Archive for The Silent Clowns

Man’s Beast Friend

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

On the subject of A DOG’S LIFE, Chaplin’s first film for First National, Walter Kerr (in The Silent Clowns) sagely notes ~

“The dirt floor of the vacant lot on which Charlie is discovered sleeping is now real dirt, hard, soiling, transparently uncomfortable. He will make nothing of this, or, rather, he will deflect attention from it with a gag without denying its presence. The board fence beside him is rickety, uneven at ground level, obviously no shelter from wind. The wind bothers him, a bit. He studies its cause. There is a small knothole in one board. He stuffs that with a piece of cloth and curls up to sleep again, reassured. The joke has had a double face: it is funny because closing off the least source of wind is preposterous in the circumstances; it also accentuates the circumstances. The comedy and a certain harshness of fact are being welded.

“When he goes to the tavern, The Green Lantern, the paint is peeling from the cement walls that frame its entrance, the sign promising Beer 5¢ is weathered almost to obliteration. The curbstone on which he sits is littered: there is garbage for him to probe in search of possible food. Compare the environment in which all of the spirited gagging takes place with that of the earlier Easy Street and the new texture becomes plain. Easy Street is a slum street, populated by bullies, drug addicts, impoverished women who must steal. But it is as clean as a drawing for a fairy tale. A Dog’s Life is not a picture of a place but a place. The “setting” as a thing closer to documentation is taking its place.”

Kerr’s observations are all the more astute because there’s no evidence he knew that the Chaplin unit had been joined by a new production designer, uncredited, in the person of Charles D. Hall. Hall would design every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES, while running the design department at Universal for the last few of those years. He’s a giant of cinema, giving us not just the clockwork innards Chaplin will reel through, iconically, but Castle Dracula, Frankenstein’s laboratory, the Bauhaus Satanism of THE BLACK CAT.

Hall was a companion from the Fred Karno days, but by the time he starts working with Chaplin he already has absorbed cinema’s need for close-up detail, as described in Kerr’s examples. It’s not clear whether he absorbed this working on earlier films or simply had his own ideas, or followed Chaplin’s orders. But he certainly brings a new reality to the films. If you’re wondering if a designer would really be responsible for the quality of dirt on the set in 1917, you can read my short bio in this month’s Sight & Sound but also read Tom Charity on Richard Sylbert in the same issue: Sylbert dictated that, since CHINATOWN was about a drought, he didn’t want to see a single cloud. He designed the SKY.

We can compare directly Chaplin waking up in EASY STREET and in A DOG’S LIFE:

In addition to the detail, the new film begins with a slow tilt down from ramshackle buildings, a movement that adds depth and solidity.

The new film benefits especially from the realistic textures because its gags are mostly about SURVIVAL. The addition of a dog is sympathetic but also holds a mirror up to Charlie, as Jackie Coogan would. Scraps is introduced as “a thoroughbred mongrel,” a contradictory statement that also applies to Charlie, a natural aristocrat, an indigent lord of the manner.

Scraps is played by Mut. Chaplin had been experimentally buying dogs, then giving them away to good homes when he judged them insufficiently cinematic. A dachshund, a pomeranian and a poodle preceded the final mutt, Mut. Obviously a mongrel was the way to go, but Chaplin liked to find things out by trial and error.

Class warfare: in Chaplin, the underdog is permitted to mistreat the upper crust silk hat fellow, since this qualifies as revenge on the persecutor, but he can also rob the honest salesman: in EASY STREET, Charlie as constable helps a woman load up with purloined groceries from a stall, and there’s no thought to how the poor stall-keeper is to survive. In THE KID, breaking the windows of the honest poor is permissible (windows are expensive).

A kop! No longer with the silly tit helmet, but with a dignified cap and an unblinking stare. Played not by a clown but by a regular actor, Tom Wilson, previously of Griffith and Pickford productions. But he has to get down and slapsticky with the rest of them, as Charlie uses the gap beneath the fence to roll back and forth and play merry hell with the kopper’s ankles.

Charlie now visits the Employment Office. Despite his offscreen British origins, queuing is not a natural activity for him. An ad for a brewery job provokes a near-riot, and despite his greater speed, Charlie suffers the inevitable consequence of being the smallest jobseeker. The fat jobseeker is the inevitable Henry Bergman, in the first of his inevitable two roles.

