100 Years Ago: Chaplin’s Mutual Period
100 years ago today Charlie Chaplin released The Floorwalker, the first of twelve classic comedy shorts he would make for the Mutual Film Corporation.
Mutual was the firm that had previously distributed Keystone comedies. Mack Sennett had just left to set up his new venture, the Triangle Film Corporation with D.W. Griffith and the “Father of the Western” Thomas Ince as the other two points of the triangle. Tasked with filling the void left by Keystone, Chaplin was set up with his own unit called The Lone Star Studio. With what amounted to unlimited resources at his fingertips, Chaplin was now to take all sorts of steps that boosted the quality of his films to unprecedented levels.
For example, now he was able to construct more imaginative, original, and lavish sets. Now we have a department store with a working escalator, a health spa with a revolving door, and a bi-level house with a treacherous cuckoo clock. The construction of these playgrounds of comedy potential was also the genesis of the stories of the films themselves. Chaplin would start with nothing more than an idea for a locale and then order the set built. He would then devise the movie in situ, as though the whole apparatus of the film studio was his pipe organ to compose upon. Unlike even Sennett, he didn’t write a story out on paper. He showed up to work in the morning armed with nothing more than some ideas in his head, many of them vague. Then he created his movies on the fly. For a surprisingly long time, Chaplin was able to maintain the pace he had established at Essanay using this method. But then, starting with The Cure in early 1917 he started to take even longer to make each film. Instead of one month to make a two-reeler, it now took two or three. Here again, his working method was enabled by resources. He had the wherewithal to indulge his muse. He could actually do the unthinkable and wait for inspiration to come.
As his old mentor Fredo Karno had done, Chaplin’s method of direction was to show every player his part, literally. He was a mime, after all. Trying to communicate in words what he wanted to accomplish would only be a hindrance, a frustration, and ultimately less effective. So he would act out every role in the movie, show each actor in each scene precisely how they should do their part in each bit. Working in this method necessitated a special kind of stock company, one that would be willing to yield entirely to his control. Chaplin’s ideal cast members are either non-actors, i.e. tabulae rasae (such as most of his leading ladies and a certain famous five-year-old) or people from the same professional background who possessed the same gestural vocabulary as he, and to whom he could speak in a sort of shorthand. Edna Purviance answered the description of the first type. Officially his leading lady by this point both on and off the screen, there was no question but that she would follow Chaplin to the new studio.
As to the second type, Chaplin was fortunate in recruiting two fellow veterans of the Karno company to anchor his new troupe at Mutual. As the heavy, he brought in Eric Campbell, a mammoth Scotsman with the grace of a gazelle and a comic instinct to rival Chaplin’s. Big enough (6’4”, close to 300 lbs) to make Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain or Bud Jamison seem like pipsqueaks, Campbell and his boss collaborated to make his characters as terrifying as possible, usually enhancing his impressive size with a garnish of Satanic facial hair. Campbell’s function was to torture and menace The Little Fellow in any given plot. Other than the Hero and The Girl, the heavy is the most important ingredient in any comedy cast, and Campbell proved to be the greatest Chaplin ever had. He is easily the most memorable and cherished member of any Chaplin stock company after Chaplin himself. Only his untimely death in 1917 would prevent him from going on to even greater stardom. The other Karno alum Chaplin brought on staff was Albert Austin, a tall, slim utility man who glides in and out of Chaplin’s stories like the well-trained Karno cog that he is, to help set the pace and tone of the proceedings for the rest of the cast and keep the machine moving forward. Also notable in the new cast was Henry Bergman, a musical comedy veteran with a wide range. Large enough to be a heavy in any company that didn’t include Campbell, to him were usually relegated authority figures: fathers and rich men, mostly, although he could also be relied upon to play something farther afield, like the violent masseur in The Cure or the pawn broker in The Pawnshop (October, 1916). Bergman was such an excellent character actor he would often play two or more roles in a single film and audiences would be none the wiser. For comic variety in body types the company also included James T. Kelley, a diminutive Irishman (he looks scarcely over five feet tall) whom one sees in many Mutuals playing bellhops and elevator operators, usually with a beard that goes all the way down to his waist.
With all of these elements in place, Chaplin now inaugurated a string of pathbreaking films that would remain essentially unbroken for forty years. It was during his year and a half at Mutual that Chaplin got a handle on the storytelling—creating what many regard as the first silent film comedies that are still watchable as pure entertainment (as opposed to historical curiosities) even today. In these movies, for the most part, nothing is random. No gag is a throwaway. Everything contributes toward the whole. Others, like Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, and Laurel and Hardy would later excel at this form. Some would even exceed the master in keeping the gags germane to the plot (Chaplin was content to keep them consistent in terms of character, setting, and theme.) But the improvements these later comedians made were tweaks compared to the advances Chaplin made at Mutual. It is too strong perhaps to say that he invented the comedy short. But he did define it. It is the same basic structure the public knows well from the later shorts of the Three Stooges and animated cartoons, even if they have never seen the silent comedies that set the template.
