Last month, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival joined a worldwide celebration of Charlie Chaplin with The Little Tramp at 100. Three programs celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the Little Tramp persona’s first film appearance.
The first screening featured Charlie’s work from his third studio, Mutual Film Corporation. Someone at the fest wittily titled this program Our Mutual Friend. It featured three shorts accompanied by Jon Mirsalis on solo piano. The shorts were The Vagabond (1916), The Cure (1917), and Easy Street (1917).
The Vagabond features the Little Tramp’s characteristic blend of comedy and drama. He’s a wandering violinist trying to earn his living busking. He settles on a saloon as a prime place to play only to be displaced by a much louder band. If his violin is going to be drowned out, he decides to “join” the band, collecting their tips for himself! Eventually his trickery is discovered, and he’s forced to flee those he fleeced, which sets him upon the path where he finds Edna Purviance‘s Gypsy Drudge.
Her story is Dickensian. She was born to a wealthy family, but abducted by gypsies and forced into slavery. A chance meeting with the Little Tramp changes her life. He mistakes her for a paying audience, but while she loves his music, she has no money to give him. He ends up rescuing her from her captors, and their newly shared life is hardscrabble, but happy until a chance encounter with an artist threatens their relationship.
The Tramp starts to take care of the Drudge, as he makes her more presentable to the world in his eyes. He cleans her face removing any dirt of the past, and he vigorously scrubs out every facial orifice, earholes and nostrils included! For maximum comedic effect, Edna the actress makes herself look as silly and awkward as possible, as she grimaces exaggeratedly during the Drudge’s cleaning. In her next scene with the Tramp, he’s “fixes” her hair. Her new hairstyle may be less wild, but it’s no more fashionable. The intimate physicality of these scenes shows the trust built between the characters, and it mirrors Edna’s offscreen trust in Charlie’s comedic instincts.
Eric Campbell, a former stage actor, was part of Charlie’s film troupe at this time. The role isn’t the most developed villain he played in Charlie’s films, but he uses his bulk to make the Gypsy Chieftain menacing, while finding the funny in the brute. The imposing Chieftain’s movements are comically floundering as he’s outwitted by Charlie’s tiny violinist.
The Cure spoofs the mineral water craze of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Spas or resorts used to be built around wells and springs spouting what was lauded as medicinal waters. They were reputed to do everything from improving libido to curing insanity. Though Charlie’s character The Inebriate goes to such a health spa to dry out with the wet cure, he arrives packing more liquor than some bars. He causes chaos everywhere he goes, especially when fleeing his treatments.
The film features the comedy trio of Charlie, Edna, and Eric Campbell. The drunkard may have drink on the mind, but he’s not so distracted that he can’t find time to romance Edna’s The Girl. He has to work hard to impress her. Campbell’s The Man with Gout complicates their romance. The Inebriate accidentally keeps getting into scuffles with The Man, and The Man continually pesters The Girl. He follows her about, tries to sit near her, and tries to touch her. He’s much too forward.
Charlie’s outfits in this film aren’t the Little Tramp ones we’re used to. His resort clothes and the fact he can afford a rest stay show he’s portraying a much posher character. Later there are scenes of him resisting rough massages while attired in bathing gear. Seeing him stripped down, I could see how young he was by his skinniness, yet he possessed a trim muscularity that enabled his slapstick acrobatics. When The Inebriate starts dancing away from the feared Masseur, the bathing suit emphasizes his graceful control of limbs and movements.
There are no sad or dark moments in this film. It’s pure slapstick and satire. When The Inebriate attempts to enter the resort though its revolving door, Charlie signals we’re in for silliness. He spins round and round, popping in and out of the building, and soon traps The Man with Gout and an attendant in the door. The Inebriate finally ends up inside the building, still spinning his way through the lobby, up the stairs, and to his room. Those familiar with slapstick conventions might guess the giggle water he smuggles in will end up in the well, a situation that promises a film that will leave viewers drunk with good humor.
Easy Street starts off with a darker world view. Charlie is back in his familiar tramp costume at the film’s beginning. His character, The Derelict, is so badly off he almost robs a rescue mission. Edna portrays a mission worker. Her kindness to him and his attraction to her inspires him to reform. He seeks work and gets hired as a policeman assigned an awful called slum Easy Street.
Our first view of Easy Street shows Eric Campbell’s The Bully brawling with the borough’s other crooks in the street. The living is not easy there, but if you’ve got brawn or guile, it’s easy to get away with whatever you want. It’s an anything goes place. We see that when two men are revealed on the ground at the center of the crowd. They’re getting mugged by the brawlers, who are fighting each over the pickings from their victims’ pockets.
One of Chaplin’s chief conceits is coming up with imaginative ways for the little Derelict to defeat bigger and oftener brawnier bad guys. For example, being struck in the head with a police baton doesn’t phase The Bully. His thick skull protects him. He demonstrates his superior strength by bending a streetlight. The Tramp seems outmatched, but he gets a bright idea on how to use that gas lamp against his foe. The moment is hilariously surreal.
The film gets darker when we meet more of the slum’s denizens. A sweet couple has too many children to feed, so Edna brings aid with assistance from Charlie. Charlie lightens the scene by feeding the babes like they’re a flock of chickens. In another apartment, there’s domestic violence. The Bully fights with his woman, and she pays him back in kind. Later Edna is threatened with rape by a heroin addict.
Since this is a comedy, it’s no spoiler to reveal that in the end Charlie makes life on easy street a little easier. How he does it brings laughs and it brings reassurance that the little guy can prevail and order can be restored.