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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.