Release Date: 15 May 1916
Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin
Duration: 24 mins
With: Eric Campbell, Lloyd Bacon, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin, Charlotte Mineau, Leo White, James T. Kelley
Story: Visiting a department store, the Tramp becomes caught up in the schemes of the manager and the floorwalker, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Tramp.
Production: By the spring of 1916, Charles Chaplin had only been a filmmaker for two years and a worldwide movie star (one of the first) for just over a year, yet he was well on his way to mastering this relatively young art form. He’d escaped from his early poverty and troubled family background in London into Vaudeville, and eventually made his way to America as part of Fred Karno’s troupe. Headhunted by Mack Sennett’s Keystone, a studio always on the lookout for new cinematic comic talent, Chaplin made his first tentative steps before the camera in early 1914. A year later, he’d moved on to Essanay, tempted by a huge salary increase and a higher degree of creative control. During 1915, his Essanay year, it is possible to see Chaplin developing new ways of making movies, deepening his iconic Tramp character along the way.
In 1916, turning the age of just 27 that April, Charlie Chaplin had become the highest paid star in movies, signing a $670,000 deal (equivalent to over $10 million today, and 10 times more than he’d previously been paid) with the Mutual Film Company to make 12 two-reel short film comedys. Mutual went all in to support their new star, committing around $1.5 million to him (including that salary), and making available a dedicated studio space and production unit under the suitable moniker The Lone Star Studio. Film historian and publicist Terry Ramsaye (A Million and One Nights, 1926) dubbed Lone Star ‘The biggest operation centred around a single star in the history of the motion picture industry’. Ramsaye himself was sucked into the Chaplin business, having become a producer at Mutual in 1915 and later working on some of the Chaplin shorts.
During his time at Essanay in 1915, Chaplin’s working methods had evolved and his output slowed somewhat. As he spent more time developing comic business and situations for his films, so the anticipated release schedule of a new film short every month had slipped very badly by the end of the contract. It should come as no surprise that it would take Chaplin the better part of two years to complete the 12 films for Mutual that were supposed to have been produced as part of a one year contract. However, there is a lot of truth behind Chaplin’s famous quote about this period: ‘Fulfilling my contract with Mutual was, I suppose, the happiest period of my life.’
Mutual provided Chaplin with what he’d wanted at both Keystone and Essanay—an effectively unlimited budget, so he was free of financial concerns, with complete autonomy and creative control, so he could work the way he had to in order to produce the best comedy films he could his way. The other studios had been production line outfits, where all that mattered was getting the new films out and repeating successful formulas. Although Chaplin had started in this way, he’d quickly grown beyond it, creatively speaking. At Mutual, he had the tools and the time to develop his unique comedy, and to the credit of the studio they were willing to give him the time and resources he needed. Chaplin would not complete his 12 films with Mutual until the release of The Adventurer in October 1917, almost a year and a half after the release of his debut for the studio, The Floorwalker.
By 1916 Chaplin had taken up residence in the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Despite his growing wealth, he continued to live fairly frugally—he didn’t own property. His new ‘Lone Star’ studio was just south of Santa Monica Boulevard, so he didn’t have far to go to get to work in the morning. He had a Japanese chauffeur, Toraichi Kono, to drive him to work in his newly purchased Locomobile. Kono would double in service to Chaplin as an effective bodyguard and servant, as well as chauffeur, becoming a figure Chaplin described as ‘My Man Friday’. Kono would stay in Chaplin’s service for the next 30 years. In a profile of the filmmaker by Karl K. Kitchen Chaplin’s frugal lifestyle was put under the spotlight. ‘His only extravagance is a 12-cylinder automobile. … His personal expenses last year were considerably less than $500 and there are no indications that his new contract has turned his head.’
The filmmaker also had a secretary (and valet) named Tom Harrington to help look after his affairs, while his half-brother Sydney Chaplin continued to handle the business side of his ever more complicated life. While he didn’t flaunt his wealth, Chaplin did put great store by the people his fame allowed him to meet, from those in American ‘high society’ to the great thinkers of his times to his fellow movie stars and filmmakers.
There was some perhaps unwelcome news for co-star and girlfriend Edna Purviance in one of the interviews given by Chaplin at this tumultuous time. ‘When I wanted to marry I didn’t have the money,’ Chaplin claimed (quoted in David Robinson’s Chaplin: His Life and Art). ‘Now that I have the money, I don’t care to marry. Besides, there’s plenty of time for that kind of thing when I quit work.’ His trip to New York to negotiate with studio executives for his services had meant he and Edna were apart for most of a month, the longest time they’d spent apart since they’d met.
