Chaplin Diary, Part 10: The Last Shorts

With The Kid‘s high acclaim and higher box office numbers, Charlie Chaplin proved that he could successfully make feature-length films. But he still owed First National three pictures, and his partners at United Artists desperately wanted Chaplin movies to release. To please both companies, he would have to make three more shorts before he could return to features.

In this tenth entry in my Chaplin diary, I continue my chronological survey of films directed by Charlie Chaplin. Here I cover his last three shorts, which I watched from the currently out-of-print A First National Collection DVD.

The Idle Class

Chaplin’s follow up to The Kid is easily his best two reeler for First National – even if it isn’t quite as funny as his best at Mutual. Here Chaplin plays both The Tramp and his Rich Drunk character. A costume party allows Edna Purviance, playing The Drunk’s wife, to mistake The Tramp for her husband.

Great moments include The Drunk in a hotel lobby without pants, The Tramp messing things up on the golf course, and a fight between the two Charlies, with The Drunk wearing a suit of armor.

With the Idle Class, Chaplin hired his former Keystone co-star, Mack Swain. The talented Swain would have major supporting roles in four of his next five films.

Pay Day

Chaplin’s last two reeler, and arguably his last short (I’ll get to that below) disappoints almost as badly as A Day’s Pleasure. Charlie works at a building site, gets paid, gets drunk, then returns to his harpy of a wife. And frankly, I’m on the harpy’s side.

The first half of the movie, in the building site, is actually pretty good. A make-shift elevator provides some remarkably-timed sight gags. He catches bricks thrown up to him with unbelievable agility, through the trick of running the film backwards. There’s a lovely moment of Charlie’s unrequited love for Purviance as the Forman’s daughter.

Bereft of inspiration, Chaplin closed the shoot and took a long, European vacation. Judging from the second half of the film, there was little inspiration to be found.

The Pilgrim

This four reeler is generally considered Chaplin’s last short. But in those days, four reels was an uncomfortable gray area between shorts and features. Buster Keaton’s four-reel Sherlock Jr., released the following year, is generally considered a feature. The Pilgrim‘s complicated story feels like a feature to me, even if the film runs only 47 minutes.

Charlie escapes from prison, steals a cleric’s clothing, and takes a train to a small, Texas town, where he’s welcomed as the new minister. But a former cellmate turns up, putting Charlie in a difficult and morally complex situation.

Of course, it’s hilarious. He finds and steals the deacon’s booze. He mimes a sermon on David and Goliath, then keeps coming back for another curtain call. Best of all, he must contend with the most horribly little boy alive.

The Pilgrim has one of the best variations of his signature ending – walking away from the camera. This time, Charlie straddles the US/Mexico border as he walks, unsure of which country is home – a funny and poignant ending from an artist who was, himself, an immigrant.

With the 1923 release of The Pilgrim, Chaplin was free from First National, and could finally make features for United Artists. And the first film he made for them was exactly what they didn’t want.