Century of Slapstick #103: Charlie Chaplin in “The Pawnshop”
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the release of the classic Charlie Chaplin short The Pawnshop (1916).
This comedy was made at the peak of Chaplin’s Mutual period and is full of brilliantly constructed strings of gags, maybe his best. Charlie plays a helper in the titular pawnshop — which is essentially a physical comedian’s dream prop shop. He shows up for work late (Charlie’s characters are always late), takes a feather duster out of a suitcase, dusts his hat, and accidentally gets the duster chopped up in a fan. There follows a brilliant chain of gags with a ladder, including what may be Chaplin’s most impressive thrill stunt, when the whole ladder falls over with him at the top, ending in a backwards tumble.
He is fired but gets the pawnbroker (Henry Bergman) to relent. Then he has a serious tussle with his coworker (John Rand). When the pawnbroker’s daughter (Edna Purviance) steps in, he manages to get her sympathy. She brings him into kitchen with her. He dries the dishes (including a cup) with a cloth wringer. Then makes a lei out of pie dough and pretends to play the ukulele. The coworker bursts in and they resume fighting. The pawnbroker comes in, and they quickly pretend to be helping make pies. Charlie sneaks out grabs lunch from a safe and mans the front desk. Then a series of customers:
A man (James T. Kelley) comes in, telling his tale of woe. Charlie gets broken up about it, keeps spitting his cracker crumbs. Gives him a good deal on his ring. The guy proves to have a pocket full of bills.
Another 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 in 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.
A woman tries to pawn bowl of live goldfish.
Then Eric Campbell comes in as a crook; he later tries to rob the place of jewels at gun point. Charlie saves the day, and then takes a bow — right to us! He should; this little comedy is a tour de force.
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new 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 etcTo learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.