I  Know I am Going to Ruffle Some Feathers, But…

I will be bringing out three articles for Influx about my three favorite silent comedians.  My love of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd’s films isn’t exactly controversial, but my comments about Chaplin are bound to rub some people the wrong way.  It’s because I have very mixed feelings about his films—some are among the very, very best silents ever made and others leave me quite cold.  This especially is relevant today, as folks have recently been talking about the Little Tramp’s 100th anniversary this year.  In 1914, Chaplin donned his soon to be trademark—his mustache, baggy pants, bowler and oversized shoes—and the character was created.  However, this first film, Kid Auto Races, is about as exciting as watching paint dry.  Yes, it is a historically important film but Chaplin literally doesn’t do anything funny during the entire film.  Back when he worked for Mack Sennett at Keystone Films, their style of making films was very lax compared to films today.  Generally, there were no scripts as we’d know them today—just a vague story idea, the director shouting suggestions to the actors and the actors improvising.  Sometimes this worked wonderfully but often the films just seemed rather aimless.  Among these Keystone Films, Kid Auto Races has to be the most aimless.  Chaplin simply walks about—getting in the way here or there—and that’s all there is to the film!  This isn’t genius—though Chaplin would later show great genius in his own meticulously crafted films.  But, from 1914 until about 1920, he was not completely in charge of his films and the shorts are very, very uneven and often featured lots of slapstick—in other words, people bonking each other on the head or kicking each other on the butt for no apparent reason.

Now when it comes to the 1920s and beyond, this is when Chaplin showed himself to be a master artist.  While he was world famous during the 1914-1920 time period, his films would become far better.  He now was obsessively in charge and refused to release anything that was not perfect—often re-shooting scenes a hundred times or more*.  It greatly reduced his output, but the films were remarkably better—especially his full-length films.  While he did a single full-length film early in his career (Tillie’s Punctured Romance), it was only a so-so film compared to his later work and appeared slapped together by comparison.  My favorite of the 1920s films is The Gold Rush—and I’d stack that film up against any film of the era for quality and laughs.  Interestingly, when I used to teach history, I’d show this film to 8th graders—many who came from underprivileged backgrounds.  Some were shocked that the kids became adored the film–showing that you DON’T need color or sound to entertain kids today.  In fact, I think most folks underestimate what kids will enjoy and let them just watch crap—but that’s for me to talk about in some future rant.

In addition to The Gold Rush, Chaplin made some other lovely films in the 1920s and perhaps my favorite of these is The Circus.  While it is far less funny than most of his other full-length films, it is simple, beautiful and quite touching.

The 1930s brought a reduced output from Chaplin—as well as a decision to make a few silent or nearly silent films even though everyone in America had switched to sound.  City Lights is like The Circus—lower on laughs but amazingly well crafted.  His Modern Times and The Great Dictator are sillier—and, for me, a little less satisfying because they sometimes emphasized laughs more than characters.

Although Chaplin continued making films periodically up through the 1960s, these are considered among his lesser full-length films.  I would disagree, as two of them really stand out as masterful films—Monsieur Verdoux (which apparently most everyone hated at the time) and Limelight.  I love Monsieur Verdoux because Chaplin dared to get rid of the sweet Little Tramp persona—instead playing a Bluebeard who married and murdered his wives!  This alone makes the film worth seeing and I wish I’d been alive at the time to see the reactions of his stunned audiences.  Sure, it was very dark—but also quite funny.  As for Limelight, I know that some folks didn’t enjoy it because it’s really NOT a comedy but a sad story of a fading vaudeville star who takes in a young woman who is down on her luck.  I thought the film was simply amazing and you have to see it to appreciate it.  Sure, it’s sad but it had so much to say—plus it was the only time Chaplin appeared in a film with Buster Keaton!

One final thing you may not know about Chaplin was that after he began making his own full-length films, he soon began composing scores for the movies as well.  Considering he was never trained as a musician AND his soundtracks brought him an Oscar, that IS amazing.

*Probably the most famous example of this obsession with getting the perfect shot was in The Gold Rush. In the film, his character was so hungry that he ate his shoe.  To do this, they actually made many shoes out of licorice and Chaplin did take after take after take until he was hospitalized because of all the sugar he’d ingested!

Article by Martin Hafer, Film Critic