Chaplin had a simple plan for his time at Mutual: ‘I’m going to make better pictures than I did last [year],’ he said, perhaps dismissing some of his work at Essanay in the process. ‘I am doing my own scenarios and my own directing.’ His iconic Tramp outfit was not going to be sacrosanct in his newest incarnation. ‘I’ll keep the moustache, but won’t stick so closely to the other clothes. It’ll depend on what the circumstances [of the story] demand. It isn’t how one is dressed, but what one does and how. Slapstick comedy has as much artistic possibility as the best efforts from the stage.’
Chaplin’s new Lone Star studio was officially opened on 27 March 2016, a week later than initially planned. The old Climax Studios facility stood on the corner of Lillian Way and Eleanor Avenue in Los Angeles and it housed an open air shooting stage surrounded by canvas walls, said to be one of the largest stages at that time in Los Angeles. Whereas before Chaplin and his crews at Keystone and Essanay had shot largely on location around the streets of Los Angeles, this new space was vast enough for him to construct his own bespoke street sets (seen to best advantage in Easy Street), where he could exert better control over his filmmaking (and so avoid the increasingly large—and annoying—crowds who gathered whenever Chaplin filmed in public). All the support departments had their own buildings, and the site also contained its own lab and projection facility where Chaplin could review his work-in-progress, something he’d had to force upon Essanay.
Edna Purviance would remain as Chaplin’s ‘leading lady’, in life as well as on screen, while cameraman Roland Totheroh and comedian Leo White followed Chaplin from Essanay to Mutual. Other old hands who’d pop up among Chaplin’s new stock company of performers included Lloyd Bacon, Charlotte Mineau, and James T. Kelley. Several new signings would play prominent roles in the films to come, prime among them being Albert Austin (who would appear in all 12 of the Mutual shorts), and ‘gentle giant’ Eric Campbell, who replaced previous bulky antagonists like Mack Swain and Bud Jamison.
Chaplin’s filmmaking method had developed instinctively over his two years of experience with the ‘fun factories’ of Keystone and Essanay. He took what he could from those experiences, discarding any approaches he didn’t feel were productive. From a basic idea for a scenario—a department store in the case of The Floorwalker—he would think up ideas for ‘funny business’. Elaborate sets would be built and Chaplin and his team would rehearse comic antics on the set. Sometimes he’d decide these huge sets needed to be adapted or altered, as he’d come up with some new ideas. Chaplin began to use film on his rehearsals, viewing the rushes the next day to decide whether he’d nailed the comedy of situation or if he could improve on it. Much of this was revealed in the 1980s Unknown Chaplin television documentary series, which only existed because Syd Chaplin took it upon himself to preserve every foot of film his younger brother shot (against Chaplin’s own wishes). This outtake material was housed in Chaplin’s own studio until its closure in 1952 (even though, strictly speaking, it was owned by the by-then defunct Mutual). Chaplin ordered all the unused footage destroyed, but Totheroh failed to do the job completely, leaving many reels of Chaplin outtakes in existence. Notorious film ‘preserver’ and distributor Raymond Rohauer got hold of this material, and in 1982 it would form the backbone of the fascinating Unknown Chaplin, made by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. The series exposed Chaplin’s ‘try it and see’, ‘revise it’ and ‘improve it’ method of working out his comedy cinema. He addressed his working method at this time in his Autobiography: ‘With a bare notion I would order sets, and during the building of them the art director would come to me for details, and I would bluff and give them particulars about where I wanted doors and archways. In this desperate way I started many a comedy.’
The ‘bare notion’ that Chaplin was entertaining as the subject matter for his first film with Mutual was a department store, and—more specifically—the relatively new innovation of the ‘moving staircase’ or escalator. The inspiration behind The Floorwalker had come during Chaplin’s trip to New York to sign his contract with Mutual. He and Sydney had toured the city and witnessed a man fall down on an escalator at the elevated train station on Sixth Avenue—although some versions of this tale place the event in Los Angeles and taking place in an actual department store. Wherever it happened, the comedic potential of the moving stairs was instantly clear to Chaplin, who thought such antics would always be funny as long as they were happening to someone else: he recognised laughter as a form of relief that it is not the viewer caught up in whatever trouble is unfolding on screen. Chaplin combined the moving staircase (when the film was released Chaplin’s Keystone boss Mack Sennett was said to have exclaimed ‘Why the hell didn’t we think of a running staircase?!’) with his vague department store setting, instructing his Lone Star technical director Ed Brewer to build a store set based around a central escalator, which had been designed by George Cleethorpe (one of Chaplin’s transfers from Essanay). In the meantime, he’d try and work out some comic business to be performed before the cameras.