Many consider the short the ideal form of comic cinema. Unburdened with any of the more earthbound elements necessitated by a longer narrative, the short is free to be purely comic, generating more concentrated laughter. Because the films are short, they can’t get too serious. In ten or twenty minutes there’s no time to get too deeply into character or relationships. The stress is on a structure of funny events. As a rough metaphor, it is very much like dessert.
So Chaplin would impose a structure, a form on Keystone-style chaos. If Keystone was about throwing everything against the wall, Chaplin was now about gathering everything up, chucking away the chaff, and organizing the remainder into a coherent, organic whole. If a story element or a gag doesn’t relate to the theme of the film, it doesn’t make the cut. If the proposed action is something the character wouldn’t logically do, he doesn’t do it. Bizarre events are naturally countenanced—this is comedy after all. But when the unexpected happens we generally get a plausible explanation for it and it enhances rather than undermines the comedy. In The Vagabond (July, 1919), the Little Fellow plays a lively tune on his fiddle, causing Edna’s gypsy girl to go at her washing chores at a preposterous speed. Many are the comic minds of the day who would have been happy to direct someone to behave in that strange a fashion for no reason at all. But Chaplin believes in cause and effect. If a gag is not connected to what came before or what will follow, it takes us out of the story. And once out it’s very difficult to get back in.
There is nothing highfalutin about any of this. Chaplin may have had his pretensions, hob-knobbed with authors and scholars and so forth, but these little affectations came AFTER he’d already distinguished himself as an artist and attracted those people to him on the strength of his output. Contrary to what many people imply, you don’t have to be some egghead to make art. The reverse is closer to the reality. Art is about instinct. Visual art is about having an eye. The bird building her nest has such an eye: this twig goes here, that twig goes there—and no other place. The bird has no conscious thought about it. It is merely fulfilling the laws of nature and taking the required care to make something right. The same is true of how humans make art. There are some rules of composition that can be taught, but beyond that, at least at a formal level, it’s all instinct.
Chaplin’s new deal at Mutual would allow him for the first time enough freedom to take the necessary care to get it right. There was no one breathing down his neck pooh-poohing his integrity as he tried to work out his story problems. Thus he was able to solve them. And that’s why people are still watching his films, as opposed to those of his contemporaries who only wanted to turn over a fast buck.
It all seemed to start with a spark inside him. You can see it in his performances. He is so bursting with life on occasion he’ll break out into balletic dance moves or curtsy like a girl. In The Adventurer he clambers up a sheer cliff face like one demonically possessed. He brings this same energy to how he conceives and directs the films. Burning with inspiration, Chaplin was easily the most imaginative filmmaker since Méliès. He wasn’t just punching a time clock. He seemed to say to himself, “I have all the power in the world at my fingertips. Where can my imagination go today? Because this is a movie. We can go anywhere.”
After seeing The Floorwalker (May, 1916), Chaplin’s first film for Mutual, the highlight of which is a series of pratfalls on an escalator, Mack Sennett famously asked, “Why in hell didn’t we think of a moving staircase?” Probably because you weren’t particularly thinking of anything at all, Mr. Sennett! After a certain point, innovation wasn’t on Sennett’s agenda. Crankin’ em out was. How many Sennett movies are set in, on, and around park benches? As an NYU film school alum, where 85 percent of the student movies are set in Washington Square Park, I can tell you that such a location isn’t arrived at because the filmmaker loves parks, and he’s so inspired that he’s just burning to make a movie that takes place in a park. It’s because the park is…right over there. You don’t have to rent it or build it. You just have to go a short distance, and there it is. At times this seems like admirable resourcefulness. At other times, it seems more like the filmmaker can’t be bothered to get off his ass. Look at the number of Keystones set in a movie studio. How lazy is that? In those ones, they couldn’t even be bothered to drive over to the park! They just yelled “roll film” and started fooling round right where they were already standing. With only Keystone films to go by (Lord knows how such a thing would come to pass) an alien from another planet might be forgiven for thinking that the entire human race either lives at the park, or works in a movie studio.
While Chaplin would regress a couple of times at Mutual (notably in Behind the Screen [May, 1916], his umpteenth comedy set at a movie studio), for the most part he takes us to a variety of interesting settings, places he and we are both curious about, and explores their possibilities: a health spa, a ship crossing the Atlantic, a gypsy caravan.
Again, there is nothing profound about any of this. Chaplin is simply a more creative person. He sees the possibilities in people, places, and objects. You see how his mind works as early as His Favorite Pastime at Keystone, in which he gets into a drunken fight with a pair of seemingly malevolent washroom doors. This is the same antic spirit that will lead to his escapades with an escalator in The Floorwalker, a revolving door in The Cure, an entire room in One A.M. (August, 1916), and an alarm clock in The Pawnshop. He likes to play with stuff.
