The Cure (16 April 1917)

The Cure 1

Release Date: 16 April 1917

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

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

Story: A drunk (Chaplin) checks into a health spa in order to dry out, but brings a suitcase full of booze with him…

Production: Where Easy Street saw Charlie Chaplin branching out and drawing upon his own childhood experiences of poverty for inspiration, with his next film for Mutual, The Cure, he returned to the tried and tested: his familiar drunk routine. This new spin on a character he’d been playing since his earliest days in vaudeville was his attempt to go straight, even if he turns up at the spa for the cure with a huge trunk full of booze in tow.

Of course, the humour in such a film comes from the Tramp’s complete resistance to any attempt to sober him up. A relaxing massage turns into a wrestling match, while the Tramp’s supply of back-up booze ends up in the water fountain, leading to all sorts of mayhem. Also in the mix is Eric Campbell’s gout sufferer, ensuring that Charlie gets his sensitive leg stuck in the revolving door, and Edna Purviance needs to be rescued from assorted drunks who’ve partaken of the fountain’s ‘healing’ waters. At the finale, both Charlie and Edna end up in the very same fountain.

The Cure is fast-moving and joke packed, made at a time when Chaplin was in his element, enjoying the security of his Lone Star studio and the complete trust of Mutual, who were resigned to if not relaxed about his slowed pace of production. They knew he’d complete the contracted 10 films, but they perhaps hoped he might have finished before October 1917, when he completed The Adventurer.

The Cure 2Three months had elapsed since the release of Easy Street, a significant period between Chaplin movies. Chaplin’s working process was becoming ever more elaborate and drawn out, as revealed in the Kevin Brownlow/David Gill documentary Unknown Chaplin. Thanks to saved outtakes and unused material, skilfully compiled by Brownlow and Gill, it is possible to witness Chaplin constructing The Cure by shooting, revising, and rethinking individual scenes and scenarios. Spontaneous ideas would mean rearranging or replacing already shot material, while previously discarded notions re-emerge as the work progresses. The opening sequence, for example, was apparently only reached by a total of 84 takes and a rethink in the design of the set.

Through the numbered takes we can see Chaplin’s character evolving from bellboy to spa attendant, as the action is relocated from forecourt to the lobby of the health facility. A wheelchair bound patient is initially Eric Campbell, but is then replaced in later takes by Albert Austin. At one point, Chaplin’s employee becomes an ersatz traffic cop, directing the increasing number of wheelchair bound patients.

It is only after 77 takes of various bits of business that Chaplin removes the fountain in the forecourt, replacing it with a more accessible well, so much the better for falling in to. The first drunk to take a dunk is played by John Rand, under Chaplin’s close direction. At some point, whether through frustration or because he couldn’t resist the temptation of the role himself, Chaplin had dropped his previous characters and stepped into the part of the drunk. That led to the revolving door and the emergence of the final version of The Cure as we now know it.

The Cure 3It was little wonder that the progress of each film would be slower and more involved given the way Chaplin was approaching his work. He’d seemingly inherited the idea of starting a film based upon a simple scenario, character or location from Keystone, but on top of that he’d brought his own perfectionist instincts. Having built up a solid reputation for good work in such a short period of time, it is fair to speculate that Chaplin must’ve been terrified of turning in anything less than his best efforts. However, his approach of ‘finding’ the film in the shooting of it was both beneficial and detrimental. A benefit shows up in comic business created accidentally: in one take around the revolving door, Chaplin’s cane gets accidentally caught in the door. A few takes later, he starts to incorporate this ‘accident’ as a deliberate bit of business. This kind of thing would happen a lot as he used time, his colleagues, and reels and reels of film to work out his ideas. The downside was that he could now spend months on each individual film, determined to get it right, constantly striving to improve whatever he’d worked out, only agreeing to release it once his high standards had been satisfied. It certainly worked on the critics, who largely failed to perceive the amount of effort that went in to creating such ‘spontaneity’, such that Motion Picture World was able to say of The Cure: ‘Chaplin’s inimitable expressions and postures are so spontaneous that one cannot for a moment think of his work as preconceived effort.’