In his tentative beginnings at Mutual, Chaplin put to one side his developing emotional intelligence, briefly side-lining the increasing pathos that he was getting from his Tramp character. The Floorwalker is almost entirely based around Chaplin’s physical clowning, putting the Tramp (slightly better dressed than before) in a basic adventure story and ignoring any romantic complications—Edna had a rather small, insignificant role as the store manager’s secretary. The department store manager (Eric Campbell) and his store ‘floorwalker’ (Lloyd Bacon) are engaged in embezzlement, but detectives are on their tails. Enter the little Tramp, who just happens to be a dead ringer for Bacon’s floorwalker: could this be the way out for at least one of the criminals?
In casting Bacon as a near duplicate, was Chaplin acknowledging all those ‘Chaplin imitators’ that had followed in the wake of his worldwide fame? Others were making their own way in movies by doing a take-off on Chaplin (Harold Lloyd being one of the earliest offenders), so perhaps the original screen Tramp was warning audiences to beware of imitators. Bacon was a discovery of Chaplin’s previous employer ‘Broncho’ Billy Anderson at Essanay, and had appeared in a trio of earlier Chaplin shorts: The Champion, A Jitney Elopement, and The Tramp (all 1915). He’d go on to appear in a half dozen or so of the Mutual Chaplin films, right through to Easy Street (1917), including the look at moviemaking called Behind the Screen (1916). He’d go on to become a director in his own right, with a number of classics under his belt including Footlight Parade (1933), Invisible Stripes (1938, with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart), and war movie Action in the North Atlantic (1943). By the time of his death in 1955 at the age of 65, Lloyd Bacon had directed over 100 films.
In The Floorwalker, Chaplin is clearly still the familiar Tramp figure that audiences had come to love through his year each at Keystone and Essanay. He seems to be visiting the store with an eye on using the toiletry supplies to freshen himself up, and while he is the subject of attention of the store detective (Albert Austin) other, more well-to-do looking ‘customers’ make off with the majority of the goods on display. As in some of his best shorts, like Work (1915), Chaplin makes a subtle social point amid the comic antics: those with most money accumulate more, while those with least are targeted with suspicion.
The Floorwalker is rightly recalled for the escalator scenes, Chaplin’s initial inspiration for the short. Whether he’s being pursued down when the escalator is moving ‘up’ (both Chaplin and Campbell appear not to be moving on the fast-paced moving staircase) or up the escalator is moving ‘down’, Chaplin takes the advantage of the opportunity to display his physical dexterity in the interest of comic action. In his battle to overcome this new ‘modern’ technology that is getting in his way, Chaplin anticipates some of the themes that would be central to his feature film masterpiece, Modern Times (1936). An outcast from society, Chaplin’s Tramp is also unfamiliar with such new-fangled devices and sees them as little more than obstacles to be overcome. The entire store set had been purposely built around the central escalator, so Chaplin was determined that it should feature prominently in the film. As David Robinson noted, In Chaplin: His Life and Art, ‘The gag sequences are developed with virtuosity. The pursuits on the escalator are miraculously timed and choreographed.’
Perhaps equally well remembered is the ‘mirror image’ sequence in which Chaplin’s Tramp comes face-to-face with Bacon’s floorwalker. For just a moment, the pair are confused, thinking they’ve stopped in front of a mirror. They test out their movements, each mirroring the other, until Chaplin spots that Bacon is holding a bag (full of the stolen money, a plot point of many films from Too Late for Tears, 1949, to Shallow Grave, 1994, and beyond), while he is holding his traditional cane. Although the routine wasn’t new (Max Linder had previously used it), it was the first time it had been widely seen by such large audiences as those attracted to films by Chaplin. It would go on to be repeated and reworked in countless variations, including by Bugs Bunny, the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, and others.
Another lovely moment of Chaplin’s natural dexterity worth noting is when the Tramp fights Campbell’s crooked department store boss in his office. The Tramp’s way to divert attention or avoid the physical battle is to indulge in a little ballet, pirouetting away from any swings Campbell aims his way. The Tramp becomes caught up in his little dance, ending with a flourish, arms spread wide, perhaps expecting applause: instead, he gets a punch in the face!
