Crash Course: Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies 1916-1917

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

Two Years ago I engaged in a special project where I watched and wrote a capsule review of all nineteen of the Buster Keaton short films featured in Kino’s “Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923” Blu-Ray.  I’ve long wanted to replicate this with the work of Charlie Chaplin but that is a much more daunting process.  Keaton had a relatively brief career in short film, at least as a headlining star before moving on to features while Chaplin’s short film career goes back to 1914 and involves four separate series of shorts with four different studios, which makes a complete retrospective a little harder.  He began at Keystone Films (yes, of Keystone Kops fame), then moved on to a studio called Essanay, then to Mutual, and finally with First National before moving on to feature length work.  I watched the First National shorts a while back because they were included in the M2K DVD boxed set but I’ve never gone back and looked at his pre-1918 work.  It would probably make more sense to start from the very beginning if I were to do a complete retrospective, but instead since I’ve already watched the First National work I’ve instead opted to sort of go in reverse chronological order and start with the Mutual films included in Flicker Alley’s excellent boxed set.

Chaplin was pretty close to being an overnight success as he emerged as a screen actor.  He achieved clear success at Keystone and over the course of his time at Essanay he continued to evolve and quickly became a superstar.  In 1916, only two years after his screen debut, he was already pretty much the most famous screen comedian in the world and was in a position to get a huge payday and greater independence when he signed on to his next studio.  The result was a record setting contract that would earn Chaplin $670,000 for a one year/12 film series of shorts with Mutual Films that would actually end up taking 18 months to complete.  Mutual was a studio which isn’t particularly well known today because most of its non-Chaplin movies are lost, but they were a pretty big force at the time and would eventually be absorbed into another company, which was itself absorbed into RKO Radio Pictures.  Whatever that company’s problems they were clearly a good home for a young Charlie Chaplin as he was able to further evolve his style there across this series of fascinating and hilarious shorts.

The Floorwalker (5/15/1916)

Chaplin’s first short for Mutual was a fairly straightforward slapstick piece called The Floorwalker which involves The Little Tramp switching places with a department store supervisor who happens to look a lot like him.  The film is perhaps most famous for the first scene where he meets this doppelganger (played by a guy named Lloyd Bacon) and they momentarily think they’re looking at each other in a mirror and mimic each other’s motions.  I’ve long credited this little bit to the Marx Brothers and would still argue that they perfected it but this predates their uses of the gag in Duck Soup by nearly two decades.  It’s entirely possible that this skit has its origins in vaudeville and neither comic originated it, but either way it’s cool to discover that Chaplin has some claim to yet another classic bit.  The film is also notable for being the first comic short to employ an escalator for slapstick hijinks, an idea that Buster Keaton would elaborate on later.  This is far from Chaplin’s most sophisticated work but it has some quality physical comedy in it and given the huge paycheck that Chaplin had just cashed it is understandable that he’d want to deliver a simple audience pleasing hit before he started experimenting.

The Fireman (6/12/1916)

This second Mutual film from Chaplin is another piece that’s heavy on slapstick but this time he isn’t in his “little tramp” persona.  Instead he’s playing an inept firefighter who causes all sorts of chaos in the station through his silly antics.  The film certainly has a simpler plot than “The Floorwalker” and some of the slapstick antics here are not the most sophisticated (some of it literally involves people getting kicked in the butt).  On top of that, the whole clumsy shtick is a little less charming when it could result in someone’s house getting burned down, which might have worked if I thought this was going for a really pitch black tone but I don’t know that that’s what’s going on here.  There are still definitely comedy sequences here that make the film worth a look and it also gains some interest simply because its interesting to see what a fire station circa 1916 would look like, complete with horse drawn firetruck and phones that link to direct lines that are hitched to outdoor phone poles.

The Vagabond (7/10/1916)

With his third Mutual short Chaplin started to break away from his usual formula and experiment.  Here Chaplin starts injecting some of that signature Chaplin comedic pathos into the proceedings.  I don’t think this was his first movie to mix a little comedy with tragedy, I’ve been told there were Essanay shorts that did things like that as well but this one is probably an important stepping stone just the same.  The short features the little tramp heading out to the countryside and rescues a young woman from a group of gypsies that apparently abducted her at a young age, which leads into a love triangle between her, the tramp, and a painter… alright that description makes this sound kind of loopy, but its internal logic makes a little more sense when you’re actually watching the film and these developments happen one at a time.  To some extend Chaplin may have gone a little too far towards pathos and the back half of this short almost seems to eschew comedy entirely and the first half isn’t particularly overburdened with huge bits of physical comedy either, but you can tell that Chaplin is getting closer and closer to getting that formula right.

