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Behind the Screen Charlie interrupts filming yet again


Behind the Screen

1916. Mutual. Written and Directed by Charles Chaplin. With Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell

If Charlie is going to be in a movie about moviemaking, what part should he play?

Performer? Director? Brilliantly, Chaplin cast himself as the propmaster's assistant. Revealing the poetic inner nature of inanimate objects was always one of Chaplin's great gifts. In this movie, what things appear to be (how a prop is "cast" in a movie) contrasts with the many ingenious uses to which Charlie puts them backstage. He totes around a "marble" pillar and bludgeons people with it. He uses a bellows and a Medieval helmet to protect himself from a stagehand eating onions. He peers through a pair of bottles like they were binoculars. He grooms a bearskin rug as though it were a fussy barbershop customer. He uses an ancient-looking urn as a spittoon.

He has great fun with a camera tripod. Chaplin probably saw the comic potential of this piece of equipment within a few minutes after setting foot on a movie set, and here he shows us all the ways he has devised to destabilize the camera. As he filmed Charlie attacking the camera-within-the-movie, did the photographer of Behind the Screen (one R. H. Totheroh) feel a little nervous himself?

It reminds me of an aphorism quoted by poet Gary Snyder: "In making the handle of an axe by cutting wood with an axe/ The model is indeed near at hand."

One of the movies being shot in the studio where Charlie works is a slapstick comedy. After some dignified actors refuse to play a pie-throwing scene, Charlie and his tyrannical boss get drafted to replace them. Their long-simering personal feud causes the pie-throwing to get totally out of hand The pies fly onto the adjacent set where Queen Elizabeth I and most of her court end up covered with custard. As in so many "backstage" movies, real-life interactions on the set get mixed-up with the stories being filmed.

The pie-throwing is funny in itself, but it also has quotation marks around it. It's a reference to an already-dated form of comedy. Behind the Screen may be Chaplin's spoof of movie-making at the Keystone Studios, where he had worked before moving to Mutual (one of the performers wears a familiar-looking police uniform and handlebar moustache). Already, in 1915, Chaplin could treat his audience as co-conspirators.

In the first scene in Behind the Screen, Edna Purviance makes her way across a chaotic movie set, walks up to the man in charge and asks "Can I be an actress please?" Edna is already an actress, as the audience well knows; she was Chaplin's leading lady in 40-odd shorts. So from the very beginning we are watching a two-level enterprise: two Ednas (the star and the character), two Charlies (the star and the poor prop man), two cameras (the one filming Behind the Screen and the one shown in the movie), two directors (Charles Chaplin and the gesticulating guy with the beret and sunglasses), etc. Movies showing moviemaking are fascinating because they keep us shifting focus between what we see and what we know.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein