The Immigrant (17 June 1917)

Immigrant 06

Release Date: 17 June 1917

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

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

Story: The Tramp’s arrival in the United States, where he finds love and heartbreak in equal measure…

Production: Charlie Chaplin’s penultimate film for Mutual sees him creatively stepping up a gear. The Immigrant is rightly acclaimed as one of Chaplin’s finest films from his Mutual period, but it is also a film that shows a maturation in his style, especially after the perhaps more inconsequential The Cure.

The starting point this time for Chaplin had been a plan to produce a ‘serio-comedy’ film about the nightlife of Paris and the people who inhabit it. ‘This theme offers scope for the sentimental touch which somehow always creeps into my stories,’ Chaplin told an interviewer at the time. ‘The trouble is to prevent that touch from smothering the comedy. There is so much pathos in the lives of all true bohemians that it is hard to lose sight of it even for a moment and the real spirit of that community is far too human and deeply respected by the world at large for me even to think of burlesquing it.’

Immigrant 04The original version of this film was to open in a restaurant where Charlie and Edna would be customers, with Eric Campbell inevitably cast in the role of an irascible waiter. Again, the discarded footage used in the Brownlow and Gill documentary series Unknown Chaplin clearly shows how Chaplin slowly but surely developed his material, almost in real time. Take after take, he’d slowly finds the story or the incident he wanted to portray, sometimes moving actors around from role to role until he found the right fit for each of his ‘rep company’ members. Initially, Campbell was absent and the Tramp’s dining partner wasn’t Edna but Albert Austin. It was only on take 46 that Austin exits and Edna enters, after about three days of shooting.

The addition of Campbell as a foil after a full week of shooting (replacing the original waiters, James T. Kelley and Henry Bergman) changes the tone of the piece, and it is surprising it took Chaplin a while to arrive at this idea, as it had worked so well (and recently) in so many previous films. The slow development of something approaching a plot (it is more a series of small events) comes when Chaplin decides that his Tramp does not have the funds to pay his bill. A series of comic developments sees him work his way out of this predicament, and in the process of shooting this sequence, Chaplin began to ask himself what had happened previously to bring the Tramp and Edna to this time and place.

As with Easy Street, Chaplin drew upon his own background as an immigrant to America to give his characters a possible backstory. Out of Chaplin’s slow burn filmmaking method developed the main thrust of this short, some distance from his rather more simple starting place. This layering of complexity over something initially rather simple would stay with Chaplin his entire creative life; he would develop the bigger themes of his films from a series of smaller incidents that would lead him to something larger and more meaningful.

Immigrant 01Unknown Chaplin reveals there were over 700 takes involved in making this film, about half set in and around the restaurant scenario that Chaplin started out with, and the other half focusing on life aboard the boat bringing the immigrants to the ‘new world’. The boat setting—something Chaplin had used to varying degrees of success before in such films as A Busy Day, The Rounders (a rowing boat!), Tillie’s Punctured Romance, By the Sea (a lifebelt, rather than a boat), and Shanghaied (Chaplin reused the rocking set idea he’d developed for that film on The Immigrant). He’d return to the theme almost immediately in The Adventurer, his final film for Mutual, and explore it further in A Day’s Pleasure, The Gold Rush, and in his final film as director, A Countess from Hong Kong.

During his Karno tours of America Chaplin had come to the country aboard the Cairnrona on his first trip in 1910, and then on board the Oceanic—having arrived in America for the second time he stayed, soon finding himself making his first films at Keystone in 1914. The immigrant experience was something close to Chaplin’s heart, and he saw an opportunity in exploring the origins of the Tramp and Edna in this film to explore the topic in greater depth. He immediately instructed his set designer Danny Hall to find a suitable vessel, and Hall soon hired a ‘tramp steamer’ registered at San Pedro at the cost of $1300 per day. It took 10 days before Chaplin got around to start shooting on the hired ship.

Immigrant 02Such was Chaplin’s production process that the opening scenes of The Immigrant were the last to be shot. Sea-sickness was clearly an irresistible comic topic for Chaplin, and he makes much play of the Tramp (and others’) uncomfortable voyage across the sea, although when we first see him and assume he is ill, he is only in the throws of wrestling with a captured fish. Amid the would-be immigrants to America are a variety of characters (and caricatures) that the Tramp falls foul of, among them Albert Austin’s unwell Russian, Henry Bergman in drag (again) as a peasant woman, and Loyal Underwood as his tiny husband. As the Statue of Liberty comes into view of the weary travellers, they are roped together like cattle in a far from welcoming gesture (in this moment, Chaplin managed to sneak some basic and subtle political commentary into the film—outtakes also see him rounding on recalcitrant extras with an unusual degree of directorial anger during shooting).

At the end of the undisciplined filming process on The Immigrant, Chaplin had around 40,000 feet of film to work with in order to produce a short that was supposed to be about 1,800 feet in length (he’d apparently shot a total of 90,000 feet of film, equivalent to D. W. Griffith’s 12-reel feature film Birth of a Nation). Chaplin was unusual at that time for indulging in multiple takes, especially on short films. As David Robinson notes, ‘More than two years after The Immigrant, D. W. Griffith made his ambitious Broken Blossoms practically without a second take. For a director like Griffith to shoot any scene more than once would have been an admission of inadequate rehearsal and error. For Chaplin it was an assertion that it was always possible to do better.’

Faced with a seemingly unmanageable mountain of material, Chaplin spent the better part of a whole week, day and night, working on assembling a working cut of The Immigrant. He refused to break off until the work was done in fear that he might lose sight of the bigger picture he was trying to achieve. The editing process involved Chaplin viewing the same scenes (or variations thereof) over and over again, often up to 40 or 50 times to ensure he used the right take, the best option. As ever, his perfectionist tendencies were at play here and the final editing of The Immigrant was a painstaking process.

Where The Cure might have been the funniest of Chaplin’s Mutual films, The Immigrant was perhaps the most serious or most poignant. There is much comedy in it, of course, but underlying the whole thing is the theme of immigration and the struggle to make a new life in a strange world, the risks involved in finding companionship, and the worries of making ends meet in the face of a hostile world. All this in a comedy short that runs for under half-an-hour.

Immigrant 03On board ship the Tramp meets Edna and her mother (Kitty Bradbury), only to lose them when the party finally reaches land. It is in the restaurant, searching for sustenance, that the Tramp finds Edna once again. A purely visual sequence indicates that Edna’s mother has died, and Chaplin plays the sympathetic friend well here. The comedy crashes back in with his inability to pay and his conflict with Campbell’s waiter. After that, he and Edna leave the restaurant into the pouring rain, heading to the marriage bureau to get hitched (where Chaplin’s then-new valet, Tom Harrington, plays the clerk). It is both triumphant and melancholy, as most of Chaplin’s films would be from here on.

The Immigrant was a quicker production than The Cure, taking just two months as Chaplin had hit upon the central conceit of the film relatively early in the process. Simon Louvish, writing in Chaplin: A Tramp’s Odyssey, notes that ‘whatever the convoluted and exhaustive process used to achieve his results, those results were now seamless [with The Immigrant and The Adventurer], as if they had been meticulously planned and structured in advance. The process was quite unique among film-makers, and revealing of the odd and singular nature of Chaplin’s intuition.’ Although Chaplin’s ‘process’ may appear rather hit-and-miss from the vantage point of 100 years later, it worked for him. He may not have exactly known what he was making while in the throws of filming, but when viewing the results of his efforts he seemed to have an eye for just the right shot needed to cement any given sequence.

Photoplay magazine hadn’t been the only source of a mild backlash against Chaplin, having criticized his outlandish salary (although the magazine ultimately concluded that his films made it just about worthwhile). During 1917, Charlie Chaplin ‘when he’s drunk’ was on a list of things that Minneapolis teachers and ministers objected to. Chaplin may have been happy to be among such ‘objectionable’ company as ‘uncensored Wild West films, thrillers, Theda Bara’. A Detroit pastor had already attacked Chaplin’s salary, claiming that ‘the fact that Charlie Chaplin now receives the largest salary of any man in the United States … is clear evidence of the enormous numbers of low-grade, unintelligent, shallow-minded men and women in the United States.’ It was clear in this case that attacking Chaplin was part of some larger, perhaps eugenics-infused agenda, although the same pastor attacked Mary Pickford before rounding on ‘the coarse, vulgar slapstick of Chaplin, which passes for humour with the witless and coarse-grained person of a low-order of intellect.’ Wow.

While huge audiences worldwide found Chaplin’s comedy highly humorous without exception, and without regard to their intelligence (or otherwise), elite critics with a platform (then and today) liked nothing more than to turn upon and castigate the popular, especially if it was popular with the ‘uneducated lower classes’, that is the mass of the population.

Perhaps some of this Chaplin backlash had come about due to America’s entry into the Great War in Europe in April 1917. Chaplin had already addressed his non-participation upon Britain’s declaration of war, three years earlier. Now the fact America had joined the conflict offered his critics another chance to have a go at the comedian who was happy to cash-in while his fellow countrymen fought and died in bleak fields in Europe to defend freedom. These criticisms would stick to Chaplin, despite his best efforts—he had already donated $150,000 of his Mutual salary to the British war effort in February 1917—and would sow the seeds that ultimately dogged the comedian through the 1940s and led to his self-exile in Europe in the 1950s.

