Today when we think of Charlie Chaplin, we think of classic features like The Gold Rush , City Lights , Modern Times , and The Great Dictator . Each of these is among the greatest films ever made, at least as effective as sentimental parables of modern life as they are as comedies. His films blend humor with pathos, vaudevillian gags with social and ethical concerns, deceptively simple cinematography with a complex understanding of choreography within the frame.
But these were not the films on which the Chaplin’s reputation was built. The Chaplin cinemagoers in 1940, and to a greater extent at, say, the release of The Gold Rush in 1925, carried with them an image of Chaplin taken from his one- and two-reelers [10-20 minute films] of the 1910s. Beginning at Keystone Studios in 1914, Chaplin made close to 70 films before he even entered feature film production with 1921’s The Kid.
His early successes at Keystone and Essanay led to an unprecedented deal with the Mutual Film Corporation to make 12 two-reelers for 1916, over whose content and production Chaplin would have the final say. Chaplin’s perfectionist streak, along with his newfound artistic freedom, would ensure that almost all of the films arrived late, with the last, The Adventurer, reaching theaters in October of 1917. But probably because of the freedom they gave Chaplin to work at his own pace, the Mutual films were a resounding success, cementing the Tramp character’s status as a global icon, and Chaplin’s reputation as a director.
The Mutual films were departures from his previous work in many ways: they were more focused and more coherent in both concept and setting; the gags, although often still chaotic and rambunctious in the Keystone and vaudevillian tradition, often followed thematic and narrative patterns; and they were more explicitly concerned with social issues such as unemployment, poverty, immigration, income disparity, and even drug use.
If to viewers in 2017, Modern Times and The Great Dictator are the Chaplin masterpieces, to experienced cinemagoers in viewers in 1940, it was the Mutual films. Even today, there is an argument to be made that films these films should be taken collectively as Chaplin’s crowning achievement. This year, the last batch of the films turns a century old, making it as good a time as ever to revisit them.
The Chaplin Mutuals can be found on both DVD and Blu-ray, but they’re also in the public domain, so copies [of varying quality] abound on Youtube. I’ve assembled a playlist of passable-quality versions of each of the films here. What follows is a film-by-film guide to Chaplin’s first masterpiece, the 12 Mutual shorts.
The Floorwalker and The Fireman 
The first couple of Mutual Films are mostly stylistic holdovers from Chaplin’s Essanay and Keystone days. A setting and a rough story outline provides a background for chaotic vaudevillian hijinks, established patterns of pratfalls and mischievous butt-kicking. These films lack some of the relative subtleties of the later Mutual films.
The Floorwalker is set in a department store that prominently features an escalator, a relative novelty in 1916, which one knows from the first shot is going to be hijinked-upon. The manager of the store [Eric Campbell, who plays the heavy in each of the films] and his floor supervisor are embezzling money from the store, and planning to clean out the safe and make their escape. Chaplin’s Tramp wanders in and begins messing up displays, and by virtue of his oblivious troublemaking manages to help the cops round up the corrupt bosses.
The Fireman, too, is a kind of holdover from the Essanay days, with a fire station providing the backdrop for the Tramp character to clash with his boss, again played by Eric Campbell. Over the course of the film, The Tramp, now employed as a firefighter, sleeps through the wake-up drill, overreacts to false fire alarms, and fails to respond to an emergency situation—continuing to eat his lunch instead. Meanwhile, the irascible Tramp starts fights with nearly all of his coworkers, which nevertheless ultimately leads to the defeat of his corrupt boss.
Of course, Chaplin’s performance makes both films mesmerizing. The distinctive gait of the Tramp, which combines grace with disorder, is almost poetic, and the actor is a master of pantomime, communicating story beats as well as emotion in films with few intertitles almost no close-ups.
A notable quality of the Tramp that would carry through to Modern Times is perhaps the main focus of both films: the character’s inability to be incorporated into the proper regimes of behavior in modernity. In The Floorwalker, the street urchin Tramp does not seem to understand that displays in department stores are just that—displays, meant to be looked at but not touched. Likewise, he is predictably ill-equipped to handle the very modern contraption of the elevator. And in The Fireman, his own body’s rhythms [sleeping, eating] supercede the regiment of firefighter life.
One A.M. 
For some time after it was released, One A.M. was considered Chaplin’s virtuoso performance. In the film, Chaplin plays not the Tramp [although he still sports the distinctive mustache] but a popular character from his vaudeville days, the drunk aristocrat. Our tipsy hero arrives home early in the morning and does battle with a variety of inanimate objects in his large, empty house, as he attempts to remove his coat, fix himself a night cap, and get in bed.
