Charlie Chaplin in A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN (1916) – Essanay’s burlesque on Chaplin’s contract

Carmen

This movie was intended to be Chaplin’s spoof on both Bizet’s famous opera Carmen and a popular contemporary film of the opera. Sadly, it was tampered with after Chaplin left Essanay; its two reels were expanded to four, via a dreadfully unfunny subplot involving cross-eyed Ben Turpin as the leader of a gypsy gang.

Thus, it’s difficult to judge what Chaplin’s own version would have amounted to. However, based on the extant footage here, parody isn’t primary upon Chaplin’s mind. More likely, Chaplin intended to get laughs by placing his usual stomach-kicking slapstick (and there are stomach kicks galore here) within the context of a high-culture opera.

As such, the quality of the comedy is rather in-and-out. Edna Purviance makes a plausibly seductive Carmen next to Chaplin’s Don Jose, and when the comedy fits (as with an extended sword fight between Don Jose and a gypsy), it fits perfectly. On the other hand, Chaplin’s usual comedy method of transposition doesn’t always work here. Two examples: When Carmen lies down in Don Jose’s lap to woo him, Don Jose unthinkingly rests his elbow on her chest while carrying on in conversation. That’s funny. But later, when Don Jose kills a man, he casually rubs the man’s arm for any faint sign of life and then turns the rubbing into an all-out massage. What’s the point of massaging a dead man?

The massage gag underlines the Mel Brooks-like “We’re only kidding, folks” aspect of the parody, as does the final scene, where Don Jose furiously murders Carmen with his dagger and then stabs himself as well. At first, the scene is played straight, and Chaplin plays the rage-and-remorse so plausibly, you forget you’re watching a comedy. Then, the movie’s ending takes great pains to show Don Jose and Carmen springing back to life, with Don Jose showing us that his dagger is made of rubber, and with everyone laughing cutely for the fade-out. Of course, one doesn’t expect a real murder in a Chaplin farce, but one doesn’t expect a cop-out ending, either.

The few seconds prior to movie’s end showed how well Chaplin could truly play drama. A few years and studios later, he’d be doing this sort of thing in earnest.

Charlie Chaplin in MAKING A LIVING (1914) – His prehistoric film debut

MakingALiving

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Hindsight, of course, has its rewards. Nevertheless, cinemaphiles can be grateful that Charles Chaplin took Kid Auto Races at Venice as his template from which to build, rather than his first film, Making a Living.

For one thing, while Chaplin’s Tramp character is iconic and instantly identifiable (in more than one sense), the dandy Chaplin plays in Making a Living is just this side of androgynous. In his fey carriage and not-quite-Trampy body language, Chaplin here looks like a 70-years-removed version of future rock star Prince.

Furthermore, the main storyline – Chaplin finagles a job as a newspaper reporter – doesn’t even raise its head until about one-third of the way through the movie (and this is only a one-reeler). It starts off with Chaplin first hustling a dollar from a man on the street (Henry Lehrman, who also directed the movie). Then Chaplin hits (rather crudely) upon a woman who, shortly after, turns out to be Lehrman’s girl.

This results in a brawl between the two men, whose moves mostly consist of Lehrman grinding his hand into Chaplin’s face (Lehrman must have thought this was a real laugh-getter; that’s about all he does to Chaplin in Kid Auto Races), and Chaplin trying to best Lehrman by wrapping his legs around him in a move just short of homoerotic. (If that sounds too explicit, watch the movie and see if you don’t agree.)

Then Chaplin sees a sign for “Local Reporter Wanted” and tries to get the job before getting kicked out of the office – where, conveniently, Lehrman is already employed as a reporter. Lehrman happens upon a car wreck and immediately takes pictures and interviews the driver. Chaplin happens upon the whole thing second-hand, grabs Lehrman’s camera and notes, rushes back to the newspaper office, and gets a job on the basis of this “scoop.” Lehrman tries to stop Chaplin but fails, the two tangle up again (this time next to a streetcar – named Desire, perhaps?), and the movie fades out before we can read anything else Freudian into it.

There are a couple of all-too-brief moments that hint at the greatness that is to come: a bit where Chaplin backs away from someone he has outraged and then does his “harmless little me” coy face; another bit where he continually slaps the knee of the editor for emphasis and, when the editor moves his knee away, moves the knee back into position so he can slap it again. The rest of Chaplin’s work here relies on the same frenetic pacing of every other Sennett/Keystone comedy.

In a pseudo-epigram much quoted since, the publication Moving Picture World described Chaplin as “a comedian of the first water” based on his debut movie performance. But it would be his second movie where Chaplin would truly end up getting his feet wet.

