- 1989 Sundance Film Festival
Behind the Screen and The Pawnshop, both produced in 1916, make for a fascinating comparison. Behind the Screen is set in film studio, but except for some tripod business and a sort of labored satire on Mack Sennett pie throwing, there is very little reference to the making of movies or the mystery of the camera (compared, for instance, to Keaton’s feature films Sherlock Jr. and The Cameraman of a few years later). The film has some great moments, but it is episodic and uneven.
The Pawnshop, on the other hand, is a small masterpiece, a deserving classic of Goldoni-like dimensions. Though it’s essentially a wild knockabout comedy, it really does inhabit its setting, and comedy comes from the characters and what they want from each other. The great silent film comics were often perceived as soloists but, in fact, they were absolutely dependent on their co-layers. In Behind the Screen, Chaplin is out of tune with his company, and some parts of the film are actually most interesting for the uninspired posing and whisker pulling of his colleagues, stuck, as they are, somewhere between the status of characters and extras. Such lackluster moments lay to rest the notion that any action seen in the flicker pixilation of silent film is inherently funny. (Although, at the same, the wild and wonderful trap-door sequence is dependent on the old hand-cranked camera; even the brave knockabout player of 1916 would have had trouble making this sequence work at sync-sound speed.)
The Pawnshop is the best of presentiment Chaplin. He and his co-worker are always fighting. As Walter Kerr says in The Silent Clowns, “It is what they do whenever they are working, or to appeal to Edna, his daughter, for sympathy). The business with props is as beautifully done as such stuff has ever been, and in contrast to sequences in Behind the Screen, the feeling is that even if the film were run at “normal” speed, the action would perhaps not be as surreal, but still funny and true. The knockabout sequences are shrewdly combined with more contained scenes at the pawnshop counter, and, again, the company performances are what make things work. (The alarm-clock sequence with Albert Austin was the longest single take Chaplin had introduced in a film until that time.) Amazingly, these two films were made back to back in October and November of 1916 and, to compound they mystery, contemplate this: The Pawnshop was made first. Go figure.
— Tony Safford