That other Henry, Henry Jaglom, was horrified to learn that Chaplin used gag writers. This seems to be true, but unlike with Keaton it seems we’re not allowed to know who they were. Vincent Bryan & Maverick Tyrrel (cool name) are listed by the IMDb as co-screenwriters of the Mutual films, but on what factual basis I don’t know. Bryan was also a songwriter, responsible for”In My Merry Oldsmobile” (?) No co-writers are given for subsequent Chaplins until we get Orson Welles supplying the story for MONSIEUR VERDOUX. But Glen David Gold’s well-researched novel Sunnyside gives Chaplin a gaggle of gagmen. Albert Austin and Henry Bergman are said to have contributed ideas, and so I suspect the stock company could be said to serve as co-authors, like the actors in Mike Leigh films, but the man in charge serves as filter of all suggestions.

After being roundly defeated in the Job Centre — even the tiniest jobseekers somehow arrive at the service window before him — the problem is there are TWO –Charlie rescues Scraps from bigger dogs: the parallel with his own scrappy existence is clear. He at once becomes surrogate bitch to the pup, helping access the dregs of a milk bottle using Scraps’ own tail as a kind of milk-sop. Probably THE KID has a better origin story, with Charlie simply forced into partnership with a baby, much against his wishes. But this is fine, and sweet.

Attention to set detail is complimented by attention to extras once we relocate to the Green Lantern bar, a low dive full of low characters. Chaplin invents bits of business for the local colour. But he’s cutting ahead if the plot here — nothing happens in the bar/dance hall this time round. He just needed a cutaway.

Sydney! Chaplin’s half-brother last shared a screen with him in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, Chaplin’s last Keystone film and Sydney’s first. Since then, Syd had made a number of shorts using his “Gussle” character, sometimes called a Chaplin impersonation but not really. Syd was less handsome than Charlie and his characters usually up the grotesquerie factor.There are at a couple of features where he bares his face and looks natural, but he retreats behind makeup and cookieduster again for THE BETTER ‘OLE, the better to resemble the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon the film takes its title from.

I can only hate Syd as a human being, but he’s another comic who, not surprisingly, has fantastic timing with his brother. Like Conklin and Turpin. This is their probably their best bit together, but I’ll be watching out for his subsequent appearances.

The basis of this routine is Charlie and scraps stealing from Syd’s lunch counter. Scraps cleans up a string of sausages in time-honoured fashion. Charlie eats all the pies. It is incredible to see him cram those things into his skinny face. He’s like Paul Newman with the hardboiled eggs. I think they must have made nearly-empty pies, but then again, his face looks pretty full. Syd tries to catch him at it. This becomes very funny indeed, since by the diminishing number of pies and Charlie’s proximity to the dish, his guilt is transparent. But Syd is determined to catch him in flagrante. Circumstantial evidence is insufficient for this stickler. The variety of ways Charlie gets the better of him is dazzling, and a lot of it is played out in unbroken master shots so you can see the interplay in real time. There are cutaways to the dog and closeups, maybe so Chaplin can run off and be sick. But the bulk of the action is in wides of twenty seconds and a minute ten.

The arrival of that kop, whose sinister gaze Charlie meets just as he’s lifting another pie to his gob, breaks up the skit — Charlie flees and the kop gets hit with the colossal sausage intended for him.

Stuffed with meat, Charlie and Scraps enter the Green Lantern and the first thing that can be called plot occurs (I may be being over-strict, but I think the meeting with Edna is the first thing in the film that leads to something else).

Rejected from the joint for having a dog with him, Charlie stuffs Scraps down his baggy pants, which at last have a use. The dog is somewhat large for this role, which may have looked more realistic on paper. Special effects will be used to basically shrink him: once he’s inside, Charlie looks normal-ish, no longer bulging fantastically, but with a wagging tail protruding from his trousers. The seat was torn earlier, when Charlie rescued Scraps from the bigger dogs, so this is unusually logical.

Various barflies and one drummer are freaked out by Charlie’s tail. Mut seems very contented in those pants, whenever we cut to a medium-shot and we see his face.

Edna is a singer in this joint. She sings a sad song — cutaways of various plug uglies weeping into their beer. Henry Bergman, in his inevitable second inevitably drag appearance, cries clown tears, but instead of spurting like water pistols his eyes just dribble in cataracts down his big face upon the place beneath, where Charlie happens to be sitting.

