Our image of Charlie Chaplin is a simple one: a daft little man in baggy clothes, with bowler hat and wicker cane. He’s just a comedian—a silly clown.
But embodied in that simple outline is an extraordinarily complex figure, both on and behind the screen. Charlie is a tramp, yet with a refined air; he’s a prickly loner who shuns societal norms, yet who longs for love and acceptance. And Chaplin the man bore his own set of contradictions: the Brit who came to embody American comedy; a hero to the masses and a darling of the intellectual set; a lowly comedian who strove for artistic heights; a man who lived for the adulation of the crowd while simultaneously professing to be terrified of his audience.
Pacific Film Archive is presenting a broad overview of the mercurial comedian’s work through Dec. 19. The retrospective covers all of Chaplin’s feature-length work and a handful of his earlier short films. A few will be presented as part of PFA’s “Matinees For All Ages” series of Saturday afternoon screenings, which come complete with free Fenton’s ice cream in the courtyard after the show.
The series begins at 2 p.m. Sunday with one of the comedian’s greatest achievements. The Kid (1921) was his first foray into feature-length filmmaking and a breakthrough work in its blending of slapstick and sentiment, a mixture that would become Chaplin’s signature. The 60-minute film will screen along with a shorter comedy, The Pilgrim (1923).
In the 1910s, screen comedians generally made short films, known as “two-reelers,” a reel running roughly 10 minutes. These were the hors d’oeuvres of the cinema experience, shown along with newsreels and cartoons before the feature. Most two-reelers consisted of knockabout slapstick and it was thought that such antics could not be sustained over the course of a full-length feature. Chaplin, however, from the beginning of his solo career in 1914, had set a new standard for slapstick, slowing the pace and establishing character, not roughhouse, as the primary source of comedy. By the time he made The Kid, his Little Tramp character was beloved the world over for his anarchic antics and impish temperament.
Chaplin had started his film career with Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio before setting out on his own under the auspices of Essanay Studios here in the East Bay. After 14 films with Essanay, Chaplin negotiated a more lucrative and artistically independent contract with Mutual, where he made a dozen two-reelers that firmly established his reputation as the prevailing comedian of his day. This was his most concentrated and fruitful period, with each of the 12 films building on the achievements of its predecessor.
When Chaplin left Mutual for First National, he didn’t do it for the money, nor for creative control, for he had plenty of both. What he sought was time; his new contract would relieve him of the pressure of turning out films on a predetermined schedule. He would finally have room to breathe.
Enter Jackie Coogan. Chaplin had seen the 4-year-old boy performing with his father in a music hall and immediately signed the child for his next film. In Coogan Chaplin found his first and only true co-star, the only performer with whom he would share the screen as an equal. Coogan gave one of the screen’s truly great child performances and immediately established himself as a star.
When Chaplin outlined the film’s plot and revealed to a colleague his plan to bring drama to low comedy, he was told it couldn’t be done, that each form required purity, and as a consequence at least one half of his story was bound to suffer.
The Kid begins with the Tramp wandering alone through back alleys where he stumbles upon an abandoned baby and reluctantly adopts the child as his own. Here, for the first time, the Tramp seems to live a truly normal domestic existence as he raises Jackie until authorities come calling a few years later, taking the child from him by force. Again, Chaplin presents us with the Tramp as the perennial outsider, in the world but never part of it. In the end Charlie seems to gain entry into civilized society, but the image is somewhat incongruous as Chaplin intentionally leaves the conclusion ambiguous.
With The Kid, Chaplin raised the emotional level to a new high, introducing true drama to his work. In the process he delved further into his own memories of childhood in an orphanage in the slums of England. The result was a deepening of the character of the Tramp in a film many critics consider his most successful creation—a near-perfect blending of pathos and humor. All of his films, Chaplin later noted, received mixed reviews, except for The Kid—for decades it was his one unanimously proclaimed triumph.
Chaplin would of course go on to even more ambitious work. His later work would include three more masterpieces (The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights), two great but flawed films (Modern Times, The Great Dictator), and two solid late-career films (Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight). But The Kid holds a special spot in the Chaplin canon, for it represents the first full flowering of a mature artist.
Chaplin’s remaining films for First National during this period are something of a mixed bag, ranging from ambitious satiric slapstick (Shoulder Arms, The Pilgrim, A Dog’s Life) to simple two-reelers in the vein of his earlier work (Payday, A Day’s Pleasure), and one failure (Sunnyside). He was gradually lengthening his films, venturing into more complex comedic territory, but The Kid took so much of his time that he was obliged to crank out a few simpler films to satisfy distributors and theater owners.
The Pilgrim is one of the better films from this era. It is essentially a classic Chaplin two-reeler expanded to four reels. Chaplin sets up the situation with superb efficiency. Within two minutes we have the basic outline: Escaped convict Charlie has traded his prison clothes for the unattended frock of a bathing priest. When Chaplin, in the minister’s clothing, arrives at the train station he finds himself in a series of hilariously unnecessary chases before boarding a train and stumbling into a fortuitous situation when he arrives in a Texas town and is mistaken for the long-awaited new preacher.
Chaplin peppers the action with numerous sight gags that recall the convict’s unruly past. When he stands at the ticket window at the train station, he reflexively grasps the bars as though it were a cell. Out of habit, he crawls underneath the train as a stowaway before a conductor takes his ticket and guides him to a proper seat. When expected to deliver a sermon while masquerading as the Reverend Pim, he takes a drink from a glass of water and props his elbow on the podium while his foot reveals the character’s predilection for the wild life by searching habitually and in vain for a bar on which to rest.
Though The Pilgrim doesn’t aim for the sort of emotional depth of The Kid, Chaplin again manages to straddle two worlds. His Tramp is both criminal and hero, a troubled outsider who strives for respectability—at least when respectability comes in the guise of alluring leading lady Edna Purviance. In the end he is released along the Mexican border by a benevolent sheriff, yet as he stands on Mexican soil and casts his arms wide in celebration of his freedom, a pack of desperadoes leaps from the underbrush and begins firing guns at one another—hardly a hospitable environment in which to start anew. Thus the Tramp flees by running gingerly along the border, one foot in each country, as always a citizen of the world, but without a home of his own.