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Charlie Chaplin Film by Film Thread. Pt. 3: Mutual

Discussion in 'Visual Arts' started by Rfreeman, Feb 21, 2017.

  1. Rfreeman

    Rfreeman Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    We move on to discuss Chaplin's third and fourth years in films: 1916-17 at Mutual studios:

    This continues from the discussion of Chaplin's work in 1914 at Keystone Charlie Chaplin Film by Film Thread
    and in 1915 at Essanay Charlie Chaplin Film by Film Thread. Pt. 2: Essanay

    Chaplin's star exploded bigger than ever with his Mutual contract, signed February 25 2016, guaranteeing him $10,000 per week to make 12 two reel films in a year, along with a signing bonus of $150,000. In gerneral these films are far more acclaimed than Chaplin's film's for Keystone and Essanay. He also got fairly complete creative control at this point, and there was no more timkering with any of his films or letting them slip into public domain as of this point.

    My personal re-immersion in Chaplin began in 2006 when a then-definitive DVD set of these 12 films was released, and I then went back to view the Essanays and then the Keystones, so I am coming full circle on my 11 year Chaplin experience having bought the new and improved BluRay version of these that came out last year. I actually got the UK BFI release of these films which is reported to be better quality than the US release, in part because there are up to 4 soundtrack options for each film, and - where sound effects mark points in the action - these tracks (at least the main ones, with orchestration by Carl Davis) maintin better sync to the action than those on the US BluRay release by Flicker Alley. Note that the BFI version is Region 2, and will not work with most US BluRay players.
     
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2017
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  2. Rfreeman

    Rfreeman Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    The Floorwalker Two Reels 28:50
    Released May 15, 1916

    Oddly, Chaplin's first film with Mutual is really more a step back than something that builds on the finest and most mature work he had done the previous year at Essanay. It does have a few wonderful sequences, but only in a pure physical comedy sense, as the plot is threadbare and lacks much of a resolution and there is no real character development. The print quality, while not as bad as some, is also below that of the better Essanays.

    The viewer is thrown off initially, as the film initially focuses on a floorwalker in a department store - who is not played by Charlie but by Lloyd Bacon (albeit with a mustache and general look that resembles Charlie). It appears Chaplin is intentionally misleading the viewer here, as he later expressly plays up the similarity between the two characters. The plot is set up that the floorwalker and the store's general manager (the first appearance of the new Chaplin regular to be, Eric Campbell, in a Chaplin film ) have embezzled some money from the store and are on the verge of being nabbed for this. Their response is to take the rest of the money from the store and leave before they get caught. The satchel of money naturally changes hands as many times as a watch or umbrella in a Keystone park comedy. Edna is the Manager's assistant and oddly has no interaction with Charlie in this film (perhaps a first?)

    When Chaplin makes his first appearance, nearly three minutes in, as a sort of customer in the store (he never buys anything), who is interacting humorously with mannequin legs, a drinking fountain, and a display of shaving and grooming supplies. Shortly thereafter Charlie meets the real star of the film - the up escalator - which is fallen up or run down about a s many times as the alarm clock rings in Groundhog Day. It does make for some good nonviolent physical comedy, but it gets pretty old by the end of half an hour. Reportely this was the first use of an escalator in a film, so its novelty may have made the gag funnier longer a century ago as compared to today. And surely it was one of the most expensive props used in his films to date, so there may have been a desire to use it to its fullest.

    The highlight of the film is the fairly brief mirror motion scene between Charlie and the floorwalker - making clear that the similarity between them perceived in the opening shot of the film was intentional). This scene inspired many similar future silent comic scenes, including Harpo and Groucho in Duck Soup and Harpo and Lucille Ball on her TV show. After this scene the floorwalker and Charlie decide to swap clothes and identities because "you need a job and I need a change."

    Also notable are the most express use of ballet/dance moves Chaplin has yet made, including a kick from a rolling ladder in the shoe department and in a fight scene with Eric Campbell. The film ends with a sped up to a manic pace in a Chase between Charlie and Eric that involves them going down an up escalator about 4 times. Oddly there is little real resolution as the film ends pretty abruptly with Charlie on an elevator that crashes down on Eric.