You have to see this one with Chaplin’s score — I guess this is the earliest Chaplin film with his own music accompanying it. He couldn’t write music but he would whistle or hum it for a composer to transcribe. I gather sometimes what he whistled wasn”t entirely original, but his films are full of cute tunes, and Nino Rota’s collaboration with Fellini is impossible to imagine without C.C. Here, Edna’s lament is preceded and followed by a very vigorous and zaftig dancer, and the contrast in style and dignity is very funny.

Syd’s then-wife Minnie is credited as “Dance hall dramatic lady” on the IMDb. Does that make her the dancer? It’s a bit strange.

Fiona likes Edna’s incompetent flirting. It’s one of the few Edna roles where she gets to transform pathos — her bully of a boss demands she flirt with customers — with comedy — she’s so innocent she has no idea how to do it. She looks like she’s having a fit. Charlie, the customer she tries it on, is baffled until she provides an explanatory title card. Such visual cues would be useful in real life.

At attempt to dance with a dog in tow looks forward to the improvised dog leash belt in THE GOLD RUSH. It looks pretty uncomfortable. Charlie is just sitting down to a (leftover) half drink with Edna when the bartended unreasonably demands he buy something for her. He gives her the drink. The bartender starts to eject him so he grabs it back and downs it on his way out.

Charlie and Scraps get the bum’s rush. Meanwhile, a rich drunk is rolled for his bulging wallet. This tipsy walk-on clearly would be given to an experienced comic, but the IMDb offers no clue as to who it is and I don’t recognise him. There’s a nice “mercy shot” after he’s dragged offscreen by thugs and relieved of his loot — he staggers back into view, dazed but unperturbed, and staggers off back the way he came.

Kops chase robbers, and the purloined wad is buried where Scraps can easily find it, providing the ensuing complications of Reel #3 and Day #2 (or is it #3?) of this film.


The Sunday Intertitle: Convict 999

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2021 by dcairns

POLICE was Chaplin’s last “real” film for Essanay, and they hung onto it for a few months, releasing it after THE FLOORWALKER, his first film at Mutual, in May 1916.

The cast list, which is a bit more fulsome than usual, gives us usual suspects Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, Billy Armstrong and John Rand, along with CC himself. Confusingly, Armstrong is listed as “The Miser” but no such character appears, I think it’s a typo for “The Minister.”

After two films where he’s played a relatively high-status character, Charlie starts this film being released from prison, and this is the first film to position him as a convict — in THE ADVENTURER and THE PILGRIM he’d play an escapee, and MODERN TIMES uses repeated arrests and releases as a structuring device (almost the only one it has, you might argue). The two Chaplins of THE GREAT DICTATOR exchange arrests, and MONSIEUR VERDOUX is caught, tried and executed.

The real Chaplin — or maybe I should say the real-world Chaplin, since I don’t think the Tramp is NOT real — would have his own legal troubles.

Two things: Charlie STRETCHES as he’s released, because prison is confining. It makes no logical sense but feels right. And it’s been raining, or, more likely, this being L.A., someone has hosed the sidewalk. To make the outside world seem more uninviting. The intertitle characterises the world as the sort of place people commit suicide out of.

A sinister personage is already watching our hero. Chaplin, who had played sinister personages with glee on stage and in a couple of early Keystones, gives him a great entrance:

This lurker proves to be a phony preacher who pretends to reform Charlie. Now, in THE TRAMP there was a minister too, and Charlie dropped a rotten egg in his Bible. This throwaway gag wasn’t ABOUT anything, but it did seem to express an unformed anti-clerical or anyhow disrespectful attitude. Here, Chaplin has actually worked out a philosophy. ..

The holy platitudes move Charlie to tears. True, he wipes his eyes with the minister’s (patently false) beard, but this is not conscious lack of respect, it’s just that people and objects are interchangeable to Charlie. Inspired by the good word, he passes up a golden opportunity to relieve a drunk of his fob watch. And then he discovers his pocket’s been picked and sees the crooked minister is rolling the drunk he’d spared. (I’ve been reading William Burroughs’ Junkie which is a magnificent primer on how to roll drunks, among other things. The minister’s technique lacks finesse, but he did manage to rob Charlie without any of us seeing it.) The next (apparently sincere) priest to attempt saving Charlie’s soul gets seen off with threats of violence.

Maybe Chaplin’s anti-clerical impulses already derive from leftist sympathies, I don’t know. But the message seems clear: there are honest and dishonest preachers in the world: avoid both kinds.

