Things I Read off the Screen in The Property Man

IF YOUR ACT IS ROTTEN DO NOT TAKE IT OUT OF THE PROPS

THE PROPERTY MAN is another Chaplin with a good high-concept setting. It’s a backstage story, something Chaplin would refine all the way until LIMELIGHT. This specificity feels like something CC himself brought to Keystone, because certainly none of the shorts I’ve seen from the fun factory, with or without Chaplin, had a strong, unique premise. Whether the setting is a park or a hotel or whatever, it’s all very generic.

NO SMOKING

ACTORS DO NOT POSE IN FRONT OF YOUR POSTERS

“WHY, THEY HAVEN’T EVEN BILLED US”

“WE’LL TAKE THE STARS’ DRESSING ROOM”

Again, though, Chaplin is a horrible wretch. Moving Picture World was moved to complain, “There is some brutality in this picture and we can’t help feeling that this is reprehensible. What human being can see an old man kicked in the face and count it fun?” Well, we might first note that he’s NOT an old man, or not a real one, anyway. His obvious false beard and false performance makes the cruelty a little less real and hurtful. Still, it’s a representation of cruel behaviour, and though surprise and shock are certainly elements of a laugh, it’s easy to cross the line and simply be obnoxious.

TO-NIGHT

ELITE VAUDEVILLE

THE GOO-GOO SISTERS COMEDIENNES

GARLICO IN FEETS OF STRENGTH

GEO. HAM LENA FAT CO. rendering the Heart rending Sketch “SORROW”

5 OTHER BIG ACTS 5

SPECIAL PRICES 9, 19, 29, 49

BOX SEATS 98¢ reduced from $1.23¢

But Chaplin is always thinking, and among his cast of characters is a surly strongman act, so he has someone to play the underdog to. The David & Goliath contrast of little Charlie and some massive brute is in play very quickly in his career. Charlie having to carry a very heavy trunk for this lout is promising material but it’s over too soon. But, ah-hah, it worked once, do it again. If Charlie had been shown as LESS aggressive, having him stagger about with a heavy trunk that could hurt somebody would be MORE funny/dramatic, since we’d know he’s trying to avoid damage to innocent parties. It’s hard to believe this little jerk cares one way or the other.

NO EATABLES OR DRINKABLES ALLOWED IN DRESSING ROOMS

PROPS

All these signs and notices are a little distracting, actually.

KEEP QUIET NO LOUD TALK BY ORDER PROPS

Charlie wets his trousers – with the contents of a jug. But he certainly has the more vulgar reading of the situation in mind. He’s not allowed to make jokes about incontinence but he can evoke the thought in the audience’s mind, and they’ll purge their discomfort with laughter. I guess that’s why Chaplin films seem to find rich, pungent cheeses funny. Bad smells remind us of other bad smells. It’s the era before fart and poop jokes could be put on the screen. Of course, why people laugh at fart jokes is another mystery.

STAGE DOOR

The fact that Charlie wets himself while making goo-good eyes at the Goo-Goo Sisters certainly adds to the discomfiture.

More cruelty to the old man. I guess this stuff is meant to outrage our sensitive feelings but is so unreal that we know it’s not serious, and we’re reassure that we HAVE sensitive feelings to be outraged.

In this film and its immediate precursor, there is a big guy, there is Chaplin, and there is a little/old guy, and each terrorizes the one below him. In later Chaplin films, he himself is at the bottom… or there are characters of no particular status who might get mistreated by the film, but Chaplin is more careful not to make his character the aggressor. But he still does it from time to time in the Mutual films. He demolishes that poor guy’s alarm clock in THE PAWNSHOP. I keep using that one as an example, I need to rewatch some others, in between my study of the Keystones… that’s going to bring some aspects out via contrast, I bet.

Fun fact, George Fat, the persecuted tragedian in this, is actor Charles Bennett, who sings “Oh Mr. Kane,” in CITIZEN KANE.

PRINCIPALS

Sometimes Chaplin’s gratuitous malice IS funny. When a woman in a dressing gown starts flirting with him, Charlie shows off his athletic leg stretching. She responds in kind. And when she has one leg stretched out in mid-air, he casually shoves her onto her ass. It’s so pointless, it’s kind of great.

GARLICO

The strongman gives Charlie a mini-strangle. It’s very much a precursor to Eric Campbell, but he could shake an undercranked Charlie so hard it looked like his head would rattle loose. We haven’t attained that level of majesty yet. Yes, I call it majesty.

