This film took me a little bit by surprise. I was expecting a slapstick affair with Chaplin getting into the sort of trouble that Buster Keaton did in his film The Haunted House but this is a much more rounded piece than pretty much anything Chaplin had done before. Chaplin spends more time off screen than in any of his previous Essanay films and instead of being in front of the camera, fooling around, allows his characters and story to propel the film along. That isn’t to say that Chaplin is a side character or not funny. He is still the central character and produces some great comedic turns.
The opening is genius. After a couple of quick gags or ‘business’ Chaplin’s janitor heads straight for the bank’s vault where he carefully unlocks both the outer and inner doors only to produce a mop and bucket from inside. I really didn’t expect this and the fact that Chaplin takes his time to deliver such a punch line made me laugh even harder. Chaplin then goes on to cause trouble with his mop, getting dirty water in people’s hats, cups and faces before a heated exchange with a fellow janitor. Before fighting the said man, Chaplin asks him to hold his hat and coat thus rendering his arms useless before Chaplin knocks him senseless. This is another example of Chaplin biding his time for a greater pay off and shows he is becoming much more sophisticated in his attempts to deliver a beating. Another one of the great laughs for me was when Chaplin went to send a letter which was too big to fit in the post box. Instead of folding the letter, Chaplin rips it up and shoves the smaller, now useless, pieces into the box.
As well as Chaplin’s longer time off screen there are other things that set this apart from his previous Essanay films. The cast is much larger than usual with around fourteen cast members present here as supposed to only five or six in most of his 1915 movies. Chaplin’s politics is also clear to see for anyone who cares to look closely enough. While he doesn’t play his tramp character, his character is a working class janitor who is shunned by the middle class employees of the bank. Indeed the idea that he could be with Edna Purviance’s secretary character is laughed at by the middle class cashier.
In the bank robbery scene towards the end it would appear that Chaplin gets his revenge on the cashier and gets the girl but in an ending that both surprised and disappointed me this turns out not to be the case. While I didn’t like the ending it does help to maintain the downtrodden character that Chaplin plays here and to some extend in most of his films.
One interesting little side point worth mentioning is that although Chaplin was left handed (as all the best people are) he is seen writing here with his right hand. I’m not sure why this would have been but thought it was something of note.
The Bank is definitely at the top end of Chaplin’s Essanay efforts and stands out not just for the comedy but also because of the characters and story. It feels like Chaplin is slowing down his process and taking his time to develop new ideas, something that will see his popularity and success continue to rise over the coming decade.