Early & Silent Film

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Chaplin Centenary

Posted by keith1942 on April 1, 2014


On February 7th 1914 audiences had their first opportunity to se a new film creation – Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Tramp’. The film was Kid Auto Races at Venice produced by Mack Sennett at The Keystone Film Company. It was Chaplin’s third film, but the second to be released and the one that introduced probably the most popular character in film history.

The anniversary one hundred years on will see any number of celebrations and revistings. Il Cinema Ritrovato at the Cineteca di Bologna has long had a special focus on Chaplin and this year will see a special conference with screenings at the end of June. That event precedes the annual archive festival in the city. Closer to home [mine anyway] the National Media Museum is featuring Chaplin in its annual International Film Festival [BIFF]. There will be a screening of two of the classic two-reeler and then one of my favourite features, Modern Times (1936).

Just to contexualise these: Chaplin had been raised in poverty and deprivation in London’s East End. He started in the British Music Hall at an early age and by 1908 he joined Fred Karno’s troupe, one of the most popular on the circuits. Another potential star in the troupe at that time was Stan Laurel. Chaplin toured the USA Vaudeville with the Karno troupe in 1911-12 and again in 1913. On the later tour he secured a contract with Keystone, part of the burgeoning industry in Hollywood and famous for their anarchic Keystone Kops. This move is symbolic of a wider transformation, as the years from 1914 [during World War I] saw the centre of world cinema move from Europe to the USA. And Chaplin was to become world cinema’s first superstar in that state’s film capital, Hollywood.

In just on a year Chaplin appeared in 35 Keystone comedies, mostly one or two reel films: a reel was a 1000 feet in length and ran for about fifteen minutes at a running speed of 16 frames per second. His popularity increased from film to film and in 1915 he moved to The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. He received an increase in salary and greater control over the films.  Up until the middle of 1916 Chaplin made fourteen films for Essanay. His style and screen persona became more established in this period. He shared the acrobatic dexterity and timing of many ex-vaudeville stars who worked in silent comedy. But he also had the distinctive character, immediately recognisable, usually down and out, disreputable but with an irrepressible manner. Chaplin bought a balletic grace to all his actions; he slowed down the comedy and lovingly exploited props and situations.

In May 1916 Chaplin moved again, this time to the Lone Star Mutual. Again he received an increase in salary, increased control over the films, and a specially equipped studio in which to work. The eleven Mutual two-reel comedies are considered some of the finest of Chaplin’s short films. At this stage he also developed a regular supporting troupe of craftsmen and performers. The main cinematographer was Roland Totheroh. And the two key performers were Edna Purviance, who usually offered romantic interest: and Eric Campbell, who was a large and threatening character, providing the main conflict with The Tramp.

BIFF is offering two of the Mutual classics:

Easy Street released January 1917. 23 minutes.

The Tramp is recruited by a Missionary (Edna Purviance) at a local reform centre into the Police Force. So Charlie is charged with cleaning up the title setting, a den of vice, violence and criminality. The main opposition comes from the ‘Scourge of Easy Street’ (Eric Campbell).

The Immigrant released June 1917. 24 minutes.

Charlie is one of the migrants arriving in the USA. Many in the audience would have experienced what the film burlesques. In New York for example the majority of Nickelodeons were in working class and migrant areas. Edna Purviance plays a fellow immigrant, whilst Eric Campbell is a less friendly aspect of their new society.

Both films rely on Tittle Cards [Intertitles] for plot information and dialogue. And as in 1914 the films have a live musical accompaniment, provided by Darius Battiwalla. Darius has established himself as a skilled and popular performer in the series of Silent Films with Live Piano at the Museum.

In 1917 Chaplin moved to First National [later part of Warner Brothers]. As his career had developed he had increasingly taken control of the production of his films. Now they also increased in length. His 1919 feature The Kid is six reels in length. It became one of his most famous and enduring films. It also made a star of the then only five-year old Jackie Coogan.

In 1919 Chaplin, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith, set up their own distribution company, United Artists. The four names were the most famous and successful member of the Hollywood Industry. A competitor quipped, “So, the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”  In fact their early years saw major successes, including Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers (`1921), Pickford in Sparrows (1926), Griffith directed Broken Blossoms (1919) and Chaplin made The Gold Rush (1925).

Chaplin was a perfectionist and as his career developed and his control of the filming increased, he spent more and more time on achieving the exact effect. The Gold Rush was in production from December 1923 until May 1925. It also cost about $ 1 million but it took $6 million at the Box Office. However, his output of films slowed considerably. Then in 1927 commercial sound film arrived with Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer and Al Jolson’s famous line – “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” By 1930 most of the US Industry had changed over to a system that offered music, effects and (crucially) synchronised dialogue.

However, Chaplin [like Douglas Fairbanks] felt hat his art depended on the distinctive form of silent film.  In January 1931 he released City Lights, which relied on Title Cards and with the only concession to sound technology being a pre-recorded musical accompaniment.

Modern Times, released in January 1936 continued this trend. The film does have a soundtrack, which includes music, sound effects and the human voice – but little synchronised dialogue. And the film still relies on the Title Cards for much of the pilot and dialogue. In many ways it brings to summation Chaplin’s cinematic virtues: there is the Tramp character, irrepressibly anarchic. There is Chaplin’s sympathy with ordinary workers and the poor, strikingly in the film’s early scenes of mass production. There is Chaplin’s balletic grace in physical action, notably in the roller skating sequence. And there is his sentimental use of melodrama, in the relationship with the Gamine (Paulette Godard).

Chaplin’s later films used synchronised sound. However he fell foul or the FBI and the conservative elements in US society. Following Word War II he moved to Europe and it was only in 1972 that he received an Honorary Academy ward from Hollywood.

Note that the Museum is using digital versions of the Chaplin films. This means the films have been step-printed to bring them up to sound speed. This does produce occasional ‘ghosting’, frames carrying over rather than a clean cut. And I think that the films still run slightly fast in this format. Some of the sequences in The Immigrant are a shade fast, and the incomparable lamppost sequence in Easy Street seems to lack the precise timing it has on 35mm. However, for most of the screenings you forget this as gag follows gag and Chaplin displays his striking physicality.

Chaplin His Life and Work by David Robinson (1998) is the source for his work and career and Wikipedia has a detailed page on him.


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