Funny Chap(lin)

November 24, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Thanks to the nice fellas at Park Circus, I’ve been enjoying the latest Blu-ray releases of Charlie Chaplin’s back catalogue. The collection has been drip-fed into the market throughout 2011, but each release is united by its astonishing picture quality.  We’re very lucky: Chaplin always had one eye on posterity.  Compared to, say, Buster Keaton, many of whose films were found falling apart, unloved, in a shed, Chaplin kept his prints in pristine nick.  It shows: you really wouldn’t think these film were shot 80-odd years ago.

The Circus (1928)

aka The One Nobody Talks About – despite it a) including monkeys on a tightrope and b) offering possibly Chaplin’s most candid self-criticism of his work

The Circus is the Chaplin film that always gets away. The vast majority of his features are constantly talked about, whether because they are seen as classics or – in the case of, say, A Woman of Paris or Limelight – because they’re so atypical. The Circus’ problem is its sheer ordinariness.

Falling between The Gold Rush and City Lights was never going to anybody any favours, but Chaplin approached this with possibly the thinnest premise of any of his features. The Gold Rush had its lovingly detailed period setting and harsh natural backdrops to kick against; City Lights its dual plotlines to interweave. The Circus is, simply, a film set at a circus – an ideal subject for a short, but which at feature-length stretches thin.

Not that Chaplin isn’t capable of delivering great set-pieces. The opening chase through a fun-fair has a showdown in a hall of mirrors to rival Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, and Chaplin milks every last gag out of the ‘trapped in a lion cage’ and tightrope walking routines, the latter enlivened no end by a host of naughty monkeys biting his nose, sticking their tails into his mouth and undressing him while he’s twenty feet off the ground.  Monkeys on a tightrope: always a winner.

But there’s an undercurrent of obviousness to this, the sense that – aside from the athleticism and immaculate timing of Chaplin’s movement – he’s slumming it slightly. The central romance holds little scrutiny, being the simplest and weakest of his unreciprocated infatuations with tragic but unobtainable waifs.

And yet, somewhere buried under the surface is Chaplin’s most honest statement of artistry, this being the only one of his features to really focus on the nature of comedy itself. The Tramp becomes an accidental hit at the circus after stumbling blindly in…but when he auditions, his self-consciousness prevents him getting the laughs. It’s a tricky thing to do when you’re inherently funny, and the very act of misunderstanding the joke – replacing a rotten apple with a banana in a William Tell routine – provides fresh gags. But there’s something unique here, an almost analytical sense of what makes Chaplin tick.  When the Tramp realises his would-be girlfriend has switched her affections to another man, his gloomy demeanour translates to the audience, which kinda, sorta, feels like a meta-critique of the director’s own penchant for pathos.

What’s interesting is that the director is staunchly in the ‘retake everything until it’s perfect’ camp, but here he’s playing a character who is only funny when dashing about with carefree spontaneity: more of a Buster Keaton type. It’s also worth noting that this was Chaplin’s most problematic production, beset by an off-screen divorce battle, gales, fires, and unusable footage.  Most galling of all, while Chaplin shut down production to deal with the mess, cinema was undergoing one of its major shifts in style, thanks to the widespread, overnight adoption of sound. It’s hard to escape the sense that Chaplin wished that he, too, like the Tramp, could just walk into a room, fall over and get a laugh.

City Lights (1931)

Chaplin’s post-talkie silent is a bittersweet valediction for a dying art form (sight is everything – and nothing) and a bona fide art-house comedy

In a medium as insistent upon the shock of the new as cinema, even innovators get left behind sometimes. Chaplin was one of the prime creators of Hollywood filmmaking style during the silent era but – like everybody else – he faced the same overnight revolution as everyone else upon the introduction of sound. Unlike everyone else, however, his fame, popularity and financial independence secured him an option largely denied to his peers: he could choose not to listen.

City Lights is classic Hollywood’s equivalent to the later work of Stanley Kubrick: a film out of time, unpressured by commercial imperatives and driven by an imperious faith in its authorship. Like Kubrick, Chaplin had that unenviable combination of reputation and perfectionism that permits such a risk, but in fighting the tide of history Chaplin’s achievement here is arguably greater. When judged against his earlier work, it’s fair to say that – ironically – Chaplin had hit his peak as a silent filmmaker after everybody else had abandoned the form. OK, so there are a few compromises.  A musical score, for one, and the occasional sound effect that allows Chaplin a bit of fun doing a routine with a swallowed whistle.  Overall, though, he remains remarkably pure, setting his stall in the opening minutes by taking the piss out of the concept of speech as a meaningful addition to cinema.

Chaplin sensed rightly that City Lights wouldn’t work as a talkie, when its story – half sentimental romance with a blind flower girl; half rambunctious silliness as the Tramp falls in with a sozzled, suicidal millionaire – is almost a self-parody of his perennial themes. But there’s a fluidity and ambition to the way that Chaplin interweaves these parallel plotlines that attests to a greater level of care and control over the material. Rather than being just a tangential string of one-reel set-pieces, there’s a clear causality to the narrative, with one story impacting on the other. The Tramp’s chance meeting with the girl is the result of the simplest of gags (Chaplin stepping through a posh car to speed up crossing the road); but his association with the millionaire solidifies the girl’s mistaken belief that the Tramp is wealthy. Even the prolonged boxing match – the storyline that could most easily be dropped, or translated into a short – is justified by motive: the Tramp needs the money to justify the girl’s faith in him.