Chaplin, though, had other more personal issues on his mind at this time—he was about to renegotiate his deal with Mutual or look elsewhere to pursue his filmmaking endeavours.—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘The Immigrant touched me more than any other film I made. I thought the end had quite a poetic feeling. Even in those early comedies I strove for a mood; usually music created it. An old song called Mrs. Grundy created the mood for The Immigrant. The tune had a wistful tenderness that suggested two lonely derelicts getting married on a doleful, rainy day.’—My Autobiography, 1964

Trivia: Publicity for The Immigrant put out by the distributors highlighted an incident that occurred during filming, and revealed exactly how Chaplin went about directing himself and others during the making of a picture. ‘If you have wondered how Charlie Chaplin manages to play the lead in a production and at the same time direct all the other people who are acting in the scene, here is the reason: he is a ventriloquist, but none of the members of his cast discovered it until a bean which refused to go down with a spoonful of others lodged in Chaplin’s windpipe during the filming of The Immigrant. Chaplin was working with Edna Purviance in the foreground. They were seated at a table busily eating beans. Quick action was in progress in the background, and the various characters moved about at the sound of the “assistant director’s” voice. Charlie hurled directions from the depth of his chest to every corner of the set. “Slap me on the back,” he shouted from the side of this mouth to Eric Campbell, the 300 pound heavy, and Eric did it. Like lava from a volcano almost a pint of beans shot forth from Charlie’s face. It was now time for him to bring in some excitement in the background, and, still laughing, he leaned back in his chair, drew in his breath and was about to ventriloquize when the fatal bean choked him! His secret was out—the mystery of the “assistant director” was solved to the satisfaction of the players.’

The Contemporary View: ‘There’s no two ways about it: Charlie Chaplin is funny. If, perchance, you are a grouch and resolutely set yourself in the mental attitude that you won’t be amused by his nonsensicalities, go to any theatre where The Immigrant is being shown and, in spite of yourself, you’ll be carried away by those about you. The surprising thing about it all is that nobody ever thought of placing him on board a ship as one of a load of immigrants. Now that it is brought to your attention, it is as obvious as the historical story of Columbus and the egg… The $670,000 a year funny man is still “there”. The extremely limited number of titles speak volumes for the pantomimic art of the comedian.’—Variety, 22 June 1917

‘[The Immigrant is] a transparent intermezzo well repaying the closest analysis. In its roughness and apparent simplicity it is as much a jewel as a story by O. Henry and no full-time farce seen on our stages in years has been more adroitly, more perfectly worked out. It has, to an extraordinary degree, those elements of surprise that are necessary in every play, and which put the capstone of humour on comedy, because they add to the ludicrousness, the deliciousness of the unexpected. His payment of the waiter with his friend’s change concludes what is without any doubt at all the longest variation on a single comedy incident put on screen—a variation worked out with such patience and skill that every sequence of action seems entirely natural and spontaneous.’—Photoplay, September 1917

Verdict: Perhaps the best of the Mutuals, The Immigrant is when Chaplin’s serious side began to shine.

Next: The Adventurer (22 October 1917)

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.

 

 

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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.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

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

Easy Street (22 January 1917)

easy-street-6

Release Date: 22 January 1917

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 23 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley, Henry Bergman

Story: The Tramp arrives on Easy Street, where a visit to the local Mission leads him to join the police and tackle the local bully (Eric Campbell) to restore order.

Production: During 1917 Charlie Chaplin would complete his contract with Mutual by producing four more films: Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant, and The Adventurer. To one degree or another, all four are widely regarded as being amongst Chaplin’s finest work.

For his first film of 1917, Chaplin turned to his own childhood experience, with a dash of the Karno sketch ‘Early Birds’ thrown in. The idea for a comedy set among the people of the slums had come to Chaplin while he was editing Behind the Screen, and he immediately commissioned the construction of one of his most elaborate sets yet. Easy Street would see the building of the first of several T-shaped street scenes (devised by set designer Danny Hall), within which his drama could play out. This one cost the studio about $10,000 to construct and was bigger than the elaborate set previously employed for the department store in The Floorwalker.

For Chaplin biographer David Robinson, this huge set ‘has the unmistakable look of South London’ (where Chaplin grew up in poverty). Wrote Robinson in 1985, ‘Even today, Methley Street, where Hannah Chaplin [Charlie’s mother] and her younger son lodged, between Hayward’s pickle factory and the slaughterhouse, presents the same arrested vista, the cross-bar of the “T” leading to the grimier mysteries on either side.’

According to Peter Ackroyd’s Chaplin biography, the comedian’s inspiration came from East Street in Walworth, where he believed he had been born. Quite why Chaplin should have been contemplating his urban origins in 1917 isn’t entirely clear. To this point, his Tramp persona had largely existed in the new American city (with the occasional rural outing). Now, he was journeying back beyond even the old Karno sketches that he’d recently drawn on for The Rink or in One A.M. to his own childhood experiences in turn-of-the-century London for inspiration.

easy-street-5Easy Street was one of Chaplin’s few Mutual outings in which he actually played a straightforward version of his Tramp character. His depiction in the opening minutes sees the Tramp at his most pathetic, curled up and destitute outside the Hope Mission. Lured inside by the sound of song, he witnesses a preacher’s sermon and is taken with the preacher’s daughter (Edna Purviance). Undergoing something of an instant transformation, the Tramp returns the collection box he’d stolen and hidden under his threadbare jacket. Easy Street was, as Robinson noted, ‘a comic parody of Victorian “reformation” melodramas’.

Chaplin takes things further than this simple story. Arriving on Easy Street, the now reformed Tramp comes upon a recruitment poster for the police and in an unlikely development, he quickly signs up. His move from wastrel to productive member of society (indeed, a figure of authority) is complete. Unfortunately he’s unaware of the high turn over of police officers in the area as they are ‘hauled away to the hospital hourly’, as John McCabe puts it in his Chaplin biography.

easy-street-2Now sporting a British policeman’s uniform that is naturally a size (or two!) too large for him (and with his helmet habitually on backwards), the Tramp returns to Easy Street, looking impose law and order on the unruly area which seems to be in a permanent condition of riot. Almost immediately he falls foul of the local bully, giant Eric Campbell, against whom a mere truncheon is ineffective. Rather than tackle the big fella himself, he puts in a call to the station for back up. Here, Chaplin once more engages in his comedy of transformation, trying to deceive Campbell by pretending the phone is in fact a musical instrument and then a telescope.

easy-street-10The most famous scenes of Easy Street involve Chaplin, Campbell and a street lamp. As the bully displays his strength by bending the lamp over, the Tramp manages to trap the bully’s head within the top of the lamp fitting and then uses the free-flowing gas supply to knock him out. The lampposts had proved problematic during the December 2016 shoot on Easy Street. They were made to be easy enough for Campbell to bend, but supposedly were strong enough to stand upright themselves. Instead, at least one of the lamps bent without any force being applied, only to hit Chaplin in the face, injuring his nose and delaying filming for a few days as he couldn’t wear his Tramp make-up and moustache (which a baby in the earlier mission scenes had previously grabbed off his face).

easy-street-3Simon Louvish, in his book Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, describes Chaplin’s lone cop as ‘all of Keystone rolled into one uniform’. It is his task to succeed where the rest of the force has failed, in taking down Campbell’s neighbourhood bully a peg or two. Of course, this capture is only temporary, as awakening in the police station Campbell’s force of nature soon breaks out, wrecking the station in the process. Chaplin’s policeman is only able to finally defeat the bully once and for all by dropping a cast iron stove on his head. He then has to rescue Edna from the hostile crowd, conjure up the strength when he accidentally sits upon a drug addicts needle, and—as Joyce Milton puts it in her book, Tramp—‘the cocaine cocktail works miracles’. It’s an odd development, out of keeping with the rest of the film.

Although Chaplin had slowed his production process quite a bit by 1917, certainly when compared to the breakneck pace at Keystone three years before, Mutual were anxious enough about the slow progress of Easy Street to issue a statement to the film trade. The delay was attributed to ‘the unusual character of the latest Charlie Chaplin production … involving so many big scenes which, while they appear to be “interiors” are exteriors, necessitating sun for their success.’ That winter had been unusually wet in California, making work on the open air Chaplin sets difficult at times. Chaplin, the Mutual statement went on, preferred ‘to delay completion of the comedy until conditions for its successful filming are perfect.’

Easy Street is one of the few Chaplin films to feature young children—in one scene where the Tramp policeman is dispensing food to impoverished children, he does it as though he were scattering grain to chickens. Much later, Chaplin explained to Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein that the scene communicated his own dislike of children. Eisenstein was reported to have not been surprised at this revelation: after all, he explained, the only people who do not like children are other children, thereby casually labelling Chaplin as either infantile or child-like. Another whom the comedian told of his dislike of children was English author Thomas Burke. Some felt this was because children may have intimidated the comedian. Chaplin saw in children his most astute critics, not yet cursed by self-awareness but attuned to detect insincerity on behalf of posturing adults. [See Trivia].

As he had done in the past, Easy Street saw Chaplin trying to perfect something he’d explored in a previous film. Chaplin had laid the groundwork for Easy Street in Police (belated released in May 1916 after he’d left Essanay; see Chaplin: A Centenary Celebration for full coverage), made between The Bank and A Night in the Show. At that same time, Chaplin had been working on a project tentatively titled Life (again, see Chaplin: A Centenary Celebration), a film he ultimately left incomplete, with Essanay incorporating some footage into Police (and Triple Trouble, 1918).

Life was both Charlie Chaplin’s first attempted feature film and his first abandoned project. It was also intended to be Chaplin’s first fusion of comedy and tragedy, a difficult mix he wouldn’t really get to grips with in any serious way until these later films at Mutual. Intended to address the serious issue of urban poverty, a pressing issue at the time, Chaplin conceived of a sharply satirical, yet serious film that would be feature-length and would examine the lives lead by those at the bottom of society: the down-and-outs, the drunks, the ne’er-do-wells, even the Tramps. This ambition would find further expression in Easy Street.

In Charlie Chaplin and His Times, author Kenneth S. Lynn notes of Life: ‘The flophouse nightmare came straight out of Chaplin’s childhood experience—but not in a direct way. … For marginal people who have experienced status loss, there is always the fear of the abyss beneath them, as well as a compulsion to keep up appearances, to dress respectably, to speak properly. … In the Life fragments, the satirical savagery of Chaplin’s presentation of the poor devils in a squalid flophouse leaves little doubt that he had a horror of such people.’

easy-street-1Chaplin combined this with the idea of him playing a policeman, lifting the focus on law and order from 1916’s Police. Full of social commentary, Police was an indicator of the kind of depth Chaplin would bring to his work at Mutual. The combination of the examination of impoverished lives planned for Life with the role of the authority figure of the policeman from Police is what makes Easy Street so memorable among Chaplin’s Mutual output. The contrast between his slight figure of law and order with Campbell’s giant of an anarchic bully, together with the iconic location and setting, make for a more memorable short than most.

easy-street-9Nonetheless, there is a moral ambiguity in Chaplin’s figure of triumphant authority. He is ‘converted’ from outlaw Tramp to productive citizen by his visit to the Hope Mission, as much by the beauty of Edna Purviance as anything the minister might impart. Once he resolves to join the police, he moves from lawbreaker to enforcer, although he carries out his duties within his own moral framework. Rather than arresting a woman who steals bread, he helps her (by stealing more supplies) after hearing her story of impoverishment (on the other hand, he arrests a man who simply laughs at his outsized uniform). He follows in the path Edna laid before him, one of bringing relief and aid to others. That, as much as anything else, motivates his drive to rescue her from ruffians at the climax.

In a curious way, Easy Street looks forward to The Pilgrim (First National, February 1923). Where both Easy Street’s predecessor Police and this film feature sanctimonious preachers whose words help move Chaplin’s Tramp in the ‘right’ direction, by the time of The Pilgrim, he himself has become the preacher figure (albeit in disguise), imparting wisdom to others. It was perhaps based upon a transformation Chaplin himself had undergone, during his time in the United States, from inexperienced newcomer to global superstar, able to dictate his own destiny.

Given that Chaplin is often accused of sentimentality in his filmmaking (something that increased over time), it is perhaps surprising how unsentimental is the depiction of the poor and impoverished in Easy Street. Perhaps this comes from the ‘Early Bird’ Karno sketch upon which Chaplin was drawing, with its depiction of ‘the gruesome jollity of English poverty, wretchedness and crime’. The sketch even included the central conflict of Easy Street between the youthful defender of the street’s put-upon inhabitants and ‘the brutal, remorseless “rough”’ who is ultimately tamed by the use of a table as a weapon (in the original sketch, an oven in Easy Street).

bfi-5The entire film can be read as a kind of wish fulfilment for Chaplin, the (albeit on screen) realisation of a dream he had harboured since his own impoverished childhood. Chaplin’s brave cop is the one to restore order to the lawless streets, turning even Campbell’s bully and his wife into productive, well-behaved members of wider society. It is the triumph of order over chaos, of control over anarchy. This is not the creed of the Tramp, who spreads chaos wherever he goes, but of Easy Street’s reformed cop, who bests the bully and (in the spirit of Victorian charity) distributes food to needy children. It is an oddly different take on things than Chaplin normally presented in his comedy. At the end, a final title card proclaims: ‘Love backed by force, forgiveness sweet / Brings hope and peace, to Easy Street’. The question is whether this was Chaplin’s message, or simply the one he thought his audience expected to hear, especially during a time of war.—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘If there is one human type more than any other that the whole wide world has it in for, it is the policeman type. Of course, the policeman isn’t really to blame for the public prejudice against his uniform—it’s just the natural human revulsion against any sort of authority. Just the same, everybody loves to see the “copper” get it where the chicken got the axe. … The natural supposition is that the policeman is going to get the worst of it and there is intense interest in how I am to come out of my apparently unequal combat with “bully” Campbell.’

Trivia: Chaplin admitted to an uneasiness working with (or even simply being around) children, but this didn’t stop him (or his studio publicist) from using them to promote the movie. A statement was issued to the press that highlighted the fact that Chaplin did not like to see children being exploited by being put to work, even if it was by him at his studio. He’d seen enough of such things during his London childhood. Therefore, according to the reports, he instructed the children working on Easy Street to ‘play your favourite games. I will pay you for playing, not working.’ He later explained more in an interview, highlighting his own childhood experiences and recounting how at the age of six the poor financial and physical situation of his mother forced him onto the variety stage. The report noted that ‘conditions were not so favourable then as now, and Charlie looks back with horror on the late hours he had to keep to earn just a few shillings weekly.’

The Contemporary View: ‘In Easy Street, Charlie Chaplin supplies the Mutual [sic] with the two reeler that is almost a month late in release, but, it is said, from the fact that a lamp-post fell and marred the nose of the comic, forcing him to “lay off” for two weeks. There is a lamp-post used in Easy Street, and in the action it is bent and broken so that the alibi for the delay seems correct. Perhaps for the first time since he started with Mutual. Chaplin portrays a policeman … the resultant chaos and the several new stunts will be bound to bring the laughter and the star’s display of agility and acrobatics approaches some of the Doug Fairbanks pranks. Chaplin has always been throwing things in his films, but when he “eases” a cook stove out of the window onto the head of his adversary, on the street below, that pleasant little bouquet adds a new act to his repertory. Easy Street certainly has some rough work in it—maybe a bit rougher than the others—but it is the kind of stuff that Chaplin fans love. In fact, few who see Easy Street will fail to be furnished with hearty laughter.’—Variety, 2 February 1917

‘In Easy Street, Charlie Chaplin’s latest and best, if we may venture to obtrude so decided an opinion, an original key has been struck. At any rate, it is Chaplin at his funniest; and nothing much more entertaining, by way of comedy, could be imagined than his adventures with the street bully, when on occasion he has been placed on patrol duty in wild and woolly Easy Street, after having changed his profession from tramp to policeman. … With all this excellence of entertaining quality, the picture presented a couple of points which would require elimination. One of these occurs in the suggestive handling of an overturned baby’s bottle in one of the scenes in the East Street mission, and the other where the dope fiend makes too free use of the needle in one of the Easy Street tenements.’—Moving Picture World, 17 February 1917

Verdict: One of Chaplin’s most memorable outings, as much for the clash between his diminutive policeman and Eric Campbell’s outsized bully.

Next: The Cure (16 April 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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The Count (4 September 1916)

Count3

Release Date: 4 September 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Charlotte Mineau, Leo White, Albert Austin, John Rand, James T. Kelley, Frank J. Coleman

Story: Both a tailor (Campbell) and his assistant (Chaplin) crash the extravagant party of ‘Miss Moneybags’ (Purviance) in the guise of the missing Count Broko, who then arrives in the shape of Leo White…

Production: Following the radical departure of One A.M., a virtual solo turn from Charlie Chaplin, the comedian was back on more familiar ground with his September 1916 release, The Count. Recalling films such as A Jitney Elopement, and playing off a staple of silent comedies of the time, The Count is a mistaken identity tale in which Chaplin’s Tramp impersonates the title character, a faux member of the aristocracy.

Count6Here the Tramp is found working as a tailor’s assistant, only to be drawn into the tailor’s masquerade as a would-be Count. Chaplin’s now regular foil Eric Campbell played the extravagantly bearded tailor who attends a party thrown by the object of his affections, Edna Purviance’s ‘Miss Moneybags’. To impress her, the tailor pretends to be better off financially and socially than he really is. The Tramp is at the same party, initially attempting to woo the cook in the face of competition from the forces of law and order. The pair of tailors encounter one another, of course, and after a brief period of co-operation, they find themselves in competition for the attentions of ‘Miss Moneybags’. The Tramp is mistakenly introduced as the Count, while Campbell is indicated to be his secretary, when the plan the pair hatched was supposed to be the other way around. The subterfuge only works as it is a fancy dress ball.

In Eric Campbell Chaplin had found the perfect authority figure. Not only did his physical size connote wealth and prosperity, but his beard was also seen as a symbol of the ruling class, the rich in opposition to the Tramp’s representation of the poor. Chaplin’s physical response to this stimulus was to repeatedly pull on poor Campbell’s beard (whether fake or not, it can’t have been pleasant), thus giving visual life to the idea of poking fun at authority, or as Simon Louvish puts it in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey: ‘…the spectacle of the “great and the good” having their whisker’s pulled…’

Count5Campbell was to suffer mightily at the hands, fists and feet of Chaplin in order that he should pay the price of being the on-screen representative of cruel wealth or privilege. As well as tugging on his chin whiskers, Chaplin would often give Campbell several swift kicks up the backside, not-so-innocently stamp on his already sore foot and kick the poor fellow in his ample stomach: he even got to drive off the edge of a Los Angeles pier and into the water. Louvish highlights Campbell’s impressive ability to present himself as a ‘cartoon character’ as part of the success of The Count and several of the other Mutual shorts.

