“Love backed by force, forgiveness sweet, brings hope and peace to Easy Street”
“Fulfilling my contract with Mutual was, I suppose, the happiest period of my life.” Charlie Chaplin had good reason to be happy with the Mutual contract, signed in 1916. He was being paid $600,000 (more than $10 million in today’s money) to produce twelve two-reelers in twelve months. Chaplin’s extravagant contract freed him from the low-budget, assembly-line atmosphere that he detested at both Keystone and Essanay.1 Mutual gave him a virtually unlimited budget and virtually unlimited control of the content of the two-reelers, although Chaplin’s ultimate goal – to make feature films and to own them outright – still remained beyond his grasp.
Given the complete control Chaplin had over the films, the twelve Mutuals are not as Chaplinesque as one might expect. In only one –Easy Street, the greatest – does he appear as an actual tramp. Only one – The Vagabond – has the deliberate pathos of The Tramp and The Bank, and in The Vagabond Charlie gets Edna instead of losing her. In fact, most of the shorts end quite happily.
An unhurried shooting schedule allowed Chaplin to discard forever the mindless sadism that consumes so much screen time in early films like His New Job and By the Sea. He could take as much time as he wanted to craft and polish his gags, and shoot them over and over until the execution matched his concept.
Although Chaplin was fascinated, almost overwhelmed, by D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), which he saw over and over again, Griffith’s innovative camerawork made little impression. By and large, Chaplin focused on his performance. The camera was there to record it. But his real limitation was plotting. Only Easy Street has a satisfying plot. The Vagabond has the florid, coincidence-laden, “Victorian” plotting that Chaplin would use in both The Kid and City Lights. Films like The Fireman and The Pawnshop rely on simple, boy meets girl plots that any of a dozen comedians could have done. What makes them work are Chaplin’s brilliant gags and Chaplin’s brilliant performances.2
For the first generation to grow up on Chaplin, this is the Charlie they remember – Charlie the clock doctor in The Pawnbroker, Charlie suffocating Eric Campbell with the gas street lamp in Easy Street, Charlie and the maniacal Murphy bed in One AM.
Chaplin brought many of his co-workers from Essanay along with him, most importantly Edna Purviance, of course. They were still lovers, but Chaplin’s skyrocketing popularity, plus Edna’s lack of interest in the high life, were putting a lot of strain on the relationship. A major addition to the Chaplin family was Eric Campbell, a six-four, two-hundred-fifty pound giant destined to be Chaplin’s antagonist in almost all of the Mutuals.
The Floorwalker, Chaplin’s first film at Mutual, does have a fairly coherent plot, though it falls apart at the end. The film opens in a fancy department store and we meet an officious floorwalker (Lloyd Bacon3) who, we come to notice, looks quite a bit like Charlie. After harassing a clerk, Bacon (right) heads upstairs, where he runs into agitated store manager Eric Campbell. “They’re onto us!” exclaims Campbell, after pushing secretary Edna out the door. The two start emptying the contents of the office safe into a Gladstone bag. Meanwhile, downstairs, the real Charlie has entered, and takes advantage of a display of toiletries to give himself a shave. Eventually, Charlie encounters Lloyd and they have an early version of the “mirror” gag. Lloyd “hires” Charlie as his replacement, a switch that leads to a considerable amount of irritation on Eric’s part when Charlie fails to hand over Eric’s share of the cash. The Floorwalker relies on that modern invention the escalator for many of its gags, but the best scene is a face-off between Charlie and Eric. At first Charlie dazzles the lunging big man with his graceful dodges and feints, but when an excess of confidence leads Charlie into a purely aesthetic display of balletic technique,4 a crashing blow from Eric’s fist sends him sprawling head over heels.
The Floorwalker ends abruptly when an elevator smashes down on Eric’s head. Charlie and Edna never have a scene together.
The Fireman, the second film, has a more rudimentary, and more old-fashioned plot. Charlie spends quite a bit of time beating up on his co-workers, though with not quite as much malice as in his earlier films,5 and saves Edna, not all that convincingly, from a burning building.
