The Pawnshop (2 October 1916)

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Release Date: 2 October 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 25 mins

With: Henry Bergman, John Rand, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Frank J. Coleman, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley

Story: Working as an assistant in a pawnshop, the Tramp romances the daughter of the boss, deals with problem customers, and ultimately foils a robbery.

the-pawnshop-10Production: By October 1916 all was not well between Charlie Chaplin and his leading lady, onscreen and off, Edna Purviance. Whether he was too consumed by his work for Mutual, or his newfound wealth was changing him, Chaplin seemed distant, not as committed to the relationship as he had been in the early days. They worked together, but the pair didn’t live together, so was the artificiality of their onscreen relationship beginning to bleed into their real lives: ‘reel life’ becoming real life?

It may have been a ruse on her part to recapture his attention, but it came to Chaplin’s notice that she was apparently romantically interested in someone else, a leading actor based at Paramount. Rather than re-engage with her, Chaplin decided to ignore the studio gossip and carry on (as ever) focusing on his work, perhaps the very source of their problems. In the words of Chaplin biographer Peter Ackroyd, ‘[Chaplin] had expected faithfulness without in any sense earning it.’

He finally decided to take action and during a romantic dinner, the pair made up their differences. It was to ultimately be a brief reconciliation: the writing was on the wall for Edna and Charlie…

Out of this period of personal emotional turmoil came one of Chaplin’s best films at Mutual, The Pawnshop. The short is packed with examples of the comic art of transposition, in which one object takes the role or place of another, one of Chaplin’s keynote specialities. During the course of the Tramp’s employment as an assistant in the pawnshop a telephone mouthpiece is used in place of a magnifying glass, a doughnut is used in weightlifting, and a clock impersonates a tin can. It was the kind of thing Chaplin had done before, but never quite so often in such a short running time.

According to a fan magazine writer, quoted by biographer Joyce Milton in Tramp, Chaplin arrived late to the set of the first day of shooting on The Pawnshop. The light atmosphere and loose working conditions of the Lone Star studio had made an impression on the writer, but everything finally fell into place when the star arrived, complete with a bundle of notes (in lieu of a script). Chaplin called the cast and crew to order and addressed them: ‘Attention, ladies and gentlemen! We are about to open the pawn shop!’

the-pawnshop-15The pawn shop setting gave Chaplin plenty of toys and situations to play with. As usual with the Tramp, he is a less-than-ideal employee, fighting with his co-workers and attempting to clean up the place while making things far worse when his feather duster interfaces with a whirring fan. He’s fired by his boss (Bergman), only for him to relent when subjected to a pantomime of abject poverty and the fact that the Tramp apparently has many dependents waiting on him to bring home the bacon. Relocated to the kitchen, the Tramp has an entirely new playground in which to wreak havoc, although his destruction is slightly tempered by the presence of Edna, the pawnbroker’s daughter (looking very contemporary in her style). He still manages, however, to put some crockery through a wringer in an attempt to dry it.

the-pawnshop-16One of the true highlights of Chaplin’s entire career follows with the arrival of a customer (Albert Austin) bearing an alarm clock that he wishes to pawn. As with all the goods accepted by the store, it is the Tramp’s job to evaluate the item which he proceeds to do in a most thorough manner. A stethoscope is employed to determine the ‘health’ of the clock, but something is amiss. Enter that tin-opener, and the Tramp treats the clock like a tin of tuna, prising it open with great care and attention. Soon, he is into the innards (something smells funny) and his attentions to the clock become ever more violent, employing such delicate instruments as his nose, dental tools, and finally, a hammer. The clock is soon in pieces, springs and cogs scattered across the pawnshop counter. Sweeping the remains of his attentions upon the clock in Austin’s hat, he hands all the pieces back to the customer: it is clearly not in a fit state to be pawned!