Thankfully, Chaplin’s developing approach to his art can be visually chronicled during this period as many of the discarded out-takes from The Count have survived (despite Chaplin’s insistence that they be destroyed). It is clear from this material that Chaplin largely shot his work in story order, from a rough outline he’d developed. ‘Sometimes a story would present a problem,’ wrote Chaplin in My Autobiography (1964). ‘I would have difficulty in solving it. At that juncture I would lay off work and try to think, striding up and down my dressing room in torment or sitting for hours at the back of a set, struggling with the problem. Sometimes the solution came at the end of the day when I was in a state of despair, having thought of everything and discarded it; then the solution would suddenly reveal itself … the beautiful mosaic I had been looking for!’

The existence of several excised sequences with low shot numbers suggests that Chaplin had originally intended to begin the film as a ‘comedy of below stairs intrigue’, according to Chaplin biographer David Robinson. Featured in the deleted footage are the characters of a butler and a policeman who are hardly to be seen in the completed version of The Count.

Following his dalliance with this plot, the shot number progressions suggest that Chaplin moved on to his aristocratic impersonation plot, seen not only in A Jitney Elopement, but in various forms in Caught in a Cabaret and Her Friend the Bandit. The finished movie’s opening scene in the tailor’s shop seems to have been a late addition to establish the connection between those characters (around whom the finished film revolves), at least according to the shot numbers. It is likely that the original opening for the film was the Tramp’s arrival at the Moneybags’ residence, which now follows his firing by the tailor. David Robinson points out a gem of a scene lost from The Count (pictured above): ‘Charlie sits cross-legged, industriously sewing a garment, only to discover that he has firmly attached it to his own trousers.’

Documentary filmmaker Kevin Brownlow revealed some of the rediscovered Chaplin outtakes in the notable British television series Unknown Chaplin (1983). He notes in his book The Search for Charlie Chaplin that very little of this material showed that Chaplin had rejected the footage on technical grounds, but always as the result of a creative choice. Some of the material was made up of filmed rehearsals, such as those for City Lights (1936), in which Chaplin worked out bits of business that he could then review later by watching the resulting film. Brownlow noted: ‘There is nothing like this in the Mutuals. But in one shot from The Count (included in Programme 1) Chaplin leaps into the arms of a cook. In doing so, he moves the kitchen table. While continuing the scene, he pulls the table back into position.’

Count9With The Count, Chaplin’s director of photography Rollie Totheroh continued to innovate in moving the camera during comedy sequences, especially in the way it follows a pair of dancing couples in the ballroom scenes. While Chaplin was not yet fully engaged in the kind of things he could do specifically with the camera, he was—under Totheroh’s guidance—beginning to think more about how he could use its unique properties in his comedy filmmaking, short of classic film tricks. There was plenty of material to work with: for the Mutual shorts which would each be completed at around 1800 feet in length, sometimes as much as 30 to 90 thousand feet of film could be exposed in search of the right comedy moments.

In The Seven Lively Arts (1924), cultural critic Gilbert Seldes celebrated the climax of The Count as an example of Chaplin’s growing tendency to move away from the improvised chaotic comedy of Keystone and Essanay in his Mutual films, towards a more studied form of comedy that nonetheless came across to the film viewers as being spontaneous. ‘[Charlie] is fleeing pell-mell through every room in the house; the whole movement grows tense; the rate of acceleration perceptively heightens as Charlie slides in front of a vast birthday cake, pivots on his heel, and begins to play alternate pool and golf with the frosting, making every shot count like a machine gunner barricaded in a pillbox or a bandit in a deserted cabin. It was foreordained that the improvised kind of comedy should give way to something more calculated … for a long time [Chaplin] continued to give the effect of [the] impromptu…’

Unlike One A.M., The Count boasts a variety of settings, from the tailor’s shop to the kitchen set and, biggest of all, the home of the very rich ‘Miss Moneybags’ that features its own ballroom. One scene from this location, in which Chaplin kicks another character while continuing to cut a dash on the dance floor, was reportedly subject to three weeks of intense filming until the creator felt he’d got what he was looking for. The scene was accompanied by live music from a hired-in orchestra who played on endless repeat, and who were presumably happy to take advantage of Chaplin’s (and Mutual’s) largesse. This dance sequence was certainly the focus of Chaplin’s time and attention during the production of The Count. A former colleague from Chaplin’s music hall days, Chester Courtney, worked on the scene and recalled in an 1931 issue of Film Weekly that the hired orchestra were repeatedly playing They Call it Dixieland.

In One A.M., Chaplin’s athletic grace is once more on display during this extended scene. His sliding around and repeated performance of ‘the splits’ is topped off by the moment when he hooks his cane to a chandelier in order to right himself once more. It’s an inventive little throwaway moment, but the kind of visual gag that marked Chaplin out: who knows how many takes it took until he achieved that ‘just so’ moment to his own satisfaction?

Count7As before in these types of comedy, Chaplin’s playing as entitled sees him forgiven all his bad behaviour as long as the others at the party think he is ‘one of them’. As soon as that masquerade is exposed, the same behaviour is an excuse for reprisal. This was Chaplin’s way of highlighting the iniquities in early 20th century American society as he saw it as something of an outsider. His terrible table manners (especially in his eating of a huge slice of watermelon), awful treatment of his fellow guests, and his unbridled pursuit of ‘Miss Moneybags’ are all forgiven thanks to his perceived status, with the worst on offer being ‘disapproving looks’ according to Joyce Milton in Tramp. Milton suggests that this reflected Chaplin’s real-life growing status in LA society: he was within them but not really one of them. In fact, Chaplin saw his association thanks to his fame with those better educated and accomplished than him as an opportunity. According to Milton he ‘more or less consciously used them as mentors in a programme of self-improvement’.

In The Art of Charlie Chaplin, John Kimber calls The Count ‘a masterful demonstration of Charlie’s benignly disruptive foreignness’, a film that explores Chaplin’s ‘comedy of incomprehension’ while revealing the clown’s ‘evident pleasure in his own creative flights of fancy’. Against a perhaps overly familiar backdrop and amidst a host of very familiar characters and comic archetypes, Chaplin nonetheless manages to develop some original comic business thus making this kind of tale one worth retelling, especially as his filmmaking style had advanced markedly since those earlier ‘imposture’ shorts from his earlier knockabout days.

There’s a developing maturity to Chaplin’s comedy, and his characters, through the series of Mutual shorts that was largely absent from his Keystone and Essanay periods (with a few notable exceptions such as The Tramp).—Brian J. Robb

Charlie Says: ‘Why should a man exert himself needlessly [with exercise]? Don’t I go to work every morning with my dinner pail, like a stevedore? Why should I swing dumbells when I have to throw people around so as to break things with them every day? And as for hanging [on] to swinging bars, I call a chandelier my second home. I love walking. I walk in crowds, downtown, and think out my plots. People are so sad and so funny, so pathetic and so absurd. I like to frequent parks and cafeterias and other places where crowds go.’—Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 1916

Trivia: A real tailors shop—J. Dronjensky Ladies Tailors on Santa Monica Boulevard—was used as the location for the beginning of The Count. As with some of Chaplin’s earliest ‘on location’ films, the reflection of the watching crowd can be seen in the window of the store, as pointed out by location hunter extraordinaire John Bengtson. In his book Silent Traces, Bengtson reveals the location has now been replaced by an ‘All Mart’ store, part of a larger strip mall. That’s progress.

The Contemporary View: ‘Charlie Chaplin, millionaire movie man who cavorts for your pleasure if you have a dime, ambled into view as a bogus count today and raised peels of laughter from the loop to the limits … All of which is sufficient to indicate that Charles is back with some of his old time slapstick work that will chase the blues and make you forget to speculate on the probable length of the war.’—Chicago Daily News, September 1916

Verdict: A simple tale, simply told, but fun.

Next: The Pawnshop (2 October 1916)

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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.

One A.M. (7 August 1916)

1916 02 One AM

Release Date: 7 August 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 27 mins

With: Albert Austin

Story: A confused drunk attempts to make his way around his home…

Production: The ultimate showcase, One A.M. features a more or less solo performance from Charlie Chaplin for the entire 27 minute running time, excepting Albert Austin’s brief appearance as a taxi driver. It was a performance that Chaplin had been preparing for almost his entire life—and he’s not even playing his iconic Tramp character.

1916 05 One AMOne A.M. features Chaplin as a drunken toff or swell, reprising a part he knew well from his days as a member of the Karno troupe. One of his signature vaudeville roles was that of the drunk, a character he’d often observed in real life, including his father and those he saw in the streets of London during his impoverished childhood. It was a role that existed before Chaplin joined Karno, but the young, very physical comedian proved to be the most adept at performing it in the Mumming Birds sketch.

According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography Charlie Chaplin, it has been calculated that Chaplin falls over a total of 46 times during this short. The general impression of watching the film suggested this is probably correct, or at least in the right ballpark! One A.M. features the kind of slapstick comedy that Chaplin’s audiences, who had followed him from Keystone to Essanay and now to Mutual had come to expect—what they perhaps were not prepared for was the level or pathos and depth of character that the silent superstar now wove around his character.

1916 07 One AMThis film sees the apotheosis of Chaplin’s battles with inanimate objects. From the moment the drunk arrives home, he is confounded by attempts to get past his own front door. Once inside, things don’t get any better for him. Among the objects the drunk does battle with are a rug which messes with his already unsteady footing, a table that revolves putting a whisky refill forever outwith his reach, stuffed felines that trap his foot in their jaws, a folding bed that all but swallows him up, a staircase which he falls down and up, and—in a fitting finale—the pendulum of a grandfather clock.

