Chaplin on VOD: Moving on to bigger things (1920s)
Simon Kinnear | On 15, Aug 2015
As Charlie Chaplin makes his UK VOD debut, we look at the director’s pioneering work during the 1920s.
It’s easy to forget that, when Charlie Chaplin made The Kid in 1921, he was already a veteran – the star and director of dozens of short silent comedies that had pioneered cinema technique and made him the first ever global entertainment superstar. That’s why, during the 1920s, Chaplin moved away from ‘pure’ comedy (i.e. slapstick) into a more nuanced blend of laughter and sadness, as his ambitions as a filmmaker grew. It’s perhaps apt then, that Artificial Eye are starting its welcome mission to bring the Little Tramp’s feature work to VOD with a trio of movies that encapsulate this stage of Chaplin’s career.
Barring 1924’s A Woman Of Paris (a full-blown melodrama, due out on VOD later in the year), the three films represent Chaplin’s entire feature output during the decade: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928).
In Chaplin’s filmography, The Kid isn’t technically a feature but, at six reels (roughly an hour in duration), it is considerably longer than anything he’d done to date. It’s therefore a useful pointer to Chaplin’s themes and preoccupations at a vital moment in his development.
The film is, conspicuously, an elongation of the mood (and, to some degree, the paper-thin plots) of the shorts in which Chaplin developed the famous character of The Tramp. The similarities are obvious, down to the evocative design of the working class street scenes and the use of recurring stock figures like the hostile, permanently frowning policeman.
Effectively, The Kid is a remake of those earlier, Tramp-led movies in an entirely different genre: where once there was comedy, now there is melodrama. There are only really enough gags here to fill a typical two-reel short; the rest of the running time is given over to jerking our tears through the anguished parallel stories of the mother who has spent her life trying to find the son he regrets abandoning, and the surrogate father who has brought him up in the face of intolerable pressures.
Chaplin’s conviction as both actor and director makes events compelling in spite of the often mawkish manipulation. Drawing on his own deprived childhood, and the grief of losing a son immediately prior to filming, the film has an astonishing heart-on-its-sleeve veracity and, crucially, the story is anchored in a firm character foundation that allows genuine charm to seep through, not least in the extraordinarily expressive performance of six-year-old Jackie Coogan as the titular Kid.
In The Gold Rush, Chaplin leaves behind urban sentimentality to seek his comic fortune in the wilderness – and finds it. Aptly, this is the richest seam to mine if you want the spirit of Chaplin’s ‘early, funny’ movies; its compact running time and relative absence of sentimental mush ensure a single-minded focus often lacking elsewhere in his work.
The revue-style string of sketches barely qualifies as a plot, yet that’s no bad thing here. Chaplin preferred to work without a script and his apprenticeship was served in the compressed urgency of single or double reels. His comedy mind clearly works best over short distances, and The Gold Rush is best seen as a compendium of sequences linked only by locale. The best comes first: an extended riff on greed, hunger and madness, during which chicken-men are hallucinated and a meal is made of a pair of boots.
The film fades slightly once it leaves the cabin, as the sentimentalist in Chaplin inevitably goes looking for love. Yet something of the harsh, brittle atmosphere of the film’s setting seeps into even the romance, giving the film an altogether more modern slant than Chaplin usually allows. As a result, the pathos is earned, and Chaplin conjures up the definitive image of his on-screen persona’s essential loneliness in the achingly beautiful shot of him watching a dance unfold before him.
In fact, what ties The Gold Rush together isn’t so much subject as form. Time and place are gorgeously evoked, with Chaplin’s detailed recreation of a turn-of-the-century frontier town having the tangibility of a fully functioning world: it’s easily the equal of anything made by period specialist Buster Keaton, and it’s a shame that Chaplin generally favoured contemporary, urban subjects.
The Circus (1928) is The One Nobody Talks About, largely because following The Gold Rush was never going to anybody any favours. That film had its lovingly detailed period setting and harsh natural backdrops to kick against; The Circus is, simply, a film set at a circus – an ideal subject for a short, but which at feature-length stretches thin.
Not that Chaplin isn’t capable of delivering great set pieces. The opening chase through a fun-fair has a showdown in a hall of mirrors to rival Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, and Chaplin milks every last gag out of the ‘trapped in a lion cage’ and tightrope walking routines, the latter enlivened no end by a host of naughty monkeys biting his nose, sticking their tails into his mouth and undressing him while he’s 20 feet off the ground. Monkeys on a tightrope: always a winner.
But there’s an undercurrent of obviousness to this, the sense that – aside from the athleticism and immaculate timing of Chaplin’s movement – he’s slumming it slightly. The central romance holds little scrutiny, being the simplest and weakest of his unreciprocated infatuations with tragic but unobtainable waifs.
And yet, somewhere buried under the surface is Chaplin’s most honest statement of artistry, this being the only one of his features to really focus on the nature of comedy itself. The Tramp becomes an accidental hit at the circus after stumbling blindly in… but when he auditions, his self-consciousness prevents him getting the laughs. Given Chaplin’s own perfectionism and the fact that The Circus had a notoriously fraught production (beset by an off-screen divorce battle, gales, fires, and unusable footage), it’s tempting to read the film as Chaplin’s bittersweet reflection on his style.
That said, by the time of The Circus’ release Chaplin had proven himself a master of the feature film and the future surely looked bright for his brand of silent comedy. Right? The only problem was Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer and the coming of sound… but how Chaplin dealt with that during the 1930s is a story for another time.
Artificial Eye’s collection of Charlie Chaplin films from between 1918 and 1957 are available to watch online on Curzon Home Cinema, Wuaki.tv, Google Play, blinkbox, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.