Easy Street (1917) is Charlie Chaplin‘s most urbane comedy. Some critics claim it to be his most perfectly composed film, with shrewdly chosen ingredients of minimal pathos, well developed characterizations, the Tramp’s quintessential antagonist and his most frequent leading lady, balanced slapstick, drug addiction, attempted rape, domestic violence, mockery of status quo, with social and political satire thrown in as the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. Easy Street is evolved Chaplin: a series of astute contrasts in this, his ninth and final Mutual short.
The Tramp is desperate and, upon hearing hymnals coming from Hope Mission, he seeks temporary solace. Unfortunately for Charlie, the collection plate passes him by, but the revivalists do try to save his soul. Of course he would rather have a good meal, a place to sleep, and clothes on his back. Edna Purviance, as the church organist, provides inspiration in the way of pure, divine beauty. As usual with Chaplin, his film is actually dated socialist propaganda edifying the poor and destitute, who we now know have no real reason to live.
In order to win Edna, the Tramp takes on a dangerous job as a Keystone Kopper whose beat is the violent slum haven known as Easy Street. The lord of this slum is Goliath (Eric Campbell, who was never more menacing or three-dimensional than he is here, in what turned out to be his final role before dying in an automobile accident). Goliath has an inherent problem with authority figures, even one so obviously ill-suited to the job as Charlie. When the Tramp comes a walkin’ down Easy Street, he has entered the Philistine’s domain, and here it is the giant who sees himself as the good guy with the kopper as an intruder in his skid row utopia. A brief glimpse into Goliath’s domestic situation reveals a plethora of kids and a weakened wife, on the verge of starvation; it is not that simple, however. Goliath’s Wifey proves to be an aggressor, fully capable of domestic abuse upon her husband (who is more than willing to reciprocate). Wifey’s aggression even hones in on Charlie after he gives her food (because women can be aggressive, and because her inherent hatred of authority figures goes across the board).
The beatings Goliath receives daily from Wifey translates into his rage against Charlie (and every other Kop who dares to walk Easy Street). With the gas from a light post, the tramp dispatches Goliath, but jail cells do not hold one such as this long. Soon, Goliath is back on the street and seeking revenge. All this leads to the virginal Edna being nearly raped by a heroin addict. When Charlie collapses on a protruding needle, he gets a burst of strength, and instantaneously morphs into a Speedy Gonzales type who cleans up the town like a cyclone ordered by Wyatt Earp.
It all ends in a new utopian landscape complete with Goliath, Wifey, Charlie, Edna , and all the townsfolk attending church together.
What do you know? Easy Street is socialist propaganda.
It was approximately 44 years ago this Christmas that my grandfather introduced me to Charlie Chaplin with an 8mm film of The Immigrant (1917). Although the film has nothing to do with the actual holiday, I felt, even at that young age, that Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance (never more beautiful than here) felt like Christmas. I believe my grandfather liked Chaplin, but no more than he liked Laurel & Hardy, whom I was also introduced to that same day. For me, it was different .I was later to learn that The Music Box (1932) was actually a sound film, but the 8mm version we saw (from BlackHawk films, I think) was silent. Perhaps that was one initial reason for my stronger response to Chaplin, but it was far more than that. I was not sold on preconceived notions regarding Chaplin’s superstar status because I knew next to nothing about him.
Today, as I approach the half century mark, my viewing habits have changed considerably and yet, having gone full circle, I find they ultimately—and paradoxically—remain the same. Apart from re-familiarizing myself with a film (in order to write on it), I have arrived at a point where I almost never watch a film more than twice. Chaplin seems to be the sole exception. I return to him again and again, like an obsessive childhood passion. On the surface, I should have outgrown him. In my own work, I vehemently avoid overt sentimentality. Chaplin, of course, is apt, at times, to wallow in it.
With his Dickensian early life in impoverished London orphanages, however, Chaplin earned some of that sentimentality. Perhaps this is why, when he does cave into it, he feels authentic; convincing us to care for the little fellow, his girl, and the world they inhabit. Chaplin invites us to root for the underdog, the underprivileged, and societal outcasts of his world (and ours). It’s a far cry from 2013’s seasonal message of “gays are gonna burn in hell” or “the Pope, saying we shouldn’t be so materialistic, must be a commie.” Chaplin’s worldview seems tragically alien even to the little man of today (that is, if the little man is indeed accurately represented by the plethora of commentators on internet news forums posing as “arch conservatives”). Naturally, they are anything but conservative in their morals (or lack thereof). Rather, they are extremist right-wingers (big difference), who buy into the myth that everyone gets a fair shake and if he or she falls short, “it’s their own damned fault. Let them die in the streets.”
