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One Week, Metro 1920.

Posted by keith1942 on December 13, 2016

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Buster Keaton is normally ranked with Chaplin as the great silent film comedian. He came through a similar background in the US vaudeville. He entered films later, 1917, appearing in a supporting role alongside Fatty Arbuckle. When Arbuckle moved to feature production with Paramount Joseph Schenk, who ran the Communique Film Corp., elevated Keaton to star. Keaton acquired an old Chaplin studio and control over eight two reel comedies released by Metro [later M-G-M). Importantly whilst Keaton exercised the creative control he did not have the independence that Chaplin achieved: this was to blight his career in the late 1920s.

One Week was the first two-reeler released by Metro. It is constructed around a simple plot-line. Buster is the newly married ‘Groom’ and with his ‘Bride’ (Sybil Seeley) needs a home. He receives a DIY house kit as a wedding present. However, a thwarted rival in love sabotages the kit and most of the 20 minutes of the film finds Buster repeatedly attempting and failing to successfully construct his new home. He does manage a brief chase sequence early in the film. The finale involved Groom and Bride is one of the masterful examples of timing that make the gags so  effective.

Keaton was responsibility for the script [such as it was] and the direction: assisted by Eddie Cline. The film is sparse on credits but it seems that Keaton regulars filled out the crew; Elgin Lessley

on cinematography and Fred Gabourie in charge of technical effects. The latter are important in Keaton’s films.

Whilst One Week features a rival the film does not offer an opposing character in quite the way that Eric Campbell does for Chaplin. Keaton battles the elements, situations and especially technology. In this case the DIY house was apparently inspired by a Ford advertising film. Keaton is able to ring countless variations on the practices and pitfalls of DIY. Added elements, including a storm, increase the complexities. Such sequences, done with technical mastery, are a distinctive feature of Keaton’s comedies.

Keaton came to cinema slightly later than Chaplin and the style and technical aspects of the cinema had developed in this period. So we view the familiar long shots at mid-height, but we also get an array of iris shots, which act as equivalents for close-ups, both on characters and titles. And there are also a number of iris wipes which replace ellipses. Keaton and his team use editing to greater effect. Chaplin frequently uses a cut to make a gag: but Keaton uses successions of cuts to develop a gag line.

This is a perennial favourite, full of fine gags and reaching a fittingly dramatic climax.

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The Adventurer, Mutual 1917

Posted by keith1942 on December 12, 2016

mutual-adventurer

Chaplin learnt his trade in the British Music Hall. Then on tour of the USA he was recruited by the Keystone Film Company. The studio was run by Max Sennett and based at Edendale, close to the developing Hollywood. Chaplin signed with them in August 2013 and his first films appeared in 1914. Gradually his screen persona of ‘the tramp’ emerged and by 1915 he was already a star. The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, which opened in 1914, records some film details in the surviving log books. By the middle 1915 Charlie Chaplin is a ‘name above the title’ and attracting some of the biggest attendances of the year. Chaplin appeared in 35 films for Keystone: mainly one-reelers. By now he was so successful he was able to sign with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company for an increased salary and with greater control over the films in which he appeared. Chaplin made 14 films for Essanay, both one and two reelers. By now he was an international star and he moved again, this time Lone Star Mutual. Not only did he now exercise complete control over the titles but he was able to work at his own pace and in his own way: slower than most film-makers and with a perfectionist attention to detail and the comedy.

This film was the fourteenth and last title he made there. The shooting took at least two months, an exceptionally long period for the time. He shot about 700 takes, this for a film that was 1800 feet long and which ran for just over 20 minutes, presumably at 16 fps. There was not a script as such. Chaplin planned two settings, an opening sequence shot on the coast and then a set of interiors at a large mansion. When these were completed he added a third section which acted as a bridge between the start and end setting of the film.

The opening of the film finds Charlie as an escaped convict being pursued by a group of police along the seaside. This is fine slapstick with excellent timing. The sequence is almost entirely a chase up and down the cliffs and along the beach and water. Charlie displays the balletic grace which is one of his star attractions.

The central section has a series of rescues from the water and Charlie’s encounter with an attractive and affluent young woman (Edna Purviance). He also encounters her beau, played by his regular nemesis Eric Campbell.

The final section finds Charlie a guest at the mansion woman’s father, [he is a judge]. Charlie masquerades as a society man and is involved in a s series of mishaps and gags involving the well-heeled guests and the servants. Mayhem returns when the police re-appear towards the end of the film.

