Thursday, April 3, 2014



Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin, KBE, English comedian, filmmaker and composer, born, 16 April 1889, died 25 December 1977. 

I have always enjoyed the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and I knew that as well as being a comic, he was also a filmmaker and composer of music. I've reveled in the crazy chaos of his movies and the seeming half-assedness of silent movies in general of the era. What I did not know is that he is the personification of the rags-to-riches story. Sent to a work house at the age of 9, the son of parents who were both entertainers in the thriving West End of London, he rose to become one of the most influential names in Arts and Letters, with a few bumps along the way, but that seems to be the norm for anyone who lives to a fairly ripe old age of 88.

"Making A Living" is a 12-minute harum-scarum mish-mash of Charlie trying to steal Henry's (Henry Lehrman, Director, on the right) camera, selling a picture from that camera to a newspaper that apparently just chucks papers out the back of the warehouse to passing newsboys, as they race by. Somewhere in this madness, Henry finds time to roll around with a lady mistakenly in her bed, fall down stairs, and they all get chased by the Keystone Kops. That's the whole movie! 

During the movie, Charlie treats the cane as an elaborate prop, whirling it around and occasionally turning it upside down and pretending to fall is it slips out from under. It's frenetic and funny and amazing what can be conveyed with no dialogue. 

Rather than focus on his life and controversies, I decided to look closer at the beginnings of his career and how he got started, because he shares a commonality with the Marx Brothers, who made some of the funniest movies that have endured for decades. Although, Chaplin worked in silent film, even after “talkies” came into vogue in 1927, he got his start in burlesque, as did the Marx Brothers, and they all transferred easily to the silver screen. The difference being that, the Marx Brothers incorporated elaborate sight gags, songs based on operas and witty puns that became more and more complex as they improved and often improvised, while filming.

But Chaplin was the first, and in watching him on screen, I began to wonder how he came up with the idea for his much beloved character the “Little Tramp” who endured for decades, as one of the funniest and most poignant characters in filmdom. Although the final costume was not decided upon until his second film, he described it thusly,
"I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large... I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."

 "The Pest" readying himself for another round of bothering people! The whole film is spent with Charlie being chased in front of and away from the front of rickety-looking autos, as they "speed" by. The chaser is again, Henry Lehrman, the director of this short film.

Later, one of his biographers noted that this was not strictly true and that it took him a year or so to perfect and hone this character and he would do so the rest of his career. You can see this in movies such as "Gold Rush" and his later movies, but since I'm trying to keep this short and sweet for the A-to-Z challenge, I leave you with this little gem. His second released film was "Kid Auto Races at Venice" or, more appropriately as "The Pest," is the true debut of his "Little Tramp". In this 6-minute film, there is a second camera, which actually breaks the "fourth-wall" in that it invites the audience in on the joke. The same guy, Henry Lehrman, who is at odds with Charlie in "Making a Living" spends the entire 6 minutes chasing the Little Tramp around during an actual Junior Auto Race at Venice, California in 1914!

I had a terrific amount of fun researching just these two movies. Chaplin went on to have a long and storied career and his physical comedy would be matched only by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. The Marx Brothers took the physical and added verbal word play to it, on a par of sophistication with the Algonquin Round Table. But that aside, the physical comedy of Chaplin, Lloyd and the Keystone Kops speaks to an innocence of that time; 1914, before the First World War and the Depression.

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