"I classify Chaplin as the greatest motion picture comedian of all time."—Buster Keaton, in a 1960 interview with Herbert Feinstein
After his apprenticeship with Mack Sennett at Keystone Studios in 1914, Chaplin signed a one-year deal with Essanay Studios where he directed fourteen shorts, including such films as The Tramp and Burlesque On Carmen. By the end of that year, Chaplin was the most famous entertainer in the world, and seeing his work in the context of its times, it's clear to me now he was to film comedy what D.W. Griffith was to film drama, establishing the rules and raising the bar.
After Chaplin's contract at Essanay expired, he signed with the Mutual Film Corporation to direct and star in a dozen two-reel comedies—known colloquially as "the Chaplin Mutuals"—for the then-unheard of sum of $670,000, the most any entertainer had been paid in history. "Next to the war in Europe," a Mutual publicist wrote, "Chaplin is the most expensive item in contemporaneous history." The deal with Mutual afforded Chaplin two luxuries he'd never had before as a director—time and money—and he took full advantage of the opportunity, not only re-shooting sequences that didn't match his vision, but also experimenting with the comedic form itself.
In support of this new venture, Chaplin gathered around him a team of familiar faces, recruiting a couple of friends from his days with the British music hall troupe. At 6'5" and 300 pounds, Eric Campbell was the most prominent of Chaplin's supporting players; a full foot taller and 175 pounds heavier than Chaplin, he made a good comic foil for the Tramp, and wound up playing his nemesis in eleven of the twelve Mutuals.
And wearing the ridiculously fake brush moustache known as a soup strainer was Albert Austin who performed mostly as the straight man on the receiving end of the Tramp's more destructive antics.
As his leading lady, Chaplin brought Edna Purviance with him from Essanay. Purviance (Purr-VYE-ance) had been working as a stenographer in San Francisco when she caught Chaplin's eye, who, either as a trite come-on or because he could more easily mold the novice actress to fit his ideas of comedy, asked her if she would like to be in pictures. "I laughed at the idea," she said later, "but agreed to try it."
Although their romantic relationship was brief, Purviance continued to play Chaplin's leading lady for nine years, appearing in approximately forty films (the exact number is in dispute), more than any other actress.
Chaplin began his career at Mutual in the spring of 1916 with a couple of formula comedies, The Floorwalker and The Fireman. In the former, the Tramp wanders into a department store and wreaks havoc—knocking over displays, playing hide and seek with detectives, trashing the wares—before trading places with a look-alike store manager (future director Lloyd Bacon) who unbeknownst to the Tramp has just embezzled the payroll. In the latter, Chaplin plays the world's laziest firefighter—the kind of guy who stuffs a rag in the alarm bell to keep it from ringing—but comes to the rescue of a pretty girl (Purviance) when a fire breaks out.
Each film is a loose collection of well-polished comic set-ups and payoffs, distinguishable from Chaplin's work at Keystone and Essanay only be the quality of their gags.
Chaplin's third film at Mutual, The Vagabond, starts with a typical slapstick set-up—the Tramp as traveling musician busking in a bar for handouts—but quickly turns into the stuff of Victorian melodrama with the story of a wealthy middle aged woman haunted by the memory of a kidnapped child converging in a series of coincidences worthy of Charles Dickens with the story of young woman (Purviance) held captive by a band of gypsies. Into that mix, Chaplin introduced several themes that would characterize his work forever after—the separation of parent from child, artistic insecurity, noble self-sacrifice, and especially the exquisite pain of unrequited love.
The attempt to wed slapstick to the dramatic form made The Vagabond Chaplin's most ambitious film to date, but result was the most disappointing. There's nothing wrong with sentimentality per se—The Kid, for example, was one of the era's best films—and viewed objectively, from the outside looking in, the Tramp's white knight complex can be hilarious (see, e.g., The Pawnshop, where an old con's tale leaves Chaplin sobbing), but here, having indulged his own insecurities simply as the default mode for a situation he hasn't fully worked out, the result is not moving but mawkish, and I imagine that those who complain that Chaplin is too sentimental for their tastes are really saying he too often fails to establish an emotional connection to the characters that would justify the Tramp's (and our) tears.
