Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chaplin at Essanay - Part III

A Jitney Elopement
With Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Leo White.
Another Essanay that feels like it could have been made at Keystone, except this one demonstrates the more methodical pacing that Chaplin was able to pursue at Essanay. The premise is one of Chaplin's favorite: it involves him impersonating a count in order to marry the girl he loves.

The "bogus count" routine has its roots in Chaplin's work in his Keystone short Caught in a Cabaret, and also figures in plot descriptions of the now-lost Her Friend the Bandit. It was a theme he would return to at Mutual, with The Count, and would even include variations on it in later films such as The Idle Class (where Charlie the tramp infiltrates a swanky costume party by trading on his resemblance to the wealthy host), City Lights (posing as a millionaire for the blind girl), The Great Dictator (the Jewish Barber masquerades as Adenoid Hynkel in the final sequence to deliver a message of hope to the nations of the world), and certainly Monsieur Verdoux, in which the title character is a virtual chameleon, marrying then murdering women for their money.

As usual with this premise in Chaplin's work, the fun comes from watching how he interacts with his hosts. Like a fish out of water, the fastidious yet crude tramp struggles with the finer social graces. At the dinner table, he sprinkles so much pepper on his food that he gives Edna and  her father sneezing fits. The dinner table sequence is also a fine example of Chaplin's evolving directing style: by keeping all three figures in the frame, he allows the sequence to play out in an extended take with minimal editing, allowing the material to build and being able to control the timing within the shot through the performances.

The charade falls apart when the real count (Leo White in full form) shows up. A chase ensues, with Charlie whisking Edna away in his "jitney". The chase is well-staged, utilizing strategic undercranking for maximum effect, and one of the rare examples from his post-Keystone work of Chaplin ending a film with such a sequence. The action is fairly standard breakneck stuff, but the way in which it is shot offers an interesting alternative to the Keystone method, employing fewer shots as the cars circle eachother before the car containing Edna's father and the real count plunges off a pier.

There is also one of the stunning visual moments in the chase -- the Murphy Windmill (on the corner of Lincoln Ave. and Great Highway, according to Film in America). Critics frequently carp about Chaplin's drab visuals in his films, but he had a great eye for finding poetic beauty in seemingly ordinary locations. The windmill is certainly striking on its own of course, and it was an inspired choice to use it as the backdrop to this otherwise routine ending to a slapstick comedy.

A Jitney Elopement may not be one of Chaplin's best Essanays, but it allowed him to explore one of his favorite themes and offers solid examples of his mature filmmaking style, which would come into full bloom in his next film.

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