Here are some notes from Gerald Mast about Charlie Chaplin’s development of props as tools for comedy.
The most significant lesson that Chaplin learned at Keystone (other than the way to shoot and assemble a film) was to become the cornerstone of his technique from His Favorite Pastime (1914) to Limelight (1952). Chaplin learned how to relate to objects and how to make objects relate to him.
Chaplin’s first film – Making a Living – is so poorly acted and so unfunny primarily because Chaplin has nothing to play off and against. He simply stands around fuming and stomping, and fussing: like so many Sennett characters, he demonstrates abstract cliches of passions. He has nothing concrete to manipulate.
But his seventh film, His Favorite Pastime, contains one piece of business that is a bit different. Charlie plays a drunk again. His “favorite pastime” is drinking, and he attempts to enter his favorite place – a saloon – to do some. He meets the swinging saloon door. He pushes it, and it returns to boff him in the face. He kicks it, and it boots him back. He puts up his dukes and starts to spar with it; it gets in all the good punches. Charlie gives up and crawls under it. The saloon door is the ancestor of every inanimate object that Charlie later succeeded into bringing to life; he turns a piece of wood into a living opponent.
Lesson: If you are working on a demo scene, get an object in there. Find ways for the character to interact with it that make the object become more than just a prop, that make it seem like another character. The character becomes the animator.