The Vagabond

Film Review by Dean Duncan Aug 17, 2015

A more callow and imperceptive edition of myself once saw this film as straining, mis-proportioned, inadequate. Ah, callow self. Wrong again! The dramatic bits are a bit ill-digested. The gypsy (or is that Irish?!) slattern is ridiculously overcalculated, and the lost child/happy reunion stuff is preposterous. (It’s just like The Kid, obviously. And like The Kid, darned if it doesn’t get away with the reunion anyway by adding that second implausibility, which is that Chaplin gets to come too.) But first he’s stretching, and should be excused for any small discomforts that may arise as he does so. And second he’s Chaplin, and doesn’t need to be excused or forgiven for anything. You know, being the world’s greatest filmmaker and all. Memory hadn’t served; The Vagabond is not at all unremittingly serious. For comic starters there’s that violin/brass band introduction, which is very funny and actually quite perfectly executed. It’s gratifying to see this diminutive string player get the physical best of all of those bruisers. The camera placement is perfect too: not just adequate to the purpose, but crystal clear and bursting with kinetic possibility/actuality. Albert Austin!

Why does Chaplin’s Tramp go to the country next? Who knows? I notice the wind blowing through the trees behind the caravan. These ancient films are beautiful even when hardly anything is happening. At first Eric Campbell isn’t being ridiculously overcalculated as he performs the role of antagonist. He provides some effective comedy too, which then falls quite terribly into place when he actually starts beating hell out of Edna. This is a delicate, difficult balance to attempt, and at this early date they pull it off really admirably.

Not to change the subject overly, but Chaplin’s fiddle pantomime is really amazing. The up-tempo part that causes Edna to go into involuntary scrubbing is a great gag. The tub jokes that follow are obvious and very serviceable.

Look at the composition in that next scene, with the big tree. It’s like Jacques Tati, and better. Watch how the director, composing, blocking his actors within the frame, uses the X, Y and Z axes to such dazzling effect. In fact there are depth illusions here utterly worthy of Keaton. Plus social menace. Campbell has moved from a typed stage character, into being Bill Sykes!

There’s a really wonderfully executed moving shot out the back of the caravan as Charlie and Edna make their getaway. A chaste night follows, and a sweet next morning. She scratches her hair, while he holds that rake and looks at her. There’s a subsequent bathing sequence—anticipating something similar in Frank Borzage’s Lucky Star (q.v.)—that is really lovely. The joke is that Edna has never actually washed, or been washed. The boldness, and the tenderness too, is that this tramp knows how like the best mother there ever was. Here’s Walter Kerr’s point (1975) about how the Tramp is so able and adaptable that he can do about anything (but/so belongs nowhere). If we wanted we could find some sensuality in this little exchange. Maybe more accurately, it prefigures Chaplin’s care of Jackie Coogan in The Kid. It’s funny that/how he always cleans those ears and nostrils, until you’re moved by how happily he does it. (Cf. William Wordsworth’s Michael, from the Lyrical Ballads.)

The painting part is more presposterousness. Some town-y stumbles upon these two, and wants to paint Edna. Charlie’s jealousy is very well and amusingly played. The fly thing is funny. Then we go to the gallery, where the results of that unlikely exchange are being exhibited. Look at that perfectly executed reveal shot! So perfect, in fact, that it really does impress one as being superbly, definitively cinematic. Theatre doesn’t give you this, nor does painting. What a medium! And Chaplin showed us, over and over again. The perfection I’m referring to is mechanical, and it’s in the shot’s implications. She’ll be leaving, and he’ll be lost.

I’m realizing something—this is Oliver Twist (a story/myth that looms very large in CC’s life and art) from the Dodger’s perspective, or Charley Bates’! As in Dickens’ brave and fierce and at least partly incoherent story, I’m afraid that this film doesn’t solve those huge social problems either. A birth mark, eh?

Charlie won’t take money for having cared for the once lost and now recovered heiress that Edna has suddenly become. Fair enough. The shaking hands part—notice (cf. The Kid) that he keeps doing it funny even at the moment of highest drama—is good. After Edna leaves Chaplin does something quite amazing. Trying to be happy/succumbing to devastation. His face! His body! The situation, its duration, its convention/contrivance—in a way Chaplin has earned none of the enormous effect that he is accomplishing with us, except through sheer moonshine, the power of suggestion, and awe inspiring talent. Edna’s turnaround doesn’t make much sense either, except that the actual sun on her face and the actual country receding out the back window slake off those theatrical/artificialities.

Oh! Look at that now—it’s actually a mystery play …