Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A century of Charles Chaplin

Before movies had voices, they did two things particularly well: Dramatic stars displayed operatic passions to make you weep, and comedians created physical bits to make you laugh. The most brilliant comic was Charles Chaplin, who celebrates his 100th anniversary onscreen this year. (In fact, the 125th anniversary of his birth was last week: April 16.)

Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and especially stone-faced Buster Keaton were all extraordinary in their ways. But only Chaplin balanced pathos and humor so adroitly, as we see in this clip from "The Gold Rush:"

Some folks think Chaplin's masterpiece is "City Lights," in which he befriends a blind flower girl without telling her he's a penniless tramp. When he's befriended in turn by an eccentric millionaire, he's able to help the girl financially. Here's a scene of the two men sharing an evening out. (With Russian subtitles, yet!)

Chaplin was the first great auteur, as the French would say, in Hollywood: He not only co-wrote, directed, co-edited and produced "City Lights" -- as well as starring in it, of course -- but he wrote the music, too. The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will play his score Friday and Saturday nights at Belk Theater at 8 p.m., while the film is being shown. Sam Shapiro of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library will lecture at 7, and UNC Charlotte students will give Chaplin-inspired acting demonstrations at 7:30.

Unlike the other great silent comedians, Chaplin didn't lose his career when he found his voice. The cruelly funny "The Great Dictator," philosophically sardonic "Monsieur Verdoux" and touching (if slightly hokey) "Limelight" all make their effects with spoken dialogue as well as physical bits.

He directed his last movie ("A Countess From Hong Kong") at 77. It came five years after Chaplin won an honorary Oscar for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of the century." That says it all.


Anonymous said...

City Lights has them all beat by a mile. There are scenes in it that make me cry, and I'm an adult.

There was a series years ago, like back in the nineties maybe, that ran on PBS. I think it was in at least two parts, perhaps more. It was a Thames production and narrated by James Mason and it was titled The Unknown Chaplin. It went into great detail about Chaplin, his work, and his personal life. It showed how he did lots of his stunts and how he used backwards-cranking of the camera to great effect. I'd taped it (this was before DVD), but the tapes got misplaced during a move. I'd love to find the series on DVD. It's a classic series.

Anonymous said...

Actually, The Unknown Chaplin is available on DVD from (who else?) Amazon. It's a three-part series made in 1983. It's really a must see for all Chaplin fans.

Anonymous said...

"The Great Director" is still close to the top of my list and has some of his greatest moments ....