Shapeshifter

THE PAWNSHOP is perfect.

Charlie is a little bastard again — more childish than ever, really, and engaged in a kind of sibling rivalry with co-worker the marvelous John Rand. The pawnbroker, Henry Bergman, is a stern father figure. Edna, his daughter, treats Charlie like a child, which he encourages. But he’s obviously a lecherous child.

Somehow Chaplin balances everything just right in this one — Charlie is just sympathetic enough — in the sense of giving us a vicarious indulgence in naughtiness which is pleasurable — without crossing the line and becoming totally hateful. Obnoxious yet somehow appealing.

The film is pretty plotless — there’s bickering between Charlie and Rand, competition over Edna, attempts to escape the discipline provided by Bergman, and then Eric Campbell turns up to rob the place, providing Charlie a chance to be the hero, a role which he has shown himself entirely undeserving of. There are no really sympathetic characters — Edna is nice, but a gullible idiot with big hair and her cakes are terrible — everyone else bickers and is mean to one another, is grifting or exploiting or out-and-out stealing. And yet the film manages to be fairly likable. The lessons of Keystone, where Charlie could be an absolute thug, have been learned, and Chaplin is cautious about just how far he can go.

After a couple of shots establishing Edna in the kitchen with a kitten, for cuteness, and Henry Bergman as the pawnbroker pacing impatiently, irked by Charlie’s customary lateness, Our Hero appears. Again, viewed from the rear. The Mutual comedies tend to have fun with how recognisable the Little Fellow is, from the rear, or just reduced to raggedy flapshoes.

Bergman was a native Californian who became a kind of courtier/toady to Chaplin. Collaborators could be slightly harsh about his role in offering Chaplin steady support and encouragement, but Chaplin obviously found him valuable. And he’s a good character man, deft with disguise, so he appears in every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES. He never overacts and that’s especially important here as he’s playing Jewish. The treatment of race is considerably more delicate than in THE VAGABOND. Chaplin took to never denying claims that he himself was part Jewish, since he felt this would play into the hands of anti-Semites. He also joked about his half-brother Sydney having Jewish ancestry, explaining the siblings’ marked difference in appearance, though in fact Sydney’s father’s identity is not known for certain.

Charlie, told he’s late, checks his fob watch against the calendar, in the best Mad Hatter tradition. The watch then becomes a running gag, something for Charlie to check every time he receives a blow or takes a fall. If his watch is OK, everything’s fine.

Most of Charlie’s interactions are with his rival, John Rand, who had proved such a deft foil in POLICE. Billy Armstrong, who previously performed this function and wore this cookie-duster, had left to pursue an independent star career, but would subside into modest supporting roles to Stan Laurel and others, and sadly died of tuberculosis aged only 33.

I’m going to be paying close attention to Rand, because he’s excellent, and I didn’t even know his name before embarking on this. He and Armstrong and Conklin had a perfect connection with Chaplin onscreen.

The feather duster is the first great toy: compacting every vane with soot allows Charlie to do far more harm than good, and dusting the electric fan shreds the duster into floating particles.

When Charlie unsportingly “fights” Rand, who’s trapped in a ladder, the other end is held by a shoeshine boy, who is either the second anonymous Black kid in a Chaplin short (after LAUGHING GAS), or the umpteenth blackface character (after, most recently, A NIGHT IN THE SHOW) — my screen isn’t big enough for me to be 100% sure which. Charlie’s swinish behaviour is funny only because he’s putting on such a great pugilistic display, as if he were doing something noble and impressive, rather than persecuting a totally helpless opponent.

Scrapping with Rand gets Charlie fired, and he embarks on his celebrated plea for mercy, miming a large — increasingly large — family of dependents. starting with a gesture indicating Jackie Coogan height, then going up, up, up, until the largest invisible child is the height of Eric Campbell. The mockery of pathos first appeared in THE NEW JANITOR, and gave Chaplin the idea that he could move an audience for real. But it’s still amusing to make fun of the whole idea of emotional manipulation.

Asides from the conflict with Rand, the film has Charlie balancing dangerously on a stepladder, from which he falls with a spine-saving roll; flirtation with Edna, where he dried dishes using a trick mangle, which also serves to dry his hands; he deals expeditiously with Campbell’s very elegant heister; and he “serves” various customers. Alternating between these activities works perfectly well to create the illusion of narrative.

The “ruinous old man” — David Robinson’s cruel and beautiful phrase — is credited as Wesley Ruggles on both IMDb and Wikipedia, but it very clearly isn’t. The old, but not original credits on my DVD list James Kelley as “old actor” which is more believable. IMDb instead casts Kelley as “Old Bum.” He might be both… that’s easier to believe. But Kelley, a seventy-year-old Irishman, is typically somewhat recognisable in his movements and his stoutness and tininess (smaller than Chaplin). This guy is thin and frail, probably older than 70, doesn’t seem particularly short or wide, and has a great “strolling tragedian” way of acting that suits his role here.

