Released: 7 November 1914, Keystone
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 13 mins
With: Mack Swain, Charley Chase, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Frank Hayes
Story: The Tramp (Chaplin) is hired for a job in a piano store and with his boss Mike (Swain) has to deliver one piano and repossess another…
Production: The most obvious thing about this Chaplin short is its uncanny similarity to the later Laurel and Hardy Oscar winner The Music Box (1932). The Stan and Ollie connection is further emphasised by the presence of Charley Chase (billed as Charles Parrott) as the piano store manager, then a rising comedian who’d appear beside Laurel and Hardy in their feature film Sons of the Desert (1933) and whose brother, James Parrott, was the credited director on The Music Box (although by that point Stan Laurel was really the creative driving force behind the boys’ shorts).
The hazards of moving any large, unwieldy object were easy pickings for silent comedians, and a piano is an obvious choice. However, whereas Stan Laurel would make his and Ollie’s attempts to get a piano up an extensive flight of stairs the centrepiece of The Music Box, Chaplin treats a similar scene in His Musical Career as little more than a brief throwaway moment. Of course, both shorts feature sequences in which the piano is let go and runs out of control—in the Chaplin short it goes down a steep road and into a lake.
Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box was itself a remake of their earlier 1927 short Hats Off (in which they attempt to deliver a washing machine, rather than a piano, up the same set of iconic stairs), and as that is a lost film it is difficult to determine whether it more closely followed the Chaplin version or not. Others made variations on the same theme, with Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy co-star Edgar Kennedy featuring in It’s Your Move (1945), a version of Hat’s Off from the same director, Hal Yates, and even the Three Stooges had a go in An Ache in Every Stake (1941), in which a melting block of ice supplants the pianos and washing machines of the previous pictures. However, of all these films, it was Laurel and Hardy’s memorable version which scored the Oscar.
The scenes of Chaplin and Swain loading the piano up were filmed at a real piano store then extant on South Broadway called Wiley B. Allen Co. However, the loading of the donkey wagon, supposedly immediately outside the store, was filmed five blocks away on 9th Street, presumably because filming on South Broadway was in someway problematic (the detective work on this was done by silent movie locations chronicler John Bengston).
Throughout His Musical Career, Chaplin focuses on the difference in size between his Tramp character and that of his boss, piano-mover-in-chief Mack Swain, as well as the bulky piano itself. Almost all the gags in the film revolve around this contrast, with camera angles carefully chosen by Chaplin to further enhance the disparity and so elicit viewer sympathy for the ‘little fellow’. It is Charlie, the smaller of the pair, who does the bulk of the work in moving the piano around, especially in the home of the instrument’s owners who cannot decide precisely where to place it.
Collecting the other piano from the second house proves just as problematic, due to the cluttered nature of the home. In the course of moving this piano, items are broken and a servant knocked to the floor.
It is also evident from viewing His Musical Career that Chaplin was once again relying on far fewer individual shots compared to the number that usually featured in a Keystone comedy. Chaplin biographer David Robinson noted this in Chaplin: His Life and Art. ‘The single reel consists of a mere 27 shots; usually Chaplin and the other Keystone directors used up to 90 shots in a film of the same length. Here, as Buster Keaton was later to do, he bypassed the current fashion in editing, recognising that each shot needed to be a stage for his own extended comedy routines. [Chaplin] declared this early that cutting was not an obligation, but a convenience.’
Mack Swain is here a fully-fledged co-star alongside Chaplin, rather than just one among several comic foils. As in his brief past teaming with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, in Swain Chaplin found a comic partner he could work with, much of the humour being based around their contrasting sizes. Swain, who would die in 1935, featured in many Keystone shorts as a character known as ‘Ambrose’, always sporting his trademark walrus moustache, and that’s basically the who he plays in His Musical Career. Although he was later replaced by another ‘big fellow’ in Eric Campbell, Swain did feature in several Chaplin shorts after his Keystone period, notably The Idle Class (1921), Pay Day (1921), and The Pilgrim (1923), all at First National. However, Chaplin’s best use of Swain was as his foil in The Gold Rush (1925).
The ending of His Musical Career is rather perfunctory, with the pair of removal men losing control of the piano and watching as it runs down hill and into a lake. As speculated by James L. Niebaur in his book Early Charlie Chaplin, it is as though Chaplin suddenly realised he was coming up against the limits of his budget for a one reel short, and wary of incurring the wrath of Mack Sennett once again (as he had down over the expensive Dough and Dynamite—it’s box office success hadn’t happened at the time His Musical Career was in production)—he opted to wrap things up as quickly as possible with an easy gag.
These longer shots mean that His Musical Career has a more relaxing, less frenetic pace than some of the other (and some of the earlier) Chaplin Keystone shorts. This was a maturing of Chaplin’s style as a director, which marked him out from his fellow filmmakers at Keystone. He frames each shot carefully to fully account for all the action that is to take place within each sequence, especially evident during the delivery of the piano by Charlie. As ever, Chaplin was using his time at Keystone to experiment, try out new filmmaking approaches and working on his own developing skills as a director.
Slapstick: Gearing up for the prospect of some physical work, Charlie oils himself before punching Mack, which in turn earns him a kick up the backside. Resting on a piano keyboard, Charlie tumbles to the floor. Dragged by Mack, Charlie is happy to slide along hanging onto the piano they’re moving (note the faces of the crowds watching the filming, just visible reflected in the piano shop window). Tying up the piano in rope sees the pair getting themselves caught up in knots. Charlie drops the piano on top of a recumbent Mack, then gets his own foot trapped (another crowd of curious onlookers can be seen as they load the piano onto the wagon). Mack thwacks Charlie with his cane, then Charlie tries to use the cane to push the piano up a flight of steps, which the piano promptly plummets back down (as does Charlie). The Tramp buckles under the weight of the piano and is then unable to straighten up without a helping hand from Mack (note that the Tramp sports a clay pipe rather than his usual cigarette). As the lake-bound second piano slides out of their control, both Mack and Charlie are carried into the water with it.
Verdict: Strikes many of the right notes, 3/5
Next: His Trysting Places (9 November 1914)