The Sunday Intertitle: Sausage, Dog, Boxer, Pug

I’ve written a little about Chaplin’s 1915 boxing romp THE CHAMPION before. The two main points I made back in 2014 were, I think, key — Chaplin is starting to work on our sympathy, this is a dry run for the big fight in CITY LIGHTS, and he has a dog, anticipating A DOG’S LIFE. “Give the hero a dog” is time-honoured screenwriting wisdom if you want to create easy sympathy — whether Chaplin had heard this or just came up with it himself is unknown to me.

THE TRAMP, considered Chaplin’s first conscious attempt at pathos, is still a couple of films away — though he seems to have settled on making the Little Fellow at least less of a thug than in his Keystone days. Even as a drunken lout in A NIGHT OUT he’s disagreeable but not quite vicious. Starting this one by offering his last hot dog to his not-so-hot dog companion makes him a nice guy in our eyes. He even sprinkles some salt, mysteriously produced from his inside jacket pocket (maybe it’s lint) on the commestible to make it more appetising. The dog cannot be convinced to eat: maybe this is take thirty and he’s stuffed full of sausage by now. He does look stuffed full of sausage.

Enter Spike Dugan, a pugilist (Ernest Van Pelt), stuffed full of sausage also — a proper Goliath-type foe for our man. Not quite an Eric Campbell man-mountain, but BIG and muscular, looking quite capable of disassembling the star in a set-to.

Charlie’s way of making his nameless dog “heel” is striking — reaching behind himself with his cane, he nudges the canine hindquarters with the tip. Every few paces. The next shot is presumably an early take: the dog pauses to cock a leg and mark his territory at Spike Dugan’s Training Quarters. Charlie is going to reject this job prospect (The Hero’s Mythic Journey: The Quest Refused) but finds a horseshoe at the door, a clear invitation from Lady Luck.

The usual trouble with one of those swaying Weeble punchbag dummies, which keeps bashing into Charlie because he keeps bashing into it. Next, Charlie finds himself sat next to a punchy pug constantly shadowboxing an invisible opponent. Charlie’s look of “I might be in trouble here” is very characteristic, and I think somewhat new to the character. We’ll see it a lot in the future whenever he meets someone who seems likely to cause problems, or someone crazy, which can be the same thing. Fascinated by his benchfellow’s feints, Charlie studies the one-sided bout until, like the great mime he is, he too can see the imaginary welterweight, and counts him out. Infectious insanity.

Spike Dugan, we discover, is wearing a small mattress under his pullover. No idea if this was a fashion among pugilists in 1915 or if it’s padding to allow for a forthcoming stunt. It’s not exactly invisible.

I’m wondering who was on intertitle duty on this one: it’s good and slangy. Chaplin, despite being a silent comedian, did have a strong appreciation of language. Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside has him memorising a new word from the dictionary every day — no idea if that’s true, but it feels truthful.

The mutability of objects: having been rendered punch-drunk by a little warm-up with Dugan, Charlie returns to the bench and is handed a set of gloves. He immediately puts one to his forehead, transforming it into an ice-bag for just long enough for him to discover it isn’t cold.

I note that few of the sparring partners (one of whom is future director Lloyd Bacon) actually spar. Mostly they just stand there, sacrificial hams, waiting to be laid out. Dugan uses them as human punchbags. Their prone forms are soon heaped up on the bench, crowding in on Charlie and his thoughts.

See how much Chaplin can cram into a single moment. When the last sparring partner goes off to be slaughtered, Charlie’s features cycle through the following: watching the other fellow go, upper lip curled with sickly dread; eyes close in a philosophical sigh at the tragedy of it all; a despairing inspection of the comatose slugger to his immediate left; turning away in nauseated horror; a little pout of distaste; foot-tapping impatience (displacement activity for the urge to flee); an attempt at a carefree whistle to soothe the nerves; it turns into a cough. This little masterclass is delivered in about eight seconds. Even allowing for undercranked acceleration, that’s impressive. And is precisely the sort of end-of-shot business the Keystone editors would have lopped off.

The film’s been going for just over six minutes and we’ve had our money’s worth right there.

TO BE CONTINUED

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