Charlie Chaplin was already wildly popular when he made this short for Essanay. Adapted from one of his pre-Hollywood comedy acts, this short has Chaplin play two disruptive and rowdy theater-goers: Mr. Pest, a drunken crumb from the upper crust, and Mr. Rowdy, an equally sloshed rough on the balcony. Between the two of them, they manage to disrupt and outshine the performers on the stage.
Welcome, Mr. Chaplin and Mr. Chaplin…
I suppose I should start this review with a little explanation. This is the first time that Mr. Chaplin has appeared in a review on this site. Is it because I don’t like him? No, I am very fond of him, actually. I just find comedy in general to be very difficult to write about. There is always a danger of over-examining and over-explaining the humor. It kills the whole joke.
However, more than any other silent star, I have gotten requests for Chaplin. So I will do my best to share my love of someone who is, arguably, still the most recognizable silent star.
Chaplin gained his popularity in Hollywood under Mack Sennett’s Keystone banner but the notoriously low-paying studio did not wish to retain Chaplin’s services at his asking price. Chaplin jumped ship and went to Essanay, where he was united with his long-time leading lady, Edna Purviance, and where he refined his already popular Tramp character.
The Tramp is such a part of Chaplin’s legacy that it is easy to forget that he played other characters. A Night at the Show neatly shows off Chaplin’s less-remembered personas.
Chaplin had performed in an act called Mumming Birds in England and he adapted the material for the motion pictures. Movies gave Chaplin the ability to play two characters simultaneously and he took advantage of this playing both the posh drunk Mr. Pest and the working class reprobate Mr. Rowdy (though it should be noted that they at no time share the screen). While Chaplin’s Tramp character was his most popular, he still dusted off his high-hatted lush on occasion. The walrus-mustachioed Mr. Rowdy is less typical and Chaplin is almost unrecognizable in the part.
The plot is the barest skeleton to hang the gags on: Mr. Pest and Mr. Rowdy constantly interrupt a somewhat blue music hall performance with their antics.
Of the two, Mr. Pest gets more screen time. The staggering (and more than a little nasty) young fellow fights with his fellow patrons, the musicians and the performers (including a snake charmer and a Melies-esque fire act). He chases a zaftig bellydancer all over the stage and finally ends up on a foodfight with a pair of off-key singers. Mr. Rowdy, meanwhile, sprays his beer on the audience below and almost manages to fall off the balcony on several occasions.
Chaplin’s gift for physical comedy is better seen than described. So instead, let’s talk about the overall feel and flavor of A Night in the Show. Chaplin had been on motion picture screens for nearly two years at this point and had made over forty films in that time. As a director, Chaplin tended to be simple and direct. That is certainly the case with this film. Nothing gets in the way of the audience and the physical comedy that he delivers.
There are some hints of the more subtle comedy that was to come in Chaplin’s career. Mr. Pest’s interactions with the flirty Edna Purviance (as a married theater-goer) are warm, cute and zany. The rest of the film seems spread a bit thin. A tad more plot and this would have been a classic. As it is, it is enjoyable but not Chaplin’s best. Chaplin’s work for Essanay in general is excellent but he was still learning the motion picture game and developing that combination of humor and pathos that would make him a cinema immortal.
For another fantastic example of early Chaplin, check out his Burlesque on Carmen. It’s my favorite of his Essanay films. Do try to track down the restored version that removes the additions Essanay slapped on to pad the film out to feature-length. Chaplin was not amused. The ending is particularly interesting since it gives both Chaplin and Edna Purviance a chance to show off their dramatic acting chops.
A Night in the Show is not a flawless example of early Chaplin but it is entertaining and it is fun to see him out of his Tramp persona.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
A Night in the Show is widely available on DVD. I like the version released by Flicker Alley as part of their Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies collection.