Archive for Mutual

The Sunday Intertitle: Get Your Skates On

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2021 by dcairns

As a kid, THE RINK impressed and exhilarated me with Chaplin’s grace and speed, much like Gene Kelly’s musical numbers did. Let’s see if it still has that effect.

It’s brilliant that Chaplin repeats himself so much, or rather that he develops ideas from film to film — it adds enormously to the interest of CAUGHT IN A CABARET, a pleasant, typically rudimentary Keystone film, that Chaplin returns to the theme of the waiter passing himself off as a dignitary in THE RINK, because it makes it even plainer how much his skills as storyteller, gagman and performer have developed in a year and a bit, and how much more perfected his character is. If one can have gradations of perfection, which of course one can’t. But maybe HE can.

Chaplin has learned he can start a bit more gradually, so he opens with Edna and a pussycat (as in THE PAWNSHOP) plus her dad, played by James Kelley, not being a full-on gerontological case for once, though he does have a fly alighting on his forehead as Edna plays with a thing on a string to amuse kitty. I always enjoy seeing flies in movies, but only when they’re unintentional, insectoid gatecrashers breaking into the frame to mock the director’s illusion of control. Check out the bold little fellow who strolls into Paul Freeman’s mouth in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Freeman keeps on acting, heroically, and the fly never reemerges, having sacrificed his tiny existence just for this literal walk-on role. “A director is somebody who presides over accidents,” claimed Welles. When Bertolucci musters an army of flies to pester his characters on a bus in THE SHELTERING SKY, it’s hugely impressive and skin-crawlingly ‘orrible (“Flies like Malkovich,” they discovered), but it doesn’t give me the same, ah, buzz.

Charlie is meanwhile a waiter, totting up the bill of Mr. Stout (Eric Campbell, in relatively modest face-fuzz) by assessing the stains on his person — Big Eric has in fact had the exact same meal he enjoys in THE COUNT — soup, spaghetti and melon. He may be playing a different character but he has a certain consistency.

Charlie is a lousy waiter, of course, slow to respond and quick to make off with a ten dollar bill without giving change. He produces the change, but then takes it as a tip, to the outrage of Stout. He also has a complete inability to choose the right door to the kitchen, a difficulty that would still be bothering him, and more so his coworkers, in MODERN TIMES.

In this instance, food spilled on the floor is replaced with the brush and cloth being used to clean the kitchen, and these innocent items, served up to an unsuspecting customer, become charged with a curious repulsiveness. Dirt is merely displaced matter. Lipstick which seems attractive on lips becomes obnoxious when transferred to a wine glass. So with a brush on a dinnerplate.

Charlie now makes a disgusting cocktail, but he makes it very beautifully. Best gag is probably his whole body shaking while the shaker remains unmoved, as if anchored to its spot in the universe. This whole kitchen scene is relentlessly icky and I can’t wait to escape to the ice rink. Even Albert Austin as the cook has traded his usual cookie-duster for a hump and a stringy Rasputin beard which makes you imagine long vile hairs trailing into foodstuffs and thence into the backs of customers’ throats.

Flirtatious Eric somehow looks like the horrid little camel-chortler at the end of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL, unnaturally upscaled to loming Hagrid proportions.

This reminds me that Herzog claimed the “true” interpretation of his weird mini-revolution movie was that the world had, in a fit of Kafkaesque illogic, grown huge overnight, leaving the characters to struggle amid outsized beds, cars, bikes and so on. A subject Chaplin himself might have enjoyed. If Herzog had the money, would he have constructed huge DR. CYCLOPS sets and turned Klaus Kinski and Bruno S. loose amid them?

Enter Henry Bergman in his first drag role, ready to be roundly mistreated. Some of Charlie’s crimes are caused by carelessness, as when he removes Mrs. Stout’s chair just before she sits down, some by insensitivity, as when he breaks the arm of a chair to make it wide enough for the lady. There’s a general hubbub of outrageous stuff going on which I won’t describe, but Eric as Mr. Stout is flirting adulterously with Edna while Mrs. Stout gets cosy with Edna’s dad. But they can’t get very far because Charlie’s only vaguely well-meaning ministrations make the restaurant a kind of living hell.

