Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Continued Look at Chaplin's Keystone Comedies, Part 2

One of the strongest Chaplin-Keystones, THE MASQUERADER is notable as one of the times Chaplin performed in drag (quite convincingly) on film. The story is slight: Charlie is an actor at Keystone, and after botching a scene, is fired. He returns, in drag, playfully flirting with director Charlie Murray, in an effort to demonstrate what a good actor he really is. However, when his cover his blown, the irate director and the rest of the cast and crew give chase through the studio, which ends with Charlie being knocked down into a well during a brick-throwing battle.

Despite its relatively slight plot, THE MASQUERADER features one of Chaplin's best performances up to this point, particularly in his female impersonation. The film's opening scene has a gentle charm to it, with Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle in their dressing room engaging in some comic byplay. It's impossible to watch this scene and not get a sense of the respect and admiration these two men must have had for each other.

THE MASQUERADER is also notable as one of the Keystone comedies that looks behind the scenes of the studio. Chaplin had explored this territory before in A FILM JOHNNY, and would return to it again in his first comedy for Essanay, HIS NEW JOB, and perhaps most memorably in the later Mutual comedy, BEHIND THE SCREEN.

Something I hadn't noticed before this viewing: during the scene on the film set, there is deep focus shot that shows another company working on an adjoining stage in the background. It's little moments like these that make these "behind the scenes" Keystone comedies such an interesting glimpse into the workings of the studio.

In HIS NEW PROFESSION, we see Chaplin using the closeup very effectively to capture the subtle facial gestures of his performance. The opening scene (which is often misattributed to RECREATION for some reason) is a good example of this, with more nuanced facial gestures that the kind of grotesque mugging he demonstrated in earlier films such as BETWEEN SHOWERS and A FILM JOHNNY.

The premise finds Charlie, enjoying a relaxing afternoon in the park, recruited to look after Charley Chase's uncle, laid up in a wheelchair and suffering from gout so that Chase can spend some time alone with his girlfriend. Predictably, the old man is subject to all kinds of abuse; then Chase finds Charlie flirting with his girlfriend after almost rolling the uncle off the end of a pier, and chaos ensues as all involved get into a fight.

The film features some uncharacteristically cruel and mean-spirited humor, or at least a more extreme version of the brash, vulgar behavior we see of Charlie in these early films. Aside from the aforementioned physical abuse of the invalid uncle, there's the moment when Charlie, desperate for some quick change to get a drink, steals a crippled beggar's sign and collection cup to help raise the money by placing them with the uncle, fast asleep in his wheelchair.

One of the few times in his career in which Chaplin was actively "teamed" with another comedian, this is also one of the best. Chaplin shares the screen with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, playing a couple of inebriated gents ("Mr. Full" and "Mr. Fuller") who get into no end of misadventures in their intoxicated state. After domestic disputes with their respective spouses, the men head out on the town.

Chaplin's drunk act is comparable to his fine work in ONE AM and CITY LIGHTS, displaying a wonderfully precise performance that trades careful and deliberate physical comedy for roughhouse knockabout. His partnering with Arbuckle results in some particularly inspired clowning, their perfectly mis-matched sizes creating a strong comic contrast. A scene in which the drunken Charlie wreaks havoc in a cafe especially looks forward to the similar scene in CITY LIGHTS. It's easy to see Chaplin here developing material that he would expand and refine later on.

Unlike many of the Keystones which end quite abruptly (to be fair, this could be the result of battered prints), THE ROUNDERS ends with a fitting denouement, as the two inebriates, having been found out by their wives, dive into a lake, and fall asleep in a canoe, which sinks under their weight as they obliviously doze off.

And with THE NEW JANITOR, Chaplin becomes The Little Fellow. There had been strong hints of things to come in the films leading up to THE NEW JANITOR, from the dual identity mixup of CAUGHT IN A CABARET, to the "domestic" farce of MABEL'S MARRIED LIFE, to the nuanced performance of HIS NEW PROFESSION and THE ROUNDERS.

THE NEW JANITOR reveals what really separated Chaplin from the other clowns at Keystone: an emphasis on performance. Whereas other comics emphasized physical humor defined, in some cases, by a recognizable "type" (Arbuckle's size, Conklin's Walrus mustache, etc.), Chaplin reveals in THE NEW JANITOR an absolute total control over his performance, and introduces a new element of pathos to the comedy.

His byplay with brash, obnoxious elevator boy Al St. John early on establishes Charlie as the underdog, with the janitor forced to climb several flights of stairs after being refused a spot on the elevator. Rather than immediately attacking St. John in retaliation, Charlie seems to accept his station, however reluctantly, showing real signs of fatigue as he reaches the top of the stairs, suggesting that perhaps this is not the first time this has happened.

Chaplin then introduces another familiar element: the crooked boss. By making authority figures immediately suspect, Chaplin is again drawing a contrast between his character and those around him. He may be a poor janitor, but he does not resort to the crooked shenanigans of the more well-off upper management. It seems the manager owes a large gambling debt, and the audience immediately suspects he will be using company funds to pay it off.

There is a wonderful bit of business as Charlie enters the boss's office, knocking on the door to attract the boss's attention after he has already entered, before proceeding to accidentally spill trash on the floor while emptying out the wastepaper basket. Some wistful comic romance is introduced in the form of a pretty office girl, whom Charlie admires from across the room before absent-mindedly brushing her bottom with his feather-duster.

The crooked Luke Connor (Glen Cavender, later so memorable as the Yankee Captain Anderson in Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL) shows up at the office to collect the gambling debt. The boss promises him the money by close of business that day. Meanwhile, the oblivious Charlie is fired after accidentally spilling some water on the company president. Rather than retaliating with a kick to the stomach or a brick to the face, the scene is punctuated with only mild humor, instead emphasizing Charlie's disappointment at being let go. Chaplin remarkably blends some very funny pratfalls with the pathos of the situation, demonstrating his ability to move deftly between the two extremes in the same scene.

The boss, meanwhile, is absconding with the money to pay off his debt, when he is caught in the act by the office girl, who hides in the office to phone the police. The boss catches her, however, and begins to physically manhandle the girl, finally holding her at gunpoint. Charlie hears the commotion, and makes his way back up the stairs to the office, where he bravely confronts the thieving boss.

Charlie fires a warning shot out the window to get the attention of the police. However, when the officer shows up, he immediately suspects Charlie is the culprit, kicking him out into the hallway. The girl tells them the truth, showing Charlie to be a hero. The boss is led away by the police, while Charlie is given a reward by the grateful company president.

This ending reveals a move away from the wild slapstick finales typical of Keystone. Chaplin again heightens the audience's concern for his character by having him momentarily falsely suspected of the embezzlement, which also emphasizes the class concerns that were such an important part of Chaplin's mature work - the assumption being that the well-dressed, middle class boss couldn't possibly be guilty of theft, while Charlie's little janitor is proven to be of stronger character and integrity.

THE NEW JANITOR was the best film Chaplin had made up to that time, and demonstrates clearly the directions he would go as a mature artist, and its sharp contrast with the other product of the Keystone studio demonstrated his need for further creative control and independence.

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