This fallabout stuff was all very pleasing to a mass audience, but there was more than just slapstick going on in One A.M. Chaplin was studying the work of other filmmakers in 1916 and learning from them, particularly from his personal favourite, D.W. Griffith. There was more that could be done with movies and in particular by moving the camera than had ever been achieved in his two years at Keystone and Essanay, two studios where any kind of experimentation that might slow the volume of production was heavily frowned upon.

Working with his cameraman Rollie Totheroh, Chaplin set out with One A.M. to explore some of these possibilities. How the camera was used, whether to shoot long shots, medium shots or close ups, and how these elements were cut together would be key to a successful film. Chaplin could see this in the abstract, but achieving it while still entertaining his audience was a larger challenge. Without other actors to focus upon (thus requiring many more wide shots), Chaplin decided to feature only himself, allowing for greater flexibility in the presentation of his comedy ‘business’.

1916 04 One AMFreed from having to feature and interact with others, Chaplin saw his opportunity to have the camera follow him more closely, giving him ample opportunity to interact—to an extent he had never achieved before—with inanimate props, thereby bringing them to life. These obstacles to his simple intention (the drunk wants to get to bed) are all common (at least in 1916) items, but the way the drunk interacts with them gives them a kind of abstract malevolence: these household objects are out to thwart the drunk’s ambition, however simple it might be.

The comedy comes in the drunk’s refusal to be beaten, while all the time attempting to maintain a kind of dignity supposedly suitable to his position in life: it is evident from the items in the house that this man (although played by Chaplin, complete with signature moustache) is no Tramp, he is in fact a man of the world, someone who has achieved much, and going by the décor perhaps an explorer.

Although his aim was to make people laugh, Chaplin was serious about his comedy. In an interview from 1916 with the New York Telegraph, he had outlined his developing ‘psychology of comedy’. ‘Making fun is a serious business,’ Chaplin told the newspaper. ‘It calls for the deepest study, the most concentrated observation. […] Did you ever see what happens when a policeman in uniform slips on a greasy street and takes a tumble? The policeman’s uniform and his club are symbols of his authority. When he slips […] the crowd shrieks with laughter. Why? Well, even good people have a sneaking dislike for a cop. […] There is fun in striking contrasts. One minute there is a picture of pride and dignity […] if I hook that chap with the crook of my cane, drag him almost off his feet […] the audience shrieks with laughter.’

A couple of years later, in 1918, Chaplin expanded upon these ideas in a piece in the American Magazine that was attributed to him, but was probably ghostwritten or the result of a transcribed interview. Chaplin says: ‘Even funnier than the man who has been made ridiculous […] is the man who, having had something funny happen to him, refuses to admit that anything out of the way has happened, and attempts to maintain his dignity. Perhaps the best example is the intoxicated man who, though his tongue and his walk give him away, attempts in a dignified manner to convince you that he is quite sober […] this attempt at dignity is funny.’

Chaplin biographer John McCabe thought that One A.M. was ‘the cleverest and conceivably the funniest film Chaplin made for Mutual’. He points out that the film reverses philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of comedy, which is ‘the mechanical imposed on the living’ (which certainly applies to some aspects of Chaplin’s later feature Modern Times, 1936). Here, the comedy comes from ‘the living’ (Chaplin’s drunk) attempting to navigate his way around the inanimate obstructions of home (the ‘mechanical’ in Bergson’s conception).

It is a great testimony to Chaplin’s highly developed skills in mime that he is able to pull this off. At no time does it appear on film as if Chaplin (the performer) is manipulating the props (as is actually happening). Instead, it appears as if the rugs, carpets, tables, stairs, clocks and beds are all independently acting to thwart him: they move to ensnare him, he does not align himself to be snared by them (as he is actually doing). Surviving outtakes (which Chaplin had ordered destroyed) reveal the preparation, work and simple repetition that went into achieving the effect: a simple slide on a rug or mat would be repeated and repeated until the perfectionist Chaplin was happy with the effect or effortlessness. The suspension of disbelief is perfectly maintained: this poor man is having a terrible night, trying to achieve the most innocent of aims, but is thwarted at every turn by the very objects he had chosen to surround himself with. Is this all a punishment for his being drunk? Is it a form of revenge by the world upon a man who would indulge himself to excess? Could this film really be a comic commentary on the misuses of alcohol?

1916 01 One AM

The result might seem like Andre Bazin’s concept of ‘filmed theatre’, but Chaplin and Totheroh keep the camera moving, especially up-and-down the stairs, rather than cutting to offering viewpoints of the action that would not have been possible if shooting was simply restricted to ‘through the proscenium arch’ style work that was all too prevalent at the time in comic cinema. In some ways, it could be argued that the drunk’s experience of the house is something of a psychological ordeal. Things start off ordinarily enough, but as time goes on the obstacles in his way become ever more outlandish, weirdly surreal and offbeat. The front door, tables and stairs are all recognisable, but with the animal rugs, the larger-than-life clock and—finally—the man-eating fold-up bed, things just get weird. Is that because we’re actually seeing things through the drunken haze of the sole on-screen character’s unique perception? No wonder he ends things in the bathtub where he can sleep this bender off…

One reason that Chaplin might have embarked upon a film so limited in setting and cast like One A.M. could be that it was in response to budget overages on one of his previous shorts, The Fireman (1916). While it often seemed like money was no object to Mutual (given the enormous cost in signing Chaplin in the first place, and the establishment of his own studio, Lone Star Studio), they were actually as budget conscious on individual films as any other studio of the time. Restricting the cast to one (and a brief cameo) and the setting to one easily-built and easily-controlled set kept the costs down, but it was also a trigger for Chaplin’s filmic imagination. The challenged to come up with almost 30-minutes of engaging comedy from one man in one location would have been too much of a challenge for Chaplin to resist. So, while cost may have been the initial motivation, it was Chaplin’s own filmmaking sensibilities that truly gave rise to One A.M., one of his best ever shorts. Photoplayers Weekly, in July 1916, said of Chaplin: ‘If any man could appear absolutely alone and hold attention for two whole reels, he believed he could do it’.

1916 03 One AMHowever, Chaplin would come to view One A.M. as something of a misstep, at least as far as pleasing his audience went. Chaplin biographer David Robinson wrote of the short: ‘One A.M. was a daring display of virtuosity, so daring that Chaplin afterward confided to his collaborators: “One more like that and it’s goodbye Charlie.”’ It is unclear exactly what Chaplin felt he’d done wrong with One A.M. Was he concerned about the toll that the solo performance had taken on him, or did he worry that his audience would not be satisfied seeing him on his own more than once? Did he feel that his use of a moving camera (more in One A.M. than in any previous short) would be disturbing to filmgoers who were simply more comfortably with the locked-off camera of so many much simpler comedies? Was he worried he was pushing boundaries too far, both in terms of content and technique? Maybe we’ll never really know. However, one thing is clear: apart from isolated sections in later shorts and features this was really the only solo outing for Chaplin.

Writing in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film critic David Thomson noted that “The worldwide appeal of Chaplin, and his persistent handicap, have lain in the extent to which he always lived in a realm of his own: that of delirious egotism. Is there a more typical or revealing piece of classic Chaplin than One A.M. (or ‘I AM’), in which he exists in virtuoso isolation […] executing every variation on the drunk-coming-home theme? It is like a dancer at the bar, confronting himself in a mirror.’

One-AM-1916-film-images-165bded3-2467-4f95-8860-9450f13b47d

Perhaps that’s it, maybe Chaplin felt he was revealing too much of himself in One A.M., too much of his true inner being? After all, he was worried that he might inherit his father’s alcoholism and failure to make anything of himself, despite everything he had achieved in just over two years in filmmaking. That success itself was a threat to Chaplin, to his sense of himself. He was now rich, thanks to the Mutual deal, beyond his wildest imagination, yet he tried his best to not let the money (and so lifestyle) now available to him change him in anyway. In fact, he went out of his way not to spend; to not change anything fundamentally in his life, for fear that it might affect his comedy. His solution, his distraction, was to throw himself into the work, to focus on his comedy and on his filmmaking and ignore (at least for now) what he could make of his life thanks to his newfound riches. He told writer and early Hollywood historian Terry Ramsaye that he had no intention of buying anything beyond ‘a dozen neckties’, and he pretty much stuck to that promise. According to Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton, Chaplin’s entire expenditure during 1915 had been less than $500 and ‘during the first six months after signing with Mutual [in March 1916], he continued to live in the same modest style.’ It wasn’t a state of affairs that could—or should—last forever.—Brian J. Robb

1916 06 One AMCharlie Says: ‘My ambition, when I started picture work, was to make enough money, some time, so that I might retire with the knowledge that I had enough to ensure me a $25-a-week income for the rest of my life. I was sure, then, that I would be satisfied and happy with that. My first contract with the Keystone company was for $175-per-week. I showed it to everybody I knew, and inwardly quaked with the fear that I would never be able to fool them into paying me that much for more than a few weeks…’—Mabel Condon, Picture Play Magazine, December 1916.

‘One A.M. was unusual for me. It was a solo act which took place in a very restricted space: an exercise in mime and technical virtuosity, with no plot or secondary characters. I arrive home drunk early one morning to find everything in the house against me.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Life in Pictures (1974).