The 1916 version of first base = moustache-twirling.

Bergman is a convincing enough woman to stand closeup treatment, and I don’t recall being aware of the drag act when I saw this as a kid in the seventies. But then I didn’t notice that Uncle Remus was Black (or that SONG OF THE SOUTH was deeply and perniciously racist).

Charlie adds a new move to his martial artistry: that brain-damaging attack known to impudence as the “Glasgow Kiss.” When coworker John Rand squares up for a fight, Charlie headbutts him. Brow-to-brow combat always seems as likely to hurt the assailant as the assailed. Really you should aim for the nose.

Charlie the Little Shit: laughing with glee when Rand gets fired for Charlie’s incompetence. This gave me a sour feeling, but on the other hand, Rand did serve up the offending brush, so he’s a pretty sloppy waiter also. It makes me wonder if Charlie’s unfair, unsporting and sadistic side communicate particularly well with children. Kids have a sense of injustice — “That’s not fair!” is something we’re all born able to say, and even monkeys seem to have a sense of fair play. But maybe that inner morality makes it seem all the sweeter to a child when somebody else gets the blame for their misdeeds. Chaplin does seem to think his smirking is adorable. He gets away with it in THE PAWNSHOP, where he’s clearly a brat, than he does here, somehow.

Charlie attempts to serve Mr. Edna and Mrs. Stout, but it’s hard to be a waiter when you’re so protean. Sharpening the cutlery transforms him into a barber, plucking a hair, slicing it, then tucking the offcut into his shirt. His customers look on with the entirely unreasonable expectation that he’s going to prepare their food. Instead, he conjures a raw egg from a fowl’s roasted cloaca, and it splatters on Mr. Edna’s face. He’s coming in for some rough treatment for the heroine’s nearest and dearest, and does he even know he’s seducing a married woman? Is he in any way deserving of Charlie’s legerdemaine/abuse?

Maybe in Charlie’s world, anyone who isn’t amused by him deserves whatever they get? I think that’s it; those are the rules. And if so, Chaplin is channeling his childhood emotions. Kids do silly things, expecting that everyone will be delighted, but sometimes the adults are not charmed, and get angry, and IT’S NOT FAIR!

Taking his street clothes from the oven, Charlie heads for the rink, at last.

The film’s two rink scenes are vastly preferable to the restaurant business. Though Chaplin hasn’t quite decided if he’s playing a brilliant rollerskater or a terrible one, so settles for both. Brilliant moves, though. Eric Campbell cowering beneath him is very funny too.

Chaplin’s balletic quality works best when he’s doing something else — when he attempts to do an actual graceful dance in SUNNYSIDE it’s not too great. Nothing amusing about it, and real ballet dancers do ballet better. But a comedian doing something less elevated in a balletic MANNER is funny and can be beautiful. Especially as he’s free to descend (literally) into pratfalling whenever there’s any danger of monotony. Weird that critic Heywood Broun felt that Chaplin must be in thrall to Nietzsche, because he doesn’t get kicked up the arse in this film. He does take plenty of falls, but the skating scenes admittedly show him winning a fair bit of the time. I think that’s justified, because the delirious appeal is to the fantasy of anarchic rambunctiousness. We feel that walking into a joint and just knocking people over and smashing stuff would be huge fun, though we know it’s bad and socially unacceptable and there would be consequences. The atavistic fantasy persists, and you can see it in zombie movies (run through a mall with a crowbar!) and car chase scenes (break all the traffic rules but innocents [practically] never get hurt). By the time the farce aspect of the story, which is barely developed, has reached its pay-off at the skate party (was that ever a thing?), the movie is just an excuse for shooting about and knocking people down like ninepins.

