Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy The Fireman (1916).
Sometimes even a brilliant comedian will get an otherwise great idea that just somehow isn’t for him. For Chaplin, The Fireman is one of those. Heroism and derring-do are the usual turf of Keaton and Lloyd. I salivate to think of the fireman comedy Buster Keaton might have made, for example. His co-starring vehicle The Garage (1920) with Fatty Arbuckle does have a fire fighting scene, but Keaton solo could have gotten a whole feature out of the premise, and with his mechanical mind, could have worked such wonders with every aspect of the process: hoses, ladders, trucks, poles, staircases. And Lloyd had made a good firefighting comedy, Fireman Save My Child (1918), although of his two usual formulas, in this case he went with the less satisfying one. (The two formulas being: A) Young boy has a dream, tries to realize it and finally does so by proving himself; and B) Callow, young rich boy wants girl and finally proves himself in order to win her. The film he made has the latter plot.) I’d like to have seen a movie he’d make more on the lines of Harry Langdon’s His First Flame (1927), to my mind the best of the silent fireman comedies. The Langdon picture manages to tie in the comedy of heroism, with Harry proving himself to his uncle and his girl, all the while working against type. The sight of little Harry in an oversized fireman’s uniform is intrinsically clownish. He is literally trying to fill shoes that are too large for him. But he is trying.
Chaplin’s film is against type, too, and no doubt he felt this is where the comedy lay. But it’s wrong somehow. Chaplin’s character, as a general rule, is selfish, lazy, and pleasure loving. 99% of the time, we don’t dislike him for this; we rather relate to him. But when he is all of those things, plus incompetent to boot — and in the business of saving lives — then it gets to be off-putting. I don’t like my first responders to be over-sleeping. And yet when the Little Fellow does finally rise to heroism, climbing up the outside of a building to do so, that feels wrong somehow, too. As we have said, that would later be Keaton and Lloyd territory. At the time Chaplin did it, it was Fairbanks turf (which is no doubt where Chaplin got the idea from). But it’s simply wrong for his own comedy character and template. The following year, when Charlie made good as a policeman in Easy Street, he did so through crafty cheating and happenstance much more in line with our expectations and within Chaplin’s own established sense of humor (when he famously gasses the bully with a street lamp, and then later licks the bully in a fight because he has accidentally been injected with a dose of cocaine that gives him superhuman abilities). Charlie as a heroic fireman just doesn’t click any more than we want to see Charlie be a bad fireman. A homeless tramp sleeping in an abandoned building who is compelled to save a bunch of people from an act of arson — that’s what I would buy from Chaplin.
The Fireman was only the second of Chaplin’s Mutual shorts, and one I would place (along with Behind the Screen and The Count), among the weaker ones. You sense him feeling his way here, experimenting. Another facet of that exploration is his use of numerous trick shots, shooting in reverse for comic effect, the sort of mechanical gag that lesser minds usually resorted to. He would return to form in a big way, however, with his next film The Vagabond.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss 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 etc