Saturday, October 19, 2013

Chaplin at Essanay - Part II

The Champion
With Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, Lloyd Bacon.
The Champion opens with one of those little scenes that Chaplin did so well, and that made him such an audience favorite: sitting on a stoop with a little bulldog, he prepares a sausage for his meager lunch, but offers some to the dog, who sniffs at it but turns it down. A simple bit, and totally unrelated to anything else in the film, but it's a charming and cute bit of business that immediately establishes Charlie as an underdog.

Noticing a sign advertising for sparring partners against champion pugilist Spike Dugan, Charlie takes up the challenge. Slipping a horseshoe inside his glove, he knocks out the champion, and the trainer puts the new star fighter on the fast track to prepare for an upcoming prizefight against champion boxer Bob Uppercut.

Chaplin has a lot of fun playing with the props in the gymnasium setting, swinging around a pair of Indian clubs, playing with an outsize barbell, and jumping rope. He also finds time to flirt with the trainer's pretty daughter, and sabotages a briber, offering him cash to throw the fight, by soaking him in the showers. The big fight contains some well-choreographed comic sparring, but it can't help feeling like a warm-up for the intricate and brilliant boxing ballet in the much later City Lights.

The Champion is a good example of Chaplin's ability to get lots of comic mileage out of a single setting. The scenes in the training facilities show off his ability to find the comic potential in a variety of props. The playfulness of the film shows Chaplin establishing a special relationship with his audience. Perhaps the most charming moment in the film occurs in a shot which is repeated again at the very end. As Charlie and Edna playfully kiss, they stop, look directly into the camera with a smile, as Charlie obscures their kissing by holding up a giant beer bottle. It's one of those little moments that some of Chaplin's critics would probably find overly-cute, winking at the audience to gain sympathy. But it's also a perfect example of the special qualities of Chaplin as a performer that made audiences around the world immediately identify with him.

In the Park
With Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White.
A throwback to the "park" comedies so popular at Keystone, this one-reel effort is little more than a series of gags centered around the misunderstandings and altercations between different characters Charlie encounters while out for a day in the park. Often cited as a virtual remake of the earlier Keystone Twenty Minutes of Love, In the Park is overall an unremarkable effort and shows signs of the occasional lack of inspiration that must have resulted from the hectic production schedule of these early shorts. Some of the better moments include Charlie seated next to an amorous couple on a park bench and watching them like a lovesick puppy; his reactions to their exaggerated spooning providing some of the funniest moments in the film.

In the Park also shows how Edna Purviance, even in a relatively minor and uneventful part, brought such radiance to her roles. Her vivacious charm and playfulness perfectly matched Chaplin's character and it's easy to see how much her natural sense of humor became such an essential part of these comedies.

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