Anyone who bangs on about silent comedy will be quick to tell you that there's more to it than tinkly pianos and speeded-up pratfalls, but this one really does set the standard. I saw it at the Hackney Empire a few years ago, introduced by Paul Merton, and it was as funny and thrilling then as it must have been in 1923. Anyone outside hearing the laughs and shrieks from the audience must have wondered what was going on.
Chaplin had proved that silent comedies could work at feature length with 'The Kid' two years earlier - the secret was that you had to blend the comedy with real drama and well-developed, sympathetic characters, and you had to have a solid story, just like any other feature drama, that would hold an audience's attention for an hour or more.
The first 40 minutes of this film achieves that. Harold is a country boy going off to the city to make his way in life, so that he can marry and support the girl he loves. However he's making slow progress - working hard, but still only a sales clerk in a department store. Unfortunately he's been exaggerating his success in his letters to the girl, and now she's coming out to visit him. He manages to fool her into believing he's the manager of his department, to the bewilderment of his colleagues, but he still needs lots of money in a hurry if they are to get married. Fortunately he overhears his bosses offering a $1000 reward for anyone who can get the store the publicity it needs, so he arranges for an old friend he ran into earlier (who happens to be a talented climber) to scale the outside of the tall building, thus attracting a crowd. But due to an earlier comedy of errors his friend is on the run from a policeman, and Harold has to stand in for him and start the climb until the friend can shake off the cop and take over. Needless to say, he ends up doing the whole climb.
Despite all the tricks of Melies, Pathe, etc, which formed the staple of silent film's early years, this was still an age when what was seen on the screen was taken at face value, as opposed to today when we assume what we're watching is artificial unless we're told otherwise. If Harold appeared to be hanging off a clock face 200 feet above a city street, that's exactly what he was doing. No blue-screen, no back projection, no model work and certainly no CGI. The reason it looks real is because it is. Granted, the wall and the clock are constructed on the roof of another building, and there are safety mats just 15 feet beneath him, but even knowing doesn't detract from the thrill of watching it.
Opportunities to see this on a cinema screen are few and far between but if you can at least see it on a big TV, please do - and with an audience as well, even if it's just a few friends.
ALSO FROM 1923:
A Woman of Paris, Chaplin's sole venture into directing serious drama. It's a good film but it's not funny and he's not in it (except in a heavily disguised cameo), which is no doubt why it wasn't a hit. It seems he was trying to kickstart a career as a serious actress for Edna Purviance, his frequent leading lady, whom he never married but was clearly deeply fond of. Sadly it didn't achieve that goal either. It's a moving story that confounds expectations. The message (or one of them) seems to be that the life that will make you happy isn't necessarily the life you think you want.
Three Ages: Buster Keaton also jumped on the comedy feature bandwagon this year, but he's still finding his feet with the form here. He seems to be stuck for an idea for a feature-length story and instead tells the same one three times, borrowing from Griffith's "Intolerance" to cut between three eras - modern times, Roman times and the stone age. In each one, he's competing with the unscrupulous Wallace Beery for the hand of a lady. It's basically three two-reelers intercut. There's just enough gags to keep it going but it struggles. The Roman sequence is the best of the three, especially the part where he's trapped in a Colosseum dungeon with a lion, and understandably keen to be friends with it. Struggling to remember the story of Androcles, he gives it a manicure.