Perhaps that is another reason Chaplin increasingly means more to me. Although he was a skeptic in matters of dogma, Chaplin conveys the essence of Christmas as poignantly as Charlie Brown’s forsaken Christmas tree (needles not intact). Simultaneously, Chaplin and his ensemble also bespeak that Easter message of rising against oppressive odds. Mind you, mine is not an opinion tainted by misplaced nostalgia. It is, rather, a stubborn preference to Mel Gibson’s 21st century, two-fisted, Lethal Jesus perversion of Easter’s message, which effectively seeks to mute the author of beatitudes espousing the meek.
Although many people (myself included) find Chaplin’s Easy Street (1917) to be the best film of the Mutual period, The Immigrant was Chaplin’s personal favorite, and it is easy to see why. It is, along with The Kid (1921), his most autobiographical work.
The Tramp is aboard a steamer crossing the Atlantic. Chaplin returns to the miserable, poverty stricken conditions of Easy Street (1917) with his rough and tumble fellow immigrants. Amidst the grime, the Tramp finds beauty in the unnamed feminine (Purviance). The Tramp, stirred, eventually gifts his earnings, from a hilarious poker game, to the woman and her terminally ill mother. After seeing the Statue of Liberty, symbol of New World Freedom, the Tramp, woman, and immigrants are treated like cattle, corralled behind a rope. The Tramp’s response is to kick an immigration officer in the daily duties. This scene later was used against Chaplin and cited, by J. Edgar Hoover, as proof of the filmmaker’s dangerous promotion of disrespect of authority and his inherent anti-Americanism.
The Tramp is separated from the woman and her mother but finds her wearing the black armband of mourning in the film’s second half. Both are destitute in an American dream turned nightmare, but, finding a quarter, the Tramp treats her to a meal. Eric Campbell, pitch perfect as the villainous waiter, Goliath, necessitates havoc will follow. (Unfortunately, Campbell would only appear in one more short, The Adventurer (1917), before being killed in an automobile accident at the age of 37). With Campbell’s untimely death, Chaplin lost his greatest foil, and with him an enigmatic comic milieu that later films lacked.
Some have criticized Chaplin’s euphoric ending: the pair’s rush to a justice of the peace, amidst a downpour. It’s unquestionably a better message than the all too familiar news of seasonal avarice in the form of holiday shoppers trampling yet another department store employee to death, in their rush to acquire stuff. Chaplin’s admittedly tacked-on ending has been seen as overtly naïve—a bare half-step removed from an antiquated belief in love at first sight. It is all too easy to succumb to 21st century cynicism. Perhaps, we could use a dose of Chaplin’s sincerely felt sentiment. Although I cannot say I outright believe in a fairy-tale happily-ever-after from such an accelerated encounter, Chaplin inspires me to want to believe that I could indeed believe.
* Charles Chaplin died 36 years ago this Christmas day at the age of 88 in his beloved Switzerland home.
The most recent Charlie Chaplin feature to see a Criterion treatment is City Lights (1931).
Released three years after the advent of talkies, City Lights remains, for many, quintessential Chaplin. It was possibly inspired, in part, by Frank Capra‘s The Strong Man (1926), starring Harry Langdon.
Chaplin labored on City Lights for three years, in part due to difficulties with leading actress Virginia Cherrill, in the role of the Blind Flower Girl (which is how she is billed. Like everyone else in the film she has no name, just a simple description). Chaplin spotted her at a prize fight. She was acutely near-sighted and had the look and personality he was seeking. She was not however, a professional actress. Cherril, being an adult of twenty, was far too old for Chaplin to be interested in romantically. Thus, their relationship off-screen was purely platonic, which, probably added to Chaplin’s dismay of not being able to manipulate her. Cherrill was far from starstruck. She was often tardy and frequently challenged Chaplin. At one point the director fired his leading lady, only to bring her back after realizing that starting anew would be disastrous. A clip (from the Criterion edition) reveals the director once put Cherrill through 342 takes. Yet, despite all this friction, Chaplin extracted a remarkable performance from her.
All of Chaplin’s films are primarily actor’s films, rather than being the work of an accomplished director. Montgomery Clift was among those who intensely studied Chaplin’s performance in City Lights. Indeed, Chaplin’s performance here is quite possibly his best.
