Charlie has trouble with actors' luggage and conflicts over who gets the star's dressing room. There are further difficulties with frequent scene changes, wrong entries and a fireman's hose... See full summary »
Charlie has trouble with actors' luggage and conflicts over who gets the star's dressing room. There are further difficulties with frequent scene changes, wrong entries and a fireman's hose. At one point he juggles an athlete's supposed weights. The humor is still rough: he kicks an older assistant in the face and allows him to be run over by a truck. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
In which a fledgling comic genius learned what not to do
There's only one genuine point of interest posed by the Keystone comedy The Property Man, written and directed by Charlie Chaplin: What would this great filmmaker's output have looked like if he'd never outgrown the crude Mack Sennett-style approach to comedy? For those interested in this troubling question, the answer can be found here.
This film, which is set backstage in a vaudeville theater, is infamous for its harsh slapstick violence, and it's easy to see why. Most Keystone comedies feature lots of comic mayhem, and Chaplin's are no exception, but in the midst of it all Charlie himself is usually at least a moderately sympathetic figure. Not in this movie! We watch The Property Man a little stunned as Charlie does everything possible to turn audience sympathy against himself. Most notoriously, Charlie bullies his elderly assistant, smacking and kicking him repeatedly, even when the old man is pinned under a fallen trunk. For me this is far from funny, and when the old man finally fights back it's exhilarating, and we root for him to settle the score with his tormentor. It's like visiting some nightmarish alternate universe where we root for Elmer Fudd to nail Bugs Bunny. Actually, watching this movie is similar to seeing the earliest appearances of favorite cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse or Daffy Duck, when the characters themselves still looked like rough sketches, and their behavior was crude and aggressive. Charlie is certainly aggressive in The Property Man: while flirting with the strong man's comely female assistant he gets so carried away he knocks her to the ground.
Viewers expecting a plot of some sort won't find one here. Events in this film follow a loose framework. Performers arrive at the theater for the show, quarrels erupt over dressing rooms, and then one act after another appears on stage. There are several shots of the audience, who look like rubes. I tend to enjoy movies set at theaters, and admittedly this film does provide a taste of what vaudeville was like in its heyday, allowing for Keystone-style exaggeration. Still, our enjoyment is undercut by the film's nasty tone. Even when Charlie isn't assaulting people his comic business is decidedly on the rough side. At one point, while he's flirting with a pair of dancing girls, beer (or punch, or something) gets spilled down his pants, creating a highly unappealing impression. Later, when Garlico the strong man is on stage and bends to lift a bar-bell, Charlie deliberately tears a piece of fabric so that Garlico will think he's ripped his tights. This is one of the film's rare comic moments, perhaps because the strong man is the only character in the movie more obnoxious than Charlie.
Get the idea? This movie isn't merely tiresome, it's a blot on Chaplin's reputation as a comedian, but fortunately he outgrew stuff like this pretty quickly, even before he left Keystone. And then within a couple of years he would make Behind the Screen, set at a movie studio, in which huge Eric Campbell would play Goliath the bullying prop man, and Charlie-- the Charlie we recognize --would play his assistant, the hapless and put-upon David. And, much to our relief, the proper pecking order would be established in Chaplin's universe.
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