This was Chaplin at his best, taking a simple situation and building it up slowly and carefully over time, mining it for every comic possibility. In The Art of Charlie Chaplin, John Kimber describes the clock dissection as ‘one of the longest bits of business in the films of this period.’ The resulting short was called ‘the richest in gag invention’ by Chaplin authority and biographer David Robinson.

the-pawnshop-13The slight suggested romance with Edna and the capturing of a burglar (Eric Campbell) is almost incidental to the rest of the comic invention of The Pawnshop, whereas in most other comic shorts of the period such events would be central. Robinson noted: ‘It is as if in this film Chaplin were exploring every possible use of the comedy of transposition which had appeared fairly frequently in his preceding work. Here every object seems to suggest some other thing and other use to his ingenious mind.’ With the alarm clock, Chaplin treats the scene as if he were a doctor examining an unwell patient. His demolition of the clock is slow, careful, and considered, as well as hilarious.

Playwright Harvey O’Higgins focused on the alarm clock deconstruction as an ideal illustration of ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Art’ in the 3 February 1917 issue of The New Republic: ‘[Chaplin] has to decide how much it is worth. He taps it, percusses it, puts his ear to its chest, listens to its heartbeat with a stethoscope, and while he listens, fixes a thoughtful medical eye on space, looking inscrutably wise and professionally self-confident. He begins to operate on it—with a can-opener. And immediately the round tin clock becomes a round tin can whose contents are under suspicion. He cuts around the circular top of the can, bends back the flap of tin with a kitchen thumb then, gingerly approaching his nose to it, sniffs with the melancholy expression of the packing houses. The imagination is accurate. The acting is restrained and naturalistic. The result is a scream. And do not believe that such acting is a matter of crude and simple means. It is as subtle in its naturalness as the shades of intonation in a really tragic speech.’

the-pawnshop-5There is other, more routine work to be done in the pawnshop, but it is accomplished amid other amusements and larks indulged in by the Tramp. His assistant (John Rand) comes in for much punishment, while Edna is the object of his affections. Both activities, however, have to be disguised as part of everyday work, so when the boss appears, a boxing match with the assistant turns into a bout of furious floor cleaning, while a food battle around Edna rapidly becomes a close engagement with some pie making. With so much attention given to the alarm clock sequence, such seemingly minor delights can often be under-appreciated. One nice touch is Chaplin’s little victory dance when he captures Campbell’s thief, as if inviting applause from the audience in the nickelodeon for his quick-witted action in foiling the bad guy.

The pawnbroker of the title was played by Henry Bergman, a newcomer to the Chaplin company. Bergman had been born in 1868 in San Francisco to a horse-breeder father and opera singer mother. It was to music, initially, that Bergman turned, following his mother’s footsteps to take opera training in Europe, particularly in Italy and Germany, where he made his debut in Faust. By the turn of the century he was performing on Broadway and made his way into films in 1914, at the relatively mature age of 46, appearing in shorts for the L-KO Company—attracted by the idea he could earn up to $5 per day as a comic heavy. He appeared in the 1915 Theda Bara drama The Kreutzer Sonata for Fox, a film now considered lost.

the-pawnshop-8Bergman came to Chaplin as a character actor, ideal for many of the ‘types’ that appeared in his films. In 1931 Bergman recalled ‘I had known Mr. Chaplin personally. We used to be quite friendly at dinners, and when I mentioned to him that I was looking for a job he said, “Why don’t you come with me? You can work with men when I start a company of my own.” That’s the way it was.’ Bergman was bookish and cultured, but not beyond indulging in the latest show business gossip. He remained single and unattached his entire life. His European background probably made Bergman appear more sophisticated to Chaplin than some of his Californian contemporaries. In time Bergman became something of a confidant to Chaplin, an older, more experienced man to whom he could turn—a situation that sometimes cause jealousies within the Chaplin company.

The Pawnshop was just the beginning of a long association between Bergman and Chaplin that continued through to the end of his life in 1946. He appeared in many of the Mutual shorts and across Chaplin’s features, including The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), and City Lights (1931, on which he also functioned as assistant director). His final appearance was as the restaurant manager in Modern Times (1936), but Bergman continued to work behind the scenes at the Chaplin studio until The Great Dictator (1940). Chaplin helped Bergman set up his popular Hollywood restaurant ‘Henry’s’, which was frequented by celebrities of the time. He died of a heart attack, aged 78.

