The Sunday Intertitle: Bounced

When I first saw complete Keystone comedies, as opposed to whirligig montages in silent movie documentaries, I was kind of appalled at how incoherent and unfunny they were. Sennett, it seemed, had an aversion to setting anything up, and the frames were packed with grandstanding comics competing for our attention. Sennett thought he had found the formula for comedy gold, but you can only call something a formula when it’s more than a list of ingredients — there should be measures, and a process.

Since then, I’ve found some redeeming qualities and some stand-out films, but my main objections remain…

I hadn’t realised, somehow, that Chaplin made so many films in his first year — over thirty. No wonder he complained about the pace. Allowing for the occasional holiday, a film a week might not be that much in the silent era, I guess, but as he gradually took over as his own director (pushing Mabel Normand out quite nastily), he wasn’t just performing, but coming up with stories and gags, too.

THE NEW JANITOR seems to be one of the best of his Keystones. There’s a plot. Suspense. Characters. And not everybody’s a clown. Although Al St. John can’t help himself, the others play it straight. Even an attempt by the baddie to mouth off at the audience, melodrama-fashion, is raggedly cut off by Chaplin’s — or Sennett’s — impatient scissors.

There’s even pathos — when Charlie gets the sack, the gags don’t exactly stop, but they become, well, pathetic — gags about him being sad and put-upon, delivered more slowly. Chaplin seems to have conceived his character this time as a virtual Stepin Fetchit, shiftless, dopey and incompetent. A reminder that the British working class have their own strategies for irritating hell out of the boss.

This modest little movie makes it clearer than most of the 1914 films why Chaplin stood out. The public had been quite content with rambunctious chaos as a substitute for comic construction — but now it was offered something better.

5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Bounced”

  1. A Stranger Says:

    Thank you. This was a marvelous piece to see. Many of his bits repeated in larger works of his all the more endearing 1917 my mother was seven. And father nine. If they’d had the money…possibly not, they would have seen his art at its beginning

  2. dbenson Says:

    In “The Silent Clowns” I think Walter Kerr said something to the effect that new art forms have to re-invent the wheel. Cinema had to start from scratch rather than springboard off of theater’s highly evolved storytelling, just as animation almost retreated to cave paintings rather than match the wonders appearing in newspapers and magazines (“Gertie the Dinosaur” was a brilliant anomaly). And while television benefitted from advances in filmmaking, the early product was definitely a throwback.

  3. He was a smart guy. I guess cinema synched up with theatre further down the line. New media also have to concentrate on their new aspects at first, so movies and animation were all about the movement to begin with, and only later developed in other areas.

    And internet content started by concentrating merely on being short.

  4. Simon Kane Says:

    I can’t work out why I find Luke Connor so funny.

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