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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The New Janitor (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin, Jess Dandy, Jack Dillon and Peggy Page
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.
From the distance of a century, we can mostly only guess at what went through Chaplin's mind during his last few months at Keystone but we do know some things for sure and others seem like safe guesses. For a start, he was clearly both an ambitious man and a perfectionist, attributes which led his drive to direct his own films. At this point, he had no less than 27 pictures already behind him that had generally done better than regular Keystone product. He had also been his only director for a couple of months and was enjoying the learning process. Each new short during this period seems to highlight how he nailed down a new technique, to build on with the next. The Masquerader, three pictures earlier, was by far the most ambitious film he'd made, allowing him to tell more than one story. With His New Profession, he told his story in more than one location, bouncing around rapidly. The Rounders was an experiment in pacing and The New Janitor combines all those techniques to great effect within the best sets he'd worked on yet.

So Chaplin was moving relentlessly forward, to the degree that this doesn't even feel like a Keystone film or one from 1914. He must have been very aware that he was closing in on the end of his year's contract at the studio too and, as he says in his autobiography, he 'knew the ephemera of it'. In other words, even as his films got better, grander and more consistent, he wasn't counting on any lasting fame, so he asked Mack Sennett for a thousand dollars a week, which his boss pointed out was more than he earned himself as the owner of the studio. Chaplin merely replied that 'the public doesn't line up outside the box-office when your name appears as they do for mine.' Of course, he didn't get it, but Essanay offered him more: $1,250 per week, along with a $10,000 signing bonus, so naturally he jumped ship. This discussion with Sennett appears to have been somewhere in August, meaning that while he was making The New Janitor late in that month, he already knew that he was leaving, even if he didn't know where he was going.

My interpretation of his late 1914 work is that he was learning all he could in preparation for his move to a new studio, whichever it would be. He slowed down to a less frantic and more consistent pace than he had kept throughout the year; both June and August had seen five new Chaplin pictures in theatres, with only one in July, but from this point forward it was two shorts each month, with only one extra in October. Generally speaking, he took longer to make them too, presumably because he could, with a gap between each of them. He still kept a busy schedule, but he was averaging a new picture every two weeks rather than every one, and he wasn't overlapping productions any more. Clearly he wasn't only experimenting with the cinematic toolbox, he was also learning how to produce a picture in a sustainable, professional manner. This progression usually takes new fish years to achieve, but it's somehow appropriate that the madcap factory that was Keystone gave Chaplin the opportunity to do it in only one.
While he devotes little space in his autobiography to his time at Keystone, merely a lone chapter, he does take time to explain something he learned specifically while shooting The New Janitor. As the character of the title, he finds himself at one point fired by the president of the company for which he works, hardly a surprising act given that he's just dumped a bucket of soapy water on him from a dozen floors up in the company skyscraper. 'In pleading with him to take pity on me and let me retain my job,' he explained, 'I started to pantomime appealingly that I had a large family of little children. Although I was enacting mock sentiment, Dorothy Davenport, an old actress, was on the sidelines watching the scene, and during rehearsal I looked up and to my surprise found her in tears. 'I know it's supposed to be funny,' she said, 'but you just make me weep.' She confirmed something I already felt: I had the ability to evoke tears as well as laughter.'' This pantomiming didn't make it into the resulting film, but the feeling did.

What struck me immediately with The New Janitor was the sets, which seem to be much roomier and far more ambitious than I'm used to seeing in Chaplin's Keystone shorts. We start out in the company lobby, with its chequered floor, marble stairs and apparently working lift. The elevator boy, Al St John, is cheeky enough to avoid letting him in, so he walks the twelve flights up to the top floor, which could be the very same set from a slightly different angle, but with the stairs changed. He quickly moves down the corridor outside the executives' offices, with its panelled walls and window to the outside world, then enters one of those offices, with another window and a wall covered with the little drawers that hold cards. Another blink and we're in the president's office, with its prominent safe and a third window. That's five locations in less than two minutes, with different floors, walls and props. That might not seem like much to us, but some of Chaplin's early films never left a single square room.