Determinedly pursuing the hapless cleric, Charlie collides with and bowls over John Rand as a kop, who does a great fall and then gives chase. Surprisingly, the chase fades out just as it’s getting started, and we next see Charlie checking into a flophouse for the night. This is footage taken from LIFE, the Essanay feature project Chaplin had begun and abandoned, thus proving that you don’t have to be Leo White to recycle Chaplin footage. It doesn’t even help to be Leo White.

The dosshouse tenants are an extraordinary bunch — the look like pirates who have come from an explosion. This kind of scene and setting are quite unusual for silent comedy, but Chaplin is trying to find the common ground. His later movies that delve into poverty would portray the world with a kind of slightly softened realism. Here, we’re almost in the Emmett Kelly “hobo clown” domain. One of these guys is Snub Pollard.

Leo White plays the landlord/proprietor as a Jewish emigré type in a filthy waistcoat. A hint of kindliness — he allows a consumptive customer to bed down free. Charlie, having been relieved of his change earlier, spontaneously acquires a racking cough. Leo boots him out, but not before Charlie has given his beard a cruel yank.

Another strange transition as Charlie provokes a policeman, starts a chase… and strolls into the next scene, apparently unpursued. Then he’s mugged at gunpoint but manages to stealthily rob the pinstriped goon that’s doing it. This is apparently Wesley Ruggles, unrecognisable from his bit as Edna’s dad in SHANGHAIED. Ruggles proves to be Charlie’s old cell mate, and enlists him in a burglary. Armed with pistol and fatal mallet, they approach the target house, and Chaplin throws in an expressionist touch, four years before German expressionism was a thing in movies ~

Well, if you have the most recognisable silhouette in movies, might as well use it.

Kop John Rand has overheard the criminous scheme and is keeping watch, in another remarkable shot:

Lots of creeping and lurking in this one, and it brings out Chaplin’s compositional ideas.

Despite his prior conviction, whatever it may have been for, Charlie is a rank amateur at b&e, more liable to damage Wesley Ruggles than the window he’s charged with jimmying. Never ask a Charlie to jimmy for you, or vice versa. Now Rand’s kop pounced, and there’s one of those slow-burn things where Charlie doesn’t seem to have recognised he’s about to be arrested, until suddenly he wallops Rand with the fatal m. and Rand does a great stiffen-and-collapse, legs flying up as he hits the ground flat (a good friend knows how to do this and it’s a regret that I’ve never asked him to teach me. But I would be rubbish at it and smash my skull in).

Jimmying has no effect on this window, but luckily the door was open all along. Sophisticated bit of cutting inside — the two crooks creep to a curtain — Chaplin cuts to a wide of the room beyond, with Charlie peering into it, then back to the hall as Ruggles bumps into Charlie, then back to the big room as they burst into it. We haven’t seen that kind of cutting in Chaplin before, I don’t think. The days when each room was a single shot have imperceptibly faded away to a new kind of fluid treatment of space.

Of course we probably all guess this was going to be Edna’s house, and here she comes now, awakened by Charlie accidentally pulling over a unit full of metallic ornaments with his cane (startled, he dives under a rug, which becomes a bedsheet from which he says his prayers).

Ruggles produces a drill from somewhere. These two incompetents don’t have a toolkit or a swag bag, but it seems not to matter because Ruggles has, it seems, extraordinarily capacious pockets. I bet Charlie does too, judging from his pants. Charlie attempts to drill his way into the piano, for reasons unknown. If you were going burgling and you had the choice of Charlie or Harpo… well, probably going it alone would be your best option.

Edna calls the kops, who are all daintily drinking tea, a nice, strange touch.

This whole situation is great: Charlie is stuck in a situation demanding stealth, wile and ruthlessness, but all he can offer is inane fumbling. A bungler not a burglar. Plus he has a short-tempered associate more competent but also more dangerous than he, to intimidate and shove him about. This kind of thing would become standard for CC.

Lots of mileage is gotten from unlikely objects. He falls in a wicker basket and it becomes momentarily a turtle’s shell, then he steps in it, and simply by raising the wrong foot to get free, traps himself in a deteriorating spiral, leglocked and disorientated.

Using elaborate safecracker pantomime, Charlie breaks into the icebox. It’s not even certain if this is a mistake or mere whimsy. Objects are so easily transposed, there’s really only one all-purpose object in the world, and it’s all people and animals too.

