Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

CHAPLIN AT FIRST NATIONAL, PART TWO

The second and final installment of our survey of s work for First National looks at two shorts which spotlight the Tramp vs. piety.

Sunnyside (1919) opens with a not so subtle Chapliesque swipe at the hypocritical reverence inherent in Americana. Chaplin’s iris opens on a church steeple cross. This dissolves into a frilly plaque, which reads “Love Thy Neighbor.” The owner of the plaque is tyrannical farmer Tom Wilson. Tom wakes early to give the sleeping farmhand, Charlie, a forceful kick in the daily duties. That accomplished (after a few, predictable false starts), Tom returns to bed.

After breakfast is served, we learn that it is Sunday morning. All the true Christians are where they are supposed to be: in church. Charlie’s loaded down with work, so he can’t (and won’t) join them. However, he will peek into what it’s all about, by taking a look-see at the Good Book. While doing so, the herd of cattle he is leading wanders off and disrupts the church service, driving the parishioners out the doors. Chaplin’s nose-thumbing at the the facade of rural reverence is about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles. So much the better.

Next, Chaplin inserts a surreal dream. Some commentators assess it as an ill-fitting sequence; the same was said of Chaplin’s heaven vignette in The Kid (1921). I disagree here as much as I do to those objections re: The Kid. The Sunnyside dream is pure Chaplin and well suits the character as an escape from the phony piety to which he is subjected daily. After falling off a bridge, the Tramp dreams he is frolicking with flowered nymphs on a bucolic hillside. This is his idea of heaven, and more than justifies W.C. Field’s astute observation that Chaplin was “a goddamned ballet dancer.”

Still from Sunnyside (1919)Unfortunately, the dream sequence is far too brief. Chaplin, in a much smaller way, was to American Protestantism what Luis Buñuel was to European Catholicism. However, Bunuel did it better. The true ill-fitting element in Sunnyside is the romantic subplot between the Tramp and leading lady . Edna has another suitor: the Fat Kid, who is clearly slow on the uptake. The Tramp takes advantage of that weakness, cruelly ridiculing his rival.

Although it is an bad fit, and an extremely uncomfortable one at that, it does take us back, albeit briefly, to the Tramp of Keystone, who often revealed an inherent selfish, mean streak. So, in that sense, the revelation of a less than saintly Tramp is a bit refreshing, while admittedly wrecking the composition of the film.

The ending has a rushed feel, partly due to Chaplin’s constant battling with First National.

The Pilgrim (1923) was Chaplin’s last film for First National. It was also his final short. This is Chaplin’s anti-clericalism at it’s best. Audiences identified, making it a bona fide hit, much to the chagrin of the Evangelical Ministers Association and the Klu Klux Klan who teamed up (imagine that) to denounce The Pilgrim as a blasphemous mockery to organized religion.

Chaplin does not play the Tramp here. His character is the Pilgrim, an escaped convict disguised in clerical attire. At the train station, he purchases a ticket to Devil’s Gulch, Texas. Meanwhile, the residents of that town are awaiting a Rev. Pim to fill in their newly open position of pastor. Unknown to them, and most convenient for the Pilgrim, the real Rev. Pim is running a week behind. Charlie, of course, steps off the train just in time for a case of mistaken identity.

Still from The Pilgrim (1923)The small congregation, lead by the Deacon () are on hand to welcome their pseudo-pastor. Unfortunately for Charlie, he has stepped into the clerical shoes just in time for Sunday-go-to-meeting.

The Sunday promenade with Deacon Swain is highlighted by our Pilgrim swiping the elder’s Southern Comfort. However, the Pilgrim doesn’t even get in a swig before an inconvenient banana peel wastes that much-needed elixir.

Naturally, the service reveals this Rev. Pim  as untried and uncomfortable, but he’s not so awkward when it comes to making sure the collection plate is abundantly filled. Perhaps he is a true cleric at heart after all.

The homily is classic Chaplin. The Pilgrim picks the David and Goliath story to tell, but his Bible interpretation is refreshingly free of embedded theology. In buoyant pantomime, the good reverend depicts little shepherd boy David provoking the Philistine warrior Goliath. However, rather than a kill shot, David’s wimpy little sling merely manages to provoke a minor headache in the giant. Provoked, rather than defeated, Goliath promptly draws his sword and decapitates the irksome gnat. A child in the congregation, who has not yet been conditioned by his religion, gives his new pastor a standing ovation, while the grown-ups stand in abject horror. They have come to the comfort and safety of church, only to have their traditional narrative exposed as myth. The most child-like persons in the church, the Pilgrim and his young fan, are the only two who appreciate it.

The service over, the Pilgrim is told he will be boarding with Edna and her elderly mother. An argument for pro-choice, a discovered wanted poster, and the appearance of an ex- prison cell mate will prove to be flies in the Pilgrim’s ointment.  Fortunately, he has a conscience and a guardian who will notice.

The Pilgrim is short on Chaplin’s trademark sentiment and admirably long on licentious parody.

CHAPLIN AT FIRST NATIONAL (PART I)

* This is the first in a two-part series.

Charles Chaplin left Mutual Film in 1917 and signed a contract with First National. Their agreement amounted to more than a million dollars per year. Chaplin was the first movie star to sign such a lucrative offer. Loyal to his inner circle, he brought leading lady Edna Purviance and heavy  with him, among others.

Although Chaplin’s first feature length film, The Kid (1921), would emerge from his five years at First National, his relationship with the studio was not an amiable one. The struggles between artist and executives would inspire Chaplin to form his own studio, United Artists. Again, this was a first for Hollywood.

Most critics and film historians consider the First National films a notch below the work Chaplin did for Mutual. In the First national shorts, Chaplin’s level of inspiration often noticeably wanes, so the general consensus is, for once, correct. Still, even lesser Chaplin is worthwhile (well, until we get to the late Chaplin features).

A Dog’s Life (1918) was Chaplin’s first short for First National. It was also the first movie to make a million dollars, more than justifying its considerable budget. Chaplin is in full Tramp mode here. Although an immensely popular film, and containing elements which Chaplin would develop more fully in The Kid, A Dog’s Life is an uneven effort.

Dawn brings only another day of misery in poverty. The Tramp ingeniously tires to steal a hotdog, but policeman Tom Wilson shows up to soil the spoils (Wilson would appear as the same character in The Kid).

Still from A Dog's Life (1918)In flight, the Tramp saves a mongrel, Scraps, from a scrape with a pack of dogs. Scraps, like the Kid (and, the Gamin later still) is a reflection of sorts of the Tramp, creating an identifying bond between the two.

The Tramp is a scrapper himself, fighting desperately for employment, but to no avail, alas. Dog and man enter The Green Lantern bar to find a mother and wife figure in Edna, who, as an amusingly awkward torch singer, has the locals in buckets of tears. (Literally. This scene also includes Henry Bergman in mighty uncomfortable drag).

Edna’s Big Boss Man threatens her with: “flirt or you’re fired! Give them a wink and smile!” Poor Edna’s just no good at flirting. “Do you have something in your eye?” asks the Tramp. Now Edna’s out of a job.

Lo and behold, some local bank robbers have buried some money, which Scraps has located. It looks like Paradise has been found, but not before at least one more scrap (which involves a surreal rendezvous with the crooks in a booth).

An over-written, bucolic finale rings phony. Ambiguity pointing to a release from the hell of poverty would have worked considerably better.

Shoulder Arms (1918) finds Chaplin again in social commentary mode, which was a gutsy move considering that the star was under intense Continue reading CHAPLIN AT FIRST NATIONAL (PART I)

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.