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Charlie Chaplin, “The Eel”

In going through Chaplin’s The Adventurer for a project I’m working on, I wound up staring at a shot that usually goes by in a couple of seconds. It appears onscreen three times, and only one element is really supposed to register with our eyes and brains. What caught my eye this time was everything else in the frame.

The newspaper insert of Charlie in convict garb and the headline “CRIMINAL ESCAPES: CONVICT AT LARGE” is all we need to see, and the first and third time it’s onscreen it’s there to get a laugh. The second time is for us to see that it’s what Charlie sees in the paper. 

The first time we see it, it’s held for four seconds, and the second and third times only for two — at the running speed that it’s at on the new “Chaplin Project” digital restorations. Cut that by one third if you’re watching an old Blackhawk Film print or one of the Van Beuren reissues.

All that’s meant to register is the photo of Charlie the convict and that headline. Three to four seconds of screen time is really not enough to take in the photo and also read the headline. Four seconds is an appropriate length to read a title card that contains the number of words in the story’s main headline, and that’s it.

Usually a newspaper insert in a silent film will have dummy copy for the article below the headline, and often the article(s) near the one we’re being shown is some piece of newspaper copy that got slotted in. I was surprised to find a photo of human spider Bill Strother – used for an insert in Lloyd’s Safety Last – next to the lead article in a newspaper insert in a 1925 Constance Talmadge film.. Our eyes are supposed to go to the main photo and headline and so, we’re not expected to pay any attention to the surrounding copy. 

Not so in this Chaplin short. In case you were a speed-reader in 1917, Charlie Chaplin or someone on his staff wrote copy for the story that accompanies the photo of him, detailed copy.

Charlie Chaplin The Adventurer Convict 23 Eeel
frame grab from the Chaplin Project/Lobster Films restoration of Chaplin’s The Adventurer (1917)

Here’s the article that appears in the Friday, August 3, 1917 edition of the newspaper held by Eric Campbell, Charlie Chaplin, then Campbell again (both men appear to have identical thumbs, if you go by the insert shots): 

Officials Completely Baffled
Rain of Bullets Fail To Stop Convict No. 23 in Wild Dash From State Prison

The most daring escape in the history of the State Prison was that today, of Convict No. 23, known to the authorities as “The Eel”, who gained his freedom after a mad dash through a shower of bullets and who had up to a late hour successfully covered every trace of his whereabouts.

A nation-wide alarm has been sounded, and every avenue of escape from the city is being closely watched by armed guards. Orders to return the fugitive dead or alive have been issued by the police authorities.

Already an investigation has been started by the Prison Board in an effort to determine who is to blame for this most recent outrage, and it is rumored that several of the high officials of the institution will be investigated.

The two columns that appear below this, though, are a review of the play “Young America” by Fred Ballard, a playwright who hailed from Nebraska, which ran at the Astor Theatre in NYC in 1915. Fun fact: The play was made into a film in 1932 that was directed by Frank Borazge. 

The article at the left  whose headline reads “$19,530,000 GOLD AMERICA PAID OUT NOW COMES BACK” is also a real item, but probably from 1917 as it concerns “War Debts Contracted By Great Britain”.

The article about the daring escape by “The Eel”, and even the character name itself, does remind me of other news announcements you hear over the radio or see in inserts in other Chaplin films. For instance, the head of the jail where Charlie is held in Modern Times (1936) is “Sheriff Couler”…”cooler” being a nickname for a prison.