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

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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.

Charlie Chaplin in A BUSY DAY (1914) – Kind of a drag

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There were only three movies where Chaplin went in drag for laughs. A Busy Day was the first; then another Keystone entry, The Masquerader; and finally, a year later for Essanay in A Woman. But what a difference a year makes! In the latter comedy, Chaplin goes all-out to be convincing as a woman; one might go so far as to say he’s more nuanced. In A Busy Day, he does nothing terribly memorable, as a woman or as a comic.

This is another of those Keystone comedies where the cast and crew set up at a real event – in this case, a military parade celebrating the opening of the harbor in San Pedro, CA. – and fished around for some comedy. And though the premise is that a woman’s (Chaplin) husband (Mack Swain) quickly deserts her to flirt with a pretty girl (Phyllis Allen), the first two minutes is a blatant re-tread of Kid Auto Races at Venice, with Chaplin-the-woman discovering the camera and hamming it up in front of it. (And, though not identified, the director of the film-within-a-film certainly looks like Mack Sennett himself.)

But just that two minutes is enough to show us how much characterization the Tramp had already developed. In Kid Auto Races, the Tramp was hogging the camera, but he did it far more subtly – just “happening” to get in front of the camera under every pretext possible, acting all coy when caught out. Here, it’s just an excuse for Chaplin to slap anyone who objects to him and then get slapped in return.

Most of the movie’s supposed laughs come simply from Chaplin doing what a lady-like woman would not do in public – hoisting her dress, using it instead of a handkerchief to blow her nose, etc. And all of the males in the movie feel quite free to slap this woman around, since we know she’s really a man underneath. Ha-ha.

Although the movie is only a half-reel long, it can’t get over quickly enough. You’ll find yourself very eager to see Chaplin out of the dress and back in the tramp outfit by movie’s end.