BY John H. Foote
His very image or photograph is instantly recognizable around the globe and immediately associated with cinema even though it has been nearly one hundred years since the time of his greatest popularity. The baggy pants, bowler hat, the cane, the silly little moustache, the oversized shoes that saucy demeanor is instantly known to be the little tramp, Charlie Chaplin.
In many ways, Chaplin was the movies.
During the silent era, he became its most famous personality, at one point making the unheard of sum of ten thousand dollars a week, plus a signing bonus of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and being the most famous human being on the planet. Remember this was at a time in history without the internet, social media of any kind, and television, Chaplin’s fame came from his movies.
He came to America with a traveling stage show in which the young Chaplin had an act where he portrayed a drunken older man. A highlight of the show, it was witnessed one evening by the movie mogul Mack Sennett, who summoned the young man to his studio. Upon seeing Chaplin, the producer did not believe it was the same person, so on the spot, without warning, Chaplin went into his act. Stunned by the brilliance of the young man, Sennett offered him a contract making movies which Chaplin accepted. Most of the films in the years before The Birth Of a Nation (1915) were one-reelers, not more than ten minutes long. Chaplin was seen in hundreds, often recreating his drunk act in them. Realizing that film was a visual medium, he created a character that audiences, upon seeing would recognize as him, his famous little tramp. For seventeen years Chaplin’s tramp would be a huge box office draw in America.
He then asked to direct his next film, and due to his growing success, was permitted to do so. Perhaps because he had suffered through a childhood were poverty, the most intense, horrific kind, was a way of life for him, he was very aware of the world around him. Chaplin paid attention to the troubles in society and realized he could make films about those very issues if he made them as comedies. Sneak in the message while they are laughing he thought, and as he grew as an artist behind the camera, that was exactly what he did.
Blessed with a dancers grace and an acrobats movement, Chaplin used physical comedy and slapstick in his work. He worked hours, tirelessly on a scene, wanting never to repeat himself, demanding perfection of himself and those around him. Described as a taskmaster, he was not an easy man to work for or with, but he demanded as much from himself as he did others. The real troubles with Chaplin came off screen where his appetite for very young women often landed him surrounded in controversy and legal troubles. Chaplin liked teenage women and made no secret of that face, but questions were often raised about just how young were these teenagers? A few paternity suits often settled out of court by paying the young women off, landed him unfavourably in the public eye.
Yet so great was his fame, nothing seemed able to dim his star. Stores were filled with Chaplin merchandise, he was easily the famous person on the entire planet for a time, and the money was rolling in.
Combining pathos with comedy he had by now mastered his artistry, but yet never was satisfied, always trying to evolve to further push the boundaries. His war comedy, Shoulder Arms (1917) was brilliant, somehow finding great moments of comedy within the horrors of the First World War, still considered one of the horrible conflicts ever fought.
In 1918, frustrated by the control the studios exerted over his work, but more importantly, the dollars paid him, Chaplin joined Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith in forming United Artists in which the actors and directors took full control of their films. The films he made after the creation of the studio would all be United Artists productions until he ventured back into directing Hollywood films in the sixties. Chaplin built the very foundation on which Hollywood was built.
The Kid (1920) his first feature-length film was simply magnificent. Once again merging enormous heartache with comedy, The Kid (1920) remains one of the greatest silent films ever made. Within the narrative, the tramp finds himself the reluctant caretaker of a baby found in an abandoned car. He raises the boy as his own, teaching him the ways of the street, how to survive. Working as a glazier, the tramp has the little boy throw a rock through a store window, then near magically appears to fix it. The scam works for a time but draws unwanted attention to he and the boy. What neither Chaplin nor the boy know is that the entire time the child has been with the tramp, the mother has been searching for her son. Now wealthy, she can take care of him and wants to give him a life.
They are eventually reunited, and the tramp is welcomed into their home as a hero having cared for the child, who to his surprise he came to love.
Five-year-old Jackie Coogan portrayed the child in the film, and the immediate chemistry between he and Chaplin was electric. Though it is a cardinal rule for actors to avoid sharing the screen with children, Chaplin welcomed it, adored the boy and they remained friends the rest of Chaplin’s life. Coogan became best known as bald, grinning Uncle Fester on TV’s The Adams Family.
The Kid (1920) was a huge hit, simply adding to Chaplin’s already massive popularity. The film made it clear that his merging of comedy with drama, worked beautifully, and his absolute control over all elements of his films was equally perfect and apparently necessary.
The films to follow, The Gold Rush (1924) and The Circus (1927) were each outstanding works but the greatest was yet to come.
Sound had come to movies by 1927, but not to Chaplin, who felt audiences had no interest in hearing the tramp speak, and frankly, his art was pantomime, merged with expressionistic silent film acting in which his entire body was used. Who needed sound?
City Lights (1931) is among the greatest films ever made, among the finest comedies and without question the most astonishing film of Chaplin’s career. Everything he did well was showcased in this film, and what he created was flawless, utter perfection.
Once again the tramp finds himself in one comic situation after another, and he is hopelessly in love with a blind father girl. Each day he sees her, finds a coin to drop in her cup, their fingers might touch as he accepts a flower and, smitten, he moves on. Through a series of sounds she hears, she believes the person buying the flower is wealthy, based on what she hears. The tramp makes it his mission in life to restore sight to the girl, knowing that moment she sees him, she will spurn him. But thinking of her, of the other person always, he manages to raise the money for her to have the operation. Throughout the fil,m the tramp has a friendship with an immensely wealthy man but the fellow only recognizes his new friend when he is plastered. Their scenes together bring about much of the comedy within. The final scenes in the film are now legendary. The girl has her sight restored, finds work in a flower shop. The tramp sees her and tentatively approaches her, the admiration in his face. Gently teased by the women she works with, the fingers of the tramp and girl touch and she knows at once it is him, her benefactor. But he is not wealthy, he is a kind little man who loves her. He asks her “Now do you see?” And she answers she does.
Chaplin then closes in on his own face as we see the extraordinary joy he is feeling. The scene, now eighty-eight years old, still brings tears to my eyes. No other director of the time better understood how to use the camera as a director, and his face as an actor. By far the best film of 1931, the Academy went a different route, likely because Chaplin refused to make a film that was not silent. Had their been justice, City Lights (1931) would have won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor and Director.
His domination of the silent cinema made him the most remarkable artist of his time, and sadly I feel he not yet been given his due as a filmmaker.
Movies are what they are largely because of Chaplin.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.