(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
The Fireman is easily the weakest of Chaplin’s Mutual shorts, and it’s not hard to see why. First, when a Chaplin comedy is this over-reliant on what Chaplin biographer John McCabe called “arse-kicking” for its laughs, you know Chaplin is having a mental block.
Second, the movie’s very premise goes against what we’ve seen the “Charlie” persona as capable of being, up to now. If he can be anything his current situation requires, why are we expected to laugh when he presents himself as an incompetent fireman?
The movie’s main plot “hook” is that a particular man (Lloyd Bacon) wants Charlie’s boss, the fire chief (Eric Campbell), to ignore a called-in fire alarm when his house is burning down, as he wants the insurance money. Unfortunately, the man doesn’t count on the house right next door to his catching fire just before he hatches his arson scheme – with his daughter (Edna Purviance) still in the burning house.
The movie’s single most irritating section is when that next-door house first starts to burn, and its owner (Leo White) first phones and then frantically visits the fire station to try and get help, only to encounter an apathetic Charlie. (The most common print of this movie – its 1932 sound re-issue – has White’s character repeatedly screaming, “Help, help! Fire, fire!” ad nauseum, just in case we yahoos in the audience couldn’t figure out what he needed.)
This kind of comedy was also milked for ever-diminishing returns in 1930’s cartoons starring Mickey Mouse and Popeye. It’s one thing when the on-screen characters are hurting only themselves. But when a life-threatening event requires their intervention and all they want to do is clown around, it’s a proven laugh-stopper.
Needless to say, Charlie saves the day by singlehandedly rescuing Edna. And of course, as soon as Edna comes to, Charlie kisses her and they walk off into the sunset together. Happens to every civil servant, right?