Posted by Susan Doll on November 28, 2016
Charlie Chaplin had been in Hollywood only two years when he signed a lucrative deal with the Mutual Film Corp., but he was already a star because of his one-reelers with Keystone and Essanay. The years 2016-2017 mark the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s Mutual two-reelers, which I believe rank among the best comedies of the silent era.
FilmStruck offers Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies in three parts for your streaming pleasure. My personal favorite, Easy Street (1917), can be found in Part 3.
In Easy Street, the Little Tramp stumbles into a mission on Skid Row where he is inspired by the beauty and goodness of missionary Edna Purviance. Crime is so rampant on Easy Street that the police are regularly beaten up by the criminals. In need of employment, the Little Tramp joins the police force and spends most of his time tangling with a huge, angry-faced villain, played by Eric Campbell. Chaplin revealed the full range of his talents in these two-reelers, from the elegance of mime to the pratfalls of slapstick and from blatant sentiment to sharp satire.
Purviance, who was involved with Chaplin offscreen, costarred in 35 shorts with the Little Tramp, proving to be his most consistent and capable leading lady. Campbell, who played the bully in 11 of the Mutual comedies, was not so fortunate. Like Chaplin, Campbell got his start in the Fred Karno Company, a music hall troupe. Chaplin saw him on Broadway and asked him to join his team at Mutual. In July 1917, Campbell suffered the death of his wife. Shortly thereafter, he watched in horror as his daughter got hit by a car, though she would eventually recover at a relative’s house. That fall, he married a gold-digger who left him after two months. In December, he drank too much at a cast party and crashed his car on the way home, killing him. Campbell must have sold his soul to the darkest devil for fate to be so unkind to him, even in death. The 6’ 5”, 300-pound comic foil was dead at age 37. According to web sources, the actor was cremated but his ashes went unclaimed for over 30 years. They were finally buried in an unmarked site in an L.A. cemetery. For more on Eric Campbell see the documentary Chaplin’s Goliath(1996), also streaming on FilmStruck.
What makes Easy Street so astonishing 100 years later is the depiction of poverty. Sordid topics like wife-beating, drug addiction, police brutality, and birth control (or, lack thereof) become material for comedy bits. The film is at once an entertaining comedy and an eye-opening view of life in the slums; i.e., comedy as social criticism. A medium shot of a drug addict shooting up with a needle in a dark hovel is still startling. (The addict was played by future director Lloyd Bacon.) A scene in which Chaplin and Edna visit a family with nine or ten kids under the age of five pokes fun at the expansive brood. There are toddlers everywhere—in baskets, washtubs, boxes. Chaplin is amazed at the exhausted father’s collection of kids and pins his badge on him, like a prize for his prowess. Chaplin feeds the kids as though they are a flock of chickens, which is a joke about their number and their similarity. In other words, they are as interchangeable as a flock of chickens. I am sure that joke is lost on today’s viewers whose families left the farm generation ago. However humorous the scene may be, it suggests the need for birth control. This was a controversial topic at the time, particularly after the suffragette movement made it part of their platform.
Biographers like to point out that Easy Street represented Chaplin’s only role as a policeman, an atypical occupation given the Little Tramp’s marginal relationship to society and its social institutions. In an issue of the fanzine Reel Life in 1917, Chaplin reflected on his decision. “If there is one human type more than any other that the whole world has it in for, it is the policeman type. . . . it’s just the natural human revulsion against any sort of authority—but just the same everybody loves to see the ‘copper’ get it where the chicken gets the axe.” Given what I know about Chaplin, I suspect that he was talking more about himself than “everybody.” After acknowledging that coppers are not agreeable characters, he goes on to explain that his character in Easy Street was made sympathetic because the Eric Campbell character was such a bully. More surprising is that Chaplin wins the hand of the girl, keeps his job, and restores Easy Street to decency by the end of the movie, which means the Little Tramp has become a part of society instead of living on its margins.
Chaplin did not build his own studio until the end of 1917, after his Mutual contract was over. The T-shaped junction that represented Easy Street was built for $10,000 at the Lone Star Studio in the Colgrave district of L.A. According to biographer David Robinson, it looked remarkably like South London, particularly Methley Street where Chaplin, his mother, and his brother once lived. I am not surprised that Easy Street was sweetened with a touch of autobiography. The details are too authentic and the subtext too raw to be merely archetypal.
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