His New Profession (31 August 1914)

Chaplin27HisNewProfession

Released: 31 August 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 16 mins

With: Charley Chase, Cecile Arnold, Harry McCoy, Roscoe Arbuckle

Story: The Tramp has a new job opportunity—looking after a man confined to a wheelchair…

Production: Another largely improvised Keystone quickie, His New Profession saw a return of the somewhat callous characterisation of the Tramp figure (as seen most recently in The Property Man) which Chaplin would slowly eliminate in favour of a character who could elicit audience sympathy more easily. While Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo as a barman in a brief pub scene, this short does showcase a soon-to-be rising star at Keystone (and later with Hal Roach), Charley Chase, playing the nephew.

It is Chase’s nephew character who hires Chaplin’s Tramp to look after his uncle (Jess Dandy), confined to a wheelchair due to gout, so he can spend time with his girlfriend. It is a simple set-up for a film that follows through on all the obvious, equally simple gags that the set-up suggests (and pre-figuring the later similar set-up of gout-victim Eric Campbell in Chaplin’s later short, The Cure, from 1917). Chaplin’s Tramp is less the committed to the new assignment, and is more intent on scraping together some change to feed his need for a drink. Having thus fortified himself, he returns to take charge of ‘uncle’, with his gout-stricken foot naturally hitting every possible obstacle. In the climax, the usual Keystone riot breaks out, as Chaplin’s Tramp flirts with Chase’s girlfriend and the inevitable cops arrive. His New Profession was the result of a day out in and around Venice and in Ocean Park on Venice Beach, later the site of an ill-fated nautical theme park.

Notable in the short is the Tramp’s interest in the National Police Gazette, consulted several times by the character, and a personal favourite of Chaplin’s. The notorious illustrated tabloid scandal sheet would re-appear in The Kid (1921) and pop up again in Limelight (1952), indicating Chaplin’s attraction to the title didn’t wane over time. He’s engrossed in his reading matter at the beginning of His New Profession, and later attempts to interest ‘uncle’ in its contents.

The Tramp’s beer fund comes from pinching the un-politically correct sign reading ‘Help a cripple’ he finds in front of a sleeping, begging unfortunate. Installing the sign in front of ‘uncle’ quickly brings in the coins he needs to fuel a trip to the Pier Bar where he can rest his weary feet, his toes having been bashed repeatedly while manoeuvring the wheelchair. While the Tramp is imbibing, the first ‘cripple’ awakes, reveals he’s not as ‘armless’ as his sign suggests and whacks the uncle for stealing his con. The Tramps return breaks up the fight, and secures himself additional cash for more booze later.

It is in the first few moments of His New Profession, however, that Chaplin displays his growing grasp of cinematic language. Clearly, the Tramp is the star character and the close up that opens this short takes its time to establish something about him. Not only is he reading the disreputable Police Gazette, he rips out the bathing beauty pin-up style front page and stuffs it into his pocket for later perusal. In a few moments of screen time, and without needing language, intertitles, or any over-emphatic ‘acting’, Chaplin immediately tells the audience all they need to know about the incorrigible character his Tramp is. His later activities over the fake ‘cripple’ see him redeemed after taking what appears to be callous action as the original beggar is equally revealed to be an active scam artist whose pitch has been invaded.

Essentially a throwaway piece of little consequence, His New Profession contributed to Chaplin’s growing profile. After a quiet July, he’d see four shorts released during August, thus increasing his visibility before an audience whom, it was becoming ever clearer, couldn’t get enough of the ‘little tramp’. As indicated in his autobiography, Chaplin was becoming ever more aware of his growing fame at around this time. ‘The stir and excitement at the announcement of [a] Keystone comedy,’ he noted of a visit to the cinema, ‘those joyful little screams that my first appearance evoked, even before I had done anything, were most gratifying. I was a great favourite with the audience. If I could just continue this way of life, I could be satisfied. With my bonus for directing, I was making two hundred dollars a week.’ Chaplin’s growing fame, however, would mean his days at Keystone (and his $200-a-week salary) would soon come to an end…