Trivia: Although he was not a big drinker himself (especially give the death of his alcoholic father at the age of 37), Chaplin excelled at playing drunks. The Karno farce Mumming Birds—in which he first learned his trade—was filmed as A Night in the Show (1915). The Tramp is seen to drink in many films, but those in which he’s full-on drunk include The Rounders (1914, with Fatty Arbuckle), A Night Out (1915, with Ben Turpin), and The Face on the Bar Room Floor (1915).

The Contemporary View: ‘As a matter of single-handed time-trifling and one-man farce-juggling, Chaplin’s performance in One A.M. is of course the current record. No other human could detain an audience as Chaplin does through two quite full reels of solo performance in an interior set. Charlie’s feat is like that of some great vaudevillian […] congratulations Mr. Chaplin on speaking your piece so nicely, but—come on back, Edna!’— Julian Johnson, Photoplay, 1916.

Verdict: What might be lost by not seeing Chaplin interacting with co-stars is more than made up for by his display of imaginative physical comic dexterity.

Next: The Count (4 September 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 Vagabond (10 July 1916)

1916 05 The Vagabond

Release Date: 10 July 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 26 mins

With: Edna Purviance, Lloyd Bacon, Charlotte Mineau, Eric Campbell, Leo White, John Rand, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley

Story: The Tramp, an itinerant musician, rescues a girl (Edna Purviance) from gypsies, but romantic complications ensue.

Production: Charlie Chaplin found his feet at Mutual in the spring of 1916 consolidating his slapstick-driven filmmaking skills with The Floorwalker and The Fireman. With the arrival of summer, he turned his attention to further deepening the character of the Little Tramp in The Vagabond, a short that called back to his break-through Essanay film, The Tramp (1915).

Combining genuine romance and pathos with the traditional slapstick runaround, The Vagabond sees Chaplin play the Tramp as an itinerant musician, playing his violin in bars hoping to earn a few coins to buy a crust of bread. This was the first time that Chaplin featured his violin on screen: playing it had become something of an all-consuming hobby for the comic when he wasn’t making films. Simon Louvish, in Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, quotes a press report from May 1916 that Chaplin’s ‘chief hobby is found in his violin. Every spare moment away from the studio is devoted to this instrument. He does not play from notes [sheet music] excepting in a very few instances. He can run through selections of popular operas by ear and, if in the humour, he can rattle off the famous Irish jig or some negro [sic] selection with the ease of a vaudeville entertainer.’

So well known is Chaplin’s persona by this stage, after two years of fame, that he feels confident audiences will recognise him from a view of his battered boots alone. The Vagabond opens with a shot of Chaplin’s feet, as he stands outside a saloon door, gathering the courage to enter and attempt to entertain the probably inebriated patrons. When he does strike up (playing left-handed, it is worth noting), he discovers he has competition in the shape of a four-man brass band and drummer combination that all but drown out his soulful violin. Wiley as he is, though, the Tramp manages to make it around the patrons with his hat out collecting tips before the band conductor (Albert Austin) can do the same, thus beating them to the meagre rewards on offer. Needless to say, Keystone-style chaos kicks off as the participants in this farce chase one another around the bar room, in and out of the swing doors (those eternal Chaplin inanimate antagonists). The brilliant conclusion to this opening sequence sees the Tramp momentarily escape the chaos, find the wherewithal to pour himself a calming drink at the bar, and then escape the scene unscathed and unnoticed by the others. It’s a great set-up, but it could fit into almost any Chaplin short of this period: the best of The Vagabond is yet to come.

1916 03 The VagabondThe scene switches to explore the plight of the ‘gypsy drudge’ (Edna Purviance), a young woman seemingly stolen in childhood and now forced to toil for a gypsy community or feel the wrath of Eric Campbell’s whip hand. Although a cliché of silent movies, the use of gypsy tropes so easily here by Chaplin is a little odd, especially given his own later-expressed desire to have been part of such a community. It is probably no more than easy, melodramatic shorthand, but it still looks slightly dodgy and unthinking to modern eyes. The villainous gypsy was a key figure in early motion pictures, including in D. W. Griffith’s (a filmmaking pioneer much admired by Chaplin) The Adventures of Dolly (1908) and in British director Lewin Fitzhamon’s early film Rescued by Rover (1905). Chaplin was simply buying into the implied ethnic shorthand of the day, and presumably saw no harm as he fancied himself to be part-gypsy anyway.

The set-up for what is likely to happen next is clear. The Tramp enters, wandering down a country road (it would have been easy for the short to have begun here, but perhaps Chaplin didn’t feel entirely confidant in dispensing with the slapstick shenanigans of the opening altogether, at least not yet). He spies the crying ‘drudge’ and again plays his violin in an attempt to cheer her up, before falling into the wash tub. Soon, he’s in a full-on conflict with Campbell’s gypsy chief and his gang, liberating Edna in the process.

1916 02 The VagabondThere follows a romantic idyll as the pair get to know each other, the Tramp brushes out her tangled hair, and washes her face clean. It’s an intimate, touching scene, the likes of which Chaplin would further develop in subsequent films. Their new life is interrupted, however, with the arrival of a travelling artist (Lloyd Bacon) who is struck with inspiration in Edna’s beauty. Fickle as she seems, Edna is soon making googly eyes at the newcomer, breaking the Tramp’s heart in the process. A close-up of Chaplin’s lovelorn face is all that is needed to convey what a largely redundant intertitle also explains: ‘His romance fading’.

Trying to recover his love’s attention, the Tramp tries his hand at illustration, rather unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, the artist exhibits his painting complete with Edna’s distinctive birthmark, the result of which soon sees her reunited with her long lost family. Initially it appears there is no place in the recreated family unit for the Tramp, but determined to end things on a happy note, Chaplin has Edna have a last minute change of heart, returning to pick him up and take him with them onwards to a new life.

1916 04 The VagabondMore so than in The Tramp (which served as a model for The Vagabond), Chaplin manages to combine the fun of the opening bar-set sequence with what is more-or-less a straightforward melodrama tinged with moments of slapstick humour in the film’s second section. The romance is played straight, with only the Tramp’s occasional clumsy moments or attempts at misdirection providing the laughs. The gags all work, but almost more importantly at this point in his developing career, the straight (melo)drama works too. In the essentially good-hearted but unlucky figure of the Tramp, as he would play it from now on, Chaplin had finally moved on from the violent, cheeky imp of his Keystone and Essanay days. There was more depth and more emotion to the iconic figure now, and that gave him a whole new appeal to his ever-growing audience.

The Vagabond signalled an important development in Chaplin’s art. Elements seen here for the first time would inform later further developed routines in Chaplin’s mature features, especially in The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and Limelight (1952). Never one to throw away a gag or a sequence he knew worked with an audience, Chaplin would mentally file away anything he saw as being a hit and find a way to reuse it later, often taking it further than before, in a more extensive project. Comedy alone was no longer enough for Chaplin: in developing depth of character and a degree of sentimental identification with his characters from his audience he was ploughing a new furrow in the cinematic arts.

Chaplin biographer David Robinson highlights a long-rumoured alternative ending for The Vagabond that Chaplin may have filmed and which would have concluded the short in a far darker way. Before Edna’s waif returns for him, it is evident from Chaplin’s body language that he is taking the rejection hard. He shrugs his shoulders in an admission of defeat and attempts to do his by now expected happy walk away from the camera, but fails to pull it off convincingly, his despair showing through. Instead of the hopelessly romantic (and highly unlikely) ending tacked onto the released version of The Vagabond, Robinson points to a darker conclusion in which the Tramp was to have been seen committing suicide by hopelessly throwing himself into a river. The rumoured footage supposedly saw the Tramp rescued by what Robinson called a ‘hatchet-faced maiden’ (Phyllis Allen), but the prospect of spending time with her sees the Tramp throw himself into the river in despair once more. Whether the idea was merely scripted and rejected or actually shot is unclear. Robinson calls the alternative footage a ‘legend’ and concludes its existence is ‘unsubstantiated by any existing footage’.

1916 06 The VagabondAlthough Chaplin’s music could not be heard, it has been reported that the tune he plays on the violin was ‘The Honeysuckle and the Bee’, a tune he was familiar with from his impoverished South London upbringing and which no doubt helped reinforce the pathos inherent in his performance. Music was becoming ever more important to Chaplin off-screen, with his new fame allowing him to become friends with various famous composers and performers. Stan Laurel recalled Chaplin playing his violin during their days together as part of the Fred Karno troupe: ‘I wouldn’t call him a good violinist,’ John McCabe reports Laurel as having claimed, ‘but he sure as hell wasn’t a bad one’. As Chaplin’s career progressed music would play a larger part, including his own compositions as scores for revised reissues of his movies in the 1930s and 1940s.

Chaplin’s fame was now such that his own past was proving to be of interest not only to journalists fascinated by him, but also to himself. He knew little about his own family beyond his immediate parents, and even then there was some ambiguity about who his father had actually been. In July 1916, just as The Vagabond was released, Chaplin and his half-brother Syd (who was managing his business affairs) discovered that the Bobbs-Merrill publishing house was planning to put out a book entitled ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story’. Rosie Wilder Lane, a feature writer for the San Francisco Bulletin, had written the book. Chaplin recalled she had interviewed him during his time at the Niles studio when he worked for Essanay.

The prospect of the book and the gypsy subject matter of The Vagabond caused Chaplin to ruminate on his own unclear origins. Many had commented that Chaplin, small of stature, dark of countenance and noticeably slim, did not resemble the average Englishman. Was he, in fact, born of more exotic stock, more exotic even than show folk? Motion Picture Magazine had delighted in the fact that in 1916 there was ‘much speculation’ about Chaplin’s ethnic origins.

