Wednesday, 29 April 2015
1916: The Vagabond
I watched most of his 1916 output before deciding which one to review. Far and away, I like this one the best.
Although much more sophisticated than his Keystone work of two years before, most of his films from this time still lack a structured story - they go from one gag-filled situation to the next without much of a narrative to hold them together. This is one of the first that aims higher than that.
The start of the film establishes Charlie as a busker, playing the violin outside a bar. After a standard bit of chase-and-slapstick in which he gets seen off by a rival band, he's walking down a country lane when he finds a pretty but ragged girl by a gypsy caravan and stops to play for her (with the ironic caption "I ought to do well here.") There's an altercation with the gypsies whom she's travelling with, and after some standard (but particularly good) pratfalls and bonks-on-the-head Charlie and the girl escape in her caravan.
Predictably, he grows fond of her - as he did of the actress, Edna Purviance, in real life, and it shows. Their screen chemistry has a warmth and tenderness that elevates this film above most of his - or anyone else's - previous screen comedy. In my favourite scene, Charlie sits her by a bucket of water and washes her face rather roughly, yet affectionately, with a cloth - scrunching it up into her ears and nose while she sits patiently with equally scrunched-up face, no doubt trying to ignore the infectious laughter of the crew behind the camera.
Inevitably, though, a third party appears. She happens across an artist, sitting in a field looking for inspiration. She of course supplies it and becomes smitten. Later the artist visits for a meal and the two of them are drowning in each others eyes, oblivious to Charlie as he helplessly watches his romance slip away. It's a very moving scene, played with great realism - and echoes Chaplin's own relationship with Edna. The film itself ends a little more happily though. In real life, they drifted apart as she began seeing someone else. In the film, she goes off with the artist but then realises where her true affections lie. I don't know whether the two stories tie in chronologically, but I wonder if he was trying to tell her something.
I haven't linked to a YouTube video because none of them are very good - either poor reproductions, or with inappropriate, tacked-on music, or both. Better not to bother until you can at least see it on DVD. Chaplin's films with Mutual company are due out on Blu-Ray soon, or you can get this one on DVD quite cheaply - it's on the BFI disc "Charlie Chaplin - The Mutual Films vol 2".