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
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. 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.
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 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).
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 criticism for not having volunteered for service in WWI.
Sharp anti-war satire would not arrive full force until Duck Soup (1933) and, frankly, Shoulder Arms pales comparatively. Until the near-finale, it is what one might expect. Edna is, of course, the love interest. Here, she is a virginal French girl risking her life to save the American doughboy. Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) also has a small role.
Chaplin’s disguise as a tree on the war front (predating Bugs Bunny), is surrealistic and bizarrely funny. Essentially propaganda, Shoulder Arms
was an enormous hit.
A Day’s Pleasure (1919) is anything but pleasurable; in fact, it’s one of Chaplin’s worst films. The star was working on The Kid (1921) at the time and First National was growing impatient with the amount of time he was spending on it. They demanded an immediate product and Chaplin responded by hastily slapping together A Day’s Pleasure in a week.
Charlie and Edna are married and have two sons (one of which is played by an uncredited Jackie Coogan). Charlie loads the family up into the Model T. This new motor car contraption apparently has not had its morning coffee, which leads to mechanical slapstick, none of which is particularly funny. It’s calculated mayhem, recycled from third-rate slapstick of the period.
Once the family is off and running, they arrive at a boat for a sea cruise. More third-rate slapstick, and a black musician turning white from sea sickness. After the excessively long cruise ends, Charlie is back in his Ford for more excruciatingly painful slapstick. The American public, never able to distinguish gems from excrement, made it a hit anyway, satisfying the coffers.
With The Kid behind him, The Idle Class (1921) is a different affair. Chaplin plays two roles: the Tramp and an alcoholic millionaire married to Edna. There is some inventive slapstick: the millionaire, seen from the back, seems to be having an emotional break down after reading a letter of rejection from his wife. When he turns to face the camera, we see he is actually mixing a drink. In another scene, the millionaire, having forgotten his trousers, uses a newspaper for a skirt, as he walks on his knees to the elevator.
Only Chaplin could make a game of golf seem kinetic. He shows his cruel streak here, stealing a cigarette case, allowing a fellow golfer (John Rand) to receive a brutal beating from Mack Swain (a beating which should have been the Tramp’s), and doing an about face by playing good Samaritan to a girl thrown from a horse.
There is also a precursor for a later plot development in City Lights (1931). The Tramp, evading trouble, weaves in and out of parked limousines, emerges from an open door, and is mistaken for a millionaire.
Naturally, this is going to lead to identity mix-up, which occurs at a masked ball. The millionaire, Edna, Swain, and the Tramp engage in spirited hi-jinx. Although, primarily fluff, The Idle Class is one of the better First National efforts, highlighted by a near-perfect score from Chaplin.
Edna is daughter to Mack Swain again in Pay Day (1922), but the role amounts to little more than a cameo. Swain is a construction site foreman to the Tramp (called “the Laborer” here). There are slight shades of Modern Times (1936) to come (in the work site scenes).
Here the Laborer is married to a bully shrew (Phyllis Allen), complete with roller pin and curlers. The tension between them is meat of the film. When our hero has a drunken night out with friends (which includes Sydney Chaplin), you can rest assure that hell awaits in Phyllis scorned. Pay Day is paced well and has a near-classic ending in a bath tub.
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.”
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 Purviance. 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.
The small congregation, lead by the Deacon (Mack Swain) 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.
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. 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 autobiography. 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 Kenneth Anger‘s “Hollywood Babylon,” Chaplin went through such an ordeal that during the divorce trial, the star’s hair literally turned prematurely white.
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.
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 Harry Langdon 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 other than chaste.
That Keaton was the more original filmmaker cannot be denied. His sense of aesthetic exploration is a model for early cinema. However, Chaplin proved more cunning in his business dealings. He never lost control of his films the way Keaton naively did. (Before he fatally lost artistic control to MGM, Keaton etched a celluloid character who embodied an admirable sense of detachment without resorting to overt populism).
The Circus finds Chaplin closest to Keaton territory, both in it’s organic, innovative composition and its existential arc. The Circus emerges as a flawed, unique work of art, with the bleakest ending of all Chaplin’s features. Desperation, contrasting with carnivalesque tinsel, evolves from the world of music hall pantomime and Max Linder, echoes Picasso’s canvases of harlequins, and prefigures Fellini.
The Circus iris-ins on Merna (Merna Kennedy), riding bareback, bursting through a large star. Her ringmaster father (Al Garcia) becomes enraged when she misses the hoop on a second attempt. This misstep elicits a thrashing and period of starvation. Merna’s act is followed by an ensemble of flabby, geriatric clowns. Al desperately needs a saving act.
Enter the Tramp, in an elaborate, virtuoso introduction. Starving, the Tramp is not above stealing food from a baby before he becomes the unwitting victim and pawn of a pickpocket. Wrongly accused, the Tramp runs for his life. He surrealistically mimics an animatronic prop in an amusement ride. Once discovered, he evades capture within a hall of mirrors (this scene surely influenced Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai). This delightfully elongated vignette takes Charlie to the circus stage where he unknowingly becomes the hit of the show. The film’s one conceit, which Chaplin could not resist, is in the audience crowning him as “the Funny Guy.”
The Tramp is offered a job, as a prop man. The key to the Tramp’s comic success is that his act is unintentional. Al shrewdly keeps his new employee in the dark, which, for awhile, isn’t that hard to do. Charlie is the classic hobo, cooking his meager meal over an open fire, and sharing it with Merna, whom he is secretly in love with.