Charlie Chaplin in WORK (1915) – A labor of love and laughs

Work

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Work is the kind of farce Chaplin seems to have been aiming for in By the Sea, but here it’s smartly stretched to two reels. It’s superb.

Charlie is a put-upon paperhanger’s helper, a fact pointedly emphasized by his having to drag a workcart containing the day’s supplies and his boss (Charles Inslee) through the city streets and up a hill. Their day’s work is at a mansion run by a snobby couple (Billy Armstrong and Marta Golden). In a beautifully pointed gag, Marta takes one look at the woebegone paperhangers and quickly locks up her good silver in a safe. The duo quickly figure out what she’s getting at and return the favor, storing their good pocket watches in Charlie’s pocket for safe-keeping.

From here, you could guess that the movie would be one long slapstick slog through glue, and you’d mostly be right, but it’s well-done nonetheless. Chaplin obviously began to have an eye towards “extended” gags, because two of them pay off beautifully. One is a small nude statue which continually catches Charlie’s eye. He finally puts a small grass skirt on it and makes it dance a naughty hoochie-koochie for him. The other is a gas stove whose small explosions accelerate each time the impatient house-owner tries to light it. This ends up giving the movie a perfect “wow” ending, abetted by a subplot of the housewife’s extra-marital lover (Leo White) entering the house to make his moves at precisely the wrong time.

Like the movie’s errant stove, it seemed to take Chaplin a few Essanay shorts to catch fire again, but Work was the payoff. It’s a winner.

(If you really want your intelligence insulted, check out the public-domain print of Work at The Internet Archive, wherein an ostensibly helpful narrator thoughtfully describes each and every gag that Chaplin has had acted out quite clearly in front of us.)

MABEL’S MARRIED LIFE (1914) – The best of Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone short subjects

images (1)

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In my humble opinion, Mabel’s Married Life is where the Chaplin legend really starts to take hold.

For one thing, instead of Charlie being a hyper-aggressive clown who comes out kicking and punching for no reason, this movie actually stops to give him a bit of a background. The first shot we see of Charlie is his making polite domestic banter with his wife (Mabel Normand) in the park.

Then Charlie goes to a nearby bar for a drink, leaving Mabel alone to be hassled by a married man (Mack Swain) who’s nevertheless looking to flirt. Charlie leaves the bar, sees what’s happening, and tries to thwart Mack’s efforts, to no avail. (One great detail: Charlie’s first attempt to subdue Mack is his usual arse-kicking routine, which results only in a great deal of dust flying off Mack’s behind.)

Mack gets a two-for-one special by flirting with Mabel and belittling Charlie, and the whole thing could go on forever if Mack’s wife didn’t finally come on the scene to break things up. She pulls Mack away, and Charlie goes back to the bar to drown his sorrows.

On her way home, Mabel passes a sporting-goods store that is selling a boxing dummy. By no small coincidence, its attire looks exactly like that of Mack’s. Mabel buys the dummy and sets it up right past her front door, so that Charlie will confront the dummy as soon as he enters the house.

Later that night, a drunken Charlie enters, and thus begins one of Chaplin’s great scenes of transposition: imbuing character into an inanimate object. In his drunken state, Charlie figures that Mack has come around to his house for Round Two. He tries reasoning with the dummy and is annoyed that he gets no response. He gently pushes him and is alarmed when the dummy pushes back. It’s a delightful routine, tailor-made for silent movies.

(Mabel Normand also has some nice routines throughout, especially after she has set up the dummy in her home and imagines Charlie’s reaction to it. She briefly imitates Charlie’s waddle-walk, hits the dummy self-effacingly, and then says a silent prayer for her husband.)

Some of Chaplin’s Keystone shorts are so bereft of something the audience can relate to that when the “End” title finally appears, it’s like an act of mercy. You have the feeling that if Mabel’s Married Life was allowed to continue, Chaplin would still be coming up with routines for himself and the dummy.

Charlie Chaplin in SUNNYSIDE (1919) – And now, the lack of inspiration

Sunnyside

Sunnyside is without a doubt the most bizarre of Chaplin’s short subjects. Whenever any of his other shorts fall wide off the mark, you can at least see what Chaplin was aiming at. Sunnyside is set in a small, idyllic rural town, but the story is aimless, you can’t tell if Chaplin really wanted to do a rural comedy or was trying for a parody of same. (It doesn’t help that the movie’s intertitles comment upon the movie a la Monty Python: “Charlie the farm hand etc., etc., etc.”; “And now, the romance.”)

