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Friday, 1 August 2014

The Property Man (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
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.
Working through all Chaplin's 1914 films on the days they were originally released has ably highlighted just how many of them there were. Each time I reviewed one, my eye was already on the next as it was never far away. It was easy to think back to 1914, as the original audiences saw these films for the first time, watching this funny new face show up time and time again to establish a hold. His first three films arrived on cinema screens in the span of only eight days and, by 20th June, no less than twenty Chaplin films had been released. Even with an uncharacteristic 25 day gap between A Busy Day and The Fatal Mallet, that averages out to one every 6.9 days, an output faster than a weekly television show today. Yet his nascent career as a director started out much more slowly; Laughing Gas was released 19 days after Mabel's Married Life and The Property Man didn't show up for another 23. For the first time in this project, his previous film wasn't fresh in my mind as I watched the new one. At this speed, life got in the way.

Part of the reason for this delay is that, while most of Chaplin's earlier films were one reelers that took a week to put together, this was a two reeler that ran 24 minutes and took 16 days to shoot. It's not tough to figure out why, though, as this must have felt like an important movie to him. Certainly, to our century of hindsight, it points firmly towards the future far better than any of the pictures he'd made thus far, but it's also fundamentally rooted in his music hall past, most obviously the famous Mumming Birds sketch that he had performed on stage with Fred Karno's London Comedians, the very one that impressed Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand enough to hire him to replace Ford Sterling at Keystone. The part he played in Mumming Birds strongly influenced the characters he would play at Keystone, which is why he shows up drunk so often in 1914. However, The Property Man is sourced less from his character in Mumming Birds and more from the sketch itself.

Mumming Birds apparently grew out of a comedy written to entertain the Shah of Persia when he visited London in 1903, imaginatively titled Entertaining the Shah. It reached the music hall stage almost a year later, its name progressing within a couple of months from Twice Nightly through A Stage Upon a Stage to The Mumming Birds. It was still being performed on stage in the forties, billed as 'Fred Karno's Greatest Comedy' and with the tagline, 'The show that made Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy', as both Chaplin and Stan Laurel had played parts in it to great acclaim. The concept is one that we'd describe as 'meta' today, as the curtain would rise to show another stage, with some of the cast taking the role of players and others audience members. In the box to the left would be a public schoolboy and his guardian, with 'a drunken swell' on the right, Chaplin's preferred role. A string of incompetent performers attempt to do their thing but are constantly interrupted by the audience on stage in increasingly chaotic ways.
No wonder Sennett was hooked when he saw it under its touring title of A Night in an English Music Hall, as it sounds like a Keystone picture on stage. Of course, before hiring Chaplin away from Karno, Keystone would never have produced a film version quite like this. The Property Man has Chaplin's name all over it, even more as a writer than as an actor or director, because it's never just about a set of gags leading up to chaos, though they do reach that standard goal; it's about how those gags build and feed into others, it's about how better defined characters can render those gags funnier and it's about how a stronger setting can ground the whole thing and keep it funnier. While it's far from Chaplin's best picture, it's arguably his best thus far because it's consistent and interwoven. A Film Johnnie, The Star Boarder and Caught in the Rain hinted at this but were more Keystone than Chaplin. This is the other way around.

While The Property Man is clearly sourced from Mumming Birds, it's no direct adaptation. We do watch an audience watching an inept set of vaudeville acts, but the fun is less in their interactions with it and more in how the property man leads the troupe into chaos. He's played by Chaplin, of course, who is the lowest rung on this ladder except one, and that pecking order is established very quickly. In fact, that's the very basis of this film, differences in status always serving as a clear parallel to class differences in British entertainment. Surely this is how Chaplin expected to find sympathy for his character, though a century has rendered him rather more unsympathetic. Status is everything here. When a couple of new artistes arrive, he mostly ignores them because they're new and his status compared to theirs hasn't yet been established. He highlights the 'No Smoking' sign, though he's smoking a pipe himself. Yet he doesn't dare do the same thing to the strongman, an established opponent, so he flips the sign over instead.

