In this feature, I’ll be taking a look at the films of Charlie Chaplin. I’ll be including the shorts (where possible) and will hopefully delve into what makes him such an indomitable social and cultural figure to this very day. As with my Hitchmania feature, my approach will be somewhat haphazard. Things will run chronologically and there may be an essay or two to further discuss a particular period (for example, the Keystone period and so forth). I hope you’ll join me for what should be a lot of fun.
Charlie Chaplin wreaks havoc at Keystone Studios in A Film Johnnie. This 1914 silent short is directed by George Nichols with a screenplay by Craig Hutchinson. It features the cinematography of Frank D. Williams and is Chaplin’s sixth picture for Keystone, coming out just a few days after Between Showers.
Like Between Showers, there’s a lot of broad slapstick in A Film Johnnie. And like Between Showers, Chaplin’s character isn’t exactly the most savoury of individuals. He is once again a veritable pest, only this time he’s making trouble for a catalogue of Keystone’s biggest stars. The picture includes such luminaries as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Ford Sterling. And they play themselves.
Chaplin is the Tramp and he decides to see a movie. Once inside the nickelodeon, he creates some slapstick trouble and becomes smitten with the Keystone Girl (Virginia Kirtley). After he gets bounced to the street, the Tramp decides he’s going to head to where the movies are made to get a glimpse of the woman of his dreams.
This leads him to the Keystone Studios, where he tries to poach a few coins from Arbuckle and is swiped by Sterling. He makes his way inside, where he discovers a world of movie-making magic. Films are being made and he pokes his nose in, getting in the shot and firing a prop gun. When shooting shifts to a real live fire, the Keystone Girl gets her revenge.
It’s interesting to note that Chaplin plays a character who finds the movie business to be extremely overwhelming. This might bear a resemblance to the breakneck speed at which he was thrown into the business and it feels very meta, with a fourth wall break at the end and a whole lot of “real” attitude. A Film Johnnie is very perceptive.
The title seems to come from the term “stage-door Johnny,” which referred to a young man who sought out the company of actresses by hanging around stage doors. This type of attention was typically directed toward chorus girls and the like, but Chaplin has his eyes set a little higher. He is unambiguously interested in the star of The Champion Driver.
Chaplin’s facial expressions are particularly polished in this picture and he does a brilliant job of layering the disposition of the Tramp. While he’s still a pest and still creates a great deal of disruption, there are threads of empathy to draw on and the character’s poverty is becoming an issue.
There are some terrific gags in A Film Johnnie, especially when the Tramp gets his mitts on the gun. He uses it to pick his teeth and light a cigarette, the latter of which stands out as one of the great bits from all of the Chaplin shorts. He’s so spun-around by the time he finishes his “tour” of the studio that it’s hard not see the act as one rooted in classic bewilderment.
Chaplin’s Tramp still wants to get in front of the camera and all hell breaks loose in the third act. The fire rip-roars its way through a building and Keystone wants to set up the perfect shot. The man in the too-large pants is waddling in front of the lens and the opportunity presented by real-life misfortune is ruined. Later, the Keystone Girl strangles the daylights out of our protagonist.
A Film Johnnie offers an interesting view of the movie-making business. It’s somewhat cynical, especially as the intertitle tells the audience that a fire is just what’s needed to finish the picture. It imagines the studio world as disordered and glamourous, with plenty of rib-tickling rearrangement to go around.