La Grande Revue De Charlot by matthew c. hoffman

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Legends of Laughter” begins March, 2011, at the Park Ridge Public Library. I’m still undecided as to who of the comedic triumvirate will start on Opening Day. All I can say with certainty regarding this series is that I will be showing City Lights, Safety Last! and The General. If the Reader Services department should grant me an additional week (to a program that is already slated to be three months long), we may be bound for Texas land as I’d like to show Charlie Chaplin’s compilation film from 1959.

The Chaplin Revue features three of his early films he made for First National: A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim. The first in the series, A Dog’s Life (1918), juxtaposes the Tramp’s daily survival on the streets with the survival of a mongrel dog. The short thus creates a satirical comparison between the dog’s struggle and Charlie’s own attempt to fit into a society of patrolling cops and rowdy saloons. The latter, to his delight, is graced by the presence of Edna Purviance, who appears in all three films.

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Shoulder Arms (1918), considered one of his best films, was made during World War I. Despite initial hesitation on making a comedy about war, his film would become beloved by real-life soldiers. In it, Chaplin deftly balances comedy with tragedy and is able to create humor from the grim realities of trench warfare. And then there’s just plain insanity along the Western Front, as when Charlie’s soldier performs a mission over enemy lines disguised as a tree! Chaplin was such a perfectionist when it came to his films that a whole opening sequence from this particular film was cut which depicted life before the war. (Perhaps I’ll find a way to work in this deleted scene.)

The last in the Revue is the film I most wanted to play because it is so rarely screened: The Pilgrim (1923). This was Chaplin’s last film before he started making full-length features and it plays like a four-reel featurette. It was also the last time he would co-star with Edna Purviance. (She was, however, the leading lady of  his A Woman of Paris, which was only directed by Chaplin and did not star him.) In The Pilgrim, Chaplin plays an escaped convict who impersonates a small-town parson. As Chaplin biographer David Robinson points out, the film is a gentle satire that pokes good-hearted fun at small-town hypocrisies. Made with a visual economy that wastes no shots, The Pilgrim is a neglected work that displays Chaplin’s great ability for pantomime.  The film also featues a wonderful Western ballad “Bound For Texas,” sung by Matt Monro. (This is the same Matt Monro who would go on to sing the title song of the James Bond film From Russia With Love.)

Of note is the fact that The Chaplin Revue begins with archival footage of “How to Make Movies,” a short film of his that was never released. Here we are taken behind-the scenes at the studio he built in 1918. The Chaplin Studios would serve him the rest of his professional career in America.

Unlike his 1942 re-release of The Gold Rush, in which Chaplin narrated the action, The Chaplin Revue features no talk. It’s two hours of music and action– a sort of “comic ballet,” as Chaplin calls it in his voiceover introduction for us. That means there will be little time for yakety-yak from your program host. This will be my shortest introduction of the whole program. Like Chaplin’s narrator, I will have to retire behind my curtain of silence and let the films play.

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