By Justin DeFreitas
Even today, more than three decades 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 seemingly known quantity, and is therefore just as easily ignored — just a flickering image from the past that no longer requires our attention.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will showcase evidence to the contrary when it presents three of Chaplin’s short comedies this Saturday, Feb. 12, as part of its annual winter event at the Castro Theater. Each year the festival puts on a one-day miniature festival in the winter; the full festival takes place in July. The marquee event of the festival is King Vidor’s adaptation of La Boheme, starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, showing at 8 p.m., with accompaniment provided by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer. La Boheme will be preceded at 3:30 p.m. by L’Argent, a film many critics rank among the silent era’s greatest works. The film will be accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The festival kicks off at 1 p.m. with Chaplin, in three of the best two-reelers from his Mutual period — a rare opportunity to see the great comedian’s early work on the big screen, in 35 mm prints, with live accompaniment by Donald Sosin at the piano.
The image of the Tramp is so ingrained in our consciousness that it is hard to imagine that he — and film comedy itself — had to be invented. But Chaplin essentially invented both, 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 in the East Bay, in Niles, near Fremont. (The Niles Essanay Film Museum offers screenings of silent films every Saturday night.) Chaplin 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 Film Corporation, where Chaplin finally realized his potential. The Mutual films represent the first true blossoming of his comic genius. He was already enormously famous, 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 those 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 temperament.
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 oeuvre 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 began with films that were not much different from his Essanay work and steadily progressed from there, with increasing complexity, finely tuned comedic timing, and brilliantly choreographed action sequences. In The Rink, Chaplin, playing an inept waiter, demonstrates his remarkable physical agility when he tangles with his rival in an elaborate rollerskating sequence. And in The Adventurer, the most fast-paced of the Mutual films, Chaplin plays an escaped convict and spends the entirety of the film running from the law. The chases and acrobatics are executed beautifully, but there is more to Chaplin than manic hijinks. Too often forgotten in appreciations of Chaplin is the fact that he was not just a great comedian but a great actor. In The Pawnshop he demonstrates his acting skills in a famous scene in which he dissects an alarm clock, using expert timing and remarkable subtlety in portraying himself as a doctor and the clock as a sick patient — then as a sardine can, and eventually, after he has destroyed it, as an unsalvageable piece of junk that he returns disdainfully to the customer.
With these early masterpieces, Chaplin set the standard for the great comedians who would follow in his wake: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon. Arguably some would surpass him, in inventiveness, in direction, in 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 he established with 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 adolescence, 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 Mutuals, with their casual, careless fun, that lend themselves to repeated viewings, that entice 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.
Click here to order tickets on-line: Silent Film Festival.
Saturday, Feb. 12th at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, San Francisco.
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