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)