Chaplin returned to form with his next film, One A.M., which combined elements from a pair of Max Linder "drunk comedies," First Cigar and Max Takes Tonics, to create a one-man tour de force that plays a little like a wager that a single joke—a drunk fumbling his way up a flight of stairs to bed—can work for twenty uninterrupted minutes.
Chaplin plays variations on the gag the way a jazz virtuoso plays variations on a theme, building simple movements into complex ones, anticipating some payoffs, denying others, going off in unexpected directions, finally returning to the beginning and starting something new.
As in most of his films, the camera work is spare, the editing unobtrusive, with both focused on featuring the best available performance rather than solving technical problems such as continuity or matching edits. Like Fred Astaire, who insisted his dances be filmed in an uninterrupted take with an angle wide and long enough to show the performance from head to toe, Chaplin mostly used long shots and uninterrupted takes to show his audience that the dance-like rhythm of his intricate physical gags are not cheats conjured up in the editing room, but reflect his real abilities. Anyway, I'm no fan of fancy camera work that exists only to prove the director wasn't napping during that day's lecture at film school and though Chaplin's style remained primitive compared to his contemporaries, it was a conscious choice with a specific payoff in mind.
Chaplin finished out 1916 with four films—The Count, The Pawnshop, Behind The Screen and The Rink—that returned to familiar formulas, but the comedy was well thought out, as funny as anything he had ever done. Of the four, I'd rate The Pawnshop and especially Behind The Screen the most highly. In the former watch particularly for the Tramp's efforts to evaluate the alarm clock Albert Austin has brought into the shop to pawn—do I need to tell you how things work out for Austin and the clock?
The latter, the story of a much put-upon worker bee (Chaplin) in a studio full of lazy, incompetent bosses, was aimed squarely at Mack Sennett who was happy to spend the millions Chaplin generated for Keystone Studios while paying his star a pittance ($125 a week with a $25 bonus for each film he directed). Chaplin had mined a similar vein at Essanay with His First Job, also about the Tramp taking a job at a movie studio, but the barbs here are sharper, the comedy funnier.
Chaplin opened 1917 with one of the most beloved comedies of his career, Easy Street. Set in the slums of New York, the Tramp wanders into a Salvation Army style mission and falls instantly in love with the pianist (Edna Purviance, of course). Determined to redeem himself in her eyes, the Tramp volunteers for a job as a policeman with a beat on the notorious Easy Street (which is anything but). The Tramp's battles with the local bully—Campbell, who is a foot taller and a foot wider than Chaplin—provides the bulk of the comedy.
He would return to this setting in 1921 for his first feature-length film, The Kid.
Typical of the Mutual era, Chaplin followed the personal with the formulaic, this time with The Cure, another drunk act reminiscent of One A.M. except this time with a sanitarium full of rich hypochondriacs instead of furniture to trip over. Again, Chaplin takes simple jokes, such as a man caught in a revolving door, and stretches them to unbelievable lengths, repeating them, adding new elements, changing payoffs. In one scene, Chaplin—here playing a rich alcoholic rather than the Tramp—attempts to drink from the health-giving spring that is the facility's main attraction, yet always winds up filling up his hat instead. Later, though, after the stash of booze he's smuggled in to tide him over during rehab winds up in the well, he of course doesn't spill a drop.
The film's structure is loose, and the basic plot is a staple of Chaplin's comedy dating back at least to The Rounders in 1914, but with time to work through his ideas, the individual pieces are polished gems.
Chaplin's next film, The Immigrant, his eleventh at Mutual, is not the funniest, but I would argue it was the most important—maybe the single most important development in movie comedy from any source to that time.
