Early & Silent Film

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Early Chaplin shorts

Posted by keith1942 on July 12, 2012

Charlie Chaplin is probably the most iconic figure in the history of cinema. He achieved rapid stardom as Hollywood was developing its dominance of the worldwide industry. He was massively popular among the ordinary cinema audiences but also praised by critics, artists and intellectuals. His career developed through the early relatively short comedies, devoted to slapstick and clowning, and he then developed his art in a series of great silent feature-length comedies. Almost alone among popular filmmakers he extended his work in silent film into the 1930s and was still able to make impressive and popular features in the new sound film medium. Whilst he concentrated mainly on comedies his films were suffused with a sympathy and empathy for the poor and downtrodden: an empathy, which stemmed from the hardships of his own upbringing in the East End of London. His liberal politics and his freewheeling personal life made him a natural target for the right-wing politicians in the USA. And his later career suffered from the sort of persecution that became notorious under HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist. He never won an Academy Award for one of his film masterworks but late on he did receive an Honorary Oscar from the Hollywood Academy. His style of humour was endlessly mimicked and copied: his influence can be seen in the great 1920s masterpieces of the surrealists and later his comic sequences were re-interpreted by the British film comic Norman Wisdom. 

Chaplin’s early career was in the British Music Hall and he became a star in the famous Fred Karno troupe. The troupe toured the USA in 1912 and again in 1913. It was on the latter tour that Chaplin received an offer from Max Sennett’s Keystone Studio. Among other things Chaplin’s signing with the Hollywood based Keystone signalled the move of the centre of the burgeoning film industry from Europe to the increasingly powerful US economy.

Chaplin started at Keystone as a supporting comic in the short one and two reel films. However, his onscreen persona developed with the arrival of the character of ‘The Tramp’. He made 35 films with Keystone, and for the later comedies Sennett allowed Chaplin to direct as well as star.  

By the end of this series Chaplin had become a popular star, and he was able to consider offers from other film studios. He signed with the Essanay Film Company late in 1914, to produce a series of 14 comedies. This was a Chicago-based film company, with both a studio in New York and in Hollywood. Chaplin started at the New York studio but soon moved back to Hollywood. At the new studio Chaplin developed his craft, extending the production time on the films and paying greater attention to the gags and their filming. He also started to acquire a sort of stock company of regular on-screen collaborators. The most famous was to be Edna Purviance who was to play opposite him in 35 films. 

One example from the Essanay output is The Champion, released in March 1915. It is a two-reel comedy running for just half-an-hour. Apart from Edna Purviance the film featured a number of Chaplin regulars including Lloyd Bacon, Leo White and Bud Jamison. And there is a brief appearance by the famously cross-eyed Ben Turpin. The film is fairly typical of the film comedies of the period, with a rather open narrative and a lot of slapstick sequences. The setting is a boxing booth with Chaplin as the ‘champion’s’ sparring partner. The film ends with a full-scale boxing match, ‘balletic in composition with Charlie devising a series of exquisite choreographic variations.” [David Robinson].          

Film like The Champion increased Chaplin’s popularity and in 1916 he signed a new and larger contract with the Mutual Film Company. The Mutual films are more coherent and sophisticated in their plotting, have a developed sense of melodrama and display Chaplin’s stock character and his performance to great effect. It was in the Mutual period that Chaplin achieved his worldwide popularity making his an idol who was adored across film industries and audiences. 

Chaplin directed and starred in 12 comedies for Mutual and they were the peak of his two-reel output. When he moved to the First-National Company in 1918 he was ready to develop his comedy in mainly feature length films.

Consider two of the Mutual two-reel films. First is The Vagabond, released in 1916, and running for about 28 minutes. Edna Purviance stars opposite Chaplin, Leo White and Lloyd Bacon are here and we also meet an addition to Chaplin stock company, Eric Campbell. As the Vagabond we see the fully developed Chaplin Tramp. Charlie rescues the friendless girl {Purviance). “Gag comedy is skilfully juxtaposed with as subtler comedy of character and with a sentimental theme …” [Robinson]. The film is less comic and more melodramatic than many of the other two-reelers. Much of the drama focuses on the relationship between the Tramp and the Girl. Chaplin introduces a stock theme of the ‘long-lost child’. He also introduces a middle-class artist character and this sets up an emotional conflict. The film actually toys with the common Chaplin ending of the lone tramp setting off once more on his travels but squeezes in a not-too-well motivated happy ending. Melodramatic sentiment becomes central to Chaplin’s work, including in the great 1920 features.

The second is The Adventurer released late in 1917 and running for just over 20 minutes. Chaplin is on the run from the law; we see his pursuit on cliffs and beaches. Then he stumbles on a drowning victim and becomes a hero in the rescue. This leads to his invitation a bourgeois household where his actions create havoc. These include conflict with Eric Campbell who is a suitor for the daughter of the house (Purviance} and the re-appearance eof the law and the police. One of the pleasures of the film is the opposition of Eric Campbell whose size and bulk is a source of constant humour. [This was his final appearance in a Chaplin comedy, he died in 1917]. This is the anarchic Chaplin, which was a prime quality in his appeal to the popular audience. Robinson quotes Chaplin’s own comments on the appeal of some of the comedy, in particular a famous ‘ice cream’ gag: “…  the delight the average person takes in seeing wealth and luxury in trouble. The other … tendency of the human being to experience within himself the emotions he sees on the stage or screen.” Robinson also records the lengthening number of takes Chaplin was using in film production: 300 for a party sequence in the bourgeois household of The Adventurer. An indicator of the increasing perfectionism that becomes really noticeable in Chaplin’s feature silents.  

All three films were recently screened at the National media Museum in Bradford with a live piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla. The 35mm prints were from the British Film Institute, but not the same ones as were used for the bfi Chaplin DVDs. These were from the Wardour Film Distribution Company and there were some differences in both editing and in title cards

One pleasing aspect was that the audience included a family, who apparently came along as a treat for dad’s birthday. So I was pleased when the eleven-year-old confided that he had not expected to enjoy the Chaplin films but has indeed found them very funny.

Note: the definitive work on Chaplin [and there are many] is Chaplin His Life and Work by David Robinson, published by William Collins in 1985 and Paladin in 1986

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