Charlie the Champion

So, Leo White just turned up in THE CHAMPION, playing the kind of mock-melodramatic villain Chaplin himself had essayed a few times at Keystone. He’s impressively sleekit. He went on to bit parts in feature films up until the forties, including MR. SKEFFINGTON and CASABLANCA (I guess everybody really DOES come to Rick’s). I imagine he’d changed his look by then.

Unusual to see three short people in a row: silent slapsticks thrived on physical contrasts. Also unusual: Edna gets a medium shot. It’s simply used as a cutaway, which is what Chaplin did with most of his closer angles.

The Snidely type offers Charlie five big ones to take a fall, wafting the notes under his nose until the bribee attempts to filch one with his teeth. An oft-repeated gag: Legree keeps slapping Charlie on the back, heartily, until he gets laid out with a retaliatory slap. Charlie then pockets the money — it’s not certain that he intends to take a dive, but he may not have the option.

On waking up, Dastardly actually says “Curses!” and gives a little invisible maracas-type wag of his fists. Never knowingly underplayed. He confronts Charlie. An essentially honest man, Charlie intends to simply keep the money and do nothing in return. He wrestles with his conscience — and wins. When Snidely Dastardly Legree follows him into the shower with a small pistol, he drenches the scoundrel.

The big night: Charlie’s dog, forgotten about for at least a reel, makes his return, watching as Charlie prepares for the match by slugging down beer (the thing he’s best at slugging). Charlie shakes the anonymous pooch’s paw before going to his doom. The dog’s expression, indeed its whole attitude, is pretty funny.

And “Broncho” Billy Anderson, Charlie’s employer at Essanay, makes a cameo in the front row of the audience. Simon Dick Whiplash has just sat down on him by mistake.

Moments later, Ben Turpin, sans cookie-duster, appears as a belligerent ringside vendor, clambering over the audience to deliver his wares.

In Charlie’s last fight, in THE KNOCKOUT, he was the referee, and had to compete for attention with a riot of other clowns. Here, even in a wide-shot, the action is arranged so he’s always the centre of attention.

Upon catching sight of his opponent, Charlie goes into a series of overlapping faints. He then rubs his tiny buttocks in the sandbox, like a dog dealing with a dag, until they are two white spots.

What follows seems every bit as choreographed as the fight in CITY LIGHTS, but there’s less attention to character, with Chaplin simply trying whatever seems funny in the moment. It’s very skilled, but there isn’t an overarching comic idea. Charlie as coward, Charlie as incompetent, Charlie fighting while concussed… it leaps from one inspiration to another. Charlie is suddenly good enough at boxing to knock the champ down. As in CITY LIGHTS and THE KNOCKOUT, the ref gets a drubbing. Charlie discovers that when a punch from the champ sends him into a stagger, a punch from himself can revive him. The gag of the ref trying to count out two dazed boxers at once, as they keep getting up and falling down, appears here for the first time. It’s a good one.

Repeating gags, like trying to use his opponent as a chair when he’s knocked over onto his shoulders with his ass up, allows Charlie to double the laughs (slower audience members only catching on the second time round) and to emphasise the resemblance to a dance, which is a gag in itself. Keaton, who never repeated a gag, was doing things the hard way, as always.

The dog gets a closeup. Charlie’s never had one.

The fight goes from round one to round twenty when Charlie flips the card. There have in fact been multiple rounds, we’ve seen the fighters return to their corners (Charlie’s trainers “revive” him more vigorously/brutally each time) but apparently the art dept. only had one card made.

Finally, appalled at the spectacle of his master’s pulverisation, the pooch enters the ring and takes hold of Bob Uppercut’s leotards. Broncho Billy performs an expository mime in the audience, repeatedly pointing at his own derriere. The dog is swung around by his jaws but does not release Bob’s seat. It’s pulled by the hind legs. He has a death grip. He’s trailing bonelessly from his rear end, a mere carcass, all his powers of concentration invested in his teeth. This ain’t exactly Queensberry Rules, but Charlie seizes the moment just as his dog has.

Charlie has forgotten to include any cutaways of Edna during the fight — apparently she wasn’t there, but she comes in handy as a fade-out shot. Taking the romance very slightly seriously allows the film to end on something other than the climax of a chase or battle, as if it actually meant something. Later, maybe it will.

It’s a lovely shot, too.

4 Responses to “Charlie the Champion”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    A late Leo White sighting. He’s the live action narrator, but it’s Mel Blanc’s voice. My guess is they shot his bits silent to save money, simply recording those scenes when they did the rest of the cartoon.

  2. Leo is silent once more!

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    That shot of Edna and Charlot at the end is quite sizzling, rarely so for Chaplin shorts or comedy shorts of that era (Burlesque on Carmen has that as well, granted).

  4. Yes, one thing that gradually happens in Chaplin’s development is he progressively de-sexes his character. Which takes some doing when he’s co-starring with Paulette later, but he manages it, and it’s probably a good thing once he’s visibly middle-aged.

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