Release Date: 22 October 1917
Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin
Duration: 23 mins
With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin
Story: An escaped convict accidentally finds a place for himself among high society.
Production: For Charlie Chaplin’s final short under his lucrative Mutual contract, the filmmaker depicted his Tramp character escaping prison, perhaps indicating what he felt personally about his Mutual deal—it had become something of a luxurious prison, and now Chaplin was keen to move onto something even more under his own control.
John McCabe saw The Adventurer as little more than ‘a high class Sennett film … it begins with a chase.’ This opening sequence was shot in Los Flores Canyon in the Santa Monica hills, much to the discomfort of Chaplin who—according to Peter Ackroyd— was ‘a child of the city, and never did like nature. He was frightened by large moths, for example, and by the crawling things of California’. Chaplin had an uncomfortable encounter with a rattlesnake, which saw him cancel a day’s shooting as a result. Another incident saw Chaplin dive into the sea at Topanga Canyon to rescue a seven-year-old girl from drowning, according to a contemporary press report.
All this action was incidental to the capturing on film the opening sequence of The Adventurer that saw the Tramp as an escaped convict on the run. Over 200 takes were made, depicting Chaplin in his striped prison uniform eluding the prison warder and guards.
Echoing his real-life rescue of stockbroker’s daughter Mildred Morrison, the film sees the Tramp dive into the sea to rescue two drowning individuals, who turn out to be Edna Purviance and her mother (echoing the set-up of The Immigrant). This sequence was shot last for the film, and served as a narrative link between the Tramp’s escape from jail and his involvement at a high society party. It is Edna’s Japanese chauffeur (actually Chaplin’s own, Kono—his only appearance onscreen as his wife objected to his ‘exploitation’) who fishes him from the sea, and they then drive away in Chaplin’s own real-life car, a new Locomobile.
Mistaking the Tramp for a wealthy man (as he’s wearing a stolen swimsuit that belonged to a yacht owner), he is soon invited to their society party. Chaplin spent another 300 takes capturing the party where the now properly suited Tramp flirts with Edna, much to the annoyance of her suitor, Eric Campbell. Purviance came to shooting this sequence after having had some time off between the location shoot and studio filming due to an unspecified illness.
Chaplin appears to have been if not exactly bored in making The Adventurer, at the very least creatively unchallenged or even blocked. The behind-the-scenes footage from the Unknown Chaplin television documentary series pertaining to The Adventurer shows the clown struggling to make a series of gag sequences involving a Spanish dancer and a hot radiator (two separate elements) work. As David Robinson notes, ‘neither remain except as hints in the finished film’.
Filming of the party sequence brought the total count of takes for The Adventurer so far to around 560. A further 150 saw the Tramp’s true identity as an on-the-run convict revealed and the arrival of the prison guards who chase him around the house. It provides something of a limp conclusion to this film and to Chaplin’s work as a whole at Mutual.
The Adventurer’s depiction of the Tramp as a lawbreaker, pursued by figures of authority, perhaps mirrored the situation that Chaplin had found himself in during 1917. His continued ambivalence over the world war which Britain and now America were involved in could not stand for much longer. He had opted to explain his situation as a British citizen in America, claiming he was more valuable as a filmmaker than he’d ever be as a soldier (something certain British authorities had backed him up on). However, his feelings were seen as being somewhat unpatriotic. That might have been enough, if America had not been drawn into the conflict too.
Increasing U-boat attacks on American shipping and overtures from Germany to Mexico about a possible anti-US alliance had pushed recently elected American President Woodrow Wilson to bring America into what had up-to-then been a largely European conflict. On 6 April 1917, the US official declared war on Germany.
Charlie Chaplin now found he was potentially eligible for the ‘draft’ (being called up to military service) in both the UK and the US. There was a feeling among the entertainment industry, and certainly within the Hollywood colony, that those who were of able body and capable of it should volunteer to fight. Variety reported: ‘The general tenor of the talk of those who are actors was to the effect that the men on this side of the world would show up the “slackers” of the other countries and immediately enlist.’
There was no question of Chaplin ever doing that, just as the UK opened an enlistment office in New York for UK citizens currently in America. To start with, participation would be voluntary, but haunting Chaplin was the possibility that he’d be faced with an official call-up (from either the US or the UK)—how would he react then? The biggest concern for Chaplin was how his prevarication on arguably the biggest issue of the time might affect his standing with audiences, not just in the US and the UK, but worldwide.
By June 1917, Lone Star/Mutual had felt the need to issue an explanatory notice which said that Chaplin had indeed registered for the draft in the US, indicating he was prepared to do his ‘patriotic duty’, but was exempt from participation as he’d failed the physical and medical tests required. Joyce Milton, in her Chaplin biography, notes that the Mutual report was ‘greeted with well-deserved derision’. At issue was Chaplin’s claimed height—he’d always been five foot six inches in the past, yet had suddenly misplaced two inches to become five foot, four inches, thus falling under the minimum height requirement (which just happened to be five foot, four inches). Officially, Charlie Chaplin was simply ‘too small’ to wear the uniform of an American soldier!
It was, of course, nonsense, but Chaplin seemed to have a severe fear of coming out as what he obviously was: a conscientious objector. He perhaps had good reason for this fear—people who objected to the war on a principle of pacifism were not favoured in America or Britain at that time and could find themselves the subject of attack in the newspapers. Chaplin’s friend Theodore Huff backed the comedian, pointing out that ‘had Chaplin done military service, the Allied army would have gained an indifferent soldier but lost a valuable moral booster.’