Slapstick: The grumpy and bad tempered uncle and the Tramp first meet when the wheel of the chair traps the Tramp’s foot, eliciting a swift jab to the uncle’s bandaged foot by the Tramp (the first of many, of course). Falling over on the pavement, the Tramp lands bum-first in some smashed eggs (twice). Entering the Pier Bar, the Tramp has his now traditional difficulty with the saloon’s swing doors, rapidly becoming trapped between them. The two wheelchair users get caught up in a fight where both wield their canes in a threatening fashion. Naturally, the uncle’s wheelchair almost runs off the end of the pier (twice!). When the nephew finds the Tramp chatting up his girl, he quickly dispatches him backwards over the bench. It then takes two cops to quell the rowing parties, one of whom ends up falling off the pier into the water (all viewers no doubt knew this would have to happen to someone: in other hands—such as Mack Sennett’s—he’d no doubt have had everyone in the drink by the end).

Verdict: A slight affair, but the opening and closing focus on the Tramp shows progress, 2/5

Next: The Rounders (7 September 1914)

 

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The Masquerader (27 August 1914)

Chaplin25TheMasqueraderReleased: 27 August 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Charles Murray, Minta Durfee

Story: An actor working on a job on a movie screws up and is fired. Returning in drag, he’s able to charm the director to allow him back on the movie…

Production: After the throwaway ‘park’ movie that was Recreation, here’s the next favourite Keystone fallback for a ‘quickie’ filler, the movie studio-set film. Despite that, this one reeler (running at just over 12 minutes) is a decent effort, even if the only reason it exists was Mack Sennett’s desire to make sure there was plenty of new Chaplin on cinema screens across America in August 1914. Chaplin had been down this road before, in George Nichol’s A Film Johnnie—he’d learned much about filmmaking since then, so The Masquerader was his chance to make a film studio set comedy as he’d like it to be: he even plays a version of himself, rather than the more familiar Tramp character. Later Chaplin shorts set in and around a film studio would include His New Job (1915) and Behind the Screen (1916), so the concept remained popular.

Chaplin is first seen in his ‘civilian’ clothes, essentially playing himself, chatting with an unbilled Mabel Normand. He transforms into the then world-famous figure of the Tramp, but his eye is caught by a pair of young ladies, causing him to miss a cue and so ruin a take (it has to be wondered, given Chaplin’s later romantic reputation, how much of this might be straight-forward autobiography?). Fired from the movie, he returns, this time as the leading lady in a drag outfit that’s a lot better than the one he sported in A Busy Day back in May. Here, he’s actually trying to pass as a woman. He’d do it again later in A Woman (1915).

Chaplin’s biographer David Robinson calls The Masquerader ‘a simple knockabout set in a film studio, mainly notable for its behind-the-screen glimpses of the Keystone lot’. That’s a fair summing up of the movie, and like many of the earlier films that offered views of the now long-gone open spaces of Los Angeles, or glimpses of the city under construction, The Masquerader does open a window onto exactly what life behind-the-scenes at Keystone might have been like (allowing for comic exaggeration). Assuming it would have been easier simply to shoot in a real dressing room rather than construct one for the film, it seems likely the one on screen seen being shared by Arbuckle and Chaplin was, indeed, the real thing. Whether they really played pranks, such as that pulled by Fatty with the hair tonic bottle, remains unconfirmed… The scene of the pair putting on their character make-up, though, anticipates a similar one between Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the elegiac Limelight (1952) towards the end of the great clown’s film career.

The film we see being made looks like the kind of melodrama Chaplin simply wasn’t making at this stage (although he’d get there with The Kid, 1921). Charged with dashing in to rescue a baby from a knife-wielding villain, he’s distracted by two pretty actresses, only to foul up the filming. After trying to stop Chester Conklin from stealing his part and kicking the director in the pants, Chaplin finds himself out of work (something unlikely to have happened for real at this point in his career, no matter how many takes he ruined).

