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Sunday, 2 March 2014

A Film Johnnie (1914)

Director: George Nichols
Star: Charlie Chaplin
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
A Film Johnnie was Charlie Chaplin's sixth film, released only two days after his fifth, Between Showers, on 2nd March, 1914. I'm finding dates fascinating as I work through these early pictures, for a number of reasons, not only because Keystone Studios churned out these farce comedies at frenetic speed. For instance, this is the first of Chaplin's pictures to see release in a new month, all five of its predecessors having first screened to the public in February of 1914. What's most amazing to modern day audiences used to the concept of test screenings is that A Film Johnnie began shooting on Sunday, 1st February, a day before Making a Living opened in theatres. In other words, by the time Chaplin's first film had been seen by the public, he had already begun work on his sixth. It wrapped on the 6th, post-production was complete by the 11th and the negative was in the post for New York. This sort of speed was typical: the average film was shot in under a week, on the road a week later and in theatres three weeks after that.

It's surprising to me that A Film Johnnie, which would be described as a meta movie today, could have been made so early in Chaplin's career, his first lead performance before the public knew who he was. Sure, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal was all about him, but it was a simple gag not a story based movie. Mabel's Strange Predicament was framed around him and he had the most screen time, but the lead was Mabel Normand. Even Between Showers, which he dominates, tasks him only to co-star with Ford Sterling. In A Film Johnnie, he's clearly the lead actor and the only major character, in a picture with a real story, or at least what passed for one at Keystone. What's more, his antics unfold against a Who's Who of Keystone talent, sourced from either side of the camera, including the established stars of the day. The only conclusion that could be fairly drawn is that, after only a month, it was becoming obvious just what a talent Keystone suddenly had.

It's a fascinating film today, one of the most fascinating of Chaplin's historic early pictures, as it shows us something of what it was like to be on a Keystone set. What's more, it shows us, using exaggerated fiction, what Chaplin may have been feeling only a couple of months earlier, in his earliest days at the studio. He arrived at Keystone in early December 1913 but wasn't put to work until early January 1914. While he was generally kept frantically busy during his contracted year, working long hours six days a week, that wasn't the case during his initial month and he must have felt particularly out of place. As Simon Louvish phrased it in Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett, 'Chaplin's problem was a familiar one of stage training, longing for the linear continuity of acting, building the pantomime gag and following it through without interruption, as against the stop and start of the films.' I wonder how much frustration he foresaw during that first month and what he imagined to counter it.

It opens with the Little Tramp outside a nickoledeon, where enticing posters are displayed. These are for real 1913 pictures: The Open Door from the Broncho Film Company and a couple from the Reliance Film Company, including The Alternative. However, the Little Tramp only has eyes for the leading lady on the poster for The Champion Driver, a Keystone picture which is presumably what IMDb lists as 1913's The Champion, though this one is a war movie rather than a motor racing picture. You see, he's infatuated with 'the Keystone Girl', played here by Virginia Kirtley, enough to blow kisses at her poster and go all moon faced right there in the street. Kirtley was an odd casting choice, not because she wasn't up to the task but because she had appeared in a few pictures with the real Keystone Girl, Mabel Normand, the real star of The Champion, while Normand appears in this film as herself, or at least as her regular character, Mabel. Are you confused yet? No wonder the Little Tramp is all in a tizzy.
After a brief but hilarious scene inside the nickelodeon, in which Chaplin effortlessly causes chaos with both his accident prone nature and his inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, he's thrown out on his ear. What else could a love stricken fan do but hightail it out to the Keystone studios to catch a glimpse of his dream girl? He meets many of the leading Keystone lights as they arrive for work, not least Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, from whom he cadges a coin, and Ford Sterling, sans trademark goatee, who promptly steals it back. Here's where the picture's title finds meaning: a 'stage door Johnny' was a man who hung around the stage doors of theatres to meet and pick up stage actresses (or more likely, chorus girls). This merely adapts the concept to film, a good idea for Keystone, whose studio front looks like stereotypical Californian money, even if it's far more workmanlike inside. And, of course, being the Little Tramp, Chaplin doesn't just hang around, he follows the girls right on in.