The Cure 7Simon Louvish, in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, positions The Cure as a kind of sequel to One A.M., working on the assumption that the character of ‘Mr. Arthur Arkwright, the naturalist’ may be the same drunk audiences saw struggling with the contents of his home when he arrived back late one night slightly the worse for wear. Perhaps, so Louvish’s theory goes, The Cure sees the same character presenting himself for detoxification. According to Louvish, ‘The Cure is a torture chamber of society’s solutions for the demon rum’s malignant authority… The revolving door exemplifies [the] failed attempt at moral resurrection … There is no cure for society’s ills, as it is incurably insane.’

Was Chaplin’s approach to filmmaking at this stage an example of his growing abilities as an artist, creating the films with the camera as an author writes with a pen (or typewriter), being willing to discard what doesn’t work, to rework material, or even drop everything in order to start again? Or was it, as Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton suggests, simply symptomatic of a man who couldn’t make up his mind? It took Chaplin four months to complete and release The Cure, and while the final film is regarded as one of his best, the increasing delays and slowing pace of production was of concern to Mutual, who felt their ‘Lone Star’ was perhaps delaying production for no very good reason (except, maybe, his own enrichment).

Milton reports that Chaplin was becoming ever more moody during this time, and had a tendency to upset those he was working with, perhaps simply a symptom of his own artistic frustration in making The Cure. A new recruit among Chaplin’s company during the early part of 1917 was his new personal publicist, Carlyle T. Robinson, who would remain by the comedian’s side for the next decade and a half. Robinson quickly found that Chaplin ‘was a very difficult person to meet, even within his own studio. I learned also that it was absolutely forbidden for strangers to penetrate into the studio, that the star did not like journalists, and did not wish to be bothered by old friends, even those who had known Charlie Chaplin when he played in the English music halls.’

Robinson quickly got the measure of his new employer, learning his ways. It was clear that Chaplin did not keep anything resembling ‘office hours’, and would come and go from the studio at all hours of the day and night, as inspiration or the need to work struck him. Robinson was to be on the receiving end of Chaplin’s eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, as well as his strongly expressed likes and dislikes. According to Robinson, Chaplin’s favourites, like Henry Bergman, tended to be disliked by the rest of the crew working on the Chaplin films, simply because they’d been singled out for the star’s favour.

The Cure 5For all its inventiveness, there is something basic about The Cure. The scenario is not particularly unique, while the comic business featuring Chaplin’s drunk and Eric Campbell’s gout-struck foot is par for the course. Even the negligent romance with Edna is underplayed, except for one surprising moment that sticks out today. As noted by John Kimber in The Art of Charlie Chaplin, ‘[Charlie and Eric]’s routine feuding over Edna is enlivened by a moment when Charlie imagines that Eric’s salacious invitations are being directed at him, and reacts with a mixture of embarrassment and pleasure.’

Chaplin’s focus on the mischief making drunk is a throwback to his earlier Keystone shorts in which the Tramp was the source of most of the mayhem that ensued. In The Cure he has retreated from being the figure of authority seen in his policeman in Easy Street, bringing order where there is chaos, and has instead returned to playing the Trickster figure, the one who causes the chaos where there otherwise was order.—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘When I see a screen actress get ready to cry, I look the other way until she’s through with the spasm. It gives me the shudders; I feel ashamed. That isn’t good acting. Some directors insist on their actresses crying during certain kinds of emotional scenes. Then they show a close-up of tears furrowing through make-up. Uhh! One of the easiest things in acting is to bring tears. I can do it any time, but I should never forgive myself if I had some scene like that photographed.’—New York Tribune Sunday, 30 December 1917

Trivia: Chaplin’s astonishing earnings at Mutual [see Chaplin Signs With Mutual] had been causing consternation through 1916 and 1917 in the motion picture community, with many arguing that his payment was ridiculously high at a time of war when many people were struggling to earn a decent income. Photoplay magazine ran an article entitled ‘C. Chaplin, Millionaire-Elect’ that focused on Chaplin’s accumulating wealth. Photoplay noted that ‘Except for John Hayes Hammond, President of US Steel, ‘Chaplin’s salary is likely the biggest salary grabbed off by any public person outside of royalty.’ Statistics revealed that Chaplin’s salary made up 17 per cent of the total salaries paid to 96 Senators and 435 Representatives of the US Congress, and 93 per cent of the Senate’s payroll.

