Hosed

David Robinson reckons both THE FLOORWALKER and Chaplin’s second Mutual film, THE FIREMAN, mark a retreat from the romance and pathos that had crept in to some of the later Essanay films, into straight knockabout. He’s not wrong. You could argue that Charlie’s relationship with Eric Campbell is the true romance in both films.

What’s surprising to me is the comparative weakness of the endings, after the magnificent final shot of POLICE. We’re back to the throwaway. Still, there’s a huge amount to admire.

In POLICE, Chaplin offered us a glimpse of what kops get up to on their off-ours — sitting around drinking tea. Here, we’re granted a similar intimate view of the fire brigade. The slapstick is framed almost as a documentary: THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN would be a good alternative title.

Eschewing his new studio, Chaplin filmed in a real fire station and at two derelict buildings which the production torched for the occasion.

Chaplin opens with “the fire drill” — imagined as an elaborate zouave routine. This is slightly funny and mostly baffling if you’re not familiar with zouaves. I know Keaton’s THE PLAYHOUSE fairly well so I’m OK. Also, I think I’ve spotted Snub Pollard (far right) in a Chaplin film for the first time, though neither IMDb nor Wikipedia list him. But they have him down for LIFE/POLICE/TRIPLE TROUBLE so I think I’m right.

Charlie has slept in and missed the drill. Funny how his introduction here — asleep, (in repose his face assumes a solemn genius attitude) then waking, realizing he’s late, and descending fire pole — pre-echoes Rufus T. Firefly’s first moments in DUCK SOUP. Although Charlie’s wild exotic-dancer spin around the pole causes his legs to hit the rim of the hole, so his upper body descends ahead of his lower, making him land (on Eric Campbell) upside down.

Which Eric isn’t too pleased about.

Casting Campbell as Charlie’s boss, rather than as out-and-out villain (though he’s still pretty villainous, as we’ll see), works beautifully — they’re forced into each others’ company more. Charlie’s infuriating incompetence becomes a sympathetic trait because his boss is such a blowhard. This works until there’s actually a fire.

Charlie now fetches the horses, the part of the operation they’ve foolishly put him in charge of. But he shows some skill in persuading them to walk backwards. This is the first of several reverse-motion gags in the film. Chaplin doesn’t use camera tricks often, but there are more reverse shots in PAY DAY. Seconds later, Charlie, having ridden the horses and cart out into the street without the engine and crew, makes the whole cart go in reverse too.

Shots of Charlie commanding the horses actually use a husky “double.”

Kevin McDonald made a whole documentary, Chaplin’s Goliath, about Eric Campbell, funded and predicated on the star being Scottish, born in Dunoon. Which it turns out he wasn’t. He just liked the IDEA of being Scottish. He hadn’t heard Ewan McGregor, in a film produced by Kevin’s brother Andrew, express the last word on the condition of Scottishness.

Booted up the arse by Eric, Charlie takes it out on Albert Austin, a fellow Karno company comic from Birmingham. I must try imagining a Brummie accent issuing from under that huge cookie-duster.

There’s a lot of arse-kicking in this film. I know you’re going to say that there is in every Chaplin film, but in this one it’s almost excessive, if that were possible. What THE FLOORWALKER does for strangling, THE FIRE MAN does for arse-kicking.

I watched this one with Fiona and ehs was horrified at Charlie drying his hands in a man’s hair. I said, “People and objects — they’re so similar! How can anyone be expected to keep them straight?” I shall have more to say about CC’s gift of universal transposition.

Another job Charlie shouldn’t be trusted with is helping serve meals.

The fact that Chaplin fills the coffee cups, and adds the milk, using the taps on the fire engine, is not half so delightful as the way he holds five cups in one hand, somehow getting his tiny thumb and forefinger through all five handles, creating an ARRAY of cups which he fills in one go by walking in an arc under the tap. The way he does it, it seems to make sense. I’m almost certain he could have achieved it merely by bending his wrist, but this is more beautiful.

That part of the operation goes comparatively well but they also trust him to serve the soup. Bad idea. Eric will spend the next scene looking like a swamp monster. He already looks, as Fiona said, like the Honey Monster. Even Charlie realizes this is cause for alarm, and he goes to the stable to stand in a corner as if awaiting the attentions of the Blair Witch. The colossal smack Eric gives him leads to several seconds of apparent pathos, where Charlie lies prone, possibly with a fractured skull and Eric, aghast, pleads with him for forgiveness. Then Charlie kicks him into a large basin of water and legs it.

So it goes in this film — every moment of pathos is really just a set-up for more slapstick. Chaplin is adept not only at pulling the rug from under our feet, but at sliding it there, inch by inch, while our attention is elsewhere.