While many newspapers attacked Chaplin for his stance, almost as many again supported him in the terms that Huff outlined: he was better employed making the nation, indeed the world, laugh than he might be running around Europe with a rifle. Despite his personal anti-war views, Chaplin knew the only way he might stand a chance of maintaining his standing with the public would be if he were to support the war effort in whatever way he could, and that would mainly involve pushing the sale of war bonds to raise funds for the fight. The other option he did, apparently, consider was to quit his career altogether, cash in and head for South America. Instead, he purchased a large quantity of war bonds himself, and agreed—at the urging of Douglas Fairbanks—to help promote them.
Chaplin wrote to a fan in Britain, explaining his position: ‘I only wish I could join the English army and fight for my mother country, but I have received so many letters from soldiers at the front, as well as civilians, asking me to continue making pictures that I have come to the conclusion that my work lies here in Los Angeles. At the same time, if any country thinks it needs me in the trenches more than the soldiers need my pictures, I am ready to go.’
Despite that, Chaplin found himself under direct attack by Hollywood’s own newspaper, Variety, when it reported on his activities under the headline ‘Chaplin in Wrong’ on 22 June 1917. The entertainment newspaper reported that Chaplin had refused a call from the British War Office that he should return to the UK to undertake war service (in what capacity, it didn’t say). Additionally, claimed Variety, Chaplin had brought suspicion upon himself by his apparent failure to file a tax return in the US for 1917. It claimed that Chaplin had reportedly told friends that he was ‘indifferent to appearing before the camera in the future’ and was planning to convert all his savings to gold before leaving the country for somewhere safer. Secret Service agents were supposedly set to investigate Chaplin’s personal safety deposit boxes in search of any hoarded gold.
It was under these conditions that Chaplin was shooting what became The Adventurer, then under the title The Escaped Prisoner. A reporter who visited Chaplin on location claimed he was ‘jumpy’ and finding it difficult to concentrate on the work, although this may have been a side effect of his inability to find decent tea in Los Angeles. It was from this report that the story of Chaplin cancelling filming upon sight of a large snake originated.
Writing for American Magazine, Chaplin chronicled some of his approach to filmmaking, specifically citing The Adventurer: ‘I always aim for economy of means. By this I mean that when one incident can get two big, separate laughs, it is much better than two individual incidents. In The Adventurer I accomplished this by first placing myself on a balcony, eating ice cream with a girl. On the floor directly underneath the balcony, I put a stout, dignified, well-dressed woman at a table. Then while eating the ice cream, I let a piece drop off my spoon, slip through my baggy trousers, and drop from the balcony onto this woman’s neck. The first laugh came at my embarrassment over my own predicament. The second, and much greater one, came when the ice cream landed on the woman’s neck and she shrieked and started to dance around. Only one incident had been used, but it had got two people into trouble and had also got two big laughs.’
The Adventurer was an allegory of where Chaplin found himself towards the end of 1917: adrift in a world that had once embraced him, but now attacked him over his views of the war, concealing himself amid the other wealthy denizens of Hollywood who did their best to pretend the ‘European’ war wouldn’t affect them. As all this was going on, Charlie Chaplin was now without a studio. He faced negotiating for a new contract, either with Mutual or with another of Hollywood’s studios, if he were to continue making films at all, that is.—Brian J. Robb
Charlie Says: ‘All my pictures are built around the idea of getting me into trouble and so giving me the chance to be desperately serious in my attempt to appear as a normal little gentleman. That’s why, no matter how desperate the predicament is, I am always very much in earnest about clutching my cane, straightening my derby hat and fixing my tie, even though I have just landed on my head.’—Charlie Chaplin, American Magazine
Trivia: The Adventurer was the final film made by Eric Campbell. He had played the ideal opponent throughout Chaplin’s best films at Mutual, most notably in Easy Street. While making The Adventurer, Campbell’s off-screen life had undergone some upheaval. His wife had died in July, with Campbell quickly remarrying. He and his new wife, Pearl Gilman, were planning a Honolulu honeymoon, following Campbell’s filming on The Adventurer, but the relationship didn’t get that far. Just weeks after the wedding, Gilman was suing Campbell for a divorce. The reckless Campbell died in a car crash on 20 December 1917 on Wilshire Boulevard. He was only 37 years old.
The Contemporary View: ‘From the standpoint of laughs this two-reel Chaplin-Mutual is about the funniest turned out by the new Mutual during the entire time the comedian has been with it. It is a combination of all the sure-fire laugh getters that Chaplin has ever used with a couple of added starters for good measure. But it is sure a picture that will bring the laughs so fast one must figure what there is for Chaplin to follow it with… Chaplin does not rely on his hop, skip, jump, run, nor his moustache tricks in this picture. His shoes are not the usual Chaplin footgear, and the cane is also missing; but Chaplin without them is funnier than ever.’—Variety, 26 October 1917
‘Mr. Chaplin, in presenting his Mutual swan song, maintains the quality of past events, though shading in a trifle more on the deft stuff to diminishment of the broad. [He eliminates] pies and other edibles, confining himself to the extraction of all the fun he could from the human foot, kick-wise expressed, with a little soda water siphoned in for lubrication. As a convict endeavouring to escape, he spends most of his time in a dress suit, admiring the lovely Purviance, and dodging distasteful policemen. He dodges successfully, at the end escaping into the no-one-knows-where, but judging by his past experiences he is bound for more success.’—Photoplay, January 1918
Verdict: Charlie Chaplin ends his run at Mutual with one of his most accomplished shorts, even if during the making of it he was itching to move on.
Next: A Dog’s Life (14 April 1918)
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.
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