Charlie, the emotional violinist, flees to a gipsy camp, only to find himself playing for an abducted girl. Soon, a unique birthmark will pave the way for an unexpected rescue and a marvello... Read allCharlie, the emotional violinist, flees to a gipsy camp, only to find himself playing for an abducted girl. Soon, a unique birthmark will pave the way for an unexpected rescue and a marvellous new life. But, will she forget him so easily?Charlie, the emotional violinist, flees to a gipsy camp, only to find himself playing for an abducted girl. Soon, a unique birthmark will pave the way for an unexpected rescue and a marvellous new life. But, will she forget him so easily?
And just the opening shot of the Vagabond shows Chaplin's confidence in his own familiarity and popularity. He appears here as just a pair of feet below a saloon door, his gait alone being enough for audiences to recognise him. He then walks to the back of the set, to a point squeezed between the wall and the edge of the frame, while some other musicians set up in the foreground. The framing provided by the wall, plus the fact that the little tramp is inherently interesting to us as an audience, mean that our focus is upon him. These are not just good approaches for comedy, they are professional cinematic techniques that any director could put to use.
Then, as usually happens, a plot begins to emerge from this situation, but the Vagabond's is a plot with an important difference. Not because the story is extremely poignant (so were those in The Tramp and The Bank) or neatly structured (as was that of Police), but because Chaplin treats the dramatic scenes purely as drama. He backs up the subplot with a few completely straight scenes, with naturalistic acting and camera moves that would have been distracting in a comedy scene but give added impact here. The slow dolly back from Purviance's portrait, beginning with just the picture then gradually revealing its setting and the growing crowd of admirers, really demonstrates Chaplin's competence and understanding as a director.
But what is amazing here is the ease with which Chaplin and his cast are able to slip so freely between comedy and drama. Charlotte Mineau gives what must be her best performance, and Edna Purviance shows a greater expanse of her range than we have hitherto seen. Most incredible of all is the acting of Charlie himself, his face a little hard to read under the toothbrush moustache, but doing some carefully nuanced work with gesture and body language. Lastly an honourable mention goes to Leo White, one of my all-time favourite Chaplin co-stars, in his last ever appearance with Charlie. He's not easy to recognise here (he's the gypsy harridan!), but doing a nice and very funny job as always. This wasn't the end for White though; he had various supporting roles through the rest of the silent era, and has a blink-and-miss-it bit part in virtually every Warner Brothers picture of the 30s and 40s.
The only flaw in the Vagabond is the final twenty seconds, a vulgar and forced happy ending, although it is done smoothly enough so as not to ruin the overall feel of the picture. Even with this coda in place, we are left with a sense of satisfaction, of a story well told. And while Chaplin had done several strong and emotionally involving shorts before this, the Vagabond is perhaps the first one in which you could take out all the comedy and still be left with a decent drama. It was at this point that the little tramp really gained the stature to become a leading man.
- Jan 18, 2010