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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is one of my favorite Chaplin comedies, but that doesn't mean it's
one of his funniest. Gags notwithstanding, The Vagabond is decidedly
the most serious film Chaplin had produced up to this time. You might
say this short served as a dress rehearsal for his later features such
as The Kid, films with melancholy story elements and (in some cases)
sad endings. Here, Chaplin tells a melodramatic story in a
straightforward fashion, elevating his Tramp to the role of hero.
Having already proved that he could provoke laughter, it appears
Chaplin wanted to see if he could inspire sympathy, enough so to draw
viewers into a dramatic situation, and make them care about what
happens to his "little fellow." In my opinion he succeeded admirably,
for watching this movie almost 90 years after it was released I find it
still works beautifully, like a vintage automobile still in perfect
Although this project marked a new chapter for Chaplin, he assembled it from decidedly old-fashioned ingredients. The plot must have felt familiar to audiences even in 1916: leading lady Edna Purviance plays a young woman kidnapped by gypsies as a child, held captive as their "drudge" ever since. Charlie is a traveling musician who rescues her - - after an exhilarating fight in which Edna takes part. Having fallen in love with her, he is prepared to take care of her forever after. However, the idyll is interrupted when a handsome young artist happens by and paints Edna's portrait, which he takes back to the city to exhibit. Her wealthy mother sees the picture in a gallery, recognizes a distinctive birthmark, and realizes that the portrait's subject is her daughter. With the artist in tow, the mother arrives at Charlie's camp via automobile and brusquely takes her daughter away, leaving Charlie forlorn. Just as we're bracing ourselves for a sad ending, Edna belatedly becomes aware of her feelings for Charlie, and orders the car to turn back and retrieve him.
As a lead-in to the melodrama concerning the gypsies, Chaplin gives us a comic opening sequence set in a saloon. Charlie, a busker with a violin, has a dispute with a band of musicians who are competing for coins from the same clientèle. But even here it's striking how much Charlie has evolved since his Keystone days: when he pockets the coins intended for the combo it's an honest mistake, that is, he sincerely believes the money is a reward for his performance, and when he's confronted he doesn't understand why, but promptly defends himself. Charlie is no longer the aggressor, no longer larcenous, drunk or rude: only two years after his screen debut, he's matured into a likable character.
It's to Chaplin's credit that the recognition device with the birthmark, ever popular in the world of opera, is served up straight and somehow doesn't feel hokey. Maybe that's because The Vagabond plays like a dramatized folktale, what with its strolling minstrel, wicked gypsies, and damsel in distress; the birthmark feels just as natural in this context as Cinderella's glass slipper or Rapunzel's long hair. Charlie's rescue of Edna and their escape together in one of the gypsies' own wagons is a thrilling sequence, splendidly filmed and edited, belying those critics who insist that Chaplin the director was insufficiently "cinematic." This is followed by a poignant scene set the next morning, when Charlie helps Edna clean herself up. The tone is gentle and the gags are mild, and by the time the scene ends we're on his side. Charlie doesn't have to be funny every moment he's on screen. We've been won over: we care what happens to this guy and the girl he's rescued. And when Edna's head is turned by another man, and it looks like Charlie's going to get jilted, it's heart-breaking.
As I mentioned above, this is not the most laugh-packed comedy Chaplin ever made, but nonetheless I believe it's one of his strongest short films, and therefore highly recommended to silent comedy buffs, and to anyone open to viewing great works from the cinema's early days. Personally I feel that The Vagabond is Chaplin's first masterpiece in the two-reel format.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In "The Vagabond," Charlie plays a street musician who rescues a girl, Edna
Purviance, from a gypsy camp. They set up their own little camp and Charlie
soon falls in love with Edna, but before long a rival soon appears in the
form of a painter who asks Edna to model for him. A wealthy woman sees the
painting in an exhibit and, as a result of a birthmark, recognizes Edna as
her daughter who was stolen away as a child. The mother and painter come
and sweep Edna up away from Charlie. However, as they drive away, she
suddenly demands that they go back and get Charlie, who gets into the car
with them and they all live happily ever after.