    So this has a fair amount going for it as a knock about comedy,. but lacks any of the development shown in films like The Tramp, The Bank, Burlesque on Carmen, or Police (OK that one actually came out a couple days after this, though it was shot first);.

    Of the 4 soundtracks on the BFI disc, the Carl Davis scored one is the most sophisticated - with his approach inspired by Chaplin's own scoring of later films like City Lights), but may not make for as fun as a viewing experience as the others. The Gabriel Thibaudeau score is a bit more uptempo and more fun at the outset, but gets a bit repetitive by the end. A fun (and really probably the most historically accurate) third way to view the film is with a piano accompaniment improvised by Antonio Coppola. There is also a dry but informative commentary track by Frank Scheide.

    Rating: Content: 7.5 /10; Print 6/10
     
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  3. JamieC

    JamieC Forum Resident

    Location:
    Detroit Mi USA
    The escalator runs up or down, or speeds up or slows down by the controls. According to Unknown Chaplin, Charlie saw one while in New York and decided to make it the centerpiece of his Department store comedy. And that was different as well. A department store was still a fairly new thing, and this was the first time that many had ever SEEN such a thing. Charlie and Eric running the escalator is roll on the floor time for me. The deadpan look on Charlie's face is just perfect.

    For those that don't know, this was actually shot on an outdoor set on a fairly windy day. The outtakes have hair and dresses blowing around, and even in the final film the diffusers sometimes move letting in the sunlight, and ain't there a stiff breeze in this store?

    "Why didn't WE ever think of a running staircase? - Mack Sennett
    My Charlie Short rating? 9
     
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  4. JamieC

    JamieC Forum Resident

    Location:
    Detroit Mi USA
    On the sync front the only thing I noticed is the old guy blowing his horn. There is a slight delay, but like I said its not a deal breaker in the least. Kinda makes it funnier.
     
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  5. RayS

    RayS A Little Bit Older and a Little Bit Slower

    Location:
    Out of My Element
    I think this film has a lot more to it than a return to Charlie's slapstick origins. Yes, it lacks the pathos and character development we'd seen in some of the Essanays, but a lot of the comedy bits are well worked-out and many of them are quite subtle. It's interesting that Chapin DIDN'T try to crowbar in some sort of instantaneous romance or related act of chivalry between the tramp and Edna - almost refreshing in that regard.

    The "switcheroo" bit is almost contrived, but there is a subtle wit to it in that each guy thinks he's putting something over on the other (since they both have their reasons for wanting to go incognito).

    I think the "mirror" bit may only be diminished in its brilliance by the fact that it was copied later. When Charlie kisses the floorwalker in the second half of this encounter it's (to me) the funniest moment in the film - surprise being a big element of comedy. I also enjoy the sequence where Charlie spontaneously takes over as the shoe salesman, proving bigly yet again that the sexual harassment of today was just obnoxious flirtation 100 years ago.

    Pretty much all the bits with the escalator score. And yes, they were probably a lot funnier in an age when many audience members would have been equally ill-equipped to deal with an escalator themselves.

    The ending does seem abrupt, and there are a few moments where footage is obviously missing (I have the now-ancient Image DVDs). This isn't the best of the Mutuals, but to me it is a fitting inclusion among them.
     
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  6. JamieC

    JamieC Forum Resident

    Location:
    Detroit Mi USA
    Oh yeah, the 2 seconds at the end when the elevator comes down on Eric Campbell's head. Such a tiny fragment pretty much lost over time. Its probably the worst looking piece of film in the restoration but I am pleased its there.
     
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  7. RayS

    RayS A Little Bit Older and a Little Bit Slower

    Location:
    Out of My Element
    There are a few moments missing in the first reel as well, where action suddenly jumps.

    Of course we're happy to have whatever we have! :)
     
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  8. Rfreeman

    Rfreeman Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    Weren't they almost all shot on sets without ceilings to use natural light?
     
