(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)
The Bank is a mixed short, beginning with terrific comedy and ending with pathos that Chaplin hasn’t yet quite figured out how to juggle. But it’s a worthy try.
Charlie is a bank janitor, and the movie begins with one of Chaplin’s most celebrated gags: Charlie elaborately using several combinations to open a vast bank safe, as though his fortune rested inside, only to reach inside and pull out his daily janitor’s uniform. And the byplay between Chaplin and Billy Armstrong, as a rival janitor, is wonderful; a full third of the movie goes by with just the slapstick interplay between them, and it’s hysterical.
Then Chaplin aims for pathos. The bank secretary (Edna Purviance) has bought a tie as a birthday gift for her boyfriend, the head teller Charles (Carl Stockdale). She writes a card for it, “To Charles, With Love, From Edna,” and leaves it at her typewriter, where Charlie sees it and mistakes it as a gift for himself. What would have been played out as farce in the Keystone days in here played a tad seriously, as Edna haughtily snubs Charlie in even a plautonic mode. One can easily see what Chaplin was getting at, so we’re willing to cut him some slack, though the woe-is-me routine goes on a tad too long.
Then there’s that ending. The bank gets robbed, Charles leaves Edna behind in cowardice, and Charlie is left to thwart the whole mess — which he does, quite splendidly. In fact, Chaplin mostly eschews laughs here, playing the bank robbery straight and showing the strenuousness Charlie goes through to make things right. It’s all the more disheartening, then, when after Charlie is made to be a hero, we find out that (all together now)…it was only a dream.
Based on the evidence here, Chaplin wanted pathos but didn’t quite feel that the situation added up to it — which is too bad, since he played the hero pretty honestly. Why couldn’t he have gone all the way and won the girl?
But if The Bank is a failure, it’s a most honorable one. And Chaplin would get the pathos right soon enough.