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 directs and stars in the 1914 short The New Janitor. This one-reel silent picture represents another step in the evolution of the comic, with his character taking on a rare dimension of responsibility. He makes the most of his limited abilities and actually gives a damn about his job.
It’s likewise important to note that Chaplin’s titular character is rather heroic. This is an interesting dimension considering the trouble other incarnations find themselves in. He is also not intoxicated, which is really something.
Chaplin stars as the janitor at a bank. He’s canned when he dumps a bucket of water on the bank manager (Jess Tandy). In the meantime, the junior manager (John T. Dillon) has his eyes on the safe and wants to clean it out to pay his gambling debts. One thing leads to another and the janitor foils the robbery.
Chaplin’s character also saves a damsel in distress. Helen Carruthers plays the secretary and she’s put in peril by the villainous junior manager and his revolver. She’s one step away from being tied to the railroad tracks before the janitor runs in and saves the day.
The physical comedy of The New Janitor is tremendous. Chaplin’s mastery extends from subtle pieces, like how his hat tumbles off the rack, to more overt and broad pieces. The way he takes out the trash is rather untidy, but there’s no doubting his flair. And the water bucket routine may be telegraphed, but there’s undeniable sophistication to it.
Where things really take off in terms of slapstick is when Chaplin’s character foils the robbery. Watch as he delivers an offhand kick to his cane that lands just right. Or witness how he retrieves the gun and aims it from an unbelievable position. The beauty of his movements is astonishing.
The structure of The New Janitor illustrates just how cohesive Chaplin’s storytelling is becoming. His experimentation with dramatic structure may have come home to roost with the creative The Face on the Bar Room, but this short pushes it to a level of crime-based theatrics.
The structure is interesting with respect to how it handles the protagonist. It sets up Chaplin’s ouster at the bank and leaves him be for a while, the plot swinging to the junior manager and his shenanigans. When it’s time to reintroduce the janitor, he’s shown in a dejected state kicking his cigarette butt.
This shows serious proficiency in character development. His efficiency is rather remarkable, particularly in terms of how many different types of comedy he explores over the course of just a few minutes. There’s even a spot of thrill comedy – the stuff that would cement Harold Lloyd – in the window-related activities.
Chaplin’s emergence as a full-on cinematic talent is apparent with The New Janitor. This is an elegant and vulnerable short, a needed step in the evolution of one of the finest comedic stars in film history and a damn funny yarn about a bank robbery gone wrong.