Making doorbells ring

David Trotter

  • Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic and the Politics of Pushing by Rachel Plotnick
    MIT, 424 pp, £30.00, October, ISBN 978 0 262 03823 2

Towards the end of his time at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, Charlie Chaplin began to direct as well as star in the short slapstick films that were the company’s staple product. The crucial event in one of these films, The New Janitor, which was released in September 1914, is the pressing of an electric button. It’s Charlie’s first day at work, and his enthusiastic abuse of soap and water soon earns him the sack. Fortunately, however, the manager of the firm has chosen this moment to burgle the safe in the president’s office, and is caught redhanded by a secretary. As they struggle, she presses the button used to summon the janitor from his basement hutch. Gloomy already, Charlie doesn’t exactly jump to it. What follows is a brilliant pastiche of the race-to-the-rescue sequences D.W. Griffith pioneered in the state-of-the-art one and two-reelers he made for the Biograph Company between 1908 and 1913. Chaplin cuts back and forth between the struggle in the top-floor office and Charlie’s reluctant progress up several flights of stairs (he’s not allowed to use the executive elevator). He just about makes it in time. The New Janitor’s combination of gymnastic stunts with depth of feeling was to become Chaplin’s signature as a director. Crucial to that depth of feeling was the sympathy its audience could be guaranteed to feel for a fellow worker at the beck and call of desk-bound button-pushers. It’s not hard to imagine them urging Charlie on up the stairs, while understanding only too well why he might want to dawdle.

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