30 August 2015 | lugonian
Charlie's Rise to Flame
THE FIREMAN (Mutual, 1916), Written and Directed by Charlie Chaplin, stars Chaplin himself in his second Mutual/Lone Star Production, following his previous Mutual effort as THE FLOORWALKER (1916). Now having his Mutual productions of twenty-minute comedy shorts merely as follow-ups rather than a continuing series playing the same basic character from one venture to another, Chaplin once again plays a nameless individual in a new profession supported by the same co-stars from his Mutual stock company, namely Eric Campbell and Edna Purviance as an added presence, along with Albert Austin and Frank J. Coleman among others playing firemen in the best Keystone Kops tradition.
The story, set in a single day, finds its initial ten minutes showing routine procedures of firemen of Firehouse 23 (interesting it wasn't Firehouse 13 for added bad luck effect). The fire chief (Eric Campbell) blows his whistle awakening the firemen on the second floor coming down the fire pole for roll call, all but one, Charlie (Charlie Chaplin), as he sleeps through the sound of both whistle and fire bell. The course of the morning finds Charlie from one mishap after another while serving breakfast to the staff and later playing checkers with a fellow fireman (Albert Austin) while ignoring the telephone as it constantly rings off the hook. The subplot involves a father (Lloyd Bacon) plotting to burn his own home to collect insurance, and promising his daughter's (Edna Purviance) hand in marriage to the fire chief to not reveal his sinister plot. As the father proceeds with his scheme, another house catches fire, with Edna trapped inside one of them.
THE FIREMAN is vintage slapstick in the best silent film tradition of comedy producer Mack Sennett, now under supervision of comedy producer/ star Charlie Chaplin in control. Aside from numerous kicks in the seat between Eric and Charlie, along with scenes capturing a race down the rural areas of possibly Los Angeles back in the day of dirt roads, telephone poles and the wide open spaces between residential homes that are no doubt currently sited with six-lane highways, apartment complexes and/ or crowded shopping malls. THE FIREMAN is a historic look back into 1916 where fire trucks with sirens were not the case here but firemen and equipment on a wagon pulled by horses like a chariot. There's also believable use of trick photography by 1916 standards of horse pulling fire wagon returning to the firehouse backwards.
When presented on television dating back to the 1960s or earlier on either a commercial or public television, prints shown were those from 1930s reissue with ragtime style scoring, sound effects of bird chirping, bell ringing and a voice-over from character actor Leo White yelling "Help! Fire" multiple times. The latter would be of great interest for 1916 movie goers to hear had sound been of the essence at that time. In all actuality, these effects and the heard distress calls of "Fire" make this silent comedy all the better for comedic purposes. This is the print commonly found on home video in the 1980s and 90s through Blackhawk or Republic Home Video. Aside from that, there's also prints with piano scoring as well. In recent years with film restoration of clearer visuals, new orchestral scoring has been placed with correct silent speed on DVD (from Kino Home Video) extending THE FIREMAN from its traditional 20 to 31 minutes.
No doubt, THE FIREMAN ranks one of Chaplin's funnier outings having him trade his traditional derby, cane and tramp costume for fireman's clothes. Edna Purviance, in checkered dress, resumes her pretty heroine role while Eric Campbell, in sideburns and walrus mustache this time around, add to some great scenes as needed. One of the favorites of Chaplin/Mutual comedies that can be found once in a while on cable television, notably Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 6, 1999). Next in the Mutual series, something completely different yet the beginning of the new Chaplin tradition, comedy and pathos from THE VAGABOND (1916). (***)