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 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 EASY STREET (1917) – An old-fashioned comedy classic.

EasyStreet (1)

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Chaplin’s detractors complain that much of his work is old-fashioned and melodramatic. I don’t find anything wrong with that, when it’s done well. Easy Street is a perfect example of that. If Chaplin hadn’t already used the character names “David” and “Goliath” in Behind the Screen, they would have fit perfectly here; you’ll never find a more perfect story of a little guy taking on a huge bully and beating the odds.

Our first sight of Charlie is him curled up near the entrance of a mission house; no romanticizing the Tramp on this occasion. Contrasting Charlie’s derelict situation is the mission’s organist (Edna Purviance, never lit more angelically). Charlie hears the music and is literally taken in. After the service, given a righteous pep talk by Edna, Charlie sees the light. He’s so serene in his newfound ways, he even returns the collection box he had intended to steal.

Charlie sees a “Help Wanted” sign for a police station on Easy Street; he applies and is accepted instantly. That’s because of the station’s high mortality rate, due to Easy Street’s violence orchestrated by its gang leader (Eric Campbell, in the dastardly role he was born to play).

This is another of Chaplin’s great comedies that it would be sacrilegious to spoil by giving away the plot twists. Suffice to say, the heroism that Chaplin couldn’t quite give himself over to in Essanay’s The Bank is given free rein here, and it works beautifully.

And for those who say Chaplin was a routine movie director, watch how he builds tension by cross-cutting between Charlie’s prolonged cigarette break after subduing Eric, and Edna’s being locked in and nearly raped by a heroin addict. Hitchcock couldn’t have done it better.

Easy Street is unashamedly old-fashioned, without an ounce of irony. Watch it, and be surprised how well you can still respond to such a thing.

Charlie Chaplin in THE RINK (1916) – He’s a good skate


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

While The Rink is a truly marvelous comedy, I’m not sure that laughter is even the proper response for it. The movie’s first half, with Charlie as a waiter causing confusion among customers and staff alike, seems not to have been directed so much as choreographed. He flitters in, out, through, and around the restaurant as though on wings, and God only knows how Chaplin managed to convey the directions for this stuff to his cast. And this is before we even get to the skating rink.

Once we get there, we find that philanderous Mr. Stout (Eric Campbell) has designs on a pretty rink customer (Edna Purviance), but once Charlie arrives on the scene, Edna and pretty much the whole place surrenders to him. There’s no justice in describing this; you have to see it for yourself.

The only weak part of the movie is the final third, where Edna invites Charlie and all of the other characters to her skating party that evening. It’s hardly painful, but it’s superfluous and goes to a lot of trouble to tie up plot strands you didn’t care much about to start with. That said, its existence gives an excuse for the movie’s beautiful final shot, with Charlie skating right out of the rink and onto the street, and using his cane to hitch a ride from a passing car. Somewhere out in L.A., you imagine, Charlie is still nonchalantly wheeling by his more earth-bound inhabitants.

Charlie Chaplin in BEHIND THE SCREEN (1916) – Girls will be boys, boys will be mincing


Like its predecessor The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen is hysterical almost in spite of its plot. The ostensible story is that a wanna-be actress (Edna Purviance) finds that the only way she can get onto a movie set is to dress up as a prop boy, which gets her/him a job when most of the prop men go on strike. But when Chaplin uses the flimsiest excuses on God’s green Earth to work in an epic pie fight and to get Eric Campbell to mince around like a gay stereotype, you know he’s not much interested in plot.

Just the same, there are some priceless moments all throughout. Some of the running gags are superb: There’s one such gag with a trap door that plays like a cartoon. The laws of gravity have nothing to do with this door; it opens, and people don’t fall below, they disappear. My favorite running gag, though, is another of Chaplin’s priceless character observations, wherein Charlie is bustling back and forth across the set and keeps tripping over the same movie camera. It proves what I’ve always believed: Given the vast amounts of space in which they could move around, people will always take the path that gets in others’ way the most.

Post-Keystone, Chaplin didn’t abandon the plots of his movies very often. I guess dressing up Edna Purviance in boys’ clothes must have gotten him a little rattled.

Charlie Chaplin in THE ADVENTURER (1917) – The end of an era


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Adventurer is bittersweet in more ways than one. It begins with Charlie as the ultimate loner (an escaped convict) and comes full circle to that point by movie’s end. Also, it’s funny enough, hardly Chaplin’s worst short. And yet, considering some of the inspired flights of fancy that preceded it, it seems a sort of shoulder-shrugging way for Chaplin to have ended his fruitful Mutual period.

The movie begins with Charlie on the run from a full coterie of cops, on the edge of a beach. (The outdoor scenery, by the way, is lovingly photographed by Rollie Totheroh. Compare the lovely natural settings of movies such as this one and The Pilgrim to Chaplin’s later studio-bound movies, whose “cheap look” is a sore spot among Chaplin’s critics.) This opening section is a bit protracted, since we have a pretty good idea that Charlie will escape anyway.

Charlie swims for it and makes a getaway, eventually arriving at a pier where an egotistic man (Eric Campbell) is flexing his muscles for the benefit of his date (Edna Purviance). Suddenly they hear screams, and they see that a woman is drowning. The logic that follows is a little hazy. Eric takes off his coat as though he’s going to dive in, but then he doesn’t do so; apparently, he can’t swim. Edna, evidently in reaction to Eric’s cowardice, dives in herself, even though she does nothing to help the drowning woman. Charlie happens upon the scene and starts to rescue the drowner. But, in one of Chaplin’s rare gags of genuine cruelty (arse-kicking aside), he sees Edna in the water and decides to dump the drowner and rescue pretty Edna instead.

