Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS (1928)

‘s The Circus (1928) has long been considered something akin to Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, which composer Robert Schumann referred to as “a Greek maiden between two Norse gods (the Eroica and the Fifth).” The Circus is the the maiden between two certifiable Chaplin masterpieces: The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). Yet, Beethoven’s Fourth, seen without Schumann’s assessing lens, has, on occasion, proven to be a maiden unleashed, as in Carlos Kleiber’s live, mercurial Munich version (on DVD) and Herbert Von Karajan’s devastatingly sensuous 1963 performance with the BPO.

Like Beethoven’s 4th, The Circus is an underrated opus. Seen without the preconceived assessment of historians, it is an interesting gem. Oddly, it is the one film of Chaplin’s that was recognized for a “special” Academy Award. Despite that, it is an infrequently revived (and discussed) film.

The filmmaker himself did not help the cause for The Circus. Chaplin’s autobiography is interesting primarily as a career record. Private, painful details are omitted. Quite tellingly, Chaplin never once mentioned this film in that autobiography. Clearly, he avoided it because this film was made while he was going through a highly embarrassing divorce from one of his child brides (Lita Grey) at the time. Intimate details from Chaplin’s sex life were exposed to the public. According to ‘s “Hollywood Babylon,” Chaplin went through such an ordeal that during the divorce trial, the star’s hair literally turned prematurely white.

Often, assessment of Chaplin’s films include the biographical. A good example of this is Roger Ebert’s review of The CircusEbert takes the often-traveled road of comparing Chaplin to Buster Keaton:

Chaplin was a considerable artist, brave and gifted, but I am in a minority in placing him second to Keaton among the silent clowns. My reasons for that are admittedly impulsive: I sense Keaton was the better man. Chaplin was so famous, so rich, so powerful when so young that there is a kind of conceit in the Tramp, a reverse noblesse oblige. Yes, he had a miserable childhood, and in his films, he often plays the friend of waifs, but there’s an air of back-patting about it. The Buster Keaton character has his feet on the ground. He would be embarrassed to parade his goodness. He uses ingenuity rather than divinity. Chaplin’s untidy love life suggests he felt he deserved whomever he wanted; Keaton in private life seems to have been melancholic because of alcoholism, but a decent enough sort with women.

Still from The Circus (1928)The problem with Ebert’s assessment of Chaplin is his objection to Chaplin’s enormous success and his bullet point details of Chaplin’s post-stardom biography. This view reduces Chaplin’s films to the anecdotal. While remnants of personal history cannot be completely excluded in approaching Chaplin’s art, his films, inevitably, transcend biography.

To be fair, Ebert is certainly correct in his comparison of the contrasting silent clown screen personas; Keaton’s Stone Face never asked for audience sympathy in the obvious way that Chaplin’s Tramp did. However, nor can Keaton identify with the everyman on Chaplin’s level. The Tramp’s poverty, which has nothing to do with the success of the actor playing the character, imbues him with an intimate personality that Keaton lacked. Out of all Chaplin’s contemporaries, only  emerged with a comparable persona.

Ebert also makes a comparative notation regarding the amorous nature of the two clowns. To me, both Chaplin and Keaton are sexless, at least when filtered through a contemporary perspective. Chaplin’s celibacy is that of the adolescent, as a people’s priest. Keaton’s character, while more  intelligent and ambitious, is too phlegmatic for us to imagine him as anything Continue reading CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS (1928)

CHAPLIN’S MODERN TIMES (1936) CRITERION COLLECTION

People often say that we have lost Christ, we have lost Mary. Living in the 21st century, I am, perhaps, more concerned that we have lost Chaplin‘s Tramp.

Easter is not Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked sadism posed as religious dogma. Rather, it’s Fred Astaire and Judy Garland strolling down an Easter Parade. Christmas is not Cecil B. DeMille pious kitsch. Christmas is personified by the Little Tramp trying to find existential depth within an increasingly plasticized, dumbed-down modern Western world. Indeed, there may be a bit of poetic irony in Charles Chaplin’s exiting this mortal coil on Christmas day itself, in 1977.

Chaplin was not a religious man. Yet, his Tramp is the most religious and iconic figure in all of cinema. Chaplin seemed to be partly aware of this. The late film historian Leslie Halliwell reported that when Cecil B. DeMille was casting for The King of Kings (1927), Chaplin approached DeMille, offering to play the role of Christ: “I am Jewish, I am an atheist, and I am a comedian. I would be prefect for the part because I could play it totally objective.” DeMille had Chaplin thrown out of his office. Although Chaplin was probably right in that assessment, we can be grateful that DeMille rejected the casting. King of Kings may be one of the worst examples of  1920’s Hollywood. Of course, Chaplin exaggerated his beliefs in the interest of self-promotion. He was not Jewish and his atheism is debatable. The clown was, predominantly, anti-clerical.

