Behind the Screen stars Charlie Chaplin as a stagehand on a movie set. Chaplin is overworked and underappreciated and his boss (Eric Campbell) spends most of the time asleep, leaving Chaplin to do the heavy lifting. Meanwhile a young woman (Edna Purviance) is trying to get her big break as an actress but is turned down so dresses up as a male stagehand in order to have at least some involvement in the movies. At the same time the fellow stagehands go on strike for being woken up by a studio boss and plot their revenge…
This isn’t one of the funniest Mutual shorts but it certainly has one of the better plots up to this point. It’s multilayered and features side plot as well as the main narrative. It is also an opportunity to see behind the scenes of an early movie set in much the same way as His New Job, Chaplin’s first film for Essanay a year earlier. What the film is most famous for now though is its forthright joke about homosexuality, a subject which was barely mentioned in cinema for another fifty years.
The scene in question comes late on when Chaplin discovers that the new stagehand is actually a woman. In a cute scene, Chaplin sneaks a couple of pecks on the lips. The start of a romantic relationship is interrupted though by the appearance of Eric Campbell who not knowing Edna Purviance is a woman, believes the two hands to be gay men. He starts prancing around in an effeminate way which today feels quite offensive. The fact that homosexuality was even mentioned though, no matter how insignificantly, was very bold. The same scene also features probably the defining image of the film, Chaplin’s and Purviance’s faces squished together, looking forward towards the camera, Chaplin with a trademark cheeky grin.
In terms of comedy, the film is a little short. There are of course funny moments which include a use of a trap door and a pie throwing finale. For me the funniest scene came when the stagehands were eating lunch. Chaplin was sat next to a man eating onions and to escape the smell put on a knights helmet, lifting the visor briefly to stuff bread into his mouth. During the same meal Chaplin tries to steal the meat which the same man is eating and when discovered, pretends to be a begging dog. There is plenty of slapstick to be found here also with large props producing most of the laughs. One fantastic act sees Chaplin pick up about eleven chairs and sling each one over his arm, giving him the appearance of a hedgehog or porcupine. This isn’t enough for the poor stagehand as in his other arm he also carries a prop piano. It’s very clever and looks incredibly difficult. The scene felt familiar to me but I don’t know if that’s because Chaplin repeated the stunt for a later film or because I’ve seen that clip before.
One interesting thing about Behind the Screen is getting a glimpse of an old movie set. A surprising aspect of this is finding two separate productions sharing the same stage. As noise made little difference to what the final picture looked like it was possible to have multiple movies being filmed in close proximity. Here Chaplin works on a set of what appears to be a medieval palace which is right next to a farcical comedy set in a police station. As you can probably guess, Chaplin ends up interrupting both at various times before completely destroying both towards the end. The final shot itself is also surprising in its violence. Although no blood, body parts or death was seen, it was still not what I was expecting to end a short comedy.