Charlie’s persona is typified in this film in the manner that David Robinson presents in a quotation:

“… all my films are built round the idea of getting me into trouble and so giving me the chance to be desperately serious  in my attempt to appear as a normal little gentleman.” (David Robinson Chaplin His Life and Art, Collins and Son 1985).

Chaplin, whilst a tramp, has a petit-bourgeois style and his penury is constantly contrasted with his expensive tastes. This is especially true of the sequence in the rich mansion which sees Chaplin attempting to impress the young woman whilst his rival intervenes and the niceties of social norms are repeatedly sabotaged.

This approach was clearly an important factor in Charlie early success and popularity:

“One of the things most quickly learned in theatrical work is that people as a whole get satisfaction from seeing the rich get the worst of things. The reason for this, of course, lies in the fact that nine tenths of the people in the world are poor, and secretly resent the wealth of the other tenth.”

And Music Hall, and the US Vaudeville audiences had an even higher percentage of the poor. This was also a decade in which such divisions were powerfully present in political and economic life. The film also benefits from Chaplin’s inspired use of props: an instance here uses ice cream.

Stylistically this film, like its companions, is straightforward. The camerawork tends to rely on the long shot, with an occasional mid-shot. Camera potions are closest to the plan americain, head-on and mid-figure. The structure of the film relies mainly on the editing, and the cutting is an important element in the humour and jokes in the film. The cinematography, by Chaplin’s regular Roland Toleroth, is simple and effective. There is some under-cranking to achieve speed-up in the early sequences. And the characters tend to position themselves mid-frame.

At this early stage there films offer little in the way of credits. There would have been a raft of craft personnel working on this film. However, by now Chaplin was an autocrat, sometimes even a control freak, and it is mainly his mark we see on the film.

But an important element is the supporting cast. Edna Purviance was a regular in Chaplin’s films at this period: she also had a close personal relationship with Chaplin. The other key character is played by Eric Campbell. He is a superb foil to the ‘tramp’ and one wonders how effective the films would have been in his absence. Indeed this was his last film with Chaplin: he died not long after in an automobile accident.

After Mutual Chaplin’s films became longer and he developed the feature length comedies of the 1920s. But of course the groundwork for his later success was laid in the one and two reelers of the teens. Critics tend to rate the Mutual comedies as the best of his short films. The Adventurer is certainly a fine comedy. Some of the sequences are hilarious and one is aware all the time of a masterful hand coming up with witty and even outrageous effects.

Released October 1917. Two reels. Black and white. 1845 feet.

 

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – Day 3.

Posted by keith1942 on September 19, 2015

An example of a Windjammer.

An example of a Windjammer.

Saturday had a distinct maritime flavour. We opened with the 1930 Windjammer. Loraine Porter introduced the film and we learnt that the project started as a film record of a voyage of Grace Harwar from Australia to England carrying grain. The voyage rounded the Cape Horn, so it was long and arduous. A.J. Villiers, [author of a book By Way of Cape Horn) recorded the voyage with cameraman Gregory Walker: who died near the voyage’s end. They filmed at silent speed, though it is not clear if it was a hand-cranked camera. After the voyage Villiers attempted to get the record released as a film. The first attempt failed, but there was more success with Wardour Films and it was released in a sound version. This unfortunately led to a disappointing version. The on-ship footage is often impressive, but only about 2,000 foot [a third of the total] made it into the 58 minute release. The rest was a sort of dramatic addition, filmed either in a studio or on the port-moored ship. This offered the poor sound and dramatic qualities of the early thirties. And the silent footage was speeded up, maybe from 20 to 24 fps? Villiers also suffered because he had great difficulties in getting any share of the income, which was less than the production and release costs. A missed opportunity unless someone can find surviving footage.

the RMS Lusitania

The RMS Lusitania

Following this there was background and film examples about the notorious sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. There were some particular interesting examples of the use of animation for wartime propaganda. The session then offered Imperial War Museum material on Lord Kitchener: a chance for landlubbers to regain their feet. I was fascinated to learn that Kitchener was possibly gay and involved in such a relationship.

After lunch we had more water with Buster Keaton and his Steamboat Bill Jnr (1928). Some of my friends were very taken with this digital version, [which is getting a UK general release]. I found it had that flat surface patina that is a problem with digital versions. The better side of the session was Neil Brand, first talking about Keaton, and then providing a sparkling accompaniment.