Nonsensically, Charlie steals an alarm clock, and moments later Chaplin offers us the first ever view INSIDE the baggy pants, as the clock goes off. This provokes a frantic, electroconvulsive dance from Charlie, surely an exaggeration. Handed the basket, Charlie fills it with flowers and discards the valuable containers.

Sixteen mintes into a twenty-six minute film, Charlie runs into Edna, and immediately flees, leaping into Ruggles’ arms and then surrendering to an empty room. Ruggles covers Edna with his revolver, but she’s made of sterner stuff. She tells Ruggles to be quiet as her father is very ill. She invites them to dine — she knows the kops are coming — like men in a dream, the housebreakers fall in with their hostess’ request.

Chaplin has fun with the domesticity of the kops too. While they are indeed motoring at speed to the rescue, they’re also smoking cigars and looking very relaxed about it. This is much more characterful clowning than the Keystone variety of frenetic stagger, which does have character in it but, through its rampant disunity and hyperactivity, presents a singular aspect of chaos rather than individual reactions.

This short has more stylistic devices and sheer filmmaking imagination than Chaplin’s whole career to date! A sudden Sergio Leone closeup (but in vignette) shows Ruggles reacting to Edna’s jewellery. We tilt suspensefully up from her beringed fingers to her anxious face.

While Ruggles is off burglarizing, Charlie again shows himself a sucker for reformists, as Edna sweet-talks him into yielding to his better side. Priests is one thing, pretty girls another. But when she utters the exact same words as the film’s opening man of the cloth, Charlie checks his pockets. Good stuff — sentimentality at this stage of Chaplin’s career is mainly a set-up for a deflating punchline, it’s a spice that adds flavour.

Laden with Edna’s property, Charlie tips his hat and shakes hands as he and Ruggles prepare to make their getaway. Charlie has mostly grabbed not particularly valuable furnishings and impedimenta. But Ruggles still wants to try upstairs — Edna protests — now it’s her mother who’s sick — a struggle, as they say, ensues. Charlie is impatient with this sort of ungentlemanliness, and when Ruggles makes to haul off and slap Edna, he instinctively comes to her defence. Like a Jean-Pierre Melville heister, he has a code of honour which does not, however, prevent him from kicking Ruggles in the breadbasket when his dander us up. Ruggles throughout has a small, distracting tear in the seta of his pants, which now enlarges like an iris.

The kop, John Rand, now shows himself to be a subject worthy of continued study, as he awakens from his earlier concussion at the front door, enters the fray, and is at once reconcussed by a swung swag bag not even aimed at him. Staggering out again, he makes an “Oh sod it” gesture and lies down as if to sleep, then as an afterthought sits up and loudly mouths “Help! Help!” then lies back down again, so far as he’s concerned, unconscious.

Fiona asks is this is a Rand improv or if he’s following direction. We can’t know. All we can say is that Chaplin liked it enough to include it when he could have cut it. Rand was an ex-circus clown and presumably had considerable experience working up comedy business. I wasn’t really familiar with him before this trawl through the Essanays, but Chaplin kept him around for decades — I’d seen him a lot without knowing it.

The rescuing kops now arrive. Ruggles exudes via the back window. Rand runs behind the house and Charlie rereconcusses him with his own truncheon. Grabbed by the fuzz, he’s saved by Edna pretending he’s her husband. The following routine was hugely admired by Walter Kerr, who wrote:

“It is at this point that a virtual miracle takes place. With no transition at all, Charlie becomes Edna’s husband. Affable, outgoing, utterly at home, digging his hands into his pockets and flexing his knees as though he were master of his own domain and ready to get out the humidor, he is all bourgeoise bonhomie, the host par excellence, eager to show his guests about and have them back again soon. Nobody has ever been more completely the confident man of the house.

“The impersonation lasts only for a moment or two, but, for me, its implications are immense. It is entirely clear that Charlie could have been this man at any time he chose to adopt the role. He is no born underdog, deprived of opportunity by an unfeeling society. He is not inept, uneducated, uninformed, socially unacceptable. There is nothing in his natural equipment or in his background, nothing cruelly unjust in the society around him to keep him from most acceptably playing for a full twenty-four hours a day the part he is playing now. He might have married Edna, might have run a house, might have had children, might have gone to church, might have worked and become rich, might have done anything he cared to put his mind to. The competence is there, in plain view. The posture is believed in, even by the police. Nothing stands between his talents and the assumption of a role in which they might be exercised. He is no natural tramp.”