The curious mix of Chaplin-as-himself and Chaplin-as-the-Tramp doesn’t really work, as he quickly adopts the role of the Tramp and sticks to it during the filming and after he’s fired, rather than reverting to the role of ‘Charlie Chaplin, struggling film actor’. It’s an odd conceit that the film doesn’t really pull off, as if Chaplin himself hasn’t thought too deeply about the difference between the two: himself and the character he’d come to call ‘the little fellow’.

The transformation into a woman is achieved with a quick cut, relying on the audience recognising the leading man has now dragged up to wangle his way back into the film studio. Dan Kamin, writing in The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion, makes the point that ‘Chaplin’s art begins and ends with movement. Chaplin isn’t just pretending to be a woman, he becomes a woman—and a very attractive one at that. The effect is at once startling, unnerving, and very funny.’ Soon he’s turning heads throughout the studio and a contract is quickly proffered by the same director who fired him. Chaplin’s subtle wink at the audience at this point co-opts the viewer in his masquerade.

As he transforms back into the Tramp, it is fascinating to be given a glimpse of Chaplin applying the trademark make-up on Keystone’s premises, something that must’ve been a near daily occurrence for the increasingly world famous movie star.

Chaplin had only been working at Keystone for about eight months when this short was made, but he was now the biggest star on the lot and a young man (aged just 25 by now) who was in a hurry to apply what he was learning about the possibilities of film to his own productions, feeling increasingly hampered by the well-worn Keystone formula which he has clearly begun to evolve beyond.

In The Masquerader, Chaplin had completed the trajectory he’d been on from a neophyte visiting the studio in A Film Johnnie to the key member of Keystone’s comedy team. His time at Keystone, however, was slowly drawing to an end as his fame grew ever larger.

Slapstick: Chaplin and Fatty bump heads in the dressing room, while during the filming he uses the unfortunate baby (thankfully a dummy or doll) as a weapon, before sticking the (presumably equally fake) knife in the villain’s backside. Thrown out of their dressing room to make way for the ‘lady’, Keystone’s actors rebel, leading to a fast and frantic finale in which a melee, a chase through the studio, and the requisite brick throwing concludes with Chaplin/the Tramp stuffed down a well.

Verdict: Movie making as Keystone slapstick, 3/5

Next: His New Profession (31 August 1914)

Recreation (13 August 1914)

Chaplin24Recreation

Released: 13 August 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 7 mins (split reel with educational short The Yosemite)

With: Charles Bennett, Helen Carruthers, Edwin Frazee

Story: The Tramp enjoys a day out in the park, where he contemplates the ultimate escape until his eye is caught by a young lady…

Production: There had been only a single Charlie Chaplin short released in the entire month of July 1914, the predictable dentist caper Laughing Gas. Chaplin had completed two more shorts, with the knockabout nonsense of The Property Man and the rather experimental The Face on the Bar Room Floor. However, as Chaplin’s fame began to grow, the clamour from distributors and exhibitors for more Chaplin ‘product’ could be heard loud and clear at the Mack Sennett studios. Hence Recreation, perhaps the ultimate Sennett/Keystone park movie, a seven minute item improvised in the course of a single day.

Chaplin’s twenty-or-so movies were in constant release, often promoted by cinemas not by their title but by a simple picture of the star. It didn’t seem to matter which Chaplin short was showing, or if it had been seen before, the attraction was simply the chance to see America’s latest movie comedy sensation in action once again. Sennett was keen to meet this demand, seeing ‘park’ productions like Recreation as a quick and easy way to keep new films flowing (August would see a marked increase of new films to five, over July’s single release) into cinemas and the exhibition fees flowing back to Keystone.

