Director: George Nichols
Writers: Craig Hutchinson
Duration: Approx. 14 mins (one reel)
With: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Virginia Kirtley, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling
Story: The Tramp falls in love with a film actress, so visits the Keystone studio to track her down…
Production: It was an obvious idea, and a great place to put Chaplin’s Tramp—from the early scenes where he causes havoc in the cinema through to his disruption at the Keystone studio, A Film Johnnie is the perfect vehicle for Chaplin at this early point in his movie career.
From retrieving a coin from within an old sock to his ecstatic behaviour when Virginia Kirtley’s ‘Keystone girl’ appears on screen (check out those facial expressions), Chaplin instantly displayed how far advanced he was in terms of screen acting (and re-acting) over the likes of Ford Sterling (who turns up later in this one, doing his usual exaggerated Victorian schtick, the poor man couldn’t even play himself adequately).
Visiting the studio—those arriving in the cars are real Keystone personnel, including Chaplin’s hated erstwhile director Henry Lehrman—the first ‘star’ the Tramp encounters is the rotund Fatty Arbuckle, who promptly gives the poor fella a coin (quickly lost to another wiley employee). Straightening up his attire, the Tramp joins the influx of people through the studio gates…
What follows is a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at the Keystone studio in action, with Chaplin wandering from place-to-place falling foul of prop men, directors and actors. Cost saving measure this film may have been, but it has preserved a glimpse back in time revealing how a unique workplace functioned almost exactly 100 years ago.
A Film Johnnie (the name refers to fan who used to loiter outside theatre stage doors) can perhaps be read almost as a sequel to Kid Auto Races, with the Tramp’s ambition to star in pictures taken one step further. In fact, this film feels like the first time that the focus has really been on the Tramp as a character in his own right, a sign of where the Keystone Chaplin series would go in the future.
The difference between screen fiction and reality seems to elude the Tramp as he attempts to rescue a damsel-in-distress, thereby ruining a take, followed by much use of a prop gun. The lighting of a cigarette using the gun which follows is an early instance of Chaplin’s propensity to transform objects through their use into something else entirely.
Then A Film Johnnie goes all meta on us, with a ‘real world’ fire being used to form the climax of the film-within-the-film (as well as the one we’re watching) as Keystone dispatches a camera crew to capture a real (or is that reel?) event—something they often did. As everyone rushes to the scene of the action, we are treated to some lovely shots of Los Angeles in its early days (another example of the propensity of film to turn into a time machine).
Working with a new director didn’t make Chaplin any happier than when he’d been poorly served by Lehrman, according to Chaplin’s autobiography. Nichols ‘had but one gag which was to take the comedian by the neck and bounce him from one scene to another. I tried to suggest subtler business, but he too would not listen. “We have no time, we have no time!” he would cry. All he wanted was an imitation of Ford Sterling.’
Thankfully Chaplin was simply too good to be a poor-man’s Sterling. While at the end of this short, his Tramp clearly indicates he’s had it with the movies, the same was not at all true of Charlie Chaplin. He just needed to become master of his own destiny in order to do his best work and revolutionise film—this instalment was one of the baby steps on that long road.
Slapstick: Ejected from the cinema for hitting too many people with his hat, a flailing Chaplin lands on the sidewalk. Fighting with the director, a plank is wielded and the Tramp ends up on the floor, before being doused by a fire hose.
Verdict: A vast improvement but still not a classic, A Film Johnnie puts the focus firmly on Chaplin’s Tramp. 3/5
Next: Tango Tangles (9 March 1914)
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.