Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Immortal Tramp (originally published 2/04)

Few cinematic experiences are more foreign to 21st Century moviegoers than a silent comedy. These ethereal, surreal, mute monuments to the forgotten art of pantomime inhabit a screen universe so remote from today’s comic fare that it seems a stretch to classify them both under the common rubric of comedy. Any filmmaker who can bridge that gap, who can maintain any sort of viewership across that stylistic gulf, not to mention nearly a century of time, is remarkable indeed.

One of those who has accomplished this feat is Charles Spencer Chaplin. Fans of Chaplin’s work have much to be thankful for on the home video front. High quality DVD releases of Chaplin’s work from Image Entertainment and Warner Brothers Home Video are widely available, along with an excellent documentary on Chaplin’s life and work. “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin,” produced by Time Magazine film critic Richard Schickel, is well worth seeing.

When it comes to Chaplin’s feature films, I find that I can sum up my advice to you in three words: see them all. The only thing you need to know is that “City Lights” (1931) and “Modern Times” (1936) are silent films made after everyone else had converted to sound, so that all sound effects and synchronized music are part of the original soundtrack, not added after the fact. That’s really Chaplin’s voice singing the nonsense song in “Modern Times.”

Instead of focusing on the feature films, I thought I would offer some recommendations on Chaplin’s lesser known short subjects, which are now also readily available on home video. I’m going to recommend one title from each of the significant early periods of Chaplin’s career.

He got his start in the movie business working for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio, as did most of the major comedy stars of the silent era. It was during his tenure with Keystone that Chaplin learned the ropes and began searching for a comic persona. As a result, the quality of these early efforts is uneven. The tramp outfit, in all its essentials, appears very early on, but the nuances of characterization took years to evolve.

The title I think I would recommend from the Keystone period is “The Rounders” (1914). Chaplin is teamed with Roscoe Arbuckle, another very talented comic who has been cited as a major influence by no less than Buster Keaton. Chaplin and Arbuckle play a couple of swells who are out for a night on the town. By the end of the evening they have explored new frontiers of drunkenness, but then they must confront the problem of going home to face their respective wives.

Chaplin soon left Keystone, frustrated by the conflict between the fast-paced, broad slapstick demanded by Sennett and the more subtle pantomime that his emerging Tramp character required. He signed a contract with the Essanay Studio that greatly expanded his creative control.

The Essanay film to see is “The Tramp” (1915). This is arguably the specific point in his career at which the Tramp character he had been toying with at Keystone crystallized and matured. The key ingredient that was added here was pathos – that little touch of tragedy to offset the comedy and give it emotional weight.

Probably Chaplin’s most fertile period prior to making feature pictures was spent making short subjects for the Mutual film company. These twelve little masterpieces, released in 1916 and 1917, are the work of a fully mature comic artist. You really can’t go wrong with any of Chaplin’s Mutual releases, but I have a special fondness for “The Immigrant” (1917). The plot is virtually nonexistent – coming over on a boat to America, Charlie meets and falls for Edna Purviance, his perennial leading lady from the early days – but Chaplin’s blending of laughter with poignancy and knockabout with subtle pantomime was never more sure-footed and masterful.

This year marks the ninth decade since Chaplin’s first appearance on screen. There can now be little remaining doubt that his work has outlived mere nostalgia. Against all odds, his artistry continues to engender new fans even into a new millennium. His best works are, as if anyone seriously doubted it, works for the ages.

No comments: