10 August 2008

Chaplin at Mutual (1916-1917)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / Twelve shorts, 231 mins.

Although he had made dozens of short films with Keystone and Essanay Studios, Charles Chaplin's career can't be said to have wholly taken off until he moved to Mutual Studios in 1916. He was only 27-years-old and had been making motion pictures for only two years, but Mutual signed him for $600,000 (or more than the equivalent of $10 million today) and gave him a production budget and creative control that were practically unlimited. In the year he spent at Mutual he wrote, directed, and starred in twelve two-reel shorts (commonly known today as "the Chaplin Mutuals," appropriately enough), which had a tremendous influence on silent comedy and his career. Soon Chaplin would be an international movie star – really the first person to claim that title – and people from all languages would immediately recognize the man with the black derby, over-sized suit, stylish cane, and toothbrush mustache. Looking back fifty years later in autobiography, Chaplin mused his year with Mutual might have been the happiest of his career.

You can see the happiness, too. When Chaplin left Essenay he brought a preferred cast with him, including Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Lloyd Bacon, and Edna Purviance (his standard leading lady and at-the-time romantic fling). The repetition of familiar faces in many different roles throughout the Mutual shorts produces the feeling of a vaudeville troupe. Not all of the shorts are brilliant successes (as his career progressed and with each move, from Mutual to First National and then to United Artists, Chaplin's successes became stronger and more consistent), but they are all nevertheless charming and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny across the board. Even the so-called "worst" of the Mutual shorts is entertaining.

In these early films Chaplin perfected his favorite characters – the Tramp for himself, the rest of his cast filled with working-class people pushing against buffoonish and angry authority figures – and laced the plots with his typical biting satire. A Chaplin character and his boss each vie in silly ways for the affection of a rich heiress in The Count (1916), and in The Adventurer (1917) Chaplin plays an escaped convict who bluffs his way through high society. The Cure (1917) takes the impolitic to a whole new level when Chaplin plays a drunk who checks himself into a drying-out facility, along with a trunk full of alcohol.

The shorts also allowed him to perfect the art of slapstick. In his first film for Mutual, The Floorwalker (1916), Chaplin plays a customer in a department store who discovers the floor manager is conspiring to embezzle funds. Naturally the hapless Chaplin character foils the plot along with performing a "mirror image" gag with the thief and a well-placed "running staircase" (escalator) that provides ample fodder. The Fireman (1916) allowed Chaplin to display his impressive athleticism; as a freshman firefighter he scales the outside of a burning building to save a woman trapped within, action that foreshadows the physical feats of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. The Cure provides some of the zaniest slapstick from the entire twelve shorts as Chaplin and two others struggle with a revolving door.

The Pawnshop (1916) and Behind the Screen (1916) further the slapstick, with the first involving a delicate balancing act on a ladder and the second involving a strategically placed trapdoor. Behind the Screen also exemplifies Chaplin's humanity for his characters; his stagehand character has coworkers who go on strike and he falls for a woman so poor she masquerades as a man to get work. The same compassion occurs in The Vagabond (1916); as a wandering musician, Chaplin's Tramp character tries to help an abused gypsy girl, and the film relies more on tender humor for smiles rather than slapstick for laughs.

The best of the Mutual shorts are, of course, the most brilliantly executed and the funniest. Easy Street (1917) has Chaplin playing a reformed tramp who volunteers with the police force to patrol one of the city's troubled neighborhoods, leading to a funny bit involving the diminutive Chaplin intimidated by a comically large street tough who Chaplin takes down with a broken street lamp. (It must be seen to be believed.) His impeccably graceful roller skating skills are displayed in The Rink, a short from 1916 that stars Chaplin as a hapless waiter who foils the rest of the restaurant staff with his clumsy antics. (Both concepts, skating and waiting, would be hammered into smooth genius for Modern Times.)

But if you only had time for one or two of the Mutual shorts, you'd best be served with his most sentimental and his most hilarious. The sentimental one – The Immigrant (1917) – is the only Mutual short in the National Film Registry and represents the manic writing style Chaplin could be known for. He reportedly wrote it as he filmed it, with the second half written and filmed first and then the first half devoted to establishing some reason a Tramp-like character would be poor. Chaplin settled on the idea that the character was a penniless and recent immigrant, and while the writing process might sound like the short would suffer from chaos, it's one of the better ones for its simplicity and softness alone. The humor is often heartbreaking; the immigrant finds a coin on the street and puts it in his pocket, where the coin falls through a hole, and after his large meal he discovers he doesn't have the coin on him – to the chagrin of a large, angry waiter.

The funniest is One A.M. (1916), a virtual one-man show and brilliant piece of slapstick. Chaplin stars as a drunk man who comes home but struggles against a series of inanimate objects to get from the front door to his bed. Nothing is off limits for Chaplin's physical comedy – the rugs, the staircase, the clock, the table, the coat-rack, and the Murphy bed are all wonderful dancing partners for his signature blend of humor. Arguably One A.M. is the best overall, but all twelve of the Mutual shorts are little treasures.

Chaplin's short films produced for Mutual Studios are in public domain. They are available in varying qualities of DVD presentation and are available for online streaming at archive.org.


MovieMan0283 20 August, 2008  

Nice summary; I saw City Lights again the other night so Chaplin's been on my mind - are you a Keaton or Chaplin person? Obviously, I love both but I've always had a preference for Chaplin, which doesn't seem to be very hip in this or any other era. Oh well.

T.S. 21 August, 2008  

Oh no... I've been dreading this question since I first posted the review of the Mutual shorts...

I'm really not sure I can pick between the two. If I had a gun put to my head, I might be inclined to say Chaplin or Keaton – depending on the day, the person, and the make of the gun.

For slapstick and athleticism, I'm inclined to pick Keaton, whose stunts never fail to be eye-popping and executed without a single flaw (at least in the final film). But for emotion, humor, and sheer talent, I'm inclined to say Chaplin.

Sigh. I just don't know.

(By the way: Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd are all going to be featured on Screen Savour before October. I like Lloyd the least so I put the reviews of his "big four" up to get them out of the way. I'm tackling Chaplin's films first because his name comes alphabetically before Keaton's.)

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