Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin movie Behind the Screen (1916).
While made at the peak of Chaplin’s Mutual period, this comedy feels to me like a throwback to his Keystone and Essanay days. It’s his umpteenth movie set in a movie studio and also has much in common with related scenarios such as The Property Man and His Musical Career. Eric Campbell is a stage hand, Charlie his assistant. Their names are David and Goliath. Campbell sleeps all the time while Charlie does all the work and makes it look the other way around. Then the crew (except Charlie and Campbell) go on strike, Workers go on strike, recalling Dough and Dynamite.
Edna Purviance (who’s been hanging around in order to get a job (presumably as an actress) dresses as a (male) stage hand in order to get hired. She is. Scab! When Chaplin sees that she’s a girl the two kiss. Campbell sees them, assumes their gay, and ridicules them.
Then a scene on a comedy set. They stage a pie fight. The fight gets out of hand so it spills over into next shoot, a costume drama. Campbell says “I don’t like this highfalutin stuff”. (a Very self-reflexive wink to the audience by Chaplin). Then the strikers set off gunpowder — explosion. Charlie and Edna kiss. The end.
While this is in many ways a retread of too many Chaplin films to account, the gags are more elaborate and some are more original. I particularly like a moment where Charlie picks up a whole bunch of chairs, their legs stick in all directions, until he looks like a giant porcupine. And there is very funny business with a trap door Charlie is supposed to operate. He keeps getting the cues all wrong, opening and closing the trap at inopportune times, so people fall down it, or have the doors close on their heads. It’s the equivalent of the escalator in The Floorwalker or the revolving door in The Cure, a big mechanical toy for Charlie to play with.
To learn more about comedy film history, including great Charlie Chaplin films like “Behind the Screen” please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.