With the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), silent cinema was history. Someone forgot to tell Chaplin. He was still making silent films nearly a decade later. Many commentators have noted Modern Times (1936) is anything but modern. This film was a last, in many respects, for Chaplin: his last silent film and the final indisputable appearance of the Tramp. (There is a debate over whether Chaplin’s Barber from 1940’s The Great Dictator was really the Tramp, or not).

Still from Modern TimesModern Times, originally titled “The Masses,” is not completely silent. The Factory task master talks through a Orwellian screen.The Billows feeding machine speaks through a “pre-recorded device.” Chaplin sings a gibberish song near the finale.  However, these do not add up to a “talkie.” Rather, it adds up to a silent with clever, carefully chosen, cartoonish sound effects.

As a social commentary, Modern Times is derivative, borrowing from , among others. As a romantic comedy, it’s also derivative, recycling numerous gags and plot elements from Chaplin’s Mutual shorts. It has, rightly, been pointed out that Modern Times is like a feature-length compendium of those shorts. However, the screen presences of Chaplin and  are imbued with such authentic personalities that it somehow seems fresh.

In Run to the Mountain, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of Modern Times: Continue reading CHAPLIN’S MODERN TIMES (1936) CRITERION COLLECTION

CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S THE GOLD RUSH (1925) CRITERION COLLECTION

The Criterion Collection’s remastered The Gold Rush (1925) is undoubtedly the Charlie Chaplin release of 2012. For years, the prevailing critical consensus was that Gold Rush was Chaplin’s feature film masterpiece. However, a newer generation of critics have since argued that honor should go instead to City Lights (1931). The Gold Rush receives criticism for its episodic structure; however, all of Chaplin’s features, including City Lights, are episodic to a degree. This is not necessarily a bad thing, making that a moot critique.

The Criterion Collection release features the 1925 original, along with the 1942 re-edit that omitted the intertitles in favor of narration (by Chaplin) and economically trimmed down of some excess plot developments. While the 1942 version does look better and the editing is better paced, Chaplin’s voice-over actually dates the film far worse than the silent original.

Chaplin had a voice which carried well into the sound era. He intuitively knew that silent film was a different art form, however. Thinking about marketing, he seemed to have forgotten that fact. The 1942 version illustrates the artist’s discomfort with sound. Chaplin never could wrap his art around the new sound medium, and he pointlessly tells us what we are already seeing. Some may prefer the 1942 version, but my concentration will be on the superior, original version that audiences of 1925 saw.

While The Gold Rush exhibits Chaplin’s characteristic pathos, here it is far better balanced with his brand of comedy than any of his other features (when the pathos, often, nearly soaked the films).

Chaplin’s increasing need for audience sympathy marred may of his later features. Here, he keeps that need in check, and all for the better. Chaplin’s Mutual shorts are considered by many (including Chaplin) to be his best work. One of the reasons for that is the presence of his best nemesis in Eric Campbell. But, when Campbell was killed in an automobile accident in 1917, Chaplin was left without a great heavy. His first feature film, The Kid (1921) was able to bypass that. For this, Chaplin’s second Tramp feature, two villains were needed: the bonafide villain Black Larson (Tom Murray) and reformed villain Big Jim McCay (Mack Swain). While neither Swain nor Murray could replace Campbell, they were aptly cast and give the film needed tension.

The Gold Rush‘s most discussed scene is the dance of the dinner rolls, often imitated (and usually badly—Chaplin was a master at utilizing props for something other than their intended use).  What may be the most compelling scene, however, is the surreal chicken hallucination. Everyone has seen this scene spoofed in countless Looney Tune shorts. The starving villain (Swain) imagines his buddy (Chaplin) to be a walking meal (in this case, a plump chicken). Chaplin’s shoe-eating scene (complete with shoe laces substituting for noodles) and the rocking house at the edge of the cliff are additional surreal vignettes.

Still from The Gold Rush (1925)While Chaplin was never a Surrealist, many of his films contained surreal vignettes. The Kid had the dream of heaven, Sunnyside (1919) has the Tramp frolicking in a ballet with hill nymphs. Perhaps it was Chaplin’s occasional, natural elements of Surrealism which endeared him to the movements luminaries, such as André Breton. Next to and Buster Keaton, Chaplin was the filmmaker most cited by the Surrealists.

