Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: The Evolution Of an Artist

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday September 29, 2006

Even today, 30 years after his death and nearly 100 years since he first stepped before a motion picture camera, Charlie Chaplin is still one of the most recognizable people in the world. The dandified Tramp, with his brush mustache, ill-fitting clothes, wicker cane and derby hat, is an iconic figure, but one whose familiarity has to some extent undermined his art. Chaplin today has become something of a two-dimensional figure, a static icon that means little to those born in the decades since his heyday; he exists as a fully formed entity, a known quantity, and is therefore just as easily ignored, an image from the past that no longer requires our attention.  

A new four-disc 90th anniversary edition DVD set of the 12 films Chaplin made for the Mutual Film Corporation has recently been released by Image Entertainment, featuring new restorations, complete with previously missing footage, and brand new scores by Carl Davis. Image released these films on DVD about 10 years ago, but this new set, in addition to superior image quality, has many other features that distinguish it, the best of which is the arrangement of the films in chronological order, providing the viewer with a glimpse of the arc of Chaplin’s art at a crucial stage in his development.  

The image of the Tramp is so ingrained in our consciousness that it is hard to imagine that he had to be invented, and that film comedy itself had to be invented. But that’s essentially what Chaplin did, and he did it, for the most part, single-handedly. He took the crude, knockabout, ensemble comedy of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios and zeroed in on character and personality, forging a strong individual identity as well as a unique bond with his audience.  

Once Chaplin broke away from Keystone he went to work for the Essanay company here in the East Bay. (The studio, in what was once known as Niles, near Fremont, is now a museum that offers screenings of silent films every Saturday night.) He made 14 short films for Essanay, firmly establishing himself as the most popular performer in the movies.  

But it is in the next group of films, made for the Mutual Corporation, where Chaplin finally realized his potential. The Mutual films represent the first blossoming of his comic genius. He was already enormously famous, the first international superstar, and his comic exploits had made him something of a populist hero. But it is the Mutual series that truly endeared him to his fans, for it is in these 12 two-reelers that he delved deeper into the nature of the tramp character: his fastidious habits, his contempt for authority, his longing for beauty and love, his artistic temperment.  

With films such as Easy Street and The Immigrant, Chaplin depicted the poverty and strife of his childhood while taking his first steps toward a more rounded cinematic ouvre with forays into social commentary.  

Later, of course, Chaplin would more completely incorporate drama and commentary into his work, drawing complaints from fans and critics alike that Chaplin was abandoning his comedic roots in the pretentious pursuit of Art. But in the Mutual films, the Tramp retains the rambunctious, anarchic, irrepressible humor that Chaplin’s detractors found lacking in his later, more sentimental work. 

The series begins with films that are not much different from his Essanay work and steadily progresses from there, with increasing complexity, finely tuned comedic timing, and brilliantly choreographed action sequences. In One A.M., Chaplin performs a solo tour de force, the film’s 20 minutes entirely devoted to a drunk man’s efforts to get home and into bed; in The Rink, Chaplin demonstrates his remarkable physical agility, tangling with his rival in an elaborate rollerskating sequence; and in The Immigrant, Chaplin makes one his first overtly political statements, as a boatload of immigrants gazes in awe at the Statue of Liberty before being roughly herded behind a restraining rope. So much for liberty. 

Too often forgotten in appreciations of Chaplin is the fact that he was not just a great comedian, but a great actor. In Easy Street he summons both drama and comedy—an innovation at the time—in the depiction of an unflinching portrait of poverty, crime and drug use while never compromising his comedic instincts. And again in The Immigrant, Chaplin creates one of his best depictions of the rapture of love, with the Tramp and the girl (Edna Purviance) finding the silver lining by getting married during a rainstorm.  

With these early masterpieces, Chaplin set the standard for the comedians who would follow in his wake: Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon. Arguably some would surpass him, in inventiveness, in direction, staging and camerawork, even in pure laughter. But no one ever came close to matching his enormous talent, his instinctive sense of pathos, or the unique and affectionate bond between the performer and his audience. 

Some say the Mutuals are his best period; certainly he was never again so free from self-consciousness, so anarchic and inventive. But a sound argument can be made that the Mutual period represents the artist’s adolescense, with his full artistic maturity expressed most clearly in his features of the ’20s and early ’30s: The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus and City Lights.  

But though those later films are more fulfilling and emotional, it is the casual, careless fun of the Mutuals that lends them to repeated viewings, that entices us to immerse ourselves again and again in the madcap adventures of a newly famous, newly wealthy 27-year-old comedian who had suddenly found himself on top of the world. 

The set also includes two documentaries. The Gentlemen Tramp (1975) is a fuzzy, hagiographic film by Richard Patterson that is more content to deify the man than understand him, and Chaplin’s Goliath (1996), an appreciation of the all-too-brief career of Eric Campbell, the huge Scottish actor who played the heavy in most of Chaplin’s Essanay and Mutual films until his life was cut short by a car accident. Also included are essays by Chaplin historians and a gallery of rare still photographs of Chaplin at work on the Mutual films. 




$59.99. Image Entertainment.