Charlie Chaplin in PAY DAY (1922) – A comedy that hits pay dirt

payday

Pay Day is Chaplin’s truly worthy finale to the genre that first brought him fame, the short subject. Although he obviously had bigger things on his mind at this point than simply “riffing” on a series of gags a la Mack Sennett, Chaplin nevertheless proved he still had it in him to do so.

The movie is mostly a series of vignettes on a day in the life of construction worker Charlie. The movie is basically divided into thirds: his day on the job, confounding his boss (Mack Swain) and his co-workers; drinking his troubles away in the evening; and trying to avoid his sleeping wife once he gets home at 5 a.m.

Edna Purviance makes a token appearance her as the boss’ daughter, but seen in retrospect, Chaplin already saw the writing on the wall as far as Purviance getting too old for this sort of role, as she is used most minimally here. Sadly, the major female presence is Phyllis Allen as Charlie’s harridan wife. Even in his time, Chaplin’s critics complained about how idealized his movie women usually were, but they were certainly preferable to this battle-ax stereotype (whose big, screaming mouth and hair-in-curls hideously fills the movie’s final shot).

As always, the best gags involve transposition. When Charlie and his drunken friends hold an outside serenade, and a woman two floors above dumps water on them, Charlie naturally assumes it’s a downfall and opens up his umbrella. Continually trying and failing to catch nearby streetcars, Charlie happens upon an open lunch wagon and, in his drunken state, hopefully boards it for a ride home.

Pay Day isn’t Chaplin’s greatest comedy by any means, but compared to the two opening shorts he did for First National (Sunnyside and A Day’s Pleasure), it comes as a welcome relief for his finale in the short-subject arena.

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Charlie Chaplin in THE BOND (1918) – Buy bonds today!

bond

The Bond is a half-reel short created by Chaplin at his own expense for the Liberty Loan Committee, to aid in the World War I effort. As you can guess, its purpose was to promote the sale of U.S. savings bonds.

The short’s sketches depict various kinds of bonds:

* friendship (Albert Austin plays an old acquaintance who greets Charlie on the street, ostensibly to have some laughs and discuss old times, but eventually to hit him up for cash);

* love (Edna Purviance, at her most lush, woos Charlie on a park bench, with a little help from a cute cherub playing Cupid from behind a cardboard moon);

* marriage (Edna has now wooed Charlie to the point of matrimony, but he doesn’t look very happy about it — perhaps a portent of Chaplin’s future, real-life marriages); and finally,

* the Liberty Bond (Chaplin’s real-life brother Sydney plays The Kaiser, whom Charlie knocks cold with an oversized mallet labeled “Liberty Bonds,” just in case we haven’t gotten the message by now).

Among The Bond‘s many interests is its stylized look, with its actors and tiny settings glowing against black backgrounds — it’s like the sunny version of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Also a delight is Chaplin’s genuine laughter in the final shot, giving evidence that he enjoyed making this out-of-the-norm bauble.

Obviously the movie’s message has dated, but its considerable charms have not.

Charlie Chaplin in THE MASQUERADER (1914) – Baby, look at you now

masquerader

The Masquerader is clearly another attempt to show a comedy behind-the-scenes at the Keystone Studios (identified as such within the movie). Chaplin has brief scenes with his Keystone peers Roscoe Arbuckle (very funny) and Chester Conklin (middling).

This is also one of only three times in which Chaplin impersonated a woman on-screen. The premise is that Chaplin is fired from the studio by a director (Charles Murray) who dislikes him. So the next day, Chaplin returns to the studio in drag (a title identifies him in get-up as “a fairy”!).

There are some lovely comic opportunities here that go explored only about halfway. First off, Chaplin makes his initial appearance as Chaplin; he changes into his Tramp costume a few minutes into the film. So for once, we’re expected to accept Chaplin on the screen as Chaplin, even though he is put through the usual “Charlie-esque” paces.

Second, this movie is the second of Chaplin’s three on-screen female impersonations, and it certainly fits right in the middle. Unlike A Busy Day, where he hammed it up as a broad, and the later Essanay A Woman, where he’s a startlingly convincing female, here he does almost nothing with the gimmick, perhaps because of the one-reel time constriction. Pity that such a fertile idea wasn’t allowed to run its course, while an arse-kicking fest such as The Property Man was allowed two whole reels.

Charlie Chaplin in THE STAR BOARDER (1914) – Always burn the photos

starboarder

Chaplin plays the title role, a lodger of whom his landlady (Minta Durfee) is inordinately fond, much to the detriment of her husband (Edgar Kennedy). One night after dinner, their son puts on a “magic lantern” show that includes some photos of Charlie and the landlady in (relatively) compromising positions. The husband goes ballistic, and the landlady gives the brat a well-deserved spanking.

Cute and funny enough, though as always, some of the best moments are Chaplin doing nothing in particular (as when he bounces a tennis ball and gets “attacked” by it). You also find yourself wondering what the landlady sees in this guy that nobody else does.