The Contemporary View: ‘If there should be any impression that Charlie Chaplin has slipped the slightest in his ability to comically mime in the films, the once over of his latest effort, The Cure (Mutual), should certainly “cure” any such idea. … It may be that Chaplin fans will vote The Cure the best of the Mutual’s so far. It has been […] months since the previous Chaplin, Easy Street, was released, and therefore the new one is considerably late. A reason for that probably is the rather pretentious hotel setting employed, which looked good enough to have taken plenty of time for construction. … The Cure is a whole meal of laughs, not merely giggles, and ought to again emphasize the fact that Charlie is in a class by himself.’—Variety, 13 April 1917

‘[The Cure] wherein Charlie Chaplin proves himself a great comedian. There is little slapstick comedy used in this burlesque on sanatorium life. Chaplin’s inimitable expressions and postures are so spontaneous that one cannot for a moment think of his work as preconceived effort. It is interesting to note that of each of Mr. Chaplin’s latest comedies one feels like saying: “the best yet”.’—Motion Picture Magazine, July 1917

Verdict: One of the best Mutuals, even if Chaplin’s character reverts to near-Keystone type as the creator of chaos.

Next: The Immigrant (17 June 197)

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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The Rink (4 December 1916)

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Release Date: 4 December 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

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

Story: A clumsy waiter becomes an elegant roller skater at the local rink.

Production: As with several of Charlie Chaplin’s earliest films, he drew upon one of the old Fred Karno vaudeville sketches as the basis for his final film of 1916, The Rink—this one simply titled ‘Skating’, and originally developed on stage by Sydney Chaplin. Instead of simply reproducing the sketch, Chaplin takes it as an opportunity to fully develop the balletic movement he’d been tentatively employing in some of his films to this point—the fluidity of movement allowed by the roller skates he wears played directly into this.

the-rink-3Essentially, The Rink is simplicity itself and relies almost entirely upon Chaplin’s near mishaps when skating about for its laughs. Here the Tramp is employed as a waiter (one who can tell what someone has eaten simply by examining the customer’s tie) who loves to spend his downtime at the local skating rink. There he attempts to get closer to the young woman he’s taken a fancy to (Edna Purviance), while fending off Mr. Stout (the inevitable Eric Campbell). Henry Bergman appears in drag as the put-upon Mrs. Stout, hilarious in the finale as she slowly skates about behind everyone else.

The core of this short is in the choreography of Chaplin’s roller ballet, what John McCabe referred to as his ‘dance and bumps and falls and near misses, so beautifully choreographed that repeated viewing is unwearying. The Rink is a beautiful soundless waltz.’ With a few minor extra moments, that’s basically what the film is, and it may sound boring in the abstract: 20-odd minutes of some fella simply skating about doesn’t seem enticing, but when that ‘fella’ is Charlie Chaplin, we know it’ll be something special.

There’s a closer identification between the viewer and the Tramp in this short than perhaps in any of his work to this point. As he swoops around, narrowly avoiding collision, carefully skirting the edges, we are with him, experiencing his euphoria and sense of fun, with the same grace and the same near-jeopardy. McCabe highlights Eric Campbell’s ‘giant belly’ as almost a separate character in the film, and Chaplin’s collisions with Campbell serve as musical punctuation notes to the graceful ballet he is performing—he bounces off his foil regularly, both bringing to an end one movement, while also providing the kinetic energy for the next. Chaplin’s cane proves to be handy tool for keeping Campbell’s ruffian at arms length.

Professional roller skaters from the Los Angeles area were hired by the Lone Star Film Corporation to make up the extras in the rink, but there weren’t nearly enough of them to provide the numbers Chaplin needed. In addition, he had not been skating for quite a while, so needed to brush up his skills before shooting, so took advantage of the professionals he’d hired to coach him. Within a week, according to Joyce Milton, Chaplin was out-performing the pros.

