Archive for The Bank

Bin Dreams

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin is working in a bank in THE BANK, a variant on THE NEW JANITOR, a Keystone one-reeler that looks now like an early clue to the new direction — the Little Fellow as sympathetic underling, dreaming of greater things. In THE BANK, the more exciting part of the plot really IS a dream.

I’m uncertain about Chaplin’s frequent recourse to the dream narrative: in a bittersweet way, it can add a sting of pathos to a story, as in the New Year’s party in THE GOLD RUSH. When the dream eats up the whole movie, you feel a little short-changed, since nothing has really “happened” in the story. When you know it’s a dream, as in THE KID, there’s a danger of the fantasy going on too long, so that you’re looking at a scenario where nothing’s at stake. In that film, the dream really goes on about four times longer than I’d like, it’s a colossal misstep, and the film isn’t wrecked by it only because the rest is so brilliant it resists wrecking.

According to Ben Urwand’s deeply flawed book The Collaboration, Chaplin originally planned for the ending of THE GREAT DICTATOR to turn out to be all a dream, with the Jewish barber waking up from his Hynkel impersonation to find himself back in a concentration camp. That would have been bloody depressing and bloody strong. But I love how the film ends now, with an unformulated question. What does fake Hynkel do next? What will he be allowed to do?

THE BANK begins with Charlie coming to work. Big build-up to him getting his janitor’s uniform from the safe, which isn’t really a great pay-off since his usual costume prohibits us from suspecting he’s the manager. But this halfhearted gag allows Chaplin to set up most of the film’s spaces and their relationships to one another.

This is the most impressive set we’ve seen in a Chaplin film — genuinely large, imposing, convincing. For the last couple of pictures, the domestic environments have been more detailed and solid than you tended to get at Keystone, but this is actually grand.

Charlie’s character — and he’s called Charlie in this one — is not quite settled, so in this picture he can be spectacularly stupid. He doesn’t even know how to carry a mop without mishaps. A lot of the work-based slapstick is very much out of THE NEW JANITOR, as when he lifts a waste-basket upside-down and is surprised when it empties all over the office.

Edna works at the bank. By some quirk of nineteenteens fashion, her office clothes are reasonably fetching — at least they give her a waistline — whereas her leisure clothes in every other film save THE CHAMPION (sexy pullover) are hideously disfiguring. I suppose that by disguising her shape they make it possible for us to imagine she’s a thin girl unflatteringly dressed, instead of a slightly rounder girl unflatteringly dressed. She is a bit rounder than the current fashion, or indeed the nineteenteens fashion, comparing her to the other actresses in Chaplin films.

Anyway, her role here is interesting…

Billy Armstrong is Charlie’s co-worker, a subgump idiot who’s somehow more efficient at his job than Charlie, despite his glazed look. Armstrong has a very thick head of hair (and a very thick head, in this), and I believe he may have reinforced it with some product or produce to make it rise up like a wall of brown flame. He’s also grouchoed his eyebrows very severely. My favourite business involving him is his attempt to speak to Charlie through half a doorstop sandwich he’s crammed into his face. Charlie pauses his discourse and excavates the pulped bread from his maw with a pencil, prying loose doughy wads until Armstrong’s only barrier to fluency is his cookie-duster.

The loose opening of the film sets up these characters and also a bank teller, the president, and a disgruntled customer in silk hat and guyliner, all of whom are important for the upcoming dream.

But before that, pathos. The surly, lazy and mentally disorientated Charlie of this film seems an unlikely subject for pathos, but he’s not quite as obnoxious as the version of the character seen in THE TRAMP. Chaplin is slowly working out how to get the rambunctious knockabout stuff to play along with, around and maybe even THROUGH the sentiment. Charlie is generally rough with his co-workers — he tends to see himself as a superior sort of person, there’s certainly no collegial spirit. But he’s not bullying Armstrong, as he does with Paddy McGuire in THE TRAMP or his wretched old underling in THE PROPERTY MAN. He and Armstrong are just scrapping, and neither one has the upper hand for very long.

In the farce tradition, a misunderstanding is contrived. Edna is sweet on a bank teller, also called Charles. Chaplin seems to have been uninterested in seeing Edna share scenes with a conventional leading man type, since Charles is played by CARLTON STOCKDALE, a kind of jug-eared camel type. Stockdale came from Broncho Billy’s stock company at Essanay, and is otherwise best remembered for providing an alibi for Mary Miles Minter’s mom in the William Desmond Taylor shooting. He went on to join Griffith’s group and was a busy bit-player until 1943.

Edna prepares a gift of a necktie for this other Charles, with a loving note. Charlie sees this on her desk and thinks she loves him. He gets her a couple of measly roses and writes a note of his own. His spelling and handwriting have improved since THE TRAMP, at least.

