Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Fireman

A Fire Chief (Eric Campbell) is approached by a man (Lloyd Bacon) who asks that the Fire Department ignores a fire at his house so that he may collect the insurance money. The man insures that his daughter (Edna Purviance) is out during the fire so remains unharmed. The woman is not out though when an arsonist sets the property alight and she gets trapped upstairs. Meanwhile the Firemen which include accident prone Charlie Chaplin are at another house, putting out a fire. When the man realises his daughter is trapped he searches for them, finding Chaplin who attempts to save the day and win the woman’s heart.

Amazingly The Fireman was Chaplin’s 52nd film but was released in June 1916. Despite his age and lack of years in the industry he was by now a pro and it shows here with clever gags and a nice central idea. Unfortunately the film suffers from a similar problem as The Floorwalker in that it just isn’t quite funny enough.

Although not awash with comedy there are some excellent comic turns to be found. A particular highlight of mine was the dual use of the fire engine as a means of putting out fire and as an oversized coffee machine. The gag works very well visually and adds a little bit of surrealism which I always like to see. Another laugh comes when Chaplin falls backwards on to a man who is kneeling down, scrubbing a floor. The weight of Chaplin on his back sends the man’s head straight into a bucket of water. As well as these sight gags there are the little touches which can often go unnoticed. Chaplin had a habit of using a recurring gag where by he would trip and doff his hat to the curb. Here as a Fireman he salutes. It’s a nice in joke and twist on one of his favourites.

One interesting point about the film is that it shows a near deserted area of Los Angeles. It’s incredible to see footage of the metropolis less than a hundred years ago and compare it to today. There are few streets and fewer houses and just one vehicle in the background of one shot. To me a lot of Chaplin’s location work is fascinating for its background detail as well as its focus.

Another aspect of the film which I enjoyed was the reversing of film to create some odd looking and humorous scenes. The film is reversed to create the effect of Chaplin sliding up a Fireman’s pole (in the literal sense) and is also used on a couple of occasions to create images of horses walking backwards which looks very odd indeed. This is another example of Chaplin’s ever expanding inventiveness. Because of this and other clever ideas it’s a shame that he resorts to so much that even by 1916 was tired and well used. The kick up the backside gag is repeated here several times and although it’s Chaplin on the receiving end it does feel a little overdone. The plot itself feels fairly formulaic and very similar to previous films.

Despite the problems with the movie such as tired plot and jack of jokes it ends on a high. The final scene is exciting and sweet and brings the proceedings to a pleasant close. Chaplin’s climbing and acrobatics are excellent and even though he has an obviously fake Edna Purviance on his back, the stunts are still impressive. Despite being his second Mutual Film it still feels as though Chaplin was finding his feet with the company and though exploring new ideas was relying too heavily on safe material.       


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