More on the same note: Monty Python did a mountaineering sketch in which a man barges into a room and clambers all over the furniture, and I can remember my brother saying what a lot of fun that looked. Chaplin in manic mode has a Marxian appeal — indefensible behaviour that just looks wonderful psychopathic fun. The victims don’t have to be guilty of anything. Fat and rich helps, but they could just be anybody who isn’t a starring comedian and it still seems to work. (Edgar Kennedy doesn’t really do anything bad in DUCK SOUP, except bellow, and is shamefully mistreated.)

Chaplin cuts directly between Albert Austin as the hunchbacked cook to Albert Austin as a rollerskating gentleman with his customary ‘tache. Well, it doesn’t really matter if anyone recognizes him. And you pay actors by the day, not the part. And if they’re under contract anyway, may as well keep them busy.

In the first skating scene, Edna complains that Eric is annoying her, which then justifies all Charlie’s bad behaviour and makes it chivalrous. But we never really see Eric do anything very offensive. I suppose that’s fine, we don’t want the film getting too dark. Charlie’s version of chivalry is to trip Eric with his cane when he;s not looking. And indeed the cane gets a substantial work-out in this one, making it seem like it’s been underused in the previous films. Asides from hooking big men’s ankles, it can be held by Charlie and Edna together, their arms crossing romantically, as they skate side by side. It can attach Charlie to a passing auto at the end and tow him away from the angry mob of kops and fops in pursuit.

After Charlie defeats Campbell and acquires some faint heroic lustre, for some reason, Chaplin reintroduces the fake count routine he’d deployed just a a few films back. It does bolster the farce aspect, which is a functioning narrative device for about two minutes, until everyone clocks everyone else at the skating party. (Skating party??)

There’s a funny close-up of Big Eric reacting to his wife’s unexpected presence — he’s photographed in an apparent void, possibly on the theory that we don’t want any surroundings to distract from his gurning. But the LACK of background is in itself somewhat distracting.

There’s another naked lunch moment — the frozen instant when everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork — then a perfect detente of embarrassment is achieved — everyone silently consents not to expose everyone else’s misdeeds, and the dirty laundry is transformed by MUTUAL consent into the Emperor’s naked balls, that which is too shameful to be acknowledged and so must be treated as invisible.

It doesn’t last. There’s an amusing gag in the kitchen where Charlie transforms a man’s arse into a turnstyle, shoving it to and fro as if it were hinged, and then he gets his skates on, leading to immediate chaos. It’s impressive that Chaplin, who is after all a master of repetition, which is another thing little kids like about him, can create a whole new climax not particularly different from the immediately preceding one. In some strange way, while surprise is central to comedic effect, predictability is also a help. So the entirely predictable results of Charlie skating are delightful as long as he switches the gags around just a bit.

For some reason the distressed reactions of the womenfolk are particularly hilarious.

THE RINK suffers more from missing frames than the other Mutuals I’ve run so far, perhaps not so much because the damage is greater, but because the action is so fluid that a little jump harms the beauty more. Most Chaplins seem to be missing frames or even seconds at the end, but maybe he favoured a certain abruption. In this one, Charlie starts to fall in the road, having lost his connection to the jalopy he snared, but the painful-looking pratfall — from erect ubermensch to tangle of tuxedo limbs in a sixteenth of a second — is never consummated, the seat of his pants seeming to cut off the celluloid at the instant it makes contact with asphalt.

Studio Bound

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2021 by dcairns

As he had at Keystone (A FILM JOHNNIE, THE MASQUERADER) and Essanay (HIS NEW JOB), Chaplin made a behind-the-scenes comedy at Mutual, called BEHIND THE SCREEN. David Robinson regards this one as CC treading water, but a mild Mutual film is still ahead of all Keystones and 90% of Essanays. It’s very enjoyable.

I watched my DVD with the Carl Davis score, and also the restoration paid for by Michel Hazanavicius.

Like so many of us, Edna wants to be in pictures. This seems to have been difficult to accomplish even in 1916.