Edna initially thinks the flowers are from Stockdale. There would be room here for farcical misunderstandings to multiply and complicate, but Chaplin isn’t interested in that. Edna realises the roses are from Charlie and bins them. Then she tears up his note. Then she sees him looking heartbroken and SNEERS. Edna is a right cow in this.

Usually in this kind of comic romance, the comedian has to find a way to keep the object of his desire sympathetic, even as she temporarily snubs him. But Chaplin is shrewd enough to know that this time it doesn’t actually matter, so he just plays it to the hilt.

Charlie retrieves the roses and stuffs them up his janitor’s jacket, next to his bosom, a bit of romantic masochism like the bloke in MANON DE SOURCE.

Charlie’s brokenheartedness threatens to rupture the tone, as his getting shot in THE TRAMP does, but he modulates it. Seeing Billy Armstrong preening into a hand mirror, Charlie kicks him out of frame out of sheer spite. But even this simple proven remedy does not relieve his melancholia. He sits on his bench, defeated.

The transition to dream sequence is managed quite smoothly, and probably might still fool people. True, the movie immediately turns into DIE HARD, but that sort of genre-fluidity was common in 1915. Robbers take over the bank. One of them is the disgruntled customer (John Rand, who would keep appearing in Chaplins up until MODERN TIMES), which helps tie things together. It’s a grace note — it’s not essential to set up a bankrobber outside the dream, but it makes things neater.

One of the robbers is herr future film director Lloyd Bacon, a regular, but a bank customer is played by another herr future film director, joining us for the first time, Wesley Ruggles. Makes sense that he was an actor, since his brother is Charlie Ruggles (a thing I never knew until very recently).

So, these bank robbers come pigalleying into the bank, and, hilariously, Stockdale panics and flees, shoving Edna in his craven terror. She falls, is grabbed by the robbers, struggling desperately. She’s been such a bitch it’s hard not to experience a warm glow of schadenfreude. Edna really throws herself into the melodrama here. Feels like every short Chaplin makes requires her to extend herself, and she always does. I think I’d seen her as a bit of a lump before, but watching the films in sequence brings out her range.

Charlie leaps into action, deploying his full range of martial-arts moves: the arse-kick, the roundhouse face slap, and the flying drop-kick to the sternum. He not only propels two of the robbers into the walk-in safe, he slams both the barred gate and the big safe door, spinning the wheel lock and twisting the combination dial. Those guys better hope that thing’s not time-locked. If it is, they better hope Jimmy Valentine’s in the area.

Edna has now swooned, so Charlie hefts her on his shoulder, not, it must be said, without a certain difficulty. Kind of a worker ant scenario going on. Picking up a robber’s fallen pistol while carrying Edna really puts the strain on. Charlie is striking a balance, I’d say, between getting the available comedy out of the situ, and fat-shaming his leading lady. It’s not offensive, just honest.

The remaining heisters are subdued with similar efficiency — Edna actually comes to the rescue when Charlie is at a loss. By the end of this, Charlie is proper knackered. I did one of my bigger lols when he sat on a fallen robber’s head to call the kops. Now the cowardly cur Stockdale is found cowering under a desk, and summarily dismissed. The wretch. Edna is ashamed of ever having fancied the man-camel, as well she should be. Her affections turn to the mentally incompetent janitor. This is the point where it really does feel like a dream sequence. I’m curious to see how Chaplin’s going to handle the romance in later Purviance co-starrers, because there seems no way to make it plausible. I really can’t remember how he works it. He’s going to have to get less stupid, and the social distance between them will have to be reduced if there’s going to be any future in it.

Is Edna thinking, “Well, he possibly saved my life, and the bank, and he fancies me, so I suppose I owe him at least a quick fumble”? Retrieving his roses from the waste paper basket where he’s just re-dropped them, she nestles her head on his chest while he stares at us in wonderment —

— and wakes up cuddling his mop. That mop’s been a very useful prop, but this is its finest moment. Palpable disappointment at the return to reality. Prefiguring the audience’s own literal disenchantment when the illusion of this film is over. Even the film stock deteriorates at this point, which seems perfect in a way.

Edna is back with the repulsive Stockdale. It may be unfair, but I can’t find it in myself to forgive him for his caddish behaviour in Charlie’s dream.

Charlie throws away the flowers, with accompanying back-kick. This is not so much pathos as bitterness, actually. He turns to walk away, tries to switch from mopish to upbeat, but doesn’t seem to have built the set big enough to pull it off — the open road is better suited to this — and then the film is cut off — probably at least a second or two missing, and it could make all the difference.

A step forward! The pathos is integrated into the tone, and ameliorated with comedy so it goes down smooth. The Essanay phase is beginning to build towards the maturity of Mutual, but a couple of stumbles lie ahead — not really Chaplin’s, more Essanay and Leo White’s…