The New Janitor (24 September 1914)

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Released: 24 September 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 12 mins

With: Minta Durfee, Jess Dandy, John Dillon, Al St. John

Story: The Tramp is a clumsy janitor who loses his job, but saves the day when he foils a robbery.

Production: Shot in August 1914, The New Janitor is the most mature work that Chaplin had produced up to this point. Since he took over direction and devising the scenario, Chaplin’s films had been experiments with film form, moving increasingly further away from the very limited Keystone formula. There’s a marked upswing here in Chaplin’s control of storytelling and the clear beginnings of what would become his trademark combination of comedy with sentiment. He’d develop this short further in a remake a year later called The Bank Job (1915), after he’d moved on from Keystone.

More unusual here is Chaplin’s use of comic danger, or ‘thrill comedy’ as it is sometimes known. As film as an art developed some comedians would regularly use the ‘thrill comedy’ form, such as Laurel and Hardy, but its prime exponent would be Harold Lloyd. In The New Janitor, Chaplin is seen precariously hanging out of the bank building (actually the Marsh-Strong building at Ninth and Main streets in Los Angeles) and in jeopardy on a window sill. It wasn’t a form that Chaplin would much explore, but he did revisit it in sequences in later feature films like The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928), possibly in an effort to match the work of Lloyd who’d made ‘thrill comedy’ his speciality.

What Chaplin is demonstrating in this short is his growing command of structure, of telling stories on film, balancing humour, slapstick, drama and sentiment. His character in The Face on the Bar Room Floor was a victim, but here he is both (initially) the victim and the hero, in losing his job and then his foiling of the robbery at the climax. He allows the audience to be both sympathetic to his unfortunate plight and to rally behind his heroism in the end. He starts as the lowest of the low, a mere janitor, dismissed by his fellow employees (see how the lift operator treats him), only to be the one to whom circumstance gives an opportunity. The character arc is in the fact that he’s ready to take advantage of that opportunity and act, thereby saving the day.

There is a complicated situation at the base of The New Janitor: an employee sets out to steal from his own company safe in order to pay off accumulated gambling debts after being threatened by hoodlums. None of this matters to the janitor, as James L. Neibur noticed: ‘While he is the centre of the film, Charlie is on the periphery of the plot’. Those characters pursuing the narrative drive of the film almost don’t notice the janitor in their midst, until he takes action at the climax.

Even more interesting is that the scenes where the robbery begins play like any other silent melodrama would; there’s no comedy here, simply straight drama. As the safe is being robbed, a secretary walks in and has a gun pulled on her. They tussle, activating the janitor call button, so summoning the Tramp. He’s been fired, however, due to earlier incompetence, and is heading out the door—should he respond to the call for assistance if he no longer works there? The moment of hesitation in the foyer is exquisite; it is only a second, but it is all in Chaplin’s body language. There’s no comedy here, only drama and suspense. This is Chaplin learning and displaying he can do so much more on film than merely fall over or fall into that damn lake one more time. He can engage the audience directly in the events on screen; audiences at the time were said to have shouted at the figure of the Tramp to rush to the rescue of the secretary. When he does engage, it is Charlie’s trusty cane that proves necessary to deal with the raider’s gun. The only problem is, when the police arrive they take Charlie to be the criminal… (The notion of mistaken identity and how appearances can deceive in this way would be central to not only City Lights, 1931, of course, but also to Chaplin’s later turn as a family man who is also a serial killer in Monsieur Verdoux, 1947).

Writing in his biography of Chaplin, His Life and Art, David Robinson noted: ‘Only seventeen days separated the release of The Rounders and The New Janitor, yet in that short space of time Chaplin’s art seemed to take a massive leap forward both in approach to film narrative and in appreciation of the character that was developing within the Tramp make-up and costume. … Chaplin fashions a brilliant little narrative; clear, precise, with drama, suspense, and an element of sentiment that goes deeper than the flirtations of West Lake Park. … Gags and character touches are developed without the Keystone rush and [are] integrated into the story.’

Despite his flurry of activity at the end, when he comes into physical conflict with the boss and the policeman (they suspect he’s the robber, initially), Chaplin is largely noticeable by his absence through much of The New Janitor. Here was an artist, a rising international film star, willing to take a back seat to tell a story, confident in the fact that he was the star attraction that would bring audiences to the film. Chaplin’s films were a hit, so Keystone’s Mack Sennett appears to have been happy to let his star signing go his own way. There nothing to indicate he had any problems with Chaplin’s divergence from the Keystone formula: it was making money, so why worry. He should have been paying more attention—by the end of the year and the end of his Keystone contract, Charlie Chaplin would be off to studio pastures new, looking for new challenges and new ways to further advance his cinematic art.

Slapstick: Interestingly, Chaplin was clearly playing down the physical comedy in The New Janitor. There’s no physical battling with others here. He gets in a kerfuffle with the bin, and blocks his way through a door with a mop, and puts his foot in a bucket of water, but otherwise stays mostly upright. That is until he almost falls out of a window by leaning backwards, unaware it is open. It’s then he tips a bucket of water on the company boss, leading to his employment being terminated. After being fired, Charlie promptly falls down twice tangling with his mop. That same bucket is Charlie downfall when he reaches the ground floor the long way down (by the stairs). A cigarette kick with the heel and a spin of the cane accompany Chaplin’s entry into the lion’s den, where the robbery is underway.

