Sunday 31 August 2014

His New Profession (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Jess Dandy and Charles Parrott
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.
The Masquerader, Chaplin's most ambitious film thus far, allowed him to tell a few stories in one through meta manipulation. He played his regular character and his regular character masquerading in drag, but he also got to play a fictional version of himself becoming his regular character to mix it all up. This isn't as ambitious, not only because Chaplin just plays Charlie, the cheeky opportunistic layabout, but it does stretch the usual Keystone locations by bouncing us frantically back and forth between them. We start in the park, end up at the pier and spend time in the bar in between. We know all these locations well from other Keystone comedies and, frankly we know much of what happens in them too, but instead of taking those Lego bricks of gags and building them up into something big and then moving it to a new location, he builds bits of it in different locations and keeps us shifting between them. The characters here cover a lot of ground, rushing onto the screen and off it again, ensuring that our eyeballs get a workout too.

Charlie is the focus from moment one in a story that ably builds his character. This little tramp isn't a bad man and he doesn't seek to do bad things; in fact, he doesn't seek to do anything, as appropriate reissue titles like The Good for Nothing and Helping Himself highlight. However, he does keep his eyes open and if something happens to fall by chance into his lap, he'll surely take advantage of it, however unethical or inappropriate it might happen to be. Chaplin's story is written very much to drop things in his lap and for him to benefit from them, with comedic effect. The most obvious example here is what sets up the whole film, as a young man wants to wander off with his girlfriend but is stuck with his uncle, who's confined to a bathchair with an apparent broken leg. If only he could find someone to babysit him for an hour or two! Enter Charlie, who's sitting by a different tree in the park reading the Police Gazette. He takes the job, but hardly for altruistic reasons; the first thing he does is take him to the Pier Bar and try to cadge a dime.

Of course, Chaplin doesn't skimp on the little opportunities for gags and there's a glaring target for them in plain view: the invalid uncle's broken leg. While the first painful moment comes when the bathchair is wheeled onto Charlie's foot, it's the uncle played by Jess Dandy who comes in for the lion's share of pain. That broken leg is sat on, bumped into and tripped over, bashed by no end of props and even hooked by Charlie's cane to turn him around. There are those who call out certain moments in Chaplin's early films as cruel, such as the abuse of his elderly assistant in The Property Man, and I'm not going to say they're wrong, but inflicting pain was one of the foundations of humour in the silent era and there's just no way that we can escape that. Most of the gags in this film are constructed out of someone's pain, but I didn't find them particularly cruel. Cruelty for me in Chaplin's early films is epitomised not in The Property Man but in the deliberate acts wrought upon Mabel Normand in Mabel's Busy Day.
It's also worth mentioning that, while Jess Dandy's uncle suffers the most in His New Profession, Charlie gets a number of pratfalls himself. The most notable arrives as he's struggling to lift the bathchair over a kerb because wheelchair ramps just didn't exist in 1914, only to sit down in a mess of broken eggs that had been dropped on the sidewalk by a young lady earlier in the picture. We laugh as much at the pain and inconvenience inflicted on Charlie as we do at that inflicted on his charge, so it's equal opportunity cruelty. The uncle is stuck in his bathchair throughout, so doesn't have the freedom to, say, buttscoot on the grass to clean egg off his pants, as Charlie does twice here. He just sits back and endures whatever the script has in store for him, which is quite a lot, while Charlie can and does give as good as he gets. In fact, the uncle is so passive a target that he stays a prop when he nods off. No wonder Chaplin was such a hit with the public; he shaped his films by cocking a snoot at them and everyone in them.

The most overt cruelty in this film actually doesn't revolve around pain. After the uncle won't give him a dime on account to spend at the bar, Charlie waits for him to fall asleep and wheels him over to the pier. He parks him right next to a one-armed man, who's also dozing, a one-armed man who has a tin cup and a sign reading, 'Help a cripple'. Needless to say, Charlie seizes the opportunity, steals both sign and cup for his charge and uses the first coin to finance his bar trip. To be fair, we do eventually discover that this particular cripple is not a cripple at all, merely a con man, but Charlie doesn't know that. He steals what appears to be an invalid's only source of income so he can get drunk, and yet he's the hero of the story! I'd suggest that morality was a very different thing a century ago, but I'm sure that the lowest common denominator comedians today would happily recreate the sort of wheelchair antics Chaplin sets up here, merely with bigger and more outrageous payoffs.

