(On Cable TV, September 2019) Charlie Chaplin sketches at the circus—sure, there is a plot to The Circus, but it’s really an excuse for Chaplin to string along one circus-related routine after another. Fortunately, a lot of them are funny—the climactic tightrope sequence, in particular, gets crazier and crazier the longer it goes on. While it’s not as heavy on the melodrama as other Chaplin films, The Circus does have its bittersweet ending. Notable for being the one Chaplin film made through the epochal change from silent cinema to sound, The Circus is also known for having been exceptionally difficult to complete, with considerable turmoil in Chaplin’s life during production, and other difficulties on set (when the sets weren’t burning down, that is). The result is a film that Chaplin himself didn’t acknowledge very often, but one that shows his comic genius in clearly identified sketches loosely connected by plot. As a result, The Circus may be appreciable for its set-pieces, but doesn’t quite hold a candle to Chaplin’s most successful efforts both before and after this one.
(Criterion Streaming, August 2019) On one hand, Limelight is a self-indulgent, overlong, with wild tonal shifts; on the other, it’s a capstone in Charlie Chaplin’s career, a clever late-career metafictional commentary on himself and a return to the kind of filmmaking that made him famous. It doesn’t start on the most comedic of notes, as an alcoholic has-been comedian (with a tramp persona!) returns home and saves a young dancer from a suicide attempt. But this opening sequence lays the groundwork for the film’s later acts, as he helps her back on her feet, and she helps him regain the confidence necessary for one last great performance. The ending is tragic, as can be seen well in advance. Plot-wise, there isn’t much here to require more than 90 minutes … alas, Limelight is only too happy to interrupt the action to flash back to the protagonist’s stage heydays, to interrupt the action by bon mots summarizing Chaplin’s life philosophy, or to take detours not strictly necessary for the film to keep its effectiveness. It’s very self-indulgent and yet it feels as if it should be: by featuring himself as a visibly older comedian past his prime, Chaplin struck close to his own place in early-1950s Hollywood, and the film does act both as homage (not least by pairing Chaplin with Buster Keaton for a comic number) and a conclusion. Chaplin wouldn’t contribute to many other movies later on, making Limelight his swan song. As such, it’s worth a look and some indulgence from viewers in indulging an old master for one last victory lap.
(In French, On TV, April 2019) Considering the influence that Charlie Chaplin had on cinema, it’s obvious he deserved his own big-budget glossy Hollywood biography. Not the warts-and-all one, though: the mononymous inspirational one: Chaplin. It begins, at it should, with an enjoyable look at early Hollywood history, from filming Keystone Cops shorts to hanging at parties with Douglas Fairbanks to going backstage at the first Academy Awards. Robert Downey Jr. ends up being an inspired choice to play Chaplin throughout his adult years, along what feels like a who’s who of early-1990s actresses (including a very young Milla Jovovich). The flashback-heavy structure of the film keeps things interesting, but there’s no denying that this is an old-school, lavishly executed biography with the pitfalls inherent in trying to cram decades within two hours. The film very lightly touches upon Chaplin’s least savoury personality traits such as his fondness for younger women, infidelities and cruel treatments of past lovers, but shies away from a full understanding of the character, and barely mentions the business savvy (including re-editing silent pictures as audibly-narrated ones, or his co-founding of United Artists) that contributed to his enduring popularity throughout the following decades. Having spent the past few years diving head-first in the archives of Classic Hollywood and seeing many of Chaplin’s best-known films along the way, I got quite a bit more out of the film than had I seen it a few years ago. But despite the lavish production means and Downey’s incredible performance playing Chaplin (especially toward the end of his life), there’s something missing here. Especially in the second half of the film, increasingly focused on Chaplin’s legal problems, exile from the United States and creative slowdown. Chaplin tries to put on a happy face on a life that doesn’t quite fit the pattern, and the tension is noticeable. Perhaps a slightly better film would have stopped earlier.