The Vagabond was easily Chaplin’s most complex – most “serious” – film to date. For the first time he “saves” someone, Edna, kidnapped by Gypsies as a child and kept as a virtual slave ever since.6 In real life Chaplin wanted to save his mother Hannah Chaplin, first from poverty and then from madness, which he was never able to do.7
Chaplin plays a street musician, casting himself as an artist, a step that he took on few occasions.8 As usual, Charlie is not a team player, inadvertently picking up donations intended for a competing group of entertainers. To escape his pursuers, Charlie flees with his violin to the countryside, where he encounters Edna, enslaved by a Gypsy crone (Leo White). Edna’s hair is wildly unkempt and her face is smeared with dirt. Campbell, who usually wore ludicrous false beards or extravagant “kabuki” eye makeup to make himself look ridiculous, plays it straight as a frightening bully who whips Edna mercilessly.
Charlie and Edna’s idyll is broken when a painter (Lloyd Bacon, who appeared as Chaplin’s “double” in The Floorwalker and who will menace Edna as a drug addict in Easy Street) comes across Edna and decides to paint her as “The Living Shamrock,” a reference to her shamrock-shaped birthmark that will eventually lead to Edna’s reunion with her mother. Edna is entranced by this elegant, self-assured, successful man – Charlie’s opposite.9 In a very striking scene, Charlie and Edna stand side by side, each consumed by entirely different thoughts. Edna can think of nothing but the handsome stranger, while Charlie burns in an agony of helpless jealousy.10
Once this painful scene ends, the grotesque plot grinds forward. “The Living Shamrock” is exhibited; Edna’s mother sees it and collapses: “My Baby!” The rich folks come flying into the forest in their gleaming limousine. Charlie’s attempts to impress Edna by sketching her himself have fallen flat. He’s no artist. When the limo arrives, Edna leaps inside, leaving Charlie with infinitely less than nothing. How lucky – how blessed – are those who have never loved! But wait! She’s coming back! It’s Charlie that she really wants!
Chaplin considered ending The Vagabond on a farcical note: the Tramp, distraught, decides to end it all by throwing himself in a lake. A young woman saves him. He starts to embrace her, but wait! She’s ugly! So he jumps back in!
But the wounds Chaplin exposed in The Vagabond were too deep, too personal, and too ugly to plastered over with a gag. Only an openly tragic or truly happy ending would fit, and Chaplin sensibly chose the latter, although, in a two-reeler, he lacked the time to make it convincing.11
One AM (right), Chaplin’s classic solo performance, takes us far, far away from the tormented subtext of The Vagabond. Chaplin is a society drunk, stumbling home alone into a very unwelcoming house, filled with vicious stuffed animals, treacherous staircases, diabolical rugs, pernicious pendulums, and much much more.
After the sustained brilliance of One AM, The Count is a definite step down. It appears likely that the film was originally intended to be “The Tailor,” but Chaplin got bored with the idea half way through. Eric Campbell is the tailor and Charlie is the assistant. When Count Broko12 brings in his coat for some repairs, Eric finds an unsent letter from the count to Mrs. Moneybags, politely declining her invitation to a society costume party. Eric, who evidently nurses pretensions of upward mobility, decides to go in the count’s stead. Coincidentally, Charlie is calling on the cook at the manse where the shindig is taking place. Eric and Charlie run into each other and Eric explains the scam to Charlie: “You can be my secretary,” he says. But Charlie turns the tables on the big guy and says that he’s the count and the Moneybags buy it. His “tramp” costume is a smash! What follows is fairly standard “Charlie versus the swells” material, with Charlie taking to his heels when the police arrive.13
The Pawnshop is a “Charlie on the job” film, quite funny without being all that memorable, with the “marry the old Jew’s daughter” twist right out of The Merchant of Venice.14 Chaplin followed The Pawnshop with Behind the Screen, another “inside Hollywood” film. Edna, desperate to break into pictures, disguises herself as a man and gets a job as a stagehand. When Charlie observes “him” applying makeup, he breaks into derisively effeminate behavior until Edna reveals herself as a woman. Then when Eric Campbell catches them kissing, he starts capering like a gay hippopotamus. Later, there’s an elaborate bit about the invention of pie-fights.15
The Rink is one of the most famous of the Mutuals, although it takes a while to get going. Charlie is a waiter in a restaurant that apparently caters to married flirts. He spends his afternoon at a skating rink, which allows him to show off his astounding coordination, avoiding disaster himself and provoking it in others with effortless savoir-faire.16)
Easy Street ranks easily as one of the greatest comedy shorts ever made – a unique blend of brilliant slapstick and sweet yet tongue in cheek utopian vision. Chaplin transports to Hollywood the Victorian slum of his childhood, which will reappear in The Kid and City Lights. Chaplin’s tramp is seriously down and out here, missing his vest, his collar, his tie, and even his cane – almost naked, really. He’s so desperate he’s even willing to seek charity from a Salvation Army style revival meeting, where, of course, he encounters Edna. Determined to tread the straight and narrow, he chooses an exceedingly high-risk occupation – police officer in the Easy Street precinct.
Easy Street is the dark heart of the urban jungle, whose king, Eric Campbell, rules with a panache, and a lack of subtlety, that would strike envy in the breast of King Kong. Campbell, usually a one-dimensional monster, is wonderfully three-dimensional here, glaring down an army of thugs and dispensing with his would-be captors like a lion swatting cocker spaniels. He’s untamable!
But Charlie does tame him, thanks to a well-aimed stove. But even then, his work isn’t done. Edna is being menaced by a drug fiend (Lloyd Bacon, causing trouble again). Luckily Charlie sits on Lloyd’s needle, and, thanks to the miracle of cocaine,17 a coked-up Charlie takes every ruffian on Easy Street downtown. “Love backed by force, forgiveness sweet, brings hope and peace to Easy Street” announces a dialogue card. The ugly ghetto is transformed into the happy home that Charlie was never able to give his mother.18
In terms of laughs, The Cure is barely a step down from Easy Street. Charlie is a rich dude trying to dry out in a fashionable spa. The “massage/wrestling” sequence, featuring Charlie wiggling his fanny in a bathing suit, must have had audiences roaring.19
Chaplin labored over both The Cure and The Immigrant, shooting as much film for each of these two-reelers as D.W. Griffith expended on Birth of a Nation. The Cure doesn’t have anything more than an intermittent boy meets girl plot to go with the slapstick, but The Immigrant ends with Charlie and Edna racing to the justice of the peace in the pouring rain to get a license. Unlike Easy Street, the happy ending here is very tacked on – the two are saved from poverty by a generous painter who wants to use them as models!20
The Adventurer is probably the least of the Mutuals. Chaplin was surely looking ahead to the new contract he eventually obtained from First National that would allow him to make feature films and ultimately give him ownership of his work. Charlie plays an escaped convict (“The Eel”) who manages to mingle with society folks. He encounters Edna, of course, but it’s scarcely more than a flirtation. The second half of The Adventurer is almost indistinguishable from the second half of The Count.
Image Entertainment is the DVD source for almost all of Chaplin’s early work. Image has released the twelve Mutuals on three DVDs. Both restoration and documentation are excellent. However, the music tends to be repetitious and uninspired, while producer David Shepard insists on taking the opportunity to tack brief, self-congratulatory, and politically correct essays on the front of each short.
Back in the ’80s a series titled The Unknown Chaplin, narrated by James Mason, appeared on public television. The series used extensive outtakes from the Mutuals to demonstrate how Chaplin worked and reworked his material by shooting it over and over again. The Unknown Chaplin used to be available on VHS, but it’s now out of print. A bio of Eric Campbell, called Chaplin’s Goliath, also on VHS, is similarly out of print. (Campbell, who liked to party hearty, barely survived the Mutuals, killing himself in a car crash shortly after completing the series.)
Chaplin’s My Early Years, out of print but available second hand through the web, makes fascinating reading. His My Life in Pictures, also out of print, has wonderful photos and memorabilia. Joyce Milton’s 1996 biography Tramp regards Chaplin short of idolatry, which is as it should be. Jeffrey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003) is pricey but has wonderful photos as well and probably can be gotten second hand at a reduced price.
I’ve written previously about Charlie for Bright Lights. See my author page for links.