Charlie’s boss runs a small hotel, and the boss’ sole idea of motivation is what Chaplin biographer John McCabe delicately referred to as “arse-kicking”; this running gag runs out of steam after about the third foot-laying. And Charlie is unusually docile, accepting his punishment meekly and not being very resourceful. (The movie’s best, albeit brief gags are when Charlie uses farm animals to dispatch the morning breakfast: He plants a chicken on top of a stovetop skillet to lay an egg, and he calls a cow in so that he can milk his coffee.)

Charlie seems to have a romance with a local girl (Edna Purviance, of course), but that’s thwarted quickly enough when a “city chap” checks into the hotel and effortlessly puts his designs upon Edna. There’s also a dream sequence where Charlie dances with some nymphs, probably only because Chaplin’s on-screen dancing has been praised and he hoped he could get some laughs out of it. No dice there, either.

Sunnyside has been well-documented, by Chaplin and countless others, as the signpost of a time when he lacked inspiration. The movie seems less than a failure, because you can’t even tell what it was aspiring to.

Charlie Chaplin in MABEL’S BUSY DAY (1914) – Not exactly a wiener

MabelsBusyDay

A woman (Mabel Normand) tries to sell hot dogs during a car race, but the brutes who take the dogs from her expect only “free samples.” Meanwhile, Charlie’s first scene shows him kicking and punching his way through the gate in lieu of paying admission. Just the sort of action that’ll warm him to our hearts.

Soon enough, Charlie fends off a brute who is trying to fight Mabel. Mabel shows her gratitude, only to have Charlie steal a hot dog when she’s not looking. A chase ensues, and in ever-more-endearing behavior, Charlie nabs Mabel’s hot dogs and tries to sell them as his own. More kicking, punching, etc.

One wishes for the slightest logical motivation in a short subject like this, but when your comedy starts out trying to get laughs from stealing somebody’s livelihood, you’ve pretty well sealed your fate.

Charlie Chaplin in THE FIREMAN (1916) – A movie that comes out all wet

Fireman

(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?

Charlie Chaplin in THE FATAL MALLET (1914) – A very strange mating ritual

FatalMallet

When critics write about Keystone comedies being “primitive,” they don’t get much more primitive than The Fatal Mallet.

Three men (Chaplin; Mack Swain; and Mack Sennett, who directed this short) all vie for the attention of a woman (Mabel Normand). Sadly, the only way they can think of to compete is by attempting to knock each other out with bricks. The theory here, I guess, that the last man standing is entitled to the girl – not that the girl has any say in the matter, of course.

At one incredulous point in the short, while the trio of grown men is preoccupied, a young man, possibly teen-aged, tries to hit on Mabel himself. Luckily, before we can contemplate what new standard this is going to set in cinema, Charlie returns and kicks the kid away. (The kid does a mean backwards flip, too.)

Sociologists love to inform the public that we get many of our ideas of courtship from the movies. I wonder if this film contributed to figures for spousal abuse in 1914?

Charlie Chaplin in POLICE (1916) – No helpful cops here

Police

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

If Chaplin needed an “excuse” for his Essanay period, Police is surely it. Here is where he gets all of his themes, ideas, and characters into one unified mass.

The movie begins with Charlie being released from prison. A nearby parson hones in on him, begging him, “Let me help you go straight.” The parson soon has Charlie reduced to tears, to the point that he keeps himself from nabbing a nearby drunk’s pocketwatch. Later, Charlie comes back to discover that the same parson has nabbed the pocketwatch for himself. When another parson wants to help Charlie “go straight,” Charlie’s high-kicking suddenly has a point to it – and it hastens the plot of the movie.

Charlie chases away the well-meaning parson and is soon enough mugged himself – except that the mugger recognizes Charlie from prison and hoists him into another heist, that of a well-off dowager (Edna Purviance). Edna soon enough notices the burglars and tries to phone the cops about them – but, far, from being Keystone Kops, they’re quite leisurely in their pursuit, sipping tea and talking over the day’s events before settling upon their latest call.

Edna is far from a cowering female, though. When Charlie’s partner wants to go upstairs, Edna asks him not to, as her ailing mother is up there and the shock would kill her. When he refuses to acquiesce, Charlie keeps him from getting upstairs, and soon enough, he turns tail and runs. When the police finally arrive and try to grab Charlie, Edna says he’s her husband, whereupon Charlie assumes all the bonhomie you could ask for, politely talking to the cops and inching them out the door. Edna, too, wants to “help him go straight,” but he’s heard that one too many times. So he saunters out to freedom, only to have one more cop on his tail.

Police is a wonderful ending to Chaplin’s Essanay period, and a sign of greater things to come. It was obvious by this point that Keystone-type two-reelers wouldn’t contain what he had to say, about his character and that character’s reflection on the society that made him.

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

floorwalker

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.