After tea – the refreshment breaks were frequent and well done – we had another early sound film, The Great Game from British Instructional Films (1930). The ‘great’ game was football. The film effectively combined fictional dramatic sequences with actual footage, including Wembley and the FA Cup. The plot was fairly generic, and included a young footballer trying to make the first team. But the central conflict was in the Board Room, twixt Chairman and Manager. Rather nicely, and presumably reflective of currents in the 1930s, the emphasis was on the team. Surprisingly for me, it was also a period with debates about transfer fees, which made it seem quite up-to-date.

The actual FA Cup 1930.

The actual FA Cup 1930.

The afternoon finished with another Soviet feature, The Cosmic Voyage (1936). This originally had a synchronised score but had an electronic accompaniment at the Phoenix. It had also been screened at the previous Giornate del Cinema Muto. This science fiction feature offered a preview of a coming Soviet Moon shot, with impressive designs and construction, whilst aiming for a scientifically based view of the future.

In the evening the Festival moved to Leicester Cathedral and the new tomb of Richard Third. The film, Jane Shore (1915), was set during the Yorkshire vs. Lancaster Wars of the Roses. Richard, as villain rather than hero or wise monarch, appears in the film. The film’s notable appeal is in the use of location settings with large numbers of extras. The version screened also had the original tinting restored. And there was a live accompaniment by Orchestra Celeste. So the day ended land-bound again.

Jane Shore booklet

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on November 16, 2014

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This was the 33rd Festival of silent film held in Pordenone [or for a few years Sacile]. It was a fairly full week full of classic early films, some familiar titles and some new and engaging surprises. The weather that accompanied the week was mixed some; sunshine some rain, but warm compared with ‘blighty’. It was a fairly full programme, we started at 8.45 a.m. one day. However, there were not any really late nights, I was usually in bed before midnight.

One major strand was a tribute to the Barrymores, Ethel, John and Lionel. They were part of what one could call Hollywood royalty in the 1920s. In fact, in retrospect it is surprising that it is only now that they have enjoyed a major retrospective. All three were established stars of theatre, and one sensed that this remained their main focus. A theatrical flourish tended to over emphasise their performances, more notably in the two male stars. One really interesting film has Lionel Barrymore as The Copperhead (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920), a supposed supporter of the Confederacy but living in Union territory. It threw a distinctive angle on the US civil war, though it became almost masochistic as the hero suffered for the cause. We had only one complete film starring Ethel Barrymore, but she seemed in some ways the best adapted of the clan to film. The White Raven (Rolfe Photoplays, 1917) was a melodrama with a somewhat implausible plot but with a strong and determined female lead. The most famous title featuring John Barrymore was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920). The film is not as good as that directed by Robert Mamoulian a decade later, but Barrymore brings an intensity to the scenes of transformation that seem almost vampirist.

For me the star programme of the week was Russian Laughter: The Silent Comedies of Yakov Protazanov, [despite the misspelling of Soviet!]. We enjoyed six silent films and one silent which had been re-processed as a sound film in 1935. We had two actual Russian silent films, from 1913, a farce with a triangular relationship: and from 1918 a countess having to work as a chambermaid. In the Soviet features we had a tailor threatened by his marriage hungry woman employer: an overtly political comedy about the different types of theft, criminal and capitalist: a critique of bureaucracy in the shape of a railway station manger; and three Chekhov stories adapted on film. Protazanov and his writers created well-structured plots and witty characterisations. The production teams achieved a sense of realism that grounded the films in recognisable world. I felt that this was lost in the final sound version, a satire on religion – but some friends at the Festival rated it highly.

There were a number of special events. The epic screening was Die Nibelungen Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge, both Decla-Biscop 1924). This complete epic now runs for 175 minutes. It is certainly impressive, especially in the geometric designs created for Lang by his production team. And there are also impressive effects like the fire-breathing dragon, an example of German expertise in this decade. However, it is also rather ponderous in a way associated with certain Germanic art. The second part has more action and violence but it also has an idea of German invincibility as onerous as that found in many Hollywood war movies. I was rooting for the Huns very soon into the film. I was taken with Kriemhild though – the most implacably determined heroine I have seen in years. And the restoration by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung was impressive. The Catalogue suggests that Part 1 would run at 20 fps and Part 2 at 22 fps – in fact, it felt like both parts were running at 20 fps. Sacrilegiously I did think about whether they could up this by a frame or two a second.

