The Sunday Intertitle: Charlie as Chaplin or Chaplin as Charlie?

A weird one…

I wrote about RECREATION already — this Keystone park film didn’t seem much different from a half-dozen others, and it survives in a form most uneven and considerably more ragged than most. As so often at Keystone, Chaplin makes valuable discoveries in one short (THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR) only to discard them — for now — in the next.

But to follow it, Chaplin made a peculiar meta-comedy, THE MASQUERADER, co-starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Chaplin, sans felt moustache and costume, hair slicked down, arrives at the studio. (This is to be another behind-the-scenes affair,) A burly ruffian grabs him by the ear and propels him inside. (Time has created a Godardian jump — the rough grabs his ear, and in a trice, both are transported to a new shot, depicting the side-entrance, Charlie is rubbing his injured lobe.) Entering the dressing room, he starts getting made up, but is distracted by the possibility of stealing Fatty’s booze. A long-held take observes the tit-for-tat byplay. Charlie’s hair is now free and curly, as we’re used to seeing it — so in this parallel universe, plainclothes Charlie has straight hair, and the curls are part of a make-up.

Then, after a brief cutaway to the set, we discover Charlie — Chaplin has changed into the Tramp costume and, it seems, into the Tramp character. Rounding a corner at speed, he goes into his one-footed skid, an archetypal trope now but had he used it previously?

Charlie goes on set, nervously popping a breath mint before playing a scene with his leading lady. The director critically inspects his glued-on ‘tache. Prior to getting costumed, Chaplin has been playing the part quite supercilious, but now he seems himself — which is to say, still quite supercilious but the trait is rendered ironic by his costume. But this time it really IS a costume, so should we see him as an underdog, or just an arrogant thesp?

The director calls action, but Charlie misses his cue because he’s flirting with… Chaplin groupies? The actor who’s supposed to be interrupted in the act of stabbing a child with a dagger gets a stiff arm from waiting. Charlie’s attempt at being an action hero is not well-received: he attempts to save the child from the villain by clobbering the villain with the child, who, fortunately, is a dummy. But still, it’s not a good look.

Chester Conklin is immediately hired to replace Charlie, but Charlie duffs him up and goes on in his place.

(My Chaplin Encyclopedia states that Conklin, Chaplin’s exact contemporary, was born Jules Cowles, which is disappointing, but Wikipedia makes no mention of this. I prefer to think of him as a Conklin born. He also has acquired a tragic backstory — his mother was burned to death, at first ruled suicide, then his devoutly religious father was charged with her murder, but acquitted.)

The second bit of melodrama is no less farcical than the first, and Charlie gets the sack. This allows him to do some actual bits of melodrama as he pleads for another chance — but at this stage, Chaplin is still using pathos just as a thing to make fun of. The “don’t fire me” plea pantomime also gets an outing in HIS NEW JOB and, in its most developed form, THE PAWNSHOP.

Charley Chase is back, and this time he’s visible, albeit in the distant background (above). The burly director is Charles Murray, who’d had bits in a couple of previous Chaplins, including the missing HER FRIEND THE BANDIT.

Not to be thwarted, Chaplin returns to Keystone, this time in drag. So the Charlie character really was just a role he was playing. But the costume by now is exerting some kind of transformative effect on its wearer, so that the Tramp really seems a different character than Chaplin out of uniform or Chaplin in drag.

This is Charlie’s first glamorous drag act, and I have to say, he’s tempting, draped in furs and with his forearms immersed in a huge muff. I’d probably take him over, say, Edna Purviance. This is quite different from the drag in the CARRY ON films or A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, where the unhandsome man typically makes a hideous woman and the men falling over themselves with lust are ridiculous. Here, Chaplin really is sexy. Director Murray gets flirtatious, then audacious, then bodacious. He’s either going to get rapacious or salacious, when an office boy interrupts.

Chaplin does that drag-act teasing thing where, joshing with a male admirer, he unexpectedly WALLOPS them with sudden masculine strength, then goes back to joshing demurely. That always seems to work.

Now Murray starts chasing Miss Chaplin around the dressing room, and Chaplin does the one-footed skid, suggesting that there IS one character binding his three guises together, but that it’s the Tramp, not the actor Chaplin.

Now Chaplin dis-drags, and there’s a sense that this might be intended as a surprise — a CRYING GAME penis in the third act moment — and maybe it would have been for audiences at the time. We get to see him glue the moustache on — I doubt that’s on film anywhere else — Jackie Coogan recalled with Proustian wonder that the spirit gum having “kind of an offensive smell” — and for a moment we have Chaplin, wearing the moustache, and a dress, and not in character as anyone in particular, just focussed on glueing his upper lip. Kind of uncanny. Like seeing Mickey Mouse out of costume, shortsless, scratching himself.

She-Charlie has thrown the studio into tumult by taking over the whole dressing room, so Murray has to shout down an incipient revolution. Then Charlie reveals himself, making believe that the sexy girl — himself — is locked in the cupboard. Murray investigates and gets the time-honoured kick up the arse.

Charlie runs rampant through the studio, slapping and kicking people, then falls down a well. The crew resolve not to rescue him, making this the second CHaplin film where he drags up then drowns.

It was another mad experiment, suggesting that Charlie was already either trying to escape the Tramp persona, or define it by stretching and distorting it, seeing what it could be made to do. And maybe what he learned was that IT was more real on screen than HIM?

3 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Charlie as Chaplin or Chaplin as Charlie?”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    I thought I posted a comment; evidently not. Anyway the gist:

    Walter Kerr and wife Jean wrote the book for a 50s Broadway show, “Goldilocks”. Set in the teens, the hero was a silent film director cranking out melodramas that all seemed to involve imperiled mothers and babies in various settings. During the shooting of a western, his flustered leading lady clubs an Indian with the prop doll (a bit semi-swiped for the later show, “Mack and Mabel”). Film-savvy Walter probably experienced it as a legitimate cliche.

    It was like as not already a cliche when movies were born. Once-ubiquitous Uncle Tom shows always delivered, with varying results, bloodhounds chasing Eliza and her baby across the ice. In time the most remote backwaters viewed it as old corn. Some films played the sure-fire peril in earnest: Griffith’s “Rescued From an Eagle’s Nest”, for example. Others mocked the convention as it appeared on stage and in film. In Ben Turpin’s “The Daredevil”, a film company rushes to a fire to capture some shots. They hand the leading lady an obvious doll and send her into the burning building; no intertitle needed.

    Also: Bugs Bunny’s many drag bits are firmly modeled on Chaplin’s (“Tag!” … WHACK! … “You’re it!”). Chuck Jones and many others freely admitted their debt to Charlie.

  2. Man of many faces/voices Dick Emery applied the muscular response gag to one of his drag characters, Mandy (“Ooh, you are awful… but I like you”) despite the fact that she was supposed to be a real woman. But she’d playfully shove the man who had just made an unintended double entendre, sending him flying.

    I think Miss Piggy’s super-strength may connect to her being kind of a drag character too: maybe the most popular with women.

  3. […] The Sunday Intertitle: Charlie as Chaplin or Chaplin as Charlie? […]

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