One A.M. (8/7/1916)

The fourth film in this series is a return to broad slapstick but a departure in a couple of other ways.  Here Chaplin is playing a very rich man (obvious the furthest thing from the Tramp) who is arriving home after a night of heavy drinking and the whole film involves watching this drunk try to settle himself in and get some sleep but can’t because his drunken antics keep getting in the way.   If the 1992 biopic Chaplin is to be believed it was his ability to do a comic drunk onstage that first landed Chaplin a job in the movies and this short would seem to be an attempt to recapture that character.  Aside from the taxi driver who drops this rich drunk off Chaplin is the one and only performer in this short and the film entirely focuses on how this drunk is his own worst enemy as he consistently fails to complete simple tasks like climb up stairs and set up his bed (which is one of those best that folds into walls and seemingly only exist in movies where never work as intended).  The film is a great showcase of Chaplin’s pantomime ability but the lack of other characters does hurt the pacing a bit and each extended gag does seem to go on just a little bit longer than you’d like it to.

The Count (9/4/1916)

One of the weaker of Chaplin’s Mutual shorts, “The Count” has Chaplin playing a tailor’s apprentice who happens to look a lot like the tramp (it isn’t entirely clear what does and doesn’t officially count as a “little tramp” film) who finds himself imitating a Count in order to court the daughter of a wealthy family.  This might be a good time to talk about Eric Campbell, who is a performer in most of the Mutual shorts who often played the “heavy” to Chaplin’s “little guy” characters.  He has a bigger role here than usual which is unfortunate because he’s a bit miscast as the tailor and this wasn’t really the best showcase of his skills.  The guy looks more like a blacksmith than a tailor for one thing; also he doesn’t exactly look like the kind of guy who would try to pass himself off as royalty.  What’s more I’m not exactly sure this was the best scenario for the little tramp, or at least a Chaplin character who looks a lot like him.  There’s some enjoyable stuff here, don’t get me wrong, just not one of Chaplin’s better offerings.

The Pawnshop (10/2/2016)

For Chaplin’s follow-up to “The Count” he once again cast himself as an apprentice to a tradesman, this time a pawnbroker rather than a tailor.  The pawnbroker is played by a man named Henry Bergman who would continue to work with Chaplin all through his silent film career including the features up through Modern Times.  I think the pawnbroker he plays here is supposed to be Jewish, which is notable because Chaplin manages to avoid most of the negative stereotypes that a Jewish pawnbroker character easily could have fallen into.  In fact it’s pretty admirable how well Chaplin throughout his career was able to avoid a lot of the casually politically incorrect material that would mar a lot of his contemporaries’ legacies.  Looking past that this is a cute little story about a pawnbroker’s assistant using slapstick antics to foil an attempted robbery.  It’s probably most famous for a scene where Chaplin examines an alarm clock that a patron tries to put in hock and pretty much takes it apart piece by piece.  This reminded me of the sit down pantomime of the famous “bread on forks” gag from The Gold Rush.  Not Chaplin’s best but certainly solid.

Behind the Screen (11/13/1916)

For the third time in a row Chaplin plays the assistant to a tradesman, this time as the assistant to the production manager of a Hollywood film.  Films about filmmaking are almost always worth paying special attention to as it’s a subject that filmmakers obviously have a special insight into and when a film is commenting on filmmaking in 1916 that’s all the more interesting.  This short doesn’t seem terribly metatextual and mostly just uses a film set as an interesting place to cause some chaos but there is still an interest in seeing these archaic cameras as well as the film’s light parody of the archetypes of early silent films like the mustache twirling villain.  Naturally the set erupts into sheer pandemonium after twenty minutes of slapstick antics with everything culminating in a massive pie fight.  The film has also caught the attention of queer theorists for a sub-plot where Edna Purviance masquerades as a man and kisses Chaplin (who knows she’s a woman) only to cause a surprised reaction by a bystander who believes he’s witnessing a homosexual act.  This joke would be homophobic by the most modern of standards but there’s something interesting and bold about an old movie even bringing up the concept of homosexuality in a somewhat overt way like that even for a throwaway joke.  I wasn’t such a fan of another sub-plot where other stagehands immediately go on strike over a petty grievence and suddenly turn into full on anarchists shortly thereafter.  I’m no expert on labor-relations circa 1916 but depicting union activity like this does seem a bit dumb to me.

The Rink (12/4/1916)

Setting a silent comedy short in a roller rink is a concept that has a lot of promise and for the most part Chaplin’s “The Rink” delivers on that comic potential and does so in some fairly surprising ways.   My first assumption when I heard that premise was that it would feature the tramp being his usual klutzy self and causing chaos amongst a bunch of otherwise well-meaning skaters but the film actually does the opposite.  Chaplin proves to be a roller skating expert with ballet level rolling skills and everyone else proves to be clumsy on their feet as he does circles around them and cause him to crash.  The thing is, the fact that it’s Chaplin who moves with confidence kind of forces him to change his persona in this one.  Rather than playing his usual well-meaning character who stumbles into trouble, his character here is kind of a cocky jerk, and this especially comes out during the sub-plot in which Chaplin plays a crappy restaurant waiter who seems to actively seek out mischief out of sheer dickishness.  That whole restaurant plotline feels like it could be dropped actually as it doesn’t blend terribly well with the excellent roller rink plot, but those skating scenes are so well staged that it’s hard to really care.