Of course, these are still clearly sets, the work of the Keystone carpenters commendable but not strong enough for us to buy that we're in a real skyscraper, at least until Charlie almost falls out of the one real window, the one in the president's office. The others are painted, as are the drawers, the panelling and the marbling on the staircases, but it took more work to put it all together, both mentally and physically, than Keystone usually took. The shots of the outside of the building are real, with Chaplin really hanging out of that window; Jeffrey Vance identified it as the Marsh-Strong Building at 9th & Main in Los Angeles, built only a year earlier. John Bengtson, 'the great detective of silent film locations', highlights how close this building is to other locations Chaplin used in other Keystone films, such as His Musical Career, only four films away. This scene is what Vance calls a 'high and dizzy' scene, a couple of years before Harold Lloyd and others would make them popular in comedy films as thrilling as they were comedic.
Once the sets are established, what leaps out are the characters and how they all have a purpose within the script. It's long been suggested that Keystone pictures didn't have scripts at all, just starting points from which to improvise a succession of gags, but that belief was firmly debunked by Simon Louvish's book, Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett, which reprints many of Sennett's scripts. They're hardly traditional scripts with stage directions and dialogue, but they do show how much thought often went into the progression of the stories. I raise this here because I can't remember another picture made at Keystone that screamed so loudly that it had a firmly defined script. Each of the characters is defined, with their own motivations and their own story arcs. Novelist Gini Koch once told me that a writer should be able to imagine their story from the perspective of any of its characters and it's clear that Chaplin set his script up with that sort of idea in mind. He's the lead, but everyone else has their place too.

And there are a few such characters, even if we discount St John's elevator boy, whose part is restricted to forcing Chaplin to use the stairs. There's a villain, one of the company's managers who might work in the office opposite the president's but still owes a lot of money to a bookie. His story arc is established quickly, as the debt is being called in and he only has a day to raise the funds or he'll be exposed. With a safe on the other side of the hallway, it's clear what his direction will be. The president gets to show two sides too, initially a negative one as Charlie accidentally drenches him with the water he's using to wash his windows, but a positive one later on when Charlie comes good during the big holdup scene. Stuck in between is the president's secretary, whose honesty proves to be Charlie's salvation, albeit not because he absentmindedly dusts her backside after the safe. The story couldn't exist without all four characters, but she's the glue that keeps them and their scenes tied together.
Of course, as tends to be the case with the ladies in Keystone pictures, her identity is unclear. IMDb says it's Peggy Page, who Charlie manhandled in His New Profession, and certainly the two actresses look a lot alike. Wikipedia suggests that it's Helen Carruthers, as it did in His New Profession, perhaps because she appeared in so many of Chaplin's Keystone shorts. The BFI claims that Minta Durfee played the part, but it's clearly not her so we can discount that suggestion. Whoever it is, she does her job capably, showing some elegance and charm even before being choked out by the villain, even though she's a second rank player at Keystone like most of the rest of the cast. Her boss and Charlie's is Jess Dandy, who appears in most of Chaplin's films at this point, while the massively experienced Jack Dillon is the thieving manager. He started out in film as early as 1908 and had over a hundred films to his name by this point, albeit with few left to go. So many of these silent actors didn't even get to fail to make the transition to sound.

While The New Janitor can hardly be said to be a sophisticated piece of work today, it was at this point in Chaplin's career. It's less funny than many of his prior films, mostly because the gags refuse to stand in the way of the story and exist to serve it instead. There are some neat ones, such as when Chaplin holds the would be thief at gunpoint by pointing the gun through his own legs while he's bent over double, or when he clambers over his broom when entering the president's office because he apparently can't turn it round; the moments where he nearly falls out of the window are notable too. However, it's much more consistent than his pictures had been up until this moment, lavishly outfitted (at least for Keystone) and thoughtfully constructed. It serves as yet another step forward for Chaplin, in what feels like his cleanest and most progressive picture thus far with one of his more likeable parts. While historically important, it's occasionally difficult to enjoy Chaplin's more primitive pictures, but this one is an easy one to like.

Important Sources:
John Bengtson - Rare Chaplin Scenes in Downtown Los Angeles
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Simon Louvish - Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (2003)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

The New Janitor can be watched for free at YouTube.

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 debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

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