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)