Charlie Chaplin in “The Vagabond”

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The Vagabond (1916) was a great leap forward in terms of Charlie Chaplin’s  story telling artistry, yet he didn’t follow up on its promise in a sustained way until a couple of years later. It is one of the first of his Mutual Shorts, but for most of the time on his Mutual contract Chaplin perfected his slapstick with little attempt to venture into pathos. That would start to happen in a serious way with A Dog’s Life (1918).

There is a lot to love in The Vagabond.  One, is that it is one of the first movies in which Chaplin is a literal tramp, the first having been, well , The Tramp (1915). The saloon in The Vagabond‘s first scene hearkens back to Charlie’s earliest days at Keystone in films like The Face on the Bar-Room Floor.  Now he’s a violinist (and Charlie could really play), trying to play for tips. Unfortunately a brass band comes and steals his thunder. The Vagabond collects money on “their behalf”  but really for himself. Caught in the act—a melee ensues.

Edna Purviance plays a gypsy slave. Eric Campbell is the Gypsy King. When we first meet Edna she is scrubbing clothes. Charlie approaches and plays his fiddle for her. A funny bit where she scrubs at the same (fast) tempo at which he plays. Then, enraptured by the music, she just listens. The Gypsy King comes and whips her for not working. Charlie clocks Edna’s captors with a two-by-four and rescues her.

In a scenario that presages A Dog’s Life, The Kid and Modern Times, the Vagabond takes care of the girl, cleans her up, loves her. Then a dashing young artist shows up and paints her. They fall in love, but the artist leaves, and shows his painting of the girl in a gallery – -where her likeness is recognized by the mother from whom she was stolen. The mother and painter go back and take Edna away, leaving Charlie all by himself. And then a twist — which makes the end somewhat happier. All of Chaplin’s future career summed up in a nutshell. Yet his next film? One A.M. — an entire comedy about a man coming home drunk.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including the work of Charlie Chaplin, don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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