Release Date: 13 November 1916
Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin
Duration: 23 mins
With: Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, Frank J. Coleman, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Lloyd Bacon, Charlotte Mineau
Story: Working as a props assistant, the Tramp causes havoc behind the scenes of a movie studio.
Production: In his November 1916 Mutual short Behind the Screen (his seventh for the studio), Charlie Chaplin turned his attention to satirising his own occupation, the making of movies. Recalling The Property Man, Chaplin plays the assistant to a very lazy movie studio prop man (Eric Campbell). This was also territory he’d visited before in A Film Johnnie at Keystone and in His New Job at Essanay—this is essentially the same ‘chaos in a film studio’ scenario tackled at the third studio that Chaplin had worked for. Even The Masquerader at Keystone had featured a glimpse behind the scenes of a film studio.
The plot—in which striking stagehands threaten to blow up the studio—echoes similar elements in the bakery of Chaplin’s earlier Dough and Dynamite. Each time Chaplin drew on elements he’d used before it was because he felt he had something new to add to it, or a new way of getting bigger laughs from it.
It is understandable how a filmmaker finding his way in a new art form could become interested in depicting to audience how that art form worked. Of course, in Chaplin’s case, he couldn’t help but use it for comedy. Behind the Screen depicts the practice of the time of multiple films—a costume historical, a melodrama, and a comedy—being shot side-by-side, as noise did not affect the making of these silent movies. Chaplin’s cultural mentor Henry Bergman features as the put upon film director whose work the Tramp does so much to disrupt.
A convention of silent comedy ably spoofed by Chaplin in Behind the Screen is the custard pie fight. The big names rarely indulged in this cliché—Buster Keaton never did (there’s some molasses and flour tossed in his first short, The Butcher Boy, 1917), while Harold Lloyd didn’t, certainly outside of his Lonesome Luke shorts (many of which no longer exist). The pie throwing is presented (in an intertitle) as a ‘new idea’ being pursued by a pretentious, shades-wearing, beret-clad director.
Laurel and Hardy took the joke to glorious extremes in 1927’s Battle of the Century in which an epic pie fight erupts to consume an entire city block (lost footage from this film was rediscovered in Summer 2015). The pie throwing gag can be traced back (in movies at least) to 1905, and through the 1910s the Keystone studio in particular had overused this ‘new idea’ so much that it had largely fallen from favour. Chaplin clearly felt that an inside movies spoof required a pie fight, so he ordered up 600 berry pies (far short of the reputed 3000 Laurel and Hardy would use over a decade later).
Invited to take part in the comedy film, the Tramp is set-up as the target of Eric Campbell’s pie thrower, a situation he’s none too happy about, so he proceeds to do it his way, not the director’s. The result is the kind of pie throwing orgy that was even then a cliché of moviemaking. Naturally, the pie throwing overspills the comedy film to impact on the participants in the costume drama, hitting such figures of the establishment and authority as the king and queen as well as an archbishop. Perhaps Chaplin was making a pointed comment? Ironically, as the intended original target, the Tramp is virtually the only one not to be his by a flying pie.
In playing the comedy trap door scene that precedes the pie fight, Henry Bergman (as another director on the studio lot) had narrowly avoided a serious injury as he fell due to standing half-on and half-off the trap door at the time—he had the presence of mind to call for the cameras to keep rolling despite his mishap. As can be seen clearly in the film, he falls down with one leg on the solid floor and only one leg on the trap door he was supposed to fall through. This was only one of the ridiculous things that happened to Bergman’s director in the short; others include living under the threat of being repeatedly thumped by a prop pillar the Tramp is moving about, and then being stood on by the Tramp in his attempts to keep the pillar upright.
Once again comic transposition is in effect in Behind the Screen, as highlighted by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. Struggling to carry a host of wooden chairs, which are piled on top of him, Chaplin resembles nothing less than a human porcupine, the legs of the chairs becoming the outsized spines. He also lavishes his attentions upon a bearskin rug, carefully treating it with tonic, combing out any tangles, and stroking it and applying towels as if he were a barber and the rug a human client. In addition, right at the beginning he walks along a rolled-up carpet as though it were a tight rope and later—in the pie fight—uses two bottles as though they were binoculars in order to survey the action and locate the ‘enemy’.
