Chaplin Double Feature

I did not forget about this. Instead, I saw the chance for a lot of Chaplin shorts in the future of this feature and decided to string them together until I had a film that was not Chaplin related at all (which will be 1917’s Straight Shooting, if you’re keeping track). So, here we have two Chaplin shorts, both of which are similar enough that talking about them both simultaneously made the most sense.

To talk about both of these features is to talk about the Tramp, who gives the earlier film, The Tramp, its title and is Chaplin’s most famous character. It holds up, even if his films are antiquated, because it’s still a character that’s used in comedy to this day. Our modern tramps might not look like Chaplin’s, who dresses like the discard pile at a film studio’s costume department – that’s not even entirely inaccurate, since his costume was made out of pieces Chaplin found that would exaggerate proportions and just look wrong together – and has a mustache which gained unfortunate connotations in the 1930s – something Chaplin himself used to great effect in The Great Dictator. But they maintain the spirit of the character, who is just sympathetic enough to root for, but not so sympathetic that we can’t laugh when he falls in a bucket of water for the fifth time.

In The Tramp, our tramp rescues a girl from a roving band of miscreants and then starts working at her father’s farm, where he also has to foil a robbery by the same men who attacked the woman. The second, The Vagabond, casts him as a poor violinist who winds up saving a girl from a roving band of gypsys – played so broad and stereotypical that modern audiences could become uncomfortable – before she is painted by a passing artist and reunited with her families. Both are used as excuses for pratfalls, which is to be expected, for that is what people paid to see when they watched a Chaplin film. The man hitting people over the head with a big stick in the Vagabond is a solid bit of slapstick, especially as he hits more and more people – it’s a rare gag that gets funnier with repetition.

Both shorts feature Chaplin as a director, and here he’s not especially adventurous with the camera. It’s immobile, cutting between set scenes rather than moving with the actors. That does lead to a weird moment in The Tramp, where a pond seems to appear out of nowhere as the location shifts. It’s a pretty typical silent film style, of course, and Chaplin frequently uses a static frame as a way to set up a gag – chase scenes around objects are a clear favorite, right up to using a full-sized building as a barrier. The Tramp also uses film tinting as a way to indicate the time of day – a blue tint indicates night, an orange one indicates either that it’s evening or that night but the house has its lights on – which is clearly a way to work around the limitations of early film but does provide a welcome splash of colour. Chaplin also chafes at the limits of silent film with The Vagabond, since he brings musical characters into a film made before sync sound was invented – while it’s difficult to tell what it would have been like to watch the film in 1916, one thinks it would have benefitted from a consistent soundtrack across all showings, there are ample opportunities for extra gags in the music (the print I watched also didn’t have the greatest soundtrack recorded for it.)

It’s also notable that the films don’t just end with everyone falling over. The Tramp’s ending is best described as bittersweet, while The Vagabond has a last-minute twist that changes the same idea into a happy one. Chaplin is interested in more than just people falling over, even if that’s his primary concern for most of the running time, he also wants to explore how people relate to the hero of the film. It doesn’t take up a huge amount of the runtime, but it does reflect that he’s thinking of the Tramp as more than a setup for gags but instead as a complete person. He’s still primarily interested in the gag, but he’s also interested in making people care about the characters beyond the gag. We root for the Tramp because we like him, and the laughs are more effective because he’s making the character into a person rather than just someone who gets himself into wacky situations. That makes the gags funnier too.

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