As a child, I loved Charlie Chaplin films. I would put on my father’s shoes and wander about it with a trampish gait. LuckiIy, I was never tempted to boil and eat the shoes too, I would not see that done in Gold Rush for a few years yet. I am from the last generation that found it quite normal to watch silent films on television. There was nothing arcane or archaic about it. It was an everyday part of BBC2 programming. Some silents had been spruced up, Harold Lloyd now had an annoying voice over which has possibly damaged an entire generation’s opinion of his brilliant work.
As I grew older, my love of Laurel and Hardy remained, but Chaplin went out of favour. The received wisdom that he was overly sentimental meant that it became unfashionable to like Chaplin. Keaton was the one to revere, he was considered a more serious clown, with a stone face of existential angst and a collaboration with Samuel Beckett. Why it might be necessary to make a choice between Keaton and Chaplin, I have no idea, there is time enough to celebrate both, but I find a surprising number of people who say, “I never really got Chaplin”.
Each time I return to Chaplin, I find it harder to understand how anyone can dismiss him.
In is only in the last few years I have realised just a cinematic genius Chaplin was. He wrote, produced, directed, starred in and composed the music for a series of powerful, funny, philosophical and moving films. Even the first cinematic outing of the tramp, Kid Auto Races at Venice can make me laugh 100 years after it was made, as Chaplin repeatedly gets in the way of the news cameras and racing cars with such brazen cheek.
The choreography and ludicrous image of Chaplin becoming a wooden hedgehog as he carries 11 chairs on his back in Behind the Screen is as fresh as nay visual comedy being made now. Though the bread roll dance from Gold Rush may seem to have been so often imitated that it has lost some of its wonder, watch the sequence again and you will see how intricate something of seeming simplicity is. Johnny Depp spoke of having to imitate it in Benny and Joon and the days it took to get everything just right. It is so much more than it at first seems. That is what makes Chaplin live on, the depth of thought behind each seemingly simple routine. It is never just falling over with a bang, it is acrobatics with genius aplomb, it is the grace of the chaos.
As his biographer Richard Schickel noted, with Chaplin, all that seems solid melts into something else.
For those who ask, “but is Chaplin really still funny?”, I can promise you that a new generation of children laugh now at Chaplin attempting a tightrope walk while distracted by monkeys in The Circus. There may be many banana skin routines, but I am pretty sure Chaplin was the first to attempt the banana skin on the tightrope one.
I had not revisited the Rink, one of my earliest memories of watching a Chaplin, for three decades, but I watched it again this week. Here is Chaplin as a waiter, his face immediately revealing that he will not be following the rules of servile deference as he works out a bill based on the remnants of food spattered over the diner, the furious and luxuriantly eye-browed Eric Campbell, then pockets the an unoffered tip. He is lovable, rebellious, coquettish, both worldly and other worldly. As for the roller rink routine, I would watch Dancing on Ice if that is the sort of business that was on.
Eric Campbell was also the monstrous street-fighting adversary in Easy Street. Unable to floor him, or even move him with fisticuffs, Chaplin eventually overcomes him by pulling his head into the lamp of streetlight and gassing him. Woody Allen declared that Easy Street would be funny in one thousand years from now. The potency of the ridiculousness has made it last nearly a century already.
Neil Brand, a fine pianist who frequently accompanies silent film performances, sees that today’s audiences have to overcome the mores and attitudes of a bygone age, but that once that is done, we can still empathise with Chaplin as he responds to overwhelming forces.
City Lights, his most revered film and highest on the AFI’s 100 greatest film list, opens on a delightful scene of accidental rebellion. The grand unveiling of an epic statue ruined when the drape comes off to reveal the tramp asleep in the arms of the granite god. As the US national anthem plays, the tramp attempts to stand to attention while dangling by the butt of his trousers from the sword of a carved figure. There is set piece after set piece and, though my twentysomething self probably sneered at the innocent love story of tramp and blind girl, the 40 something me is more romantic and easily moved by this tale of a tramp who will do anything for the love of a woman. It also has the best joke with an elephant in any movie I can think of.
As for The Great Dictator, amongst the drama and social commentary, vividly portraying the rising oppression of the jewish people in Germany, there are moments of superb broad comedy. Adenoid Hynkel, a petty, preposterous dictator with delusions of monstrous grandeur is perfect for puncturing. The scenes of desperation as he attempts to show that he is the Great Dictator to rival dictator Napaloni, played with oomph and chutzpah by Jack Oakie are still fresh today.
And then there is Limelight. The music hall may be long dead, but Limelight still conveys what it is to be a clown, the desperation and fear of losing your audience, what it is to age and rail against age and loss.
If you want to sample his magnificence with a brief scene, just look at the delicacy with which he plays drunk in Limelight, the subtlety with which he conveys am inebriate attempting to find the keyhole in a door. If that doesn’t work for you, then watch him dressed as a chicken in Gold Rush or with his face manically covered in soup by a malfunctioning machine that is meant to be a sign of a bright new future in Modern Times.
There is beauty and humanity to be found here that I believe will survive a good few centuries yet.
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