Saturday was Charlie Chaplin’s birthday, and what better way to celebrate than by watching a Chaplin film? Well, how about watching several shorts and a full length film in a movie theater, the way Chaplin’s films were seen when they first appeared? SIFF Cinema has been showing his films in a series entitled “Simplicity is a difficult thing to achieve”: The Films of Charlie Chaplin. They started with City Lights (1931, 87 mins) on Friday night and will end with A Woman of Paris (1923, 82 mins) on Thursday night.
Some of my earliest movie memories involve watching Charlie Chaplin shorts on TV, so it’s only fitting that the first feature I saw yesterday (as part of a double feature) was a collection of three of his shorts, starting with his first one, A Dog’s Life (1918, 33 mins).* Even in this early effort, all of Chaplin’s trademarks are there: the comedic timing, the physicality, the love interest, and the appeal to one’s heartstrings (using a super cute dog). Also, one can witness, even in this short, how everything in a Chaplin film is interconnected. When he rescues the dog from larger, fiercer dogs, one of the dogs tears out the seat of his pants. When Chaplin later sneaks into a bar and lounge where no dogs are allowed, he hides the dog in his pants. The dog’s tail, however, sticks out of the hole that was made earlier, leading to some sight gags, including one involving a drum. As for the story: it involves the rescue of a dog, a singer who is kicked out of a dance hall, a stolen wallet, and the thugs who want it back.
The love interest in that film is played by Edna Purviance, who was also Chaplin’s love interest off-screen. She plays the love interest in the next short as well, Shoulder Arms (1918, 37 mins). The studio was worried about this film, as it’s a comedy about WWI. When they played it for the troops, however, they loved it. It was brought out again, in fact, during WWII. In addition, Chaplin used the same actors to make a short film used to help sell war bonds during the Great War.
To return to the film, it involves Chaplin joining the army and fighting the Germans (nice use of tracking shots down the length of the trenches). After a successful roundup of German soldiers, he volunteers for a secret mission. This film includes a memorable dream sequence (dream sequences featured in a lot of Chaplin’s films, including his shorts), one which you should not spoil by reading the film synopsis on IMDB.
The last short was not well received by the church. Called The Pilgrim (1923, 41 mins), it stars Chaplin as an escaped convict who is mistaken for a new pastor at a church (the clothes he stole upon escaping from prison were from a pastor, who was out swimming). Again, it stars Edna Purviance as his love interest. His sermon on David and Goliath is a classic example of how great pantomiming requires no words. Of the three shorts, I consider this one to be the best.
We then got a break before the next showing, which had a much bigger audience than the early afternoon show had (and for comedy, the bigger the audience, the better). Though there were children for the shorts, more children came to see The Circus, which was preceded by another short, The Idle Class (1921, 32 minutes). The Idle Class stars Chaplin as both the Little Tramp and the upper class husband of their mutual love interest (again played by Edna Purviance). Mistaken for the husband at a costume party, the Tramp gets to live out his fantasy of being loved by this woman, while the real husband is stuck inside a suit of armor. One of the best scenes is when the husband is reading a letter from his wife stating that she doesn’t want to be with him until he stops drinking. The husband begins to sob, back turned to the audience. Then, however, his whole body REALLY starts to shake. Is Chaplin overacting? Not at all. When he turns around, we see that he is shaking up a drink.
Though I first fell in love with Chaplin through his shorts (one and two-reelers, see more about the difference below), I feel that his full-length movies showcase his talents better, especially as a director. I spoiled myself by watching City Lights as my first Chaplin film, then The Kid and Modern Times. And while I still have The Gold Rush and The Great Dictator to see, it’s a shame that The Circus is not seen as often as those other films are. Right now, I’d rank it second behind City Lights. It contains lots of humor, a love interest (played by Merna Kennedy this time, as the step-daughter to the ring master), a rival in love, and a bittersweet ending that is more true to life than one would expect. And, of course, the final shot shows Chaplin walking off into the distance, twirling his cane.
In the film, the Little Tramp becomes a hit at the circus while running from the police. At first, the ring master (Allan Garcia) doesn’t tell him that he’s the star of the show, but when his step-daughter tells him the truth, he demands (and gets) more pay. Unfortunately, his act starts to peter out when a handsome tightrope walker named Rex (Harry Crocker) appears. In an effort to impress the step-daughter, Chaplin begins to learn how to tightrope walk. His chance comes when Rex doesn’t show one day. In order to make the routine safer for himself, he pays one of the prop men to hoist him up using a string and belt, but when the belt becomes detached, and monkeys run rampant…let’s just say that the only time I’ve heard more laughter in a theater was when I saw There’s Something About Mary. Even better, the kids laughed at more than the adults did (one kid in particular, who had the greatest giggle whenever the Tramp did something silly). Hearing this laughter, I thought: this is the essence of filmmaking. Making something that adults AND children enjoy. Plus, The Circus contains my favorite Chaplin gag (a little after the 2:00 mark):
One of my friends recently asked me why I watch films. He often reads my posts on here and finds them infuriating, perhaps because he can’t figure out what my angle on films are. After giving it some thought, I believe the confusion lies in the fact that there are many reasons why I watch films. To be entertained, to be amazed, to feel, to learn, to react, to contemplate, to experience. To share a moment on screen, in the dark, with others. And, in the case of Chaplin, one is aware of the fact that, almost 100 years ago, audiences sat down to watch these films as I did on Sunday, and reacted as strongly to them as we did yesterday (probably even more so, since film was still a relatively new medium, and Chaplin’s use of stock characters and situations would have seem fresher back then than they do today. Plus, much of what seems clichéd in his films is only because so many people copied so many of the gags that Chaplin originated). I’m not sure if films back then would have been introduced as Chaplin’s films were introduced to us yesterday (by a SIFF board member/Seattle University film professor, from whom all the extra information I’ve included here about these films was gleaned), and people would have heard a live orchestra play the scores Chaplin wrote for his films, rather than recorded sound (though he wrote the scores for some of his silent films when they were re-released between 1969 and 1976), but the shared experience, the spectacle on screen (in new 35 mm prints) is something they would have been familiar with. And the laughter. Watching these films in the comfort of a theater full of enthusiastic patrons (and bless the ones who brought their kids!), I realized something: while film has greatly evolved since the Little Tramp last appeared onscreen, I don’t know that it’s gotten any better.
Chaplin receives his honorary Oscar (the full ovation lasted for 12 minutes): http://youtu.be/J3Pl-qvA1X8
*According to a knowledgeable reviewer on IMDB, and confirmed on Wikipedia, A Dog’s Life was not Chaplin’s first short film, but his first two-reeler with First National (though, based on its length, it actually would have been a three-reeler). The other shorts I saw also would have required three or more reels (one reel=10-12 minutes worth of film).