Fortunately, there’s another reason to include the latter sequence: it is blissfully, outrageously funny, a sustained routine that confirms the joy of watching grown men pissing about in a sports arena. Only Jacques Tati’s similarly ridiculous “tennis match” in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot can match it for recasting the hallowed rituals of sport as farce. It’s far from being the only laugh, either. The film’s funniest moments by far are those involving the millionaire. Chaplin and Harry Myers’s glorious caricatures of boozy antics at a nightclub delight in the heightened emotions of being drunk – there’s a great running gag in which both men continually remove their jackets at the slightest offence in readiness for a fight – and the clever use of everyday props: cigars, chairs, party streamers.

The romance can’t help but look wan in comparison but Chaplin’s never-better technical ability gives the transitions an elegance that the awkward tonal shifts of earlier films never achieved. The pacing is brisk, even finding time for a few jokes, and the cuteness is pitched just the right side of mawkishness. Better still, is how well Chaplin integrates the romance into the thematic scheme of the film. From the opening – in which the Tramp is dragged from undercover bliss into public hostility the moment he is seen – City Lights is a study in prejudice and blindness. Those who can see the Tramp treat him with ridicule and hostility, and it’s left to his two new friends, the millionaire and the flower girl, to show him any kindness. And yet…the millionaire who can’t get enough of the Tramp under a drunken haze refuses to recognize the friendship in the cold light of sobriety…and having made this association between vision and exile, the film’s dramatic time-bomb is the inference that the sight-saving operation the Tramp goes to such lengths to fund will be the very thing that undoes the romance. It’s this careful patterning that makes the famous ending such an emotional release, because, finally, the film breaks the autonomy of eyes being the only means of seeing.

The result is closer to the art-house than the funny farm, and an auteurist’s dream, particularly in the way that it arguably only really makes sense in the context of Chaplin’s career. Chaplin, of course, had been developing his little man shtick since his arrival in Hollywood, but had downplayed his fixation with the noble poor during the conspicuous consumption of the Roaring Twenties – one reason, for example, why the Tramp becomes The Lonely Prospector in The Gold Rush. But as America’s love affair with stock became an obsession, perhaps Chaplin recognised that the time was ripe to re-assert balance by making his ultimate statement on the gap between rich and poor.

The earth-shattering effects of the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Depression vindicated his decision, making City Lights a richer film, and one that is both more resonant and more ambiguous in the searching questions it asks about the world and Chaplin’s conception of it. The Tramp’s see-saw journey between wealth and poverty, reckless indulgence and frugal toil, has never been more pronounced, and it’s one that mirrors Chaplin’s own rags-to-riches path. After all, here’s a man who has become one of the richest men in the world by catering to the dreams of the world he has left behind. City Lights attempts to reconcile that contradiction by recognising that, while the plain, folksy poor seem happier and more decent than the suicidal, almost nihilistic millionaire, there’s no denying that they benefit from having a bit of money in their pocket – the flower girl of the last scene has become a successful businesswoman on the back of the Tramp’s altruism. Is this, then, Chaplin’s reality check, telling himself to embrace his wealth rather than feeling guilty about it?

Arguably, that reading paints Chaplin as pitifully solipsistic, but it’s interesting that his next film, made in the full glare of the Depression’s corrosive effect on America’s workers, would forego the easy wish-fulfiment of City Lights in favour of a harder, more direct attempt to grapple with the iniquities of wealth. There’s no place in these Modern Times for critical self-examination: mankind has to be saved. But Chaplin’s phase as social commentator and conscience wouldn’t be possible without this earlier film, the one that self-consciously replaces the “earlier, funnier” films with something approaching art.

The Chaplin Revue (1918-1923)

Released alongside The Circus and City Lights – although not on Blu-ray, bafflingly – is The Chaplin Revue.  I didn’t blag this one from Park Circus, because I’ve already reviewed it for DVD and Blu-ray Review*.  But it’s worth a look.  The feature is Chaplin’ 1959 compilation of three shorts, but the 2-disc set collates everything Chaplin released between 1918 and 1923 (bar The Kid, long enough and famous enough to have released in its own right earlier this year).

It’s possibly the most interesting period of his career, with the director branching out into fresh genres, extending the run times and even trying out new characters.  Notably in The Pilgrim, for my money Chaplin’s most purely funny movie, he plays a convict disguising himself as a preacher – as far from The Tramp as he’d get until he played ‘Hitler’ in The Great Dictator

Anyway, all three are out now, like I said, and quite brilliant.  Judged purely from the amount of physical pain caused by laughing too much, Keaton remains the funnier silent comedian.  But Chaplin’s films are endlessly fascinating, and an essential purchase in these glorious restorations.

* Note: DVD and Blu-ray Review #149 is out today, with The Expendables on the cover.  As well as The Chaplin Revue, I’ve also reviewed Make Way For Tomorrow, The Seventh Victim and The Time That Remains, all of which are varying degrees of excellent.

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