Friday at the Movies: Charles S. Chaplin

hollywood2 (2)For the last hundred years at least, he’s the one face everybody recognizes and associates immediately with “silent movies,” even though some of his greatest films were talkies.  He was known for comedy, but considered himself a serious artist.  He made gobs of money for corporations, but was one of the first movie actors to insist on artistic control—to the extent of forming his own film company that still exists today.  Universally loved but not personally loveable, a shrewd businessman, a prickly personality, a brilliant storyteller, a loner who touched millions of hearts—that was Charlie.

Plenty has been written about Charles Chaplin and I don’t need to write another biography (if you’re Chaplin1looking for biography, Sid Fleishman’s Sir Charlie is delightful).  Some film historians try to slight Charlie because there was a lot going on in Hollywood at the time that had nothing to do with him, but he so dominated the industry—especially the box office—he can’t be ignored.  He and Hollywood grew up together: after a desperately-poor London childhood and fleeting success in vaudeville, he arrived in sunny California at the age of 28 and proceeded to make 35 movies for Keystone in one year.  Though he later turned up his nose at Mack Sennett (head of Keystone) and frantic slapstick humor, his two years with Keystone launched him into the stratosphere of wealth and fame: by 1916 he was, literally, the most famous man in the world.  His face was showing up in nickelodeons and cantinas and makeshift movie theaters on six continents—anywhere a room could be darkened and a projector set up.

Everybody loved his signature character, the Little Tramp.  The Little Tramp is more recognizable than Chaplin himself: bushy hair and mustache, oversize shoes and undersize bowler hat, baggy pants, toothy smile.  He’s a loser who lives hand to mouth and stays barely within the law but always seems to come out okay in the end.  He refined the character in later full-length movies like The Kid and The Gold Rush, but there was always an underlying strain of despair in the Little Tramp, as there is in all the best comedy.

In I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, Chaplin has reached the peak of success.  He has established himself as a free agent and in the following year he will form his own production company with three of the greatest names in the biz: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith.  United Artists, they’ll call it.  Chaplin has a big film project in mind, which will become his first recognized masterpiece: The Kid.. The story is simple: the Little Tramp accidentally acquires a baby who’s been left on his doorstep, names him Johnny, and goes on to raise the boy as his own until Johnny’s mother comes looking for him.  In IDK, I imagine Chaplin latching on to Isobel’s mother as a likely candidate to play the mother role, a development that stirs up confusion and resentment in Isobel.  Nothing remotely like that happened, of course: the mother’s role is played by Edna Purviance, and even in those early days it’s not likely such an important part would be entrusted to an amateur.  But that’s artistic license on my part.

Chaplin2Though it isn’t mentioned by name in my novel, The Kid is probably my favorite Chaplin movie: full of laughs and charm and heart tugs, due as much to Jackie Coogan in the title role as it is to Charlie.  You keep expecting both the comedy and the sentiment to go overboard, but it never does.  (Watch it!)

Three Chaplin movies are mentioned in IDK.  Tillie’s Punctured Romance was his first Keystone flick; the movie reportedly introduced the concept of “meeting cute.”  The Bond was a public-service short film that Ranger and Isobel see at Grauman’s Egyptian theater before the main feature.  Ranger describes Shoulder Arms, a comedy that that mines some funny business out of a very unfunny war.  In Chapter 10 Chaplin attends a party at the home of Titus Bell (Ranger’s father), and in the course of the evening he performs the “Oceana Roll Dance” that would later appear in The Gold Rush.  The roll dance cracks me up—I think it’s the deadpan he maintains throughout.  Isobel thought it was hilarious as well, in spite of her mixed feelings about Mr. Chaplin.

Though he kept making movies into the thirties (City Lights, from 1931, is considered one of his best), Charlie’s heyday was the twenties, and he never hit his stride with the talkies.  He also fell out of love with America (long story), and moved to Switzerland, not exactly a film-making mecca.  But he made a mark on culture and history that can’t be erased.

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

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