Shanghaied (4 October 1915)

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Released: 4 October 1915, Essanay

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Writer: Charlie Chaplin

Duration: approx. 28 mins.

With: Edna Purviance, Billy Armstrong, Carl Stockdale, Leo White, Wesley Ruggles, Paddy McGuire, Fred Goodwins, Bud Jamison

Story: The Tramp is all at sea as he is caught up in a plot to scuttle a ship, is then shanghaied, and pursues the ship owner’s daughter.

Production: One of Charlie Chaplin’s key ways of working in making his films was to settle first upon a setting for the action of each short, then the characters and comedy would follow from that. The idea of setting a comedy upon a boat was not exactly new, but Chaplin could see the many comic possibilities for his Tramp character that such a scenario suggested. He may not have been so happy to embark upon such an endeavour if he’d known the trouble he’d get into trying to make the film.

In Shanghaied the Tramp has found himself a girlfriend (Edna Purviance, inevitably), but her unscrupulous ship-owner father (Wesley Ruggles) disapproves of Charlie and sends him packing. Unusually, this film starts with the Tramp losing the girl, the moment where a handful of his most recent films have tended to end (as in The Bank). Edna’s father has also directed one of his crew to ‘shanghai’ some extra sailors: in 1915, the same year this short was made, this practice (essentially kidnapping people to serve as sailors, either by force or deception) was outlawed in the US, although the rise of steam-powered ships had reduced the need for it. News coverage of this may have inspired Chaplin in creating his film.

Chaplin goes for broke in these early scenes, playing his enforced separation from Edna as melodramatic tragedy in the style popular in movies at the time. When he’s hired to help grab some unsuspecting sailors to serve aboard the ship, Chaplin again maximises the comic potential of the scenario. While the ship’s mate entices would-be sailors with the offer of a drink, the Tramp pops out of hiding in a nearby barrel to bop each of them on the head with a mallet. Finally, that old standby prop of silent comedy, the mallet, is put to use in a way that actually justifies its inclusion! His mistake comes when he accidentally knocks out the Captain himself. The Tramp is paid off, but then falls foul of the same unethical recruitment technique himself when he’s knocked out and shanghaied for ship-board services.

Chaplin2015ShanghaeidPosterThe majority of the action on Shanghaied takes place aboard ship. Roused by his new crew, the Tramp is put to work under threat of physical violence. He tangles with a cabin boy, grapples with a cargo hook, and finally—now in a sloppy sailor uniform—serves soup from the galley kitchen. Each of these sequences consists of well thought through and developed comedy slapstick, with Chaplin pushing the boat out (ahem) to make sure he doesn’t miss a comedy trick.

More than before, editing is of prime importance in making Chaplin’s comedy work. Chaplin is beginning to master close-ups, previously used so well to get across the emotional moments in The Bank. There are more of these moments during Shanghaied, as well as some fast cutting in the ‘action’ scenes that help sell the mishap comedy of the situations the Tramp finds himself in when all at sea.

Motion Picture World (in the September 25, 1915 edition) reported upon some of the difficulties Chaplin and his crew faced filming onboard a real ship. The schooner Vaquero had been rented by Chaplin for use in the film, but no sooner had shooting started than the ship broke one of its drive shafts. The cast and crew were essentially stranded at sea, with the nearest craft able to rescue them over five miles away. Chaplin, Edna Purviance and the others faced a night stuck aboard ship, with no supplies including fresh water or any food—and a storm was rapidly approaching. Determined to solve the problem, Essanay producer Jesse Robbins commandeered a rowboat and took off, along with another crew member named Lou Trimbly, to get help. However, in circumstances that might have seemed like something straight out of a Chaplin comedy, their rowboat capsized. The unfunny bit involved the pair nearly drowning. According to the report, a wireless station in Venice Beach attempted to contact the ship, but the schooner had no wireless aboard. Instead, they eventually fell back upon the tried and trusted method for long distance communication: semaphore. The ship was soon in contact with the shore, with Chaplin (or someone on the boat who knew semaphore) supposedly sending back the message ‘Help! We’re starving and thirsty!’ Motion Picture World reports a happy ending to the whole escapade when those trapped on the Vaquero were rescued.

The making of Shanghaied certainly threw up some technical challenges. Shooting on the boat was fine for verisimilitude, but with the camera locked to the boat, when the boat rocked so did the camera. This meant the accepted exaggerated swaying to-and-fro that would be central to much of the comedy could not be achieved easily. The solution was developed by cameraman Harry Ensign. He developed a pivot connected to a heavy counterweight upon which the camera was mounted. This effectively simulated the rocking motion that filmgoers would expect to see, although the sea and horizon inevitably remained stable in relation to the boat.

Chaplin2015ShanghaeidBookletIn addition, Chaplin had an extra prop cabin built by his stagehands on rockers, so that it could physically swing back-and-forward, essential to recreating the inside of a storm-wracked ship, matching the onboard shots in the studio. He’d employ a similar technique in creating the tottering cabin in The Gold Rush (1925). Chaplin would also end his career with a film set aboard ship with A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), but in between he’d return to a setting at sea for much of The Immigrant (1917).

