Charlie Chaplin in THE FLOORWALKER (1916) – Riding the escalator to Comedy Heaven


The Floorwalker spills over with the confidence Chaplin had obviously gained from becoming his own producer via his Mutual contract. Here, he provides himself an elaborate department-store setting and makes the most of every opportunity with a gag or prop, rather as Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks would do decades later with The Terminal.

As with his Essanay shorts Work and Police, Chaplin finds interesting chances to make a little social commentary. Charlie makes his entrance innocently knocking over a few items in the store, and it’s quite ironic that a shop assistant (Albert Austin) lingers on harassing Charlie for being a potential thief, while just a few feet away, people are robbing the store blind.

Oh, and up on the second floor as well. The contents of the store’s safe are about to stolen by the assistant manager (Lloyd Bacon) and the manager (the film debut of Chaplin’s wonderfully florid villain Eric Campbell – you know, the guy Bud Jamison kept trying to be in the Essanay films). But the assistant knocks the manager out and tries to abscond the funds for himself. He happens upon Charlie, who turns out to be a dead ringer for him, and they do a wonderful minute or so of the “mirror” routine (made most famous by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, but done in countless other films as well).

The assistant gets the bright idea of he and Charlie “trading” identities, thinking that he (the assistant) can get out of the store with the stolen money if he’s disguised as a customer. Little does he know that this customer has everyone on his tail already (and the manager will soon follow, once he comes to).

Too many great gags and set-pieces to mention, including cinema’s first use of an escalator (prompting Mack Sennett to turn green with envy that he hadn’t thought of it first). The Floorwalker shows Chaplin fully flexing his comedy muscles and enjoying every minute of it.

Charlie Chaplin in MABEL AT THE WHEEL (1914) – A race to the finish


Charlie tries to win Mabel (Mabel Normand) over from her sports-car-driving boyfriend, but to no avail. When Charlie kidnaps and locks up the boyfriend on the day of his big race, Mabel takes his place in the race.

The primary fun of this short is watching Chaplin (made up here to look like a variation on Ford Sterling) chew the scenery in an uncharacteristic role as an all-out villain. You also get to see Keystone founder (and this movie’s co-director) Mack Sennett as a spectator in the audience.

Charlie Chaplin in THE CURE (1917) – A shot of strong comedy


Okay, let’s get The Cure’s main plot defect out of the way. Charlie is an alcoholic who enters a health spa to get better. But he has brought an entire trunk of liquor to the spa with him. One of the spa’s attendants (Albert Austin) gets wind of this and dumps the entire supply of liquor into…the very same well from which everyone obtains their curative drinks. So of course, the same snoots who looked down on Charlie-the-alkie are suddenly enjoying the well water much more than usual. That sounds like something Mack Sennett would have come up with on a very bad day.

That plot point aside, The Cure is very enjoyable. You’d never guess Charlie was unhealthy, the way Chaplin sprints all over the spa set as if on fairy dust. There isn’t a wasted detail in the whole film. The first few minutes offer us nothing but Charlie and two other men dealing with a revolving door, and it’s hilarious. And it only gets better, with Chaplin’s theme of transposition making many memorable appearances (e.g., a masseuse works his patient over so much, Charlie interprets it as a wrestling match and crowns the masseuse as champion).

The Cure, like The Floorwalker, makes the most of every part of its setting. (That’s all the more surprising when you see the movie’s skimpy origins, in the documentary Unknown Chaplin.) It’s a treat.

Popeye in FLEETS OF STREN’TH (1942) – He finally gets some use out of that outfit

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Popeye is an honest-to-gosh sailor (ah, the ironicky!) aboard a Naval ship, first getting a hard time from his superior officer and then fighting much enemy aircraft.

That pretty much covers the plot. The usual top-notch animation is present, as are a few better-than-average gags. But this plays mostly like a war movie with a few jokes thrown in. This was obviously a sop to the cartoon’s wartime audiences, but compared to the zippiness and non-topicality of other Popeyes, this cartoon strains to make Popeye the all-American hero, and the strain shows.

(To its credit, at least it doesn’t stoop to the stereotypical demonizing of the post-Fleischer Popeye cartoon You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap.)

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCan

Charlie Chaplin in THE PAWNSHOP (1916) – Time to operate on that clock!


Once Chaplin found his way around a movie camera, he usually had at least some semblance of a plot in each of his movies and stuck to it. Strangely enough, there are two times in Chaplin’s Mutual canon where the plot is really just a thin excuse for the gags. One is Behind the Screen; the other is The Pawnshop.

The movie’s supposed plot is that a villain (Eric Campbell, natch) enters a pawnshop with a front of wanting to purchase some jewelry but actually wanting to rob the store. Some plot – Campbell doesn’t make his first entrance until more than halfway through the movie, and then he occupies only about five minutes of it.

The rest of the movie is an excuse to see how many superb gags Chaplin can get out of his setting. (Answer: 100%.) The first five minutes is mostly an excuse for Charlie to duke it out with a co-worker (John Rand). Rand’s only response is unrepentant arse-kicking, and so he gets everything he deserves.

There are many other reasons to celebrate the movie, among them Charlie trying to manfully to lift, much less eat, the pastries baked by the shop-owner’s daughter (Edna Purviance). (And that shop owner? Say hello to Henry Bergman in the first appearance of his long association with Chaplin.) Then, of course, there is the famous scene where an unsuspecting customer (Albert Austin) brings in his clock to be pawned and instead has a hysterectomy performed upon it by Charlie.

Oh, and that would-be robber? Superb closing gag – wait for it. Everyone gets his clock cleaned here sooner or later.

ONE A.M. (1916) – Chaplin’s “I AM” statement


Consciously or not (probably not), the superb One A.M. expands upon the conceit of the much earlier Keystone short Mabel’s Married Life, wherein a drunken Charlie thought a boxing dummy was real and thus imbued it with life. In One A.M., Charlie does the same thing with a two-story house.

Besides Chaplin, the only other actor to appear in One A.M. is an uncredited Albert Austin as a cab driver who patiently awaits payment after driving the inebriated Charlie home. Chaplin gets things off to a fine start, with the first two minutes of the film devoted to Charlie doing battle with a door of the taxi car. From there, it only gets more delightful, as Charlie breaks into his house, finds the house key, then breaks back out of the house so that he can unlock it properly.

After that, Charlie wants only to go to bed, but his home’s inanimate objects suddenly defy him in his task. A couple of stuffed-animal rugs scare Charlie as though they were zoo escapees, and a potential nightcap keeps getting thwarted because the alcohol is at the other end of a constantly spinning table, which Charlie feels he must oblige by chasing around rather than patiently waiting for the liquor to come his way.

The best part of the movie is when Charlie finally makes it to bed – only it’a a Murphy bed that pulls every possible angle it can to keep Charlie from finally reclining on it. After a while, you give up trying to figure out how the bed does seemingly impossible moves, and you decide instead that the bed has become one of Chaplin’s finest supporting characters.

Chaplin handily proves in One A.M. that he can hold his own, all by himself.