Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

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”