Charlie Chaplin’s THE IDLE CLASS (1921) – Charlie as a two-percenter


After suffering from “writer/director’s block” in his first two First National shorts, The Idle Class shows Chaplin back on track, still able to deliver first-class laughs in a short subject.

This would be Chaplin’s only dual role until his most famous one (in 1940’s The Great Dictator); this one was fairly benign by comparison. Chaplin plays both his familiar Tramp and an upper-class alcoholic whose wife (Edna Purviance) is driven to distraction by his drinking.

The movie’s first half introduces the theme and then gets a lot of mileage out of golfing gags, particularly those revolving around a milquetoast golfer (John Rand) who gets roundly and continuously beaten up by a much larger golfer (Mack Swain) mainly because he had the misfortune of running into Charlie on the golf course. (It’ll make more sense when you see the movie.)

The rest of the movie involves a costume ball and mistaken identity. Edna leaves her drunken husband a note stating she’ll forgive him if he comes to the ball that night. Unfortunately, he chooses to wear a knight outfit, and the hood clamps over his head and won’t come off. On the run from a cop (naturally), Charlie rushes into the ball, where Edna mistakes him for…well, guess it from there.

There are marvelously inventive gags throughout. Every film comedian of the time took a swing (pardon the pun) at some golf gags – Keaton, Laurel & Hardy – so of course Chaplin would get in there somewhere. And the costume ball offers one great laugh after another (My favorite: Charlie on the run, hiding underneath a woman’s petticoat and then peeking out from the middle of the dress).

Apparently, once Chaplin proved he could mix comedy and drama with The Kid, he didn’t have such a chip on his shoulder about performing the former. Here, he did it just fine.

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