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How I Came to Appreciate Charlie Chaplin

A brief moment to confess, which is good for the soul. I am disgracefully late in writing this contribution to “The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon.” My own blogathon, no less! Life became more hectic than I expected and I decided that I would rather read all your contributions than write my own. And in truth, I am glad that I did so, because my topic was on how I came to appreciate Charlie Chaplin and reading the many wonderful contributions has served to increase my appreciation far more than any writing I could have done. Once again, I want to thank you all for your participation and thank Domi for inviting me to co-host! It was a pleasure.

So, how did I come to appreciate the artistry of Charlie Chaplin? As a child, I used to watch Charlie Chaplin short films. I was so young, that I could not read and would nudge my siblings for an interpretation every time there was an intertitle.

But, in truth, I don’t recall having much difficulty following the plots and what stayed with me were images. The moment Chaplin cooks his shoe and then proceeds to eat the laces as if they were spaghetti. The moment in “The Vagabond” when Edna Purviance comes back to get the violin-playing tramp at the end, who has rescued her from gypsies. The time she dressed up as a boy in “Behind the Screen,” which I somehow conflated in my mind with “The Vagabond.” The time he takes a bite out of a child’s hotdog. These were the moments that stayed with me, and I experienced a profound sense of deja vu when I went back as an adult and saw all these films. The moment of recognition, the realization of where these scenes had originated, was sweet. I was extremely excited when I found that the hot dog scene was from Circus.

But after my youth, I largely left Chaplin behind. I knew who he was; I had fond memories of watching him, but that was all. Then I watched The Great Dictator and was oddly not impressed (I was still young and the speech at the end was all I recalled). Some years later, I tried Modern Times and was still oddly not impressed. I began to watch Buster Keaton films and came to the conclusion that I didn’t like Chaplin so much.

What changed it all was watching Keystone Comedies and an increased interest in silent films. I saw Chaplin in a few Keystone films, then watched him through his Essanay and Mutual films. I watched “The Pilgim” and “Shoulder Arms” and “A Dog’s Life.” I next watched The Kid and then The Gold Rush. It seemed so obvious why he was so great, how he transformed silent comedy and led the way, how brilliant his gags were (for example, the gag with the clock that he takes apart in “The Pawnshop,” which he treats as if he were a dentist, a doctor, a jeweler, as though it were a can he was opening and so on; his inventiveness was a delight). And after watching Keystone films, as interesting as they were, I appreciated the way Chaplin had developed as a storyteller, how his gags became a part of his story.

But what really impressed me was how he used comedy to take on some truly awful topics. Starvation in The Gold Rush? Turn it into comedy. Drug use in “Easy Street?” Hilarious! Poverty in The Kid, his most Dickensian film? He even took on Hitler. He made us care, made us aware, and made us laugh. Remarkable achievement. Right up there with Charles Dickens in that respect.

And at the same time, he was important in moving forward silent comedy, and silent cinema in general. I think understanding his place in cinema history helped me appreciate even his comedy, if that makes any sense.

Perhaps it’s been a slow journey to full appreciation. Because he was always talked about in near reverent terms, I wanted to be a rebel and not appreciate the one everyone else appreciated. But sometimes when someone is so often called great, it is because they truly are great.

 

For more posts about Chaplin, click here.

“All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export”

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Posted by on April 17, 2018 in Movies

 

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Update on “The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon”

Hi everyone! Recently, Domi and I reached out to the official Charlie Chaplin page on facebook in regards to the blogathon and they were extremely kind in their response. They posted a notice of the blogathon and offered to post all the entries, as well.

However, they did request that we post certain information in regards to copyrights and their vast resources of Chaplin images and videos. To quote Domi’s notice:

Because of copyright issues we kindly ask you to paste the following text somewhere in your blog post if you’re including any images of Chaplin: “All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export”

We would like to turn your attention towards the authorized picture database and YouTube channel of the Chaplin Office where you can access a huge amount of Chaplin-related material. If you’re in need of something you can’t find at any of these addresses, you’re always welcome to contact the Chaplin Office via Facebook or per e-mail.