Albert Austin was given the task of becoming one of Chaplin’s key foils at Mutual. Once a member of the Karno vaudeville troupe, as had been Chaplin, Austin had been born in Birmingham in 1881 (or 1885 in some accounts) and was instantly recognisable thanks to his painted and styled handlebar moustache. He was working in theatre rep when Chaplin discovered him, having come to the US in 1912. As well as significant roles in the Chaplin Mutual shorts (especially The Pawnshop, 1916), Austin later appeared in The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). He ended his days as a security guard at the Warner Bros. studio in Hollywood, dying in 1953 at the age of 72 (or thereabouts!).
For many years Eric Campbell was something of a mystery. Like Austin, he was an old Karno trouper, like so many of the British born comics who made it big in the early movie business. Born in 1879 (or 1880, according to some sources), Campbell was at one time said to have hailed from Dunoon in Scotland (see the Kevin Macdonald documentary Chaplin’s Goliath: In Search of Scotland’s Forgotten Star, 1996), but more recent research has revealed he originated in Sale, Cheshire in England—resulting in the removal in 2011 of a plaque erected in his honour in Dunoon’s Castle Gardens. Although Campbell worked in Scotland in his music hall days, it is now believed that either he or his agent invented his Scottish roots in order to make him seem even more ‘exotic’ or romantic to American audiences. Some have even speculated that it was Chaplin himself that decided to promote Campbell as a Scot for publicity value, based upon his surname alone.
Campbell was in his mid-30s when he came to work with Chaplin, and at six foot four and weighing twenty stone it was inevitable that he would play the ‘heavy’ in the eleven Mutual films he appeared in. The contrast between the slight five foot five Chaplin and the towering giant of a man that was Campbell was irresistible to the comedian. Chaplin, along with his brother Sydney, had spotted Campbell in a Broadway stage production (George M. Cohan’s Pom Pom) during the negotiations over the Mutual contract. He was an obvious choice as a replacement for Mack Swain as the outsized foil to Chaplin’s Tramp (Swain would reunite with Chaplin in 1921 for The Idle Class and would star in a major role in The Gold Rush, 1925).
When Chaplin completed his work for Mutual in 1917 and was moving to First National, he intended to take Campbell with him, but fate intervened. In July 1917 Campbell’s wife died suddenly of a heart attack, and that December Campbell died in a car crash at the age of just 38. He’d remarried on the rebound, and his new wife was already suing him for divorce (it is believed that her actions were part of a ‘gold digging’ scam). His unhappiness may have contributed to his getting drunk at a cast party, resulting in the fatal 4am crash. At the time, Campbell was living at the Los Angeles Athletic Club in a room next to Chaplin.
Although The Floorwalker fails to capitalise on Chaplin’s deeper emotional development of the Tramp character at Essanay (that would come again in later films, especially The Vagabond), it is already clear that the working conditions at Mutual had been nothing but beneficial for the comic. The sets are larger and more elaborate, allowing for larger and more elaborate comic explorations by the star. Although the plot is slight in The Floorwalker and it ends with the traditional free-for-all runaround, the stories are more robust throughout the later Mutual shorts than they ever were at Keystone or Essanay. The Floorwalker was a clear sign of the greater things to come throughout 1916 as the little Tramp blossomed. — Brian J. Robb
Charlie Says: ‘I am left free [at Mutual] to be just as funny as I dare, to do the best work that is in me, and to spend my energies on the things that people want. I have felt for a long time that this would be my big year and this contract gives me my opportunity. There is inspiration in it.’
Trivia: In 1932, a few years after the coming of sound—a cinematic development that one time pioneer Chaplin studiously ignored—Van Beuren Studios paid $10,000 for each of the Chaplin-Mutual comedies, adding music and sound effects to ‘update’ them and rereleased each of the 12 through RKO Radio Pictures.
The Contemporary View: ‘Charlie, in a new environment, is still Charlie. He has lost none of this famous quality of drollery and has picked up, instead, a lot of new ideas, with new business and new props which make these two reels worth what the Mutual organisation had paid for them.’—Harvey F. Thew, Motion Picture News
‘…cultured, artistic people are beginning to regard the young English buffoon Charles Chaplin as an extraordinary artist as well as a comic genius. … If it is true that the test of an artist’s greatness is in the width of his human appeal, then Charlie Chaplin must be entitled to a place among the foremost of all living artists.’—The Art of Charlie Chaplin, Minnie Maddern, Harper’s Weekly
Verdict: A small step towards the true Chaplin classics.
Next: The Fireman (12 June 1916)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.
Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.