Perhaps the most notable element of Behind the Screen to modern eyes is its depiction of an apparent homosexual kiss. One of the plot elements of the film sees Edna Purviance gain access to the movie studio by disguising herself as a boy (although how this helps her stated aim of becoming an ‘actress’ is unclear). Hidden beneath a workman’s overall and a large cap (under which her hair is corralled), there’s little that truly disguised Edna’s only-too-apparent womanhood. However, as far as Chaplin’s Tramp is concerned, Edna is the ‘boy’ she is pretending to be—until he discovers her true identity as female when her cap falls off revealing her long hair.
Prop man Eric Campbell then enters the scene, only to catch the Tramp and the ‘boy’ kissing and the title card (missing from some prints) has him exclaiming ‘Oh, you naughty boys!’ He then indulges in a ‘fairy’ dance and turns his backside to the Tramp, providing Chaplin with a perfect target for a swift kick. In his biography of Chaplin, David Robinson maintains this scene was ‘the most overt representation of a homosexual situation in the Anglo-Saxon cinema before the 1950s’.
Brownlow and Gill’s documentary Unknown Chaplin revealed that in one sequence eventually cut from Behind the Screen Chaplin had utilised a technique sometimes later used by Buster Keaton (notably in Sherlock, Jr., where his driverless bike avoids a collision with a train). As Chaplin’s Tramp makes his way through the rehearsals of a French farce, an axman’s blade just misses his feet as he exits the scene. Through examination of the surviving out-takes from the sequence, Brownlow and Gill were able to demonstrate that Chaplin had in fact filmed the sequence in reverse, with him carefully walking through it backwards, so the axe was lifted from the floor rather than thrown down at it.
Several takes were completed to see if the sequence would work properly, but it never did to Chaplin’s complete satisfaction, so he dropped it and moved on. The scene actually looks fine, and may have worked well in the context of Behind the Screen, but there was something about it that perfectionist Chaplin just wasn’t comfortable with, so it was gone. He seems to have been unsentimental about cutting bits he felt failed, no matter how much work or time had gone into them. Luckily, as the extra material was preserved (against Chaplin’s own contemporary wishes) we have an insight into his working methods and the thought process that went into constructing his two-reelers at Mutual.
Chaplin’s increasing focus off-screen at this time was on his efforts at self-improvement. Having missed out on any formal education, he was keen to make efforts to fit in with the kind of people, such as movie stars, studio executives, and popular intellectuals, among whom he was now regularly circulating. To that end, he hired Constance Collier, a famous actress from his youth, to give him elocution lessons—she was now making a living helping out movie stars with their public presentation. Chaplin was determined to lose any last traces of his London cockney accent and to adopt a more ‘cultured’ voice in which to communicate.
He read widely, determined to catch up on history and to stay abreast of modern cultural developments. He had no natural taste for opera, but was hopeful of acquiring at least a working knowledge of it so that he might keep up his end in any discussions at dinner parties or cultural events he attended. He never again wanted to repeat the mistake he’d made during a visit to the Metropolitan Opera (as reported in his autobiography) where in front of Enrico Caruso he’d made the faux pas of mistaking Rigoletto for Carmen.
Perhaps feeling left behind by this process, Edna Purviance distanced herself from Chaplin somewhat during the summer and into the fall of 1916. She believed, and not without good reason, that Chaplin had been unfaithful, but she recognized that they still had to work together. She apparently had little interest in attempting to keep up with Chaplin’s self-education or growing interest in cultural pursuits. Apparently, according to a contemporary interview with her, Chaplin had even attempted to get Edna to change her name to something more suitable for motion pictures. ‘I hate assumed names,’ she said, ‘and as mine is so distinctive, I intend to keep it.’ At this time, Edna was still earning $200 per week, while Chaplin himself was banking $10,000 weekly—it seems he made no attempt to get Mutual to increase her salary.
One of the strangest things around Charlie Chaplin and his rapid rise to fame happened just as Behind the Screen completed production. It was reported that on 12 November 1916 that all across the United States there were inexplicable paging calls for ‘Mr. Charles Chaplin’ happening simultaneously. Investigating the bizarre phenomenon, the Boston Society for Psychological Research described the event as ‘certain phenomenon connected with the simultaneous paging of Mr. Charles Chaplin, motion picture comedian, in more than 800 large hotels of the United States’.
It is unlikely, at this distance in time, that the event can be adequately explained, although the Boston Society tried, concluding: ‘We find beyond peradventure that … here existed for some inexplicable reason a “Chaplin impulse” which extended throughout the length and breadth of the continent. In more than 800 of the principal hotels Mr. Chaplin was being paged at the same hour. In hundreds of smaller towns people were waiting at stations to see him disembark from trains upon which he was supposed to arrive…’
The following day the Kansas City Star newspaper ran the headline: ‘Have You the Chaplin-itis?’ At the time of the event, Chaplin was reportedly safe at home in Los Angeles, completely unaware of the hysteria his cinematic avatar was apparently causing nationwide. The most widely accepted suggestion is that Charlie Chaplin has risen from nowhere in 1914 to such ubiquity by 1916 that a kind of mass hysteria resulted in the reported weird happenings of that mid-November day.
Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Chaplin, speculates that the little Tramp figure ‘had become such a national obsession’ that he began to dominate ‘people’s consciousness’. He points out that a Memphis newspaper later reported that the youth of America regarded ‘Charlie’ or the Tramp as a personal friend or companion, and often talked back to him on the screen ‘registering approval or disapproval of his actions’ and even saying ‘goodnight’ to him as they left the cinema. This wasn’t restricted to just Chaplin; in the days of silent cinema, there was a lot of noise from audiences interactions with the onscreen action to ramshackle musical accompaniment or even in-cinema sound effects.
This event became the basis of Glen David Gold’s novel Sunnyside, which deals with the wider world of celebrity culture as created by Hollywood in the late-teens but which is kicked off by the simultaneous Chaplin paging event. According to the Denver Post: ‘In Gold’s version of the mass hysteria, Chaplin is seen, impossibly and simultaneously, all over the United States. In a lighthouse off the California coast, Emily Wheeler and her 24-year-old son, Leland, spot an open skiff, adrift. Upon closer inspection it seems the boat is sinking and the figure bailing it out is none other than The Little Tramp. Before they can rescue him, the skiff sinks, leaving nothing but a bowler floating on the surface. The same day, in hotels all over the country, Chaplin is paged. And on a train heading into Beaumont, Texas, Hugo Black, 23, wearing the uniform of the train’s junior engineering staff “as if they were prisoner’s stripes,” is about to become a victim. The citizens of Beaumont have gathered at the station, having heard a rumour that Chaplin will be traveling through their town. Their reaction, when they discover he’s not, is to riot.’
Devotion to these new celebrity screen figures would resulted in further hysteria, such as the displays of uncontrolled emotion at the funeral of Rudolph Valentino in 1926 by people who only knew him as an image on a movie screen, or the three suicides at the funeral of China’s leading star actress Ruan Lingyu in 1935. As with so many things, Chaplin was first to inspire such mass hysteria—after all, he was already to be seen on virtually every movie screen in the country (remember those ‘I Am Here Today’ boards outside cinemas promoting his films?), so why not extend that to every hotel or every railway station? Was all this related to the almost unbelievable terms of his Mutual contract, or even his perceived failure to participate in the war then raging in Europe?
In his article ‘The Chaplin-itis’, Saul Austerlitz said of Chaplin’s extreme fame: ‘The passion for the Tramp was akin to a disease, albeit a mostly benign one, and its symptoms were almost entirely unfamiliar. Chaplin was more than a movie star—he was an infinitely malleable global icon, with a boundlessly varied array of interpretations pegged to his persona. … this odd instance of Chaplin’s imminent presence everywhere at once, tantalizingly ambiguous and imperfectly documented, is better proof of film’s remarkable powers of suggestion.’—Brian J. Robb
Charlie Says: ‘My works the thing. Yes, I admit that sometimes I use other people’s ideas. But, oh, the irony of fate! Once last year I made a picture filled with no less than ten masterpieces of other people’s creation—and the exhibitors sent it back. [They] said it was rotten!’—Interview, Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 1916
Trivia: In the latter half of 1916, Charlie Chaplin first met Douglas Fairbanks, after months of resistance feeling he’d have little in common with the American movie star. Instead, the pair instantly hit it off forming a fast friendship that also drew in Fairbank’s soon-to-be-wife Mary Pickford, then the biggest film star in the world (at that time possibly still bigger than even Chaplin himself). From this friendship would emerge the studio United Artists established by Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, and director D. W. Griffith in 1919.
The Contemporary View: ‘… One of the best laugh producers that the world’s champion high priced film comic has done for the Mutual. … Chaplins are built for laugh-producing qualities.’—Variety, November 27, 1916
‘There is throughout a distinct vein of vulgarity which is unnecessary, even in slapstick comedy. A great deal of comedy is to be extracted from a pie slinging episode which occurs during the rehearsal of a couple of scenes in a moving picture studio. The funniest part of the comedy comes during the manipulation of a trap door in one of the scenes by Chaplin.’—Motion Picture World, November 25, 1916
Verdict: A brilliant bit of knockabout, Behind the Screen is fun but not profound.
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.