One A.M. is something of a strange film, consisting mostly of a single actor stumbling around a single room, and today is enjoyable more for the weird décor of the apartment and its intentionally stilted narrative than for any deep laughs it produces. One remarkable moment, however, comes as the drunken aristocrat tries to hang up his overcoat: Chaplin faces the camera, and, though, standing several feet in front and to the right of the coat rack, he nevertheless holds the coat out with his left hand and attempts to hang it up.
It’s a perspectival trick: to the audience watching on a flat screen, he seems almost to be standing directly next to a smaller coat rack. Here we see Chaplin experimenting with ways of using composition within the frame to create humor.
The Vagabond 
The Vagabond was a major departure. After a comic prologue in which the violin-playing Tramp competes with another band for donations at a pub, the film departs to tell a [in many ways, pretty objectionable] story about the Tramp falling for and rescuing a young white woman [Edna Purviance, always the leading lady in these films] from the “gypsies” who kidnapped her as a child. What is significant in the story—provisionally setting aside the racism—is that the Tramp is here more a sentimental hero than a feisty comic pugilist.
Viewers did not necessarily see his trademark Tramp character as the figure of pathos and sentimentality we see at the end of a film like City Lights, or the romantic lead of Modern Times. From his first appearance, in Keystone Studio’s Kid Auto Races at Venice [1914; a simple, six-minute film that still holds up incredibly well, which you can watch here], the Tramp, while not cruel, was essentially selfish and short tempered. His funny clothing, each individual article the wrong size, suggested a beggar with pretensions of dignity, and the Tramp was quick to react if anyone doubted that dignity.
In The Vagabond we get a taste of a more humble, empathetic Tramp, the one who would shelter an abandoned dog in A Dog’s Life  or try to find domestic bliss in a shed outside the city with Paulette Goddard in Modern Times. Most of the humor from the scenes in which Purviance’s “white slave” and the Tramp live out of their caravan comes from the charm of the Tramp’s newfound earnestness.
The Count 
The Count isn’t the most discussed of the Mutual films, but it’s certainly a highlight for me. We see the return of the more mischievous Tramp as, now a tailor’s apprentice, he both purposely and through naivety antagonizes his boss [once again Eric Campbell]. When the Tramp discovers that the tailor intends to impersonate Count Broko, an aristocratic suitor of Miss Moneybags [Edna Purviance], he steals the role, convincing the Moneybags that he is Broko, and his boss a mere secretary.
The film features one of Chaplin’s great meal sequences—they pepper his films, from the famous dancing bread rolls in The Gold Rush to the coins baked into cake in The Great Dictator—as both tailor and apprentice fail spectacularly at properly eating an array of courses. The other gags in the film also depend much more on logically developing situations, rather than series of pratfall-laden fights. For example, a sequence in which the Tramp is forced to hide in a hamper with a wheel of stinky cheese retains much of its humorous effect because the jokes arise organically and develop from the situation.
The Pawnshop 
The Pawnshop is probably, with Easy Street and The Immigrant, the best of the Mutual films. The Tramp works at a pawnshop, and any traces of sentiment left from The Vagabond have disappeared. However, instead of returning to the chaotic ball of pure id he could often be in the Essanay films, his character seems more sardonic and cynical, lifting eyebrows at patrons’ sob stories, prodding his coworker into fights, lying to Edna Purviance’s cook about the quality of her pastries, and intentionally getting on the nerves of the proprietor [Henry Bergman, who would be a Chaplin mainstay for years—you might recognize him as the mayor from City Lights].
In contrast to Chaplin’s other experiments with the combination narrative and slapstick, The Pawnshop is remarkable not for the coherent world it builds, but for the ways in which it breaks down that coherence. The Tramp, fed up with a patron played by Albert Austin, hits him with a hammer on the forehead. The patron stumbles away, dazed, but the camera stays on the Tramp, who bends the two ends of the hammer’s head, revealing that it is rubber, and shrugging at the camera. The scene abruptly ends.
The film has numerous other moments in which the fiction seems to suddenly be undermined by an uncanny image or impossible occurrence. The Pawnshop is perhaps as much a progenitor of surrealism as it is of screen slapstick.
Behind the Screen 
Behind the Screen is not necessarily the highlight of the bunch, but it offers a bit of commentary on the movie business, circa 1916. The Tramp is again an apprentice, this time to a prop master [Eric Campbell] in Hollywood. The Tramp ends up doing all of the work, of course, while his boss gets the credit. The loose plot centers on a film crew strike and Edna Purviance masquerading as a prop boy, but the highlights are the ways in which Chaplin uses the “behind the scenes” scenario to remix the classic sketches of vaudeville and Keystone comedy.
At one point, an actor throws some pies at an actor standing in the next room, but instead of through the door, he throws them at the wall. Frustrated, the director storms over. “No, no, no,” he pantomimes, “you have to throw them through the door, not the wall.” We of course still get plenty of pie-throwing in the film, but not before this clever joke about the frequent facileness of Chaplin’s own genre.
