The Fireman

Film Review by Dean Duncan Aug 17, 2015

Anarchy! This is probably more abundance of energy and invention than intentional rococo or counterpoint or speed metal, to cite a few other places where you can find things a-bursting. In other words, The Fireman looks back to the Keystone comedies, and some of those crazier Essanays. It might not be a move forward, evolutionarily speaking, but it sure is funny.

I love the firemen running in place. Eric Campbell, the outsized antagonist in all but one of the Mutual comeies, is a textbook of melodramatic villain gestures. That may just mean hero gestures, enhanced that much. Then, here, enhanced that much again. Very funny. We have lots of fun with that fireman’s pole, with the film being run backwards, with Albert Austin’s head and the bucket, with that ditch that Campbell keeps falling into. Look at those streets! Early L.A., early motor-vehicles: it’s very striking, of great documentary value, and quite poignant.

Love interest Edna Purviance is charming, as always, especially with the little wayward note that she brings to this particular edition of the character that she generally plays for Chaplin. It’s quite nice how a somewhat textbook arson subplot is so happily punctured by the travails of the man with the goatee, whose house is burning down. Absurdism moves right into the Theatre of Cruelty as he keeps getting ignored and ignored. At one point he even starts reading a book.

The power of convention: Edna’s climactic peril actually registers, despite the easy climb up and the obvious dummy on the way down. Chaplin is such a beautiful actor that you care/believe his collapse at the film’s end. How gratifying when he turns out to have been faking, and steals off with the girl. The conclusion that follows is as tiny and tender as the one at the end of The Immigrant.