Of course the great Kerr is never wrong, but here he may be slightly wrong. Maybe he’s influenced by a greater belief in the American success story than I enjoy. In my estimation, Chaplin himself, who was the supreme example of the American success story, didn’t much believe in it either. Look at him looking at Lady Liberty askance in THE IMMIGRANT. His success was too freakish and tremendous to be believed in. So I think the tramp is (a) a natural aristocrat trapped in a tramp’s trappings, and (b) most definitely imprisoned by an unfeeling society, often literally. The reason he can’t become what he’s clearly capable of, respectable, is the way society is constructed.

I note also that Charlie’s hubby act enables him to bite off the end of a cigar and spit it in a kop’s eye.

Kerr is correct to state that there’s no visible transition, Charlie doesn’t even have to think. He’s a frozen culprit, and when he unfreezes he’s the householder. Charlie is always liquid, he fills whatever mould you put him in. The reason he’s not a homeowner the rest of the time is he doesn’t get put in that situation.

The kops, incidentally, are Leo White again, George Cleethorpe and Fred Goodwins.

Chaplin makes a mistake — the Little Fellow is gifted a coin by Edna — she apparently sleeps with lucre in her stockings — and he bites it to be sure it’s legit. Then he exits, and bites it again. I think either one is a good laugh, but the first one invalidates the second.

But then we’re into a classic closing shot, the long road, and Charlie walking off, this time with many a sidelong glance at the noble woman he’s leaving behind. And then, in a superb touch, he stretches again — a callback to the opening shot.

POLICE is a fitting climax to the Essanay period, probably Chaplin’s most achieved and interesting film to date.

And then, wait! Topping the topped, a furious Officer Rand enters frame and chases Charlie back past the camera.

Ça Tramp Énormément

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2021 by dcairns

Well, here we are already — THE TRAMP is widely seen as a landmark film in Chaplin’s development. Certainly a film that could never have been made at Keystone. The film where he first tried straight-up pathos, despite friends warning him against this.

Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, rather sides with the friends, saying of this film, “It is in fact, a failure: it solves none of its own problems, answers none of the questions it raises.” Kerr argues this so cogently one is tempted to accept his opinion uncritically. Let’s look at the film and see if he’s right.

One area he may be right is when he points out that Chaplin’s character was not inherently or originally a tramp: he becomes one here, but was back to being gainfully employed in his very next short. When we’ve seen him wandering in parks in previous films, we’ve been inclined (I seem to be using the Kaelian “we” meaning “I”) to assume him to be a few hours away from settling down on those variform park benches, with a newspaper for a bedsheet, but this has rarely been established as a definite fact. He often seems to be on the scrounge for food, admittedly. Films where he has a job often open with him GETTING the job (THE CHAMPION, HIS MUSICAL CAREER, and, as implied by their titles, HIS NEW JOB, HIS NEW CAREER, THE NEW JANITOR, and even HIS PREHISTORIC PAST begins with him arriving, a wandering, tribeless caveman without a cave) so that he at least starts out as rootless and indigent. And I think the costume always indicated poverty. Sometimes Chaplin seems to have considered that it might just mean slovenliness. The Little Fellow was a dirty little fellow. But Chaplin’s own tendency towards gentility and elegance argued against this. His appearance and his acting style combined most neatly to suggest a man trying to hang onto a conception of himself as a gentleman, against impossible odds.

He’s a gentleman of the road here, getting dusted by careless automobiles. He produces an old paintbrush to dust himself off, holding the film up while he bends over to reach between his legs and brush his arse, then straightening up and pulling his baggy pants around sideways so he can do it again, erect. Sideways eyeing us, a little embarrassed, as if challenging us not to laugh at his attempts to maintain dignity.

I sort of already feel something a bit different about this business and the way it’s played, but it’s such a subtle difference I concede it may be my imagination.

Charlie then lays out a picnic, but is robbed by another, nastier tramp. The crucial moment he discovers his bread loaf has been replaced by one of those omnipresent bricks has been, it seems, lost in a historical splice. Charlie miserably munches some handfuls of grass, a meagre sketch for THE GOLD RUSH’s cooked boot.