The result is the ultimate park movie, the old Keystone stand-by. The Tramp has apparently had enough of life and is spending his time in the park contemplating suicide. He’s quickly shaken out of that notion by the sight of a pretty girl. Cue the arrival of her sailor boyfriend, a posse of cops, the required brick throwing and the necessary grand climax when everyone falls in the lake. It really is that simple, and it is made up of elements often seen in Keystone shorts and in many previous Chaplin efforts.

Weirdly, the girl in this short is variously credited as Helen Carruthers, Gene Marsh, or Norma Nichols, depending on the source consulted. The film was billed in contemporary ads as featuring ‘Chas. Chaplin as the down-and-out young man who finds new zest in life in park flirtations conducted with inimitable vigour and humour in which the police materially assist’. The UK paper Bioscope noted that Chaplin was taking ‘a stroll in that very beautiful park [actually Westlake Park] which seems to be most frequented by Keystone comedians…’

No-one would ever argue that Recreation was a significant or important film, either in its own right or as part of Chaplin’s ongoing cinematic development. Nonetheless, it is a shame that the surviving material that makes up Recreation as we see it today is so poor. Fuzzy and badly framed throughout (even in the BFI’s release, using the best sources available), it is thanks to an extract used in a television series called Silents Please that about a minute and a half from the end the quality improves immeasurably. It is a reminder of how lucky we are that the majority of Chaplin’s material has survived for us to enjoy viewing his development as the quintessential screen clown, over 100 years later.

Slapstick: Attempting to throw himself from the (low) bridge in the park, the Tramp simply ends up falling on his backside. As the Tramp and the sailor engage in face slapping, the girl also gets one in the chops. Bricks from the park kerbs quickly become weapons that take down a cop or two. When the battle resumes by the lakeside, the Tramp quickly follows the others into the water when the girl pushes him in, only to be dragged in herself.

Verdict: By the numbers and in poor shape, 2/5

Next: The Masquerader (27 August 1914)

The Face on the Bar Room Floor (10 August 1914)

Chaplin23FaceBarRoomFloorReleased: 10 August 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin, based upon poem by Hugh Antoine d’Arcy

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Cecile Arnold, Fritz Schade, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy

Story: A former painter, now a drunken indigent, laments his lost love with a group of fellow drinkers.

Production: For his entire time at Keystone, Charlie Chaplin had been learning his craft while struggling to fit in with the limitations of Mack Sennett’s usual mode of production. Many of the shorts to this point displayed some evidence of Chaplin’s ambition, which would later be realised in films such as The Kid (1921), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). With The Face on the Bar Room Floor, Chaplin appears to have thrown caution to the wind and simply made a movie for himself, almost irrespective of the needs of Keystone.

The Face on the Bar Room Floor features Chaplin’s first substantial use of flashback (also used briefly in Caught in a Cabaret) as his film tells the tale of the downfall of an artist thwarted in love within the accepted structure of a Keystone knock-about in which the climax is always a big ruckus—Chaplin was at least willing to humour his employer that far. Flashbacks would re-occur in Shoulder Arms (1918) and the much later Limelight (1952).

The unusual source material for the film is an 1887 poem by French-born Hugh Antoine d’Arcy, who was also formerly a juvenile actor and eventually a pioneering executive in American moviemaking as the publicity manager for Lubin Studios (he’d married into the Lubin family). Chaplin used several lines directly from the poem for the original intertitles, as suggested by Bioscope’s December 1914 review that claims it was based upon ‘a distinctly humorous poem (cleverly distributed among the sub-titles)…’

Chaplin uses the sentiment of the poem as a jumping off point for his short. Here, beyond any possibility of doubt, his character is presented as a Tramp (described in the intertitle as a ‘vagabond’)—though lacking his usual tie and cane. To prove it, we see the artists life in flashback before he came to his current station in life, providing the background drama to what would otherwise be a simple gathering of lamenting barflies. This structure was the most ambitious attempted by Chaplin to this point, although it is actually lacking much in the way of comedy as Keystone audiences might have recognised it until the very end. This is Chaplin’s first direct attempt to elicit an emotion from his audience other than simple laughter, making it an important movie in his overall development.