We follow this plot point with a naked statue gag, a staple of Chaplin’s comedy. The usual idea is to make fun of the Little Fellow’s lecherous hypocrisy as he studies a work of art from a pseudo-aesthetic standpoint, in reality just checking out the knockers. He started doing this at Keystone, and was still at it in CITY LIGHTS. But here we see him prudishly remove a male statue whose stance makes it seem like he’s ogling a female one. I suddenly flashed on the familiarity of the gag, and realised Rossellini had swiped it for ROME: OPEN CITY.

I mean, it’s exactly the same gag, though it serves a slightly different character purpose. Surprisingly, it works for RR in his very different context, just as well as it worked for CC. It even helps that the serious neorealism makes an unexpected setting for visual comedy (but consider De Sica and Fellini’s frequent recourse to the Chaplinesque). Does this brazen theft make you think any the less of RR?

Charlie and Eric Campbell, by now a near-inseparable team, are actually called David & Goliath in this one, although probably those aren’t their given names and the intertitles are just being funny.

The other filmmaker to have been influenced by this one is Polanski, whose early short THE FAT AND THE LEAN has a similar central dynamic, the big lazy guy who dominates the small, industrious one. Charlie is a hopelessly incompetent property man, but at least he puts in the hours. We can see the filmmaker being much more careful about character sympathy, basing a lot of the action of Charlie being put-upon, so that his little revenges can be cheered as well as laughed at. In fact, the set-up here reverses that of THE PROPERTY MAN, where Charlie was props man and bully, kicking his ancient assistant in the face, and received some criticism for the nastiness of his character.

Raymond Durgnat: “One could summarise a proletarian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being outtalked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted. Something like that.” (From here.)

There’s a running gag where Charlie fecklessly trips over and topples the camera tripod, on his way to or from one errand or the other. Fiona was horrified. She’s mindful of the equipment. It’s possible to read Charlie’s carelessness as a ruse, an attempt to get out of being given difficult work. If you’re proven to be incapably stupid, you don’t get the hard jobs, or you shouldn’t. Black audiences reportedly perceived Steppin Fetchit not as a racist caricature of shiftless imbecility, but as a smart Black man who had worked out that the pretense of listlessness and ignorance could protect him from being asked to do too much. Is my own incompetence at the endless paperwork my teaching job requires a subconscious defense? If so, (a) how would I know, if it’s subsconscious? and (b) it doesn’t work.

Chaplin also filmed another running gag, featured in Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin, but not included in the final short: a headsman’s axe toppled and misses the oblivious David/Charlie by inches. As with the impossible gags in THE FIREMAN, this was achieved by reversing the film so as not to risk severing either of cinema’s most celebrated Funny Feet.

Wrestling with big pillars provides some laughter. It’s a good situation where the suspense element means the longer it can be eked out, the better. Charlie had already done it with Ben Turpin in HIS NEW JOB, though. I feel for Henry Bergman as the long-suffering director — he has to absorb a lot of painful-looking abuse in this film, including Charlie standing on his ample bay window.

The other director (Lloyd Bacon) wears round shades, which puzzled Fiona until I reminded her about klieg eyes. Some filmmakers also carried a blue eyeglass which gave them a sense of how a scene would look in b&w — possibly the shades help with this also.

Carrying ten chairs slung over one arm, Charlie transforms, as both David Robinson and Fiona noticed, into a porcupine — or possibly a naval mine, as Fiona further reflected. Then he gives a scalp massage and hairdo to a bearskin rug. The first routine is just the nimble exploitation of a surprising physical possibility, with nothing in particular made of the bristling ball of chair legs — Tati would have had the thing somehow pay off, maybe by having the shape introduced into a movie setting where it could actually fulfill its newly suggested character. The second is funny just through the seriousness, concentration and precision Chaplin brings to it, as he gives the dead bear remnant a nice centre-parting.

The kick up the arse is still a constant — in THE PAWNSHOP it had become a form of communication in itself. Yet just one film from now a critic would complain that Charlie had dropped it and was set on becoming an ubermensch.

