This article will be published in Southampton University’s new lifestyle, fashion and arts magazine.
In an age when most successful films contain excessive amounts of CGI, expensive special effects, elaborate set pieces and far too often, action over story or character, it’s nice now and then to regress to simpler times. With the advancement of 3D, much of our modern cinematic experience has deviated towards style over substance. Too frequently I find myself yearning for realistic, simple yet more rewarding films. Hence, I discovered Charlie Chaplin.
The allure of Chaplin is undoubtable; the charm of his underdog character, the universal appeal of slapstick comedy, the visual focus on communicating through body language. It is a uniquely liberating experience to move from contemporary to early cinema. The black and white, silent movie is a far cry from today’s films, and might seem to modern audience low-quality, trivial and slow, but to understand this as the root of modern cinema is to lend it a reverential aspect. Modern cinema which relies on slapstick comedy, such as cartoons, that fight scene in Anchorman, or even Monty Python films, all have their roots deeply set in Chaplin.
A collection of his early short films provides a fascinating insight into the beginnings of comedy cinema, and provides a clear documentation of his rise to cinematic legend, an icon for many. It is well worth exploring his short films. Though his later ‘talkies’ or feature length films such as ‘The Great Dictator’ may be much more accessible, they can be more serious, more tragic, and much more powerful. It would be easy to simply watch these satisfying greats of cinema, but the early shorts should not be overlooked, as they provide a valuable slice of cinematic history, the building blocks to his later stardom. They provide a more gentle insight into early cinematography, the social desires of an audience for cinema or comedy, and how silent and black and white films provided the foundation and inspiration for the future of film-making and watching.
Whilst his early films are indeed silent shorts, relying on the occasional intertitle to provide written assistance to the story, one of the most notable features is the musical accompaniment. It is an essential part of the entertainment experience, so much so that when originally released, the films would have had live musical accompaniment. But this is only an aide to visual events which demand attention. Whilst modern audiences rely on a multitude of mediums to explain the story, early films only had visuals, to reliably present a clear plot. Thus the make-up, costume and predominantly the body language of an actor is their main strength. Every action doubles in importance to the plot, and the success of the comedy, so they are exaggerated, adding to the visual comedy. Similar to a mime or theatre acting, every action, expression and movement combines to communicate the plot, and works brilliantly as comedy.
Herein lies the genius of Chaplin-his control, or seeming lack of, his movements is timed and co-ordinated to fantastic effect. His shuffling, silly stumbling and cavorting is a kind of simple comic ability which works wonderfully, and many comedic actors could learn a great deal from watching the Master at work. When he is knocked down, he gets back up again, when the odds are against him, he bounces right back. His charming characters are oppressed everymen who triumph over the Big Bully, in all his forms, to win the girl in the end. A classic story line, easily relatable in any generation, but performed excellently and to the most satisfying effect. It is an idea reinvented in Chaplin’s short films many times, but it never tires out or becomes repetitive. His characters remain endearing and win our sympathy-most notably his character the Tramp, a wonderfully coy and sweet character, down on his luck, who fights against all odds to win the heart of the girl he loves. Chaplin immortalised himself with this instantly recognisable shabby, charming, and honest underdog, ‘The Champion’ in the end (the title of one of his most rewarding shorts), and someone to aspire to and admire, to relate to and cheer on
In every one of his films, its obvious to see why Chaplin became-and remains- a popular cultural icon, and a genius of cinema.
Suggestions for short films of his to watch: ‘In the Park’, ‘The Champion’, ‘The Fireman’, ‘The Tramp’, ‘Kid Auto Races in Venice’, ‘The Immigrant’, ‘A Jitney Elopement’, ‘Caught in the Rain’.
Suggestions for feature length films: ‘The Kid’, ‘The Great Dictator’, ‘Limelight’.
- He was born in London 16th April 1889, and died in Switzerland on Christmas day, 1997.
- His youth was affected by poverty, as well as alcoholism and mental illness in his family. His mother was admitted to an asylum, and he went to a workhouse, and school for paupers.
- Both of his parents were music-hall entertainers, lending the young Chaplin an early education in performance. However, Chaplin was also musically talented, writing some of the scores for his own films. In 1973 he won an Oscar for the score of his film ‘Limelight.’
- Chaplin was notorious for favouring young women, and had several relationships with young actresses. Two of his marriages were controversial due to the girls being only 16. Through four marriages he gained 12 children, although the legitimacy of the daughter Carol Chaplin is disputed.
- Politically, Chaplin was sympathetic towards socialism and communism. Many of his films display criticisms of capitalist economy through their portrayal of poverty, particularly during the Great Depression era. His most famous film, The Great Dictator, mocks the Nazi regime and the ridiculousness of blind nationalism. His politics were controversial, especially in the US, causing a brief exile to the UK.
- He co-founded the famous film distribution company United Artists in 1919.
- His iconic character The Tramp never spoke in any of his films. His final appearance was in the feature film ‘Modern Times’, which is widely considered the last ‘talkie’.