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  9. Rfreeman

    Rfreeman Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    Looking into the various editions of the Blu Ray, it seems it is not just improvements in sync that distinguish the BFI edition. This is the only edition with the Carl Davis orchestrations on all the films (and as the default option). The Flicker Alley version only uses a Carl Davis or orchestration on One AM. The Flicker Alley version does benefit from two features, Chaplin's Goliath and Birth of a Tramp. I at least have the first of these on my Image DVD set.
     
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  10. davenav

    davenav High Plain Grifter

    Location:
    Brooklyn, USA
    The escalator had a novelty value in 1915, that is surely lost on today's viewer. (The same might be said for the water fountain, which gets a lot of screen time.)

    That said, the ingenuity and sheer number of gags he got from this expensive prop really paid off. I could watch the chase scene in an endless loop, and never stop laughing.
     
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  11. JamieC

    JamieC Forum Resident

    Location:
    Detroit Mi USA
    There HAS to be a GIF of this out there!
    [​IMG]
    Oh there is!
     
  12. RayS

    RayS A Little Bit Older and a Little Bit Slower

    Location:
    Out of My Element
    Simultaneously Sisyphean and Chaplinesque. :)
     
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  13. Rfreeman

    Rfreeman Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    The Fireman (film # 54)
    Two Reels 26:26
    Released June 12, 1916

    This film is Chaplin out-keystoning Keystone, but now with a budget to pay for it, time to work on it, and ability to execute on a larger scale that sustains for two reels at around the level of the best one reel Keystones. The Mutual Firemen are somewhere between the Keystone Kops and a silent version of a musical chorus, opening the show with a dance like routine. Showing a house on fire echoes A Film Johnnie, though they intentionally burned the two (condemned) houses for the film. Alarm bells and dinner bells make for regular use of synced sound in this film, most extensively in the alternate Robert Israel “Fotoplayer & Sound Effect” track - which uses bells, whistles and drums to punctuate the action.

    Charlie enters the film as a fireman who drives the horse drawn fire wagon sleeping through the alarm bell signaling a fire drill. It is surprising to see that fire wagons are still horse drawn when we have seen so much use of motor vehicles in Charlie's earlier films. But these scenes were shot at a real fire station with real stables, so it is no doubt an accurate depiction. I guess cars were just play things of the rich at the time. What the escalator was to the Floorwalker, backwards cranking is to this film. Chaplin uses this effect in the first minutes to make horses walk backwards (both solo and pushing a fire wagon) and to effortlessly "climb" up the fire pole.

    Returning to the firehouse backwards after responding to a drill (albeit without waiting for the firemen to board the wagon), Charlie goes back to illustrate firehouse life: shooting dice , dusting the horses, getting into conflicts with the chief (there is a lot of ass kicking for the score to punctuate) and serving the firemen - which involves a nice trick spinning a pile of dishes around his arm and the novelty of dispensing coffee and cream from taps on the fire wagon.

    The plot is launched about half way through when a man plotting arson for insurance money comes in to promise the chief his daughter (Edna) if the chief will refrain from putting out the fire he is going to set in his house. Charlie and Edna start flirting, setting up a triangle. When the fire bell (for an accidental fire, not the arson) interrupts a checkers match, Charlie silences the bell to give himself time to lose the game spectacularly, and then still does nothing until Leo White comes and pushes the issue stridently.

    While they are putting out that fire, the arsonist comes to get them to put out his fire, as his daughter Edna is trapped in the building. Charlie then has a fairly surprising star turn where he races solo to the building (losing the water tank off his fire wagon in the process), and scales the outside of the building to rescue Edna. Clearly on the way down the "Edna" he is rescuing is actually a cloth doll, not the real thing. Given reports taht some of the long shots of Charlie driving actually have someone other than Charlie driving the vehicle, I also wonder if the long rear view shots of Charlie climbing up and down the building may also be acted by a double, though I have not seen any reports to that effect.

    Not that many moments to single out in this film, but it is entertaining from a movement perspective throughout and well put together. Breaks little new ground but executes on the old pretty perfectly.