"The Vagabond," the third of Chaplin's twelve films for the Mutual Company, is probably the least humorous of the series, but it is also one of the most interesting. This film is essentially a melodrama, and serves as an important creative building block toward his heartfelt feature triumphs that would follow in the twenties and beyond. Chaplin's contract with Mutual gave him the freedom to experiment, and that he did. A film like this was a riskier proposition back in the age of slapstick when comedy was comedy and drama was drama. Today, this is not the first place to look for Chaplin the laugh-getter, but an interesting curio to examine when studying Chaplin's growth as an artist.
This must have seemed like a real change-of-pace from Chaplin when it first
came out, since it has a much different tone than almost any of his previous
short features. It has a few funny moments, but this time humor is not the
emphasis - except for the familiar presence of Charlie's usual tramp-like
character, it feels more like one of the short melodramas from the same era,
rather than a comedy.
As "The Vagabond", Charlie performs a few antics, mostly towards the beginning, but then gets involved in the life of a young woman in distress (Chaplin regular Edna Purviance), and the story turns more serious. It is not one of his best films, but it is always watchable, and is quite interesting as a fore-runner of the way that Chaplin would combine slapstick and humanity to much greater effect in the masterpieces that he would go on to create some years later.
The Vagabond is a funny short film that features Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp. Here he's a wandering violinist who bizarrely finds himself in a gypsy camp, where The Gypsy Drudge--the lovely Edna Purviance--is slaving over a wash tub. He falls in love right away. Several funny episodes here and an oddly happy ending, but there is plenty of Chaplin's stock in trade: masterful comedy, sight gags, and that Victorian sweetness that makes his films so special. Chaplin was a master of creating laughter and tears, and his best films do both. The Kid and City Lights are among the most emotional films you'll ever see. Edna Purviance made more than 20 films with Chaplin and should have been a star in her own right. Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Charlotte Mineau, and Leo White (as a the gypsy hag) co-star.
By the time he made the Vagabond, Charlie Chaplin was not just the most
popular comic on the screen, he was a fully fledged hero of cinema. It
seemed that, so long as he continued to be funny, he could do no wrong,
and people would always want to watch him.
And just the opening shot of the Vagabond shows Chaplin's confidence in his own familiarity and popularity. He appears here as just a pair of feet below a saloon door, his gait alone being enough for audiences to recognise him. He then walks to the back of the set, to a point squeezed between the wall and the edge of the frame, while some other musicians set up in the foreground. The framing provided by the wall, plus the fact that the little tramp is inherently interesting to us as an audience, mean that our focus is upon him. These are not just good approaches for comedy, they are professional cinematic techniques that any director could put to use.
Then, as usually happens, a plot begins to emerge from this situation, but the Vagabond's is a plot with an important difference. Not because the story is extremely poignant (so were those in The Tramp and The Bank) or neatly structured (as was that of Police), but because Chaplin treats the dramatic scenes purely as drama. He backs up the subplot with a few completely straight scenes, with naturalistic acting and camera moves that would have been distracting in a comedy scene but give added impact here. The slow dolly back from Purviance's portrait, beginning with just the picture then gradually revealing its setting and the growing crowd of admirers, really demonstrates Chaplin's competence and understanding as a director.
But what is amazing here is the ease with which Chaplin and his cast are able to slip so freely between comedy and drama. Charlotte Mineau gives what must be her best performance, and Edna Purviance shows a greater expanse of her range than we have hitherto seen. Most incredible of all is the acting of Charlie himself, his face a little hard to read under the toothbrush moustache, but doing some carefully nuanced work with gesture and body language. Lastly an honourable mention goes to Leo White, one of my all-time favourite Chaplin co-stars, in his last ever appearance with Charlie. He's not easy to recognise here (he's the gypsy harridan!), but doing a nice and very funny job as always. This wasn't the end for White though; he had various supporting roles through the rest of the silent era, and has a blink-and-miss-it bit part in virtually every Warner Brothers picture of the 30s and 40s.
The only flaw in the Vagabond is the final twenty seconds, a vulgar and forced happy ending, although it is done smoothly enough so as not to ruin the overall feel of the picture. Even with this coda in place, we are left with a sense of satisfaction, of a story well told. And while Chaplin had done several strong and emotionally involving shorts before this, the Vagabond is perhaps the first one in which you could take out all the comedy and still be left with a decent drama. It was at this point that the little tramp really gained the stature to become a leading man.
