purviance). His plan falls apart, however, when the ever-heroic Charlie comes to the rescue after he spots Edna (whom he’s also in love with) trapped in the burning building. There is something of the later Harold Lloyd ‘thrill pictures’ in the climax as Chaplin (or maybe a stunt double, see ‘Trivia’) scales the ladder to come to Edna’s rescue. Meanwhile, Leo White’s house is also burning down, but nothing he does seems to engage the interest of the fire department.

Filming for The Fireman took place at a real fire station—Fire Station #29, located at 158 South Western, which had opened just three years before (it only closed in 1988, making it potentially the Los Angeles fire station that was in continuous use the longest). This decision gave the short some very high production values, as Chaplin was able to fully utilise the premises and the (horse-drawn) fire trucks stored there—presumably all subject to them being withdrawn from the film if there were an emergency call out.

In addition to the fire station, real fires mounted by the production team at two separate condemned houses added further spectacular production value. Scenes of Chaplin rushing to get to the fires, with the fire fighter crew hanging on to the buggy for dear life, recall some of the old Keystone rough-and-tumble chases from two years before. Even when they reach the site of the fire, the firemen insist on limbering up before they dare tackle the blaze…

Chaplin2016 TheFireman9 EdnaDespite all this action, there is room in the short for some quieter comic moments, such as when Charlie uses the fire engine’s boiler as a makeshift coffee urn, dispensing coffee and cream from its taps, and a scene in which the naïve fireman attempts to brush down the department’s horses using a dainty feather duster. These were characteristic comedy moments, but the relationship with Edna is not advanced much (attaching her to Eric Campbell’s villain made that difficult) and so the opportunities for any kind of heart-tugging pathos are limited.

Upon the release of The Fireman, Chaplin received a letter in reaction to the short from a fan that brought him up short (according to biographer John McCabe). The mid-westerner wrote: ‘I have noticed in your last picture a lack of spontaneity. Although the picture was unfailing as a laugh-getter, the laughter was not so round as in some of your earlier work. I am afraid that you are becoming a slave to your public, whereas in most of your pictures the audience were a slave to you…’ It seemed to Chaplin that the complaint was a valid one—he was in danger of resting on his laurels, and churning out material that could have been made at Keystone or even at Essanay was not enough. He would have to strive to deepen both his character and his filmmaking techniques if he was to stay one step ahead of his fans, giving the public not what they wanted but what they didn’t know they needed.

The latest addition to the Chaplin company at Mutual was James T. Kelley (born in Castlebar in July, 1854 and sometimes billed as ‘Kelly’), an Irish-born performer who had a degree of stage and dance experience, but on film often played elderly inebriates. His earlier films included some Edison credits in 1897: Bowery Waltz (aka Apache Dance) and Charity Ball. He was seen alongside Louise Fazenda in the Universal short The Battle of the Nations in 1914. Kelley had appeared alongside Chaplin before in A Night in the Show and in Police, but he’d really make his mark during the Mutual period. He was the elderly elevator operator in The Floorwalker, a past his prime fireman in The Fireman, and later an out-of-shape bellhop in The Cure and he played two roles in the Chaplin classic The Immigrant. He worked with Chaplin right through the Mutual period, including roles in The Pawnshop, The Vagabond, A Dog’s Life, The Count, The Rink, and Easy Street. He also worked with Harold Lloyd, appearing in his 1921 comedy Among Those Present right through to the feature Safety Last (1923). Later in the 1920s he appeared in a variety of Western films, including Man Rustlin’ (1926) and Men of Daring (1927). He died in 1933 at the age of 79 in New York City.

Along with his newfound popularity, Chaplin had to face a new problem: film piracy. In the earliest days of movie distribution, films were released across the US via local ‘film exchanges’ in an often haphazard manner. Films were considered disposable, unlikely to last (either physically or in the memory of audiences) beyond the projected 90-day life of a standard print. It was easy for unscrupulous practitioners to obtain copies of the newest Chaplin short and strike their own copy, which they then leased out to cinemas pocketing the theatrical screening fee that should have gone back to the studios, whether Keystone, Essanay, or—from May 1916—Mutual, none of whom seemed too interested in protecting their property. (French filmmaker George Méliès, a special effects and filmmaking pioneer in his own right, especially suffered from US piracy of his works).