    Rating: Content: 8.5 /10; Print 7/10
     
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2017
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  14. JamieC

    JamieC Forum Resident

    Location:
    Detroit Mi USA
    I love the firemen running ridiculously in place in unison like a gaggle of morons.

    The Keystone Firemen?
     
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  15. RayS

    RayS A Little Bit Older and a Little Bit Slower

    Location:
    Out of My Element
    "The Fireman" is sort of an odd film to me. It has a plot ... yet, a lot of seems like it was Charlie coming up with "bits" and stringing them together. I find some the of the recurring jokes entertaining (Charlie's overzealous response to bells after being reprimanded, Charlie's "salute" response to being kicked in the ass). I also find Leo White's scenery chewing, particularly the scene where Charlie shadows his march back and forth, and the scene where he's nearly forgotten why he ran to the fire station in the first place. Not really sure what Charlie was thinking when it came to the Edna rag doll - you'd think he would have at least pulled the camera back, or cut away, or SOMETHING to hide the incredibly-obvious rag doll.

    I feel like this is Mutual Charlie not quite hitting his stride just yet.
     
  16. Rfreeman

    Rfreeman Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    He definitely is about to get a lot better with the next couple, to my taste
     
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  17. JamieC

    JamieC Forum Resident

    Location:
    Detroit Mi USA
    I just rewatched this and realized something. that 2 seconds is important. The detective is in the elevator with Charlie dressed as the floorwalker, and is about to lay hands on and arrest Charlie and instead he lays hand on the real perpetrator, Eric, as he burst through the elevator floor.
     
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  18. Sarah S. The Hendrix Nut

    Sarah S. The Hendrix Nut Well-Known Member

    Location:
    Indiana
    Somehow I got lost on the Essanay thread, I'll try to keep up better this time around.
    I think the Mutual era represents the peak of Chaplin as a comedian, but I also think he got better as a filmmaker with his longer works.
    The 2 films covered so far?
    The Floorwalker:
    I love the escalator sequence, as has been mentioned and of course, the great Eric Campbell.
    To me, the mirror bit just doesn't work here. They really don't look too much alike to me. Certainly the Marx Brothers and Charley Chase and his brother Paul pull this off more to my liking. But it's still Chaplin!

    The Fireman:
    Actually my favorite thing about this one is the poor guy who's house is burning down! Leo White. That's my strongest memory of the Fireman. Go figure!
     
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  19. RayS

    RayS A Little Bit Older and a Little Bit Slower

    Location:
    Out of My Element
    Did you have to highlight my lengthy but incomplete sentence? :) I meant to say I find those scenes FUNNY (key word left out)!
     
  20. Sarah S. The Hendrix Nut

    Sarah S. The Hendrix Nut Well-Known Member

    Location:
    Indiana
    Yes! I did! It's how I roll, as the youngsters say it.:)
    It did seem like something was missing from your post, but when you said scenery chewing, I took it as a criticism of his performance.
     
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  21. RayS

    RayS A Little Bit Older and a Little Bit Slower

    Location:
    Out of My Element
    But this is GOOD scenery chewing. :) Leo plays a ranting madman rather well - and he's got a reason to be upset - the man's house in on fire (even if he seems to forget that for a short while!)
     
  22. Rfreeman

    Rfreeman Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    Apologies for the delay. I did a write up of The Vagabond about a month ago and put a lot of work into it and then it got deleted inadvertantly before I posted it, and it has taken me some time to get up the energy to try rewriting it. Coming soon.
     
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  23. Rfreeman

    Rfreeman Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    The Vagabond (film # 55)
    Two Reels 26:49
    Released July 10, 1916

    I feel Chaplin does his finest work to date here, building on the sympathetic character development from The Tramp, The Bank and Police and foreshadowing his later feature films. This was probably the first Chaplin short I saw, since as a kid in the early 70s I almost exclusively saw Chaplin films when they played Art House cinemas - a format more suited to features (I had seen Modern Times, City Lights and The Gold Rush). Then I managed to catch this short as part of a triple bill with Marx Brothers' Room Service and W.C. Fields' The Fatal Beer (still remember the line "'it aint a fit night out for man or beast").