As 1916 began to wind down, it became clear that Chaplin was never going to fulfil his contract terms with Mutual—they had expected him to make twelve films by the end of 1916. The Pawnshop was only his sixth, and his first—The Floorwalker—had not appeared until May. This was the start of a significant slowdown in Chaplin’s rate of production, partly because he was simply taking longer to work on his art, determined to improve it with every film.

the-pawnshop-6Chaplin, according to the accounts of many who worked with him during this period, could be a very moody figure. There’s no official diagnosis of either depression or mania, but from what co-workers said of his variable demeanour, it can be assumed that some of these factors may have affected him—and not without cause. He was under a severe spotlight, a subject of intense focus, not only from the studio management, but also from the press and the public at large, all of whom were eager to see (and judge) the next Chaplin comedy.

Part of the problem may have been his utterly comfortable circumstances, something Chaplin had now grown accustomed to: his rate of work at Keystone and Essanay had not only been driven by the demands of bosses like Mack Sennett and George Spoor but also by his need to generate an income, a habit learned the hard way from his Victorian youth in London.

the-pawnshop-1Now, on $10,000 each week (an amazing amount, then and now), Chaplin had what the Tramp (in The Floorwalker) had previously referred to as ‘spondulicks for ever!’ Not concerned with his business affairs, Chaplin had Sydney looking after relations with the studio, while his assistant Tom Harrington was handling his investments, with frequent appointments at the Los Angeles Stock Exchange to manage the money.

Mutual were not (at least, not yet) in any way greatly concerned with Chaplin’s rate of work, as long as he got there in the end and the quality remained high. Although he was a costly asset, his films were earning the studio huge amounts of money. The Pawnshop was easily the best of his films to this point, and they expected great things across the remainder of the contract—however long it took their ‘lone star’ to complete it.
—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘When I arrive [at the studio] in the morning I’m usually gloomy, especially when I haven’t any idea what I’m going to do in a scene, as is often the case. Tears bedew my eyes as I put on my make-up, and I weep sadly as I step out on the stage. As for these gray hairs, I got them all the other day trying to be funny in a ballroom scene. I think any comedian who started out to be funny in a ballroom would have his career blighted at the outset.’—The Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 1916

Trivia: According to silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, there is evidence in the rushes (the unedited film material) for The Pawnshop that Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney wasn’t only his business manager but helped out on the direction side of his films, too. Brownlow, however, notes (in The Search for Charlie Chaplin) that although Sydney made his own starring film, ‘I have never seen a Sydney Chaplin film to compare with the best of a Charlie Chaplin. … One did not warm to him.’

The Contemporary View: ‘There is a succession of highly ludicrous scenes with Chaplin the principal figure. One comedy climax after another follows with amazing rapidity, and Chaplin performs some most amusing stunts as the man-of-all-work around the pawn broking establishment. He mixes up things with a high hand, messes both the outside and inside, and in some amusing celluloid byplay saves his boss from being robbed. There is the usual secondary plot consideration, it may even be classified as third, for that matter, for it is Chaplin who enlivens each scene and by his devious and divers ways of handling each situation causes hearty and continued laughter. To thousands who are yet to see Chaplin, The Pawnshop subject will prove an irresistible laugh-getter. Chaplin himself has never been funnier or indulged in more of his typical Chaplin-isms, and the cast plays up to him in fine style.’—New York Dramatic Mirror, 1920 

‘[This] new production is termed by many as the turning point of the comedian’s career. The Pawnshop in its two reels has practically one set, the interior of a loan office. Chaplin … cleans out the place bringing forth the business which secured for him his reputation. The Chaplin walk or familiar rounding of corners is not brought into play frequently, but his other work of throwing things around and the mauling of his players is carried on to a larger extent. Better than the last lot of Chaplins, the comedian should re-establish himself with it.’—Variety, October 1916

‘There is no disputing the power that Charlie Chaplin has in creating laughter. … The Pawnshop reach[es] the hallmark of perfection as [a] laughter maker. [He] does some of the most incredible things with the customers, repeatedly floors the old fat pawnbroker, is continually at loggerheads with his fellow assistant, and gives a would-be smart policeman plenty to do before a jewel robber is run to earth in a novel way by Charlie.’—Kino Weekly, 1917

‘This hasn’t a suspicion of a plot, but is full of the well-known Chaplin small business, and brings laughter all the way through.’—Moving Picture World, October 1916

Verdict: A wonderfully coherent short, containing a true classic sequence with the alarm clock dissection.

Next: Behind the Screen (13 November 1916)

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