We are extremely excited to celebrate his birthday and work in the coming week and look forward to seeing you all then! For more information on the blogathon or to sign up, click here for the official blogathon announcement.

 
13 Comments

Posted by on April 4, 2018 in Movies

 

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Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality was Buster Keaton’s third feature film and the second feature film he directed, following his Three AgesOur Hospitality is a remarkably assured film, however, and remarkably inventive. He shows his love of machines, his flair for period authenticity and his capacity to fully integrate his comedy into his story, comedy that unfolds with inexorable logic.

The film opens in 1810 in the South with a mock-serious prologue, recounting the death of the latest victims in a multi-generational family feud between the McKays and Canfields. When her husband is killed, Mrs. McKay takes her son, Willie Mckay, to live in New York.

That in itself is rather funny. It’s not every comedy that begins with murder and Keaton seems to be parodying melodramas or even D.W. Griffith.

By 1830, Willie is now played by Buster Keaton and learns that he has inherited some land from his father and must return to the South to claim it. On the train trip down south, he encounters a charming young lady (Natalie Talmadge), who just happens to be a Canfield. Not knowing each other’s names, she invites him to her father’s house for dinner, only for her father and two brothers to learn that he is a McKay and must be killed. The problem is that their rules of hospitality dictate that they cannot kill him while in their house. When Willie learns of this, he must contrive to stay in the house, while falling in love with the daughter.

The Pea Shooter Pistol

Our Hospitality definitely shows Keaton’s love of machines. The film prominently features an early train that looks more like a string of coaches on rail tracks and pulled by what looks like a toy train engine. As idiosyncratic as the train looks, however, it was based on an actual model of train from the era. The same with the dandy horse Keaton rides, which looks like a bicycle without pedals. Keaton also gets a lot of comedy out of the fact that guns could only fire once and then had to be reloaded with powder and bullets. One brother in particular has an elegant little pea shooter of a pistol that seems to underwhelm in it’s murderous function.

Out of so many excellent Keaton silent films, Our Hospitality struck me as a special delight and I could only marvel at his inventiveness on full display. Not just for machines, but for the logic of his comic gags. He rarely introduces a prop and just discards it after he’s finished with the gag. Even the train has a role to play in the final, thrilling chase with the Canfields trying to shoot Willie.

One great example of the prop that continues to have completely logical significance is the rope that becomes tied around both Willie’s waist and the waist of a Canfield brother. Willie is hanging from a cliff, but the brother can’t get a good shot at him, so lowers a rope so he can swing Willie to safety so he can then shoot him. Of course they both fall into a lake and even when the rope is finally severed between them, the little bit of rope that Willie cannot untie continues to have vital significance, both for good and ill (thought mostly ill). Best of all, the rope plays a role when Willie stages his daring rescue of his beloved, who is about to tumble down a waterfall. It’s a pretty amazing stunt.

But this logic is, I believe, what gives Keaton films a particular delight. They aren’t just funny. They make sense. What WOULD happen if two men, one who was trying to kill the other, were tied together with a rope? I rarely foresee what happens, but it always makes perfect sense once it does occur. The unexpectedness is where the comedy comes in.

He also has a lot of fun with the absurdities of the Southern code of honor (or any such code of honor). What happens when two parts of one’s code come into conflict? A McKay MUST be killed. A guest MUST be respected. What does the existence of such a conflict say about their code? Not to mention the humorous existence of a frame in the Canfield home, enjoining them to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” What are the Canfield’s to do? You have to watch Our Hospitality to find out. It’s a true delight.

Thanks so much to Silent-ology for hosting “The Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon” and giving me an excuse to watch a film I’ve been meaning to see for a long time! For more posts about Buster Keaton, follow this link.

 
13 Comments

Posted by on February 13, 2018 in Movies

 

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