Another grim eating scene. PIES! and ONIONS! declare the intertitles, as Albert Austin munches raw spring onions and Charlie reels from the stench. Chaplin, having experienced real poverty and hunger, found food a constant inspiration. His underdog revenge here is to scrounge off Austin’s outsize chop, sandwiching the near end with two slices of bread (which are all he has in his lunchbox) so he can pursue a parasitic existence. Again, Austin’s great contribution is stillness, either gazing on with silent dismay or, as here, failing to notice Charlie’s gastronomic filching. Following the panto/Punch & Judy tradition of “It’s behind you!” this routine depends on the victim almost but not quite catching their foe at it. Chaplin’s finest treatment of the theme is played out with brother Syd in A DOG’S LIFE.

Meanwhile Big Eric consumes his weight in pies with Pantagruelian grotesquerie.

A strike breaks out, which, in its rapid progress towards outright terrorism, is a shameless steal from DOUGH AND DYNAMITE. As Eric/Goliath and Charlie/David both refuse to strike, and the campaigners try to blow up the studio, I have to say that Chaplin at this stage of his career does not seem markedly leftwing. This subplot, which barely impacts on Charlie at all, serves nevertheless as the film’s narrative spine, along with Edna’s occasional appearances.

Charlie is put in charge of trapdoor operations, which is a bad idea. Though in fairness, it’s not all his fault. Instructed to open the trap at the signal of a gunshot, he dutifully does so even when it’s obviously inappropriate. Is it time to mention Henri Bergson? Well, only if we don’t confuse him with Henry Bergman, who has a particularly uncomfortable-looking drop here.

The French philosopher Bergson theorised that comedy comes from people behaving in the inflexible manner of machines. Which doesn’t sound particularly funny in itself, and we can certainly come up with many examples that don’t tickle the ribs — Peter Weller’s performance as Robocop, robotics dancing, the Nuremberg rallies… But Chaplin, who gets so many of his effects by transposition, DOES do a lot of stuff where the line between the animate and the inert is crossed. Charlie is often the opposite of inflexible, though.

But here, Bergson’s ideas are followed. A gunshot means the trapdoor is to be activated, no matter who’s standing on it. And Charlie’s work with the lever is wonderful to behold. Each repositioning of the lever causes him to strike a fresh pose, and he obviously liked the effect because he does it all over again in MODERN TIMES when he runs amuck in the factory. As is quite common in Chaplin’s films, the two set-ups where the action is taking place have an ambiguous relation to one another: separate, but reasonably close; it’s not absolutely clear whether Charlie can see what’s happening over by the trap door, and if he can, whether the view is adequate.

It’s very dangerous to stage a stunt where anybody playing a significant role in it can’t see what’s going on, as you can learn by watching the BBC blow up Anthea Turner (she wasn’t seriously hurt, but SHIT).

In this case, things go wrong because the actor can’t get the gun to fire, even though it was working seconds ago. This is true to life. As every art dept. person knows, the one sure way to get a prop to stop working or fall apart is to hand it to an actor. As soon as it’s given to Eric, he gets it to fire, but nobody’s told him about it being a signal for the trapdoor, which he’s standing on. And Charlie just obeys the starting pistol like a good whippet.

Still, Charlie compounds the problem: having dropped Eric, he then traps his huge neck in the trapdoor, an uncomfortable image prefiguring Ollie’s cartoonish neck-stretching in WAY OUT WEST, which freaked me out as a kid.

Vicious fun with a whole series of unoffending characters being given the drop, including an actress. The leading man is increasingly battered and blackeyed. Henry Bergman’s fall is… ouch.

Pausing amid the mayhem to oil the lever, Charlie also oils himself, Tin Woodsman style, no doubt giving M. Bergson a warm glow of satisfaction.

Here’s Edna, disguising herself as a boy, which leads to some weirdly playful queerbaiting first from Charlie, who somehow finds Edna’s guitar-playing excessively feminine for a lad in dungarees, then from Eric, who catches Charlie and Edna kissing. (The romance element in this one is arbitrary and undercooked — it plays ALMOST as if Charlie is blackmailing Edna into amorous contact by threatening to expose her girlhood or girlishness — but it’s NOT that. It’s not anything else that holds up under examination either.)