Like Ovid he is infatuated with the concept of metamorphosis. Like theatrical wizards from Shakespeare to Artaud he is enchanted with the actor’s alchemical ability to transform people and objects. The most frequently cited example, probably because it is his most lengthy and overt “dissertation” on the subject, is the section in The Pawnshop where a customer (Albert Austin) brings in an alarm clock to hock. In his appraisal of the clock, Chaplin in succession becomes a jeweler, a physician, a safecracker, even a housewife opening a can of tuna. By the time he is done with the clock it is just a pile of junk. He tells the poor man so and sends him on his way.
In Chaplin’s hands a mere prop can even become another character. This was surely an instinct strong within him his entire performing career. It appears in some of his earliest films, such as Getting Acquainted where he lewdly pokes a woman with his cane and then spanks and scolds the naughty walking stick. This anthropomorphizing is really a puppeteer’s instinct and it makes any Chaplin film not just funny but magical.
This preoccupation, which has its origins in simple playfulness, has profound implications when Chaplin applies it to his own character. Unlike a lot of screen comedians of the time, Chaplin’s Little Fellow assumes a wide variety of interesting guises from picture to picture: a fireman, a waiter, a rich man, a burglar—sometimes a tramp. The fact that he is often a tramp adds yet another level of masquerade, for the tramp, closely related to the American archetype the confidence man, is himself a person of malleable, shifting identity. In The Tramp circumstances temporarily make him a farm hand. In more movies than you can count (including The Count [September, 1916]) he misrepresents himself as some nobleman or other important person. To add a third level of complexity, in any given moment Chaplin’s Little Fellow can magically transform as the need arises, as when he dons drag in A Woman, or disguises himself as a floor lamp in The Adventurer. This mercurial property of Chaplin’s would find later manifestations in the screen characters of the Marx Brothers and Bugs Bunny. Adapting one’s very identity to circumstances, adapting one’s surroundings to fit one’s needs.
There is something distinctly American about this aspect of Chaplin’s screen character. A dynamic of constant change is the mode not only of the actor or the con man but of any ambitious person in the free enterprise system, where one’s status is in constant shift, either through the result of one’s own actions, or simply by the cruel hand of Fate. One’s position is not rigidly fixed, as in an aristocracy. A poor man can become a rich man, and vice versa. Chaplin knew about this firsthand. He himself had transformed from a Cockney pauper to one of the world’s richest men in just a few years.
Such alteration in a character’s circumstances, and the internal transformations that go with them, are the essence of what makes a compelling story. Here is where Chaplin makes one of his primary contributions to cinema. What journey have we really taken when we reach the end of a Sennett comedy? We’ve had some laughs, that’s about it. The odds are pretty good we’ll have forgotten what we’ve just seen on the way home from the theatre. We have formed no emotional attachment. Chaplin showed that in following a character’s ups and downs, it was possible to make the audience care about the outcome without killing the laughs.
And it didn’t have to have a happy ending. The conclusions to Chaplin’s pictures seldom were. The closest to such during the Mutual period perhaps would be Easy Street (January, 1917), in which he becomes a policeman, cleans up the most notorious neighborhood in the city single-handedly, and then marries the girl.
But in a Chaplin film we have the impression that such transformations are at best temporary. Yes, the Little Fellow may become someone else by the end of the picture, but the odds are good that if we were to look in on him sometime after, we would find him experiencing new reversals and undergoing future adaptations and transformations. He’s never in any one place for very long. He always has one eye on the back door.
For example, I’ve always found the end of The Immigrant (June, 1917) unsettling. Not only does the Little Fellow coerce Edna into marrying him (using his cane to grab her, no less), but he starts off the relationship by sponging off the two dollars she is earning as an artist’s model. I can’t help but imagine a third act in which he transforms into something like the Eric Roberts character in Star 80.
Perhaps the more rewarding and realistic Chaplins are the cyclical ones, where we go on a long, winding journey and end up back at the same place: the road. The best example of this may be Chaplin’s last film for Mutual, The Adventurer. Charlie plays an escaped criminal who has the good fortune to save the lives of several members of a wealthy family mere minutes after having evaded the army of prison guards who were chasing him. Even better, he seems to have tremendous romantic chemistry with the millionaire couple’s daughter, played by Edna. In an alternate universe perhaps, this might be his last stop, the end of all his worries. Change his name, marry the daughter, blend in, go straight, and be set for life. But that’s not who he is, and that’s what he can never be. His rival for the girl’s hand (Eric Campbell) rats him out to the cops. After a lengthy and hilarious chase, we get our happy ending, but it’s not the usual one. The Little Fellow does escape. But he doesn’t get the girl, nor will he ever be able to. And in houses like these, he is ever an interloper. Which is how Chaplin, a poor immigrant who came to America and lucked into a fortune, must have ever felt, even in his own house. The question is always, “When will the other shoe drop?”
For Chaplin the man, the other shoe wouldn’t drop almost another forty years.
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For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.