For his part, Chaplin seemed happy to allow others to make whatever assumptions about him they liked. Early in his Hollywood career, as Chaplin later reported, a producer he’d worked with assumed he was Jewish. ‘I did not disillusion him,’ explained Chaplin. ‘If they wanted me Jewish, they would have me Jewish’. During his time at Essanay, Chaplin had happily spun a few yarns for interviewers and journalists, mainly in the interest of giving them a good story rather than in service of the truth. He’d claimed his mother was half-Irish and half-Spanish, and so by implication of gypsy stock. It was a romantic notion to him that he wanted to be true and perhaps even half believed.

When he made his astonishing deal with Mutual, interest in Chaplin and his background shot up. The New York Telegraph tracked down his mother’s sister, Kate Mowbray, and queried her about her nephew’s earlier life. ‘Outwardly he is the image of his father,’ Kate told enquiring journalists. She talked of his musical abilities, focusing on his long-standing fondness for the violin, as seen in The Vagabond. She put this musical skill down to an inheritance from his talented mother.

Repeatedly asked about his background, Chaplin began to spin yarns for his own entertainment. He told one journalist he was French, having been born in a hotel in Fontainbleau, France when his itinerant performing parents were on tour. It was perhaps his conflicting public stories that caused complete strangers to come forward claiming to be long-lost relatives of the Chaplin family, who might think themselves in line for a slice of the film star’s ever-growing fortune. Chaplin once claimed to have heard from at least 671 English Chaplins (a very precise number!) who had all claimed to be close relatives—nine of them said they were actually his mother.

Joyce Milton, in her biography of Chaplin entitled Tramp, highlighted what she described as ‘the most exotic story about his parentage’ that Chaplin was told as a result of his ever-increasing fame. A train porter claimed he was related to Chaplin through an acclaimed mixed-African and American descended painter called John Gwynne Chaplin from Pennsylvania. A painter of Biblical subjects, Gwynne Chaplin was light-skinned enough to pass for white, despite this (according to Milton) he was professionally classed as a ‘race artist’. He spent time in Europe from 1850 and may have had a child with a woman in England. It was easy enough to see how the story that Charlie Chaplin somehow fitted into this lineage could be made plausible. The story was important because of the cultural and political context of race in America in 1916. The previous year Chaplin had much admired D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation for its filmmaking technique, but that movie had a darker legacy in a rebirth of the Klu Klux Klan and anti-black activism among some of America’s white population. As Milton puts it: ‘…even a suspicion of “negro” blood would very likely have ended Chaplin’s American career.’ For that reason alone, it is easy to see why Charlie Chaplin didn’t add this particular tale to his fanciful repertoire of exotic origin stories for the press.

Rose Wilder Lane in preparing her ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story’ had turned her notes, enhanced with a good deal of invention, into a first person narrative purportedly telling of Chaplin’s own true rise to fame and fortune. Much was accurate—the author had obviously encountered Chaplin at a point when he was happy to be more chatty about his early life than he became in later years—but much more was simply inaccurate or, even worse, pure invention. It was, essentially, an enhanced work of fiction written as if to be in Chaplin’s own voice: the book was billed as an ‘as told to’ story. Syd objected strongly and set Chaplin’s lawyer onto the publisher and this was enough to convince them to withdraw the book from sale.

In all probability, Chaplin’s ancestry is exactly as we believe it to be today. For the man himself, though, these other possibilities gave him the opportunity to believe that his father may have been someone other than a drunken music hall performer who’d died young and impoverished. He already feared he might inherit the mental instability his mother Hannah had already shown, it would be doubly worse if he were to also inherit his father’s fondness for alcohol (although Prohibition was on the horizon in American—it would begin in 1919 and run until 1933—it actually did little to temper the availability of alcohol). These other fantasy-driven stories of his parentage allowed the nervous, anxious and slight figure of Charlie Chaplin to imagine that his father had actually been a well-educated man, perhaps someone of society or in the respectable arts (as compared to the lowbrow vaudeville). It was the kind of figure he aspired to be (and would, by and large, become). It is clear to see in The Vagabond that Charlie Chaplin was taking the opportunity that filmmaking allowed him to safely explore the fantasy autobiography that sometimes ran through his troubled mind. — Brian J. Robb

Trivia: Eric Campbell’s “wife” in The Vagabond, the harridan who leads the gypsy clan, is actually actor Leo White in drag. Born in 1882 in Manchester, White’s filmography stretched from roles in early Chaplin shorts at Essanay through to a bit part in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace. He died in Glendale, California in 1948.

The Contemporary View: ‘The latter part of the story shows Chaplin in a new role, and he handles it well in spite of the necessity of being as funny as possible. He would make an interesting lead in almost any story if it were possible for him to divest himself of the little tricks which have made him famous. Those little tricks still go, and they pay, but it would be a novelty to see Chaplin free to do without them…’—Motion Picture World, July 1916.

Verdict: A solid leap forward, building on The Tramp and setting a new direction for Chaplin with deeper character development and better control over the drama.

Next: One A.M. (7 August 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 USAmazon UK

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

 

The Fireman (12 June 1916)

 

Chaplin2016 The Fireman6

Release Date: 12 June 1916

Writer/Director: Charles Chaplin

Duration: 24 mins

With: Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, Lloyd Bacon, Albert Austin, James T. Kelley, John Rand, Leo White, Frank J. Coleman

Story: The Tramp has a job, as an incompetent fireman at Station 23. Caught up in an insure-and-burn scheme, he has to rescue fire chief’s intended from the flames…

Production: Charlie Chaplin’s second short for Mutual continued his focus on gags and situations—as the title suggests, Chaplin plays the role of an inept firefighter—but he failed to add any additional depth to his character. Perhaps he felt he needed to find his feet making new films for a new studio in unfamiliar circumstances before he could turn his attention to further developing his art? As it is, The Fireman is a gag-laden short that is richly amusing if not emotionally enriching. According to John McCabe, Chaplin drew inspiration from simply walking past a local Los Angeles fire station near to the Mutual studio one day and imaging himself as a fireman, a man completely at the mercy of the demands of the fire alarm bell. It was enough to see him embark upon making the short, even without a fully worked out scenario, as was increasingly becoming his habit. That approach might explain the somewhat disjointed, episodic nature of The Fireman.

This is a short more in the Keystone style, with Eric Campbell as the hopeless fire chief who gets caught up in an insure-and-burn caper so he can wed a businessman’s daughter (played by Edna Purviance). His plan falls apart, however, when the ever-heroic Charlie comes to the rescue after he spots Edna (whom he’s also in love with) trapped in the burning building. There is something of the later Harold Lloyd ‘thrill pictures’ in the climax as Chaplin (or maybe a stunt double, see ‘Trivia’) scales the ladder to come to Edna’s rescue. Meanwhile, Leo White’s house is also burning down, but nothing he does seems to engage the interest of the fire department.

Filming for The Fireman took place at a real fire station—Fire Station #29, located at 158 South Western, which had opened just three years before (it only closed in 1988, making it potentially the Los Angeles fire station that was in continuous use the longest). This decision gave the short some very high production values, as Chaplin was able to fully utilise the premises and the (horse-drawn) fire trucks stored there—presumably all subject to them being withdrawn from the film if there were an emergency call out.

In addition to the fire station, real fires mounted by the production team at two separate condemned houses added further spectacular production value. Scenes of Chaplin rushing to get to the fires, with the fire fighter crew hanging on to the buggy for dear life, recall some of the old Keystone rough-and-tumble chases from two years before. Even when they reach the site of the fire, the firemen insist on limbering up before they dare tackle the blaze…

Chaplin2016 TheFireman9 EdnaDespite all this action, there is room in the short for some quieter comic moments, such as when Charlie uses the fire engine’s boiler as a makeshift coffee urn, dispensing coffee and cream from its taps, and a scene in which the naïve fireman attempts to brush down the department’s horses using a dainty feather duster. These were characteristic comedy moments, but the relationship with Edna is not advanced much (attaching her to Eric Campbell’s villain made that difficult) and so the opportunities for any kind of heart-tugging pathos are limited.

Upon the release of The Fireman, Chaplin received a letter in reaction to the short from a fan that brought him up short (according to biographer John McCabe). The mid-westerner wrote: ‘I have noticed in your last picture a lack of spontaneity. Although the picture was unfailing as a laugh-getter, the laughter was not so round as in some of your earlier work. I am afraid that you are becoming a slave to your public, whereas in most of your pictures the audience were a slave to you…’ It seemed to Chaplin that the complaint was a valid one—he was in danger of resting on his laurels, and churning out material that could have been made at Keystone or even at Essanay was not enough. He would have to strive to deepen both his character and his filmmaking techniques if he was to stay one step ahead of his fans, giving the public not what they wanted but what they didn’t know they needed.