These two gaglets do two things — they hopefully get some chuckles, but the also position Charlie as a sympathetic underdog. Chaplin could be quite careless about audience sympathy in earlier films, notably the brutish and horrible THE PROPERTY MAN and LAUGHING GAS. As recently as IN THE PARK he seems to have included some closeups of Edna Purviance flirting with him so he wouldn’t come across as a creepy masher, which shows both initial negligence and shrewd awareness of the issue.

The other tramp pursues Edna with apparent sinister intent and Charlie heroically steps in, swinging the guy’s own brick in his bindle to stun him, then propelling him from view with a kick up the arse so powerful it lands Charlie himself on his shoulders, backside up. But now it turns out there are three tramps, rough-looking fellows. (They are Leo White, Lloyd Bacon and Bud Jamison, the backbones of Charlie’s Essanay stock company.)

“He wanted my money!” proclaims Edna, as Charlie gently relieves her of her banknotes. But then he returns the dosh when she’s upset. I think this is good — our man is fundamentally dishonest but also chivalric.

When the other tramps show up, Charlie bests them with a textbook display of bindle-swinging and arse-kicking. There’s a moment that looks forward to THE KID when he shrugs his jacket off his shoulders as if squaring for a fight, and this alone is enough to make an opponent flee in terror. But then his arse goes on fire and he has to run about a bit, you know.

Sweet relief

Walter Kerr does admit that Chaplin experiments not just with tone, but with some beautiful long shots. The bucolic setting is nicely depicted, though this is a very rambunctious vision of rustic life. Unlike THE FATAL MALLET, Chaplin and Sennett’s stupid yokel film, the unit seems to have travelled somewhere worth going to. (Only two miles from Chaplin’s Niles, California base, as it turns out.

Edna takes Charlie to the cheap set she shares with her pop, and there’s some business with Charlie, whose arse is still sore, eating off the mantelpiece because he can’t sit down, but this is cut short by a dodgy splice. (I laughed when Charlie inadvertently slung mash at pops.) IS he Edna’s dad, or just some gink he lives with. He comes in for some rough treatment, but he should know better than to hand Charlie a pitchfork, and anyway, he keeps his money in a sock.

Charlie is hired as a hand, and is brutal to his co-worker (burlesque star Paddy McGuire). Lots of unintentional pitchforking, but quite a bit of purely deliberate forkery too. By the time of MODERN TIMES, this cruelty towards his fellow man would be shifted into the realm of fecklessness — Charlie doesn’t deliberately mistreat Conklin in that one, he just causes the man troubles through incompetence. That’s harder to do because you need to devise ways in which carelessness can translate into mishaps that affect the other guy. Here, Chaplin goes the easiest route, simple sadism.

A pastor (Billy Armstrong) shows up, behaving in a stock pastorly manner — standing in the road reading the bible, making rapturous utterances at the sky — and then sniffing in distaste as Charlie passes by. There’s some business with rotten eggs: Charlie gratuitously shoves one in Paddy’s face, then drops the second in the minister’s bible or hymn book. Closing the book, the guy is assailed by a frightful stench. There’s an anti-clerical streak in Chaplin’s work, where priests are often humbugs, but this moment is startling in its directness and because the guy hasn’t really been given a chance to display corruption or hypocrisy.

More brutal treatment of Edna’s dad. It wasn’t too surprising to see the girl’s father treated shoddily in A JITNEY ELOPEMENT, since he’s the antagonist, the obstacle to true love. But in THE TRAMP, Ernest Van Pelt (also the film’s AD) is a quite unoffending chap. And since he’s connected by blood to our heroine, it’s a little startling to see sacks of flour repeatedly dropped on his poor head. Accused by the victim, Charlie blames Paddy, and laughs satanically as the innocent is about to get beaned. It’s purely gratifying when Charlie the little shit gets accidentally bashed on the noggin.

All this brutal, amoral Keystone stuff seems like the very worst kind of comedy to attempt if you’re planning to drop in some pathos later… maybe Chaplin felt he’d better give the mob a double dose of the violence they loved to make sure the film would succeed with its untried emotional heartstring stuff. Still, it’s a somewhat grotesque combo.

SUDDEN COMPOSITION IN DEPTH: pops is counting his sock bills. The tramps open the door in unison. The close view of pops, wide-angle lens, and the gurning hobos in their stage makeup, creates a whole different world, sort of grotesque mock-melodrama. The bruises inflicted by Charlie earlier have not faded with Tom & Jerry rapidity — I can’t recall an earlier Chaplin film where people show signs of injury after the knockabout. The tramp trio are semi-serious villains, so it’s OK to really hurt them.