Eric’s mincing and flouncing is rather a delight. He’s an incredibly graceful performer, which of course creates a humorous incongruity. Oliver Hardy’s poise is often noted, but Eric is usually just categorized as a suitable figure for Charlie to (sometimes literally) bounce off of, and his comic skill and elegance get short shrift.

David Robinson calls this scene the most overt screen treatment of homosexuality before 1950, which is debatable. I guess one character is imagining he’s seeing two young men kiss romantically. Mainstream movies didn’t show that sort of thing, although a case like WINGS is on the verge. But even excluding hardcore porn, which was being produced at this time and seems to have been surprisingly bisexual in its interests, we have things like DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS. It depends on how you define “overt” and whether you require anyone onscreen to actually be gay.

Chaplin on filmmaking always has some non-comedic interest too, as a portrait of cinematic practice in his time. Here, he makes fun of the practice of shooting multiple movies in the same space, which I don’t know that he’d ever had to deal with professionally, but which is rich material. He has a lot of fun with the slapstick pie fight (the longest and most elaborate until Laurel & Hardy’s ne plus ultra BATTLE OF THE CENTURY) breaking up the period movie next door. In a way it’s a forerunner of the western crashing into the Buddy Bizarre musical in BLAZING SADDLES.

The pie scene is introduced by this title —

The question has been asked, given the rarity of actual pie-fights in silent screen comedy, is this intertitle being ironic or perfectly straightfaced? I’d plump for the latter, since Chaplin often sought to get laughs with titles while using them for expositional/informational purposes at the same time. And I think pies had probably been used onstage before they got into films. The only pastry action in previous Chaplin films is DOUGH AND DYNAMITE and A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, I think. Here, Chaplin seems to introduce the idea of the pie fight as full-on battle.

Charlie and Eric approached to replace an actor who can’t throw and one who considers slapstick too highbrow — which again suggests that Chaplin is trying to put ironic quotes around his recourse to a tired old routine. Charlie is initially keen about throwing a pie at his boss, but rebels when it’s explained that he’s to miss. Once “Action!”is yelled, he abandons the unwritten script and starts pelting Eric with more pies than he previously consumed. Instead of a sling, David wields a mean custard cream.

The secret of reinvigorating hoary material may lie in rediscovering what made it work in the first place and attaining that effect through new additions. The first use of a pie as weapon must have had a deliciously shocking incongruousness — to think! a pie can become a weapon! Chaplin reconnects with the source of the comedy in a couple of ways. First, by inflating the number of pies thrown. Laurel & Hardy would top this in BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, and Blake Edwards would try in THE GREAT RACE, but found the upper limit had been reached.

But Charlie also heaps on incongruity by having Eric’s misses strike the period movie next door. Chaplin breaks not only the fourth wall in this movie, but also the first and third. The pies are not just transforming from food into ballistic weapons, a change which has ceased to startle and is perfectly normal in the context of a silent film studio, but they’re also traveling through time, appearing anachronistically and violating the laws of genre. It’s not certain if this constitutes what Chaplin called “the best idea I’ve ever had,” while requesting an extra two weeks’ shooting time, but it could be.

Meanwhile the dynamite plotters prepare to blow up the whole unnamed studio. Edna comes to the rescue with a handy claw hammer (Albert Austin is clonked on the noggin for the second time in two films running) but is overpowered by a second striker. Sheer chance causes Charlie to be punched into frame, triggering the trapdoor which swallows Eric, and positioning him to rescue Edna. But, rather than having him save the day, it’s more amusing to blow the studio up — a convincing jump cut blasts Eric to smithereens, and we get a final clinch. It’s not an entirely satisfactory narrative arc, but it has the right movie ingredients — villain vanquished, boy gets girl, property is destroyed.

And that, as they say, is entertainment.

Shapeshifter

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2021 by dcairns

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.