Since Charlie must now flee, his directorial side resorts to another reverse-motion gag, as he shimmies UP the firepole to the safety of bed. “Something wrong between you and the pole, Montag?” Big Eric attempts to haul his vast form up in pursuit, but he doesn’t have trick effects to help him (he’s not the director of this film). Chaplin kneeling to pray reminds me of the words Budd Schulberg put in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mouth.

“Know the secret of Charlie? Not a man at all. Sneaks up in attic, puts on father’s clothes, pants too big, shoes too big, wears all kinds of different clothes together, anything he happens to find lying around. Then he pretends he’s grown up. But it’s all a dream.

“Don’t think of Charlie as an adult acting like a child but as a child acting like a grown-up.

“Notice how there’s always a big brute of a man pushing Charlie around — prospector in Gold Rush, millionaire in City Lights, employer in Modern Times, always the same father image, switching suddenly from love to hatred of Charlie like the millionaire picks him up when he’s drunk takes him home lovingly tucks him in, then sobers up in the morning an’ throws him out.”

Enter Edna — in a really striking outfit. Checkerboard top and UFO hat. She’s with her father, played by Lloyd Bacon, who would have had to have sired her aged six, but it’s exactly as convincing as it needs to be. It’s striking also that the Bacon character is underplayed, functional — not every man has to be a circus clown anymore.

It’s an unusually ambiguous role for EP. Her pop is going to burn the house down for the insurance, and he wants Big Eric to be sure not to extinguish it. Edna appears to be privy to the scheme, and appears to be leading Eric on, heartlessly, manipulating the big galoot. She flirts with Charlie too, but as soon as she’s alone a bitter frown creeps over her features and she mouths “Men!” with contempt.

The only reason I say it’s ambiguous is that she’s also used as romantic interest for Charlie. Chaplin’s indecision about how to resolve this romance may explain the abruptness of the ending.

I must say, Edna’s various reactions to the soupy Eric are very enjoyable. She even gets to do one of those splashed-in-the-eye flinches.

The next phase of the film I find the least enjoyable. Leo White, inevitably playing a man in a silk hat and pointy beard, finds his house on fire. Charlie is too busy playing checkers with Albert Austin to respond, and even muffles the fire bell with a cloth so he can play on undisturbed. This goes on for a very long time, with the distraught homeowner trying every possible means to alert the firefighters.

So, though David Robinson on the face of it is correct to say that Chaplin apparently bore no grudge over the recutting of A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, from the way he treats his character way may doubt this. This is the meanest gag Chaplin has done for a while, even though it’s motivated by the Little Fellow’s well-established fecklessness rather than by the malice we see in LAUGHING GAS or THE PROPERTY MAN. As I say, it’s also spectacularly sustained. Within the film, only the fact that he has a posh hat justifies torturing White’s character this way. Non-diegetically, there may be other reasons.

The only thing interrupting this housefire, which the crew are pretty useless at extinguishing even when they arrive — cue Charlie drenching everyone with the hose, a gag that’s funnier in some other, weirder context — the only thing interrupting this fire, I say, is another fire.

Bacon has torched the homestead with Edna inside. Now he tears around the suburban LA wasteland looking for the fire brigade. Charlie rushes to the rescue so furiously he leaves everyone else behind, and all the equipment. Fortunately, the abandoned house Mutual have bought to incinerate has handy ledges all the way up, which Charlie — not a stuntman, incredibly, and he makes sure we see this — climbs, three storeys up, to Edna’s window. Then climbs down with a suspiciously slender dummy with suspiciously dark hair hanging limply from his neck.

Still pretty damn impressive, though. You wouldn’t catch me doing it. I’ve always assumed that a big difference between Chaplin and Keaton was that Chaplin had little interest in flirting with death. But when the gag calls for it…

Having rescued Edna, Charlie collapses and does the fake pathos thing again, so that he can sit up, quite unharmed, once Eric and the gang have rushed off to fetch some water. And so he simply walks off with Edna and the film stops. I remark that I thought for an instant they were going to blithely walk back into the blazing building. Fiona said, “Keaton would have done that.”

She’s a Keaton gal but she’s learned you can enjoy both.

4 Responses to “Hosed”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    The gag that stuck with me since childhood was frantic Leo arriving at the firehouse to find only Charlie. If memory serves:

    Charlie goes off to seek reinforcements, after thoughtfully handing Leo a book to read as he waits.

    When he returns with the rest of the brigade, Leo is immersed in the book and has to be reminded his house is on fire.

  2. Yes, that’s quite funny. Must be some good book!

  3. I always adore Edna in these films. Thanks for highlighting her performance. She was so much more than Charlie’s usual love interest.

  4. Yes, there are many Ednas, even more than there are Charlies.

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