Charlie Chaplin in THE PILGRIM (1923) – Nowhere to run


As a finale to Chaplin’s First National era (and, in a way, to his “simpler” pictures), The Pilgrim is simply a delight – a solid storyline, with lovely laughs and some quiet social commentary lightly brushed in.

Here, Charlie is an escaped convict who must quickly change into the first civilian outfit he can find – which, as luck would have it, is a minister’s uniform. Happenstance leads him to Texas, where a modest rural church awaits the arrival of their new pastor, whom Charlie quickly becomes. Charlie quickly finds that the church’s deacon (Mack Swain, understated and priceless) and a few of the other church members aren’t quite as sanctimonious as they present themselves to be. Later, Charlie runs into trouble when a former cellmate of his (Charles Reisner, the movie’s assistant director) recognizes Charlie and tries to steal from the family with whom he is boarding.

Charlie also, naturally, makes time with the boarding-woman’s daughter (Edna Purviance) (as well he should — this was Chaplin’s last movie encounter with her in character. After that, he would star her in his drama A Woman in Paris in the dashed hope of providing a future movie career for her).

The movie has lovely vignettes sprinkled throughout, not the least of which is Charlie’s encounter with a congregation member’s slap-happy child (Charles Reisner’s son Dean, who memorably recounts the experience in the documentary Unknown Chaplin). There’s also Charlie’s unforgettable stint as Sunday-morning preacher, which he treats mostly as a show-business stint.

Also notable is the location shooting by Chaplin’s veteran cinematographer, Rollie Totheroh, which lends much authenticity to the story of a man on the run through Texas. (It’s a bit startling to see so much byplay with an actual locomotive, considering how Chaplin later skimped on the same prop for similar gags in The Great Dictator.)

The movie’s final scene, and shot, are a perfect symbol of Chaplin’s Tramp character: caught between this land and that, unsure of his footing no matter where he lands. It’s a perfect ending for the film and for Chaplin’s First National period.

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


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


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


(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 POLICE (1916) – No helpful cops here


(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


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 BY THE SEA (1915) – A comedy that’s all wet


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

By the Sea is a slight improvement over Chaplin’s only other Essanay one-reeler, In the Park. But like its predecessor, this “short” short has too many characters for its own good.

Among them: a man (Billy Armstrong) whose fight with Charlie begins over the entanglement of their hats; a girl to flirt with (Edna Purviance); the girl’s burly husband (Bud Jamison); and of course, a couple of cops. The best scene is probably where Charlie simultaneously flirts with Edna while having to keep knocking Billy unconscious.

The final shot perfectly encapsulates the movie’s possibilities and disappointments. In a brief frieze, Charlie, briefly oblivious to reality, sits in the middle of a park bench, and all of the people he has antagonized surround him. It’s a lovely shot, full of anticipation. Then the cop-out ending: Charlie looks up and sees his enemies, and the park bench collapses. As does the movie.

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.

Charlie Chaplin in A DOG’S LIFE (1918) – Charlie and Scraps


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In his autobiography, Chaplin claimed that in A Dog’s Life, he brought in the character of the dog Scraps (known as “Mut” on the set) so that his story could contrast the life of a tramp with the life of a mutt. But other than Scraps’ first major scene, in which the Tramp rescues diminutive Scraps from a pack of street-fighting dogs, little is done to enhance that story parallel.

In fact, much of the movie plays like one of Chaplin’s Keystone or Essanay comedies, where he’d start out at a random setting and fish for some laughs. There are many comedy routines in the movie, and some of them are very funny – the Tramp avoiding a cop, sneakily stealing a meal from a food wagon, etc. – but they are no more than routines; they don’t add up to much of anything.

The movie’s weakest section is when the Tramp enters a rundown music-hall and listens to a new singer (Edna Purviance) perform a cry-in-your beer song. The scene’s joke is how Edna’s song moves everyone to tears, but the gag quickly gets very mechanical, if not downright gross – again, something more appropriate for the Keystone era than for Chaplin’s debut at First National Pictures.

The movie doesn’t really pick up speed until the final third. Some crooks have stolen some money and buried it near the Tramp’s sleeping grounds, where Scraps digs it up and presents it to Charlie. Charlie returns to the music hall and promises Edna that he’ll use his newfound wealth to buy them a country farm. Sadly, the crooks are also in the music hall and get wind of the Tramp’s scheme; they knock him out, steal the money again, and get the Tramp and Scraps kicked out of the music hall a second time.

The tramp surreptitiously returns to the music hall and pulls a counter-scheme to get the money back from the crooks. The highlight of the film is the Tramp knocking out one crook and then using his own arms from behind a wall to “act” as the knocked-out crook in order to fool his partner.

Of course, Chaplin got his happy ending, on and off the screen; A Dog’s Life was a huge success and an auspicious beginning to his time at First National. But Chaplin’s next film continued his winning streak while having a far stronger (and more memorable) storyline.

Charlie Chaplin in THE TRAMP (1915) – History-making, sort of


The Tramp is enjoyable as a first “official” look at what became Chaplin’s iconic character, but don’t read too much into it. As Chaplin scholars have pointed out, it was just another “role” for Chaplin to play, as he had played and would play a bakery worker, bank clerk, etc., before and after this movie.

What is historic, of a sort, in this movie is how Chaplin tries to blend comedy and pathos. The effort failed, but it probably stood out as an aberration more in 1915 than it does now. Here, we can almost look at it as almost a “blooper” or a character defect, especially knowing how, in retrospect, Chaplin would eventually get it right.

In the title role, Chaplin plays a loner tramp on the road who happens to save a country girl (Edna Purviance) from being robbed from a trio of tramps from the woods. As a result, Edna introduces Charlie to her father, who gives him a job on their farm. (Charlie’s not completely virtuous; he pretty much fobs the job off on an already-hired hand.)

When Charlie again saves Edna and her dad from the three tramps and then gives chase to them, he is shot in the leg. Edna nurses Charlie back to health, which Charlie is more than willing to let her do. Then a man arrives from the city, and Charlie discovers it’s Edna’s boyfriend. Teary-eyed, Charlie writes a good-bye note (see “Editing Note” below) and then leaves the farm for good, finally lifting his head, shrugging off his fate, and skedaddling down the road, in one of cinema’s most iconic finales.

Chaplin was obviously starting to yearn for more than just laughs, but he hadn’t come upon the right formula yet. In the meantime, the laughs would hold him over.

Editing Note: Just before the final shot of Charlie walking down the open road, there’s a shot of Edna and her family reading Charlie’s good-bye letter. I have seen prints of The Tramp that both do and do not show the text of Charlie’s letter. In the prints where the letter is shown, it reads (including misspellings): “I thort your kindness was love but it aint cause I seen him. Goodbye.” This strikes me as exactly the kind of maudlin emotion that Chaplin wouldn’t want to include; the prints without this note get Chaplin’s message across just as well. Is this yet another example of Essanay Film’s tampering with Chaplin’s work after the fact?