One example was the completely unauthorised ‘Chaplin Film Company’ that actually had an office on West 45th Street in Manhattan. It was Keystone investor Charles Baumann who discovered it following a tip-off. This unofficial distributor was well-stocked with ‘dupes’, unofficial duplicate prints, copies of the most popular Chaplin shorts and at this point—in the summer of 1915—was making great money from distributing Chaplin’s Dough and Dynamite. Now aware of the transgression, Keystone went to court and had the whole operation shut down. That, however, was just one of many ‘dupe’ distributors in action, many of them not daft enough to open a shop front in a major Manhattan thoroughfare.

One step beyond that kind of direct theft was the ‘bogus Chaplins’. These weren’t films featuring Chaplin impersonators and imitators (already covered here: In The Park), but movies made up of extracts or outtakes from Chaplin’s work that was re-edited to make a ‘new’ Chaplin release. One such was The Perils of Patrick, modelled after Pathe’s The Perils of Pauline (at least as far as the title went), a serial made up of much of Chaplin’s Keystone footage. It didn’t help their case that both Keystone and Essanay (see Burlesque on Carmen) were not above similar activity themselves.

The effort that went in to creating these ‘bogus’ Chaplin shorts was often ingenious. Rather than put their efforts into creating original works of their own, several would-be filmmakers took the opportunity of Chaplin’s stratospheric popularity to ride on the innovative comedian’s coat tails. Among them were Bronx-born duo Jules Potash and Isadore Peskov who took Chaplin’s The Champion (an Essanay release), removed the backgrounds and replaced them with an unlikely undersea world, itself lifted directly from Herbert Brenon’s film Daughter of the Gods. The resulting uncomfortable mash-up was released (through their New Apollo Feature Film Company) under the title Charlie Chaplin in a Son of the Gods, a film which contrived to show the Tramp visiting King Neptune’s court and there encountering Keystone-style bathing beauty mermaids. This film was brazenly screened at the 14th Street Crystal Palace theatre in New York, a regular venue for Chaplin’s legitimate products. Having succeeded with that release, Potash and Peskov were soon at it again with Charlie in the Harem and the predictive Charlie in the Trenches (itself a working title for the later Shoulder Arms, 1918). As Chaplin did not own the copyright to his early works, there was little he could do about such disgraceful behaviour.

Chaplin1916 The Fireman 1Others were inspired to follow the example of Potash and Peskov: after all, there was money in them thar films. The Seiden brothers—Joseph and Jacob—operated out of Chicago (Chaplin’s onetime Essanay stamping ground) and released a Chaplin knockoff under the title The Fall of the RummyNuffs (a supposed pun on the Russian Romanovs, then in the news). As well as adapting original footage, particularly enterprising film pirates would hire Chaplin lookalikes in order to create ‘new’ material to expand the length of the films (this lead to the full-blown craze for Chaplin impersonators such as Billy West). By this time, Chaplin was signed to First National (in 1917), and his legal officer Nathan Burkan launched a concerted effort to rid cinemas of these ‘bogus’ Chaplin films, including such titles as The Dishonour System (a two-reeler) and One Law for Both. Targets he attacked included not only the filmmakers themselves, but also the laboratories that developed the film, those who made the posters for the bogus movies, and those who screened them—all in an attempt to seek some form of financial redress. ‘Several suits will be started against each and every exhibitor in this and other cities for exhibiting spurious Charlie Chaplin pictures,’ said Burkan. At First National, Chaplin developed an innovative way of authenticating his films to counter such piracy, but we’ll cover that when the blog reaches Chaplin’s First National releases.

Another pressing problem that Chaplin faced in the summer of 1916 was the question of his willingness (or otherwise) to fight for his country—Great Britain—in the then-unfolding ‘Great War’, better known today as the First World War. In 1914, when war was first declared with Germany, Chaplin had decided to stay in the US rather than return home to do his bit for ‘King and Country’ (as the misguided patriotic cry had it). By the time he was at Mutual, just as the war was kicking into a higher gear in the summer of 1916, it became public that Chaplin’s Mutual contract actually contained a clause that would actively prevent him from ‘joining up’ in the British army as he was considered to be such a valuable ‘commodity’ to the company.