The Immigrant is the story of the Tramp's journey from Europe to America, starting in medias res on board an overcrowded ship and ending on the streets of New York. In the twenty minutes in between, Chaplin better captured the immigrant experience than all the "serious" films before or since, and in doing so succeeded at last in wedding the slapstick form to a dramatic subject.
In a short chock full of comedy, Chaplin managed to show the hardship's immigrants faced as they tried to reach America—intolerable shipboard conditions including overcrowding, theft, execrable food, illness; the humiliation of being herded like cattle through Ellis Island; and finally, after landing in New York, the linguistic, economic and cultural hurdles, as well as nativist hostility, involved in adapting to every day life in a foreign country, demonstrated in this case through an act as simple as ordering dinner in a restaurant.
Yet Chaplin also captures the hope and promise that America at that time represented to millions worldwide. The scene of hopeful passengers crowding the deck to watch in silence as the ship sails past the Statue of Liberty is justly one of the most famous of the silent era. And the giddiness with which the Tramp courts the Girl (Purviance) is a perfect expression of the indomitable human will to survive.
The Immigrant underscores the source of the Tramp's lasting appeal—the ability to handle even the most difficult situation with aplomb, a skill his audience no doubt envied as they met their daily suffering. As I once wrote in describing the most famous scene of Chaplin's 1925 triumph, The Gold Rush, "Oh, to relish the taste of the boot you've boiled for your Thanksgiving dinner the way the Tramp did—there's Chaplin's appeal reduced to a single scene."
If he wasn't already, Chaplin's Tramp was from this point forward identified with those first-generation immigrants then making up more than ten percent of America's population, as well as with those abroad who yearned to breathe free.
"The Immigrant," Chaplin said years later, "touched me more than any other film I made."
We take for granted now that film comedy can have a serious point to make, ala Dr. Strangelove or The Apartment, but that idea was still radical in an era when, as Roscoe Arbuckle explained to Buster Keaton while making their first film together, comedy was aimed at twelve year olds. The notion that comedy could offer up more than laughs comes largely from Chaplin.
The Immigrant is preserved in the National Film Registry.
Chaplin finished his contract at Mutual with a crowd-pleasing throwback to his earlier comedies. The Adventurer is the story of an escaped convict (Chaplin) who worms his way into the affections of a high society debutante (Purviance) only to discover that her dad is the judge who sent him up. Lowlifes wreaking havoc with the carefully-ordered lives of the aristocracy was a staple of slapstick comedy almost from the origins of film itself, and would later become the meat of such acts as the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. In that sense, The Adventurer isn't particularly original; it is funny, though, one of the best of the bunch, and with it, Chaplin left Mutual giving his employers and his audience their money's worth.
After Mutual, Chaplin scored his first million dollar payday, signing with First National, a association of independent theater owners seeking a cut of the lucrative film distribution pie. Under the terms of the contract, Chaplin was to direct eight two-reel comedies, but the twenty minute format could not longer satisfy his artistic ambitions. Before his deal with First National was done, Chaplin had directed, among other things, his first feature length film, The Kid, as well as the four-reel war comedy, Shoulder Arms.
In 1919, Chaplin would co-found his own distribution company, United Artists, teaming up with three of the greatest names of the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith.
Despite reaching ever more dizzying heights of fame, fortune and artistic achievement, Chaplin later confessed his years at Mutual were the happiest of his life. "I was light and unencumbered," he wrote, "twenty-seven years old, with fabulous prospects and a friendly, glamorous world before me."
Years later, Chaplin's son Sydney found himself at the Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood enjoying a revival of Chaplin's Mutuals only to be out-laughed by an elderly gentleman a few rows behind him. Turning to investigate he discovered "[i]t was my father who was laughing the loudest! Tears were rolling down his cheeks from laughing so hard and he had to wipe his eyes with his handkerchief."
"Perhaps," wrote Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, "[Chaplin] had great fondness for the Mutuals simply for the same reason that generations of audiences have as well—because of the sheer joy, comic inventiveness, and hilarity of this extraordinary series of films."