Ben Hur

Ben Hur

Another programme was The Dawn of Technicolor. This included formats like early hand-colouring, formats that came and went like Kelley Color and the early forms of the major colour film format, Technicolor. In the 1920s the Technicolor Corporation developed two-strip or two-tone Technicolor. It use varied but in a spectacular like M-G-M’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) some sequences had a magical appearance. A really beautiful shorter film [two reels running 18 minutes] was Manchu Love (1929) from the Technicolor Corporation itself. This used a dye-transfer system and also included in the production two stalwarts of the Technicolor output: Natalie Kalmus, who for years laid down rigorous standards in its use and Ray Rennahan, possibly the Hollywood expert in colour cinematography. The plot owed much to the opera ‘Madame Butterfly’, though it as even more melodramatic. We also had a good print of The Black Pirate (The Elton Corporation, 1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks. Like other prints I have seen it suffered from desaturation, but it did not suffer the pinkish hue found on a version copied on to Eastmancolor stock.

There was more Early Japanese Cinema. And as in the previous year there were screenings employing a Japanese Benshi. The main one featured Chaplin shorts, presumably marking the centenary year of his on-screen debut. I do think the Benshi works better with Japanese films than imports. However, Ichiro Katanka, one of Japan’s ten or so working Benshi, also presented the Jonathan Denis Memorial Lecture for 2014 – The Art of the Benshi. This was a really interesting lecture on the roots and characteristics of this narrative form: enlivened by a series of recordings of Benshi from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Johan, a Festival regular, worked hard at providing a translation into English. My only reservation was that whilst Ichiro worked from a laptop this was not projected for the audience. It would have helped to have Japanese names, titles and dates displayed as he talked.

Charlie Chaplin was with us again on the closing night for a screening with orchestral accompaniment of City Lights (1931). This is one of the outstanding features by Chaplin: it is rather long on sentiment, but Chaplin mainly undercuts this with sly humour. And the comedy sequences, including the famous opening, show him on top form.

There were many other splendid programmes. These included films produced in the year 1914, Ukrainian animation, Rediscoveries and Restorations and the welcome The Canon Revisited. A rediscovery was an early sound version of Battleship Potemkin Panswerkreuzer Potemkin (Prometheus – Film 1930). Given the impact of Eisenstein’s masterpiece one can understand the desire to marry it with the new technology. However, it was not a successful marriage. Important title cards, like the quote by Trotsky on 1905, were missing: bizarrely, the divisions of parts had changed: and the music score was a combination of Edward Meisel with other music interpolated. I haven’t found a comment on this version by Eisenstein, but he famously ticked off Meisel at the London Film Society screening for tinkering with the projection speed.

Much more welcome in the ‘Canon’ was Raul Walsh’s slum film Regeneration (Fox Film Corp., 1915); though surprisingly no-one has got round to a full restoration. And there was Sir Arne’s Treasure (Herr Arnes Pengar, Svensk Filminustri, 1919); Mauritz Stiller’s magnificent but chilling drama of violence and contrition.

As always at Le Giornate the films were ennobled by the accompanying music. Most of the regulars were there, and most of the music illuminated and dramatised the films. We had a couple of performances that were too strong for the respective films, but overall this was fine music with a strong sense of empathy for the films.

The other fine strand across the week was the performance by a number of canine actors. The prize must go to a collie in The Incorrigible Dukane (Famous Players Film Co., 1915). Excuse the plot spoiler, but Dukane Jr. (John Barrymore) and his team are under siege in a cabin. The villains throw in a stick of dynamite. The brave and intelligent collie picks up the explosive, runs to the villain’s hideout and jumps through a window, returning the stick to the astonished gang. And he escapes to return to the men he has saved.

One bonus seemed to be a reduction in distraction in the auditorium: there were only a few mobile phones going off – still too many. And only the occasional laptop or tablet visible: unfortunately a new bad habit is checking the time on the latter, though I am sure this could be done without lighting up the whole screen. As in the past we also had a couple of people taking photos on these devices! However, a friend told me that there were quite a number of electronic gadgets illuminated in the balconies, perhaps the users have just moved.

A final tribute, to Dave Howell from West Yorkshire. He attended every film screening and never [he assures me] fell asleep. I am uncertain what to admire more, his stamina or his dedication.

 

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Chaplin Centenary

Posted by keith1942 on April 1, 2014

chaplin_easystreet

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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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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