Archive for June, 2010

Silent Laughter by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on June 28, 2010 by mchoffman

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Legends of Laughter: Lloyd, Keaton, and Chaplin Too” is the title of the upcoming, 3 month film event at the Park Ridge Public Library in Park Ridge, Illinois. Though spring 2011 is a long way off, the library fun factory is already gearing up; this blog will chronicle that series. While the final lineup of films is still being negotiated, I’ve started researching the stars featured in the program.

Though my emphasis will be on Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd– both of whom I greatly admire as artists and as individuals– I do showcase three of Charlie Chaplin’s best films in chronological order. He may not always win every popularity contest these days, but Chaplin will always be the most famous of the three. His name alone is cinema. I thought I should begin this process of discovery by building a file on Chaplin. Unlike the one the FBI maliciously kept on him, mine is only interested in his prodigious contributions to film history.

There are many biographies out there on Charlie Chaplin. But if you’re going to read a 600 page tome on him, it’s best you select the right one. The Park Ridge Library owns two of the more recent books: Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin by Joyce Milton and Charlie Chaplin and His Times by Kenneth Lynn. However, based on the reviews of people outside the academic world, these are two of the worst bios available. Lynn’s is a character assassination on Chaplin. One reviewer brought up a good point that convinced me to put this one back on the shelf. The important chapter that covers the making of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush— a film considered his masterpiece– is insultingly called “Why Don’t You Jump?” ( a reference to a line Chaplin supposedly told his young bride, Lita Grey, onboard a train). That tells you where the author’s priorities are. 

Recent bios have agendas or fixate on his personal life, serving up psychological interpretations rooted in heresay and speculation. This is all irrelevant for the purpose of my upcoming lectures. If you’re looking for that Hollywood Babylon-type of history and want to know about Chaplin’s fondness for young women, then read those affairs. But for those looking for objective and informed materials on this iconic genius, here are the ones to start with:

1) Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson (Actually, any of the books on Chaplin by this author are recommended reading, including a small, abridged version of Chaplin’s life which I just read called Charlie Chaplin: Comic Genius

2) Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema by Jeffrey Vance.

3) The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian edited by Richard Schickel.

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“All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.” — Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin is indeed the embodiment of film. His image has been instantly recognized the world over. Yet, how many people under the age of 30 have actually seen his films? The reason I wanted to feature Chaplin is because despite his continued presence in our movie consciousness, only a small percentage of people of this generation are even remotely familiar with his career. People may instantly recognize the Little Tramp with the undersized derby and oversized clothes, or recall  images such as his “dance of the bread rolls” from The Gold Rush, which are always shown in compilations and tributes, but what are their memories of the little fellow himself? Was he just a costume– just a mustache and waddle people remember? If so, they will be pleasantly surprised to see the subtlety, poetry, and humanity within the world of the Tramp. He made the world take cinema seriously as an art form.

His films have been released in special dvd collections. However, these are already out-of-print and are selling for hundreds of dollars on Amazon. I went to three Best Buy outlets looking to at least pick up one of those economy box sets of his shorts, but no such luck. Best Buy has two aisles of HBO and TV trash but  not one film anywhere to be found on Charlie Chaplin!?!  

I remember as a kid seeing the two-reelers like Easy Street on cable and I remember his antics with the intimidating character actor Eric Campbell, he of the bushy eyebrows and beard and grotesque make-up. (These shorts, too, I will also incorporate into the programming.)

A former teacher of mine advised me to be careful with silent films because there might not be an audience for them. Yet, as a programmer for the LaSalle Bank revival house, I demonstrated that there is an audience. All the silent films I played at the Chicago bank had a respectable turnout, which is encouraging because three quarters of the films in 2011 will be silent. If this comedy crusade should flop and fail to attract younger audiences I will be disappointed, but if I’m going to lose, I’ll lose with my three best hitters at the plate… It’s a challenge to get people interested in black and white films– let alone films without dialogue– but Charlie Chaplin retains an almost hypnotic ability to make people stop and watch. We won’t have 3-D or surround sound, but our little prairie lantern show will be magical just the same. All I have to do is project the images. 

The perception of silent comedy is that it’s all broad, knockabout humor and slapstick shenanigans… Mack Sennett-style chases and custard pies thrown in the face and policemen being hit over the head with mallets. But Chaplin changed all that by bringing a more human element into the proceedings. His Tramp is a universal character whose humanity touches something in us all. His films remain relevant despite being nearly a hundred years old. His theme of loneliness, for example, struck a chord in me when I recently watched the short The Tramp. “I thought your kindness was love,” he writes to the girl, “but it ain’t cause I seen him. Goodbye.” The final image is of the little fellow taking to the road by himself.

His films contain pathos and are more sentimental than other films of the era, but there is nothing wrong with sentiment. Perhaps in our modern age where everyone is so cynical and mean-spirited, it’s harder to appreciate a simple film like The Kid. There is a great artistry in so many of these movies like City Lights— to such an extent that it makes you question the value of what passes for artistic achievement in film today, much less the comedy genre itself.

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On this day in late June, what is emerging for me personally is a greater appreciation of Chaplin the artist. Maybe I had been selling him short before– dismissing his films for messages and sentimentality while his contemporaries made less pretentious, gag-driven comedies I could appreciate more. Admittedly, he was a great auteur — a pantomimist who could find humor at the edge of tragedy.