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.
Also known as Musical Tramp, the 1914 silent short comedy His Musical Career is presumably directed by Charlie Chaplin. The comic stars alongside Mack Swain, with Mack Sennett as the producer and Frank D. Williams as the cinematographer.
There is some discussion as to His Musical Career’s role as a precursor for such piano-moving spectacles as the Laurel and Hardy three-reeler The Music Box from 1932, with the definitive gag of two men moving a weighty object up an unbearable set of stairs serving as an omen for a number of physical comedy excursions.
Here, Chaplin’s character works in a music store with Mike (Swain). After some horseplay, the dynamic duo is tasked with hauling a piano to one address and picking up a piano from another. The manager, played by Charles Parrott/Charley Chase, is none too pleased after the pair mixes up the order.
His Musical Career is pretty straightforward. Chaplin and Swain are working class stiffs and they have to contend with a cumbersome piano, a donkey cart and some other nonsense. Their customers are Mr. Rich (Fritz Schade) and Mr. Poor (Frank Hayes). Mr. Rich, it should be noted, lives at 666 Prospect Street.
Subtle nudges of social commentary work their way into His Musical Career in terms of the simple piano transaction and how the job is divided between the two movers. Chaplin, the smaller of the two, does the heavy lifting while Swain’s character disappears for long periods of time.
Consider how the piano gets up the stairs. Chaplin is at the bottom and Swain is topside. Chaplin employs everything from his cane to his entire body to stop the thing from skidding, while Swain only grips the upright from the top and doesn’t struggle with its weight at all. When the piano finally makes it up the stairs, Swain is the first to take credit.
And Chaplin enters, balancing the instrument on his shoulders like the trooper he is. The customers try to determine where the piano should go and Chaplin’s character displays atypical fortitude, hauling the hefty object this way and that while Swain has another break.
Later, the debacle turns into a runaway set-up as another piano goes barrelling down the road and lands in the drink. It’s the predictable Keystone Studios conclusion, strengthened only by the fact that Chaplin tickles the ivories a little to show the instrument still works in its saturated state.
This isn’t the most ground-breaking of the early shorts, but it is a funny diversion. A bit with the donkey cart is comical if not a little tender, but there’s not enough to His Musical Career to really matter. Even in terms of scope, Chaplin uses just under 30 shots to get the job done and it feels like a trifle. It’s funny and fast, but that’s about it.