The first trait that called my attention in this short film is that it brings sequences of situations considerably independent to each other, although presented linearly. Besides that, forgive me if I am wrong, but I had the impression that this film is somewhat different from most of the Tramp's movies. Slapstick is Chaplin's trademark, off course, but in this movie, perhaps more than usual, he performs strongly cartoon-like scenes, with movements which really look like the ones shown in animated TV shows. Another interesting possible novelty is that Edna Purviance has a quite funny scene together with Charlie. She uses to be portrayed in Chaplin's movies as an unassailable beauty diva, but here she gets down the pedestal and makes we laugh at her bath. That is something very nice to see. The end is also somewhat unusual, although related to an issue that is present in almost all Chaplin's movies. These are the novelties, but, on the other hand, prejudice against gypsies is a serious drawback in my opinion. The violent kidnappers could have been non gypsies at no expense to the story. Anyway, the little tramp tried everything to make a living: even as a street musician he tried to get some coins!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Chaplin edited, wrote, directed, and produced this film for Mutual in July of 1916 and it stands the test of time, even more so than many of his earlier much funnier films. The reason probably is that the structure of this film, more than any predating it, resembles (however crudely) the basic plot structure of films today. There is a definitive beginning, middle, and end in this film. The film is well edited and written for its time. Chaplin plays a wandering vagabond who tries to make a living playing his violin in public. The film opens in typical Chaplin fashion with misunderstandings and chases punctuated by sight gags and slapstick. There are those viewers who may wander what the tavern scenario has to do with the rest of the film, and the answer is it sets up Chaplin as a resourceful fellow who gets by with his wits and not his fists. Thus when he meets the sad, browbeaten Edna Purviance, it's clear what Chaplin must do to extricate her from a band of cruel gypsies; he must use some good old-fashioned ingenuity. After rescuing her from the likes of the crude, whip-wielding Eric Campbell in comic fashion, the story settles into its melodramatic mode. The film successfully combines bits of comedy, plot, and pathos-inducing drama in a way that previous Chaplin films had not. The result is a rough draft of the Chaplin formula, which he would later reuse to greater effect and success in his longer features. *** of 4 stars.
"The Vagabond" represents quite an evolution for Chaplin. He had
already proved himself the funniest comedian on screen and was already
in the process of distancing himself from the crude and frantic
slapstick of Keystone. With this film, more than any afore, he
recreated the tramp as a character worthy of pity. Here begins the
pathetic hero whom audiences could invest their emotions in. At Mutual,
adding this drama to his refinements in his comedy, he created in the
tramp, cinema's most endearing and recognizable icon.
In the film, the vagabond violinist saves the girl (Edna Purviance, as usual) from a terrible gypsy chieftain who whips her. Although Charlie saves her by hitting the gypsies over the heads with a log, there isn't much that's funny about this sequence; it's as purely dramatic as Chaplin's films ever get. And, it perfectly sets Chaplin up as the hero for the sentimental denouement. Additionally, rather than an equally rough and comic clown or a heavy as the tramp's competition for the girl, here, it's a handsome gentleman artist--leaving the tramp feeling inadequate--and to us, more sympathetic than ever.
Chaplin starts out The Vagabond playing in a bar, basically as a street
performer, but soon finds himself run out by the more fully developed
band who is unhappy that he's stealing their customers. Soon he wanders
out into the woods and almost aimlessly stumbles across a group of
backwards country people. There is a hunch-backed hag of a woman that
looks like a witch but is probably the wife of a mountain of a man who
likes to beat the women around him and carries a huge whip wherever he
goes. This guy is ripe for a slapstick smack down.
There's an amusing scene where a young girl is beaten by the man and then Charlie shows up and tries to cheer her up by going nuts on the violin, succeeding only in getting too excited and falling into a tub of water behind him. After a series of unfortunate events, he trades his trademark cane in for a bigger stick and proceeds to knock out all the men in sight, finally making off with the young girl and the family's house, which is really just a horse-drawn wagon.
I am curious about one of the first things that happens after he "liberates" her from her family. He takes a tub of water and roughly scrubs her face, sticking his fingers into her ears and nose while he washes her. The fact that he washes her face rather than allowing her to do it herself is obviously a physical comedy ploy, but it also gave me the feeling that he is sort of washing the country off of her, turning her into a respectable woman.
At any rate, soon she stumbles upon an artist who finds her so beautiful that he wants to paint her, and the result is so wonderful that she gains a following in the uppity art world. Soon some rich art fans show up to take save her from a life in rags and bring her, presumably, to the big city. Charlie refuses a reward (or payment for selling the girl, as it were) and simply hugs the girl and probably wishes her good luck as she sets off in the big car. But the girl decides she doesn't want to leave without him, so they turn around and go back for him.