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Although Chaplin rehearsed his work meticulously, the same could not be said for the others in the cast. Eric Campbell, at least, was very unsteady on his feet once on the rink, and preferred to stay as still as possible, waiting for Chaplin to come to him. In fact, one of Chaplin’s crew-members, Dave Allen, had the job of pushing Campbell onto the rink from out of camera range, a task achieved with a large stick which repeatedly bruised the poor man as he slid tentatively into the action. ‘When you pushed him into the scene, he had no idea what was coming,’ said Chaplin, talking with Allen. ‘I had it all figured out. As I was skating backwards on one foot—the other raised gracefully in mid-air—I planned to kick him right in the stomach just as you shoved him into the scene. It worked. The unsuspecting Eric got my skate right in the abdomen!’

Equally, Edna Purviance knew what was supposed to happen, but as Chaplin was prone to changing his mind or improvising in the moment, she and the others had little option but to go with the flow and simply react to whatever was happening. Chaplin was the master of their universe; they merely inhabited it.

the-rink-6The plot of The Rink, and the interrelationships of Mr. Stout (who is pursuing Edna) and Mrs. Stout (who is desired by Edna’s father), matter not a jot. The joy of the film is almost entirely in Chaplin’s physicality and his interactions with all these people. The fact that he is (once more) masquerading as a member of the aristocracy—Sir Cecil Seltzer C.O.D., no less—when visiting Edna’s skating party is no more an attack on the silly foibles of the rich than a throwaway joke, forgotten the minute it is enacted. No, the fun is in the skating, the charm and grace of the Tramp as he, almost literally, runs rings around everyone else involved.

According to research by John Bengston, the location used for the exterior of the skating rink is the same as that used for the exterior of the motion picture theatre in Chaplin’s Keystone movie Those Love Pangs, back in 1914, only with a large ‘Skating’ prop sign attached. The closing scene, where the Tramp escapes the irate skaters by hooking himself to the back of a moving automobile using his cane was filmed at an intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Silver Lake Boulevard, looking very different 100 years ago than they look today.

the-rink-1The earlier portions of The Rink focus on Chaplin’s role as an incompetent waiter; this sequence could come from almost any Chaplin film from the past two years—it would easily fit onto the Keystone or Essanay films, and in fact could have made up an entire single reel film early in Chaplin’s career. Certainly the havoc caused in the kitchen and dining room alike would feel right at home. The only thing different is the way he moves around. Over the years, Chaplin’s movement through space became more deliberate, less slapstick. His little, near-stationary dance while mixing a cocktail is an example of his new inventiveness, which would only be given full flower once he finally hits the rink itself, almost 12 minutes (about halfway) into the short.

It is then that his balletic athleticism comes to the fore. From his entrance to the party, tipping his ash into a hat, to skating around in a curve and his interactions with various women, prime among them Edna, Chaplin makes his mark. Perhaps the temptation to indulge in the Keystone-like ‘low comedy’ of the physical encounters with Eric Campbell were too much to resist, but The Rink may have been even better if we’d seen more of the ‘poetic’ Chaplin than the slapstick variety. The combination of Chaplin as a waiter and a skater would later be seen more fully realised in his feature film Modern Times (1936).

David Robinson, in Chaplin: His Life and Art, highlights one particular reaction to seeming changes to Chaplin’s character evidenced in The Rink. Writing in the New York Tribune, Heywood Broun said: ‘It is interesting to note that Chaplin falls only twice during the picture, both times of his own volition, and that not once is he kicked.’ Broun took this new approach on behalf of the comedian to be significant, expounding under the headline ‘Nietzsche Has Grip On Chaplin: The Rink Strong Plea for Acceptance of Master Morality’. Broun continued: ‘Is it not obvious, then, what ferment is at work in the philosophy of the Chaplin comedies? Gone is the old comedy of submission, as emphasized in The Bank, The Tramp, Shanghaeid and others, and in its place there has grown up a comedy of aggression. One cannot overlook the influence of Nietzsche and the ‘Will to Power’ here. … The new Chaplin is a superman, and though the hordes of fat villains may rage against him, with pie and soup and siphons they shall not prevail.’ Broun may have had a point, but putting in in such terms he clearly overplays his hand—as Robinson notes, ‘Broun, we may take it, was not wholly serious.’

the-rink-8This was one of Chaplin’s most popular comedies at the time, ideal fare for the holiday period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In The Rink, the Tramp transforms the environments he encounters. As a waiter, he is far from conventional, making absurd many of his regular duties. At the rink, he causes havoc while pursuing his own amusement—at one point Chaplin (as director) places Chaplin (as actor) in the background, merely surveying the chaos he has unleashed: he is the cause of it but he is not directly affected by any of it. He skates through the scene, flirting with danger (and with Edna), causing others to fall over or to suffer injury (Eric Campbell) and yet he emerges entirely unscathed, and seemingly unconcerned. He stays immaculate and upright, despite almost but not quite falling over on several occasions. It is only when he finally oversteps the mark by repeatedly bouncing on Mrs. Stout that those involve turn on the Tramp and chase him from the premises and into the street.

