Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Floorwalker (KAVI restoration 2012)

Charlie tavaratalossa / Kolme konnaa samoilla markkinoilla / Tarkastaja / Chaplin osastopäällikkönä / Butikschefen / På varuhuset. US 1916. PC: Mutual. P+D+SC+ED: Charles Chaplin. DP: Roland Totheroh, William C. Foster, Frank D. Williams. Scenic artist (presumably): E. T. Mazy. Studio: Lone Star Studios, Hollywood. C: Charles Chaplin (the penniless customer > the new floorwalker), Eric Campbell (store manager), Edna Purviance (his secretary), Lloyd Bacon (the floorwalker), Albert Austin (a clerk), Leo White (a sophisticated customer, perhaps a French count), Charlotte Mineau (the beautiful detective), James T. Kelley (the ageing lift boy). Henry Bergman (old man), Frank J. Coleman (janitor), Tom Nelson (detective), John Rand (policeman), Wesley Ruggles (policeman). Premiere: 15.5.1916. 529 m /18 fps/ 26 min. (Chaplin opus 52)
    KAVI print restored by Juha Kindberg in 2012 from a full silent frame nitrate source with vintage Finnish / Swedish intertitles only, piano: Marko Hilpo, introduced by Juha Kindberg, viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (a bonus from Mutual in a Keystone programme of prints restored in Bologna from our nitrate sources), 16 April 2014

For Charles Chaplin, making twelve Mutual shorts was the happiest time in his life, but The Floorwalker, the first of them, was a throwback to slapstick. There is no romantic feeling nor irony. But in his shorts Chaplin also always enjoyed the possibilities of pure ballet-like physical comedy. The timing and the choreography of the gags and the chases here are magical. Chaplin borrowed from Max Linder a wonderful "mirror scene" where the tramp meets his "double", the crooked floorwalker (Lloyd Bacon). He also made a major invention in staging a running staircase in the center of the action, and he milked a lot of comedy from it.

The setting is a department store, and although The Floorwalker is no social satire in any deep sense, one may see the store as a metaphor for society, in the distorting mirror of farce. The human condition is in a sorry state, as theft seems to be the main or sole occupation of most of the dramatis personae. Hardly anybody is buying anything from this "immense accumulation of commodities". Instead, things disappear fast into bags, coats, and pockets, but the penniless Tramp seems only be interesting in trying out things. Simultaneously the store manager and the floorwalker are about to do a vanishing act with the contents of the safety deposit box with them. Things get complicated since The Tramp is almost a double of the floorwalker, although not a dead ringer. (An even more serious complication ensues from the fact that the manager and the floorwalker are also busy cheating each other.) And the store detectives (including a beautiful female one) and the police are already watching the embezzlers closely.

Grand larceny as the main operating principle of society may bring to mind banana republics and the fate of certain post-Soviet states, including Russia, White Russia and Ukraine.

This is a film in which one can admire Chaplin's sense of rhythm and movement, his mercurial transformations and balletic virtuosity. Chaplin lives in the pure present, seemingly without any plan for the next future. The running staircase and the pater noster elevator are constant reminders of the mechanical world against which Charlie is struggling. Funny gags include Charlie introducing Eric Campbell to a mannequin lay figure, Chaplin assisting as a sales clerk without any knowhow about the wares on display, his entrance into the shoe department with the sole intention of flirting with a beautiful lady customer (but there is a mix-up with the leg of a gentleman customer), and his watering of artificial flowers in ladies' hats.

One of the miracles of Chaplin's Mutual series is his great ensemble of comedians. The hulking Eric Campbell makes his screen debut here, immediately a perfect foe for The Tramp - they played David and Goliath in all the Mutual films except One A.M. The most brilliant moments of The Floorwalker are those of Charlie versus Campbell. Also the perennially lethargic Albert Austin has his screen debut here; he appeared in each Mutual film (even in One A.M. which is basically a Chaplin solo) and continued also after that with Chaplin. (Campbell died in a car crash after the Mutual cycle had been shot). Edna Purviance had become Chaplin's leading lady at Essanay, starting with the first film Chaplin shot for Essanay in Niles. Here Edna's role is small but important. She is a point of sanity in the eye of the lunatic maelstrom of kleptomania. Her amused reactions bring us momentarily back to the real world.

The KAVI 2012 restoration is based on a vintage nitrate source in full silent frame (almost all surviving prints of Chaplin shorts are cropped for sonorization). The source has Finnish / Swedish intertitles only, and it bears the Adams Filmi logo (the company was founded in 1912). It was deposited from the Harry Alopaeus second hand store to The Finnish Film Archive in 1977. It was not yet included in the Chaplin Association Helsinki inventory of 1989 (conducted by Bo Berglund), because it was identified first afterwards. The title frame is missing. The restoration was conducted photochemically at Finnlab.

The source is a used print with shots missing; also the conclusion is missing. The definition of light has been conducted carefully to avoid high contrast and to preserve maximum fine texture. I felt that there may have been black levels missing, but on the other hand I saw refined detail.
My programme note of 1988 for the first comprehensive Chaplin retrospective in Finland, in collaboration with Roy Export:

Chaplinin ensimmäinen Mutual-elokuva on puhdasta slapstickia. Siinä ei ole juurikaan sitä ironiaa eikä romanttisuutta, jotka olivat yhä selvemmin kohonneet esiin Charlien Essanay-elokuvissa. Gag-jaksojen kehittely on virtuoosimaista ja liukuportailla tapahtuvien takaa-ajokohtausten ajoitus ja koreografia taianomaista. Tavaratalon johtaja ja tarkastaja suunnittelevat yhteistä häipymistä kassa mukanaan. Eteisessä vastaan tulee Charlie, joka on melkein tarkastajan kaksoisolento. Herrojen kuvitellessa katsovansa peiliin heidän kätensä koskettavat toisiaan, he raapivat päätään yhdessä, nostavat ja laskevat käsiään tahdissa. Marx-veljekset käyttivät vuosia myöhemmin samaa temppuilua Duck Soupissa (Neljä naurettavaa naapuria). Sekaannus päättyy Charlien huomatessa, että tarkastajalla on kädessään laukku siinä missä hänellä itsellään on keppi. Tapahtuu roolinvaihdos ja alkaa ajojahti, joka eskaloituu komeaan loppuhuipennukseen. – AA 1988

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