PROPERTY ROOM

THE MATINEE

“HAVE THAT BUM SEW UP MY TIGHTS”

Charlie is so threatened by the strong/fat man that he has to abuse the old guy each time he interacts with him, kicking him in the throat this time. It’s very much a portrait of the human race through history.

Mack Sennett’s in the front row of the audience. The cutaways to audience reactions immediately feel randomly splice-in, like Chaplin got them to applaud, boo, laugh, and then just inserted material by the foot (measure a quick shot by extending the celluloid from your nose to your fingertips, then cut). Another audience member (Harry McCoy, continuing his slow slide down the billing) is asleep, and another appears to be blind. There’s a woman with a cat, which I expect is quite old now.

The theater of cruelty continues when Charlie drops the curtain on a baritone’s neck, then rolls the injured man offstage with a broom. For about the only time I can think of, Charlie’s derby gets destroyed in the various scuffles. No Laurel & Hardy, he, his hat usually survives even the roughest scraps.

PART TWO

We really don’t have a lot of plot going to justify a reel change, do we? Still, let’s see.

If in doubt, kick an old man in the face. Or throw a dumbbell at his head.

“HURRY GET MY TIGHTS”

Wet tights are flung into various inexpensive faces. Well, it’s better than bricks. A slap, aimed at Charlie’s deserving kisser, renders an innocent woman unconscious. This is pretty brutal and largely unfunny. The main strength it has is the setting, which affords some gags with the curtain which sure don’t feel fresh now but maybe did once. The fact that Chaplin had lived this life seems to have furnished him with the signs on the walls, but not many ideas for gags.

Between this and LAUGHING GAS I wonder if he was going through a rough time personally and had to take it out on the world somehow. Or else he was just trying on the Keystone sadism for size. “Is this what the moving-going public really wants?

Ripping cloth each time the strongman bends to grab a weight is a fairly sophisticated gag by the standards set so far. If Charlie weren’t so vicious to everybody else, being mean to the strongman who’s been mean to him would actually, well, mean something.

Charlie puffs a pipe throughout. Something that didn’t last. Mildly curious to see if it recurs, ever. It feels like when he tries something and it works for him, he immediately knows, but there are so many things to try before the Tramp character is really established. Maybe he could be a psychopath? Hmm…

SHOES SHOES HOTEL SMITH

THE DRAMATIC ACT

500 LBS 130 LBS

In the show’s/film’s finale, Charlie turns a firehose on the pursuing actors, then on the audience. By freezing the frame I am able to establish, to my relief, that the cat has been removed from the lady’s lap before she gets sprayed.

This film seems to hate it’s audience, but we shouldn’t take that personally — it seems to hate EVERYONE.

5 Responses to “Things I Read off the Screen in The Property Man”

  1. Grant Skene Says:

    I would like to see Garlico’s “feets” of strength. Does he crush things with his feet? Lift heavy things with his toes?

  2. Five years later Arbuckle’s “Back Stage” and Lloyd’s “Ring Up the Curtain” took the same backdrop and exploited it a bit more thoroughly. Credit the overall progress of cinema for that. A fair amount of overlap between all three films: Lloyd doesn’t have a strong man act, but there’s a musclebound theater manager. Arbuckle makes the strong man’s pretty assistant a damsel to be rescued.

    In 1921 Keaton revisited a few gags from “Back Stage” in his own “The Playhouse”, and prowled theaters again in “Daydreams”, “Steamboat Bill Jr.”, and “Spite Marriage”. Harry Langdon was part of a strong man act in “The Strong Man” but spent little time in theaters until the finale.

    Don’t recall Stan and Babe going backstage until “A Haunting We Will Go”, but they’d turn up as struggling musicians now and again.

    Did Chaplin revisit the theater world before “Limelight”?

  3. Grant Skene Says:

    His New Job with Essanay and Behind the Screen with Mutual both feature behind the scenes stuff in the movie industry. It sure does seem that every Chaplin did with Keystone got re-purposed and reimagined once Charlie set out on his own. Thanks for going through all these films, David (some day I will have to do it, too, but it sure seems to be a bit of a slog). Taking a pie in the face and a boot up the behind for the team. The anatomy of comic genius seems to focus largely on the bruises.

  4. Simon Kane Says:

    Is this his first skid? Have I missed a skid?

  5. I think you’re right and *I* missed this one, and picked up on a skid in The Masquerader as being maybe the first. This must surely be it.

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