The latest addition to the Chaplin company at Mutual was James T. Kelley (born in Castlebar in July, 1854 and sometimes billed as ‘Kelly’), an Irish-born performer who had a degree of stage and dance experience, but on film often played elderly inebriates. His earlier films included some Edison credits in 1897: Bowery Waltz (aka Apache Dance) and Charity Ball. He was seen alongside Louise Fazenda in the Universal short The Battle of the Nations in 1914. Kelley had appeared alongside Chaplin before in A Night in the Show and in Police, but he’d really make his mark during the Mutual period. He was the elderly elevator operator in The Floorwalker, a past his prime fireman in The Fireman, and later an out-of-shape bellhop in The Cure and he played two roles in the Chaplin classic The Immigrant. He worked with Chaplin right through the Mutual period, including roles in The Pawnshop, The Vagabond, A Dog’s Life, The Count, The Rink, and Easy Street. He also worked with Harold Lloyd, appearing in his 1921 comedy Among Those Present right through to the feature Safety Last (1923). Later in the 1920s he appeared in a variety of Western films, including Man Rustlin’ (1926) and Men of Daring (1927). He died in 1933 at the age of 79 in New York City.

Along with his newfound popularity, Chaplin had to face a new problem: film piracy. In the earliest days of movie distribution, films were released across the US via local ‘film exchanges’ in an often haphazard manner. Films were considered disposable, unlikely to last (either physically or in the memory of audiences) beyond the projected 90-day life of a standard print. It was easy for unscrupulous practitioners to obtain copies of the newest Chaplin short and strike their own copy, which they then leased out to cinemas pocketing the theatrical screening fee that should have gone back to the studios, whether Keystone, Essanay, or—from May 1916—Mutual, none of whom seemed too interested in protecting their property. (French filmmaker George Méliès, a special effects and filmmaking pioneer in his own right, especially suffered from US piracy of his works).

One example was the completely unauthorised ‘Chaplin Film Company’ that actually had an office on West 45th Street in Manhattan. It was Keystone investor Charles Baumann who discovered it following a tip-off. This unofficial distributor was well-stocked with ‘dupes’, unofficial duplicate prints, copies of the most popular Chaplin shorts and at this point—in the summer of 1915—was making great money from distributing Chaplin’s Dough and Dynamite. Now aware of the transgression, Keystone went to court and had the whole operation shut down. That, however, was just one of many ‘dupe’ distributors in action, many of them not daft enough to open a shop front in a major Manhattan thoroughfare.

One step beyond that kind of direct theft was the ‘bogus Chaplins’. These weren’t films featuring Chaplin impersonators and imitators (already covered here: In The Park), but movies made up of extracts or outtakes from Chaplin’s work that was re-edited to make a ‘new’ Chaplin release. One such was The Perils of Patrick, modelled after Pathe’s The Perils of Pauline (at least as far as the title went), a serial made up of much of Chaplin’s Keystone footage. It didn’t help their case that both Keystone and Essanay (see Burlesque on Carmen) were not above similar activity themselves.

The effort that went in to creating these ‘bogus’ Chaplin shorts was often ingenious. Rather than put their efforts into creating original works of their own, several would-be filmmakers took the opportunity of Chaplin’s stratospheric popularity to ride on the innovative comedian’s coat tails. Among them were Bronx-born duo Jules Potash and Isadore Peskov who took Chaplin’s The Champion (an Essanay release), removed the backgrounds and replaced them with an unlikely undersea world, itself lifted directly from Herbert Brenon’s film Daughter of the Gods. The resulting uncomfortable mash-up was released (through their New Apollo Feature Film Company) under the title Charlie Chaplin in a Son of the Gods, a film which contrived to show the Tramp visiting King Neptune’s court and there encountering Keystone-style bathing beauty mermaids. This film was brazenly screened at the 14th Street Crystal Palace theatre in New York, a regular venue for Chaplin’s legitimate products. Having succeeded with that release, Potash and Peskov were soon at it again with Charlie in the Harem and the predictive Charlie in the Trenches (itself a working title for the later Shoulder Arms, 1918). As Chaplin did not own the copyright to his early works, there was little he could do about such disgraceful behaviour.

Chaplin1916 The Fireman 1Others were inspired to follow the example of Potash and Peskov: after all, there was money in them thar films. The Seiden brothers—Joseph and Jacob—operated out of Chicago (Chaplin’s onetime Essanay stamping ground) and released a Chaplin knockoff under the title The Fall of the RummyNuffs (a supposed pun on the Russian Romanovs, then in the news). As well as adapting original footage, particularly enterprising film pirates would hire Chaplin lookalikes in order to create ‘new’ material to expand the length of the films (this lead to the full-blown craze for Chaplin impersonators such as Billy West). By this time, Chaplin was signed to First National (in 1917), and his legal officer Nathan Burkan launched a concerted effort to rid cinemas of these ‘bogus’ Chaplin films, including such titles as The Dishonour System (a two-reeler) and One Law for Both. Targets he attacked included not only the filmmakers themselves, but also the laboratories that developed the film, those who made the posters for the bogus movies, and those who screened them—all in an attempt to seek some form of financial redress. ‘Several suits will be started against each and every exhibitor in this and other cities for exhibiting spurious Charlie Chaplin pictures,’ said Burkan. At First National, Chaplin developed an innovative way of authenticating his films to counter such piracy, but we’ll cover that when the blog reaches Chaplin’s First National releases.

Another pressing problem that Chaplin faced in the summer of 1916 was the question of his willingness (or otherwise) to fight for his country—Great Britain—in the then-unfolding ‘Great War’, better known today as the First World War. In 1914, when war was first declared with Germany, Chaplin had decided to stay in the US rather than return home to do his bit for ‘King and Country’ (as the misguided patriotic cry had it). By the time he was at Mutual, just as the war was kicking into a higher gear in the summer of 1916, it became public that Chaplin’s Mutual contract actually contained a clause that would actively prevent him from ‘joining up’ in the British army as he was considered to be such a valuable ‘commodity’ to the company.

This created something of a backlash with some popular sentiment portraying Chaplin as a coward who was actively avoiding conscription (the ‘draft’ in the US) of ordinary citizens to serve in the army that was ensnaring much of his home country audience. The comedian began to receive letters from soldiers containing white feathers, long a symbol of cowardice in the face of war, and a handful of cinemas back in Britain refused to screen any further Chaplin films due to his non-participation in the war. At the same time, Chaplin received letters from other soldiers, many serving at the frontlines in France, pleading with him to continue making the ‘funny’ films that made them laugh and raised their morale in the face of deadly danger. Some in the ‘top brass’ of the British army actually came to regard Charlie Chaplin’s filmmaking to be a much more important contribution to the British war effort and to raising morale both among soldiers and on the ‘home front’ than any effort he could personally make by picking up a rifle.

Chaplin2016 The Fireman8According to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, the campaign to harass Chaplin due to his seeming avoidance of war service had been instigated by Lord Northcliffe, the publisher of Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper. From the spring of 1916 the paper had been carrying disparaging comments about Chaplin’s failure to sign up with Britain’s armed forces, highlighting the clause in his Mutual contract that apparently prevented him from returning to his homeland for the duration of the conflict in case he should be conscripted to fight. ‘We have received several letter protesting against the idea of [anyone] making a profit on the exhibition in this country of a man who binds himself not to come home to fight for his native land,’ said the newspaper.

By the following year, the rhetoric had escalated, with an editorial (probably dictated by Northcliffe himself) running in the Weekly Dispatch that castigated the comedian: ‘Charles Chaplin, although slight built, is very firm on his feet, as is evidenced by his screen acrobatics. … During the 34 months of the war it is estimated [that] he has earned well over £125,000. … Chaplin can hardly refuse the British nation both his money and his services. … He is under the suspicion of regarding himself as specially privileged to escape the common responsibilities of British citizenship. … It is Charlie’s duty to offer himself as a recruit.’ Other papers, including the Daily Express, joined the calls against Chaplin’s non-participation.

Eventually, the star was forced into issuing a statement on the situation to the press: ‘I am ready and willing to answer the call of my country to serve in any branch of the military service at whatever post the national authorities may consider I might do the most good,’ said Chaplin. ‘But, like thousands of other Britishers, I am awaiting word from the British Embassy in Washington.’ He went on to highlight his financial investments in the war effort and the fact that he’d registered for the draft (drawn on a random lottery basis) in the United States.

Chaplin2016 The Fireman7Sydney was drawn into the fuss, too, having to confirm that he was over the exemption age of 31—the suspicion was that he’d been singled out simply because he was Chaplin’s (half) brother. The active campaign against Chaplin only came to an end, according to Robinson, when the actor presented himself at a recruiting office but was turned away for being underweight!

According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Chaplin the comedian wrote back to one soldier correspondent that he was ‘sorry my professional demands do not permit my presence in the Mother Country.’ According to another friend, Chaplin had expressed his utter horror of war in these terms: ‘Not for me! I’d have gone to jail rather than have gone into it. I’d have gnawed off my fist rather than get into that sort of thing.’ These sentiments perhaps reflected Chaplin’s growing pacifist feelings rather than any cowardice in his nature. Later Chaplin would tackle the subject directly in 1918’s Shoulder Arms and would tour the US (where he was greeted by record-breaking crowds) promoting the purchase of war bonds. — Brian J. Robb

Trivia: It doesn’t appear to be Chaplin driving the horse-drawn fire truck from the station, more like Eric Campbell (based on his size) or an anonymous stuntman. Similarly, the dummy figure that Chaplin carries down during the rescue scene has much darker hair than the blonde Edna Purviance, who he is supposedly rescuing!

The Contemporary View: ‘There is an abundance of the rough comedy which secures laughs. The best laughs are when the prop engine falls apart. The rescue of the girl from the top storey is a good hit, also the general business around the firehouse.’—Variety, June 1916

Verdict: The Fireman is a throwback to Keystone and Essanay slapstick, but Chaplin was capable of more sophisticated comedy.

Next: The Vagabond (10 July 1916)

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

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