However, to say City Lights approaches perfection, or is Chaplin’s best film, proves an exaggeration. It is as maudlin as The Kid(1921) and nearly as episodic as Modern Times (1936), but it’s beauty lies in simplicity; and, as far too many hack artists have proven, simplicity, done well, requires consummate craftsmanship and intelligence. Chaplin still serves as the blueprint for simplicity done right. This “comedy romance in pantomime” opens with The Tramp discovered sleeping on a city statue, after it is unveiled. Making minimal use of sound, Chaplin’s politico spews garbled gibberish. Naturally, chaos follows, and it ends, not so subtly, with the Tramp thumbing his posterior at American capitalism before embarking on his city promenade.
The Tramp is menaced by a couple of Newsies, and stops to admire a beautiful statue of a nude woman (a frequently used bit in Chaplin’s film), which everyone else ignores. Shades of things to come. The Tramp is immediately and noticeably more genteel here; far more so than he was when stealing food from babies in his last feature, The Circus (1928).
Behind the scenes Chaplin was a case study in manic depression and an obsessive perfectionist. For weeks on end, he agonized to come up with a way the Blind Girl could mistake the Tramp for a millionaire. Then, as he was apt to do, he found his source of inspiration from one of his own earlier shorts. The Tramp, avoiding the Kops, zigzags his way through open doors of unoccupied limos. The Blind Girl hears a limousine door open and the Tramp emerging. Thus, he becomes her imagined millionaire. When the Tramp discovers the Girl is blind, he lays on the sentiment in a way only he could pull off. It is the Tramp alone, in an apathetic society, who sees the ethereal beauty and spirit in her Dickensesque poverty.
With Her possessing his thoughts, the Tramp comes upon a self-pitying alcoholic millionaire who is attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself into the river. Predictably, slapstick follows. Some of it is awkward, but serves the narrative and conceptual purpose of mocking the super rich.
The millionaire gives the Tramp money to buy more flowers from the Blind Girl and even loans his limo out, but it is only when he’s drunk that he’s so generous. Sober, the millionaire is true to his elitist, miserly ways, does not recognize his new friend, and kicks the Tramp out. In order to obtain money for an operation which cures blindness (remember, it is a fairy tale), our protagonist rummages through a series of jobs, including a gig as a prize fighter. Chaplin had used the employment plot device in his Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual shorts. In City Lights, it serves as a distraction. (He would be more innovative with it in Modern Times). Still, it is not a critical detour, and Chaplin regains his footing for the final act.
The millionaire, having returned from an extended European tour, is drunk again, and runs into the Tramp. After the tramp explains he needs a thousand dollars for the Blind Girl’s operation, his inebriated friend donates to the charity, only to have a fumbled burglary and sudden sobriety transform him into an Indian-giver. Desperate, the Tramp flees, money in hand. Pressing the wad of cash into Her hands, the Tramp secures her operation and prevents Her impending eviction.
With a warrant out for his arrest, the Tramp has an inevitable date with the penitentiary. Time served, he shuffles the streets, an object of ridicule and failure until he happens upon a flower shop, run by the now sighted Flower Girl. She, too, joins in ridiculing the transient. But empathy overcomes her and she gifts the Tramp a single flower, which requires touching him. Recognition means pathos and tragedy and per Chaplin’s creed, cue closeup (Chaplin used closeups for tragedy and reserved long shots for comedy. Naturally, he sometimes broke his own rules, but he generally kept to them). This is the divine mother of all cinematic endings. Despite Chaplin’s (increasing) tendency towards schmaltz, he still does it in a far less dated way than other films of the period. Indeed, his silent features have enough identifiable human drama and strengths to outweigh their shmaltzy weakness in far better than virtually any of the saccharine Hollywood productions of the forties and fifties. His own Limelight (1952) is far more passé, perhaps because Chaplin was really only suited to the art of silent cinema (despite claims that his transition to sound was successful).
As expected, the Criterion Collection is extensive. In its HD treatment, City Lights has never looked better, making it even more timeless. Audio commentary from a Chaplin biographer, a (rare) deleted scene, the documentaries Chaplin Today and Chaplin Studios, beautiful cover art, and Gary Gidden’s massive booklet are priceless.
