(On Cable TV, June 2018) I wish I had just a bit more to say about Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim than a basic “silent movie; fun to watch; doesn’t feature Chaplin’s Tramp character” statement, but I don’t. It features an escape convict passing himself off as a minister and ending up in a small East Texas town. Various comic hijinks ensue, with a rather good conclusion. But it is merely a 46-minute film, and much of it is wasted through pantomimes and title cards and longer ways to saying things that are perfectly obvious to modern audiences used to cinematographic grammar. Once you strip all of that away, there isn’t much left. Still, the movie isn’t too difficult to watch thanks to Chaplin’s mastery of the form and the constant gags. It doesn’t even really matter if he’s not playing the Tramp—in fact, given Chaplin’s tendency to inject pathos in the Tramp’s character, not having the Tramp makes for a more sustained comic experience. Otherwise, that’s it—The Pilgrim is recommended to silent movie enthusiasts, but not a transcendent example of the form like other movies of the time.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) There’s an interest in Modern Times that goes beyond it being one of Charlie Chaplin’s best-known films. It was made in 1936, more than half a decade after Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound films. As such, it does incorporate a soundtrack and even voices from time to time. But the Tramp character remains mostly silent, aside from a droll final song showing that voice could be used to make an impact even at that stage in movie history. Much has been said about Modern Times’ portrayal of industrialization and its impact on workers, and even today the film feels relevant in its critique, as well as the link it establishes between the capitalist establishment, the justice system and worker oppression. It even talks about unionization against corporate rule, imprisonment as an intimidation tactic and drug use, all of which are kind of amazing to see in a Hays Code film. There’s a lot of material here beyond the comedy routines, of which there are several memorable ones. As far as I’m concerned, Modern Times comes in just a notch below The Great Dictator in the Chaplin pantheon, with its politically engaged message, better tech credentials, hopeful finale and fine-tuned comic moments.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) Charlie Chaplin is most closely associated with the silent film era, so it’s interesting to see the ways through which he approached The Great Dictator, a full feature film in which he speaks … and carries a heck of a message. Famously made to criticize Hitler, the film is filled with Nazi imagery, depicting of life under a fascist regime and a strong message against tyranny. It works both at the micro and the macro level, leveraging small injustices in an effort to talk about bigger ones. Chaplin also manages to deliver a fiercely political statement with the confines of an often-silly comedy. (And if you think that being against authoritarianism isn’t much a political statement, you may want to pay attention to news coming out of the United States these days.) There are numerous comic set pieces, made even more remarkable for the film’s position in history in laughing at a situation whose true horrifying nature would only be revealed in later years. It all amounts to a film that’s fun to watch for the jokes, and fascinating to contemplate for the context surrounding the jokes. A classic for a reason, The Great Dictator is an impressive achievement.