Charlie Chaplin in A FILM JOHNNIE (1914) – Inside-the-studio humor

FilmJohnnie

The minimal plot of A Film Johnnie is that Charlie, as an outsider, sneaks inside the Keystone Studios during work hours and generally wreaks havoc on the movies being filmed.

It’s a cute enough premise for a one-reeler, but the movie is an obvious sign that Chaplin still had a way to go in his movie apprenticeship. It wouldn’t be long before moviegoers were wishing they could sneak onto a studio lot to see him at work.

Best gag in the movie: Roscoe Arbuckle (as himself) meets Charlie, sizes him up, and surreptitiously gives him a handout.

Review of Gerry Mandel’s novel SHADOW AND SUBSTANCE: MY TIME WITH CHARLIE CHAPLIN

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(FOR THOSE IN THE KNOW: Before you get on my case — yes, I know that this book is four years old…and I am still coming across people who have never even heard of it. IMHO, this book deserves all the coverage and kudos it can get.)

Are you a Charlie Chaplin buff who wishes that Chaplin was around to make just one more movie?
It can’t happen, of course — but the very next best thing is the novel Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin. And the highest compliment I can pay to author Gerry Mandel is that he does justice to his famous subject.

The story concerns Cooper Thiery, a life-long Chaplin buff who has lucked into a possible Hollywood job. A Los Angeles producer, Kevin McDaniels, wants to create a TV series of muckraking documentaries that bring down the heroes of yesteryear. He wants to start with Chaplin, and he wants to hire Cooper for the job based on a glowing letter of recommendation for Cooper that an Oxford professor sent to Kevin.

The problems start when the niceties end and McDaniels shows his true colors to Cooper. He wants all the dirt on Chaplin, and he wants it yesterday. Cooper is thrown for a loop at having to denigrate one of his childhood heroes in order to make a career for himself.

Luckily for Cooper, he is rewarded a muse — in the form of none other than Charlie Chaplin himself. And this is where Mandel scores his biggest points. He brings Chaplin back to life as an otherworldly conscience for Cooper, and he assists Cooper in meeting some of Chaplin’s contemporaries as well. This is pretty much the ground on which the novel is built, and if the conceit had been presented in a mawkish or cutesy way, the story would have collapsed.

Happily, by the time Chaplin himself is brought into the story, we’ve come to identify with Cooper so much that we feel his shock at meeting the “reincarnated” Chaplin, which goes a long way toward making the fantasy plausible. And after all, the story does take place in Hollywood, where Cooper keeps running into one miracle after another, anyway — why not meet his long-lost idol as well?

Shadow and Substance is rich in detail and characterization, for both the famous (I’d love to meet this book’s version of Chaplin’s beefy co-star Mack Swain!) and newfound (the many underlings who swirl in McDaniels’ orbit). And the reader comes away with a new respect for Chaplin and for celebrity in general. You end up feeling, as Chaplin does here, that maybe it’s time to let sleeping idols lie and to quit callously digging up dirt on them unnecessarily.

My only concern about the book is how it will “play” with non-Chaplin buffs, who might not share in Cooper’s reverence for his subject and instead be eager for the story to move on a little. Conversely, those knowledgeable in Chaplin trivia might be slightly bothered when Mandel slows down the story every so often to explain an “inside” anecdote for those not in the know. (The method reminds me of a condescending moment in Chaplin’s movie drama A Woman of Paris, where the characters were eating champagne truffles and Chaplin felt compelled to include a subtitle explaining the food’s origin.)

But this slight fault should not deter anyone, Chaplin buff or otherwise, from savoring this rich novel. Shadow and Substance brings Charlie Chaplin to life just one more time and makes it seem worth the effort.

Charlie Chaplin in BETWEEN SHOWERS (1914) – Caught in a rainstorm of macho

BetweenShowers

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Sometimes the Keystone shorts are very funny. Other times, the Keystone shorts are filled up with a lot of frantic action in the hope that you won’t notice how little comedy there is. Between Showers is an example of the latter.

It begins with a tediously laborious gag in which Ford Sterling steals an umbrella from Chester Conklin (who plays a preoccupied cop). Next, we see the aftermath of a rain shower. A lady (Emma Bell Clifton) wants to walk across the street but cannot negotiate a huge puddle. Ford says he’ll find a plank of wood to place across the water, and with designs on the woman, he rushes off to find one. Then Charlie happens upon the woman and attempts the same plan of action.

Meanwhile, a cop helpfully guides the woman past the puddle, negating the gentlemen’s efforts. But that doesn’t stop the two from thumping their chests and acting all macho about what they would have done if they’d had the chance. Pretty soon, both of them are hitting on the woman to the point that you wish she’d file a sexual-harassment complaint on the two of them.

Then Ford has a temper tantrum because the lady won’t give back his umbrella, so he goes to find a cop and demand justice. Guess which cop he finds. This can’t end well.

But then, it didn’t start out all that wonderfully, either.