This past weekend's screenings of the Silent Clowns Film Seriesincluded a comedy that has long been one of my favorite of the Chaplin-Mutuals, The Adventurer, produced in 1917.
The film was Chaplin's final Mutual comedy. Some critics have found significance in the fact that, as with his final Essanay and First National comedies, Chaplin here plays a convict escaping from prison. Nonetheless, Chaplin himself described the Mutual period as the happiest years of his professional career. It's easy to see why - the sheer unbridled joy, creativity and enthusiasm is evident in every one of the dozen comedies he made for the company in 1916 and 1917.
As a convict on the run, Charlie is forced to hide out among a bunch of high society types, giving him plenty of opportunities to lampoon the upper classes. Every figure of authority and order is fair game for Charlie - one of the prison guards, who is supposed to be on the look out for the runaway prisoner, is shown hiding out in the kitchen, flirting with the cook! Once his cover is finally blown, he leads the guards on a wild chase through the house that includes one of his best-choreographed gags: catching the heads of heavy Eric Campbell and the prison guard in a pair of sliding doors.
What really comes through in these earlier Chaplin comedies his sense of playfulness. Charlie here is almost like a playful puppy. This is no more evident than in the opening sequence in which he eludes prison guards on the beach by digging his way through the sand, popping his head up between the guard's legs, and ducking in and out of caves on the beach, each time eluding his pursuers by a hair. There's a wonderful moment where Charlie, thinking he has finally eluded the guards by scurrying up the side of a cliff, casually tosses rocks down at the guard below. As he does so, another guard approaches him from behind, stepping on his hand. Charlie looks down, seeing only the guard's shoe. Realizing that he's been caught, Charlie quickly covers the guard's shoe with sand before taking off again.
Chaplin's career would next take him to First National, where he began tackling increasingly heavy subject matter. His films would become a bit more mature, a bit more focused on character and plot. But the carefree abandon of the Mutual comedies continues to make them one of the most cherished and beloved bodies of work in screen comedy.