Despite the seeming signposts to the future of Chaplin as cinematic artist in this film, biographer David Robinson has little time for it, describing it as ‘technically the least interesting of Chaplin’s films’ being ‘a parody… simply alternating lengthy titles with tableaux in comic illustration of Hugh Antoine d’Arcy’s pathetic and then popular ballad of love betrayed’.

There is some humour in the man that the artist’s great love, Madeline, runs off with being fat and balding, not the usual object of romantic fixation. When Chaplin’s artist gets her note, there are the beginnings perhaps of the filmmaker’s first real attempt at straight acting, reacting to the situation in a somewhat realer way than usual, refusing to play it for easy comedy as might be expected in a Keystone short. Later, in the park when the artist sees the woman now married to the man she ran off with, and with a brood of children following in their wake, there is a moment when he seems caught up in the melancholy of life, seeing this family as rightly his, as an opportunity missed, The moment passes quickly though, as the artist opts to few that missed opportunity as more of a narrow escape. The final section in which the drunken artist attempts to sketch his lost love on the bar room floor in chalk reveals him to be not so much of a pictorial artist but perhaps more of a bullshit artist, conning free drinks from the assorted rubes by his story.

The Face on the Bar Room Floor was released and re-released in various remixed and cut up versions, with WH Productions reissuing the short under the title The Ham Artist and Official Films putting it out under the correct title, yet having moved around the scenes that make up the film into a nonsensical order (such that the portrait of the woman is shown before we see the artist actually painting it!). The BFI/Flicker Alley DVD release is constructed from three separate prints and is the best available effort to reconstitute the short in the manner it probably originally appeared: it certainly has the best quality material (certainly compared with Chaplin’s next release, Recreation).

Slapstick: Very little to speak of here, until the climax. Apart from stepping in or sitting in his own paints and tripping over a polar bear rug, there’s little falling down from the artist in his pre-inebriated days. He does destroy the portrait of the man his paramour has run off with. It’s only when drawing the portrait in the bar room floor that Chaplin’s trademark slapstick kicks in, with a roll, a tumble through some swing doors, and the climatic free-for-all bar room brawl.

Verdict: An unusual effort and a sign of things to come, 3/5

Next: Recreation (13 August 1914)

 

The Property Man (1 August 1914)

 

Chaplin22ThePropertyManReleased: 1 August 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 24 mins

With: Phyllis Allen, Alice Davenport, Charles Bennett, Mack Sennett, Harry McCoy

Story: The Tramp has a job, as a props man for a second rate vaudeville theatre and a troupe of theatrical players…

Production: There can be little doubt that Chaplin’s time in vaudeville as part of Fred Karno’s troupe heavily influenced his work on The Property Man. It was Chaplin’s first attempt at a two reeler entirely under his control, so the familiarity with backstage life was probably something of a reassurance to him, even if there is perhaps not enough truly comedic material to sustain the full double-length running time.

The source for this film is Karno’s regular routine The Mumming Birds, which toured in America under the title A Night in an English Music Hall. It was a production which broke the ‘fourth wall’ of theatre, presenting a series of deliberately awful stage turns which were frequently interrupted by planted members of the audience (really other members of the Karno troupe) who took against what was being presented.

Chaplin often featured in this presentation as an upper class drunk who finds his way on stage, attracted by the showgirls and offended by the terrible performances in equal measure. Having perfected his drunk act, he was to put it to good use from his earliest days in American filmmaking—in fact, the first thing we see the Tramp do in this short is take a drink before the action begins!

