The Count

Film Review by Dean Duncan Aug 17, 2015

My memory continues faulty. I’d thought The Count was a lesser film too. How wrong can a guy be? Chaplin is Harlequin, from the commedia dell’arte! This is ancient, bedrock stuff, however lightly Chaplin’s taking it on. The great thing is that the commedia was geologic, but it looked forward too. Progress is evidenced in its detailed, somewhat sympathetic but still critical elaboration of a plain, unranked man. The Harlequin, whom Chaplin so perfectly embodied, is simply looking out for himself, and causing a great deal of disorder as he does so. But if you look closely he’s also writing on the wall of Daniel’s vision. An absolutely, profoundly, delightfully revolutionary character. The same goes in this particular setting.

Again, it’s good to compare this picture with, say, In the Park (produced at Essanay, 1915). The same character, the same superb performer, but what a difference a dramatic and photographic frame makes! It’s lovely to see how Chaplin gets himself from one spot, one situation to another. We have some fun boss-taunting back at the tailor’s shop. (This is an essential part of those old Italian concoctions, not to mention the institution of the Keystone Kops.) Chaplin is the least upset dismissed employee ever.

The plot goes forward: Chaplin’s got a woman, Downstairs, up in the mansion on that hill. He goes to her. She hides him from the butler, and then he hides from her other lover. (First the commedia, then Beaumarchais, and de Musset.) Charlie hides in the dumbwaiter, and comes back face-to-face with the guy who just fired him. Etc. That front hall is quite like the big interior space in One A.M., or the fun house front in The Circus. Chaplin the filmmaker is not, of course, that sophisticated yet. But you can see it on the horizon! There’s a really great bit where he turns the table on Eric Campbell, and making him his unwilling secretary by doing so. More fun with food: Chaplin, as much or more than any other comic, showed us the comic inexhaustibility of our very most basic situations.

There’s some really terrific dancing going on here. I love how he juggles or alternates the three women. The turkey!! Did he actually just do that? Here’s that basic, wondrous Chaplin accomplishment. The character does some unbelievable thing, and it’s often extremely naughty. But the transgression is so beautifully balanced by the exquisite, even chaste skill with which the actor/filmmaker performs it.

You’re going to get impatient with me, but my admiration just keeps increasing on me here. The floor! Here is such absolute, admirable amorality. Socially and ideologically, this is hierarchical Europe—check out the film’s title once again. Outside, it’s Southern California. The juxtaposition, with all of its implications, is neither casual, nor accidental. Chaplin comes from and looks like the Huddled Masses. Sometimes he’ll experience defeat, and those defeats can be pretty wrenching. On other occasions though, overall even, this put-upon personage is starting to stand up very straight indeed.

You know what’s good about that? This paragon of peasant assertion is capable of error, of being in the wrong. I’ll say! Albert Austin dumps a glass on him. He dumps a punch bowl on Albert Austin. What we’re seeing now is like profanity that one can sometimes find in Ireland or South Central Los Angeles, in certain novels or plays or films. Normally this would be fairly anti-social behaviour. But in a contained narrative context, there are definite uses. In the absence of necessary social reform, in the face of formidable opposition to it, in a world where it has been and continues to seem pretty well impossible, this kind of anarchy may be about all you can do. Naughty? Necessary! What a tremendous piece of work.