    This film shows Chaplin developing a structural rhythm to make more effective use of the two reel format. He draws the audience in quickly with a 4 minute almost stand alone vignette that gets us interested in Charlie and introduces that he is a violinist (perhaps the first time his character has a real skill) but is not integral to the plot of the rest of the film. It works as almost a compressed half reel film about competing busking musicians getting into a fight over tip earnings. The fight scene and subsequent chase seem like a tribute to his Keystone days, complete with characters with mannerisms that resemble Sterling and Conklin. It is easy to imagine Chaplin using his reported "direct by miming others' parts for them" technique to encourage these performances. Sound is central to this opening sequence - with a competition between Charlie on solo violin and an Oompah band - and Carl Davis's score compliments it very nicely. Charlie has a fun moment breaking out of the dignity of being a violinist when his fingers won't stop moving after he finishes playing a trill until he uses one hand to stop the other.

    The good will established in the viewer by the above sequence sustains us through a mercifully brief 2 minutes of Chaplin-free back story for Edna (Gypsies kidnapped her as a girl and parents are distraught). Then, having established Charlie and Edna each with some background, we move on to the interaction between them.

    Charlie next sets up his violin busking ("I oughta do good here") , oddly, on a road that seems to be in the middle of nowhere but is next to the Gypsy camp where Edna is toiling away. One of my favorite sequences is Edna's sequences of reactions to Charlie's violin playing, as she mimes swooning, dancing a jjig, feelings of awe and romance, applause, and apologies that she has n0 money to give, yet asks for more music and touches him affectionately - showing how Edna has learned to follow Chaplin's direction better than any one else to date. When they are about to kiss, they are interrupted violently by Edna's Gypsy captor - who Charlie and Edna fight off together before riding away with their horses and caravan wagon. Another fine half reeler, even better than the opening one.

    Reel two opens with Charlie and Edna's threadbare attempt at domesticity - foreshadowing Charlie and Paulette playing house in Modern Times. Charlie lets Edna have the caravan to herself and wakes on the ground extracting himself from a cactus. He does his housekeeping by raking the camp area and cracking eggs for breakfast with a hammer. When Edna awakes itchy, he offers her the rake to scratch her, then checks her for fleas and washes her hair.

    Next we get the key dramatic sequences. As Charlie is setting up a washtub as a table for their, Edna takes a walk and meets an artist who paints her portrait. When she invites the artist to share the dinner Charlie has made for them it clearly breaks Charlie's heart though he tries not to show it, putting on a brave face, and later resolving to learn to paint himself. Before we see any signs of that, however, Edna's parents recognize Edna (from her shamrock birth mark) in the artist's painting in a gallery and enlist his help to find her. The artist and Edna's family arrive at the caravan and offer Charlie money for having rescued her, which he proudly refuses, and then drive her away.

    Any earlier Chaplin film would have probably ended here. And honestly, this one might be a tad better as a film if it had as well - but it is a minor point. Instead it ends on a suspend-your-disbelief light note as Edna changes her mind and directs everyone to go back and cram Charlie into the car with them as well. It is a bit hard to envision how this arrangement is going to work out long term. Charlie makes sure to grab his violin - a nice unifying touch that reminds us of where the film began.

    Rating: Content: 9.5 /10; Print 7/10
     
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2017
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  24. Rfreeman

    Rfreeman Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    And the next film may well be just as good, if completely different in every way. I understand a lot of formerly missing material has been added to the BR version of One AM and it is perhaps the film I am most excited to check out in an improved version.
     
  25. RayS

    RayS A Little Bit Older and a Little Bit Slower

    Location:
    Out of My Element
    This may be Chaplin's best film to date, but it doesn't hit the perfect combination of pathos and comedy that some of the other outstanding early career landmarks have. We're really short on laughs here in the second reel.

    Interesting to see Chaplin's development as a filmmaker - the great opening shot through the swinging doors, and the camera placement for the getaway scenes in the caravan.

    A very good film, and an obvious influence on future works.
     
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