Verdict: Proper storytelling and emerging control of structure and the medium of film are beginning to come through, 3/5

Next: Those Love Pangs (10 October 1914)

 

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The Rounders (7 September 1914)

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Released: 7 September 1914, Keystone

Director: Charles Chaplin

Writer: Charles Chaplin

Duration: approx. 13 mins

With: Roscoe Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Phyllis Allen, Al St. John, Charley Chase

Story: A pair of drunks debate their habits with their wives before setting out to get even more inebriated…

Production: The impersonation of a drunk was a long-lived vaudeville standby, a staple of the live entertainment circuit that just as quickly became a staple of screen entertainment in the early days of silent comedy. This film was the only one to properly team Chaplin with Fatty Arbuckle (they’d appeared together, but had minimal interaction before), and Chaplin biographer David Thompson saw it as looking back over ‘Chaplin’s whole gallery of inebriates from Karno to Keystone, and forward to A Night Out (1915) and ultimately to the Tramp’s night on the town with the millionaire in City Lights (1931).’

The title of The Rounders supposedly derives from the buying of drinks in rounds, so those who participate are ’rounders’, but it is a phrase that has long since fallen into disuse (although another explanation for the term suggests it derives from a combination of ‘rogue’ and ‘bounder’).

The result though is widely acclaimed as one of the best of Chaplin’s comedies at Keystone. It is surprising that the inspired teaming of Chaplin with Arbuckle did not develop further, but perhaps such ‘large’ personalities as this pair could not fit together. Arbuckle would eventually go on to work with Buster Keaton as a regular comedy partner, but he would regret not having worked more, and in more depth, with Chaplin. The BFI collection Chaplin at Keystone quotes Arbuckle on Chaplin: ‘I have always regretted having not been his partner in a longer film than these one reelers we made so rapidly. He is a complete comic genius, undoubtedly the only one of our time and he will be the only one who will still be talked about a century from now.’

In The Rounders, Arbuckle’s on-screen wife was played by his real life off-screen wife, Minta Durfee. Chaplin’s screen partner in marriage was Phyllis Allen, someone he’d worked with before in several Keystone comedies. Thrown together as a pair of drunks escaping their wives and looking for amusement, Chaplin and Arbuckle make a perfect teaming, as though they’d been working together as comedy partners for years. They clearly had great fun making this movie, although the final film is more akin to Arbuckle’s general work than Chaplin’s. Watch Chaplin’s face carefully at the film’s close, when he’s supposed to be unconscious or asleep in the sinking rowing boat: he’s so tickled by Arbuckle’s antics he’d can barely stop himself laughing.

Chaplin doesn’t appear to be the Tramp in this short: for a start, he’s married, and secondly his attire is something more befitting a better off drunk than many of those denizens of the park he’s played previously. His outfit of Top Hat, cape, and full evening attire suggests a figure from his old days on stage as part of the Karno troupe than any of the drunkards that filled his Keystone shorts. Still present, though, is his cane, although it is Arbuckle who uses his cane to filch a handbag. Chaplin is generous in his directing of Arbuckle, giving the larger man the space to exhibit his comic grace—both men were well aware that the work of a comedy partner could do much to enhance the finished film. Chaplin was by now quite secure in his own success, while his filmmaking abilities were improving with each short. The Rounders is less a Keystone movie (even though it follows the well-worn formula of climaxing in Echo Park, with the protagonists getting wet in the lake), and much more a Chaplin directed film in which he has been willing to give half the screen and many of the gags to Arbuckle (himself to become an accomplished director).

By now, Chaplin was aware of how moviegoers greeted his appearances on screen, and how they especially delighted in seeing his drunk act. He’d developed a habit of visiting movie theatres incognito (out of his make-up and Tramp outfit, he was largely unrecognisable) to observe how audiences reacted to his movies. His entrance in The Rounders appears to have been created with this knowledge in mind. Writer James L. Neibaur suggests that Chaplin deliberately timed his entrance to allow the audience to first recognise him, before hitting them with the first major laugh as he falls drunkenly upon the steps. In fact, in common with Arbuckle, Chaplin’s physicality is important throughout The Rounders. His balletic ability to spin, turn, and change direction is used, which contrasts nicely with Arbuckle’s much more lumbering presentation.

Overall, though, there is perhaps less slapstick in The Rounders than Chaplin’s earlier films. He was slowly moving away from this simplistic element of the Keystone formula, preferring instead to attempt to build convincing characters even within the brief running time of such shorts. He and Arbuckle could have formed a comedy double act not unlike Laurel and Hardy, building upon their characters in The Rounders and playing up even more their contrasting physicality. However, it was not to be. Chaplin had other plans, and a different, more unfortunate, fate awaited Arbuckle.

Slapstick: Entering the hotel where he’s staying, Mr Full (Chaplin) falls twice in thirty seconds as he attempts to make his way upstairs. When his angry wife pulls the chair away, Chaplin inevitably tumbles to the floor, twice, caught up in his cape. Arbuckle’s Mr Fuller, following in Chaplin’s footsteps, sits in the lap of a young woman waiting in the lobby. Meanwhile, Chaplin’s drunk attempts to take a lie down on the bed, with his feet hooked on the headboard. Both drunks are on the receiving end of comic beatings from their wives, who then end up fighting each other as the husbands flee together. Waddling down the street, Chaplin trips resulting in Arbuckle dragging him along the rest of the way to the cafe where they attempt to top up their alcohol intake but are soon asleep under a pair of liberated table cloths. Chased by their irate wives, they end up in the park and then (inevitably) the lake.

Verdict: Huge fun, a unique one-off pairing of two comedy greats, 4/5

Next: The New Janitor (24 September 1914)

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