As The Gold Rush progresses, hunger, the struggle for survival, and harsh elements give way to a soapy romance with the dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale). Chaplin had originally cast 15 year-old Lita Grey in the role, but his getting her pregnant necessitated a new lead actress. While Chaplin does milk sympathy as a rejected lover, he never does it (here) at the expense of the film’s comedic tone.

As to be expected, the Criterion extras are abundant: both film versions, a 15 minute short (Presenting The Gold Rush), audio commentary, booklet, a look at Chaplin the composer, and James Agee’s famous 1942 review of the film.

 

CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE, PART TWO

The first in a two-part series on “Chaplin at Keystone” (read the first part here).

Charlie Chaplin‘s first solo directorial effort, Caught in the Rain, is an inauspicious one. It starts off as another comedy in the “day at the park” subgenre.  Alice Davenport flirts with Charlie after her husband, Mack Swain, walks off on an errand.  Compromising positions follow, of course, taken straight from Keystone founder Mack Sennett ‘s gag assembly line.  Sennett himself directed the next six Chaplin shorts.

A Busy Day features Charlie in drag, trying to disrupt a parade in a shameless rip-off of his previous Kid Auto Races At Venice.  A Fatal Mallet also stars Sennett (a rare appearance, and for good reason—his acting is more uneven than his directing) fighting with Charlie over girly girl Mabel.  They are both dull Sennett products exhibiting little craftsmanship or art.

The Knockout is a half hour long, an epic for Keystone.  It is basically a Fatty Arbuckle boxing vehicle with Charlie coming between prize fighter Fatty and Edgar Kennedy.  Chaplin’s ballet-like brand of slapstick (barely) salvages the film, and The Knockout again makes it abundantly clear why Chaplin quickly outshone his peers.

Mabel’s Busy Day is an eccentric step up.  Mabel is the much put upon, unkempt hot dog vendor at a race track.  Charlie, as a dandy, arrives amidst much shenanigans, including dance-like slapstick with some Keystone Kops.  Charlie spies the patrons abusing poor Mabel.  He comforts her and, when her back is turned, he steals her hardware to go into business for himself, with predictably disastrous results.  Chaplin here is without sympathy, even if he ends up as abused as the girl he himself abused and, realizing what she has been put through, finds enough pity for her to accompany her through the iris out.  Again, the odd chemistry between Charlie and Mabel inexplicably works, although Chaplin would find more apt female counterparts later in his career.


“Laughing Gas” (1914, unrestored)

Chaplin co-wrote Mabel’s Married Life with Norman and, although Sennett officially directed, it is moving towards the style film historians will later term “Chaplinesque”; it is easily the best of the Sennett-directed Chaplin Keystones.  Charlie and Mabel are a married couple out on a Sunday promenade in the park.  Charlie grudgingly shares his banana with the Mrs.  He momentarily steps into an inn, which gives Mack Swain ample opportunity to stop and flirt with Mabel.  The Continue reading CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE, PART TWO

CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE, PART ONE

The first in a two-part series.

Watching Charlie Chaplin‘s work for Keystone Studios is a bit like watching the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons, and it may take a bit of adjustment for modern viewers.  Like Walt Disney’s rodent, Chaplin’s Tramp persona was slowly polished into a screen character that audiences loved and rooted for.  Populist tastes had much to do with this, but, in the process of refining the character for the masses, some of the Tramps’ rough edges were burned away.  Revisiting the earliest incarnations of either character leads to a disconcerting discovery: the earliest versions were roughly etched and somewhat underdeveloped, but less predictable; they possessed not altogether sympathetic personality traits that contemporary audiences may find uncomfortable, especially when compared to their later refinements.

Earlier this year, Flicker Alley released the restored Keystone Chaplin shorts.  That restoration was long overdue.  For years, public domain labels had churned out DVD prints that were so execrable as to be virtually unwatchable.

In 1914, his first year at Keystone, the Tramp is in his infancy, and his later self is only occasionally glimpsed.  Making A Living (1914) is notable mainly as Chaplin’s screen debut.  The Tramp is not yet born; rather, Chaplin appears as a swindling, Don Juan-like English dandy who foreshadows few characteristics of the famous persona.  This mess of a film was directed by the Austrian native Henry “Suicide” Lehrman (so nicknamed by stuntmen because Lehrman, unconcerned about the danger of stunts, was risky to work for).  Lehrman later dated actress Virginia Rappe.  At the time of her death in the infamous Fatty Arbuckle scandal, Lehrman testified against Arbuckle at the trial and capitalized on the publicity.  In the Chaplin at Keystone collection Lehrman appears as a reporter in Making a Living and as a film director in Chaplin’s second released film Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. (which he also directed).

Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. is the film in which audiences first saw Chaplin as the Tramp.  This vast improvement over Chaplin’s debut was entirely improvised, shot in less than an hour.  The Tramp shows up at an auto race and, spying a film crew, becomes obsessed with being the center of the camera’s attention.  The race crowd is at first curious and then entertained by the Continue reading CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE, PART ONE

THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) CRITERION COLLECTION

The Great Dictator (1940), released to DVD and Blu-ray on May 24th, 2011 is the second of Charlie Chaplin‘s features to receive the Criterion treatment, following 2010’s release of Modern Times (1936).  Times was Chaplin’s last silent feature, produced nine years after the advent of sound.  Chaplin stated that when, and if, his famous character the Tramp ever spoke, it would be as a farewell.  He found a reason for the Tramp to break his silence in the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich; this was the birth of The Great Dictator.

Few people wanted Chaplin to make this anti-Hitler satire, and the speech at the end of Dictator was even seen by some as communist propaganda.  It securely put Chaplin on the subversive list.  Within a few years, Chaplin was thrown out of the United States, only to be invited back by the Academy Awards for a honorary Oscar (he never actually won one) in 1971.  Chaplin accepted the honor as a sign of mending.

Chaplin later said that if he had known the actual extent of the horrors perpetrated in Nazi Germany, he could never have made The Great Dictator.  His detractors went so far as to accuse him of merely being angry at Hitler for stealing his mustache.  Of course, Chaplin had been making films against government oppression and the struggle of the little man almost from day one.  Additionally, Chaplin’s half-brother’s father was Jewish, giving him further motive to lampoon the dictator.  Chaplin’s mistake was that he spoke out against Hitler and the Third Reich before the United States entered the war.

Still from The Great Dictator (1940)Whether or not the Jewish Barber is the Tramp has been debated for years.  He is not referred to as the Tramp, but he is certainly a Tramp-like character, and that is really enough.  But, for the first time, Chaplin is uneasy with his iconic character.  After seeing the Tramp in all of his silent eloquence for years, hearing him speak in the opening WWI sequence is  greatly disconcerting.  This opening is awkward, and Chaplin reveals that verbal humor is not his strength.  Jokes about gas and, later, plays off the words “Aryan” and “vegetarian” fall Continue reading THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) CRITERION COLLECTION

IN A WORD, “CHAPLIN”

Any hip, against-the-grain aficionado with an appreciation for the surreal, the avant-garde, and the experimental will tell you flat out that there’s no comparison: it’s Keaton over Chaplin.   You simply have to concede Keaton’s superiority because Chaplin was too accepted, too famous, too popular, too sentimental, too rich, too pedestrian in directorial style, too populist, too egotistical, too narcissistic, and nowhere near as prone to risk-taking as Keaton.

That was THE prevailing thought from the 60’s until quite recently and accurate only in theory because, like Beethoven, Chaplin really can’t be overrated, while Keaton certainly is (i.e., The General).

That doesn’t mean the above comparison has no truth and, naturally, it would be preposterous to say that Chaplin did not make some truly terrible films (King of New York and A Day’s Pleasure are people’s exhibit A).

However, Keaton’s  experimentalist stature is grossly exaggerated.  He was certainly the most innovative of the “A” list silent clowns, but was nowhere near as much so as either  the recently re-discovered Charlie Bowers or Harry Langdon, who, as blasphemous as it may sound, really had more memorably etched, modern characterizations (Chaplin did say he only felt threatened by Langdon).

In hindsight, Keaton’s innovation, which  surfaced  only  sporadically, seems suspiciously unintentional, even if his best films are indeed brilliant and highly innovative—The Playhouse and Sherlock Jr.

Years later, when working with Samuel Beckett on Film, Keaton revealed his  impatience with experimentation by loudly grumbling.

One walks away from Keaton’s best films feeling impressed.  One walks away from Chaplin’s best film unforgettably  moved.

Chaplin in City LightsThere is hardly a more profoundly artistic, emotionally overwhelming ending than that of City Lights .  It remains the most memorable ending in screen history.  Montgomery Clift declared it the  greatest screen acting he had  seen (that’s saying quite a bit from an actor of Clift’s caliber, but perhaps he had not seen Falconetti in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, which is hardly acting in the gauged sense).

City Lights deserves all the acclaim it has received.  It is Chaplin at his most spiritual and at his most expertly balanced (the pathos does not draw attention to itself, as in many of Continue reading IN A WORD, “CHAPLIN”