However, for The Property Man, Chaplin puts himself backstage, very much a part of the theatrical team attempting to stage an entertainment. His role is to make sure the acts get on stage on time and with the right props for their performances. However, he frequently finds this difficult getting entangled with an old man (the assistant property man, apparently played by one Joe Bordeaux who genuinely was once a props man for Sennett) who also works backstage, as well as various on stage acts, including the glamorous Goo Goo Sisters, the strongman and his wife, and a pair of snooty, would-be ‘legitimate’ Shakespeareans. In trying to do his job against the odds, Chaplin’s Tramp ends up on stage himself several times, culminating in him turning a fire hose on the lot of them to the amusement of the audience (which includes among their number Chaplin’s boss, Mack Sennett, playing his country yokel role once more), until the hose is turned on the audience, too.

This was good solid material for a comedy short, so much so that Chaplin drew upon elements of the original Karno show and his reinvention of it in The Property Man for his first Essanay short, His New Job (1915) and in A Night in the Show (1915, a more faithful version of The Mumming Birds). The fire hose climax even turns up in A Night in the Show and was echoed in Chaplin’s late film, A King in New York (1957). Even such films as A Dog’s Life (1918) and, most obviously of all, Limelight (1952) drew heavily upon Chaplin’s early experiences in vaudeville in the UK and the US.

Backstage hi-jinks takes up virtually the first half of the short, with much fumbling with luggage trunks as the various acts arrive, argue over dressing room allocations, and prepare for the show. The remaining 15 minutes sees Chaplin’s Tramp prepare the stage area and scenery before the acts are given a less-than-reverential welcome by the assembled paying audience. Throughout we see Chaplin’s character struggle to get things done, with little help with those around him, but also—it has to be said—to little genuine comic effect. Some of the pratfalls are amusing, but The Property Man really doesn’t come into its own until the final few minutes.

Chaplin’s prop man’s unexpected appearances on stage—innocently following the underwear-flashing Goo Goo sisters, appearing amid a squabble between the strongman and his wife—make him the hit of the show as far as the audience are concerned. Subbing for the strongman’s assistant (knocked out in a backstage squabble) Chaplin then finds himself genuinely part of the show, which he proceeds to sabotage by ripping a handkerchief so giving the strongman the impression he’s torn his pants. Chased by the strongman and interrupting the final, serious dramatic act on the bill, Chaplin ends the chaos off and on stage by turning the fire hose on everyone, audience included. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the final drenching, Sennett’s audience member had already stormed out: that’s the boss’s privilege, I guess.

Oddly, there was a contemporary complaints about the violence depicted in The Property Man. David Thompson notes in Chaplin: His Life and Art that “contemporary critics were shocked by the cruelty of the prop man’s treatment of his aged and decrepit assistant and shocked by the nursery rudeness of a scene in which having concealed a glass [note: it’s actually a pitcher] of beer down the front of his trousers, he inadvisedly bends over…” In truth, this “violence” is cartoonish, nothing that wouldn’t be seen in a Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, or even Three Stooges short. Moving Picture World complained that “there is some brutality in the picture and we can’t help but feeling this is reprehensible. What human being can see an old man kicked in the face and find it funny?” The odd thing is, the violent acts are presented in such an unreal, cartoonish style, it is difficult to see who could mistake them for realism.

Ted Okuda and David Maska in Charlie Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay note the irony in the coming medium of film being used by Chaplin in The Property Man to catalogue the highlights of another, older form of entertainment: “[it] utilizes an emerging entertainment form (motion pictures) to document one that would fade from view (vaudeville theatre).”

Slapstick: Chaplin’s attempts to move the strongman’s trunk results in a tumble down the stairs, takes in several other casualties, then traps the old man under the trunk. Having lowered a curtain on him, Chaplin sweeps the MC off the stage. Battling the old man in the wings sees many violent blows swapped between the pair, as well as fun with the strongman’s weights.

Verdict: John McCabe sees Chaplin’s The Property Man displaying a “cheerful cruelty”, and that about sums it up, 3/5

Next: The Face on the Bar Room Floor (10 August 1914)