By the time Edna has stowed away on the boat (and her father sets off in hot pursuit in a motor boat), the Tramp—now in his new sailor suit guise—has been reassigned to work in the ship’s kitchen. The preparation of food was always a reliable source of gags for Chaplin, made doubly so by the difficulty of cooking at sea on a rocking ship (although these scenes were created in the studio on the innovative rocking set cabin). The Tramp decides the chef’s soup is ideal for washing up some dirty dishes in, no doubt simply adding to its unique flavour. Attempting to deliver a tray of food to the Captain, the Tramp is rocked from side to side of the boat, tumbling and falling head-over-heels, all the while not dropping the tray. This was an elaboration of a bit Chaplin had tried out in Dough and Dynamite (1914) and would finally perfect in his role as a troubled waiter in his masterpiece, Modern Times (1936). Even here, a little rougher around the edges, in Shanghaied it is a virtuoso moment.

Edna’s father, the ship’s owner, finally catches up with the boat just as the Tramp discovers the stowaway Edna hiding in the hold encased in an old sack. Together they dispose of the dynamite, saving the ship from being destroyed. After being dunked at sea, the Tramp climbs back aboard the small boat only to knock Edna’s father into the drink. Wesley Ruggles was a recent addition to the Chaplin stock company at Essanay (he’d first appeared in The Bank), but Shanghaied gave him a prominent role as Edna’s father (in ridiculous whiskers) who both disapproves of her relationship with Charlie and is planning on scuppering his own boat for the insurance. Ruggles, born in 1889 in Los Angeles, was a character actor who’d previously worked at Keystone but had somehow contrived to avoid appearing in any of Chaplin’s initial run of shorts in 1914. He’d go on to appear alongside Chaplin in A Night in Show, Carmen, and Police, and may have appeared in a couple of the later Mutual shorts (there are questions over the identification of the actor in Behind the Screen and The Pawnshop).

Ruggles became a director at Vitagraph, just before the final stages of the First World War (then known as ‘The Great War’) which saw him in service as an Army Signals Corp cameraman. He returned to directing, later making a success in ‘talking pictures’ such as the Western Cimarron (1930), the Clark Gable and Carole Lombard team-up No Man of Her Own (1932), the Mae West vehicle I’m No Angel (1933), and True Confessions (1937). His final role in film was as director of the British-made colour musical (the country’s first) London Town (1946), one of the biggest commercial failures in cinema up to that point. Ruggles was out of his depth, both in making a British subject and a musical (which he had no experience of; his being an American seemed to have been convincing enough to the film’s producers). Ruggles retired as a director, although he continued producing including on the TV documentary The Incredible World of James Bond (1965). He died in Santa Monica in 1972, aged 82.

Of Shanghaied, Peter Ackroyd wrote: ‘The film is notable for the display of Charlie’s graceful acrobatics in the face of overwhelming difficulties. He dances a hornpipe on a wildly swaying deck, and even manages a complete somersault while carrying a tray of plates. His Karno training was still invaluable.’ Equally, Simon Louvish noted: ‘The main virtue of the film is a series of ludicrous scenes of cooking, eating and getting along in high winds, as the ship yaws madly from side to side.’

The acrobatic artistry of Charlie Chaplin would only increase from here…

Trivia: Ever the businessman, Chaplin and his half-brother Sydney negotiated new terms of trade with the exhibitors for the Chaplin shorts released through Essanay. As Chaplin wrote in his memoir My Autobiography: ‘It did not seem fair that exhibitors would make all the money. Even though Essanay were selling hundreds of copies of my films they were selling them along old-fashioned lines of distribution. Sydney suggested scaling the larger theatres according to their seating capacity. With this plan each film could increase the receipts to a hundred thousand dollars or more. … Later, the Motion Picture Herald announced that the Essanay Company had discarded its old method of selling and, as Sydney suggested, was scaling its terms according to the seating capacity of a theatre…’

The Contemporary View: ‘This picture is actually funny in the sense that it would cause anyone to laugh without offending. That’s odd for a Chaplin, and through it Shanghaied is doubly amusing.’—Variety, 1915

Slapstick: A recalcitrant garden gate comes between the Tramp and Edna. Handy with a mallet, the Tramp soon bags three unwilling shipmates, then for good measure tries his technique on the Captain. He’s then bopped on the head himself and added to the total. Put to work, the Tramp finds the deck a little slippy and those barrels hard to keep a hold of. Helping with a cargo hook, the Tramp flattens the Captain under some fully-packed sacks, before hoisting him aloft on the same hook. His hand signalling leads to the dunking of a couple of sailors overboard. Many more follow, while the Tramp himself somehow contrives to stay aboard ship… Washing up below decks proves to be something of a smashing time. Souper! A hambone hornpipe allows Chaplin to show off his balletic moves, after a kerfuffle with the chef. A tumble with a tray leads to better balancing as the Tramp takes a terrible tumble (or two) himself. Look out for that sack: it’s got Edna inside! What’s good enough for the goose—soon the Tramp’s given himself the sack. Edna and the Tramp dispose of the dynamite overboard, blowing the Captain up with his own explosives.

Verdict: The swaying camera might make you seasick, but the trick with the tray makes it all worthwhile, 3/5

Next: A Night in Show (15 November 1915)

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