This story is fraught with problems, of course, like if she would ever start to miss her family or if her upbringing in the big city would conflict with her background as a country girl, and the ending is also a little too cute and neat, but for Chaplin's early silent comedies, this is a very complex story with a definable beginning, middle and end. I felt a little uncomfortable during the face-washing scene, but overall this is definitely a higher quality example of Chaplin's early work.
THE VAGABOND (Mutual Studios, 1916), directed by Charlie Chaplin, stars
the legendary Charlie Chaplin in his third comedy short for the studio.
With Chaplin's attempt with improving himself with each passing film,
rather than the usual twenty minutes of slapstick and chases, he deftly
blends humor and sentiment, a standard that would later become
associated by his technique in storytelling. Rather than playing a
trouble-making tramp, this time Charlie's a violin playing drifter with
more human qualities than before.
The story opens in great comedy tradition as Charlie enters a bar to play his violin for the patrons. His music is drowned out by a German street band playing outside. As the band leader enters to collect money, he finds Charlie collecting the money instead. A brawl and chase ensues until the crowd loses themselves in the confusion, giving Charlie a chance to sneak away. Charlie next approaches a gypsy drudge where he plays for a gypsy girl (Edna Purviance) washing clothes. A brief cutaway of the plot shows a society matron (Charlotte Mineau), looking at an old photo of a little girl who, believed by its movie audience to have been abducted by gypsies many years ago. Now a young woman, the girl is shown to be an abused slave to the gypsy leader (Eric Campbell). Witnessing one of her brutal whippings that leaves her senseless, Charlie steps in to rescue her, leading to a wild escape down the road in a gypsy caravan. Resting in a secluded spot on a country road, Charlie, having assisted the gypsy girl with her every needs, finds himself in stiff competition when a struggling artist (Lloyd Bacon) enters the scene, inspired by the girl's beauty and uses her as a subject matter to his latest canvas painting, "The Living Shamrock."
THE VAGABOND may not be one of Chaplin's most memorable of his comedy shorts for the Mutual Studios, but it represents him here more as a comic-actor rather than a just a slapstick one. Though scripted by Chaplin himself, the story seems to have some influence to Michael Balfe opera, "The Bohemian Girl," which also involves gypsies. While THE VAGABOND could very well have become a straight dramatic story for the possible choices of a Lillian Gish and Robert Harron under D.W. Griffith's direction, instead, it's Chaplin being both Griffith and Harron, and Purviance being Gish. Because its a two-reel comedy, it leaves very little detail for plot and character development. There are moments found in the film where it looks heavily edited. Usually when comedians do drama, or mix comedy with drama, the attempt fails. Fortunately for Chaplin, his method is believable and acceptable as long as he doesn't stray too far from his usual standard of comedy. Of the Chaplin stock players, including Leo White and Frank J. Coleman, Eric Campbell, later known as "Chaplin's Goliath," stands out as the hefty villainous gypsy with the whip, while the funniest performance comes from a character playing an old white-haired gypsy hag. No screen credit is given for his or her work. If played by an actor in drag, all the funnier. And the young artist, played by Lloyd Bacon, the same Bacon who would become a notable movie director himself.
Presented on commercial television in the sixties as part of "Charlie Chaplin Theater," and unseen on public broadcasting television since the 1970s, THE VAGABOND was later resurrected a decade later on cable channels and home video. Though various editions have different underscoring, ranging from orchestration to jazz rhythm and blues, Blackhawk Video's edition consisted of reissue prints presented in theaters of the 1930s with the use of sound effects and instrumental scoring to "The Vagabond Lover" and theme scoring used for the independent feature, VANITY FAIR (Allied Pictures, 1932) starring Myrna Loy. When shown on Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 6, 1999) as part of its "star of the month" tribute to Charlie Chaplin, THE VAGABOND and other Mutual shorts were broadcast in restored clear visuals, new scoring and in accurate silent film speed extending the standard 22 minute short to 34 minutes. Though that's all well and good, poor scoring most of all takes away the enjoyment of the film, leaving the most preferred viewing from Blackhawk (later Republic) Home Video. Next Chaplin short: ONE A.M. (1916) (***)
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