August 1 marks the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy The Property Man (1914)
Something feels original about this film in contrast with most of Chaplin’s earlier Keystones. Not brilliant, but in his own voice. Charlie plays a prop man in a vaudeville house, whose ineptitude causes much chaos. There are some echoes of Kid Auto Races at Venice when his character keeps winding up in front of the audience; but here the audience is made up of Keystone personnel, including Chester Conklin, Slim Summerville, and Mack Sennett himself. Mostly he just knocks things down and ruins the performers’ acts.
For sheer meanness, The Property Man contains some of Chaplin’s most tasteless moments. In the film, Charlie doles out endless abuse on a fellow stage hand (Josef Swickard), who happens to be about 90 years old. When we see the old fellow struggle with a heavy steamer trunk we assume that Charlie is going to come to his aid; instead he merely helps the old guy get it onto his back. Later when the man stumbles and is pinned beneath the trunk, Charlie sits on top of it in a misguided effort to pry it off. On several occasions throughout the film, Chaplin gives the same character a few swift kicks just for the heck of it. Chaplin’s characters were always willing to inflict physical violence. What hadn’t yet clicked was the idea that you want sympathy for your character, and for that, the character needs motivation.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including Charlie Chaplin films like “The Property Man” don’t miss 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.