Walter Kerr singles out the long shot of Charlie watering trees in the orange grove. “In all of this there is one lovely shot, the first of what I think of as the Chaplin master-images. […] he seems to place himself temporarily in a sympathetic, productive universe, where he is enormously happy.” But I note that he throws down his watering can on the spot when he hears the dinner bell ring.

More interplay with Edna, who, since she’s playing a poor farmgirl not a “lady,” is allowed to dress somewhat attractively. God, those fashions. (“I look a frump,” said Lillian Gish, viewing a photograph of herself in Griffith’s office.)

Charlie toys with the notion of milking a bull, anticipating FREDDY GOT FINGERED by eighty-six years. Instead, he tries to use a cow’s tail as a hand-pump for milk.

Romance! After putting his boot in the milk (and wiping off the sole, flicking the soiled milk back into the bucket), Charlie plucks a daisy and chucks it in Edna’s direction. She doesn’t realise where it came from… (always send a card with flowers). Her ignorance of his romantic feelings has now been established, lightly. There’s a little more craft to this than Kerr allows.

Charlie would flirt more, but he gets an egg (which he’s stolen) broken in his trouser pocket, and has to go stuff his pants with leaves to soak up the yolk. Then he bumps into the holey trinity, the hobos, who try to enlist him into their nefarious plans. He plays along.

Don’t know if the night scenes would have been shown with a blue filter originally, but Harry Ensign’s photography seems to need something to help it get to day-for-night.

Not a particularly clever joke, but I like it — Charlie, burning a candle at one end, as approved, sets light to pops’ newspaper. It’s the prolonged obliviousness of Van Pelt that tickles me, plus this is a positive instance of Charlie causing people angst UNINTENTIONALLY, which is the profitable and ironic terrain he will mine in future, once his character and comedy are fully developed.

Retiring to the double bed he’s to share with Paddy, Charlie arms himself with a FATAL MALLET, which he tests on his strange bedfellow a few times. After accidentally bopping pops, he explains about the imminent threat. There’s no logical reason he couldn’t have done so earlier, but I guess to the extent there’s a strategy in this, maybe Chaplin wanted the audience to be unsure of his hero’s intentions?

Charlie sees the thugs off with skull-fracturing hammer blows, but gets shot in the flurry, seemingly by pops himself. Charlie clutching his shin and looking sincerely stricken must have come as a shock to audiences in 1915 — unless they were thrown by the gear-shift and kept laughing, with increasing uncertainty, for a few moments too long. Pops and Paddy run to his assistance — he tries a cocky laugh, but it’s the wan ghost of his previous boisterousness.

There’s blood, and a bullet-hole. It’s hardly Peckinpah, but a blast of realism has been shot into the film.

Iris in, then fade up to see Charlie thoroughly enjoying his convalescence, with Edna reading to him while he smokes and drinks.

Suddenly, Lloyd Bacon shows up again, this time as Edna’s beau. The double-casting, which we’re not meant to notice and largely don’t, seems apt, since this is another enemy for Charlie, but one he can’t defeat with concussion, for this is an eminently fine-looking fellow and Edna is all for him.

Charlie shakes the chap’s hand a couple of times then goes inside, sensing he’s a third wheel. Suddenly self-conscious, he examines his ragged form. He pens a childish note: “I thort your kindness was love but it aint cause I seen him XX’ Good bye” (This scene is missing from at least one Youtube version.)

Tearful, he takes up his bindle and, wiping his face on whatever’s handy, leaves. Which is interesting, because in the depths of his pathos, he’s still remembering to include a little comedy. So I feel Walter Kerr is not quite right to say that “the single character whose silhouette embraces both sentiment and comedy, and both at the same time, has not yet been born.” But he’s about 75% right. Chaplin hasn’t set up any serious dimension to his character — the tossed flower is a gesture in that direction, but not sufficient to broaden the tonal church in time for this turnabout.

But a lot of this works, or shows signs of working, especially the end shot: after lingering on the happy trio at the farm up until they find the note — and Chaplin’s not overmuch interested in their reaction — we cut to the solitary figure limping down a country lane — he needs that can now. Then he stops, kicks up his heels as if to arse-kick himself, and sets off at a brisk and determined pace, as the image irises in around him, forever.

I thought that was a superb ending when I was ten. I still do.