Eventually, Charlie saves both women as well as Eric (twice – Charlie accidentally knocks him into the drink again), but Eric realizes that Charlie is trying to horn in on Edna, and he will have nothing to do with Charlie.

Both men are taken back to Edna’s home to recuperate. Charlie takes easily to his new, plush surroundings, dressing nattily and mixing drinks for himself every chance he gets. Meanwhile, via a newspaper article, Eric discovers Charlie’s true identity and calls the police. The movie ends with one of Chaplin’s funniest chase scenes, as he ducks and scrambles from myriad cops and Eric.

After the zippy chase scene, the movie disappoints with its ending, with Charlie escaping via what amounts to a throwaway gag, as if Chaplin just wanted to wrap up this movie and finish off his contract – which might well have been the case.

(Actors’ Trivia: The chauffeur in the early part of the movie was played by Chaplin’s real-life chauffeur, Toraichi Kono. Also, the film marks the final movie appearance of Eric Campbell; two months after the film’s release, Campbell died in a car accident exacerbated by his drunken driving.)

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.

Charlie Chaplin in THE COUNT (1916) – Too many silent-comedy counts to count


Oh, Lawdy, another “count” comedy. I’ll just cut to the chase here (literally, almost), because the plot contrivances that lead up to the main storyline aren’t worth the mention.

Charlie and his ex-boss (Eric Campbell) go to a party for Miss Moneybags (Edna Purviance) and impersonate, respectively, a well-to-do count and his secretary. The movie’s funniest scene is probably Charlie and Eric with their partners out on the dance floor, each trying to simultaneously dance and kick each other’s arse.

The low point is probably the dinner scene, which tries to get laughs out of Charlie and Eric’s rude-to-nonexistent table manners, with cutaway shots to the shocked onlookers. This kind of stuff – in fact, the movie’s entire premise – is best left to The Three Stooges.

THE IMMIGRANT (1917) – Charlie Chaplin at his best


(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

One of the many things that bothered me about James Cameron’s overblown romantic epic Titanic (1997) was the way it patted itself on the back for its blatant commentary on America’s class system. Cameron seemed to have forgotten that there was a two-reeler comedy that did the same thing eight decades previous – Chaplin’s The Immigrant – and did it probably for what it cost to light one of Titanic’s chandeliers.

Indeed, it’s kind of surprising that Chaplin stirred criticism where he thought to mix comedy and drama in The Kid four years later, seeing as he’d already done it so skillfully in The Immigrant. This is the perfect Chaplin combination platter: comedy, drama, pathos, symbolism, and yes, a smidgeon of social commentary – all delivered as smoothly and charmingly as you could hope for.

Chaplin plays the title role, a foreigner sailing for America on a rickety ship. Our first view of Charlie is his backside, as he hangs over the edge of the deck, seeming to relieve himself of nausea – only to turn around all smiles, showing off his prize catch of a fresh fish. (Contrast this with Chaplin’s later, far less imaginative A Day’s Pleasure, where he really does try to milk seasickness for ever-diminishing comedy.)


Eventually, Charlie meets up with a female immigrant (Edna Purviance) and her widowed mother. He befriends them and eventually gives them some money he won from gambling on the ship. Then comes the movie’s most famous shot. A title tells us the ship has reached “the Land of Liberty,” followed by a long shot of the Statue of Liberty, followed by Charlie and his shipmates being roped off like cattle before they can be let off the ship. (At least Charlie gets off a good kick to the guy doing the roping.)

The movie’s second half shows Charlie finding a coin on the street and using it to dine at a cheap restaurant. There, he reunites with Edna. In a perfect economy of action, Charlie (and we) see Edna alone and in black and immediately deduce that her sickly mother has passed on. Charlie expresses his sorrow and then tries to make the best of things, offering to buy dinner for Edna.


Then Charlie and Edna see a customer get batted about by the restaurant’s burly waiter (Eric Campbell) because he lacked a dime on his dinner bill. We’ve already seen the waiter get assertive with Charlie because he couldn’t take a hint to remove his hat in the restaurant. (Eric and Charlie’s hat routine will strike a chord with any Laurel & Hardy buff. In fact, much of this second half’s premise seems to have been bodily lifted for later use in the L&H short Below Zero [1930].)

Trying to assure himself, Charlie reaches into his pocket…and reaches…and reaches…and realizes the coin has fallen out. Chaplin manages to milk a good deal of business out of Charlie trying to avoid the waiter’s suspicious glare and to figure out how he will pay the bill.

As luck would have it, a nearby customer (Chaplin veteran Henry Bergman) is an artist who finds Edna and Charlie worthy subjects for his next painting. He confirms a deal with them and gives Charlie a couple of dollars in advance. In what is easily one of Chaplin’s most satisfying endings (emotionally and story-wise), Charlie drags coy Edna into the office of a local justice of the peace, to use the money to buy a marriage license for them.

The Immigrant is even more astonishing once you view the first segment of the astounding documentary Unknown Chaplin, which details the origins of many of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies. The Immigrant began as Chaplin’s vague idea of a comedy of manners, but it wandered aimlessly until Chaplin connected the dots and included the immigration concept. I wonder if Titanic began that modestly.