Charlie Chaplin in THE BANK (1915) – Charlie as not-quite-a-hero

Bank

(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

The Bank is a mixed short, beginning with terrific comedy and ending with pathos that Chaplin hasn’t yet quite figured out how to juggle. But it’s a worthy try.

Charlie is a bank janitor, and the movie begins with one of Chaplin’s most celebrated gags: Charlie elaborately using several combinations to open a vast bank safe, as though his fortune rested inside, only to reach inside and pull out his daily janitor’s uniform. And the byplay between Chaplin and Billy Armstrong, as a rival janitor, is wonderful; a full third of the movie goes by with just the slapstick interplay between them, and it’s hysterical.

Then Chaplin aims for pathos. The bank secretary (Edna Purviance) has bought a tie as a birthday gift for her boyfriend, the head teller Charles (Carl Stockdale). She writes a card for it, “To Charles, With Love, From Edna,” and leaves it at her typewriter, where Charlie sees it and mistakes it as a gift for himself. What would have been played out as farce in the Keystone days in here played a tad seriously, as Edna haughtily snubs Charlie in even a plautonic mode. One can easily see what Chaplin was getting at, so we’re willing to cut him some slack, though the woe-is-me routine goes on a tad too long.

Then there’s that ending. The bank gets robbed, Charles leaves Edna behind in cowardice, and Charlie is left to thwart the whole mess — which he does, quite splendidly. In fact, Chaplin mostly eschews laughs here, playing the bank robbery straight and showing the strenuousness Charlie goes through to make things right. It’s all the more disheartening, then, when after Charlie is made to be a hero, we find out that (all together now)…it was only a dream.

Based on the evidence here, Chaplin wanted pathos but didn’t quite feel that the situation added up to it — which is too bad, since he played the hero pretty honestly. Why couldn’t he have gone all the way and won the girl?

But if The Bank is a failure, it’s a most honorable one. And Chaplin would get the pathos right soon enough.

Charlie Chaplin in/as A WOMAN (1915)

AWoman

(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

A Woman was Chaplin’s third and final film of female impersonation. You might say that this is the one where he really got it right.

The first half is the familiar Keystone scenario of putting some characters in a park and letting some comedy happen. A man is out on a Sunday stroll with his daughter (Edna Purviance) and his wife, both of whom fall asleep on a bench, giving the man a chance to make time with another nearby woman. While the man is off fetching a soda for the woman, Charlie happens upon the scene and makes time with her as well.

The man returns and knocks Charlie out for Round One. But then the woman blindfolds the man and plays hide-and-seek with him. Charlie comes to and gets hold of the man himself. Charlie leads the blindfolded man to a nearby pond, and you just know what’s going to happen, but Chaplin extends the gag beautifully: He sticks his cane into the pond, determines that the water isn’t deep enough to drown the man, and leads the man further down the pond before undoing his blindfold and knocking him into the drink.

Charlie happens upon the snoozing women and makes time with the daughter, who invites Charlie back to her house. The father eventually returns to the house and goes for Round Two with Charlie, who knocks the man out temporarily and then retreats upstairs. Charlie finds a woman’s dress and decides to play dress-up; Edna happens onto him and encourages him, bringing him downstairs to introduce to Daddy as an old friend of hers.

The surprising thing is how instantly womanly Charlie is. In his book The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr says that the Tramp character’s strength and his undoing is that he can be whatever the situation requires: Ask him to be a boxer, he instantly turns into one; ask him to be a skater, and he’s the most fluid thing on wheels. (Kerr sees the downside as: Since this man can be everything, he can’t really be anything – he can’t be a single person, himself.) This movie asks Charlie to be a woman, and without the slightest bit of campiness, he delivers in spades. There are a couple of purse-lipped close-ups of Charlie-as-woman that must have sent some gender-benders of 1915 into spasms of delight.

The movie’s ending is roustabout, of course. It’s those moments that Chaplin “delivers” a woman without irony are the most interesting and funniest bits of A Woman.