Easy Street (1/22/1917)

In the back third of Chaplin’s contract with Mutual he asked to be allowed more time to work on each short and was granted that breathing room by the studio and it’s widely considered that the output improved noticeably and that the last four shorts of the series were the highlights as a result.  Judging from the first of these four, “Easy Street,” that definitely seems to be the case.  The short sees a tramp-like character arriving at a mission and being inspired to become an unlikely police officer who must then patrol the most ridiculously dangerous street in the city.  As often happens Chaplin’s character manages to idiot savant his way into a happy ending but it feels like there’s a whole lot more going for this one than usual.  The set is more elaborate, the gags feel more meticulously choreographed, and the story arc feels like it’s been given more care and attention.  The running time for this short isn’t any longer than any of the other shorts but it certainly feels longer, and not in a bad way.  It just feels more complete and more detailed.  I maybe could have done without the broad moralizing with the mission (which notably isn’t explicitly shown to be Christian) representing order and the street representing chaos and the film’s grasp of societal ills is certainly simplistic to the point of being naive if you want to take it too seriously, but as a comic short it’s a notable achievement.

The Cure (4/16/1917)

After the triumph of “Easy Street” I was pretty excited to see where Chaplin would go with the second of the final four Mutual shorts and as such I was a little disappointed with what I got.  With “The Cure” Chaplin is once again playing a rich alcoholic and revolves around this alcoholic entering himself into a spa/rehab clinic and bringing along a big case of liquor that would soon cause all sorts of trouble.  This certainly isn’t a bad short but it would have fit in pretty well with the first eight of the Mutual shorts rather than the final four which are supposed to be this great leap forward.  There are certainly some good gags here and the short appears to be poking fun at health spas in an interesting way given that the clinic in question appears to be using quack remedies.  There are some good bits in the film and its chaotic ending is certainly a highlight but something about it never really clicked with me.

The Immigrant (6/17/1917)

“The Immigrant” is likely the most famous of Chaplin’s Mutual shorts in no small part because its theme of immigrants coming across the Atlantic makes the film all the more interesting.  Chaplin always believed that there was a fine line between comedy and tragedy, so it is not out of character for him to have made a comedy short about the often rather miserable transatlantic voyages that brought the huddled masses to America.  These early sections on the boat are in fact quite good.  Chaplin employs an exaggerated tilting effect in his set and camera work in order to give the illusion of a ship rocking with the waves which allowed for a lot of innovative slapstick gags.  Really great stuff.  However, I do feel like I have to dock points from this short because the second half of it feels like a different movie.  The whole immigration angle kind of goes away in the film and it transitions into this other skit about Chaplin losing a coin in a restaurant and while that bit is amusing in itself it isn’t nearly as good as what was in the first half.

The Adventurer (10/22/1917)

Of all the Mutual shorts Chaplin had the most time to make this last film of the series, “The Adventurer,” and it was clearly worth the wait because it’s probably the best of the twelve.  The film is bookended by two great set-pieces, one where Chaplin is an escaped convict evading the police and the other where he’s discovered trying to blend into society and again evades the police.  In between these two set pieces is some of that melodrama that Chaplin would eventually become known for being able to mix in with his comedy.  In this sense the film resembles “The Vagabond” but with stronger comedic elements and a simpler story.  If “The Emigrant” served as a sort of unofficial origin story for “the little tramp” this feels almost like a sort of defining twist in his life with him flirting with respectability only to definitely returning to the fringe at the end… and humiliating a few cops along the way.  It’s really amazing that this short has the exact same running time as some of the other ones, it feels like it fits so much more into the same canvas than some of the other shorts here and serves as a great sort of season finale for the whole Mutual series.

Final Thoughts

Historical perspective is probably key in appreciating these particular shorts.  Film lovers have this questionable habit of lumping silent movies together into the “silent era” when in fact film was rapidly evolving through much of this rather lengthy era.  Had these movies been made in the later twenties, the era where Chaplin’s features were continueing to break ground they might be a little less impressive.  Even if they were made in the early twenties, the era when Buster Keaton was making his series of groundbreaking shorts, they might not have been as impressive.  But these movies were made in the 19 teens.  Hell, most of them came out the same year as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance.  That’s some pioneering stuff.  Chaplin’s career was a long evolution and these twelve shorts captured that evolution right when he was first becoming a force that was so popular that he was going to be given the freedom to really change cinema.  It’s fascinating stuff but I will say I was just a little disappointed just the same.  I’ve heard people claim that these shorts were the peak of his talents and I certainly disagree with that.  I would also say that overall I enjoyed this less than the Buster Keaton shorts I looked at a couple of years ago, but that’s an unfair comparison for a number of reasons.  These shorts gave me a better appreciation of where Chaplin came from and where he eventually went and when I finally get around to watching those Essanay and Keystone shorts I suspect my understanding will be even greater.

I’m not too inclined to give these movies star ratings (at the end of the day they’re all great and important even if some are clearly better than others) but I will leave an ordered ranking:

1. The Adventurer
2. Easy Street
3. One A.M.
4. The Rink
5. The Immigrant
6. The Vagabond
7. The Cure
8. Behind the Screen
9. The Floorwalker
10. The Pawnshop
11. The Fireman
12. The Count

 

 

 

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