Silent Saturday: 4 from Chaplin's Mutual Comedies

1916-17 comedy two-reelers

Rating: n/r

As much as I love both Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, I'm not sure I've seen all of their shorts. I've seen more than most people but definitely not all of them. Especially with Chaplin, I don't even think I could look at a list of everything he made and tell you which ones I've seen and which ones I've not seen. This collection includes all the work he did for the Mutual Film Corporation where I guess he had a bit more autonomy than he did with Keystone and Essanay. For the most part, he plays a different character in each of these, not just the Tramp character. He also got paid a butt load of cash for these.

I thought I'd throw them on here in four-film installments in the order they appear on the dvd.

The Floorwalker

If nothing else, this improbable and only mildly-amusing comedy can teach people a new word as Chaplin is credited as playing an Impecunious Customer. The story concerns our impish hero trading identities with an embezzling doppelganger to avoid trouble and ending up in more trouble. The stars of this short might be the facial hair of various characters. Eric Campbell, who like a lot of the performers seems to be in most of these, even brings a solid eyebrow game. My favorite character might be the peculiar-looking old man played by James T. Kelley. He plays "Lift Boy" and just looks like the type of fellow who never ever could have existed at all if it wasn't for silent film screens.

The story doesn't make sense, and the short isn't terribly funny. There's some fun with an escalator, and then there's a little more fun with an escalator, and then there's a moment when you realize they're really going to continue escalator gags through the point where they cease being funny into a period where they somehow almost-but-not-quite become funny again. There's also some humorous ebullient dancing, and it's always fun to watch Chaplin being choked by a much-larger man, especially if that much-larger man has eyebrows like Eric Campbell.

The Fireman

Fire-drill choreography in this reminded me of something Tati did with postmen a few decades later. I'm not sure when the music accompanying this was composed, but I don't think I've ever heard that much slide-whistle action. This short also isn't anything great although I believe it's Clint Howard's first role. Chaplin plays an inept firefighter in this one. There's also some scheming going on with the father of the love interest (Edna Purviance, who is in a bunch of these) and the fire chief who happens to be Eric Campbell. None of that really makes any sense, and the comedic situations that are set up don't really make up for it.

If you long for the days when kicks to the butts were funny, however, this is probably the short for you. There's probably more butt-kicks per frame in this than in any other movie I've ever seen. There's also a nice action scene where Chaplin scales a building and rescues a dummy that winds up having completely different hair color than Edna Purviance. At least I think it was Chaplin. It was all filmed with the climber's back to the camera, so unlike with Harold Lloyd where you can see his face the entire time, you just can't be sure who it was.

The Vagabond

Now this was a good one, but not necessarily for its comedy. Here, Chaplin plays a street performer who wanders off, meets a girl being abused by gypsies, rescues that girl, and then falls in love. This is more romance and action than comedy with a great deal of pathos in the former foreshadowing what was to come in most of Chaplin's feature-length films.

There's a terrific opening shot of Chaplin's feet shown approaching below one of those swinging saloon double doors. Man, I liked that shot a lot. The funniest chunk of this short is right at the beginning as inhabitants of the bar, as well as a rival batch of street musicians, chase Chaplin in a scene that takes advantage of the fact that the establishment has two entrances. From there, you get some physical abuse that might be a little too cruel (a whip?), a hideous gypsy woman who looks like a witch, assault with a tree branch, and a love triangle that doesn't have nearly enough time to develop. Oh, and the goofiest title card I've seen in a while, one that reads "I will learn to paint, kiddie." I will learn to paint, kiddie? What?

Still, this one holds up really well as a nice little dramatic comedy short. And I think I just learned that Charlie Chaplin was left handed. Either I knew that at one point and completely forgot or never knew that. He definitely plays the violin like a left-hander though.

One A.M.

This one could almost be called experimental. It's essentially a Chaplin one-man show, the only other character being a taxi driver played by Albert Austin, a guy who showed off his impressive mustache in a bunch of these. But the taxi driver is gone after the first couple minutes, and it's just a drunk Chaplin, playing a rich guy here, trying to get to his bed. There's great physical comedy as he battles things in his house and performs some mild but impressive stunts, and this one gave me a good chuckle. There's a good use of carpet, stairs, taxidermied animals, a fish bowl, a pendulum, a spinning table, and one of those beds that folds into the wall. Oh, and a car door. Chaplin makes great use of what is essentially just three sets--the taxi, the front room of his house, and his bedroom--and although a few of the sequences go on way too long (he falls down the stairs more times than I could count and runs atop a table for what seems to be five minutes), it's all pretty funny.

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