As the shabby-genteel geezer goes into his pantomime of woe, Chaplin at first watches and eats callously, performing the occasional mocking mime of his own — a gesture heavenwards causes him to pick up binoculars and scan the ceiling. But slowly he’s taken in and moved to tears by the expert heartstring abuse.

When he buys the guy’s ring, he gets the change from a huge wad of dough, not the kind Edna is using, and realises he’s been had. Thus the film preserves its own callousness without having caused our man to totally lose our sympathy. I note also that Charlie’s slow burn I-don’t-believe-this gaup, chin lowered and eyes uprolled balefully — the Crazy Kubrick Stare, almost — appears here for the first time.

Albert Austin’s scene is a different matter, and arguably the film’s true highlight. He’s brought in his alarm clock — how hard up must he be? It’s not clear that Charlie’s ruthless treatment of the wretch is a response to his having been fleeced by whoever the old guy was — I shall be watching out for later appearances — but it’s pretty heartless. Chaplin distracts us slightly from this just by being dazzling, and he softens (literally) the final blow by using what proves to be a rubber hammer to clonk the irate Austin. Despite the fake prop, Austin staggers off, seemingly concussed, presumably by some effect analogous, yet opposite, to the placebo.

Chaplin gets nearly five minutes out of this clock routine.

The set-piece itself is a thing of wonder. Dissecting the alarm clock until its a mess of oily scrap, Charlie uses a stethoscope, a drill, a can opener, pliers, an oil squirter, the mouthpiece of a telephone. But the oil dropper transforms in his grasp into some kind of insect exterminator, and the phone part is used as a jeweller’s eyeglass. The clock is sometimes a patient, sometimes a can of spoiled and off-smelling goods, perhaps a watch; its mainspring becomes a bolt of cloth; its innards, arrayed on the counter and magnetized into a roil from below, become an insect horde to be flitgunned into submission with what had moments before been an oil dropper. Chaplin himself becomes a doctor, surgeon, a dentist, a tailor (several of which he’d been in other films), before he finally reverts to character, sweeps the detritus into Austin’s hat, and hands it back with a shake of the head that isn’t even regretful.

Nobody else was doing this, and pretty much nobody ever has. Buster Keaton exploited the transposition gag a great deal, but with different intentions and results. Usually with Keaton, the objects themselves force him into a new role, and they in turn become transformed. One thinks of the train crashing into the river in OUR HOSPITALITY. Buster finds his fuel car turned into a boat, and so the shovel in his hands becomes automatically a paddle. He uses it as such, with the air of one in a dream or under some strange spell. At other times he’s more in charge, thinking with his body, finding a way to make the objects around him fit his needs, ignoring their intended purpose and using instead their actual properties. Problem-solving, in other words.

Chaplin isn’t solving a problem, here, exactly. It is, I suppose, just showing off, only loosely tied into the narrative. A piece of performance art.

David Robinson cites THE PAWNSHOP as Chaplin’s greatest exploration of transposition gags to date — the setting may have been chosen simply because it allows for a wide variety of objects to be played with.

Arthur Machen writes, in the short story N:

‘When man yielded,’ he would say, ‘to the mysterious temptation intimated by the figurative language of the Holy Writ, the universe, originally fluid and the servant of his spirit, became solid, and crashed down upon him overwhelming beneath its weight and its dead mass.’ I requested him to furnish me with more light on this remarkable belief; and I found that in his opinion that which we now regard as stubborn matter was, primally, to use his singular phraseology, the Heavenly Chaos, a soft and ductile substance, which could be moulded by the imagination of uncorrupted man into whatever forms he chose it to assume. ‘Strange as it may seem,’ he added, ‘the wild inventions (as we imagine them) of the Arabian Tales give us some notion of the powers of the Homo Protoplastus. The prosperous city becomes a lake, the carpet transports us in an instant of time, or rather without time, from one end of the earth to another, the palace rises at a word from nothingness. Magic, we call all this, while we deride the possibility of any such feats; but this magic of the east is but a confused and fragmentary recollection of operations which were of the first nature of man, and of the fiat which was then entrusted to him.’

Charlie still retains some trace of this fiat, though he applies the old prelapsarian protean power on a much smaller scale. He is atavism and avatar.

My thoughts on Chaplin and the fluidity of matter owe a great debt to B. Kite’s remarkable writing here.

2 Responses to “Shapeshifter”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    The customers beyond Austin are a scam artist, a crazy lady with a goldfish, and a formidable crook. While Austin is shabby, there’s no suggestion he’s any more worthy of sympathy than the others — and the giveaway of the rubber hammer explicitly tells the audience Charlie was just playing with him. Pawnshops probably had grim associations for his less affluent fans, so there might be a conscious effort to reassure them no distracting tragedies are playing out in the background of the comedy. It’s like war-themed comedies where the battle is won without visible casualties.

  2. Yeah, the treatment of poverty in this and the fragments of Life are deliberately quite emotionally distanced, I think. I’m not sure when Chaplin starts to really offer up a depiction of want that’s a serious backdrop for his comedy. There’s some of it in A Dog’s Life, and certainly Shoulder Arms and The Kid.

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