Things I Read Off the Screen in THE COUNT

“One more like that and it’s Goodbye, Charlie,” said Chaplin after ONE A.M. underperformed. His next film is a running for cover project, which rewinds his progress by forgetting the pathos of THE VAGABOND as well as the experimentation of ONE A.M. The Tramp is back being a rogue. his character can be stretched in many ways, but if you put a top hat on him, he’s not the same guy — unless it’s clearly a disguise.

The Mutual period sees Chaplin extending in multiple directions, but not all at once. Each film increases his reach in one direction or another. You don’t see them all at once. So THE VAGABOND, for instance, was an exercise in accommodating pathos and drama, resulting in a film David Robinson plausibly argues is as good dramatically as any film of it’s day. Probably true — at least any short film. ONE A.M. is all about slapstick, milking a single situation for as many laughs as possible. Working within strict limitations. THE COUNT is classic farce, eschewing all Charlie’s heroic and noble qualities as shown earlier, just turning the dirty scamp loose in a narrative that isn’t supposed to be about him and an environment where he’s an alien.

The Keystone antecedents are CAUGHT IN A CABARET (especially), A JITNEY ELOPEMENT, and apparently the lost HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, but the plotting is simpler and better, until the end when all character motivation and plot are joyously dispensed with. The funniest stuff in the film, but somehow unsatisfactory, because it makes no sense.

Charlie is introduced as a tailor working for Eric Campbell, whose moustache is tweezed to such extremes it’s visible from the back. Charlie is really feckless this time, and gets fired after a series of expensive mistakes. He’s not only really bad at measuring —

— he treats the thing as a lark. You can actually be on Eric’s side during the first sequence.

From the surviving outtakes, we know that the whole prologue was shot last, as an afterthought, but because the tailor and his assistant’s prior relationship informs the plot, I reckon he must have thought of it while shooting the imposture scenes. Since he was writing with the camera, proceeding with no written script and developing the action through filmed rehearsal, his filming follows the pattern of a screenwriter — work on a bit intensively until you realise you need to go back and put in something before it. Since the film set is a more cumbersome instrument than a typewriter, it makes sense for him to finish the bit he’s working on before returning to the beginning…

A wild coincidence is set up: first, Eric finds a note from “Count Broko,” regretting he cannot attend Mrs. Moneybags’ soiree and meet her charming and wealthy daughter. Eric resolves to personate the absent aristo. Then, Charlie, romancing the Moneybags’ cook, is admitted to the kitchen, and to escape detection by a footman and a rival suitor, uses the dumbwaiter to beam himself up to the swank party.

The kitchen scene is based mainly around a pungent cheese, a real Chaplin motif that seems less funny today, maybe because we have less contact with really smelly cheeses, or maybe because more vulgar jokes about foul-smelling items are now socially acceptable. After BLAZING SADDLES’ farting cowboys, a mere Camembert doesn’t cut the mustard, or cheese, or whatever.

Meeting Eric, Charlie learns of his imposture, and usurps it. Again, it’s just about possible to root for Eric. Sure, he was trying a devious deception, but now Charlie is doing it so he’s clearly no better.

The scene is set for much covert arse-kicking between the two.

Miss Moneybags is, of course, Edna. Contrary to the IMDb, I don’t see any sign of May White here (as “Large lady” supposedly), but Leo White (no relation) eventually turns up as the real Count Broko, and is duly mistreated.

Is this or isn’t it a costume party? Edna has an interesting outfit — Mutual seem to have had a good costume designer, or else Edna’s taste has improved. One guest at dinner is in Pagliacci garb, and upstairs we meet a belly dancer/harem girl and a few others in fancy dress. It makes sense that Eric didn’t know about the costume requirement since he wasn’t invited, and I guess Charlie’s street clothes are interpreted by the hosts as the Count’s disguise. But the effect is initially a bit blurry because 1916 women’s clothes look a bit like fancy dress already, and there are liveried footmen.