I wonder what safeguards were in place back in 1914 when Charlie kicks the uncle's bathchair away from him and he rolls on down the pier towards the sea. Getting knocked off a pier into the ocean was no rare fate in Keystone comedies, as Charlie found out in A Busy Day. I should put your consciences at ease by pointing out that the gentleman who does end up in the ocean here was not in a wheelchair at the time, but Dandy does come close on not one but two separate occasions and the various shenanigans that go down during the finalé can't have been the safest stunts that Keystone actors had ever performed. Even less outrageous activities, like the manhandling Charlie gives his employer's girlfriend after she puts her hand on his knee, looks like it could well have been painful. And I'm still not sure where that scene even came from. Perhaps Chaplin, ever a ladies man, wanted to make sure he got to play with one of them in this film even if it made precisely no sense in the grand scheme of things.
I have no idea who the actress is, but she epitomises how difficult it sometimes is to keep track of actors in films which didn't have credits. IMDb lists her as Peggy Page, who debuted here and then appeared in the next four Chaplin movies. Wikipedia doesn't have a credit for 'Nephew's Girlfriend', so may suggest Helen Carruthers as 'Woman' instead. The BFI adds Gene Marsh to the possibility list, viably as IMDb has her first seven films listed as being Chaplin shorts. Perhaps that should be eight. Then again, the BFI lists Minta Durfee as 'Woman' and I didn't see her anywhere in the film. Other actors are clearer to identify, as that's certainly Roscoe Arbuckle briefly visible as the bartender of the Pier Bar, for instance. Cecile Arnold is the young lady who dropped the eggs, appearing in yet another Chaplin short. Her first five confirmed roles were in Chaplin films, starting with The Property Man, and she'd go on to appear in six more. It isn't escaping me that so many young ladies had brief careers at Keystone dominated by Chaplin shorts.

The most notable supporting actor here is male, though. It's Charles Parrott, a twenty year old actor who plays the young man who hires Charlie to look after his uncle. He was four years younger than Chaplin, but he started in film two years earlier, at the Christie Film Company in 1912, moving to Keystone a year later, where his first IMDb credits show up. He'd appeared in Chaplin films before, though predominantly as an extra. This was his sixth short with Chaplin and he's easily at his most obvious here, running over Charlie's foot with the bathchair and popping up behind a sign to surprise his girlfriend. It's easy to see the promise inherent in his work and so it shouldn't be much of a surprise to discover that Charles Parrott would eventually become known as the fourth great solo silent screen comedian behind Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. If you don't recognise the name, it's because he didn't become Charley Chase until 1923. By that point he had directed over a hundred films for Hal Roach and become famous playing Jimmy Jump.

This was yet another reminder to me about how time can blur achievement. Even as a child, I was aware of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, but viewed them as contemporaries, those great silent comedians from an unfathomable distance in time away from me. Only later did I realise that they weren't, that even within the silent era there was progression and legends built on the prior work of other legends. It was actually Harold Lloyd who debuted on screen first but at this point he was still stuck as an extra, playing roles like a hottentot in The Patchwork Girl of Oz. He wouldn't become prolific until he became Lonesome Luke in 1915. Buster Keaton didn't appear until 1917 and spent his first four years as Roscoe Arbuckle's sidekick. By the time he made his first solo film, Chaplin had become his own writer and director, become the first international star of the screen, moved to Mutual for $670,000 a year then to First National for a million dollars, built his own studio and, with other major names, founded a distribution company, United Artists.

He wasn't the first screen comedian, of course, and he arrived at Keystone Studios in 1914, the home of many recognisable faces, to replace a major star, Ford Sterling. Roscoe Arbuckle was already there, as were Mabel Normand and many others, but Chaplin was the first to refuse to continue doing the same ol' same ol' throughout his contract. This project has served well to open my eyes to just what he achieved. His New Profession is far from the greatest short comedy ever made and there are a whole bunch of raw edges in evidence, not aided by the restoration work apparent on the Flicker Alley box set not being as effective as on many of his earlier films. However, it feels like it's a product of a different era to Making a Living or Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. I keep forcing myself to remember what those earlier films were like as I watch the newer ones. To realise that Making a Living, fully 25 pictures away, was made a mere seven months earlier is jawdropping.

Important Sources:
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

His New Profession 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 debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

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