In turn, this lazy, uncaring and sadistic property man takes out his frustrations on the only character who is lower than him. That's his assistant, who Josef Swickard, for comedic emphasis, depicts as an old man with a long beard who has to walk with the assistance of a cane, even when carrying heavy trunks on his back. Many have called this picture out as an especially cruel one in Chaplin's filmography, starting with Motion Picture World, when reviewing the film in 1914. 'There is some brutality in this picture,' said their critic, 'and we can’t help feeling this is reprehensible. What human being can see an old man kicked in the face and count it fun?' I don't buy this take, as the film's tone is notably less cruel than Mabel's Busy Day and everything serves a purpose. Details are either part of a bigger gag or they help to establish the pecking order. Even those kicks, while admittedly cruel, enforce rather than damage. This old man seems as indestructible as a cartoon which, as a character in a slapstick short, he's a forerunner to.
The scene most frequently called out for criticism finds the old assistant stuck under a particularly heavy trunk that he's carried downstairs. With the exception of a couple of those feet to the face, I found this a great example of an effective gag built out of equally effective smaller ones. When it happens, Charlie's first act is to strike a match on the trunk to relight his pipe, then he clambers on top of it in an attempt to lever it free, though naturally he only makes the situation worse. Getting nowhere, he breaks off at the call of the strongman's wife, with whom he happily flirts for a while. Soon most of the cast are involved in trying to free the old man, all of them getting precisely nowhere until the strongman is called. He takes it as yet another opportunity to show off, easily doing alone what half a dozen couldn't do together, thus reaffirming his position at the top of the pecking order. Swickard, on the other hand, merely portrays the character at the bottom of it, so any cruelty is really rooted in the inequality of the class struggle.

Even when we get past pre-show shenanigans and the 'Elite Vaudeville' performance begins, everything can be easily interpreted as depicting the lower class, in the form of Charlie the property man, getting one over on the upper class, in the form of the performers who have more status than him. The audience loved it, perhaps because they were predominantly made up of the lower class, as is ably depicted in the scenes involving the audience watching the performance. It may never have been a deliberate act on Chaplin's part, but it's telling today that the audience we see in the film is comprised of the old guard at Keystone. That's Mack Sennett himself in the front row, with his goofy grin, and a drunken Harry McCoy frequently asleep on his shoulder, while Slim Summerville and Chester Conklin are there as well. As with Mumming Birds, there's a lot of fun in seeing the audience's reaction to bad vaudeville performances or to Charlie inadvertently becoming part of the show, causing chaos or ogling the dancing girls.

While class was clearly the dominant theme of The Property Man, there's also a sense of time that comes from hindsight. It's a timely film for reasons beyond it being his first two reeler as a director and the proof that his work was benefitting from the creative freedom he began to find with his previous film, Laughing Gas. Music hall, or vaudeville in the States, had been the dominant form of entertainment for the masses since the 1830s and, while it would fall into the shadow of cinema and eventually television, it was about to reach its peak of popularity. The First World War broke out on 28th July, 1914, only four days before the release of The Property Man, and the music halls would serve as a rallying point for public support and a massively effective tool for the war effort, recruiting many through patriotic songs like 1914's Keep the Home Fires Burning. Chaplin wasn't as vocal about the conflict as he would be as the Second World War loomed. 'Everyone thought it would be over in six months,' he wrote in his biography.
Ironically, given that Chaplin came from music hall and was hired out of vaudeville by Sennett to become his new movie star at Keystone, his rise in cinema was mirrored by the decline of the music halls and the two ended relatively close together. It has been said that music hall ended with the death of Max Miller in 1963; at that time, Chaplin only had one more film in him, The Countess of Hong Kong, released in 1967. As this film brings to mind an end, it also brings to mind a beginning. While the film's finalé, in which the property man turns a firehose on both the stage and its audience, was set up for comedic effect, it has a lot of meaning. The hose is the great leveller, wiping out every difference in status and leaving Charlie in charge; audiences would remember A Film Johnnie ending earlier in 1914 with Charlie being drenched by a firehose, so this highlights his elevation. It can also be read as an homage to the first cinematic gag, in which a gardener is drenched by a hose in the Lumière brothers' film, L'Arroseur Arrosé, in 1895.

The Property Man was one of the few of Chaplin's 1914 films that I hadn't seen before, so the Flicker Alley box set introduced me to the film rather than just a better quality copy of it. Ironically, it's one of the least consistently restored titles in that box, as the majority looks great but a few scenes are of horrible quality. Presumably this is because it was pieced together from seven different prints in three different countries, but it's annoying to see the inconsistency. That we can complain about this highlights how absolutely this box set has spoiled us. Most of it looks great though, so we can see the bad spelling on a number of signs ('Garlico in Feets of Strength') and a host of little details that a cheap print would probably obscure, such as Harry McCoy's drunk seeing the firehose as an opportunity to sober up and shower. While many seem to dismiss this as an exercise in cruelty, I'd suggest that they read it with the appropriate subtext; if they do that, they may see The Property Man, as I do, as the best of Chaplin's pictures thus far.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

The Property Man can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered. The full version will debut in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1 in July.

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