Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy A Night in the Show (1915).
This short from Chaplin’s Essanay period is extremely interesting for two reasons. One is that it is essentially a filmed adaptation of the Karno music hall sketch A Night in an English Music Hall or Mumming Birds, the one in which Chaplin starred as a drunk and which brought him to the attention of Mack Sennett. Thus it is the closest thing we have to a record of the performance that led to him becoming a movie star. Secondly, the film is set at a vaudeville theatre. Thus we get to see one of the few contemporary efforts by a filmmaker to dramatize a vaudeville setting. As the film was made in 1915, even though it is fiction, it offers up many valuable details about what the experience of attending a vaudeville show was like, not just the stage performances, but what it was like to be an audience member. And, a third intriguing element – -Chaplin plays two roles: a drunken rich swell, and one of hoi polloi up in the balcony. (This oft misused phrase is used correctly here — the balcony is full of the great unwashed).
The film may contain Chaplin’s best drunk turn, in a career full of the cinema’s best drunk turns, as the top-hatted inebriate, annoys everyone else all the way into the theatre, onstage and off. In addition to a balcony full of ethnic stereotypes (blackface**, a Hebrew, a guy in drag playing a woman with a baby), we get the performers onstage: a plump belly dancer, a snake charmer, a comedy team named Dot and Dash, and a fireater. That’s a show I’d like to see!
To learn more about comedy film history, including classic shorts like Charlie Chaplin’s “A Night in the Show”, please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.