The Rink was Chaplin’s final film for 1916, a year in which he’d done much to consolidate his art, rehearsing, repeating, and improving upon everything he’d learned over the two previous years at Keystone and Essanay. He hadn’t quite managed to keep to his contract terms with Mutual to produce a new film every four weeks or so, and there were still four films outstanding. He would run the contract right through 1917 and slow down even further in his rate of productivity, producing four two-reelers over the next 10 months. However, he could be forgiven the indulgence as those four-reelers would comprise of Easy Street, The Cure, The Adventurer and The Immigrant, four of Chaplin’s best films to this point.Brian J. Robb

Remember to return to Chaplin: Film by Film on 22 January 2017 for our 100th anniversary coverage of East Street (22 January 1917)!

Charlie Says: ‘I’ll tell you why Mutual pays me $670,000 a year. It isn’t because I can amuse the American public alone, but because the same stuff that makes an American laugh also makes the Chinaman on the Yangtse rock himself out of his seat, or cause the Japanese audience in Tokyo or Kyoto to laugh vociferously, splits the visage of the Turk in Constantinople and gets the money that the Russian Moujik used to spend on vodka. In short, what we have discovered is the one touch of nature that makes the whole world kin … Once or twice I’ve tried to entertain audiences in a polite, restrained manner, the high class sort of thing, you know. I can’t say it was a huge success…’—New York Telegraph.

Trivia: In the winter of 1916, Mutual head John Freuler had a new idea to help promote Charlie Chaplin. He decreed that all Mutual vehicles would be fitted with new tires which would have embossed treads so that they wrote the name ‘Charlie Chaplin’ wherever they went, especially in the snow or dust of American roads. A newspaper reported that the ‘specially constructed non-skid tire will write the name Charlie Chaplin three times for each revolution. Between imprints of the name will be footprints, unmistakably those of the world’s champion foot-worker, these also being on the treads of the new tire.’ There is no actual evidence, however, that Frueler’s idea was ever actually implemented.

The Contemporary View: ‘There is plenty of fun provided by him [Chaplin] on the rollers and he displayed a surprising cleverness on them. A number of funny falls occurred as was looked for, with Charlie outshining and outwitting any of the others on the floor. When he couldn’t trip the “big guy” who was attempting to cop his girl, he used his old standby, the bamboo cane. All in all The Rink averages up well with the best work he has done for the Mutual.’—Variety, 1916

‘Chaplin at the rink is amusing enough, but such a vast amount of material is needed to keep a swift farce constantly on the move that this one opens up with the almost outworn business of an awkward waiter who creates almost endless confusion in both restaurant and kitchen…While Chaplin works hard and seems to stand the strain of being funny, an awful strain in its way, he is not given much new opportunity. A man of his resources could fit into hundreds of roles never before shown upon the screen, be even more amusing than he is and provide a greater variety of program.’—Louis Reeves Harrison, Moving Picture World, 1916

Verdict: A strangely divided confection, with two visits each to the restaurant and the skating rink, but it is redeemed by Chaplin’s skating antics.

Next: Easy Street (22 January 1917)

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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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Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

Behind the Screen (13 November 1916)

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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.

behind-the-screen-2It 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.

the-battle-of-the-centuryLaurel 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.

behind-the-screen-6In 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’.

behind-the-screen-10Perhaps 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.

behind-the-screen-3Chaplin’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.

behind-the-screen-9Perhaps 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.

behind-the-screen-4This 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.

Next: The Rink (4 December 1916)

Available Now!

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.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

The Pawnshop (2 October 1916)

the-pawnshop-9

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)

Available Now!

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.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.