A sound gag in a silent film: Charlie has to pause Eric’s soup-slurping so he can hear Edna. Then gags with spaghetti and watermelon — an odd meal, especially for rich folks. There’s a question as to how much leeway Chaplin should be allowed. Do his best gags arise out of a credible situation? Or is there some added pleasure in this unlikely repast? Chaplin is making his film for the kind of people who never get invited to this sort of function.

The cook (Eva Thatcher) is an unusual character, an older woman with a romantic life. Charlie betrays her, but she seems to have a stable of boyfriends to fall back on. We don’t elsewhere see Charlie pursuing cupboard love of this sort, and his romantic interests, even where money is a factor, are usually pretty Ednas. This is Eva’s only Chaplin film, so there’s a sense that this wasn’t his kind of character. He IS married to the redoubtable Phyllis Allen in PAY DAY, for a nagging wife/drunken husband routine, which is again an atypical sitcom set-up for him. David Robinson points out that the other characters introduced in the kitchen, a butler and a neighbourhood kop, play no further role.

Charlie and Eric compete for the attentions of Miss Moneybags, but Charlie is also frequently distracted by the harem girl. His silent following about (admittedly, no other kind of following about is permitted in this medium) is positively sinister.

Oh, and during the ballroom battle, Chaplin also attempts another tracking shot, quite successfully, slowly pushing in to follow the dancers who are drifting back into the room.

Chaplin dances — a series of strange moves including something dimly recalling a highland reel, and the same buttock thrust with foot-skid he does during the song in MODERN TIMES. Also some physical malfunctioning — after a tumble, his hip keeps misaligning, jutting to the side disobediently. The body as machine. In the Mutual world of extreme mutability, even Charlie himself is apt to transform into faulty mechanism.

At a certain point, after Count Broko arrives and is humiliated and knocked around, Charlie just goes berserk. It would, one presumes, have been easy to show him getting drunk to justify this. He does gather up the contents of a drinks trolley, refusing a glass, earlier, but nothing seems to come of this. He just turns into a rampant monkey. he starts off by impaling a roast turkey with his cane and then gratuitously knocking a liveried footman cold with it. Whacking a cake with the cane, he is able to barrage his enemies, plus the innocent bystanders, with confectionary. This is very funny, but meaningless, but very funny. It has some of the anarchic fury of IF….

Things escalate fast, with Campbell drawing a revolver and taking potshots at the Little Fellow Bastard. He runs off down the street, as good an ending as is now possible.

But Chaplin and his audience both now know that a shot of him retreating into extreme long shot is an ending — he doesn’t do it in every film, but it’s a reliable standby.

THE COUNT is very good. What’s next is better.

2 Responses to “Things I Read Off the Screen in THE COUNT”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    In “Among Those Present” Harold Lloyd is a hotel coat clerk who swanks around in borrowed finery at a party. In “Spite Marriage” Buster Keaton is a pants presser who wears customers’ clothes to impress Dorothy Sebastian. In “Love Me Tonight”, Maurice Chevalier is tailor to an aristocratic deadbeat, and infiltrates a weekend soiree by wearing the fine suits made for same. And comic enlisted men regularly promote themselves with officers’ uniforms, from their own or an enemy army. Access to wardrobe makes the man.

    It feels like there are plenty of Cinderella variants in which the heroine is upscaled by a dress not her own, but the only one that flashes to mind in “Easy Living”, where sudden possession of a sable coat is a wildly mixed blessing for Jean Arthur. It brands her as fallen woman of means.

  2. “Hey, what’s the big idea?”
    “Kismet!”

    Poor Clyde Bruckman got sued by Lloyd for plagiarising the borrowed magician’s suit routine from Movie Crazy for a Three Stooges short. Bruckman presumably just felt he was recycling material, same as usual. Nobody had sued over a gag before, though Chaplin did launch the occasional prosecution of imitators who crossed the line into deception by using variations of his name.

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