The Rink 
In The Rink, the Tramp is a waiter in an opening prologue, a device also used in The Count and The Vagabond. Lovers of Modern Times will recognize the gags revolving around the restaurant kitchen’s “In” and “Out” doors. At the restaurant, he meets a young woman—you guessed it, Edna Purviance—who is very into roller skating. Skating with her during his lunch break and again at a “skating party” she is throwing the same night, he manages [once again] to thwart Eric Cambell’s advances on her.
The roller skating is another link to Modern Times, which includes a very famous sequence in which Chaplin skates blindfolded around a multistory ledge in a department store. The restaurant bits are great—the business around the “in” and “out” doors is rapid-fire, but more controlled than the chaos of earlier films—and watching Chaplin skate is surprisingly enrapturing. On skates, the discombobulated movements of the Tramp become graceful, as he literally skates circles around Eric Campbell’s baddie.
Easy Street 
Playing a new police recruit trying to clean up the crime-ridden East Street, Chaplin first found his sweet spot in this film—the balance between pathos and slapstick that would define his work. Easy Street evinces more explicit sympathy for workers and the urban poor than Chaplin had yet managed to muster—the early Tramp films seem to mock his poverty more than anything, and as recently as Behind the Screen strikers were dealt with pretty unflatteringly. It also tells a tight story, with each slip, fight, and knockout contributing to the development of a narrative about ensuring a dignified life for the poor.
It does this, though, without being obnoxiously moralistic, or forgetting that the Tramp can lapse into selfishness or sarcasm. One of my favorite gags in the film is when, having stolen food for a large but poor family, the Tramp distributes the cereal to the half-dozen small children as if he were feeding chickens. In another film, it would be a dehumanizing joke, but the tone here is just right, the Tramp’s mixture of empathy and self-concern perfectly portrayed.
The Cure 
Chaplin ditches the Tramp [but not the mustache], for the last time until A Day’s Pleasure , to return to his drunken aristocrat player. Now he has arrived at a rehabilitation spa, with an oversize suitcase full of liquor, and will soon do battle with resident gout-sufferer Eric Campbell. The film’s story is not nearly as tightly constructed as previous films, but Chaplin’s drunk holds our attention, stumbling as he alternates between intentionally subverting his rehab program and seeming to not know where he is. As is frequently the case in these films, Edna Purviance’s love redeems the drunk, as he—perhaps only halfheartedly—promises never to drink again at the conclusion.
The Immigrant 
Probably the most iconic of these films, The Immigrant casts the familiar Chaplin character as an immigrant from an unspecified country. After meeting Edna Purviance’s character on the ship into New York City, the Tramp runs into her again at a restaurant in the city. Although he has no money himself, he buys Purviance’s dinner, and the two end up together—it almost seems more out of their mutual recognition of their desperate situations than out of something like love.
The film is poignant and hilarious today, with the now-scrappy Tramp finding ways both resourceful and furtive to catch a fish, win a bundle of cash, buy two dinners, and get “the girl.” The film’s most incisive joke—and its most relevant today—is when, on the boat, an admiring shot of the Statue of Liberty from below is followed by the ship’s guards abruptly restraining the group of immigrants with a large rope. The alacrity of the cut between these two images both gives the scene its comedic rhythm and emphasizes starkly the disparity between a certain set of American ideals and the American reality—as much, it turns out, in 2017 as in 1917.
The Adventurer 
In a surprising twist, the Tramp here becomes an escaped convict! From here, however, the film proceeds to familiar territory, as Chaplin and Campbell compete in Purviance’s upper-crust home over which is the real aristocrat and which the convict. The last of Chaplin’s Mutual films has two highly enjoyable chase scenes—the one at the opening, as convict-Tramp escapes from the police along a Californian beach, and the one at the end, as the Tramp evades the law by running circles around the interior of Purviance’s family’s estate. The film lacks the socio-ethical concerns of Easy Street or The Immigrant, the proto-surrealist bent of The Pawnshop, or the narrative ambition of The Vagabond, but it makes up for this with probably the most carefully choreographed of the film’s chase sequences.
As a whole, Chaplin’s Mutual films are a landmark in film comedy, and in film history more broadly. In many ways, they are less sophisticated, in both humor and narrative, than the later features, but it is partially their rawness that makes them so enjoyable. Chaplin’s trademark character remains somewhat dangerous, a bit more violent, avaricious, and bawdy than we’d expect, given the sweetheart he plays in The Great Dictator. It’s this character that had first drawn the attention and sympathy of the world in the 1910s, and likely still informed viewers’ understanding of the character into Chaplin’s later career.
The Mutual films offer us insight into the development of this character, as well as the development of Chaplin as an artist and as a popular icon. They also still offer us some pretty good laughs.