It's easy to find books and movies about Chaplin. They're everywhere. They march through the standard lore and sing their condescending tune. Here's a brief ode to watching the films themselves.
For a good part of the twentieth century Charlie Chaplin's disheveled, mustachioed character may have been the most recognized figure on earth, but his legacy as a filmmaker has waxed and waned over the years, not because his movies are any better understood now than when he made them, but because certain assumptions have settled into place, making it hard to see his movies for what they are.
The story of his life is like something from a fairy tale. By the age of 25 he had risen from the streets of London to being virtually synonymous with cinema, worldwide. One theater in New York played his films continuously from 1914 to 1923 and stopped only when the place burned to the ground. But his popularity knew no bounds. Movies had fewer geographical barriers than they do today — language was hardly an issue — and Chaplin's films hummed through those channels with ease thanks to their broad appeal. His nameless character, "the little tramp," was down on his luck but had a gentlemanly air and took pride in straightening his hat, buttoning his tattered, ill-fitting coat, and dusting off the crumbs of whatever had knocked him flat.
After only a few years in the business, Chaplin's global embrace afforded him an independence that's nearly unthinkable now. He controlled every aspect of his films — writing, directing, producing, editing, and acting in them himself. He assembled a crew and a company of actors that he reused on each picture, and he shot on his own back lot in Los Angeles. Then as now filmmakers relied on distributors, but he gradually eliminated even that variable when he, along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith, founded United Artists, a company that would distribute their self-financed films.
And yet today discussion of Chaplin's work is too often reduced to a single question: who's better, Chaplin or Buster Keaton, a question that drastically limits both men. Books and movies about Chaplin are plentiful but they're often preoccupied with either the mechanics of his productions or the starlets he slept with. Critic David Thomson's new book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood
devotes an entire chapter to the sort of amateur psychoanalysis that trains an eagle eye on the man with only fleeting glances at his work. And Richard Attenborough's biopic Chaplin
from 1992, though it contains a couple of fantastic performances, is the kind of shallow, sexed-up summation that any great artist can expect from Hollywood if he or she dies with enough skeletons in the closet. And Chaplin left behind plenty.
This isn't to say that Thompson's overview isn't interesting. It is. But it seems to make the assumption that Chaplin's personality is so outsized, even after all these decades, that there's still room to shave off a few more inches, and that the films are so well known they don't need — or can't withstand? — close scrutiny. Can't they?
Unfortunately, the apparent simplicity of the films themselves has created a myopic view of Chaplin as a talented performer with a vaudevillian pedigree but a weak filmmaker who never really harnessed the medium that brought him so much fame.
And yet you only need to look
at the movies to see otherwise, and you can start with Chaplin's very first feature-length film, The Kid
. In the late teens, movies had outgrown nickelodeons and moved to larger screens, and the serious filmmakers had begun to turn out work that approximated the length of a stage play. The comedians on the other hand had focused on short films and were quickly reaching a crossroads: were they the makers of funny faces and the hurlers of pies, best seen in small doses, or were they filmmakers
Chaplin saw himself as the latter, and The Kid was the result of his ambitions, an hour-long blend of comedy and drama in which the tramp finds an orphan and raises him as his own. He shares the screen with 5-year-old newcomer Jackie Coogan, and the chemistry between them is the heart of the movie.
As funny as they are together, the movie's emotional centerpiece is a deeply moving scene that's purely, unquestionably, cinematic. The authorities have come to take the boy away from the tramp, and he fights them so vigorously that the film instantly takes a more serious tone. The authorities toss the boy into the back of a truck as he cries out to his father who's up in their apartment wrestling with the police.
Then, strangely, Chaplin cuts from the kid to the tramp, from the kid to the tramp, several times, and the tramp, although he's involved in a physical struggle, is suddenly frozen, catatonic, staring into the camera with the glassy-eyed realization of what's at stake.
Now, here's what I always wonder: can he hear the boy calling him from the street? If The Kid were a sound movie, or a stage play, the answer would be clear, but because it's silent, Chaplin, this uncinematic director who's attempting drama for the first time, is able to wed montage with an idiosyncratic performance to depict the nearly psychic connection between parent and child, the gray area between yes and no. Does the tramp hear the boy? Of course he hears the boy, in his heart. What follows is high drama, a chase along rooftops, and a triumphant finish in which the tramp and the kid, reunited, button up their coats and walk back home, hand in hand, a whirlwind of laughter and tears, and I can't think of a more perfect, universally understood three minutes at the movies.
Released in 1921, The Kid was a huge success. It made Coogan a star (he worked as a child actor for a time, and then decades later he resurfaced memorably as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family TV series) and its financial success was also the inspiration for the Our Gang series of short comedies (aka The Little Rascals) that Hal Roach launched a year later. But most importantly, it catapulted an already successful Chaplin into a new level of filmmaking. He made a few more shorts to finish his existing contract and then moved to United Artists to devote his time to features, creating a tower of silent classics like The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times and angry, inspired talkies like The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux.
Chaplin's City Lights crew stood idle on the set for months as he waited for inspiration for these particular scenes. I believe that performing probably came easier to him than mise-en-scène. But I'm not sure that Dreyer or Kubrick crafted their exquisite visuals any more swiftly.
And although it's not often included as a part of this story, he continued to grow as a director of skill and subtlety. The way he uses the frame at key moments in City Lights
to link or divide the characters is stunning. It's a style more often associated with Carl Dreyer whose roving camera in Ordet
struggles to keep the characters from drifting away from each other. These flourishes in City Lights
are uncharacteristic of Chaplin, some might say, as if such things should be measured in minutes of screen time or feet of track. But when the two most critical moments in one of Chaplin's most complex films hinge on the precise movement of the camera and the careful assembly of shots — or when that pivotal point in The Kid
is so carefully designed — maybe these flourishes should be admired for their effortless brevity rather than dismissed or, more commonly, ignored.
I recently attended a packed screening
of Chaplin's feature The Circus
at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco's historic movie palace. I'd forgotten how elegant, how funny it is, though I must have seen it a hundred times. The joy of Chaplin's films is first discovering them and then continually rediscovering what's buried in apparently simple structures. A thousand of us crowded into that theater, young and old, newcomers and old fans, and sitting next to each other we couldn't stop laughing.
This article also appears in print in Paste Magazine #15,
April/May 2005, and was distilled from a ramble in a thread at
filmjourney and an all-too-brief conversation in Toronto.