2013 sees the Criterion Collection release Charlie Chaplin‘s Monsieur Verodux (1947). With this film, Chaplin’s sentimental Tramp was unquestionably dead, and in its place was an elegant black satire about a mass murderer. Critics and the public alike vilified Chaplin for this shift, to the point of picketing theaters, booing him at the Broadway Theater premiere, and eventual forcing the film’s withdrawal from the American market. James Agee, Kenneth Anger, and Bosley Crowther were among scant few notables who went against the tide and sang the film’s praises, declaring it a masterpiece. Later revivals have seen contemporary critics belatedly joining the film’s original champions. Today, Dennis Schwartz writes, “Monsieur Verdoux remains an unusually provocative satirical black comedy that’s subversive and gives one a greater sense of Chaplin’s political breadth from his previous work.” This reappraisal is not surprising: Verdoux‘s dark, sardonic humor is attuned to the modern mindset.
While Monsieur Verdoux does not compare to Chaplin’s most assured silent work, it is his most successful sound film (although that may not be saying much). The idea of Chaplin playing a Bluebeard type came from Orson Welles. Predictably, Welles suggested himself as director and, even more predictably, nothing came of it. Chaplin decided to pursue the idea solo, embarking on a screenplay. He offered Welles a “story idea” credit, and much to Chaplin’s chagrin, Welles accepted.
In retrospect, Monsieur Verdoux might be seen as an antidote to Chaplin’s next feature, the excessively saccharine Limelight (1952). The initial critical and commercial failure of Verdoux was comparable to the situation with Harry Langdon‘s bleak Three’s A Crowd (1927), after which Langdon reportedly tried to rebound with the populist-minded Heart Trouble (1928) (since that film was not distributed and is now lost, it is impossible to assess whether or not Langdon’s effort for a comeback would have been successful). Chaplin attempted to rebound from the commercial failure Verdoux with Limelight. Although Limelight proved to be a commercial success, critical reception was mixed. In her infamous review the critic Pauline Kael referred to it as “Slimelight” and, according to a Chaplin biographer, Pablo Picasso walked out on the film, finding it to be nauseatingly sentimental. The two films which followed Limelight were critical and commercial failures. To its credit, Verdoux does not overdose from Chaplin’s heart-on-sleeve sentiment.
Monsieur Verdoux is based on the life of serial killer Henry Desire Landru, aka “The Bluebeard of Paris”, who was convicted and executed for the murder of eleven women in 1922. The film opens with Verdoux’s voice-over narration from his tombstone, immediately indicating that what is about to unfold is far from the dance of the dinner rolls.
Verdoux is a banker who has lost his job during an economic crisis. At home he has an invalid wife and young son. In his late fifties, Verdoux knows his prospects for employment are slim and he resorts to marrying and murdering wealthy women to provide for his family. The Tramp faced the perils of Capitalism in Modern Times (1936), but here his response is an all-out blitz.
Chaplin’s Verdoux is an artful murderer. His is an aesthetic approach to killing, related to but opposite of The Great Dictator‘s Hynkel. He only really comes to life when he is engaged in the art of murder. Some of the physical comedy falls flat (Verdoux tumbling out of a window). Chaplin cannot resist mocking, then milking, the bourgeoisie heartstrings in the scenes of a paralyzed Mrs. and son at home in the lonely Spanish villa.
The best stroke here is Chaplin’s casting of Martha Raye as Annabella, the one wife he simply cannot kill. Chaplin always knew the value of a great female foil and he has one in the thankfully low-brow comedic antics of Rae, who contrasts beautifully with Chaplin’s self-praodying, effete elitism. Even in a film about a killer of women, Chaplin, commendably, does not succumb to a patriarchal ethos. Verdoux’s numerous attempts to kill Annabella prove unsuccessful and she proves as valuable to him as Jack Oakie’s Napaloni was to Chaplin’s Hynkel in The Great Dictator (1940). Verdoux’s final attempt on Raye’s life is an extended and somewhat clumsily executed spoof of Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy.”
Chaplin provides a second strong female counterpart in Marilyn Nash’s “The Girl” who reads Schopenhauer and laments Verdoux’s loss of cynicism. Nash calls to mind elements found in Chaplin’s previous leading ladies (Paulette Goddard‘s Gamin from Modern Times, most specially) and she prefigures Claire Bloom’s Thereza in Limelight.
Naturally, Chaplin will not forgo painting his societal misfit with a degree of sympathetic coloring and he does this, as typical in his late works, with an extended anti-war speech that also tackles the dog-eat-dog tenets of Capitalist America. On his way to the gallows, Verdoux gets in one last, brief anti-organized religion quip. Thankfully, the cold-blooded killer Verdoux is not as long-winded as The Great Dictator‘s Barber or Limelight’s Calvero. Chaplin, as expected, is best in his pantomime moments. 1947 Audiences expected laughter from Chaplin. They didn’t get much of it from this morality play. Still, despite its flaws, Monsieur Verdoux has withstood the test of time better than any of Chaplin’s sound work. However, and not surprisingly, his best silent work somehow seems more contemporary.
