It was approximately 45 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 and 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.
Easy Street (1917) is Charlie Chaplin‘s most urbane comedy. Some critics claims it’s 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). Continue reading “CHAPLIN’S EASY STREET (1917)”
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.”
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 Verdouxwas 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.
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), starringHarry 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. … Continue reading CHAPLIN’S CITY LIGHTS (1931) (CRITERION COLLECTION)
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.
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 Mack Swain 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 … Continue reading CHAPLIN AT FIRST NATIONAL
Charlie Chaplin‘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. … Continue reading CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS: A FORMIDABLE GREEK MAIDEN BETWEEN TWO NORSE GODS
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 … Continue reading THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940): CHAPLIN’S GUTSY STAND
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 … Continue reading THE GOLD RUSH (1925): CHAPLIN’S SECOND AND GREATEST FEATURE
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 in 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.
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 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).