Chaplin carries a piano

Piano moving is a classic theme for physical comedy, and Charlie Chaplin has done it more than once.  Chaplin wrote and directed His Musical Career in 1914 while working at Keystone Studios. It is an excellent example for animators to study, so let me break down a fun scene for you.

Early in their studies, animators often create a scene of a character lifting a heavy weight.  It is a good way to develop an understanding of biomechanics, which will make the action seem realistic.  If you want to take it to the next level, make it entertaining. This is what we can learn from Charlie. The video below picks up where he enters the apartment with the piano on his back.  It’s important to know that the piano is a prop, so it isn’t actually heavy. This allows Chaplin to mime it in funny ways, rather than be “realistic”

Note the first shot of his entrance.  It’s set up so that the piano fills over 2/3 of the frame.  He stops to show how darn big it is. But that’s not all. Charlie has a partner, who is substantially larger, and should at least be helping.  Not only is he not helping, during this moment he is stopping to take a drink. The scene is all about making Charlie support this enormous load for as long as possible.

The old man wants to discuss where to put the piano, so he asks Charlie to wait a moment.

That leads to an argument with the daughter about where it should go.

When a decision is made, Charlie tries to lower the piano, which leads to this funny pose.

When he is finally relieved of the weight, he cannot straighten up. Another funny pose.

His partner must use his foot to push him back into a straight line.

And when he’s completely straight, he can’t just help him up, so they have another brief argument while his foot is still on his bum.

During this scene, Charlie gets no respect for all the work he is doing. But the relationship between the two piano movers is fluid. Earlier, Charlie got the best of the other guy, so there is no set rule to how things must happen between them.  It’s all about whatever is funniest for the moment.




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