(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) As one of Charlie Chaplin’s classics, The Gold Rush scarcely needs any introduction—this is the one where Chaplin goes to the Klondike, eats his shoes and has a delightful dance number with dinner rolls that many have imitated in real-life. (Unless that’s just me.) But what I found most interesting about the version of The Gold Rush that I saw was that it was the 1942 re-cut version, with narration from Chaplin himself. It’s not quite a silent film and not quite a talking one either, but it does illustrate one of my persistent annoyances with silent cinema: length and pacing. The original The Gold Rush ran for roughly 95 minutes (it’s sometimes hard to tell with silent movies), whereas this talking one runs a significant 23 minutes shorter. Some of this is due to, ahem, artistic choices (such as Chaplin cutting out a kiss with an actress with whom he was involved in 1925 but not in 1942), while other cutting consists in taking out title cards and replacing them with spoken narration in Chaplin’s English-accented voice. It clearly illustrates the difficulties in the pacing of silent movies for modern viewers, even ones in which the title cards aren’t the focus of the film. In comparison, this version feels as if it flows more smoothly, even when the narrator is intrusive and merely keeps describing what we can perfectly grasp from the images. (But then consider that Chaplin was doing assistive audio before anyone else.) As for the film itself, I do like The Gold Rush better than some of Chaplin’s other movies such as The Kid or City Lights—its sentimentalism is under control, and the film does seem focused on being a comedy rather than a collision between intense drama with comic interludes. It’s one of the relatively rare 1920s films still worth a look today, even if I’d recommend the 1942 version over the original one.
(Kanopy streaming, October 2018) Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, his first full-length motion picture, holds a special place in cinema history. It’s often mentioned as among Chaplin’s finest works and one of the films of the early 1920s that truly codified what audiences could expect of cinema as an ongoing art-form. It’s early-adopter status can perhaps be best seen in the unapologetic highs and lows of its emotional manipulation. Chaplin doesn’t hold anything back as he spends much of the film going for child-endangerment themes and gags—the first few minutes are especially punishing as a newborn becomes the object of rather tasteless abandonment comedy. Chaplin did distinguish himself from other comedians by being willing to fight for his audience’s tears as a counterpart to their laughs, but to modern audiences accustomed to a more even emotional tone (and unused to such reckless treatment of younger characters), The Kid can be a bit tough to digest. It doesn’t help that even at a relatively slim 68 minutes (even shorter in its re-edited 1971 version), the film does overstay its welcome toward the end, with an oneiric sequence that seems even less integrated in the rest of the film than the other episodes. The Kid is still worth a look today for historical reasons, and it does pack some entertainment along the way. But don’t be surprised to be put off by some of the material.
(Kanopy streaming, October 2018) You’d be forgiven for mistaking one Charlie Chaplin movie for another—relying on the Tramp for most of his best-known filmography made it easy to have faithful viewers, but they do blur together most of his movies in the same mould. City Lights is The One with the Blind Girl, and the Tramp semi-accidentally passing himself off to her as a rich person. Much of the film’s main dramatic plot is exceptionally sentimental—having to do with the protagonist making money not to climb out of poverty, but to be able to pay for the surgery that will restore her sight. The ending is made more powerful by Chaplin’s tendency to deliver bittersweet endings: what we expect is not necessarily what happens. Still, the plot remains in service of comic set pieces, most of them coming from the Tramp’s misadventure alongside a rich man with a drinking problem. Other set pieces include the Tramp waking up on a newly unveiled statue, being in the boxing ring, or fighting off robbers within a department store. Technically, City Lights an interesting case—deliberately made by Chaplin as a silent film even when sound was available (something that would carry on to a few later movies), it has a soundtrack but little speech. The result does stand as one of Chaplin’s top films—although I do prefer The Dictator and Modern Times. If you like Chaplin, you’ll like City Lights. If you don’t, well I’m not sure that’s the film to convince you otherwise.
(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.