- At Keystone Chaplin made 74 films in one year, many of them less than ten minutes long. At Essanay, films were cut as negatives, to save processing costs. Deleted footage was thrown away without ever being developed. [↩]
- How do you plot a two-reeler? Laurel and Hardy, who were, for my money, the best of them all, had two answers: “escalating chaos” and “monumental task.” In You’re Darn Tootin’, Stan and Ollie are band musicians, disrupting a performance in a bandshell. Finally expelled from the band, they flee to a city street, where, eventually, their instruments are destroyed. The ill will generated by this leads first to fisticuffs and then an orgy of shin-kicking and de-pantsing that engulfs dozens of passers-by. Battle of the Century (pies) and Two Tars (cars) offer a similar pattern. “Monumental task” favorites include The Music Box (getting a piano up twenty flights of stairs), Helpmates (cleaning a house), and Towed in a Hole (fixing up a boat). Stan and Ollie (principally Stan, who was the idea man) had a particular knack for “topper” gags that would finish and complete a two-reeler. Chaplin’s two-reelers usually end without a bang. While Stan and Ollie’s silent shorts, including You’re Darn Tootin’, Battle of the Century, and Two Tars, have been on DVD for years (in the “Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy” series), their work in talkies is just starting to appear. Apparently, no one gives a damn about them. [↩]
- Bacon segued into directing in the early twenties and directed over a hundred films. His career was a cavalcade of classic American kitsch, including such films as 42nd Street and Knute Rockne, All American. Most intriguing is the tragically unavailable 1930 version of Moby Dick, starring John Barrymore (who’d done Ahab back in 1916), Joan Bennett as “Faith Mapple” (Father Mapple’s daughter, you idiot), and May Boley in the slippery role of “Whale Oil Rosie.” Almost as intriguing: his penultimate film, The French Line (1954), which presented Jane Russell’s boobs in 3-D, leading to this classic piece of flackery: “See Jane Russell in The French Line – she’ll knock BOTH your eyes out!” [↩]
- As is obvious from Chaplin’s performance, he had been studying ballet to help improve his act. He appeared in newsreels performing basic balletic exercises, though so far as I know he never tried to perform as a dancer. In his few dancing scenes with Edna he spends most of his time trying to kick Eric Campbell in the butt. [↩]
- It’s a case, really, of malign neglect as opposed to sadistic intent. [↩]
- Yeah, yeah. He saved Edna in The Fireman. Don’t be so fucking literal! [↩]
- “Look up, Hannah! Look up!” cries Charlie in The Great Dictator. [↩]
- In The Face on the Barroom Floor, an early Keystone, Chaplin plays a painter. Since I’ve never seen the film, I have no idea what it’s about. A still shows Chaplin surrounded by nude statues, which come up frequently in his work. The Mutuals, for some reason, have few nudes, though they do appear in Behind the Screen. [↩]
- Chaplin obviously saw Bacon as his “opposite/double,” a notion that he played with persistently, though not too explicitly, in many of his later films. He seemed to see traditional artists as opposites/doubles. In The Tramp Charlie loses Edna to a “poet.” In The Kid, a society painter gets Edna pregnant. In A Woman of Paris, the full-length feature that Chaplin directed in an attempt to make Edna a star in her own right, Edna’s mama’s boy boyfriend is a painter. [↩]
- As he did in The Bank, and as he will do again in City Lights, Chaplin nervously covers his mouth with his long, delicate fingers, a classic sign of emotional distress. [↩]
- The Bank (1915) has a much better plot – Charlie winning Edna in what turns out to be a dream sequence and ending up kissing a mop – but Charlie’s suffering isn’t made nearly as intense. Chaplin would expand on The Vagabond‘s plot in The Circus (1928), the least known of his feature-length silent films, and this time would give audiences an unhappy ending. [↩]
- Because he’s broke! Get it? [↩]
- The plot of the second half of The Count is quite similar to The Jitney Elopement, which Charlie did with Edna for Essanay in 1915. But Edna seems strangely uninterested in Charlie this time around, who, in turn, seems more attracted to a harem girl (Leota Bryan, perhaps) than Edna. [↩]
- Fortunately, the old Jew isn’t robbed of all his wealth, nor is he forced to convert to Christianity. Sometimes, you can improve on Shakespeare! [↩]
- “What am I supposed to do with this?” “Throw it against the wall.” “That’s not funny. Throw it at him.” [↩]
- One strange bit, involving a young woman vigorously swinging her leg back and forth, is about female masturbation, according to Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton. (Well, she should know. [↩]
- Cocaine gags were fairly common in early two-reelers. In an early Harold Lloyd short, Harold revives his Model T with an injection. [↩]
- Chaplin’s acceptance of adulthood in Easy Street is remarkable. He’s a husband and a cop! How square can you get? Chaplin never showed such maturity again. [↩]
- While in his bathing suit, Chaplin strikes a pose from a once famous/infamous picture, September Morn. Supposedly, a publicist concocted the idea of hiring small boys to stare at the chaste nude while it was displayed in the window of a Manhattan gallery. September Morn was a near equal of American Gothic as a source of gags well into the fifties, but unlike Grant Wood’s masterpiece it didn’t survive the sixties. [↩]
- The painter this time around is not tall and handsome but short and fat, the actor Henry Bergman (above), who became one of Charlie’s most devoted yes-men and appeared in many of his films. Bergman must have had an irritating personality, because every Chaplin biographer emphasizes that he “never married” and that he “frequently appeared as a woman.” [↩]