The Criterion Edition includes a making of the film documentary, an audio interview with co-star Nash, three theatrical trailers, and essays.
The Kid (1921) was Charlie Chaplin‘s first and most autobiographical feature film. Produced for First National, it fulfilled his ambition to move beyond shorts. Critics immediately hailed it as a masterpiece, but its reputation has since suffered due to its many flaws. Of course, no work of art is flawless and the film’s status remains intact. It is, in many ways, a synthesis of Chaplin’s previous work and the work which followed. Chaplin began filming shortly after losing his infant son with first child bride, Mildred Harris. The Kid is, in part, a fantasy about what might have been, which Chaplin wedded to his own bitter childhood memories. The film was also a blueprint for Chaplin’s work process. He took his time filming, much to the chagrin of the studio, who applied considerable pressure on him to speed up the process.
It opens with Edna Purviance as a (single) woman “whose sin was motherhood.” Chaplin, who was himself illegitimate, edits the image of the suffering woman with a shot of Christ carrying the cross. This is visual storytelling, of course, so Chaplin’s not done with the manipulation yet. Our Scarlet Letter-styled heroine sees a couple coming out of a church. The bride, looking shell shocked, is all of about 16 years old. She drops a withered flower, symbolizing her loss of virginity. Her groom emerges, a white-bearded man who is at least 70. The minister and congregation bless the wedding. Edna, empathizing with the bride from afar, is accentuated with a halo round her head as she holds her bastard son. Within a few seconds, Chaplin takes his big swipe at hypocritical American piety, puritanism, and organized religion.
Edna sees an open limousine, darts in through its door (a device he reworked in 1931’s City Lights) and dumps her shame in the back seat, with a letter: “please love and care for this orphan child.”
Now Chaplin has fun. Two robbers steal the car, find the squalling brat in the back seat, duck into an alley and dump him in a nearby trashcan. Cue the Tramp. He finds the bundle of joy and does everything imaginable to dispatch of it, including contemplating throwing the infant into a street grating. This vignette is, often, hilariously cold-blooded. Finally, the Tramp accepts his fate and unofficially adopts the Kid, christening him “John.” The Tramp ingeniously turns a tea pot into a milk bottle and, with a pair of scissors, transforms an ordinary chair into a potty training seat. Meanwhile, the grief-stricken Edna has seen the error of her ways and will, henceforth, lead a life of charity.
Five years later, the infant is Jackie Coogan: the first and probably greatest child star actor in cinema history. The Kid is dressed in oversized clothes, a reflection of the Tramp. Daddy Tramp is teaching junior Tramp the fine art of swindling, which puts them under the radar of resident cop Tom Wilson. High octane slapstick follows.
Loss of mother, poverty, fear of the orphanage, and surreal amorous escapades are all movements in Chaplin’s opus. The Tramps do get plenty of pancakes to eat with the money they swipe from gullible patrons. Little doubt this is fantasy from Chaplin’s own destitute, half-starved London childhood.
John’s fight with a bully neighborhood kid leads to a further fight between the bully’s brother (Charles Reisner, in shoulder pads) and the Tramp. Edna, now a worldwide star (!) arrives to preach the gospel of turning the other cheek. Good news for Charlie that the bully listens, and the second that said bully gets soft, Charlie takes full advantage with a brick in his hand.
When the Kid gets sick, a visiting doctor discovers Edna’s old letter and contacts the authorities. Orphan Control soon arrives and kinetic slapstick is masterfully blended with pathos. Coogan’s acting is simply stunning. Only an ice cube would remain unaffected.
The Tramp flees to a flophouse and, again, the cruelty of poverty blended with inventive slapstick is nearly seamless. What follows has long been a source of controversy: the Heaven dream sequence. Having lost his child, the Tramp dreams of heaven. The Tramp gets his wings and, it turns out, heaven’s not that different from the earthly realm. Temptation arrives in the form of 12-year old Lita Grey, whom Chaplin would marry and bitterly divorce in real life (Grey was the source of inspiration for Vladimir Nabakov’s “Lolita”). Jealousy leads to a brawl and celestial murder. To some, it is an ill-fitting surreal sequence. Yet, it is an aesthetically potent bridge to the finale, which is, thankfully, a happy one.
The Kid is, indeed, awash in mawkish sentiment. However, fused with the fierceness of street survival, apathetic institution, and surrealistic hope, The Kid is a landmark in film as visual storytelling.
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