Naturally, several slapstick vignettes are in order. These involve the animal kingdom inhabitants of the circus. A jackass, a lion, a tiger, and monkeys on a high wire plague Charlie. While some of these bits are elaborately staged, none equal the freshness of the opening.
The Tramp discovers that he is the hit act, yet somehow this discovery does not dispel the performer’s magic. However, the object of his affection is in love with trapeze artist Rex (Harry Crocker). The film ends with the Tramp exactly where he started. He accepts his fate without self-pity. Like us, he can understand his rejection, and the iris closes him off to us. Chaplin apparently hoped that iris would forever swallow up what he considered to be a best-forgotten opus. However, Chaplin cannot be trusted here as an objective judge or interpreter of his own work, which stands as a formidable maiden.
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 Dictatorwas 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.
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 embarrassingly flat. His Tramp doughboy had done better lampooning the Great War in First National’s uneven Shoulder Arms (1918), which may be the first anti-war film. Still, the Marx Brothers bested Chaplin in both of his anti-war films with their hilariously surreal and biting Duck Soup (1933).
When The Great Dictator picks up in Nazi Germany, the film improves, albeit sporadically. Not surprisingly, Chaplin’s best moments are in two and a half silent vignettes. In the first, the Jewish Barber is in a scuffle when Paulette Goddard‘s Hannah accidentally hits him over the head with a frying pan intended for one of the bullying Nazi soldiers. The Barber’s brief, dazed dance trot down a ghetto street, past shop windows painted with the word “Jew,” evokes anxious humor. Unfortunately, this brief scene is only half silent. The scene is framed with slapstick interplay between the Barber and the stormtroopers—ranging from buffoonery with a paint dipped brush to an attempted lynching—which further weakens its impact. All of this is akin to Keystone Cops antics. Something more unsettling was desperately needed.
The second and third silent vignettes are shared between the Barber and the Great Dictator (also played by Chaplin). The Barber’s shaving of a customer, choreographed to the music of Brahms, is a brilliantly polished bit of quicksilver business and has nothing to do with the rest of the film. (The shaving sequence had been attempted in a previous short and is a good example of how Chaplin re-worked ideas). It is the Tramp’s best moment in the film, however. In the final silent vignette, The Great Dictator nearly copulates with a balloon globe of the world. Oddly, it is in the portrayal of Hitler, rather than the Barber, that we see more of Chaplin’s Tramp shining through. The Dictator hearkens back to the earliest Keystone Tramp characterizations, when the little fellow could be cruel, selfish, and remarkably antagonistic. (Later in his career, Chaplin’s First National Tramp has a moment, in The Pilgrim , when he delivers a sermon in a hyperkinetic, uncannily Hitler-like stance). Chaplin clearly invests most of his energy into this new character.
The Barber’s cutesy relationship with Hannah is forced and occasionally irksome, although through no fault of Goddard, who is probably Chaplin’s best leading lady. Her role here is not the level of her compelling Gamin in theModern Times, but she is Chaplin’s equal in ways that Edna Purviance, Georgia Hale, and Virginia Cherril, good as they were, could not be.
In 1917 Chaplin lost his great on-screen nemesis, Eric Campbell, to a car accident. Chaplin’s films thus lost the sense of rudimentary mystery that Campbell’s foil gave to the Tramp. The closest Chaplin came to having a worthwhile nemesis again was in Jack Oakie’s “Napolini” (i.e. Mussolini.). Although Oakie has been rightly praised for his performance here, time has also somewhat rusted his Chico Marx-like caricaturization. Almost as good, although his appearance is brief, is Henry Daniel’s Herr Garbitsch (likely based on Joseph Goebbels). Daniel, as usual, supplies macabre precision to his villainous role, although he is, overall, too sophisticated for the part. The Great Dictatorbenefits from Chaplin’s attention and development of his co-stars Goddard, Oakie, and Daniel, but the film also frequently flounders by being littered with flat, obvious jokes.
The speech at the end is as naive and as heart-felt for its age as John’s Lennon’s “Imagine” was three decades later. Chaplin steps out of character here, and critics of the period were right in their assessment that the speech throws the film off. In hindsight, the oration is a coda of sorts for Chaplin’s Tramp, although, again, verbal expression amounts to a new, nervous language for the actor. The creation and the creator merge into a persona of maudlin sentimentality and extravagant social satire. To criticize Chaplin for either is to criticize Chaplin as a whole.
Chaplin said if the Tramp ever spoke, he had to say something important. Imagine, a filmmaker actually believing a film needs to have a point. For all of its flaws, The Great Dictator is an important and enjoyable film. Whether it’s important or enjoyable enough is debatable.
*The Criterion extras are sprinkled with The Great Dictator‘s seeds. “Chaplin’s Napoleon” is a short “visual essay” detailing an abandoned film on the French dictator. More interesting is the short King, Queen, and Joker, directed by Chaplin’s brother Sydney. It contains one of two blueprints for the barbershop sequence (the second is a scene cut from First National’s Sunnyside).
Another fascinating document in this impressive criterion package is film critic Michael Wood’s impassioned essay in defense of the film. Chaplin was probably grateful, considering all the negative heat he received from other quarters.
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.
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 Harry Langdon 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