This created something of a backlash with some popular sentiment portraying Chaplin as a coward who was actively avoiding conscription (the ‘draft’ in the US) of ordinary citizens to serve in the army that was ensnaring much of his home country audience. The comedian began to receive letters from soldiers containing white feathers, long a symbol of cowardice in the face of war, and a handful of cinemas back in Britain refused to screen any further Chaplin films due to his non-participation in the war. At the same time, Chaplin received letters from other soldiers, many serving at the frontlines in France, pleading with him to continue making the ‘funny’ films that made them laugh and raised their morale in the face of deadly danger. Some in the ‘top brass’ of the British army actually came to regard Charlie Chaplin’s filmmaking to be a much more important contribution to the British war effort and to raising morale both among soldiers and on the ‘home front’ than any effort he could personally make by picking up a rifle.

Chaplin2016 The Fireman8According to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, the campaign to harass Chaplin due to his seeming avoidance of war service had been instigated by Lord Northcliffe, the publisher of Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper. From the spring of 1916 the paper had been carrying disparaging comments about Chaplin’s failure to sign up with Britain’s armed forces, highlighting the clause in his Mutual contract that apparently prevented him from returning to his homeland for the duration of the conflict in case he should be conscripted to fight. ‘We have received several letter protesting against the idea of [anyone] making a profit on the exhibition in this country of a man who binds himself not to come home to fight for his native land,’ said the newspaper.

By the following year, the rhetoric had escalated, with an editorial (probably dictated by Northcliffe himself) running in the Weekly Dispatch that castigated the comedian: ‘Charles Chaplin, although slight built, is very firm on his feet, as is evidenced by his screen acrobatics. … During the 34 months of the war it is estimated [that] he has earned well over £125,000. … Chaplin can hardly refuse the British nation both his money and his services. … He is under the suspicion of regarding himself as specially privileged to escape the common responsibilities of British citizenship. … It is Charlie’s duty to offer himself as a recruit.’ Other papers, including the Daily Express, joined the calls against Chaplin’s non-participation.

Eventually, the star was forced into issuing a statement on the situation to the press: ‘I am ready and willing to answer the call of my country to serve in any branch of the military service at whatever post the national authorities may consider I might do the most good,’ said Chaplin. ‘But, like thousands of other Britishers, I am awaiting word from the British Embassy in Washington.’ He went on to highlight his financial investments in the war effort and the fact that he’d registered for the draft (drawn on a random lottery basis) in the United States.

Chaplin2016 The Fireman7Sydney was drawn into the fuss, too, having to confirm that he was over the exemption age of 31—the suspicion was that he’d been singled out simply because he was Chaplin’s (half) brother. The active campaign against Chaplin only came to an end, according to Robinson, when the actor presented himself at a recruiting office but was turned away for being underweight!

According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Chaplin the comedian wrote back to one soldier correspondent that he was ‘sorry my professional demands do not permit my presence in the Mother Country.’ According to another friend, Chaplin had expressed his utter horror of war in these terms: ‘Not for me! I’d have gone to jail rather than have gone into it. I’d have gnawed off my fist rather than get into that sort of thing.’ These sentiments perhaps reflected Chaplin’s growing pacifist feelings rather than any cowardice in his nature. Later Chaplin would tackle the subject directly in 1918’s Shoulder Arms and would tour the US (where he was greeted by record-breaking crowds) promoting the purchase of war bonds. — Brian J. Robb

Trivia: It doesn’t appear to be Chaplin driving the horse-drawn fire truck from the station, more like Eric Campbell (based on his size) or an anonymous stuntman. Similarly, the dummy figure that Chaplin carries down during the rescue scene has much darker hair than the blonde Edna Purviance, who he is supposedly rescuing!

The Contemporary View: ‘There is an abundance of the rough comedy which secures laughs. The best laughs are when the prop engine falls apart. The rescue of the girl from the top storey is a good hit, also the general business around the firehouse.’—Variety, June 1916

Verdict: The Fireman is a throwback to Keystone and Essanay slapstick, but Chaplin was capable of more sophisticated comedy.

Next: The Vagabond (10 July 1916)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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