Friday, March 23, 2012

Charlie Chaplin Focus: Reviews of 4 Short Films for Mutual

These four short comedies by Chaplin are from volume 3 of a three volume set known as The Chaplin Mutuals comprising all 12 comedies he made for the Mutual company in 1916.

In Chaplin’s first short film for Mutual, The Floorwalker, he plays a customer in a retail store who becomes unwittingly mixed up in an embezzlement scheme involving the store’s manager and floorwalker. This is made possible by his uncanny resemblance to the floorwalker which provides for an oft repeated (most famously by the Marx brothers) classic bit in which Chaplin and his doppelganger (Lloyd Bacon) play like they’re each looking in a mirror at the other. What starts as another episode of the bumbling Tramp acting the fool becomes a classic mistaken identity comedy as the store manager (Eric Campbell) takes him for the man who betrayed him for the cash embezzlement. The Floorwalker is notable for being the first film to use an escalator for comedy which provides Chaplin some great physical comedy centered on one character chasing another down the ‘up’ escalator with neither of them moving anywhere. The climax features an elevator as well, the two working together to add a new level to Chaplin’s comedic work.

In One A.M., Chaplin’s fourth film in his contract with Mutual, he stages a one man show complete with an assortment of props used to sometimes ingenious comic effect. Chaplin plays a wealthy man who arrives home after a night out apparently drinking. At first he can’t get in the door, having left his key inside. So he climbs through the window to retrieve the key only to then climb back out so he can unlock the door properly from the outside. Once inside his stately entryway decked out in animal skin rugs and a rotating table adorned with more alcohol, his drunken buffoonery begins.

I feel like One A.M. has a tedious structure which involves lots of pratfalls and mugging for the camera. It lacks a bit of the sophistication of many of his other short films and certainly of his feature films later in his career as he derives none of the comedy from the situation – all of it is based on found props. Many of the big setups are telegraphed ahead of time. When we see a hideaway bed we know the comic possibilities are nearly endless and Chaplin bilks it for better than 5 minutes of screen time. This is an adventurous choice to make a short comedy with only one character. Chaplin honestly makes the most of it, but I much prefer his more complex stories.

He makes great use of props again in The Pawnshop, his sixth in the Mutual series. The major difference here being that his comedy is set amid a story, laden with additional characters, that gives more pathos to the Tramp and so it holds your attention more strongly. The Tramp takes a job in a pawnshop and doesn’t get along well with one of his coworkers (John Rand), but the pawnbroker’s daughter (Edna Purviance) catches his attention and gives him reason to stay.

The comedy in this vignette is more natural, fitting the story well, and is also just plain funnier. There’s a wonderful sequence involving a ladder that is both balletic and funny in a way only Chaplin was capable of. This is also one of the only times I can recall Chaplin winking at the audience and at the tricks behind the filmmaking when he reveals the sponge quality of the hammer he’s just used to hit someone on the head.

Chaplin’s eighth film for Mutual is titled The Rink and concerns a restaurant waiter (Chaplin) who goes to the roller skating rink during his break. The story here is a means to showcasing Chaplin’s great ability on roller skates. It is a brilliant display of his dance-like beauty on wheels and an absolutely genius sequence of physical comedy.

One little note that I found interesting: in the part of an obese woman come to eat in the restaurant who has to fall to the floor and be the butt of some other humiliating jokes at the expense of her weight, Chaplin cast a man as if to remain a gentleman in refusing to subject an overweight woman to such humiliation.

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