As you can imagine from the speed that Mack Sennett's studio churned out movies, the Keystone set is a notably busy place, both in the amount of action and in the amount of distraction. The Little Tramp is presumably so stunned by what he sees that he disappears from frame and we watch what is valuable footage of a real Keystone set. One man carries a board reading, 'Pict No 148. Sce No 36. Munt-Myers.' I have no idea which picture this would have been, but it seems to be going well. Another man holds up a board containing the words 'good scene' surrounded by prominent swastikas, which in the first decades of the twentieth century were commonplace good luck symbols in the west; the Nazi party didn't adopt the symbol until the 1920s. A cameraman captures it, while above his head we see a sign, that appears to be telling extras to keep off the set unless they're in scenes being shot. Clearly the Little Tramp is far too lost in the busy scene to even notice it. Then again, he'd ignore it even if he saw it.

On this set, nothing can be taken for granted. If you're in the wrong place, as the Little Tramp clearly is, it's the easiest thing in the world to be knocked down by an unfurling carpet or trapped by the closing walls of a set, all of which spring up out of nowhere because fast working Keystone stagehands expect nobody to be in their way. These sets are modular, designed to be assembled and populated with props in no time flat. With everything kept close at hand, a wall to lean on might not be a wall and it might be needed somewhere else very shortly; the same goes for something as simple as a chair. Chaplin, who was a seasoned vaudevillian, understood this sort of stage work, but would have been as struck as we the viewers by the chaos of the studio. In a theatre, everything's backstage until it's on stage. If these scenes are believable, it's difficult to tell what's a Keystone set and what isn't at any point in time. No wonder the Little Tramp is crosseyed by the time he finds the Keystone Girl standing next to him!
And, of course, the source of all his problems in this film is his abiding inability to distinguish between what's real and what's staged for a movie. Naturally, once the camera rolls on the set that's appeared out of nowhere, he gets caught up in the action, just as he did in the nickelodeon. However, instead of interrupting the enjoyment of other filmgoers, he interrupts the film itself, leaping into the fray to save his dream girl from the hands of a typically moustachioed Keystone villain. Needless to say, the chaos he wrought in the nickelodeon is nothing to what he wreaks here, especially with the aid of a gun from the prop department, and he isn't done yet because we're about to learn something else that Keystone did: react to situations just as quickly as they built sets. We know this from Between Showers, a movie which only exists as a reaction to torrential rain hitting California, but we actually see it here, as a man spies a fire and notifies the studio. 'A fire!' reads the intertitle. 'Just what we need to finish the picture'.

And so we chase into act three, with the Little Tramp reprising his studio antics as the filmmakers shift to guerrilla shooting at the fire scene. The action is too fast paced for the audience to even consider the morals in play, as we only see the man who found the fire calling the studio and we never see the film crew calling anyone. Presumably somebody had the decency to call the fire department, as they show up and join in the fun. It's all capably done, but the real shots here are the last ones. The Keystone Girl is a little unhappy about the Little Tramp's selfless interventions on her behalf and she shows him in no uncertain terms how unhappy. By the time she's finished with him, he's surely as devastated inside as he is outside, courtesy of a well aimed firehose. The film ends with the bedraggled tramp breaking the fourth wall and showing us how fed up with the whole thing he is. Goodbye to the movie business, he tells us. Ironically, at exactly the same time, his first films hit theatres and he emphatically said hello.
Important Sources:
Simon Louvish - Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (2003)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

A Film Johnnie can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great article! I just watched the film, and then wanted to look up any info I could find about it! You sated my appetite for information,thank you! And well-written! I'm going to be reading more on this blog!